Wednesday, April 29, 2009


While driving home from chorus rehearsal, I admired — while keeping one eye firmly fixated on the road ahead at all times — the transcendent beauty of the crescent moon low in the night sky, colored a dusky reddish hue by atmospheric debris.

And I thought to myself...

What a marvel it is to realize that there's another world right up there, so near that you could fly there in a day's time if you had the technology at your disposal.

I'm terrified of high places. But I'd go to the moon if I had the chance.

I hope I live long enough to see human beings exploring the moon's surface again.

Mars would be even more awesome.

Sweet dreams.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

It's getting Earthy up in here

In honor of Earth Day, I am committing to spending the entirety of today on Earth.

Furthermore, I vow to use only products that have been grown and/or manufactured on Earth.

I will also watch only those TV programs that originate on Earth.

I encourage all of my Earth-based readers to join me in this celebration.

Those of you from other celestial bodies, I'll check back with you tomorrow.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Selling Wolf tickets

Although I wasn't a regular customer, I'm still a little sad to see Wolf Coffee, a local chain of coffeehouses, go the way of the passenger pigeon.

At one time, Wolf Coffee — whose home office was here in Rohnert Park — had eight locations in Sonoma County. But they could never really compete with Starbucks, which has, at last count, 42 outlets in the county. (That's a lot of coffee, when you stop and think about it.) Wolf began trimming back its operations a couple of years ago, and recently sold its last remaining store in Coddingtown Mall.

It's unfortunate to see locally owned businesses fail, but there are a lot of factors to consider. Wolf's coffee was expensive, even more so than Starbucks — my cup of choice, a king-sized vanilla latte, cost about a quarter more at Wolf than at the Sign of the Naked Fish-Tailed Lady. Wolf's locations were not, at least for me, as convenient as the plethora of Starbucks.

And, most frustratingly, Wolf's service, while unfailingly friendly, was often slower than molasses in Antarctica. I never dropped into a Wolf Coffee if I was in any kind of hurry. Or if I simply had plans for the rest of my day. Although the laid-back vibe was, for some customers, a selling point in Wolf's favor over the lickety-split corporate rush at the 'Bucks, when I want a cup of coffee, I want it now, not 15 minutes from now. I've got stuff to do.

To my taste, the coffee at Wolf wasn't significantly spectacular to offset these drawbacks. It was pretty good, but not better, than the java at the Green Monster across the street.

Here's where I lose patience with people who bemoan overmuch the passing of locally owned businesses. Ultimately, it's a business. If you can't compete, you'll get crushed. It's not my job to support a local outfit even if they charge me more for the same or similar product, send me out of my way to buy it, and keep me waiting longer than the big chain outfit. It's my money, my gasoline, my time.

All things being equal, then yes, I'd rather buy from a neighbor than some megacorporation in a distant land. But when all things aren't equal, I've got to serve Customer #1 first. That, or my neighbor has to deliver something sufficiently superior to the other guy that I'll spend a bit more, drive a bit farther, and wait a bit longer.

When it comes to a relatively generic commodity like coffee, that's a tough challenge. Sadly, it's a challenge that Wold Coffee couldn't — or, perhaps, wouldn't — meet.

Now, they've paid the ultimate price.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Do I look like Buster Poindexter to you?

Today, we came within shouting distance of a new record temperature for this date.

The mercury climbed to 93 degrees (that's Fahrenheit, for the benefit of those in other localities not tethered to our arcane system of weights and measures) at its peak, just two degrees shy of a mark set in 1931.

It was hot all over the region. Even in perpetually cool San Francisco, they were looking at 92.

Ironically, exactly one year ago, we set a record for low temperatures on April 20, bottoming out at a chilly 32. The high that day was a still-brisk 58.

A lot can change in a single orbit around the sun.

The average high for this date is 70. We usually don't see weather this toasty until at least mid-May.

Stupid global warming.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Happy Jackie Robinson Day!

Every player, manager, and coach in Major League Baseball will wear a uniform number 42 during today's games, in commemoration of the Brooklyn Dodgers' Hall of Fame infielder's breaking of baseball's racial barrier 62 years ago.

Robinson's number was permanently retired from active use by all MLB teams during the inaugural Jackie Robinson Day festivities in 2004.

For whatever reason, Jackie Robinson Day always reminds me of that classic episode of Sanford and Son, in which the always-scheming Rollo gives Fred a special birthday present: a baseball autographed by Jackie Robinson.

Upon examining his gift, Fred asks his friend, "Rollo, how do you spell 'Jackie'?"

replies a confident Rollo.

"That's right," says Fred. "That's how you spell 'Jackie.' But that's not how Jackie Robinson spelled 'Jackie...' you dummy."

The moral of this story: If someone gives you an autographed baseball for Jackie Robinson Day — or tries to sell you one on eBay — be sure you authenticate the signature.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

It's what's for dinner


What other power on earth could unite:
  • Jewish folks...
  • Irish folks...
  • Vietnamese folks...
  • and redneck Texan folks... one big, fat, happy, circle of sloppy carnivorous love?

It's enough to make a grown man sniffle.

We are the world, people.

And to all of my Jewish friends enjoying their Seder brisket this Passover evening, Chag Pesach Sameach! (Save your goyische Uncle Swan a slice, yeah?)

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Monday, April 06, 2009

10 films for the Aughts

Two of the film writers for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle and Peter Hartlaub, have published dueling "10 best films of the decade" lists.

To my way of thinking, it's a mite early for this. After all, the decade isn't over yet.

Then again, people get all squishy over lists, don't they? So, anytime is list time.

I use the word "dueling" above, not because Hartlaub and LaSalle hate each other (they may, but I don't think so — it's more an Ebert-Siskel rivalry), but because their lists have nothing in common. That's right: Two major film critics compiled lists of the best 10 films from the past decade, and not a single film appears on both lists.

(For your reference, here's Mick LaSalle's list, and then Peter Hartlaub's list.)

As a former professional film critic myself, I couldn't resist taking up this challenge, premature though it may be. I always preface these things with the caveat that "best" is a subjective and ultimately ridiculous concept when applied to the creative arts. So, let's call this...

My 10 Favorite Films from the "200x" Decade

1. Sideways

Funny, vulgar, touching, winsome, outrageous... I could keep stacking the adjectives, but none of them can completely express my affection for this film. Paul Giamatti's Miles is the person I would probably be if I drank. (Which is yet another good reason why I don't.) Virginia Madsen's soliloquy about the deeper meaning of wine may be the sexiest sequence in any film this decade — and she delivers it while vertical and fully dressed.

2. The Lord of the Rings trilogy

Peter Jackson's three-part cinematic thunderbolt may never be equaled, in terms of its sheer size, scope, and groundbreaking spectacle. As a longtime fan of Tolkien's magnum opus, I don't see how The Lord of the Rings could have been delivered to the screen any better or more faithfully — in spirit, if not in minute detail. (See: Bakshi, Ralph.) Perfect? Perhaps not. Seven levels of awesome? Heck, yeah.

3. Children of Men

No film I've seen in the past ten years moved me as powerfully as this darkly haunting slice of science fiction by Alfonso Cuarón. Children of Men strikes some of the same notes as Minority Report (another film I liked very much; surprising, since I'm not a fan of either director Steven Spielberg or star Tom Cruise), but it strikes them with more genuine emotion, and less hyperslick flash.

4. Memento

The first truly great film of the decade, Memento is noteworthy both as a dazzling achievement in cinematic storytelling (often imitated, but never approached) and as the revelation of one of the period's signature filmmakers: Christopher Nolan, who went on to direct Insomnia (an underrated flick, spoiled only by too hefty a dose of Robin Williams), Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight.

5. Spirited Away

Not only the best animated feature of the decade, but one of the finest animated films of all time. Hayao Miyazaki is sometimes referred to as "the Walt Disney of Japan," but this astounding, heart-wrenching film demonstrates just how inadequate that label is. It's not as much fun as many of Miyazaki's other pictures (it's hard to top Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, or the masterful Princess Mononoke in that department), but not every animated film has to be fun.

6. Best in Show

The funniest comedy of the decade, hands down. Will Christopher Guest ever make another movie this good?

7. Lost in Translation

I fully expected to hate this movie. I detested Sofia Coppola's pathetic attempts at acting, and her previous directing turn (The Virgin Suicides) left me cold. Plus, Bill Murray wore out his welcome with me way back around Ghostbusters. But its existential charm won me over.

8. Pan's Labyrinth

Like Jackson's LOTR, Guillermo del Toro's film sets a new high-water mark for technical achievement. More than that, however, it's an engaging and compelling journey into a world unlike any other. Many filmmakers are content to simply repeat the tried and true. Instead, del Toro chose to reinvent the fantasy film. Pan's Labyrinth defines the word "unforgettable."

9. Inside Man

I had a choice between two Spike Lee films here, Inside Man and 25th Hour. When in doubt, choose the movie with Denzel Washington in it. Especially if Jodie Foster and Clive Owen are in it, too.

10. Ocean's Eleven

Okay, okay. I'm allowed one low-brow selection. The true testament to Ocean's Eleven's greatness is that I've watched it more frequently than any other movie on this list, with the possible exception of Best in Show. I wish Steven Soderbergh hadn't followed it with two lackluster sequels (the middle film in the trilogy flat-out reeks), but that doesn't make the first one any less cool. Vegas, baby.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

No uvas for you!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

American Idol is dead, and I'm feeling a little Taylor Hicks myself

In case you're wondering when SSTOL's traditional breakdown of the year's American Idol contestants is coming...

...don't hold your breath.

Seriously, this year's Idol class is far and away the weakest in the show's history. That's saying a lot for a series that has foisted such dubious talents as Kevin "Chicken Little" Covais, Carmen "Can't Buy a Tune" Rasmusen, Kellie "Dumb as Two Bags of Silicone" Pickler, and the infamous Sanjaya "Fauxhawk" Malakar on the American public.

Not only is there not a single performer (and I'm using that word loosely) in the AI '09 field whose CD I'd want to hear — never mind buy — but there isn't even one about whom I care enough to write an entire paragraph.

So I'm not gonna.

You're on your own, America.

SwanShadow... out!

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

What's Up With That? #73: Eating from the bottom

In the aftermath of my less-than-complimentary — yet entirely accurate — St. Patrick's Day comment regarding the quality (or lack thereof) of Irish cuisine, I got to thinking...

Why is it that the further north of the equator one travels, the lousier the food becomes?

In the so-called Old World, this principle is eminently obvious. The North Africans — the Moroccans, Ethiopians, Eritreans, et al. — have amazing food. (When they have food, which is a whole other issue.)

Their neighbors on the northern seaboard of the Mediterranean — the Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italians, and Greeks (having lived in Greece for two years, I can attest personally to the latter) — are legendary for their culinary prowess.

But then, as you continue up the continent, things start to get dicey. German and Polish food, outside of the occasional sausage? Not all that delectable. Russian cuisine? Unless you're a huge fan of beet soup, nothing to write home about.

English food? Notoriously awful. Dazzling language, superlative literature, a world-changing culture. But you wonder how they came up with those great traditions while stuffing their bellies with boiled beef and mashed peas. Irish cuisine? As previously noted, the less said about that, the better.

By the time you've traveled into Scandinavia, people are eating reindeer innards and fish soaked in lye, for pity's sake. That's not food — that's chemical warfare.

The same phenomenon occurs in the Western Hemisphere.

Anywhere you go in the Caribbean region and Central America, you're going to find spectacular dining — spicy, diverse, and flavorful. Mexico? Well, there's a reason for all those taquerias and faux-Mexican chain restaurants that proliferate north of the border. Our neighbors to the south know how to cook.

Here in the United States? Well, much like our language, our cuisine mostly cobbled together from stuff other people cooked before us. Still, we make do, especially across the nether region of this great country of ours — from the fiery specialties of the Southwest to the manly barbecue of Texas, from the Cajun and Creole delights of Louisiana to the deep-fried comfort food of the Deep South.

But here again, as you move north, the eating gets shaky. The Upper Midwest? They'll sneak some lutefisk on the steam-table smorgasbord as soon as look at you. And have you ever tried to get a decent meal in New England? I've been to Maine, and aside from the lobster, it wasn't pretty.

Canada? Does the phrase "back bacon" ring any bells? How about moose jerky? Yeah, that's what I thought.

Even the Far East — to use that dated and Caucasocentric term — suffers from the same pattern.

A quick whirl across southern Asia reveals one culinary wonderland after another: India, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines — all incredible places to grab a bite, as evidenced by the abundance of eateries featuring delicacies from these locales.

China? Hello? I'll bet you've got some of those little white paper cartons fermenting in your kitchen trash at this very moment.

Then you get up to Japan. Love that sushi, sashimi, and soba... but they're also eating some ghastly stuff. Have you ever smelled natto? Trust me, you don't want to, much less attempt to consume any. And in what other country is eating poisonous blowfish that could kill you with a single nibble someone's idea of a fun date?

You might as well stop at Japan, because progressing any further north into the Asiatic tundra will land you in the realm of yak loin and Lord only knows what else.

So, again, I'll pose the imponderable...

Why does food get so much better as you head south toward the equator, and so much more inedible as you leave it going north?

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A retro ride in a Superstar Limo

Last night, I experienced one of those bizarre pop cultural crossover coincidences that happens every now and again.

I was browsing some Disneyland-related sites — because you know I loves me some Disneyland, and I actually will get to spend a few days in Anaheim this summer — when I decided to check out this YouTube video showcasing one of the Disneyland Resort's former attractions, Superstar Limo. At the very moment that the late-but-unlamented ride's Audio-Animatronic version of Drew Carey appeared on my monitor, my television — tuned at the time to a 17-year-old stand-up comedy special on HBO — displayed the youthful visage of Drew Carey, from way back before anyone knew who Drew Carey was.

How weird is that?

In case you're wondering what in the name of Walter Elias Disney I'm babbling about, Superstar Limo was one of the original attractions at Disney's California Adventure, the amusement park that now occupies what used to be the main Disneyland parking lot at the corner of Harbor and Katella in Anaheim.

A so-called "dark ride" in the classic Disney park model — think Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, or others of that ilk — Superstar Limo allowed the visitor to pretend that he or she was a celebrity riding to a big Hollywood premiere in (what else) a miniaturized limousine. Along the route, one encountered Audio-Animatronic versions of a number of then-current pop culture icons, including Regis Philbin, Cindy Crawford, Whoopi Goldberg, and the aforementioned Mr. Carey, who at the time of DCA's opening was the star of a hit sitcom on ABC (the network of Disney, as you are certainly aware).

