Friday, August 31, 2007

Lucky Numbers?

I was just sitting here and realized something quirky.

In 2008 I will turn 43 (born in 1965).

In the summer of 2008, it will mark 25 years since my high school graduation - I was 18 at the time.

In the summer of 2008, it will also mark my 18th wedding anniversary to my wife - I was 25 at the time we were wed.

08 18 25 43 65 - sounds like some lottery numbers I should play next summer, during the last weeks of June through the first week of July. Maybe it's a sign.

Or maybe I just have nothing else to think about right now. ;)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Two Tasty Dishes

My wife was looking over recipes in magazines (one was Light Cooking, I think) this weekend and pulled out a couple to try.

The first was a rosemary chicken dish we had on Tuesday night. It was really easy to prepare (I watched as she put it together). Here's the full recipe:

Roast Rosemary Chicken and Vegetables

serves 4 total prep time: 40 min

8 small chicken drumsticks (about 1 3/4lb)
4 large red potatoes, each cut in 8 wedges, wedges halved
2 large peppers, cut in 3/4 in. wedges
1 large red oninon, cut in 1/2 in. thick slices
2 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp chopped fresh rosemary or 1 1/2 tsp dried
2 tbsp chopped garlic
1/2 tsp each of salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives, cut in half
Serve with: balsamic vinegar to drizzle over chicken and vegetables

1. Position racks to divide oven in thirds. Heat oven to 500F. You'll need 2 rimmed baking sheets lined with nostick foil.
2. Distribute drumsticks, potatoes, peppers and onion evenly between pans. Drizzle with oil; sprinkle with rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper and toss to turn and coat.
3. Roast 30 minutes, stirring mixture after 15 minutes, or until chicken is coooked and vegetables are tender.
4. Arrange on platter; add olives.

We swapped out to regular olives and cooked the olives in with everything else.

It was very very tasty and pretty healthy too. I'm not a major vegetable fan but I did enjoy them roasted this way. If you pull off the skin from the drumsticks after they have cooked, it is probably even better for you. I didn't though - I enjoy some good cooked chicken skin every now and again. This was going to the keeper file.

The second dish was a chicken pot pie sort of thing which we had on Wednesday night. This one required a little more preparation work up front. You peel and slice up some regular potatoes and carrots (about a cup of each). Then you chop up a cup of celery. You put all this and some frozen peas and frozen pearl onions into a pot of chicken broth. You also add some chopped up boneless, skinless chicken breasts and let it all boil for a few minutes. You use a slotted spoon and pull all that out of the broth, then add flour and milk (we use skim) to the remaining broth to thicken it up. Sprinkle in some fresh parsley and tyme for flavoring. You then put the meat and vegetables back into the sauce for a few more minutes. Once that is done, you pour it all into a casserole dish and cover the top with a pastry sheet (we got one from the frozen food section but you could make your own if you're that adventurous). Cook the entire disk in the oven at 350 or so until the pastry crust gets golden brown.

Besides all the healthy vegetables and the homemade sauce, the other goodness of this is that there is only one part that is crust - on the top (instead of it being in a full pie shell which increases the crust consumption). I'm a big fan of pot pies and found this dish also very tasty. Our son isn't big on vegetables so he didn't like it much - but the adults sometimes get to overrule when it comes to dinner choices. Again, another keeper.

If anyone wants the exact recipes, let me know and I'll post them up.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Heroes season 1 DVD

In July of 2006, I had the pleasure of taking my son to the San Diego Comic-Con for his first time. Because I was being a responsible father of a ten year old, I opted out of a number of interesting panel discussions that I would have otherwise went to had I been alone or hanging with my buddies who annually attend the Con as well. One of those panels I skipped was for an upcoming television show debuting on the Fall 2006 season on NBC. I figured the show would probably tank or get cancelled early (as has been my luck with a number of new shows I pick each season).

Boy, was I wrong!

It was maybe a week or so before the September debut that I heard about Heroes again. It was likely in the pages of Entertainment Weekly or something, and what I heard got me curious. Could NBC pull off a show about metahumans (people with super-powers) without it being lame? I remember still another attempt by NBC back in the early 80's called the Misfits of Science - the only good thing to come out of that was the debut of a then-unknown Courtney Cox.

Needless to say, after watching the premiere hour of the show, I was hooked! Heroes was my new weekly obcession. And I wasn't alone - those debut ratings were through the roof. Many were likening the shows format - an ensemble cast with lots of mysteries and unanswered questions - to ABC's Lost. I wouldn't know - I don't watch that show. But, the interesting thing was that the show didn't keep the viewers waiting for answers. We would get them, and then we'd have more questions! It was captivating, exciting, and...oh wasn't lame the way the super-powers were worked in. Ordinary people with extraordinary abilities - folks may have tuned in for the powers, but it was the characters that kept us coming back for more: Mr. Bennett and his daughter Clair, Hiro and Ando, Peter and Nathan Petrelli, and of course Sylar!

Even though I caught every episode in the first season, often watching them twice - once during the Monday debut and then replaying the DVRed episode again the following Monday night to refresh myself before the next new hour, this was a must-buy DVD for me. Never a doubt in my mind or a hesitation. This was a keeper and something I know I'll go back to over and over again as the years wear on. For me, it is the perfect mix of story, characters, mood, music (done by Wendy & Lisa, former members of Prince's Revolution band) and more. And having it on DVD will allow me to pause and catch little details I might not have caught the first go-round as well.

My favorite episodes from the season: "Company Man" where we discover the past of Mr. Bennett, and "Five Years Gone" where Hiro and Ando end up in a future gone terribly wrong. Both have a lot of comic book elements to their pacing, framing, etc.

The extras on the DVD are very nice. I'm a big fan of deleted scenes as well as commentary tracks, and this set has quite a few of both (50 deleted scenes!!!). It also contains the original 72 minute pilot episode that was shown at Comic-Con back in 2006 (which I've heard has a lot of elements that changed or were dropped in when converted to the first two hour episodes). So, I get to experience that pilot after missing it the first time around - minus the chattering crowds around me or the smell of the unwashed masses in a large viewing room. Sounds like a win-win to me.

In all, this set will keep me busy until the debut of season 2 on Monday September 24th.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Back To Middle (School)

Last Thursday night, we attended the open house at the middle school at which my son begins 7th grade this week. I have to say I'm rather impressed with how they organize things. Each grade level is broken down into multiple "teams" consisting of about 120 kids. The group all share the same four core teachers: one for language arts (English reading), one for math, one for science and one for social studies/writing. All four classrooms are on the same hallway and there are enough lockers on that hall to accommodate all of the kids in the "team". How's that for being really convenient?

My middle school growing up was much more exercise. The building was three floors (instead of the single story spread out school my son will be attending). My locker, if I recall right, was the second floor on the south side of the building (facing 6th Street). Classes were spread out across the various floors: band and chorus were on the first floor on the north side (facing 5th Street), the language arts and art rooms were next to them, the cafeteria was on the eastern side of the first floor (near the front lobby which faced Eagle Street) and the gym was on the western side of that floor (bordering Swan Street), home economics and the shops (wood and metal) were on the south side of the first floor, the academic classes which were grouped by course types were on the second and third floors along with the auditorium.

It wasn't unusual to have to run between classes (during the four minute break between each one) to swap out books at your locker, etc. I noticed in my son's schedule that actually have scheduled in locker-visit time but not between each class. Also, because of the 'team' formation, the entire class members move as a group from one room to the next.

Something else I noted a bit from Thursday's Open House was the locker sizes. The 120 lockers actually layout in two rows along the one wall - upper and lower. So, they're pretty small; my son's lockers are just one section with a couple hooks in the top for hanging your coat and such. I think we'll likely have to try to make some kind of easy-in-easy-out free standing shelf structure to fit into my son's locker so he can organize things a bit (he'd likely just stack it all up in a mess otherwise). The lockers I had in high school usually had a lower shelf, perfect for boots in the winter or to put your gym clothes during spring and fall. There was also a shelf on the top for storing some books. Then you had the center section with hooks for hanging your coat. I am pretty sure it was the same way in middle school, but I can't be 100% sure.

I do remember, though, quite a few of the classes and teachers from my middle school/junior high days. Mr. Scott was a lot of fun for 6th grade social studies, where as Mr. Sweeny's social studies class in 8th grade was one where you needed to be prepared every day (never knew when he'd spring a surprise quiz on us). Mr. Kolodziej gave us a smattering of all the languages in 7th grade before we chose one to concentrate on in 8th grade (I took Spanish with Mrs. Smith). Mr. Banach who taught math was someone my parents knew from the country club, and Mr. Knack always was the teacher for the board games and card games section of activity period. And in music class, I remember doing an art project where I hand drew my own version of the cover of the Marvel KISS comic magazine on a large piece of poster board.

Oh, and last big Middle School memory - the 8th grade talent show at year end. I remember the cheerleader girls and the cool guys doing "Summer Nights" from Grease, Jim Mitchell singing Billy Joel's "My Life" (and getting censored since 8th graders were not allowed to be singing about people sleeping with other people) and one of the girl's singing Meat Loaf's "Two Out of Three Ain't Bad".

Monday, August 27, 2007

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Once again, after eight days and 870 pages, I have completed the fifth book in the Harry Potter series: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Now, my family saw this film a month or so ago, on the night that the seventh and final book was released. Knowing the size of the book versus the length of the film (just over two hours), I knew some stuff had to go by the wayside yet again in order to bring the film to screen. I never realized how much would go by the wayside!

There are quite a few major subplots in the book that are critical to character developement that did not make it into the film. These include key details in the lives of all the Weasleys: Ron, twins Fred and George, Ginny, Percy and the parents. Also, some hold over stuff with Hermoine from the previous book is carried over into this one - but again, dropped totally from the films. The film did not include any of the Quidditch activities from the 5th year, nor did it really emphasize the all-important O.W.L. exams.

I have to say that reading this novel was a pleasure in that so much of it was unspoiled by having seen the film first. Again, I must commend Rowlings as she continues to grow as a writer with this novel. You can see the evolution in her style, in her narrative abilities and her growth of all the characters of this world. You can see her building upon this epic adventure, allowing things to get darker and more serious as the characters age accordingly.
I look forward to starting on the 6th book and then getting to the 7th. My goal is to have both completed by mid-September at the latest.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Comic of the Week (8/22/07)

Not a lot to chose from this week. My comic shop didn't order enough of Green Lantern Corps #15 (hopefully they'll get more next week or the book will go into second printing, given it is part of a hot storyline running back and forth in the Green Lantern titles). JSA Classified #29 really really stunk, IMHO, due to a cliched story arc and very amateur looking artwork (and, oh joy! - it was only part one of three - I just might have to skip the next two issues, even if it risks breaking up the run - it was just that bad!).

Now, to be fair, I haven't read Showcase Presents Wonder Woman vol. 1, a black and white reprint volume the size of a small phone book (over 500 pages), yet - so I can't allow it to qualify. My reprint volumes have been stacking up while I work my way through the Harry Potter novels (that just gives me stuff to look forward to when I'm done).

That leaves me with one book as this week's winner.

Countdown #36 kicks off with an awesome cover of Mary Marvel and Zatanna. For those not in the know, Countdown is a weekly book that follows a number of characters as their storylines criss-cross with the rest of the DC Universe and themselves. Like 52 previously, Countdown is running for a full year - and it's numbering is in reverse as it "counts down" to Final Crisis next May. What made the issue for me is the battle between Mary and Zatanna, two heroines now put at odds. The other fun part of the book was watching the Trickster and the Pied Piper (enemies of the Flash) try to bluff their way out of being held prisoner by Poison Ivy (an enemy of Batman's). Oh, and there is a nice two-page origin recap of the villain who pops up on the last page of the book. Nice touch, DC.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

It's A Racket

Every business has got its way of making sure they have a way to milk everything they can from a customer.

Our particular exposure to this phenomenom of late happens to be with local musical instrument stores. Here's how they get you.

First, your kid decides he wants to try out for the band. This is a good thing - you want to encourage them to try new things, get involved with something that'll expand their way of thinking in new ways, etc. They also might get involved with kids they hadn't hung out with before and make some new friends.

Then you go to the school and find out the band teacher has a strong preference for certain brand instruments. Now, of course, he can't force you to get instruments from that maker; he can only strongly encourage you to do so - by pointing out that you might have problems finding someone who can do repairs on more generic brands.

So, you go to the music store and find they want to charge quite a bit for the instrument. Sure, you can a similar instrument at stores like Sears, Wal*Mart, Sams, etc. (for a quarter of the price), but those stores only sell the instrument. The music store does maintenance and repairs as well. But, the kicker - they only maintain and repair the brands they sell. That's it. Buy something else and you're on your own. And, if I didn't mention, conveniently they do carry the brand that the band teacher prefers.

If I were a conspiracy theorist I would swear I could smell a kick-back somewhere.

Oh well. As a parent we do what's best for our kids. We may not always like it and may feel like we're caving in on our principles, but we still do what's best for them.

Friday, August 24, 2007


This week marks the last week of summer vacation for my son. Come Monday, he is off to Middle School for the start of 7th grade (his middle school only has two grades in it - 7th and 8th). So we've been doing all those fun things to get ready: going to open house last night to meet the teachers, picking up the various back-to-school supplies on the list, going through his closet to see what clothes no longer fit and shopping for what's needed to fill in, etc.

He really can't complain too much - he had a pretty active summer. We all took a week vacation at the beach in the Outer Banks in late June. He went to a couple specialty camps at the YMCA (for soccer and hiking/fishing) besides the usual day-camp stuff. He had a week up in the mountains at the Boy Scout camp. And he even got to spend a few days up with his grandparents in a different part of the mountains. Given that this is only the second summer he's had off (he was in year-round school until we moved in the Fall of 2005), that's pretty good.

I can't help but think about my own summers growing up in Dunkirk, NY. As a kid, we didn't really go away in the summers. Summer was one of the best times of the year, weather-wise, there. Most of my free-time was spent hanging out in the neighborhood on Green Street, riding bikes or having all day kickball tournaments or just hanging out and doing nothing much. If you could get some spare change from your parents, you could go down to Boothie's Big Dipper for an ice-cream cone or to Country Fair to buy some candy and soda pop.

Fridays always meant Junior Golf in the mornings at Shorewood, with lunch afterwards and time at the pool. As I got older and enjoyed the game more, my cousin, my brother and I would increase our frequency of golf/pool days to four during the week (not counting any weekend swimming until my father finished his round of golf and was ready to drive us home).

It was also a time for reading - for fun. I'd scour various places about town - US News, Matt's News, Pete's newsstand, Mary's corner store, drug stores - anywhere I could find a spinner rack with comics to pick up new stuff to read. As I got more into fantasy and sci-fi books, the Book Nook became an invaluable place to go for all my paperback novels. And I'd use that time to write too - to scribble down tales on loose-leaf notebook paper or, in later years, pound them out on my typewriter (first a manual, later an electric) using two fingered typing (until I got into high school and learned the proper way to do it).

Somehow you just don't forget the taste of a cool Slush Puppy trickling down your throat, drank from a plastic baseball team cup. Or sitting on your towel on a warm sidewalk while you decided which flavor of Starbust candy you want to try next. Or trying one more time to dive off the low board and see how far you could swim underwater along the length of the swimming pool.

Those are the things I remember when I recall the summer vacations of my childhood.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Original Menace

I recently finished up reading the second volume in Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace box set, covering the original comic strips from their beginning in 1951 all the way through year-end of 1954. (I used it as a break between my Harry Potter marathon I've been on for the past month or so.) There are two individual books, which can be bought seperately, in this set and each covers about a two year period of the daily comic strips featuring that rambunctious little boy.

These first volumes really set up foundational Dennis and his relationship with his parents. The only other reoccuring character introduced this early on is Ruff, the dog. The Wilsons, Margaret and Joey will not make their debuts until later volumes. What is nice in these early ones is seeing how Ketcham really hones in on the visuals that will make Dennis and his family the memorable characters they are.

Since each day/page in the book consists of a single panel comic, the read can be a quick one. I flew through the second volume in a couple hours. A lot of the jokes (in theme at least) are very repetitive, especially when you view them in this kind of format. They were created in a time when likely no one ever had a thought of them being collected. They were to appear in newspapers every day that would end up going in the trash. Okay, maybe one might get clipped and put up on the refrigerator or on a bulletin board for awhile. But people weren't comparing them back to back. For example, the Christmas 1953 strip to the Christmas 1954 strip are nearly identical in every way (save one or two minor visual details).