Superstar Limo was roundly panned by DCA attendees — both for its corporate-pandering concept and its lackluster execution — and closed about a year or so after the park opened. The current Monsters Inc. attraction now occupies the space its short-lived predecessor inhabited.

My memory of Superstar Limo was that it was cheesy but fun in typical Disneyland fashion. The recording of the experience on YouTube bears this out, I think. The main problem I had with the ride was that, had it survived, it would quickly have become dated. How big a star is, say, Tim Allen or Melanie Griffith today, more than a decade and a half later? It would have cost Disney megabucks to continually replace passé show-biz personalities with celebs that kids, especially, would recognize — megabucks that Disney has shown little inclination to spend in its upkeep of the Disneyland Resort.

Still, it's a kick to recall what it was like while it lasted.

Potentially fascinating historical trivia: The original concept of Superstar Limo when DCA was in the development phase called for a simulated high-speed escape from a band of aggressive paparazzi. Then, the Princess of Wales met her untimely demise during... well... a high-speed escape from a band of aggressive paparazzi. Disney's Imagineers retooled the ride's storyline at the last moment to avoid the grisly and unfortunate connection.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

What's Up With That? #72: Sci Fi? I thought you said Hi Fi

In what must surely be one of the most ludicrous marketing gambits of all time, the Sci Fi Channel announced today that it is rebranding itself as "Syfy."

Umm... what?

According to Bonnie Hammer, president of Sci Fi's — excuse me, Syfy's — parent company, NBC Universal Cable Entertainment, "We couldn't own Sci Fi; it's a genre. But we can own Syfy."

Gotcha, Bonnie. Glad you've got your priorities in order.

Fanboys, geeks, nerds, and other societal rejects will be relieved to learn that Syfy (the channel) will continue to present Sci Fi (the genre), and that most of it will suck swamp water, in keeping with the channel's long-standing tradition.

In related news, the Food Network revealed today that it, too, is changing its name, after network executives discovered that "food" is a generic term for "stuff you eat." Henceforth, the channel will be known as the Guy Fieri Network.

Said a spokesperson, "We can't own food. But we can and do own Guy."

Also, FOX is reported to be searching for a pithy, trademarkable brand, now that evidence has come to light that "fox" is actually a small, furry, dog-like animal that lives in the woods.

More on this development is forthcoming.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Movies is movies, books is books

I've been reading with bemusement numerous online threads about the new Watchmen film released last week.

I haven't yet seen the movie, but I think it's funny how many diehard fans of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's graphic novel are up in arms about changes that director Zach Snyder introduced into the film version. It's identical to the furor that arose among Tolkienistas when Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy debuted, or among Marvel Comics aficionados over the first Spider-Man and X-Men movies.

From my perspective, these arguments are ridiculous.

Last night, I finished reading Rex Pickett's novel Sideways, upon which Alexander Payne based his Academy Award-winning motion picture. Sideways the film is one of my favorite movies of the last decade. It is, however, markedly different in many key respects from Pickett's novel. Some of the adjustments are minor; others fundamentally alter the nature of both the major characters and the storyline.

And that's okay.

You know why that's okay? Because a novel is a novel, and a film is a film. They are different media, with different requirements and different approaches.

Peter Jackson understood that when he adapted Tolkien's work. As much as he loved the original novels, Jackson realized that certain aspects simply wouldn't work as well on screen as they did on the page. So he changed things. Not out of disrespect or hubris, but because changes needed to be made to effectively translate the overall story into cinema.

Sam Raimi faced similar challenges with Spider-Man, so Peter Parker got organic webshooters instead of mechanical ones. Bryan Singer faced them with X-Men, so Wolverine became a strapping six-footer in black leather instead of a burly five-footer in yellow spandex.

Whatever tinkering Zach Snyder found necessary in bringing Watchmen to the screen, I'm sure that the issues were of like kind.

In case you suppose that my indifference to cinematic alteration is directly connected to my feelings toward the source material — my lack of enthusiasm for Alan Moore's oeuvre, and Watchmen in particular, is well documented — I assure you that it is not.

You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who loves Spider-Man more than I have over the past four decades, but I was perfectly fine with the built-in spinnerets and the armor-clad Green Goblin. Those changes made sense in a film context. In the same way, although I considered myself an ardent Tolkien admirer in my younger days, none of Jackson's twists and tweaks troubled me in the least. I didn't even miss Tom Bombadil.

I understand the passion that fans of a published work have for their favorite stories and characters. Those fans, in turn, need to understand that telling a story in moving pictures and sound is not the same as telling that story in written words (or in static words and pictures) on a printed page. Different media, different ballgame.

In other words, get over it.

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Monday, March 09, 2009

I'll be home for Purim

A joyous Purim to all my friends of the Jewish persuasion!

For the benefit of my fellow goyim, Purim commemorates the events depicted in the Biblical book of Esther, in which a young Jewish woman marries the king of the Persian Empire. Using her influence on her powerful husband, Esther ultimately saves her people from a genocidal government official named Haman.

Which reminds me...

If you haven't seen Christopher Guest's film For Your Consideration, you should. It's not one of Guest's familiar "mockumentaries" (i.e., Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind, and the Rob Reiner-directed, Guest-scripted film that launched the genre, This is Spinal Tap), but it features most of the same cast and is almost as funny.

For Your Consideration centers around the production and release of a low-budget film starring three hapless actors played by Harry Shearer, Catherine O'Hara, and Parker Posey. When the trio are nominated for Academy Awards, everything in their lives changes.

The original working title of the film-within-a-film is Home for Purim. (Its plot revolves around a Jewish family in the Deep South during World War II, whose adult daughter — the Parker Posey character — comes out as a lesbian.) When pressured by an anti-Semitic studio executive (British comic Ricky Gervais), Home for Purim's producers are compelled to "tone down the Jewishness" and retitle their movie Home for Thanksgiving.

If you and your family celebrate Purim this evening, I hope that you enjoy a grand and memorable celebration.

Don't tone down the Jewishness for anybody.

Memo from the Did You Know? Department, Old Testament Division: Esther is one of two books of the Bible that never mention God. (The Song of Solomon is the other.)

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Thursday, March 05, 2009

Kindle me this, Batman

I'll admit to being something of a closet Luddite.

Now, I know that sounds peculiar, given my near-constant tethering to a computer and the online world beyond. But it's true.

For years, I avoided owning a cell phone, and now that I do carry one, it's a basic, stripped-down, pay-as-you-go model that doesn't have a camera, voice mail, or any of the usual bells and whistles. I only recently learned how to send text messages (thanks to my collegian daughter). My brief attempts to use a PDA to manage my daily routine devolved into miserable failure.

Today, however, I dragged myself — kicking and screaming — into the new millennium.

My Amazon Kindle arrived.

More precisely, my Amazon Kindle 2.

For the benefit of my fellow technoweenies out there, I speak here of an electronic book reader. Amazon's isn't the only such gizmo on the planet — Sony, among others, manufactures a similar device — but the Kindle represents the current state of the e-book reading art, with its relatively simple interface, sizable catalog (250,000 titles and growing), and instantaneous content downloads.

Amazon began shipping its freshly redesigned second-generation Kindle just last week. Our friendly neighborhood UPS driver delivered mine early this afternoon. (What can Brown do for you? Brown can bring you a Kindle, that's what.)

The Kindle arrives securely packed in a custom-fitted carton. I was surprised to discover when I opened the box that my Kindle was up and running, already knew my name, and displayed on its easy-to-read screen a personalized note to me from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. (Jeff: Have your people call my people. We'll do lunch.)

Purchasing my first handful of books proved insanely quick and effortless. Although it's possible to browse available titles directly from the Kindle, in giddy anticipation of my Kindle's advent I had already selected several books from Amazon's site via my PC. Each transaction required but a single click, and each book deposited itself into my device in the space of a few seconds. Amazon uses Sprint's 3G wireless network to deliver content, so it's possible to order up new reading matter lickety-split with just a fingertip. (And that's without a wireless subscription fee. Sweet.)

Kindle's 6" display employs a technology called E-Ink, which produces a remarkably paper-like, glare-free (there's no backlight, so external illumination is a must) reading surface. Text can be instantly resized into any of six preset increments, which means I'll be able to Kindle even when I misplace my pesky reading glasses. (Curse you, middle age.)

I've read some complaints online about Kindle 2's joystick navigation tool. (The original Kindle used a scrolling wheel.) So far, I'm finding that the joystick, microscopic though it is, works well, even under manipulation by my stubby fingers. The page-forward and page-back buttons are well-placed, and offer just enough resistance that I don't find myself flipping pages when I don't intend to. (Kindle 1's buttons were apparently both larger and looser, and users voiced frustration about losing place too easily.)

Kindle comes equipped with an onboard Oxford American Dictionary, enabling the reader to pull up the definition of any word in the text. Even those of us with voluminous vocabularies strike a stumper every now and then, so that's a cool feature.

I'm also impressed with the slick, streamlined battery-charging cord, which can be plugged into either a wall socket or a USB port. No massive, clunky adapter here. (I hate, hate, hate the ginormous transformer required by my Dell notebook.) I don't know yet how the Kindle's battery life holds up, but given that the electronic ink screen only uses power when the display changes, I'm guessing that the device will run for a good long while without a booster shot.

Amazon offers a book-like leather cover for the Kindle, but I opted for a zippered pouch manufactured by Belkin. Amazon's version actually locks the Kindle into its spine, which seems like a nice idea, but I'll feel better having something that encloses the device all around, given that I'll often be tossing it into a tote bag containing spiral notebooks, pens, and other scratch-inducing items. Plus, now that I've actually handled the Kindle, I'm surprised by its heft (10.2 ounces, according to Amazon). I'll definitely want to spend most of my reading time holding it without the added weight of a cover.

In case you're curious what I'll be reading on my Kindle over the next few weeks, my initial salvo of downloads includes:
  • New works by several of my favorite mystery scribes: Robert B. Parker, Robert Crais, and Harlan (Don't Call Me Robert) Coben.
  • Joe Torre's controversial memoir about his years managing the New York Yankees.
  • Rex Pickett's Sideways — love the movie, keep promising myself that I'd read the book.
  • Prisoner of Trebekistan, by my fellow Jeopardy! alumnus Bob Harris.
For someone who spends as much time as I do sitting around in recording studios and hospital waiting rooms, the Kindle should be a godsend. The device will store approximately 1,500 books, so I can feel my carry bag getting lighter as I type. KJ will also be able to Kindle during her marathon infusion sessions at the oncology center.

Once I've had ample time to explore Kindle's functionality under real-world operating conditions, I'll let you know whether I still believe it's worth the investment.

Read on, Macduff.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

My awards show has a first name...'s O-S-C-A-R.

A few notes from last night's 81st Academy Awards ceremonies:
  • Pleasantly innocuous hosting job by Hugh "Wolverine" Jackman. The producers tailored the show to his strengths — he's a song-and-dance man, not a stand-up comedian. Jackman's style seems a better fit for the Tony Awards, which he's hosted several times, than for the Oscars, which attract a larger, more diverse audience. I doubt that the Academy Powers That Be will invite Hugh to host again, but I'm equally sure they're not sorry that they invited him this time.

  • I almost liked the smaller, more intimate set design. Having all of the nominees seated together and close to the stage worked well, especially for reaction shots when the winners were announced. The set-up did, however, give the event a confined, cramped feel. The Oscars need to be larger than life, not smaller than a breadbox.

  • Jackman's opening number with the cheesy props and Anne Hathaway — who is not a cheesy prop, despite her unsettlingly gargantuan eyes — was kind of fun. Billy Crystal has done similar openings to better effect in previous years.

  • Memo to Ms. Hathaway: If you have a preternaturally pasty complexion, a white evening gown is not your friend.

  • Memo to Nicole Kidman: Borrow Anne's memo when she's done reading it.

  • Best idea of the night: Using previous winners of the major acting awards to introduce the nominees. Some of the intros meandered on for a bit too long, and some of the choices didn't work as well as others. Overall, however, this was a gimmick worthy of repeating in future years.

  • Second-best idea: Queen Latifah singing "I'll Be Seeing You" over the traditional "Folks Who Croaked" montage. It added a touch of human warmth to an exercise that often just feels creepy and maudlin.

  • Among the winners, I was happiest for Kate Winslet, who has deserved to win at least a couple of times previously and came up empty.

  • Man, those people from Slumdog Millionaire were genuinely happy to be there.

  • Eddie Murphy seemed an out-of-left-field choice to present Jerry Lewis with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. They're both comic actors, but was there any other connection? Usually, they get someone who's a close friend of the awardee to give these special honors away. Maybe this was a sign that Lewis doesn't have any friends left in Hollywood.

  • What was up with the preponderance of dresses that looked like wedding gowns? Was someone getting married, and I missed my invitation?

  • Joaquin Phoenix is still wondering why Ben Stiller — and everyone else on the planet — is making fun of him.

  • Didn't win, but looked terrific anyway: Best Supporting Actress nominees Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson. A couple of classy ladies right there.

  • Didn't win, but frightened small children anyway: Mickey Roarke and Tilda Swinton. At least Tilda comes by her looks naturally.

  • Hey, Amy Adams: Is that a necklace, or did you string together every bauble and bead at your local craft shop? You're lucky you didn't break a clavicle with that ginormous weight around your shoulders.

  • Speaking of ginormous: Angelina, please. The green stones. They are too large.

  • After seeing how much fun John Legend had singing "Down to Earth" surrounded by all of the Bollywood festivity of the two nominated songs from Slumdog, I'll bet Peter Gabriel feels like a moron for refusing to perform. And well he should.

  • I'll bet Bruce Springsteen would have enjoyed doing that bit too, had his song from The Wrestler been nominated, as it should have been.

  • Will Smith stumbled all over his TelePrompTer trying to give away the technical awards. Will, that Scientology foolishness is turning your brain into pudding.

  • Sean Penn, you are only about a third as cool as you think you are.

  • Am I the only one disappointed that Heath Ledger couldn't be bothered to show up to collect his Best Supporting Actor statuette? Hmm? He's what? Oh. Never mind.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

There's a rainbow 'round my shoulder

Just in case you ever go looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow...

It's at my neighbor's house across the street.

Don't tell the leprechaun I told you.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Super President's Day

What a joy to celebrate Presidents' Day with a President worthy of celebration!

Speaking of super Presidents...

This might be a good day to reminisce about Super President.