A couple things I really like about these books. One is that they came with their own sewn in, soft ribbon bookmark. That allows for easy tracking of where you are without looking for something to use to mark your place. In fact, the entire quality of the production on this book is nice. These hardcover books with their very clean pages were meant to last awhile.

The second thing I like is the chance to really appreciate Ketcham's artistic style. As a kid, I could tell this comic strip stood out among the others. As an adult, I can see why. He has a very good attention to detail, and he often uses contrasting patterns and shading to indicate different textures in Dennis' world. Because he was working with a single panel every day, he had to convey just the right angle, the right image, and the right moment for it all to work. He did that very well.

The final thing is that this book gives a glimpse into a different time. These strips come from a time ten to fifteen years before I was born. It allows me to have a feel for what the previous generation viewed, how the world around them was and how they reacted to it. I find it comforting in a way, like an old black and white television show or movie.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Comic of the Week (8/15/07)

Last week had a couple really great comic books which came out. It was a close call as far as which was the best, for me.

There was Justice League of America #12, the final issue of best-selling novelist Brad Meltzer's run on the book. This issue featured a tale called "Monitor Duty" which gave some quieter moments with the cast and setting up a few things for the next writer. The book loses points though because the beautiful Alex Ross cover is split - so you have to buy both books to get the full image. I'd rather it had been a wrap-around cover myself.

Then there was Brave and the Bold #6, the final part of the Lords of Luck epic. This one featuring the always stunning art of George Perez as Batman and Green Lantern get back together on Rann to try to secure the Book of Destiny (with a little help from Supergirl, Adam Strange and some surprise guest-stars).

But, the winner of "comic of the week" title has to go to Booster Gold #1. Please applaud - Booster would appreciate it. This is the first issue launch of a new series. Geoff Johns is at the helm as the writer and Dan Jurgens, Booster's creator, returns to the art chores. For those unfamiliar, Booster Gold is a man from the future who comes back to the past to try to turn his life around. He does this with borrowed technology. His original plan was to come back and be a big media star. What he ended up doing was becoming a hero. This new series teams him up with Rip Hunter, the time master. These two men are the only ones that know that the multiverse is back, and Rip needs Booster to be his field agent to insure that all time and history on these 52 universes keeps staying intact as it should. But someone is out there trying to mess it all up. This series, due to the potential in plotlines and character crossovers - both past, present and future - looks like a wild rollercoaster ride of fun.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

CD's Silver Anniversary

The Compact Disk celebrated it's 25th anniversary on Friday of last week. The first ones rolled out of a production plant in Germany in August of 1982, and the world of music (and data storage) has been forever changed.

I remember the days of vinyl and cassettes very well. As a teenager, I would love rushing to Record Giant in the plaza to spend hard earned money buying the latest 45 singles or albums. When I was in college and didn't have the space to be hauling around turntables and large boxes of records, cassettes were the cheaper alternative. My co-op job in New Jersey during the summer of 1985 was really when I got a lot of new music on tape. But tapes would break, and vinyl could get scratched easily.

I remember when CDs started to appear in local record stores I'd visit post-college in 1989. At the time, they still only took up a small section of the stores. Christmas of 1990, the first Christmas after my wife and I got married, she bought me a six-disk CD changer component for our home stereo system (she spent a lot of money for it too as they were quite expensive at the time). One of the first CDs in our collection was the four-disk Led Zepplin box set that had just been released. I was hooked!

Initially I focused on replacing albums that I had on vinyl or cassette - to have the better recording quality. Prince was one of the first artists whose whole catalogs I quickly sought. Most other folks I would get greatest hits collections as they were released to suffice - to have those most known songs in the new format. I joined my share of CD clubs too (remember when they were called 'record clubs'?) - BMG and Columbia House. It was very easy to build a collection quickly when you were getting 14 disks for a dollar.

When the CD-RW drives started showing up on computers in the late 90's and beyond, that just opened up a whole new window. No longer would I need to worry about hundreds of floppy disks which too easily got messed up (one good magnet and boom - data gone). I could burn lots of data onto a single, shiny disk. I don't know how we ever survived without them?

Today, a CD player in the car is a must (the week I had to drive my in-laws car, when my Suzuki Sidekick was on it's last legs, I nearly went bonkers because their Suzuki did not have a CD player. I was forced to listen to the radio the entire time.). My clock radio for years has been one with a CD player in it - I wake up every morning usually to the first notes of whatever song it is set to on the disk. Every boombox we have in the house now has a CD player in it. And I'm sure a lot of people can relate to all this too. There is a whole generation out there who do not remember a time when CDs weren't around (I seemed to have said the same thing a few weeks ago about MTV too).

Will there come a time when CDs will go the way of the 78rpm record (or vinyl in general) or the beta tape? Probably. But in the meantime, I'll just happily enjoy this wonderful little invention of the last quarter century.

Monday, August 20, 2007

They're Baaaaaack

The kids of East High were back this weekend as Disney Channel premiered High School Musical 2, the sequel to their mega-successful film from 2006. The entire cast was back - Zack Effron, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, Corbin Bleu, Lucas Grabel, Monique Coleman - and as the opening number says (what time is is?) it's summer time! And that means no school, time for sun and fun, and of course singing and dancing (it is a musical after all).

Once again, the story centers around Effron's Troy - who has yet another dilemma to wrestle with. Last time it was sports versus singing. This time it is his future versus his friends. Still, Effron is the one who brings in the target audience (tween and teen girls) so naturally he gets the most focus. Hudgens' Gabrielle is more a minor player this go-round except for her inevitable romantic duets with Effron (the two are actually a couple so the romantic chemistry is there). Tisdale's Sharpay really gets a huge focus, which is awesome; she really gets to chew up the scenary with her spoiled rich girl act. Grabel's Ryan gets more focus too as he figures out it is time to come out from under sister Sharpay's shadow. Bleu and Coleman are really relegated to supporting friend roles, though Bleu does have some big parts in some of the songs.

For me, the best part is the huge coreographed production numbers. From the opening "What Time Is It? (Summertime)" to the Sharpay focused "Fabulous" and her version of "You Are The Music In Me" to the sports-themed "I Don't Dance" and the finale "All For One", these are the numbers that stand out. They are toe-tapping, booty-shaking tunes that will be all over Radio Disney for the next year.

I saw the figures for Friday night's debut - 17.2 million households tuned it. That's phenomenal numbers, especially for a summer TV debut and for a cable channel. Yes, we had it on in our household (I was DVRing it for my son who was away with his grandparents in the mountains - though it turns out one of the kids up there had their father tune in the satellite so they could watch it as well).

Expect the soundtrack and the eventual DVD release to do gangbuster sales for Disney, just as the original High School Musical did. Expect the eventual follow up third film, though word is they are planning it for a big screen release.

Personally, I enjoyed it. I always loved musicals about kids, singing and dancing through a storyline. It had touches of Grease, Grease 2, Dirty Dancing, and even some Caddyshack to it. Director Kenny Ortega really pulled out all the stops on this one. And it is great, G rated entertainment for the entire family. Two thumbs up from my household.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

It took about eight evenings to do it, but I just finished the fourth book in the series - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. All 734 pages - whew! Given that it usually takes me about that amount of time to read your average sized paperback, that was a pretty good clip.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Always Enchanting

Last week I had set the DVR to tape a movie and last night my wife and I finally got around to watching it. The film was 2004's Ella Enchanted, a fairy-tale story of a young girl "gifted" at birth with obedience. After her father brings home a new step-mother and two horrid step-sisters, poor Ella finds she needs to leave Frell and find a way to get the gift removed before it runs her life. Along the way, she encounters elves, ogres and giants - oh and she ends up falling for the handsome prince despite her best efforts.

This was one of those movies we had planned to see in the theatres but never got to. It was cute and entertaining. The storyline was predictable in some parts and very cheesey in others. But it was a fun cheese.

The cast had some nice surprises in it. Of course, there was Anne Hathaway as Ella. Joanna Lumley (of Absolutely Fabulous) plays her new stepmother in a wonderfully wicked way. Lucy Punch plays the equally annoying and evil older stepsister. Minnie Driver plays one of the household staff who is also a fairy. Eric Idle (from Monty Python fame) is the narrator. Vivica A. Fox is the fairy who gave her the annoying "gift". And Heidi Klum even shows up as one of the giants.

What really made the film fun for me is two things. First is Anne Hathaway herself. This was her second film after her breakout debut in the Princess Diaries in 2001. As with that film, she is delightful in this one. Something about her carries that girl-next-door with both brains and beauty. She's the type of person you wouldn't mind babysitting your kids - as she would be responsible as well as entertaining. I always enjoy films that she has done - and was even pleasantly surprised by her role in Brokeback Mountain in 2005. I still need to see the Devil Wears Prada.

The second thing about the film was the music. Yes, this is a fairy tale with a lot of modern references and illusions. So, to score it, they used popular music from the 70's and early 80's. Now, these are covers but they are good covers. I mean, really, any film that can pull in songs like "Strange Magic", "Don't Go Breaking My Heart", "Walking On Sunshine", "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing" and "Somebody To Love" gets strong marks in my book. These gave me that warm, familiar feeling - like snuggling with your favorite blanket as a kid while your parents read you from the Brothers Grimm.

If you're looking for a rental or something on cable that you can enjoy with your younger kids, this one works nicely. You just might find yourself enjoying bits of it too.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Affairs of the Heart pt 3

The last week of June 2005 and I was scheduled for Monday morning heart surgery. I got through all the pre-op stuff (including blood drawing - and I hate needles) and surgery prep the week before. The night before surgery my wife and I stayed in a room the hospital rents for heart-patients' families so they can be nearby the hospital. I don't either of us got much sleep that night - worrying about the next day. I guess for me, though, it was not so bad - I'd be out for most of it. In the morning just as the son was coming up, they wheeled me into surgery, stuck me about three times in the arm to get the IV and anastesia going, and then it was off to la-la-land. I didn't wake up until eight hours later in recovery, very much out of it for quite some time late into that evening.

My wife, my parents and my in-laws were able to visit me in ICU that night. They couldn't stay long but I most likely wasn't a lot of company anyway. With all the tubes, monitors and such - I probably looked like a science experiment (felt like one at times too). I really didn't feel too concerned about much but sleeping anyway until early Tuesday morning. Then realization of things kind of started to sink back in.

They got me to a room on Tuesday around noon. I was actually feeling hungry at this point, a good sign. But, it's crawl before walk you know. Start with ice chips, then liquids if those stayed down. Oh, but the walking would come very soon. By late that evening, I was ready for my wife to help me take my first walk around the ward.

After that, it was going down the checklist of all the things you have to do (or get done) before you can be released. Man, that couldn't come fast enough as far as I was concerned. When they have to come in every two hours and prick your finger to check your blood, you start to run out of fingers fast. Did I tell you I hate needles? Yeah, I did. Even those quick little ones. By Thursday noon they felt I was ready to head home, and I totally agreed. The TV viewing options stunk in the hospital, as did the food. I've never been a hospital fan anyway - ever since my first stay in one as a kid when I was four years old.

Because the surgery was non-evasive (using lapriscopic tools to repair my broken valve and to put a ring in my heart), they didn't have to crack open my rib-cage. Instead I had three or four smaller incisions for them to get in and do what they had to do. That's good because cracking the rib-cage usually means two months recovery where as what I had done meant a much quicker recovery time. The bad news is the lapriscopic is supposed to be more painful initially - but I didn't see that (or I honestly suppressed a lot of it). I plowed through my mandatory pain pills as fast as needed (did I tell you that I hate taking pills? And these were the horse variety - huge!) but I hardly used the ones they prescribed for after getting home. I guess I was really motivated to recover and move on.

Being home certainly helped as well (home is way better than any old hospital). I got to recline in the family room for most of the daytime - catching up on DVD's or working on my laptop (or just napping). My wife made sure I had my pills, any water I might need, had good food, etc. By the time I was home for a week, we were up to walking a mile at a shot (they want you to get your exercise level up to help your heart get strong again). By the end of the second week after surgery, my wife was able to go to the office for a few hours to work (rather than working from home).

Oh, and back to the job front - I called them back after I was home and told them I was still interested. Since I was not allowed to drive for nearly a month after my surgery (and really wasn't to be in the car for super long stretches of time - the combination of sitting too long and the seatbelt weren't comfortable), they agreed to meet us halfway for a second interview (the job location was three hours across the state). We were still in the car coming back home from that interview when the person I was talking to all the while asked if we would up for arranging an in-office interview for the end of July. Needless to say, I was very excited and said yes. We did that third interview at the end of the month (my wife driving me, of course - that allowed her to check out the area should I take the job).

Once I visted my cardiologist in the beginning of August and he cleared me for returning to work, I went back to my first employer and finished my last few days. I then was able to accept the offer from my interviewer so I could start working for them. By the end of August, they had me set up in temporary housing while we started the whole relocation process (they would help us sell our home and would move all of our stuff as well as part of the hiring package). My wife finished up a few things with her job, got the house ready to be shown with the realtors, and then she and my son moved as well in late October.

As for my heart - now two years later, all is well. I had my annual visit with a cardiologist on Tuesday of this week. He said the echosonagram done that day showed the same as last year - meaning everything still looks great. So other than the usual watching of the diet and getting in some exercise to lose a few pounds, I'm good for another year.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Affairs of the Heart pt 2

Okay, so here we are the end of May 2005, I know I need major heart surgery to repair my leaky mitral valve and I just find out I'm going to have a lot less insurance coverage in 30 days (not to mention having to find another job). This combination is enough to shake my usually optimistic point of view to the very core.

Luckily, my wife is very level-headed and came up with a plan. Per the company's policy, I could apply for short-term disability if my surgery got scheduled before my last day of work. In short, this would actually delay my final work day out until after surgery and recovery, if everything could get scheduled. We talked to my cardiologist, met with the surgeon who had to run a couple other tests first (like this one where they give you something to put you into an awake and totally relaxed but forgetful state and then they have you 'swallow' this thin tube with camera on the end so they can take pictures from actually inside your heart - the whole thing took like twenty minutes but other than a slightly scratchy throat I didn't recall a single thing! funky!), and were lucky to get the surgery scheduled for the Monday which would have been my last week of work. I notified the HR folks at the company and got the short-term disability approved. That allowed for one relief - having the insurance coverage for my surgery and recovery time. I would come back after the month or so recovery period to work out my final days. That helped a lot.

So, while juggling all this into place, I was also working up my resume (I had not done one since I left college in 1987 so I was a little rusty) and sending it out as job leads popped up. Now, I had worked my entire career up to this point in a very specific computer field - retail programming. That was good in that it made me sort of an expert with lots of experience. That was bad in that being specialized like that likely meant we might have to move, if I wanted to stay in the field I had worked. We had a number of discussions about this, both my wife and I and as a family involving my son. In the end, we deemed it best to be as flexible as possible. If a job option came up, we'd consider moving from Wake Forest.

Now, someone must have been looking out for me during all of this chaos. At the end of the second week of June, I happened upon a job listing at an online site for computer industry jobs. A retailer was seeking someone with skills in the products I had worked on for all these years. They were seeking someone with three or four years experience; I had quadruple that. I shot the resume off electronically on Saturday morning. Sunday evening I got a call back from someone regarding it. On Tuesday I was talking then with the recruiter that the employer worked through, and we had a phone screening interview set up for a week later. I expected that interview to go for maybe twenty minutes, but it went more like an hour and a half. I had all my interview prepartion materials scatter about the room and was able to pace a bit to relax as we talked. I think that helped a lot, and the interview went very well.

This was right about the time we finished the pre-surgery tests, and I got a surgery date scheduled just after that first interview. Now I was in the fun position to tell this potential new employer, for whom the job and company profile was a perfect fit for me, that I would be out of commission for the next month or so. Knowing that honesty is the best policy, I laid it all on the line to the recruiter and the person who interviewed me - and I was lucky that they were willing to wait for the right candidate! I just needed to contact them after my surgery so we could continue the interview process if I was still interested.

Whew! One heavy burden slightly lightened. It was good to have something new and exciting as a possible goal post-surgery. Now I just had to face the surgery itself. I had, in truth, pushed all the fear about having my heart operated on into the back of my mind when I was facing the whole unemployed issue. And, of course, I was putting on the brave face especially for my young son so he wouldn't worry. But, truth was, I was very scared about the whole thing.