Super President was a short-lived animated series that aired on Saturday mornings in 1967 and '68. The show's title superhero battled the forces of evil using his power to transmute the molecular structure of his body into any substance he could imagine. (Think Metamorpho the Element Man, who debuted in DC Comics a couple of years earlier.)

In fact, Super President's morphing ability wasn't limited to forms of matter — I distinctly recall episodes in which he changed himself into things like electrical energy and radio waves.

When he wasn't fighting crime, Super President was... well... President.

You read that correctly. Super President's secret identity was James Norcross, the President of the United States.

By now, you've figured out the essential flaw in the Super President concept.

The most visible public figure on the planet becomes a costumed hero, and in order to protect his identity from supervillains, he gives himself a code name that advertises who he really is.

And no one ever figures this out.

Although he was not a DC Comics character, I always supposed that Super President must be the Chief Executive in the DC Universe, an alternate reality in which people fail to recognize that Clark Kent is Superman because Kent wears horn-rimmed spectacles, whereas Superman does not; and where no one realizes that Oliver Queen, the billionaire mayor of Star City, is Green Arrow, despite the fact that both the Emerald Archer and His Honor sport the same distinctive facial hair, and GA's only disguise is a domino mask.

Aside from the issue of its hero's pathetically obvious secret identity, the Super President series never dealt with how the Secret Service got comfortable with Norcross disappearing from the White House for hours at a time without accounting for his whereabouts. Fortunately for America, no international or domestic crisis ever arose at a moment when Super President was off adventuring, causing people to rush into the Oval Office and freak out because President Norcross was nowhere to be found.

Only the President's chief of staff, apparently a genius in a world of morons, ever sussed out who Super President really was.

Personally, I think President Obama would make a wicked cool superhero. If he was, however, I have a feeling that we'd figure it out.

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Sign of the twin-tailed mermaid apocalypse

This is wrong in so many way that it's impossible to calculate:

Starbucks is now selling instant coffee.

Everyone into the bomb shelter. The end is near.

As the late Fred Sanford might have said...

"Hold on, Elizabeth! I'm comin' to join you, honey! With a venti nonfat decaf instant mocha latte in my hand!"

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Old dog, new trick

Congratulations to Champion Clussexx Three D Grinchy Glee — or, as he's known to his close personal friends, Stump — on his Best in Show victory at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show earlier this week.

Stump, a Sussex spaniel, made a particularly noteworthy champion due to his advanced age. Born December 1, 1998, Stump is ancient for a top-level show dog, especially at the "Super Bowl of dog shows."

When contacted for comment about his historic win, the 2009 Westminster champion reportedly flopped on his side and took a nap.

Several years ago, when my office assistant Abby was just a puppy, we took her to see some of her relations compete in a Pembroke Welsh Corgi breed show. One of the dogs in that show was still showing at the McCainesque age of 15. The wily veteran received a standing ovation from the Corgi crowd as he trotted around the ring.

Little-known fact: The Sussex spaniel was one of the original ten breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club when the AKC formed in 1884.

There is no validity to the rumor that Stump was already competing at that time.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What's Up With That? #71: London calling

There's this telemarketer who calls my business line roughly three or four times a week.

Every time he calls, he leaves a voice mail message that's simply his name — which I presume is a company pseudonym — and (long-distance) telephone number, and requests that I call him back.

I don't know what he's selling (I suspect that it's credit card payment processing services, which I neither use nor need), or what company he represents.

Dude, if you're out there, here's your challenge.

First, I have Caller ID, and never answer the phone if the number is blocked or unknown to me. No matter how many times you call, you're never going to get me on the line.

Second, I never return calls (especially not long-distance calls) from people I don't know, or who don't provide me a detailed rationale for my doing so. You can leave messages from now until the next ice age, and I'm not calling you back.

Stop wasting your employer's time and money.

Find other fish to fry.

As I was going up the stair
I saw a man who wasn't there;
He wasn’t there again today --
Oh, how I wish he'd go away!

-- from "Antigonish" by William Hughes Mearns

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Just another Friday the 13th

Did we really need a remake of Friday the 13th?

I mean, the past three decades have foisted umpty-zillion (okay, ten) sequels to that pitiful chapter in Kevin Bacon's résumé on the movie-going public. Now, New Line Pictures is remaking the original?

If the new flick is successful, will New Line remake each of the sequels too? Will we see fresh takes on such cinematic classics as Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, and the ever-popular Freddy vs. Jason?

Heaven help us.

Or perhaps that's the wrong phrase.

At any rate, the incessant commercials for the updated Friday the 13th put me in mind of the only facet of the Friday the 13th franchise worthy of revisiting...

Friday the 13th, The Series.

Those of you sufficiently long of tooth to have experienced the 1980s firsthand (and you know who you are) may recall this minor trifle of syndicated television history, which aired for three seasons beginning in 1987. Interestingly, Friday the 13th, The Series had nothing whatsoever to do with Jason Voorhees of hockey mask fame. Aside from the common title, the only connection between the film franchise and the TV series was the producer behind both: the semi-legendary Frank Mancuso, Jr.

When first he decided to bring his horror stylings to the idiot box, Mancuso, Jr. didn't intend to call his latest venture Friday the 13th. With partner Larry B. Williams, Mancuso developed the show under the title The 13th Hour. At some point before the series hit the airwaves, however, Mancuso decided (doubtless with a nudge from Paramount Pictures, which distributed the first several Friday the 13th movies) that it would be a shame to waste all that built-in branding, and thus Friday the 13th, The Series was born.

The show's plot revolved around the adventures of cousins Micki (erstwhile model and pop singer wannabe Louise Robey, billed only by her last name here) and Ryan (John D. LeMay, who would complete the circle by starring in Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday), who inherit their late uncle's antique shop. They soon discover that their uncle had sold his soul to the devil, and all of the objets d'art in the shop bore a Satanic curse. Micki and Ryan, aided by a magician and occultist named Jack, make it their mission to round up all of the already-sold curios before supernatural disaster befalls the people who now own these accursed items.

Needless to say, this mission often fails. Because, after all, horrific consequences are what Friday the 13th is all about.

And in truth, the events instigated by the bedeviled antiques were about as gruesome as anything on television prior to the advent of CSI and its spinoffs. With only a handful of exceptions, the people who came into contact with the haunted articles in each week's episode met grisly ends. (Because the show ran in syndication rather than on network broadcast, and was typically shown in the late-night, post-primetime hours, Mancuso and company were granted almost cable-like leeway to display graphic violence.) Even the show's protagonists were not immune: Ryan was written out of the series at the beginning of the third season, when he is de-aged into a young boy by one of the store's wares.

Although shot in Canada on a limited budget, Friday the 13th: The Series offered consistent entertainment for horror and fantasy fanatics. Familiar C-level character actors occasionally turned up as guest stars, and such talented directors as David (The Fly) Cronenberg and Atom (The Sweet Hereafter) Egoyan directed episodes.

Friday the 13th: The Series still turns up on cable and independent stations now and again, and I'm sure it's available on DVD. (These days, what isn't?) Fans of the current CW series Supernatural, which bears certain superficial resemblances, would probably enjoy checking it out.

It's got to be better than yet another Jason movie.

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Thursday, February 05, 2009

I've been to paradise, but I've never been to me
LogoThere are
people with my name in the U.S.A.

How many have your name?

So much for uniqueness.

To clarify this abominable situation just a smidge...

I'm not:
  • The mortgage broker. (Trust me — you don't want me handling your money.)

  • The insurance executive. (See above.)

  • The professional poker player. (I play, but only in online tournaments, and never for high stakes.)

  • The convicted felon with an Islamic alias. (When I need a pseudonym, I prefer to masquerade as a Zoroastrian.)

  • The college professor and gay rights activist. (I only swing from the opposite side of the plate.)

  • The guy at Veterans Affairs. (My adoptive father is a veteran. His affairs are his own business.)

  • The fraternity brother. (I lived in Greece, but I was never a Greek.)
I am:
  • The copywriter and editor.

  • The voiceover artist.

  • The comic art collector.

  • The movie reviewer.

  • The a cappella singer.

  • The preacher.

  • The Jeopardy! guy.

  • The blogger.
And I think I've got more Google hits than any of the other 86 versions. (Which is as it should be, in a just universe.) So most of the time, if you go looking for me, you'll probably find me.

The real, honest-to-Swan me.

I hope that's clear, now.

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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Is that a gorilla suit, or are you just hairy to see me?

As the first month of another year draws to a close, we're doing what we always do here at SSTOL on this noteworthy occasion...

We're suiting up, baby.

Instituted by the late, great Don Martin, MAD Magazine's MADdest Artist, National Gorilla Suit Day reminds us each January 31 not to take life so darned seriously.

I'm cuing up Trading Places even as I type.

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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What's Up With That? #70: Doctor Wu and the Royal Scam

Until I was in my early 40s, I never took maintenance medication of any kind.

Now, I swallow enough junk every day to cover my pharmacist's greens fees.

I think it's a racket.

I take two different medications to control my blood glucose level — one every morning, the other twice every day with meals.

Here's the weird thing about that. Every time I have blood work done, my A1c — I forget what the abbreviation stands for, but it's a measure of long-term glucose levels — is well into the normal range.

My nurse practitioner says that means the medication is doing its job.

But how does she know that it doesn't mean that I don't actually have a blood glucose problem, and therefore don't need the medication?

I smell a scam.

I now take three different medications to regulate my blood pressure. My doctor added another one after my most recent checkup.

My wife has metastatic breast cancer. My only child is leaving for university this fall. I'm trying to start a new career direction at age 47. I'm a self-employed small businessperson in a lousy economy.

Maybe there's a reason why I have high blood pressure.

Another scam.

In addition to the prescription drugs, I take a multivitamin, an aspirin, and — this was another recommendation from the last exam — a fish oil capsule. That last is supposed to keep my Omega-3 up.

I didn't even know I had an Omega-3. I don't wear a watch.

Scam number three.

And we wonder why health care is so doggoned expensive.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Gung hay fat (as an Ox) choy!

Welcome to the Year of the Ox, as our Chinese friends put it.

This is supposed to be a good year for me, given that I was born during a previous Ox cycle. (Not that I lend any credence to that sort of thing, mind you. These days, however, I'll accept all of the positive juju I can get.)

As an Ox, I'm supposed to be patient, dependable, methodical, and hardworking. Oxen are also said to be beautiful of face, and fond of children.

That ought to tell you how bogus this astrology stuff is.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Jonesing for Obama

One further thought...

As I'm watching and reading the inauguration coverage, political bloggers and reporters keep referring to Obama as a "Baby Boomer." Although that's technically correct — the traditional cutoff for the post-World War II Baby Boom is 1964— as Obama's immediate peer (we both were born in 1961; he's a few months older than I), I don't think it's sociologically accurate.

Those of us born in the late 1950s and early 1960s better fit the description of "Generation Jones," as defined by pop culture savant Jonathan Pontell. We have far more in common with today's young adults, a.k.a. Generation X, than we do with the more conservative Boomers who arrived in the decade before us.

Like our younger colleagues, we Jonesers tend to be more liberal politically, more tolerant socially, and more savvy technologically than our Boomer elders. (Obama's infamous Blackberry is an excellent illustration of this latter point.)

We mark a striking transition between the children of WWII veterans — the generation that voted Ronald Reagan and both Bushes into office (as well as Bill Clinton, who ran as a conservative Democrat) — and the enthusiastic youth who helped sweep our new President into the White House.

It's an important distinction to make, I think.

Our generation elected Barack Obama. The Baby Boomers would have elected John McCain.

So let's call Obama, not the last President of the Baby Boom generation, but the first President born of Generation Jones.

Now, my fellow Jonesers, let's go change the world.

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Marshaling my thoughts in the wake of President Obama's inauguration...
  • Ironic, in a way, that I was in my minivan returning home from taking my daughter to class at the local junior college (her car is still in the shop after she was rear-ended two weeks ago) as Obama took the oath of office. History is made... but everyday life goes on.

  • Memo to Chief Justice John Roberts: For pity's sake, man, memorize the Presidential oath. And if you can't memorize it, write it down.

  • As stately and majestic a President as Obama makes, Michelle is every inch as stately and majestic a First Lady. They both chose well.

  • Glad as I am to see Bush 43 leave office, it's a touching moment watching him and the former First Lady board that Marine helicopter for the final time. Bush was among our worst Presidents ever, but he was still our President.

  • I'd describe Obama's speech as soberingly electric. He clearly understands the gravity of his new office.

  • Obama also made clear the distinction between his incoming administration and that of his predecessor: "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." Cut to Bush squirming in his seat.

  • I love the fact that Obama didn't run from anything in his speech: not the challenges ahead, not the mistakes of the past, not the darkness of racism, not even his own middle name — which he used in taking the oath.

  • They should commission Maya Angelou to write the inaugural poem every four years. No disrespect to the writer who composed today's poem, but... she's no Maya Angelou.

  • I was surprised that Dianne Feinstein blew off the Constitutional deadline for the new President's swearing-in, in favor of Yo-Yo Ma and Yitzhak Perlman playing John Williams. But when in doubt, go to the arts.

  • How fitting that Dick Cheney gets trundled out of office in a wheelchair, given everything he's done to cripple the country while he's been Vice President.

  • I'm reminded of that old Peugeot commercial with tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis showing off his new car to his unimpressed father. "Is a nice Peugeot, Vitas," said the elder Gerulaitis after his son finished extolling the virtues of his ride. "Now when you are getting a haircut?" In that same spirit: It's a nice inauguration, Mr. President. Now it's time to get a haircut, metaphorically speaking.

  • Yet, at the same time... what a spectacular, enthralling, glorious moment for our nation, and indeed, for our planet. America is indeed ready to lead once more.

  • You go, 44.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

So long, Stacey's

Sad, but not shocking, news in today's Chronicle: Stacey's Bookstore, a landmark on downtown San Francisco's Market Street for 85 years, is closing its doors.

When I was an undergrad at San Francisco State a quarter-century (egads!) ago, my schedule often included large gaps between morning and late afternoon or evening classes, or between classes and my work shift at the campus convenience store. I would frequently hop the Muni Metro M-Line into downtown to pass the time. Stacey's was among my favorite hangouts. It's kind of depressing to see it go.

That leads me to another thought, however...

I don't understand how bookstores survive at all, these days.

Now, I say that as a person who's been a voracious reader for well over 40 years, and who loves books and the retailers who sell them. I've been known to while away hundreds of blissful hours merely browsing the stacks in bookstores.