(to be concluded tomorrow)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Affairs of the Heart pt 1

In February of 2005, just a few weeks before my 40th birthday, I went and had a physical per my wife's concerned request. Now, I hadn't had a physical in a number of years prior to that - I've always been the type of person who was for the most part very healthy. A cold here or some allergies there but that was about it. So, I went to the family practice and had the usual done (height, weight, blood pressure, oil change, tire rotation...oh, wait, that's not right). While listening to my heart, the nurse practitioner heard a slight murmur. He asked if I was ever told I had a murmur. I said no. When the doctor came in, he heard it too and suggested that perhaps I should go see the local cardiologist for an echosonagram, just to be safe. It could be nothing.

I had my echo done on Valentines Day (which I found rather ironic - having your heart examined on February 14th). The cardiologist wasn't going to be able to review my results that day so I was asked to come back late the following week. Turns out that was on my 40th birthday, and it turned out that the murmur was not just nothing.

The murmur was actually caused by a condition called mitral valve regurgitation. That's a fancy way of saying one of my heart chambers did not seal properly after blood came into it before being pumped out to the body again - and that caused some blood to leak back. It also meant my heart was possibly working harder than it needed to get the job done. They had no idea how long the condtion existed. I could have been born with it, or it could have developed in recent years. My father joked that maybe that's why I was never good at running track (okay, I wasn't good at track - he was right - but then again he's the one I inherited my heart issues from, the man who had triple bypass surgery about four or five years prior).

Surgery would be needed to correct it, but because the condition was not so severe we had the option of scheduling when it would be convenient. In the meantime, they'd prescribe something so that my heart wouldn't have to work so hard. Since surgery meant a couple months recovery, I wanted to schedule it to fit in with schedules at my work and my wife's (since she'd want to take time off while I recovered). We also had a Disney Cruise with my in-laws, my brother-in-law and his wife and their boys scheduled for May, so I didn't want to be incompacitated for that. We decided summer would work best for all involved, and I went ahead and alerted my manager in early March of what was going on.

Well, we did the trip in May and all was going fine. Then the other shoe dropped: my big international employer whom I had been with for 17 1/2 years was doing layoffs to help cut on expenses. Over 200 people in the various business operating out of the campus in NC were slated on the list (a 5% cut across the whole company worldwide). I was unfortunately one of the people they had decided to let go. I found this out late in May, and the end of June would be my last day. As if my heart (and head) needed any more, eh?

(to be continued tomorrow)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

When The Good Die Young

Comic book artist Mike Wieringo passed away of a heart attack over the weekend. His art style was much more 'cartoony' compared to all the grim-gritty realists that came out to prominence in the 90's. I always felt his art was very much in tune with the comics I grew up reading in the 70's. His loss to the comic community at such a young age will be missed. (Mike's web page and blog: )

What is really sad is that he was only 44 years old. He is described by friends as having been in great health. His heart attack came out of nowhere - and he could not get treatment in time. That really just further shows that you never know when your time could come up.

As someone who was surprised by a heart issue (just before I turned 40), I totally understand the "you just don't know". The key is to catch things, when possible, before they can turn into a serious problem down the road. I was lucky. I cannot stress enough how important annual physicals are when you reach a certain age. When we are young, we don't think of those things. We think we're invincible. We go out and party, perhaps drive when we shouldn't - don't think twice about how we're eating, etc.

Give yourself the best gift you can - take care of yourself. If not for you, then for your loved ones and friends. Me, I've got my annual cardiologist appointment this morning. I'll update you all soon on how it goes (and more details on my own heart story).

Monday, August 13, 2007

Daytime Talkers

I saw the news headline yesterday - Merv Griffin passed away at age 82. Sure, the entertainer made his millions off of gameshows - like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune, and from real estate ventures, but I will always remember him from his daily talk show.

His show started in 1965, the year I was born. So his show was hitting its formula stride right about the time I began watching TV as a pre-schooler. When I was home with my mom or spending the day over with my grandmother, I know the Merv was a regular staple for background noise in the family room. As a crooner, he was always good for an opening number - and he was a pretty good interviewer too. He was sort of like that older uncle that kind of knew everybody and everybody was happy to visit.

But Merv was the only one. I remember quite well the Mike Douglas show came on later in the afternoon, hosted by another jovial singer. Most people recall Mike's show for interesting things like guest host week (like when John Lennon and Yoko Ono were on). Mike seemed a bit less polished than Merv, but still entertaining. Mike certainly didn't mind when the joke ended up being on him.

Then there was Dinah. Dinah Shore's talk show used to come on earlier in the day. Again, hosted by a singer and actress (I think the key to a successful talk show was that you had to be an entertainer yourself), Dinah had that much more at-ease, relaxed feel to it. Guests on her show seemed like they were stopping in for coffee at that nice neighbor's house.

I guess what I liked about so many of these shows is that I got to see celebrities outside the roles they were playing in films and on TV. Sure I would thumb through my grandmother's movie magazines, but that was just static poses (usually at premieres or such) and boring news copy. On the shows, here were famous people just hanging out and talking about projects, family, whatever. It was also a chance to get to see musical acts perform - a chance to put faces to the voices I'd hear on the radio. Remember, this was the 70's when we were lucky to have the three major networks - so the only place you could see the stars was on the day-time talk shows or late at night on Johnny Carson.

I know some folks still try to keep this format alive in today's syndicated market. Rosie did okay with it until the show turned into a platform for her personal views (I don't recall the 70's talk-show hosts ever getting controversial - they always seemed to be open-minded but more likely I was too young to notice). Donny and Marie tried to do a show but things didn't last too long there; still they had the right spirit to it. Ellen seems to have the formula down pretty good; while she has her own views she seems to keep them in check in favor of being entertaining. She reminds me of a nice mix of what Merv, Mike and Dinah used to do.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Word Play

I've been into doing crossword puzzles since I was about ten years old or so. I probably got introduced to the concept in elementary school - when teachers would give us puzzles to help us with things we were studying. As a kid, I probably made my own share of simple ones as well on loose-leaf paper.

I think I got into them though because my father often did them. I recall fondly him sitting down with the Sunday paper, the section folded over for easier use, and working with a pencil or sometimes a pen (shudder!) working the puzzle. He'd occasionally ask me for help with some of the clues - since current pop culture was not his strong suit. But, man, could he get those historical and science clues.

I'd often pick up puzzle books at the local newsstands (US News, Pete's) if there were no new comic books to buy. They were a great way to keep my mind sharp, especially during summer vacation when school was out.

Today, we have technology to give us a way to do puzzles. Many newspapers have online sites that include the crossword. But a week or so ago, I picked up something very cool for my Nintendo DS system: the New York Times Crosswords game.

What is so cool about this portable game is that it uses the DS' touchpad and stylus for working the puzzles. There is a box where you 'write' the letter in with the stylus - and the character recognition part of the program converts the letter drawn into the box as part of your answer. Very neat. It has problems gettng my 'N's but that is probably because I do those too fast.

Now, this is a puzzle game so it doesn't have all the flash and action of other video games. However, it has long term playability which is a big plus for me. It includes over 1000 puzzles that have appeared in the New York Times over the past few years. The puzzles are organized in a daily fashion, Monday through Sunday, and just like the real newspaper puzzles they get harder as the week progresses. That means even the most seasoned puzzle solver can be challenged by this game.

I definitely give this game high marks.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Warrior Women

For a few nights this week, my wife had to work late which meant my son and I were able to eat at the counter in the kitchen while watching television. Every night, we settled in for an hour of Women of Ninja Warrior on the G4 network. The show is actually an import from Japanese television, the original show called Kunoichi. Basically it is a sports entertainment show where people compete through stages of a challenging obstacle course in order to be the winner and collect the 2 million Yen prize (about $16,700). This version of the show is a spin-off of an all-male version of the program (Sasuke) which G4 also occasionally shows.

They start with 100 competitors on the first stage of the course which has to be completed in a minute and a half or less. This usually weeds the group down to a half dozen or less for stage two. There are some 'regulars' who seem to come back to rechallenge the course in hopes of getting further. The ages of the competitors range from as young as 10 to as old as women in their 40's. Quite a few of them have some form of athletic background which is really key for getting through something like this. In watching the show over four nights, we only ever saw only one group of three women get to the third and final stage. It is really challenging.

The women's competition consists mostly of challenges that require balance and agility. In stage one, they start by crossing a series of poles raised out of water with rounded tops - they call this 'the Dancing Stones'. Then comes a 'the Windmill Cross' where they have to step on the narrow surface of a spinning obstacle to cross over the water to the next spot. The next challenge varies depeding upon which 'season' you are watching - they do change up some of the obstacles as they go; it is either something with a balance beam or a quick crossing narrow bridge. The next common obstacle is 'the Barrel Roll' where they have to stand on the side of a barrel on tracks and roll it over the water to the next spot. This obstacle usually slows everyone down and puts most of them in the drink. Again, after this, the next obstacle varies; usually it involves some kind of jumping/trampoline bounce. The final obstacle in most cases is an 'Escape Ladder/Pole' where the contestant climbs thirty feet to a platform in order to hit the buzzer in time to finish the first stage. I'm not really into sports much but I find these types of challenges interesting; I know even when I was in my prime I would have had a heck of a time with any of them.

What is even more fascinating about this show, for me, is the view into a different culture. The show features the original Japenese announcers, reporters and contestants all speaking in their native language. They then subtitle it for English viewers (there is also an English speaking announcer) that voice-overs stuff periodically. Seeing what the announcers have to say about the contestants while they compete is a really telling view into a society I've never been much exposed to. Sometimes it comes across as very sexist and condescending.

This does give me a chance to have some meaningful dialogue with my son during the commercial breaks about the way different cultures view women and how that is changing over time. It sure beats having to explain some of those commercials they run on G4 - clearly this network's target demographic is males 18 to 40 and it shows by the content and tone of their adverstisers and shows.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Book Review: first four Harry Potter books

Once the seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series came out last month, I figured it would now be time to actually read all of the books in sequence (I had seen the films but not read any of the books until now).

So, in about seventeen days I've managed to finish reading through the first three books. Here are my thoughts after reading them:

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: For a first book, you can see where J.K. Rowlings keeps it simple. The story is pretty straightforward. I felt the ending was a bit weak - in the final encounter she makes what I would consider a writing mistake. She ends up telling us what happened after the fact (through another character) rather than showing us. Yes, I can see she wanted to keep it all from Harry's point-of-view, but it really doesn't serve well from the dramatic high of the book that it should have. All writing books I have read (and I have read plenty) advise that you should "show, not tell". It was a nice enough opening book for a series, but it could have been better. Ah, hindsight.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: I really like how Rowlings builds upon the cast of characters from the first book as well as the introduction of new ones. The expansion of the world these characters live in further breathes life into the line. My only negative: Ginny Weasley. For someone so key to the second book, Rowlings sort of keeps the clues away from the reader through out. Instead we are given the whys and hows after the fact without the hints all along. That bothered me slightly. Again, could be a sophmore novel mistake is all so I'll give her a pass. Still, a fun read - and this book does fill in details that the second film had to leave out.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban: I really liked getting more of the backstory to Harry's parents and their acquaintances when they were at Hogwarts. The additions of more quirky teachers and other sideline classmates of Harry's further fleshes out things. That was a nice touch as well. The mystery involving Hermione is much more easier to follow in the book rather than how it was handled throughout the third film. Rowlings lays the clues out for this all along - something I would have liked her to do with Ginny in book 2.

I'll likely dive into the fourth book this weekend and continue the cycle until I get through the seventh. Given that the last four books in the run are quite a bit larger (double the size or more!) of some of the first three, this could take awhile. I would love to be able to finish them all before the end of September if I can. Since my son just started on book 5 for the first time, it'll be interesting to see who gets to the seventh book first. My wife, however, is disqualified. She read the seventh in one day, and then began to reread all seven books again after that. She finished book 7 for the second time on Tuesday night (she is definitely the speed-reader in our house).

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Cold Days of Summer

It's's Africa hot. With the temperatures pushing over 100 degrees this week, I can't help but long for the summer of 1984.

I had just finished my first year of college and was home for three months. Since I wanted to have a car to take back to school with me and my parents were willing to sell me my mother's black Chevette, I needed to find myself a job to afford it. Now, I knew I would be getting a good deal - my parents did something similar for my older brother four years prior (he worked a summer job to be able to buy a car from them). Unfortunately, I did not have the grill-cooking skills that helped him so well at places like the Ponderosa, Top of the Mark and the cafeteria at Lilydale.

This was in fact going to be my first job ever - outside of mowing the lawn or raking leaves and such. A real, every day kind of thing which would not mean getting paid by family. One option sort of jumped out quickly - Dunkirk Ice Cream was always hiring students in the summer. I filled out the application and was called not long after.

The job was actually working in the freezer section of the ice cream plant. The temperature in the warehouses and production line rooms was well below freezing. I'd often leave for work before 7am in the mornings wearing thermal underwear, jeans, and a sweatshirt - and bringing along my stocking cap, gloves, and insulated suit (think a snowsuit for adults complete with a hood) and boots.

The job was pretty straight forward. We usually worked in the production room near one of the roller-conveyors that carried product from the kitchens to the warehouse. This could be boxes of popsicles, fudgesicles and the like, or half-gallons of ice-cream wrapped in groups of three that would clack like bricks when they hit one another at the bottom of the conveyers. We would take the product, stack them according to specific patterns (by product) onto wooden pallets. In the case of the half-gallons, we'd do an intricate pattern of ten 3-packs per level, alternating the pattern each level so the stack was stable. After five rows, we'd get a second wood pallet and place it on top. Then five more rows, followed by wrapping the upper section in clear plastic. Once done, one of the supervisors would come by with the forklift and take the unit to the warehouse for storage.

Where things got tricky is when they would mix and match product on the same line coming from the kitchen. With the boxes, it was easy enough - just read the labels. With the half gallons, you had to watch which brand it was. You see, each grocery chain had its own brand - but if they were making chocolate for the morning, then we'd start with one brand and then that one would taper off while a second brand started up. Yup, you guessed it - it was the same ice cream that went to each of these chains. No difference whatsoever.

I was pretty efficient at this, so often I got assigned to work solo in one of the smaller off-shoot rooms. That meant it was a fixed run of items that did not require constant clearing out by the forklifts. Sometimes it would be in the box room (a solo line of boxed items). Sometimes it was in a special room where I had to stack round gallons in a pyramid type formation on each pallet. This was kind of nice because it gave me a chance to have quieter time on the job - without all the yelling that would happen if someone got the half-gallon lines backed up, etc.

We were supposed to get a break once an hour, for about ten minutes, to go out of the freezer areas and to the breakroom to warm up. Well, that didn't always happen. If someone called in sick, we would be short a person and the schedule lost the rotational nuance that was planned in there. We were lucky to get our lunch breaks on those days.

A couple perks did come with the job. One, we were allowed to have ice cream on our breaks if we wanted. That would usually be in the form of small cups from broken pallets (called 'peelings' - this was ice cream they could not ship out to the stores - eventually the 'peelings' would end up going back into the kitchen to mix all together for chocolate - I kid you not). But when its super-cold, who really wanted to eat ice cream? A buddy of mine brought his lunch in a cooler, so he'd stock up on Frusen-Gladje pints on his way out the door (yes, this small western NY plant was one place that made the famed "Swedish" ice cream of the 80's).

The second perk was coming home from work and having my body temperature still being lower than normal. This was great during the summer because the late afternoons and evening never felt as bad when you've been chilled to the bone all day. See we did not have air conditioning growing up (or when we did, we didn't use it that often).

So, on days like this, I kind of long for that after-work feeling from my days in the ice cream freezer. It was definitely a nice way to chill out.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Unexpected Surprise!

I got home from work yesterday, as the mercury was busting past 100 degrees here in NC, and what do I see on the front porch? No, not the dry cleaning (which comes every Tuesday and Friday if we've put the bag out previously). Is that a small Fed-Ex box I spy? It is, it. I can barely make out the return address upside, so I pick it up. As I make out the faint name on the receipient's copy of the receipt, I smile.

It's from Mike O'Connell. You know Mike - surely you've visited one of his two blogs, both linked off my main page there at the lower right. He's my buddy whom I met through the pages of the Clobberin' Times and then, finally, in person when I attended the San Diego Comic-Con back in 1999. At the time he and his roommate Aaron were living in San Diego; Mike's since moved to Sacramento and Aaron to Seattle. My first thought seeing the box: what in the world did he pick up for me at the Comic-Con a week or so ago?