But seriously, with the advent of Amazon and eBay, I rarely buy books in a brick-and-mortar bookstore anymore. Why would I, when I can get anything I can find in a local store — along with a limitless number of titles that I'd never find in a store — online, almost invariably at a price considerably less than I'd pay if I drove to the store to buy? Most of the time, I can combine a couple of purchases to get free shipping, and within a few days the books get delivered right to my door.

Does that suck for bookstores and the people who work in them? Yes, it does.

Is it my personal responsibility to keep bookstores in business? No, it isn't.

I know how that sounds, but it's economic reality. I have only so much money. Where I can save a buck or three, I have a fiscal responsibility to my family to do so. That's why I fill up at Costco instead of at a locally owned gas station that's a few blocks closer to my house, but that consistently charges about ten cents per gallon more than Costco does. Those dimes add up.

Someone may argue that there's a greater good in supporting local small businesses beyond shopping for price. That's as may be. If I had unlimited financial resources, I might be willing to shoulder that greater good. But I have a family to feed, and bills to pay, and my own small business to run. That's the only greater good about which I can afford to be concerned.

I mourn for brick-and-mortar bookstores. In any business, however — my own included — if you can't compete, you die.

If you're going to charge more for a product, you need a seductive reason — it's a talent-based product, say, and your talent is superior to (or merely better suited to the job than) someone else's. For example, a restaurant may get away with charging higher prices if its food is qualitatively better than the food at the joint down the street.

For a static commodity, the quality of which is irrelevant to the source — a book, to get back to our original point — the competition points are convenience and price. If Amazon will send it to my house, thus saving me time and fossil fuel, and simultaneously save me 20%, it's not even a question. Unless I absolutely have to read the book today, and I can't remember the last time that need arose.

It isn't pretty. But then, life rarely is.

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Gimme dat wine

It's true — you really can find just about anything on the Internet.

Had I doubted this truism, the presence of not one, but two Web sites devoted to the cheap, alcohol-fortified wines favored by Skid Row denizens — the folks we used to call "winos" back in the day — would convince me.

Bum Wine — you really can't get less politically correct than that — focuses its attention on "the Big Five" wines targeting the habitual drunkard: Cisco, MD 20/20, Night Train, Wild Irish Rose, and the legendary Thunderbird. The site couples hilarious commentary ("If you like to smell your hand after pumping gas, look no further than Thunderbird") with the results of decidedly unscientific tests ("Some of our researchers indicated that [Night Train] gave them a NyQuil-like drowsiness, and perhaps this is why they put 'night' in the name").

Among the evaluative information to be found at Bum Wine: Thunderbird is the worst tasting of the Big Five, but Cisco (a product of which I was heretofore blissfully unaware) is to be preferred for its intoxicating qualities. MD 20/20 — or "Mad Dog," as it's known in certain circles — generates the highest degree of internal warmth for the consumer.

The writing style at Bum Wine reminds me of Las Vegas on 25 Cents a Day, a terrific place to get unvarnished information about the absolute cheapest eats, lodging, and entertainment in America's favorite vacation destination. I'm reasonably certain that the two sites are unrelated, however.

In case Bum Wine is just a mite too refined for your tastes, there's Ghetto Wine, which mostly forgoes the witty commentary in favor of a photographic record of the Big Five, as well as past and present products of similar ilk — including Fred Sanford's beloved Ripple. (Children of the '70s will recall that Fred recommended a mixture of ginger ale and Ripple, a concoction he dubbed "Champipple.")

Being a teetotaler myself, I can't attest to the veracity of the data on either of these sites. I'm also a bit incredulous that the folks most inclined toward the consumption of fortified wines conduct their market research online.

I do, however, recall a summer job during my high school days, when I was employed as a stock clerk at a gas station mini-mart. One of my chief responsibilities was replenishing the refrigerated case in which the beer and wine were displayed. Our tiny shop did a land-office business in T-Bird (along with slightly less toxic, but equally cheap, potions such as Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill and Annie Green Springs Country Cherry) that summer.

I can't shake the feeling that somewhere in the Great Beyond, Fred Sanford is raising a paper cup of Champipple in salute.

As the venerable radio jingle used to trumpet: "What's the word? Thunderbird!"

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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Class of '08

I've always wanted to do one of those year-end retrospective posts that are so popular in this here blogosphere, but I'm too darned lazy to go back and read every post I wrote during the past twelve months, just to find the ones I liked the best.

That is, I used to be too darned lazy.

I made it easier on myself by not writing hardly at all during the entire month of July. In those times when I was keeping abreast of my bloggery duty, I spun the following gems.Happy New Year, friend reader. Thank you for hanging out here throughout 2008. Let's hope 2009 is a better year for all of us.

Well, except for that Obama thing.

Because that couldn't get much better, really.

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Praise the Lord, and pass the balut

As I write this post, I'm watching a rerun of Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel.

In case you're unfamiliar with this delightful program, allow me to enlighten you. In every episode, chef Andrew Zimmern journeys to some foreign land (although a handful of shows have been filmed in various parts of the U.S.), finds the weirdest stuff that's being eaten by the local folk, and eats it.

And trust me, there's a lot of weird stuff being consumed on this big blue marble. Hence, Bizarre Foods.

In the episode I'm viewing, Andrew is in the Philippines. Longtime SSTOL readers will recall that I spent a chunk of my youth — two years, to be precise, from October 1973 through October 1975 — in that east Asian archipelago. Seeing this program brings back memories of places I visited, such as the cities of Manila and Pampanga, as well as the Filipino people.

And yes, things I ate.

As Andrew discovered, one of the popular cultural delicacies of the Philippines is balut, a common breakfast food and snack. Balut is a fertilized chicken or duck egg, with a partially developed embryo still inside the shell.

I know, I know. Just hang in there with me.

The eggs are boiled on the 18th day following fertilization — I'm not sure what the difference would be if you cooked one on the 17th or 19th day, but that just isn't done — then sold whole in the shell. The diner cracks open one end of the shell, slurps out the juice, then peels off the shell and consumes the baby fowl — eyes, beak, feet and all.

Now to Westerners like you and me, balut definitely sounds like the least acquirable of acquired tastes. In the Philippines, however, balut is comfort food, like your mom's meat loaf or macaroni and cheese.

When we first arrived in the country, we lived outside the confines of Clark Air Base in Angeles City. Bright and early every morning just at sunup, a fellow would come strolling down our street carrying two buckets full of steaming hot balut suspended from a stick slung across his shoulders. The neighborhood people would stream out of their homes at the call of "Ba-looooot! Ba-looooot!" Breakfast was served.

Now, I consider myself a fairly adventurous eater. I'm no Andrew Zimmern, mind you, but I'll sample almost anything once. I drew the line at balut. I feel certain that line has not moved in 30-plus years.

It's worth mentioning that balut is not characteristic of Filipino food in general, most of which is not bizarre in any respect, and is actually quite tasty. If you're serving up a banquet of sinigang, chicken adobo, pork mechado, pancit with shrimp, and fried lumpia, save me a chair.

I'll leave the balut to Andrew Zimmern.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Reindeer on my rooftop

If I were jolly old Kris Kringle (and not just a guy shaped like him), and had a bottomless bag filled with infinite magic, I'd give everyone what they really want for Christmas...
  • For President-elect Obama: Wisdom and patience. And especially, the patience to wait for wisdom.

  • For Rhodester, Sean, and millions like them: New jobs.

  • For Damon: Completion and delivery of a certain long-overdue art commission.

  • For Bob Almond: Tired brushes.

  • For Alicia: A new lower 48.

  • For Shelby: Sunbeams and rainbows, and a lifetime to chase them.

  • For Donna: Italian dinner.

  • For Shelli: Peanut butter.

  • For Eugene: The head of Charles I.

  • For Bruce Bochy: Two young studs who can hit both for average and power, at least one of whom plays first base.

  • For Mike Singletary: A shredder for his "interim" tag.

  • For Don Nelson: A one-way ticket to Maui.

  • For Dr. Greg Lyne: Another gold medal before retirement. Maybe two.

  • For Chelle: A new dog.

  • For Janet: Anything but a new dog.

  • For Sank: A shot at being Supreme Bodacious Armadillo, or whatever it is that they call the head guy in his Masonic lodge.

  • For The Real Sam Johnson: A new kidney.

  • For Ferrett: A case of those disgusting Jones Sodas. For him, that's actually a good thing.

  • For all of my voiceover buds: A case of Throat Coat tea.

  • For KM: A real live horse of her own, and the wherewithal to feed, stable, and ride it for the next 20 years.

  • For KJ, and for Maria, and for Sonja, and for everyone else in the world who desperately needs it: A cure.
Sad to say, I am not Santa Claus. Nor was meant to be.

The only gift I can give you all is this...

I love you.

Merry Christmas.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Santa's little helper

Still struggling to come up with that last-second Christmas present?

Have a stocking or two yet lacking a bit of stuffing?

Can't figure out what to give the man or woman who has everything?

Is that what's bothering you, bunkie?

Just remember this simple three-word phrase, and all will be well:

Everyone loves Money.

Your Uncle Swan included.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

I can't drive 35

Our back yard is separated by a fence, some shrubbery, and a sidewalk from Rohnert Park Expressway, our fair city's primary east-west traffic artery.

Since the dawn of time — or at least, since I first moved here in 1977 — the speed limit on Expressway has been 35 miles per hour. This has been a source of undying frustration for many of us who live here, because (a) practically no one drives 35 on Expressway, and (b) there's no sound reason to do so — it's a four-lane divided thoroughfare with no direct residential frontage.

Wonder of wonders: Sometime in the last week, the speed limit changed to 40.

From what I've been able to determine through research, the city finally succumbed to a federal statute that prohibits municipalities from setting unreasonably low speed limits in order to create speed traps. That has definitely been the case on Expressway, where a driveway into the main police station is a frequent hideout for officers armed with radar scopes.

A survey indicated that more than 85% of the traffic on Expressway traveled in excess of the posted 35 — which, under the aforementioned law, demonstrates that the speed limit is lower than necessary. In order not to lose federal transportation funds, the City of Rohnert Park was obligated to revisit the speed limit on Expressway, and revise it upward.

So, up to 40 it went.

Personally, I think a limit of 45 might have made even better sense. But I'll gratefully accept the extra five miles per hour.

Of course, the city found a way to make up at least some portion of the difference. The eastern end of Expressway, which travels out of the residential area into undeveloped space behind Sonoma State University, has always been unsigned, meaning that the legal limit was a default 55.

It's now posted at 45.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

So bubalah, save the last levivah for me

Here's a warm wish for a joy-filled Hanukkah for all of my Jewish friends and blogosphere buds (you know who you are — if I start rattling off names, I'll be in trouble with the one person I forget), as they begin celebrating the Festival of Lights this evening at sunset.

May your menorah burn brightly, and surround you and your family with the light of love and life.

It would be a real mitzvah if you kept the blintzes warm for your goyische brother until I get there. And don't bogart all the cherries.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Five questions

If you stop by here frequently, you may have noticed that I rarely do memes. In 1,600 posts over four and a half years, I think I've done maybe three.

Let's make it four.

Adam Avitable posted his version of "Five Questions" shortly before Thanksgiving. The idea of the meme is this: Someone asks you five questions of his or her choosing. As the participant, you agree to answer the five questions on your own blog (with a link back to your interviewer). In turn, you offer to create a unique five-part questionnaire for another volunteer or group of volunteers. Adam collected more than 50 willing interview subjects, of which I am one.

So, off we go.

1. Where did the name SwanShadow come from, and did anyone suggest that it's a bit of a feminine name?

That's really two questions, but in for a penny, in for a pound.

My official SwanShadow story goes like this: As a freelance copywriter and editor, I work in anonymity. When I write ad copy or sales letters or radio spots or any of the other folderol I'm paid to create, I rarely get a byline or credit. Indeed, I often work for clients who prefer that I don't acknowledge, even on my own site, that I'm the person who does their writing, or the writing for the companies they represent. Thus, I work in the shadows. It's my job to take other people's ugly-duckling brands, concepts, and sales prose, and transform them into beautiful swans.

The truth, however, is that I created the SwanShadow handle years before I hung out my freelance shingle. Its true significance is known only to me.

But the other thing's my official story, and as far as the public is concerned, I'm sticking to it.

As for the femininity angle, I get that on rare occasion — most often from other players at online poker tables. I must confess that it never occurred to me before I started using the name.

I don't think of swans as female, particularly, if I think of them in terms of gender at all. In Greek mythology, Zeus took the form of a swan when he impregnated Leda (whether by force or by seduction depends on whose version of the myth you believe). The title character in Hans Christian Andersen's The Ugly Duckling — which inspired my "official" explanation — is also male. Then again, Odette in Swan Lake is a princess.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

2. Marvel or DC? Corollary: Who's your favorite artist?

Again with the two-fer! Curse you, Avitable!

When I was a comics-reading kid growing up, it was definitely Marvel. I read just about everything DC published, of course, when my friends weren't looking. But if I had to choose up sides, I was a Marvelite to the core. I belonged to both of Marvel's official fan clubs, the Merry Marvel Marching Society and its successor, FOOM (Friends of Ol' Marvel). Marvel's heroes were the ones I identified with most closely, and that I cared the most about.

These days, my reading list is much closer to 50-50. I think of it this way: I read Marvel for its connection to my history, and DC for its present reality.

My favorite artist depends on the period:
  • Golden Age: Matt Baker (Phantom Lady), Lou Fine (The Ray), Mac Raboy (Captain Marvel Jr.), and Lee Elias (The Black Cat).
  • Silver Age: John Buscema (Thor, Conan), John Romita Sr. (Amazing Spider-Man), and Jim Aparo (The Brave and the Bold).
  • Bronze Age: Barry Windsor-Smith (Conan) and Keith Pollard (pretty much everything at Marvel).
  • Modern Age: George Pérez (Wonder Woman), Adam Hughes (Wonder Woman, again), Mark Schultz (Xenozoic Tales, a.k.a. Cadillacs and Dinosaurs), and the recently departed Dave Stevens (The Rocketeer) and Mike Wieringo (Fantastic Four).
But if I had to pick one artist from all of comics history? That's easy — Will Eisner.

3. What's your favorite writing achievement?

I'm tempted to say this blog, because so much of my heart and soul lies bare on these virtual pages.