So, put the box on the kitchen counter and take a knife to open up one end. Peeling back the end, I reveal the treasure inside. Or, as Mike's note says "Con goodies!!!" (yes, he used three exclamation points)

The first item is a Comic-Con exclusive Heroes DVD box. The idea is when the season 1 DVDs come out at the end of August, you can take them out of the box they came in and put them into this exclusive box you've put together. Pretty neat. Mike's note says it was a giveaway at the Heroes panel. He knows how much I love Heroes. I can't wait for the fall when the show comes back on - but be warned, I'll be blogging about it weekly like the geek I am.

Okay, next the note tells me to check out the pages of the book. What's the book? Battlestar Galactica: Resurrection in hardcover from 2001. It is a new novel based on the Universal TV series from the 70's. Who is one of the co-authors? None other than "Apollo" himself, Richard Hatch! Flipping a few pages, per the notes instructions, and I see Mike had it autographed, to me, by the man himself! How damn cool is that? Richard flippin' Hatch!

I guess I have to sidenote here. Back in 2001 we hit the Con and attended a panel discussion Mr. Hatch was doing. While he did talk about Galactica and got the love from the fans, he was there to tell everyone to never stop short of your dreams. Yes, Richard Hatch is now a motivational speaker. We loved it. We coined the phrase "what would Richard Hatch do?" (w.w.R.H.d.?), a spin-off from the South Park movie's song "what would Brian Boytano do?". Well, that little in-joke phrase stuck (Mike even put in his note "what would he do?"). Next year in 2002, we saw Hatch was on the schedule to do a panel. We decided to go - Sunday morning 'service' with the reverand Richard. Guess what? Same damn motivational speech. We loved it!

Anyway, because of all this, Mike surely knew what having an autographed book from Hatch would mean to me. That, my friends, is a great friend! Not only did he take the time to get the book (and the other items like promo cards from the Topps booth), he waited in a line to get it autographed and he Fed-Ex'ed it to me too. Why? Just because he knew the surprise would make my day (and it did!).

Mike, you rock!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Like A Sister

This past weekend was my cousin Joan's birthday. In a lot of ways, she's always been like a sister to me - which worked out great since the only siblings I have is one older brother. Since he and I are four years apart in age, we weren't very close growing up (he and his friends didn't want their dorky younger brothers hanging about). Joan too was the youngest of my aunt and uncle's three daughters, with about eight years between her and her next oldest sister. And given that she and I were only two years apart in age (she's older than me), we tended to spend a lot of time together.

As little kids we played a lot together, mostly at her house or my grandparents' house - which shared a common fenced in backyard. They had the cool swingset, monkeybars, sandbox and slide. The yard was large - great for playing kickball, badmitton, croquet, etc. The basement at her house had tons of board games, a piano, comfy furniture and even a table and benches where we could eat our lunches or snacks. We'd often play "school", using the desk they had down there as a school desk. She'd be the teacher, giving lessons on the chalkboard and then tests for me to take. They were usually English types (diagram sentences) or a bunch of math problems to solve. Who knew then that she would end up getting her degree in teaching? She substitutes in the local hometown school district - she and her family even live in that same house.

When we were older, we'd often spend most of our summer weekdays out at the country club. We'd play 18-holes of golf in the morning, have our lunches which we brought around noon and then hang out at the swimming pool until late in the afternoon. That was a lot easier when she was old enough to drive us - there was no relying on our moms for transportation. We'd also walk the half mile or so from her house over to the tennis courts by the high school to hit about a few volleys.

From the time we were kids well into our late teens, we often would go to see movies together. As kids, it was the Disney rounds: animated films like Robin Hood, the Aristocats, and such, or live action films like the Apple Dumpling Gang, the Shaggy D.A., Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and the like. By the later part of the 70's, we'd graduated to seeing more grown up films like Meatballs, the Main Event, Cannonball Run, Xanadu, Saturday Night Fever, and Grease and the like. Those later two were especially favorites - she always had such a huge crush on John Travolta. There were two theatres in town - one downtown and one in the plaza out near where I lived. Even with just single screens in each, that still gave us a couple options to chose from.

Our families took two vacations down to Florida growing up. And when our parents would go away with their friends, my brother and I would stay with her and her older sister who would be watching us for the week. Oh, and every summer when the Chautauqua County Fair was held in town, Joan and I would always go on "kids' day" and spend the whole day riding rides, checking out the crafts exhibits, looking at the livestock in the barns and gorging ourselves on fair food like pizza, waffles, candied apples and french fries.

I long since moved away from Dunkirk, but I still call her every year on her birthday (as she does on mine). We see each other once a year, usually when she and her family come down to NC to stay a week near where my parents live.

Monday, August 6, 2007

That Times Again

Well, once again it is time for a new edition of the Clobberin' Times Online, of which my own World of Maenza is a regular part of.

The CTO is the follow on to the paper APA (amateur press association) for the Champions role-playing-game that myself and a number of other folks were part of for many years. The full history, as told by my good friend Mike, outlines that nicely in the first CTO. I myself came on board to the APA in it's second year and was a part of it through the rest of the run.

Besides being a great place for us to share our stories, our game campaign adventures and awesome art we've gotten, it was a place about friendships. Folks who lived thousands of miles apart - some who had never met face to face until many years later - just sharing things they had in common as well as their own personal triumphs and tragedies. It started out about the game but came something a lot more. I truly value the friendships that came out of the original Clobberin' Times.

And I am happy that outlet continues today in a more modern approach. I enjoy sharing my stories and ideas with however runs across the site. I may never work in comic books as a writer, something I wanted to do as far back as 5th grade, but at least I can bring forth the stories that build inside my head and present them to whomever will read them. I find it a great creative outlet.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Beautiful Sunday

Anyone remember that obscure tune from 1972 by Daniel Boone? I didn't think so. ;)

Anyway, we really had a beautiful Sunday today. We left early in the morning to drive up to Racoon Holler, the place my in-laws have their summer trailer in the mountains. It was a nice, cool morning so my wife decided to take the route on the Blue Ridge Parkway - so we could drive with the sun roof open and the windows down in her new car.

We got up there around lunch time - and had plenty of time to visit with the family. My brother-in-law, his wife and their four kids were up from Atlanta to visit (they were camping up there for a long weekend). It was good to see them again. Although Atlanta is only about a four hour ride or so, we hadn't seen them since earlier in the year.

Man, the twins have grown. The girls are now 16 months old - starting to toddle around and are getting close to saying their first words. They are also starting to develop their own mannerisms and unique looks, despite being dressed alike. I think my brother-in-law will have them dress alike for many years if he has his way. The boys (one four, the other six) are also getting big too.

So, the eleven of us managed a nice cook-out lunch (burgers, hot dogs, potato salad, baked beans, etc.). We then chatted after lunch for a bit while the kids played (and the girls napped). Then we bounced around this ball that you fill with milk, rock-salt and ice - in order to make homemade ice-cream. It went really well with the brownies my mother-in-law had made.

After that, we took the kids all down to the playground for a bit. I enjoyed pushing my nieces on a swing, all the while watching their laughing little faces. Since we hadn't seen them in so long, my wife and I were worried they'd take awhile to warm up to us; happily that wasn't the case.

We left late afternoon for the hour and a half ride back home. It was a beautiful Sunday indeed.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The (other) View

I don't deny it - I happen to enjoy watching the View. It's not like I'm DVRing it every day; I just like to catch it on those days if I'm not working - like on vacation or if I was home sick (or when my son was younger and he was home sick). I enjoy the show - or at the very least the first fifteen minutes or so - the "Hot Topics" segment. That's when the hosts sit around and do rapid fire discussion about any number of top stories or such of the day. Sure, it can be catty and with all them talking at once it can sound like a cackle of hens. I find it fun.

I never had sisters, and my mother was usually out numbered in the house-gender battles - thanks to my father, my brother and I. Still, as a lot of Italian families are, our extended family was very matriachal. Often at family get-togethers it would be my mom and her sister, my grandmother and her sister, my three older female cousins - usually sitting around after dinner talking or playing cards or such. I enjoyed observing that, and I get a similar feel from watching the program.

Barbara Walters' plan from the start was to mix the show up with various women from various walks of life - to provide differeing views. The younger woman spot tended to rotate a bit - from Debbie Matonopolis to Lisa Ling to finally Elizabeth Hasselback (IMHO, from best to worst – Lisa, Debbie and then Elizabeth). Meredith Viera, Joy Behar and Star Jones were sort of the foundation for years - and the three really could be a riot when they got into a topic. But things change. Meredith went back to doing news - which is where she started (that always made her the more 'credible' on in my eyes). Star got into the whole brewhaha about her accepting sponsoring for her wedding and then her quick weight loss (I saw yesterday she finally admitted she had gastric bypass surgery after denying it vehemently for years - yeah, in her own words she's a hyprocrite). Rosie O'Donnell, whom I actually met once and partied (I'll tell you the full story another time), came on-board and brought both higher ratings and controversy.

Now, with Rosie out before a year is up, Whoopi Goldberg is coming in as a full-time replacement. I think Whoopi will do an awesome job - she is smart, well-spoken, self-motivated (she brought herself up off the streets) and more than willing to get into an intelligent debate without shouting someone down (I'm looking at you, Rosie). She also adds to the minority role - a spot lacking since Star's firing. I think this was a very smart choice on the part of Barbara and her producers. This will allow the show to move onto a new era after a bumpy transition period.

So, take a little time each time and enjoy the view - Martin's View that is (and that other one too).

Thursday, August 2, 2007

MTV Memories

Yesterday marked the 26th anniversary of MTV's debut. Wow - 26 years. There is now a generation of college graduates who never knew of a time when MTV wasn't on the cable dial. I feel old.

I remember the days when MTV showed nothing but 24 hours of videos. We managed to get the channel on our cable offering some time late in it's first year or so. I do recall having it during my senior year of high school (1982-1983). The only avenue for music videos prior to that was NBC's offering on Friday Night Videos, a show that came on after midnight for a couple hours.

I loved that early, all-video time. You got to see a lot of new wave bands, especially ones out of England and such where videos were often made to help the record labels expose artists to a new market. Folks like Bananarama, Flock of Seagulls, and the Boomtown Rats. And of course, the band whose video kicked it all off: the Buggles with "Video Killed The Radio Star". MTV was the first place I got to see groups like the Motels, Devo, the Ramones and the Knack. It was also THE place to catch "world premieres" of videos - who can forget the anticipation for Michael Jackson's "Thriller" (a very unique concept at the time)?

And MTV introduced us to lots of interesting personalities as well. There's the original five vee-jays: Martha, Nina, J.J., Alan and Mark. Then over the years we got to meet folks like Pauly Shore, Kennedy, and the Julies Brown (the funny one and the waba-waba one). When MTV started to dip into original programming in the late 80's, shows like Remote Control introduced to a young comedienne by the name of Adam Sandler. And, of course, MTV was THE place to catch all of Live-Aid back in July of 1985.

Honestly, if I had to say the last time I stopped on MTV it would have to be at least a year or so ago. With all of its programming now, it just doesn't appeal to me at all. Then again, I'm hardly their advertisers' target demographic. No, if I want videos, I go over to one of MTV's sister station's spin-offs: VH-1 Classics. This is where I can see hour blocks of videos just like the old days - with minimal interuptions. This takes me back twenty years. And VH-1 Classics was where they did the 25th anniversary festivities last year: by playing for an entire day the exact same items that MTV played during its first 24 hours of programming. That's how it's done. I want my (classic) MTV!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Comics on DVD-ROM

Over the past few years, GIT Corp has been slowly building a line of comics on DVD-ROM. Actual initial releases were on CD-ROM, but they've moved over to the format that can hold a lot more data on a single disk (most likely because combined CD/DVD drives are now pretty standard on new computers). The disks consist of files in Adobe PDF format, and each release comes with a copy of the Adobe Reader program. Now, I know that there are factions of folks who prefer one file format on computers versus another. I can't really get into that debate because, in truth, I've only experienced the PDF files and they work just fine for how I read. I don't know of any major companies 'selling' books in the other format (most of those other format files are found on file-sharing services - which is basically someone independent putting the books up for free). GIT Corp is an official licensee of the products it distributes. By supporting them, I know the original license owner is getting paid.

The product library to date is pretty solid. They have a complete MAD Magazine collection - from the early MAD comic days, through the black and white magazine days and up to the more current color (with ads) issues. This is similar to the Totally MAD seven-disk CD-ROM set that came out from Broderbund in the '90's (though Totally MAD really had its own display engine to bring up the files - maybe it was a version of PDF behind the covers?). In any case, this is over 50 years worth of humor material on a single disk.

The bulk of their offering though is from the Marvel Comics line. They started out with a Spider-Man set that covered the first 40 years of the Amazing Spider-Man title on CD-ROM. Since then, they made two more offerings of the Web-Head - one collection of just the last 20 Years, and then a complete set on DVD-ROM that added a few more years of books as well as annuals into the package. Next came 44 Years of the Fantastic Four, which has also been updated just this year to include a combined set with the full solo run on the Silver Surfer (that 700+ comics on a single disk!). GIT continued with the high profile teams in an X-Men collection (focusing solely on the Uncanny X-Men title) and the Avengers (though various volumes of that book since the 60's). They've now gone back to the solo super-stars with disks for the Incredible Hulk, Ghost Rider, and Captain America.

Upcoming releases, per the company's website include: Iron Man in September of 2007, and Daredevil and Thor in 2008. They also note 'other surprises'. This likely means possible smaller run sets like the Ghost Rider one (which had 250 issues versus the usual 500+) or other updated releases with combos of additional material too (like the FF/Surfer set).

There are a number of things I, as a long time comic reader and collector, love about these sets.
First, the price is absolutely right. At $30 to $50 MSRP (you can get them at a cheaper every-day price from many online sources like, Tales of Wonder, Eagle-One-Media, etc.), that translates to 8 to 12 cents per issue. That's a lot of enjoyment for the money!

Second, everything is there. Each PDF file is full-scans in full-color of all pages, front cover to back, of the entire comic. This includes every single panel, every single advertisement, every single letter column. You get it all. Unlike most paper-reprints that are put out, this allows the reader to put everything into context from the time the book was published. Remember those classic Hostess advertisements? Or how about those Saturday morning programming spreads in the center of the books? They are all there. This bumps the nostalgia factor through the roof for me.

Third, the space savings is huge. A single DVD-ROM in a standard movie clam-shell box, takes up inches on my bookcase. If I had physcially the same comic books on that disk, they would easily fill one if not two long white boxes (each three feet long and a foot wide). The eight disks released so far contain the comparable reading experience of a dozen or so long boxes (more than a third of my whole comic collection).

Fourth, there is the convenience factor. One disk is very light and easy to take anywhere. Going on a trip or vacation - I just throw one in the computer bag with my laptop and I can do some reading easy enough wherever we go. Ever tried to lug a long box around? It's not fun. I moved my collection one time from our old house to a new one. I nearly threw my back out lifting all those boxes of paper. This is much easier to manage.

Now, I know its not the same thing as having the real books. Some people are truly collectors and pride themselves of tracking down those elusive issues to fill the holes in their collection. And that's cool. I totally respect that. For me, personally, I've always got comics because I'm a reader. I like the stories and the entertainment value I get from them. Sure, I keep my old comics when I'm done - and occasionally re-read some again. I just don't see them as completely disposable (I have a hard time throwing any book away). Some day I'll likely sell off most of the books, for a loss no doubt, but that's okay. It isn't about investment for me.

And these DVD-ROM's probably aren't for everyone. Some people don't like to read at their computer. They would prefer to have the physical book, to hold it in their hands and smell the slightly musty smell of old paper. Me, I sit in front of one most of my waking hours so I'm very comfortable with it. Plus, with a laptop, I can read books this way just about anywhere I want (okay, bathroom reading isn't as convenient...). And, I don't have to dig through my long boxes to find the books I want - just pop in the disk, a few clicks and I'm ready to roll.

The best part: this allows me to read books I most likely never could have before - either due to affordability or availability. I don't have to hunt all over to fill in a run or read an arc. The entire run is there for me. And I don't have to worry about aging effects on the paper. These PDF files come from scans of someone's collection - now and forever immortalized for all time. I don't have to worry about ruining a book while eating or whatever. The digital image is immune to those things.

For me, this is a perfect solution to allowing me to read classic comics and research characters, etc. My hope is GIT continues these for a long time - hitting as much of the Marvel back-catalog as possible. My dream would be that someone would be able to do something similar with the DC Comics line (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.).

Then the only thing I have to do is find time to read all this stuff. As the song goes: there never seems to be enough time to do the things you want to do... But that's a topic for another time.