But instead, I'm going to point to the 146 film and television reviews I wrote for DVD Verdict during my five years as a staff member there. It was mentally and creatively challenging work, and I enjoyed it thoroughly — even when reviewing Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme flicks that were so wretched, I could feel my brain cells decaying as I watched them.

If there were unlimited hours in the day and my body never required sleep, I'd still be writing for the Verdict.

4. Do you think that blogging is just lazy writing?

Perish the thought. No writing is lazy writing. Lazy writers don't write.

I will admit to being frustrated with writers — bloggers and otherwise — who don't take every opportunity to write as well as they can. If you're going to write at all, even if it's "just a blog," why not give it your best effort? Use and spell words correctly. Write coherently, and mostly in complete sentences. Share original thoughts, at least to the degree that any thought is "original," rather than simply parroting what you've read elsewhere.

Life's too short to write badly.

But it's especially too short not to write at all.

5. Is Alex Trebek really as obnoxious in person as he seems on TV?

If I had an FAQ on this blog, this question would be on it. Heck, if I had an FAQ for my life, this question would be on it.

Although I've played eleven games on Jeopardy! and its associated tournaments during the past 20 years, I don't really know Alex Trebek. With a single exception I will address in a moment, all of my interaction with Alex has been on the set of Jeopardy! during the course of game play or the post-program chat that takes place while the show's credits roll. Alex has always been polite and personable toward me in those circumstances. (Though he did call me by another contestant's name when I won my quarter-final game in the 1988 Tournament of Champions. I've long since forgiven him for that faux pas. Sort of.)

When I was first on the show in '88, Alex was not only the host of Jeopardy!, but was also the show's producer. Back then, he had numerous other responsibilities on taping days besides just running the game on camera. In the years since he gave up the producer's job (which has been assayed ever since by the guy who used to be Alex's assistant, a model of level-headed efficiency named Rocky Schmidt), Alex has appeared more relaxed, and less harried and abrupt, when I've been on the set.

Or maybe he's just matured as he's aged.

The one occasion I've been around Alex off-camera was in 1997, when I participated in a special one-game Jeopardy! event called Battle of the Bay Area Brains. My wife, daughter, and I were invited to a reception following the taping. Alex took time to be both congenial and kind to my then-eight-year-old daughter, and signed several autographs for her.

I guess the short answer (if it's not already too late for that) is that Alex has always been fine with me. Mrs. Trebek may tell an entirely different tale.

Those are my five questions. If you're a regular here — or even if you're just a-passin' through — and would like me to interview you, here's the official "Five Questions" boilerplate:
Want to be part of it? Follow these instructions:
1. Leave me a comment saying, "Interview me."
2. I will respond by e-mailing you five questions. I get to pick the questions.
3. You will update your blog with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.
In the spirit of Mr. Avitable, I'll interview as many of you as volunteer. (I can make that commitment safely, knowing that I'm nowhere near as popular as Adam is.)

Thanks to Avitable for the excellent questions!

Even if there really were seven.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

What's Up With That? #68: Unkempt afterwards

This struck me as a rather peculiar news item.

Sean Avery, a player with the National Hockey Association's Dallas Stars, made the following statement to a group of reporters covering the Stars' game earlier this week against the Calgary Flames:
I am really happy to be back in Calgary. I love Canada. I just want to comment on how it's become like a common thing in the NHL for guys to fall in love with my sloppy seconds. I don't know what that's about. Enjoy the game tonight.
As the sporting press dutifully acknowledged, Avery's ex-girlfriend, actress (and as an ardent fan of 24, I'm using that word with extreme accommodation) Elisha Cuthbert, is dating a Flames defenseman named Dion Phaneuf.

Apparently, Avery disapproves.

But perhaps not as much as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman disapproves of Avery's choice of metaphor. Bettman suspended Avery indefinitely for "inappropriate public comments."

Now, this seems weird to me on several levels. Allow me to elucidate.

When I first heard about Avery's indiscretion, the news account simply stated the charge, without publishing Avery's exact words. I presumed that he had used one of the two four-letter Anglo-Saxonisms for the female reproductive anatomy (let's call them the "C" word and the "T" word) in reference to Ms. Cuthbert. I was taken aback somewhat when I learned what term he'd actually used.

Is "sloppy seconds" profane? Crude, yes. Uncomplimentary, without question — though I think I may have used stronger terminology to critique Ms. Cuthbert's acting talents (or utter lack of same) on at least one or two occasions. (All right, you've got me — every week for the first three seasons of 24.)

But a chargeable offense? Seems extreme to me.

Unlike the "C" and "T" words, however, I'm fairly certain that you could use the expression "sloppy seconds" on primetime network television. (Not that you should. I'm just saying.) It was the title of a Dr. Hook album way back in 1972, for crying out loud. If you could put it on the cover of a pop album (not to mention the cover of the Rolling Stone) 36 years ago, I'm sure you could probably get away with it on Two and a Half Men today. (If anyone would know about "sloppy seconds," it would have to be Charlie Sheen.)

I was also puzzled by the fact that Avery tossed this remark off (no pun intended) in an interview with journalists in a locker room. (Do they call it a locker room in hockey, or is it a clubhouse? Not sure. Not caring. Moving on...) Was this really the first thing Sean could think of to say when confronted with a battery of microphones? Whatever happened to, "We've gotta play 'em one game at a time... the guys are really pulling together... that's the way the puck slides sometimes... sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes the Zamboni breaks down"? Did this man never see Bull Durham? Crash Davis to the Stars' locker room, please.

For that matter, why are there reporters in a hockey locker room, interviewing players? Does anyone care what hockey players have to say? I mean, the Sharks might be the best team in the NHL right now, and you don't hear Joe Thornton or Jonathan Cheechoo babbling inanities about their ex-girlfriends — or anything else — on the local sports talk station. We know how to keep our Canadians under control here in the Bay Area.

And one other odd thing...

There's an ice hockey team in Dallas?

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

I'm the third monkey

I just received this bulletin from KCBS News Radio via Twitter:
BREAKING NEWS: School for the blind and deaf in Fremont is on lockdown right now while police search for armed suspects in the area.
My first reaction to this headline: I wonder whether the police are asking the students, "Did anyone see or hear anything?"

Does this make me a bad person?

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Gratitude Times Five

I can scarcely believe this is the fifth edition of our annual alphabetical outpouring of TurkeyFest appreciation here at SSTOL. There were moments when we didn't think we'd live to see this day. But here we are, on the fourth Thursday of another cool, misty Wine Country November, celebrating the kindnesses that the good grace of the Almighty has brought us since last we tallied. Let's launch into this year's 26 nuggets of thankfulness, what say?

America's Test Kitchen
. Thanks to bow-tied Christopher Kimball and his charming, cheerful staff of foodies, I can pretend that I actually know how to cook.

Bombshells!, my gallery of Golden Age superheroines masquerading as vintage bomber nose art pinup girls. Thanks to all of the artists who created new Bombshells! for me this year: Dan Veesenmeyer, Gene Gonzales, Anthony Carpenter, Terry Beatty, Jeffrey Moy, and my friend Bob Almond.

ClubUBT, the online poker and blackjack room where I'm exercising my cardplaying muscles these days. It'll still be legal after the dimwits in Congress ban every other avenue.

Dr. Greg Lyne, the man who teaches me — and 90 of my close personal friends — how to make music every Tuesday night. You're the Man, Maestro.

Ethiopia Sidamo. That's some mighty fine coffee there, Starbucks.

Friday Night Stand-Up. There's no more hilarious way to kick off the weekend than with Comedy Central's mini-marathon of funny men and women shocking the microphone.

Girls — specifically mine, KJ and KM. They make the universe a better place just by being in it. That goes for my adopted niece Shelby, too.

My Heavenly Father, who daily provides more blessings than I can list.

International Orange, the color of the paint adorning my favorite man-made marvel, the Golden Gate Bridge. Driving across it is wicked cool, even after all these years.

Judge shows. Here's to the black-robed arbiters of justice who provide us with so much entertainment, sage wisdom, and gratis legal counsel: Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Marilyn Milian, Judge Alex, Judge Greg Mathis, Judge Hatchett (sorry you got canceled, Your Honor), Judge Christina, Judge Penny, Judge Karen, and Judge David Young. You all rock.

Kirkland, the house brand of Costco, the home of conspicuous consumption. I need twenty of something, and I need it right now.

LinCYcum. You're the baddest pitcher in the National League, Timmy. Don't go changing.

Meat Loaf. Because some days, nothing gets me through the madness like Marvin Lee Aday, roaring at maximum volume in all his sweaty, bombastic, Wagnerian, Jim Steinman-produced glory. What's for dinner? Meat Loaf.

Nashville, Tennessee, where Voices in Harmony and I spent a week enjoying Southern hospitality, and from which we brought home third place International bronze medals. Thanks, y'all.

Obama. That doesn't even need commentary.

Parker, Robert B. My favorite author. There's a new Spenser paperback on my desk, which I plan to dive into today.

Quantum of Solace. Not quite up to the incredible level of Casino Royale, but still pretty cool. Can it really be a bad year when we get a new Bond film?

Raley's, our local supermarket. We've shopped there for the past 20 years. We're on a first-name basis with most of the staff. We probably know the merchandise better than some of the employees.

Sushi. Tiny little rice-clouds of culinary heaven. My favorites: tako, unagi, ebi, hamachi, and good toro, when I can get it.

Time. I believe it was Augustine who said, "What is time? If no man asks me, I know; but if any man asks, clearly I know not."

United Health Care. As big a pain in the tuchus as they have been to deal with — and they have been a colossal pain — I'm glad they've paid for everything they've paid for. I don't know how we would have.

Voicetrax San Francisco (which is actually in Sausalito... but then, San Francisco International Airport is in San Bruno, so I guess it works), where I'm learning the fine art of voice acting from some of the most talented folks in the industry. Thanks to all of the coaches who hammered knowledge into my cranium this year: Chuck Kourouklis, Frank Coppola, Thom Pinto, Lisa Baney, and the amazing Samantha Paris. And a special thanks to Shirley the office manager, for figuring out why I belonged there.

Wonder Woman. Princess Diana of Themyscira rules.

Xander Berkeley, that fine American character actor who lends class to every film and TV show in which he appears. You may not recognize his name, but I guarantee that you know his face.

Yahoo! I'm glad I didn't own any of their stock, though.

Zorro. Johnston McCulley's masked hero resurfaced this year in a terrific comic book series from Dynamite Entertainment, written by Matt Wagner and drawn by Francesco Francavilla. Great read.

I'm thankful, friend reader, for your time, your attention, and your comments and e-mails throughout the year. May you and your loved ones — or someone else's loved ones if you don't have your own — find much for which to be grateful on this day of gratitude.

Slather an extra ladle of gravy on your turkey and stuffing. Tell your cardiologist that your Uncle Swan said it's okay.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Six degrees of me

Yesterday, I was reading the obituaries on the local newspaper's Web site. (I check the funeral notices frequently, just to be sure I'm not listed in them.) Included was mention of the passing of a man whom I did not know personally, but whose younger sister and I were in the same high school graduating class 30 years ago.

When I pointed this out to my wife, KJ told me that this man's sister-in-law works in her office.

My daughter KM, hearing our conversation, observed that the man's son is her classmate at the junior college.

What are the odds that one random individual whom none of us ever met would have a different line of direct connection to each member of my family?

Four centuries ago — give or take a decade or so — John Donne wrote:
No man is an island, entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
As well as if promontory were,
As well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were.
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Or, as Uncle Walt told us so many times...

It's a small world after all.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Another year, another injustice

Once again, People Magazine has stubbornly refused to acknowledge my animal magnetism by naming me the Sexiest Man Alive.

Apparently, animal magnetism counts, though, because this year's honoree is Wolverine.

Excuse me while I go sharpen my claws, and work on my Australian accent.

If the folks from Sexiest Middle-Aged Fat Guy Alive call while I'm out, take a message.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

"Unwrap the Holidays" on Saturday, November 29

So, there you sit, planning your post-Thanksgiving weekend assault on your friendly neighborhood megamall, and you're thinking...

Okay, I've got Black Friday covered. But what am I going to do with myself on Saturday?

Have I got an idea for you, bunkie!

If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, anyway.

Voices in Harmony, Northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus, is hosting its annual holiday music spectacular on Saturday, November 29, at the historic California Theatre in beautiful downtown San Jose. It's a 3 p.m. matinee concert, so you'll have plenty of time to hit the morning sales before the show and the nightlife afterward. Is that strategic, or what?

In addition to VIH, you'll enjoy the scintillating sounds of our sister chorus, Pride of the Pacific, and the crowd-pleasing male quartet Late Show. It's more entertainment than any one afternoon should offer, quite frankly, but we'll let you come because we like you. I can't think of a better way to begin the festive season — at least, not one that you could share with Grandma, Grandpa, and Cousin Fred and his new trophy wife.

You can order advance tickets via this link. At $35 for excellent seats so close to the stage you can practically feel the body heat, and a mere $25 for almost-as-excellent seats a few rows further back, this fusillade of holiday cheer would be cheap at twice the price. (If you feel obligated to pay extra, I'm positive that our treasurer will not object.)

Tell the ticket people that your Uncle Swan sent you, and you'll probably get a warm handshake and a sincere smile of Yuletide gratitude.

Incidentally, this year's concert is entitled "Unwrap the Holidays." I wonder whose brilliant idea that was...?

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

What's Up With That? #66: Design on a Dyme

This apparently happened several months ago, but I first read about it yesterday over at Rocketship of the Mind (thanks, Sean!). So it's not really news, but if I'm just now hearing about it, it's news to me, right?

My wife KJ loves watching the endless array of home improvement programs on HGTV. One of her favorite shows there is Design on a Dime, in which teams of interior decorators reinvent rooms in people's homes using a maximum budget of $1,000. (I know, they should have entitled it Design on a Grand. Don't ask me why they didn't.)

At least, KJ used to enjoy that show until a year or two ago, when several of the featured designers were replaced with newer talent whom she didn't like as well.

Now, I've come to find out that one of Design on a Dime's former stars, one-time Disney Imagineer Lee Snijders, has embarked on a new career... a purveyor of Internet pornography.

Lee and his paramour, a porn star-turned-photographer who goes by the name Jett Angel (I say "goes by the name" because I'm making the not-too-audacious leap of logic that there isn't a Mr. and Mrs. Angel somewhere in the American heartland who named their offspring Jett, thereby predestining her to a future in adult entertainment) have launched a Web portal called Goth Rock Girls, which according to a published press release, is:
an 'all-girl' punk rock porn site shot in hi-definition with a high end 'reality' format that shows the two producers as a power couple who bring these girls to life as they hold their cameras and direct the action.
Which is probably more than you wanted to know.

One can only wonder what thought process would take a guy from successful ventures in amusement park design, domicile decor, and mainstream cable television to creating... well... whatever that description was in the preceding paragraph. Fortunately, Snijders hastens to explain:
I tried to continue my relationship with HGTV by pitching them show ideas, but unfortunately they were not interested and the company did not renew my contract. I found myself auditioning for design shows with models and actors posing as designers while my competitors got their own shows on HGTV. With the housing market crash and being stereotyped as a budget designer, I stayed flexible, open minded, and moved on.
That's quite a move, all right.

I'm hoping that Lee didn't intend "flexible" as a double entendre. Then again, perhaps he did.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Maverick, meet Iceman

The incoming First Family have received their official Secret Service callsigns.

President-elect Barack Obama is known to the boys with the black suits, buttons, and bad attitudes as "Renegade." Hopefully, that's not an indication that he's a Lorenzo Lamas fan.

First Lady-elect Michelle is "Renaissance." Perhaps she enjoys anachronistic cosplay. (She'd be the first First Lady since Jackie Kennedy who could make a peasant blouse and petticoat look good.)

First Daughters-elect Malia and Sasha are "Radiance" and "Rosebud." One's a little bit Charlotte's Web; the other's a little bit Citizen Kane.

The outgoing President and First Lady depart as "Trailblazer" and "Tempo." The car names make sense, given Bush 43's petroleum industry ties and the sorry state into which American automotive corporations have plummeted during his administration. (Yes, I know that the latter is not his fault. I just enjoy kicking the guy when he's down.)

Not that it would ever be pertinent, but I've given a bit of thought to the callsign I'd want were I ever to be elected Leader of the Free World. Here are a few options I came up with:
  • Earthquake. It's where I live, and it's what I do.
  • Midnight. I'm never in bed before then.
  • Flapjacks. Have you ever seen my feet?
  • Gutshot. I'm crazy enough to draw to one when I have too few outs.
  • Snickerdoodle. Mmmm... snickerdoodles.
  • Prowler. Hobie Brown should be President, doggone it.
  • Brainiac. Unless Ken Jennings gets elected first.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

I vote for free coffee!

In our litigious world, no honorably intentioned deed goes unpunished.

Just ask the people at Starbucks.

Last week, Starbucks announced a promotion that would provide a free cup of coffee on Election Day to every customer who told the barista that he or she had voted. The company pitched the deal aggressively via viral marketing, as well as through a spot that aired on NBC's Saturday Night Live.

Then came the call from the government.

Federal law forbids offering people any form of incentive to vote. Apparently, "incentive" can be broadly construed to include a tall cup of Pike Place Roast.

Rather than incur the wrath of The Powers That Be, Starbucks has decided to make the offer of free coffee open to everyone, including nonvoters.

The good news is that now all Americans — including convicted felons on parole, and anyone too lazy, conflicted, or forgetful to have registered to vote — will be able to drop by the Sign of the Naked Fish-Tailed Lady tomorrow and slug down a tasty snootful of gratis Joe.

Make mine Biden.

Not the plumber.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Ex-Ex-List

I see that CBS has canceled The Ex-List.

This does not surprise me. Although I never watched the program — apparently, I wasn't alone — from the time that I first heard about it, The Ex-List struck me as having perhaps the most limiting premise in the history of television.

Here's the synopsis: A young woman (played by Elizabeth Reaser, whom I recall from a bizarre little film entitled Stay, which I once reviewed for DVD Verdict) visits a psychic to find out whether she will ever meet her soulmate. "You've already met him," says Madame Zenobia. "In fact, you've already dated him."

Thus, our lissome heroine is told that she has only one year to revisit all of the men with whom she has ever hooked up, trying to suss out which reject was really Mr. Right, before she misses her chance at wedded bliss forever.

Being as intelligent as you are, friend reader, I know that you have already divined the pair of inherent obstacles.

Problem the First: If you have any hope at all that your series will last longer than one season, you don't saddle it with a premise that practically screams to be canceled within twelve months.

Problem the Second: Calendar constraints aside, how many seasons could you keep this show on the air before the audience loses all sympathy with the main character?

The average network drama films 22 new episodes each season. If Ms. Ex-List has to reconnect with one former beau each week, that means she's had at least 22 partners by her early 30s (star Reaser is 33). Okay, that's doable. (No pun intended.)

But let's suppose that the producers get lucky (again, no pun intended), and the show survives for Year Two. By the end of the second season, our heroine has racked up (someone please turn off the double entendre machine!) 44 dudes worth of sexual history.

If The Powers That Be gave the series a third year, Reaser's character would be well on her way to becoming the distaff Wilt Chamberlain. CBS would have to start shrink-wrapping the DVD box sets in latex.

Better to quit while you're... oh, never mind.

Then again, how many boy-toys did Kim Cattrall's Samantha toss out of the sack like mucus-sodden Kleenex in all the years that Sex and the City was on?

I think my middle age is showing.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Caught from behind

Those of you who know me in the "real world" know that I am anything but a morning person. One of the joys of self-employment is that I rarely have to rise early, and I like that state of affairs.

When the phone rang at 7:15 this morning, I didn't have much choice.

KJ had been involved in a rear-end collision in her brand new car.

Well, jump-start my heart.

I'll get to the end of the story first: KJ's fine, aside from a few sore muscles and jangled nerves. The Subaru sustained little visually evident damage, though we'll have it examined by an auto body shop just to be certain everything's okay.

At the time of the accident, KJ had just exited the freeway to grab a bite of breakfast at McDonald's. She was waiting at the traffic signal at the end of the off-ramp when another driver, probably paying more attention to the young woman in his passenger seat than to the road ahead, failed to see the red light or the car that had stopped for it.

By the time I arrived at the scene, a member of Santa Rosa's finest had the situation well in hand. The youthful driver who struck KJ's car either had no operating license or was driving under a suspended license — it wasn't clear to me which was the truth. He did, however, appear to have current insurance on his vehicle, which may prove important. The officer didn't arrest the offender, but she did write him a summons and prohibit him from driving his car home.

KJ, while sufficiently calm and level-headed enough to have jotted down all the pertinent information and called the police, was trembling like the proverbial leaf — partly from the harrowing experience, partly from the chill morning air. I followed her the rest of the way to her office, just to be certain that she landed safely.

She never did get her Egg McMuffin.

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I know Damone

You've seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High, right?

Remember the scene when Mark Ratner finds out that his best friend Mike Damone has "done the deed" with Stacy Hamilton, on whom Rat has a serious crush?

There's that classic moment when Rat confronts Damone in the locker room:
I always stick up for you. Whenever people say, "That Damone, he's a loudmouth" — and they say that a lot — I always say, "Hey, you just don't know Damone."

When they call you an idiot, I say, "Damone's not an idiot. You just don't know him."

Well, you know something, man? Maybe they do know you pretty good. Maybe I'm just finding out now.
I think I just had that conversation with someone.

Only without the deed-doing part.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

What's Up With That? #65: Bring me the head of Drew Carey

Just when I think I've heard everything, my beloved San Francisco takes the insanity to another level.

The SFPD evacuated a Battery Street building this afternoon because a man walked into a law office with a make-believe bomb strapped to his waist.

The reason for this act of urban terrorism?

Apparently, the perpetrator was incensed because he had been turned down as a participant on The Price is Right.

No one knows what connection, if any, exists between the targeted law firm, Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP, and the popular CBS game show.

Upon hearing the news, TPIR host emeritus Bob Barker reportedly said, "This is why you should have all your rejected contestants spayed or neutered."

The yodeling mountain climber from the Cliff Hangers game could not be reached for comment.

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Ain't that a Mother's?

Tragic news today.

Mother's Cookies, the 94-year-old baking concern famed for its pink-and-white-frosted Circus Animal cookies, has ceased operations and filed for bankruptcy protection.

You'll have to excuse me...

I need a moment.

For all but the final two years of its existence, Mother's Cookies was based right here in the Bay Area — in Oakland, to be specific. In 2005, the company was sold to an East Coast investment firm, which the following year closed the Oakland facility that Mother's had occupied since 1949. The cookie-baking functions moved to Ohio, while the business office relocated to Battle Creek, Michigan. Some 230 local employees lost their jobs in the process.

In the corporate world, and especially in the current dicey economy, news like that of the Mother's Cookies bankruptcy doesn't come as a total shock. I lived through two company shutdowns myself, back when I was working for The Man every night and day. It's still sad, though, for the families who lost a paycheck. And it's sad for American culture, losing an icon that so many of us grew up with.

I sure am going to miss those Circus Animals.

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Monday, October 06, 2008

In the criminal justice system...

My daughter KM, a sophomore at the local junior college, was assigned to observe a trial for her criminal justice class. Today, she and I sojourned to the county courthouse and spent an intriguing afternoon in criminal court.

The trial we dropped in on had been in session for several days. We arrived in time to hear the final witness — which happened to be the defendant — and the closing arguments by the two contending attorneys.

Because the jurors have not, at this writing, begun to deliberate, I'll remain purposefully non-specific in describing the case. The defendant is facing three interrelated felony counts, stemming from a weapon discovered by Coast Guard officers aboard a boat the defendant owns. The defendant, who as a previously convicted felon is not permitted to possess a firearm, testified that the weapon in question belonged to a friend who had been living on the boat for a period of time. The defendant denied any knowledge of the weapon's existence until shortly before the Coast Guard arrived to rescue the two sailors during a storm at sea.

We see quite a few trials portrayed on television, both in fictional courtroom dramas such as Law & Order and in semi-documentary programming of the kind often shown on the channel that used to call itself Court TV. (It now goes by the peculiar moniker "truTV," in case you hadn't noticed.) It was interesting to see how reality differs from what we observe on the tube (TV programs edit out all of the tedious procedural folderol that happens), and surprising to see in how many ways the portrayals accurately reflect the nuances of courtroom theater.

The judge overseeing this particular case was familiar to me: I spent three days as a prospective juror in his courtroom on my last tour of jury duty. (I wasn't selected for the jury — the slots were filled before I was called to the jury box.) I didn't know either attorney, but as a citizen, I was pleased to note how creditably and efficiently both the prosecutor and the public defender represented their sides.

Based on the evidence we heard, I don't know whether the jury will find the defendant guilty or not guilty. But I feel confident that the fellow's case received a fair presentation, and that justice will be served.

That's what it's supposed to be about, isn't it?

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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

What's Up With That? #64: What, me read?

In an interview aired last evening on the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin either couldn't or wouldn't give a specific answer to Couric's question about the news sources she reads. Here's the exchange:
Couric: And when it comes to establishing your worldview, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?

Palin: I've read most of them, again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media.

Couric: What, specifically?

Palin: Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me all these years.

Can you name a few?

Palin: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news, too. Alaska isn't a foreign country, where it's kind of suggested, "Wow, how could you keep in touch with what the rest of Washington, D.C., may be thinking when you live up there in Alaska?" Believe me, Alaska is like a microcosm of America.
I'm guessing that the governor wasn't certain whether Field & Stream, Guns & Ammo, The Hockey News, and Pageantry qualified as "news sources."

In the interest of full disclosure — and in the event that I am ever called upon to serve as the Vice President of the United States — my campaign is releasing the following list of online news sources I check regularly. I don't read everything on these sites — who has that kind of time? — but I do scan all of the headlines, and read each article that seems pertinent to me.
  • SFGate, the online version of the San Francisco Chronicle, is the first site I review every day.

  • For world and national news, I read The New York Times and the network news sites, in order of preference: MSNBC, CBS News, CNN, ABC News, and FOX News.

  • For Sonoma County news, there's the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (which, continuing the full-disclosure theme, is owned by the New York Times) and our homegrown alternative weekly, the North Bay Bohemian.

  • For political updates, I'll check Politico. I don't read a lot of political blogs, but my daily review includes The Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, and yes, The Drudge Report, because everything's better with cheese.

  • For an aggregate sampling of everything — but mostly for entertainment, pop culture, and just plain bizarre news that I might never ferret out or stumble upon otherwise — I use TotalFARK, the expanded, subscription-only edition of
I'm SwanShadow, and I approve this message.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Cry, the beloved Sony

Our living room television set — the imposing 35-inch Trinitron that my good friends at Jeopardy! included in my Battle of the Bay Area Brains prize package ten years ago — has given up the ghost.

It will be replaced for the nonce by its predecessor, a 32-inch Fisher that has seen little use in the decade since it retired to the master bedroom.

The Trinitron is survived by its loving siblings — a DVD player and surround-sound system that arrived along with it. It was preceded in death by its longtime companion, a Sony VAIO notebook computer.

Memorial services are pending.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Haumea ya like me now?

This just in from the International Astronomical Union: We have a new dwarf planet, and its name is Haumea.

Okay, so it's not actually new: Haumea has been floating around out there in the Kuiper Belt since whenever the solar system began. (Let's not have that argument today.) What's new is its name, its official recognition by Earth's scientific community, and its status as the solar system's fifth (so far) dwarf planet.

Those of you who haven't been following the arcane inner workings of the IAU over the past few years may have missed the announcement that we have such entities as dwarf planets. On August 24, 2006, the IAU developed — for the first time — an official definition of the word planet. (You might suppose that one of the very first things that an astronomical society would come to grips with is the definition of planet, seeing that planets are among the primary objects that astronomers study. But you would be mistaken.)

That definition excluded the ninth and outermost of the traditionally accepted planets: Pluto, discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh of Arizona's Lowell Observatory. Pluto was reclassified as a dwarf planet under the IAU's nomenclatural system, along with Ceres — formerly called an asteroid — and Eris, the distant body identified in 2003.

Eris (originally designated 2003 UB313), being roughly one-fourth larger than Pluto, was at first viewed by some scientists as the Sun's tenth planet. Its discovery launched a debate within the astronomical community as to whether Pluto and Eris really ought to be considered planets at all. After much wrangling, the IAU adopted its new terminology, downgrading Pluto from planet to dwarf planet, along with Eris and the aforementioned Ceres.

Makemake, discovered in 2005, joined the ranks of the dwarf planets in July of this year. Like Pluto and Haumea, the diminutive Makemake (smaller even than Pluto) is located in the Kuiper Belt, a vast expanse beyond the orbit of Neptune that is home to thousands of gigantic chunks of space debris. Astronomers conjecture that the Kuiper Belt may contain between 30 and 40 additional dwarf planets — they're still looking, and will keep the rest of us posted.

As for Haumea, our newest dwarf planet boasts several features that make it unusual. It's believed to be ovoid or elliptical in shape — think of a humongous chicken egg — unlike the other known planets and dwarf planets, all of which are spherical (more or less). Haumea rotates at high speed, leading scientists to theorize that it and its two known moons, Hi'iaka and Namaka, are leftovers from a collision involving a larger object. Haumea and its moons travel a sharply inclined orbit outside the plane of the larger planets' orbits, helping to explain why an object of its size wasn't discovered earlier.

Following its discovery in December 2004, the body now called Haumea was nicknamed "Santa" by the cheeky skywatchers at Caltech who first identified it. (Its moons, in turn, were referred to in early reports as "Rudolph" and "Blitzen.") Of course, snugger sphincters at the IAU prevailed, resulting in the little celestial family being officially named after the Hawaiian fertility goddess and two of her daughters. Like bureaucrats in other fields, the IAU top-kicks demonstrate a frustrating lack of humor.

Haumea is far too small and distant to be seen with the unaided eye, so don't strain your optic nerve trying to spot it in the night sky. Just take comfort in knowing that a friendly dwarf planet and her moons are up there, somewhere, smiling down on us all.

Astrologers, on the other hand, are infuriated.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

One question

Have you ever said to yourself, "If only I could ask [insert name of noteworthy individual here] one question..."?

So have I. (I mean, I've said it to myself. Not to yourself. Clear? Moving on...)

A few of my burning queries follow.
  • To Larry King: Marriage — any advice?

  • To Mel Gibson: Did you skip all of the pages in the Bible that mention that Jesus was a Jew?

  • To Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis: How far will you need to run your legacy into the sewer before you destroy it forever?

  • To Shia LaBeouf: Why not Target?

  • To Tom Cruise: You do know that L. Ron Hubbard was just a hack genre writer trying to hustle a buck, and not, like, some kind of spiritual visionary... don't you?

  • To Jerry Seinfeld: Can you tell a joke that might actually make me laugh?

  • To Eddie Izzard: Cake, or death?

  • To Ellen Degeneres: Did you really think anyone was surprised when you came out? (Because, Mr. Wrong? So not convincing.)

  • To Lance Bass and Neil Patrick Harris: Any thoughts on the question I just asked Ellen?

  • To Eddie Murphy: Who are you, and what did you do with the guy who was in 48HRS and the original Beverly Hills Cop?

  • To Donald Trump: Seriously... what's up with the hair?

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Monday, September 15, 2008

This be yer four-day warnin'!

It's never too early to be practicin'...

Only four days until Talk Like a Pirate Day!

And shiver me timbers... Talk Like a Pirate Day falls on a Comic Art Friday this year! What scurvy surprises might that be bringin'?

Ye'll have to be here to see, matey!

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Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Here in my car, I feel safest of all

I'm not the automobile maven in our household; my wife KJ (the proud owner of a 2009 Subaru Forester) is.

I do, however, have automotive thoughts on occasion. Usually, on my weekly two-hour drive to San Jose for chorus rehearsal.

From yesterday's Great Trek, for example...
  • In various locations around the Bay Area, I noticed several enormous charter buses with Mercedes-Benz logos on their noses. I had no idea Mercedes-Benz made buses. How have I not noticed this before? And why are so many of them on the road tonight? Was there a sale?

  • When was the last time I saw a Buick Reatta? The only person I ever new who actually owned a Reatta was one of my preacher friends. His was stolen.

  • What kind of desperate multilevel marketing flack must you be to stick a plastic business card dispenser on the tailgate of your car? The kind of desperate multilevel marketing flack who hawks this stuff, I guess.

  • Do people who drive a Nissan Rogue tend to misspell the name of their automobile the way illiterate dweebs in comic book fan forums misspell the similarly code-named female X-Man? I've often wondered whether "Rouge" had the mutant power to turn other people's cheeks cherry red.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Making love in a Subaru

You veteran dementians and dementites are now cackling with glee at the title reference.

The rest of you... at least I have your attention.

After weeks of peering through brochures, scanning countless Web sites, and fielding dozens of phone messages and e-mails from eager automotive salespeople, KJ bought her new car Monday night: a sage green 2009 Subaru Forester with all the bells and whistles, including a power moonroof, a six-CD stereo, and gray leather upholstery.

All together now: Oooooooooooh. Aaaaaaaaaaaah.

Needless to say, KJ's as giddy as a schoolgirl over her purchase. And I'm happy because she's happy. (We all know the song: "When Mama Ain't Happy, Ain't Nobody Happy.")

She negotiated the deal via e-mail. When the price was set, we trekked across the bridge to not-so-beautiful downtown Oakland, where a pleasant gentleman named Kay obtained our signatures on what seemed like reams of duplicate forms, gave us a tour of the dashboard as he fueled the car at a nearby gas station, swapped two sets of ignition keys and door remotes for the largest check KJ has ever written in her life, and sent us merrily on our way as Subaru owners.

And yes, it's a nice car. (I'm reminded of that old Peugeot commercial in which the late Fabio-tressed tennis hunk Vitas Gerulaitis chauffeured his aged father about in his snazzy new ride, only to hear the senior Mr. Gerulaitis say, "Is a nice Peugeot, Vitas. Now when you are getting a haircut?")

For those of you still mystified by the title of this post, "Making Love in a Subaru" was a novelty record popularized way back when by cult radio personality Barrett Hansen, better known as Dr. Demento. The song, recorded by the good Doctor's frequent contributor and occasional sidekick Damaskas (whose real name, I'm told, is Dan Hollombe), extols the virtues of carnal pleasure as performed in the cramped confines of a 1970s-vintage Subaru.

Back in my high school days, I enjoyed many laughs over that song, because (a) that kind of puerile humor is hilarious to teenage boys, of which I was then one, and (b) my best friend at the time drove a Subaru — an oddly boxy little white vehicle with the then-novel feature of all-wheel drive.

Did my pal ever test the Damaskas theory? That, friend reader, is a tale best left untold, on the advice of my attorney.

As for KJ and I... let's just say that we're not in high school any more.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Item #101: Don't die before you finish the list

Irony doesn't get more bitter than this.

Dave Freeman, the co-author of the popular travel book 100 Things to Do Before You Die, has died.

He had only done about half of the things on his famous list.

Freeman was 47.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Olympic bling from Beijing

As the familiar five-ringed flag sinks slowly into the Beijing sunset, here are the sights, sounds, and random synapse-firings that I'll carry away from the Games of the XXIX Olympiad:
  • So, Michael Phelps... what are going to do for an encore? You could start by buying Jason Lezak a Porsche.

  • Baseball and softball are no longer worthy to be called Olympic sports, but synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics — or, as KJ calls it, "that Cirque du Soleil thing" — stay? Well, plug my nose with a rubber clip and tie me up with a ribbon.

  • Nothing against beach volleyball — and certainly nothing against our two gold medal-winning teams, Misty May-Treanor / Kerri Walsh and Phil Dalhausser / Todd Rogers — but... NBC sure aired a surfeit of beach volleyball, didn't they?

  • There's a reason why the two Americans competing in the modern pentathlon finished 19th and 21st: They're the only two people in the United States who know what the modern pentathlon is.

  • Congratulations to my former schoolmate — we were students at Pepperdine at the same time — Terry Schroeder for coaching the U.S. men's water polo team to a silver medal. I still think the game would be more fun with horses.

  • Call me crazy, but I believe the members of the Chinese diving team possess the mutant power to separate water molecules telepathically. That's the only way I can figure that they can make so little splash.

  • Speaking of diving, Laura Wilkinson reminds me of my friend Phil's wife. I don't know whether Jane dives, though.

  • Most appropriately named athlete: Usain Bolt. It's absolutely usain how fast that guy is.

  • I don't know what happens to rifleman Matthew Emmons during the Olympic three-positions rifle event, but he's gotta be seeking therapy after blowing a gold medal on his final shot in two consecutive Games.

  • Probably no competitor in the Games overcame more painful and immediate personal tragedy than U.S. men's volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, whose father-in-law was killed, and his mother-in-law seriously wounded, in a random act of violence while touring Beijing. I'm sure that a gold medal is small consolation, but I'm glad Hugh got one anyway.

  • Hey, Dara Torres: Way to represent for the over-40 crowd. Children of the '60s rule!

  • I hope that decathlon gold medalist and unofficial "World's Greatest Athlete" Bryan Clay doesn't go all crazy with the plastic surgery in later life, like a certain predecessor who shall go nameless here. (***cough***BruceJenner***cough***)

  • Needing a dose of graciousness: American speedster Jeremy Wariner. Who tinkled on your cornflakes, Jeremy?

  • Two words for the French 4x100 meter freestyle relay team: Crush this.

  • Happiest guy to win a bronze medal: David Neville, who dove across the finish line to place third in the men's 400 meters, and afterward beamed like a six-year-old at Christmas.

  • It's amazing — and more than a trifle tragic — to realize that, 20 years after she set them (and nearly a decade after her death), the late Florence Griffith-Joyner still holds the women's world records at both 100 and 200 meters.

  • Of course the Kenyans and Ethiopians dominate the distance races. Those guys run farther than that just to find breakfast.

  • I thought the American gymnasts, women and men, showed beaucoup class throughout the competition. Shawn, Nastia, Alicia and the rest are welcome to come hang out with my daughter anytime.

  • Way to go, Redeem Team, for living up to the hype.

  • Our local hero, cyclist Levi Leipheimer, bagged a bronze medal in the men's time trial. You go, Levi!

  • My daughter KM, ever the horsewoman, was thrilled when the U.S. equestrians (including KM's heroine, Beezie Madden) won the team-jumping gold. This bugs me, however: Why do the riders get the medals when the horses do all the work?

  • Dunderhead of the Games: Cuban taekwondo competitor (I'm No) Angel Matos, who kicked a referee in the face after getting disqualified for overextending an injury timeout. Enjoy the lifetime ban, loser.

  • And of course, the Chinese gymnasts are all 16. In dog years.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

My dinner with Eugene

On Thursday, KJ and I drove the 530 miles from our sleepy Wine Country hamlet to Eugene, Oregon. (Okay, to be excruciatingly accurate, I drove while KJ alternated between navigating and napping.)

The trip was occasioned by the funeral of KJ's paternal grandmother, who passed away on Sunday. Due to lingering aftereffects of her first surgery for breast cancer eight years ago, KJ can't travel by air any longer, so we loaded up her parents' spiffy new Honda CR-V (they flew to Portland earlier in the week, and rode down to Eugene with relatives) and headed off.

I had been to Eugene once before -- a dozen or so years ago, I had a week-long speaking engagement there. On that trip, I had jetted directly to Eugene and back. This week's highway junket provided an opportunity to see several hundred miles of my adopted home state -- and our neighbor to the north -- that I had never visited previously. Which, of course, meant that I did more than a little thinking out loud about the sights I observed along the journey. My mental jottings follow.
  • Mount Shasta looks even more majestic in real life than in silhouette on the label of a soda can.

  • While I'm on the subject, why isn't the city of Mount Shasta -- or Mount Shasta itself, for that matter -- located in Shasta County?

  • KJ, an Oregon native, says she can't recall ever seeing the water level in Lake Shasta as low as it is right now. I'll have to take her word for it, because I've never seen Lake Shasta before.

  • No offense to the fine residents of Drain, Oregon intended, but seriously... Drain is a dreadful name for a town.

  • The taxpayers of the Beaver State are definitely getting their money's worth out of their freeway improvement program. And all this time I thought we were suffering through a boatload of highway renovation here in Sonoma County. I'll never complain again. (We'll see how long that lasts.)

  • Medford, Oregon is a lousy place to spend 40 minutes in stop-and-go traffic on a 100-degree day due to a motor vehicle accident on a construction-impacted freeway. I'm sure Medford's peachy on just about any other day, but dang, that sucked.

  • Just in case you ever decide to stay there, the wireless network at the Campus Inn in downtown Eugene blows swamp water. I had to stand in the parking lot pointing my laptop at the hotel office to access enough of a wi-fi connection to download my e-mail. Inside our room, even with the back of the computer pressed against the window glass, I couldn't get any signal. Lame.

  • Speaking of lame, we waited an ungodly amount of time for KJ's hibachi chicken dinner at the Sizzler near the Gateway Mall in Springfield. We were beginning to think someone in the kitchen was personally incubating eggs into chicks. The waitress was sweetly apologetic, but still... get a move on, people.

  • I'm not really an automotive aficionado, but that Honda CR-V is a sweet ride. If you're in the market for something more substantial than a shoebox but smaller than a traditional minivan, you could do worse.

  • The Willamette River makes a lovely turn through Eugene and the surrounding area. In 100-degree heat, one might be tempted to take a dip.

  • I'm sure that someone had what seemed at the time an excellent reason for building a city on the site of Red Bluff, California, but I'll be doggoned if I can figure out what it might have been. If Red Bluff isn't the armpit of the universe, you can smell it from there.

  • The dilapidated restroom at one gas station where we refueled had a sign on its wall reading, "This restroom is periodically inspected to ensure your comfort and convenience." From the look of the place, the "period" in question must have been the Jurassic.

  • If all the billboards and TV commercials are any indication, Abby's Legendary Pizza is one of the most popular franchise eateries in Oregon. I wasn't even aware that my dog owned a pizzeria chain. I'm going to have to start charging her rent.

  • I hope the chatty waitress at the Chevy's in Redding had a safe trip to Pensacola.

  • Things are alike all over: Just like back home, the Eugene/Springfield area has two shopping malls -- one upscale and apparently thriving (they call theirs Valley River Center, we call ours Santa Rosa Plaza), the other older and downmarket, with numerous empty storefronts (theirs is the Gateway Mall, ours is Coddingtown).

  • Southern Oregon is the tree capital of the known world. If you're shopping for evergreens, they can spare a couple.

  • One-word memo to the Saturday morning desk clerk at the Campus Inn: Decaf.

  • I was disappointed to discover that, despite the name, there are no tributes to the great Eugene Finerman anywhere in Eugene. Pity.

  • Both of the times I've been to Oregon, I've come home with nasty sinus infections. Perhaps I'm allergic to beavers.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

Was blind, but now I see

I got new contact lenses and eyeglasses from my optometrist's office today.

This isn't an earth-shattering announcement by any means. I've worn corrective lenses since I was in the first grade — yes, you whippersnappers, that was more than 40 years ago. I've worn contacts since I was in college.

This was the first time in nearly ten years, however, that I've invested in a new pair of glasses. My prescription has changed little in that time, although like many people my age, my myopic focal point has shifted to the degree that I now require reading magnification in addition to distance correction.

I can read slightly more clearly with the new contacts — which were last changed a couple of years ago — but I won't be able to pitch the granny specs entirely. In fact, I'm wearing them as I type this post.

Age, my youthful reader, is a harsh mistress.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

And... we're back!

I've returned. Cue the dancing girls!

Amazing stories to tell, and indeed, I will tell them. Give me a couple of days, and I will reveal all. With temperatures here cracking into triple digits, composing at the keyboard for lengthy stretches just isn't in the cards.

Trust me... the tale will merit the wait.

Meanwhile, you can celebrate some other good news. The doctors finally determined that the health problems KJ has been struggling with for the past seven months are not symptomatic of the spread of her cancer. W00T!

It's a small thing, perhaps, in the face of what we already know. But we'll take every shining glimmer we can get.

Back with more shortly.

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Uncle Swan has left the building

As is often the case the first week in July, SSTOL will be closed for business through next Sunday.

With luck and a fair wind, I'll have exciting news to report upon my return.

Exciting to me, anyway. Your mileage may vary.

But then, I'm not accepting responsibility for your doggoned excitement.

Have a safe and happy Independence Day. I'll see you in seven.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Smoke gets in your eyes

With all due respect to my many friends in the Los Angeles basin, air should not be visible.

But it certainly is here, these past few days.

Thanks to a raging wildfire next door in Napa County, we're experiencing a reversal of the opening lyrics to "California Dreamin'":
All the leaves are gray (with soot and ash)
And the sky is brown...
You can smell the smoke the instant you step outdoors or open a window. The particulate matter in the air is denser than discarded fliers on the Vegas strip.

Even though the fire has been contained as of this morning, it won't be thoroughly extinguished for some time. That means we won't be returning to our customary fresh air and crystal-blue skies in the immediate future.

I feel for my asthmatic neighbors.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Going to a hukilau

Among my delightful Father's Day gifts was a bag of this delectable new coffee from the Sign of the Mermaid: Starbucks Kopelani Blend.

According to the package, kopelani means "heavenly coffee" in Hawaiian. Although I've retained a fair amount of local-style pidgin from my childhood in the Islands, I can't vouch for the veracity of this translation. For all I know, kopelani means "empty your wallet" in the mother tongue.

Whatever the name means, this sure is some heavenly coffee. I'm celebrating my half-birthday with a gently steaming mug even as I type. (I believe the word is multitasking.)

Despite the Hawaiian handle, Starbucks Kopelani Blend contains only 10% Kona coffee, that savory varietal from the leeward shores of the Big Island. The balance of the beans comprise a blend of African and Latin American coffees, resulting in a tangy, fruity, slightly acidic flavor palate that's perfect for early-morning quaffing.

Kopelani Blend brews up light and aromatic, not at all overpowering. It's a pleasant accompaniment alongside your favorite breakfast fare, or just for smooth and easy sipping. It would make a nice, summery iced coffee, perhaps for serving at your next hukilau.

Now, if you'll excuse me, my ukelele awaits...

We'll throw our nets out into the sea
Where all the ama-ama come a-swimmin' to me
Oh, we're goin' to a hukilau
A huki, huki, huki, huki, hukilau.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Primary post-mortem

Rubbing the sleep gunk from my eyes and reflecting upon yesterday's electoral events...

You go, Obama.

This is, without question, the funniest thing I've read all week. Mark Evanier said it, over at his excellent blog, News from ME:
Going into this election, McCain has certain advantages and Obama has certain advantages. Obama's biggest one may be that there are no photos of him hugging George Bush.
The funniest thing I've heard aloud all week was spoken last night by former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, asked about the historic nature of Obama's now-certain nomination:
It's certainly a historic moment in our history.
Which is where historic moments occur, historically speaking.

Back to McCain: Was that the most agonizingly dull political speech any Presidential candidate ever delivered, or what? I was driving to rehearsal as McCain was speaking, and I darn near dozed off at the wheel. And he wants to go face-to-face with Obama in ten town hall meetings this summer? Egad. Someone in his campaign needs to talk him out of that idea, pronto. It'll be JFK vs. Nixon all over again.

What does Hillary want? For the entire planet to kiss her pantsuited little butt, apparently. Memo to Hil-Rod: The fat lady hasn't just sung; she's recorded an entire soundtrack album, packed up her microphone and Viking helmet, and headed for a nice leisurely vacation in Hawaii. Let it go, already.

By the way, is Hillary taking oratorical lessons from John McCain? Yikes, that was dreadful. If you're going to be irritatingly ubiquitous, at least be entertaining.

I can't believe that Obama would seriously consider Hillary for the second slot on the ticket, given the way she's dragged this mess along. I think he might roll the dice with Kathleen Sibelius, the governor of Kansas, a savvy manager (Time Magazine named her one of the country's five best governors a couple of years back) who's popular with the electorate in an generally Republican state. Obama still, however, seems more likely to choose a seasoned veteran with foreign policy experience — a Sam Nunn or Chris Dodd type. Bill Richardson wouldn't be a bad choice, either, and could help Obama draw in some Latino voters.

In local politics, not such a good night for me. The candidates for whom I voted in both our State Senate primary (Joe Nation) and the county supervisor race (Tim Smith) lost by wide margins. I'm better at picking racehorses than politicians.

Ah, well. There's always Obama.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Whistle stop

The name Earle Hagen may not ring a bell when first you hear it. But if you were watching television in the 1960s and '70s — or if you're a fan of TV Land or Nick at Nite — you're familiar with his work.

The composer of numerous TV theme songs and scores, Hagen died yesterday at the age of 88.

Hagen's theme music résumé reads like a list of Nielsen ratings all-stars from back in the day: I Spy (for which Hagen won an Emmy), That Girl, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mod Squad, Eight is Enough, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., and most memorably, The Andy Griffith Show, which featured Hagen whistling a happy tune as Andy and Opie head off to the ol' fishin' hole.

In addition to his extensive television work — it's estimated that his music appears in more than 3,000 episodes — Hagen also wrote scores for dozens of motion pictures, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He and cowriter Lionel Newman were nominated for an Academy Award in 1961 for scoring another Marilyn Monroe classic, Let's Make Love.

Even if he had never composed a note for the screen, either large or small, Hagen's place in musical history was secured when he wrote (with bandleader Ray Noble) the jazz standard "Harlem Nocturne" in 1939. Practically every jazz musician active in the past seven decades has covered Hagen's soulful, Ellingtonesque riff.

Earle Hagen's passing gets me to thinking...

Whatever happened to TV theme songs?

At one time, you couldn't have a successful TV show without a catchy theme. Sometimes, the theme music was infinitely better than the show it introduced. Everyone remembers Henry Mancini's theme from the '50s detective drama Peter Gunn, which still pops up in movie and TV show soundtracks to this day. Anyone recall the show itself? That's what I thought. (Another example: T.H.E. Cat, an otherwise forgettable mid-'60s show starring Robert Loggia as a reformed — yet conveniently named — cat burglar, had a wicked cool jazz theme by Lalo Schifrin that I can hear reverberating in my skull even now.)

When I was but a wee lad, I used to collect TV themes on my little reel-to-reel tape recorder — you whippersnappers will have to look that one up — and a cheap microphone I would hold in front of the speaker of our Zenith console set. In between songs, I'd throw in introductory patter in the mold of the AM disc jockeys I idolized — Casey Kasem and Wolfman Jack. (Look, I was an only child in a military family that moved every year or two. I learned self-entertainment skills early in life.) Who knew then that TV theme songs would one day go the way of... well... reel-to-reel audio tape?

Of course, there's a reason for the decline in the art of TV themes: It's called money. Those precious 15 or 30 seconds that would otherwise be wasted on a throwaway musical trifle can be sold to the highest-bidding advertiser, instead of offering attention-deficient viewers an opportunity to grab a snack or relieve themselves. When TV shows use themes these days, they're usually established pop hits (the CSI franchise's obsession with classics by The Who, to cite but three), not custom ditties designed to establish the program's unique mood.

Earle Hagen may have died only yesterday, but, sad to tell, the TV theme songs he loved died long before.

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Saturday, May 17, 2008

What I sacrifice for my music

Performing with the third-ranked men's a cappella chorus in the world is a mighty awesome avocation.

Every now and then, it conflicts with my other avocations.

For example, today (and tomorrow too, for that matter, but Sundays are always out for me anyway) is Super-Con, the second of the Bay Area's two huge annual comic book conventions. For a comics fanatic, and especially an original comic art collection, a con of this magnitude is as close to nirvana (the state of spiritual bliss, not the grunge band fronted by that guy who blew his brains out) as it gets. Last year at Super-Con, I picked up several amazing new commissions for my gallery.

This year, I'm singing.

Today, the two Northern California divisions of the Barbershop Harmony Society mount their regional competitions in beautiful downtown Stockton. (Remember Mudville, in the poem "Casey at the Bat"? That's the place. Yes, I'm excited too.)

My chorus, Voices in Harmony, will be one of 17 choruses in the contest, which also will showcase 24 male quartets. It's our first step toward next year's International competition, as well as our major tune-up for this year's International, coming up the first week of July in Music City USA. (That's Nashville, Tennessee, for the benefit of the culturally impaired among us.)

To all of my artist friends accustomed to welcoming my commission dollars at Super-Con each year, I'll miss you. I will especially miss acquiring fresh examples of your work to salivate over for years to come. Some of you I'll catch up with at WonderCon next February. Don't injure your drawing hands before then.

Although part of me regrets skipping the con, my heart knows the score. When I've gotta sing, I've just gotta sing. There is no substitute.

As I read on a T-shirt once...

Singing is life. Everything else is just details.

(Did you order your tickets yet for Voices in Harmony's upcoming concert, on Saturday, June 7, in San Jose? If not, you're ten steps behind all the cool kids, buckaroo. Score yourself some ducats today — it's the right thing to do.)

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Time for your singout, America

Now that David Archuleta's father Jeff has been booted from the American Idol set due to his obsessive stage-motherish antics (not to mention his rearranging of one of the songs his son performed on the show, resulting in hefty royalties payouts by Idol's producers)...'s Uncle Swan's Top Five Additional People Who Need to Be Voted Off Idol, and Soon:

5. Randy "Not Michael's Little Brother" Jackson. I love Journey as much as the next '70s holdover, but seriously, it's time for Randy to hit the bricks. Even though "The Dawg" is the only Idol judge with legitimate musical credentials (you're not still clinging to the illusion that Paula actually sang "Straight Up" and "Cold Hearted Snake," are you?), his inane repetitions of the same tired clichés every week wore out their welcome at least three seasons ago. It ain't workin' for me any more, Dawg.

4. Ryan "I'm Too Sexy for My" Seacrest. Two words: Seacrest? Out. Get over yourself, Gel Boy.

3. The instigator of the weekly Ford Motor Company "pimpmercials." Look, I understand economics. I know that Ford blows a ginormous chunk of change every week to have the surviving Idols lip-synch and grimace to some stale pop tune. I realize that those funds are, in large measure, responsible for keeping the show on the air. But if I wanted to watch abysmal musical theater, I'd buy a ticket to a local high school production, or the nearest theme park. I don't need these camp comedies beamed into my living room. Oh, and Ford? Try making some cars you don't have to pimp.

2. Every celebrity mentor who hasn't had a Top Ten pop hit this millennium, or who can recall the Kennedy administration firsthand. Is it any wonder that young viewers are deserting Idol in droves, when the producers' idea of hip, happening musical guests includes Dolly Parton, Neil Diamond, and Andrew Lloyd Webber? How did the show turn into AARP Idol all of a sudden?

1. Paula "Putting the Coca Back in Cola" Abdul. Enough already with the insipid, rambling, pharmaceutically fueled commentary, already. If I have to endure one more outburst of Paula's torturous Amy Winehouse imitation — or another cellophane-sheer denial by Seacrest of what every American with a television set or Internet connection can see and hear with his or her own God-installed sensory apparatus — I'm going to fly to Hollywood and sniff Paula's Coke tumbler myself.

Get to stepping, the lot of you.

And take Little Archie and his dad with you.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Sometimes I feel like a bullet in the gun of Robert Ford

Just a warning to the world...

Uncle Swan is cranky today.

The kicker is that I have absolutely no reason for being cranky. I had a spectacular weekend.

On Friday, KJ and I dined at my favorite lunch joint, then caught the premiere of Iron Man at our local cineplex. If you didn't already contribute to this Marvel-ous film's $100 million gross domestic earnings, get off your rusty rump and go see it. Even if you're not into the whole comic book superhero thing, go see it. KJ loved it, and I don't know anyone less enthused about comic books than she is. Robert Downey Jr. might be that rare actor who picks up nominations for major film awards from a role in an action blockbuster. Best of all, Iron Man restores to its title character all of the charm and joie de vivre that Marvel Comics has leached out of Tony Stark during the past decade.

I can't be cranky about that.

On Friday evening, and all day Saturday, I was with my chorus at our annual intensive workshop. In addition to the guidance of our nonpareil musical staff, led by one of the most respected choral conductors on the planet, we were whipped into championship froth by our legendary choreographer and presentation coach. I sweated off enough salinity to replenish the Salton Sea, and I'm a better man for it. If we continue to build on everything we developed this weekend, we'll be a force to be reckoned with in Nashville on the first Friday in July.

I'm definitely not cranky about that.

Yesterday's sermons both went about as well as I'm capable of presenting them. I struck the chords I wanted to strike, with both cogent argument and appropriately engaging delivery.

No crankiness there.

This morning's coffee was excellent. The bagels were awfully good, too. We have delicious tamales and guacamole awaiting consumption for Cinco de Mayo dinner.

Nothing to be cranky about about there, either.

In today's mail, I got a stunningly attractive new T-shirt from Woot. Also, on Saturday, I received a long-awaited artwork I'd commissioned months ago, and was beginning to think the artist had forgotten about. (He hadn't, and it's gorgeous.) So I can't even be cranky at the United States Postal Service. And if you can't be cranky at the USPS, you can't be cranky, period.

I have no idea what I'm cranky about.

But it doesn't change the fact that I'm cranky.

So watch yourself, buster.

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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Tigers and jaguars and coffee, oh my

This week's Hump Day is being fueled by Starbucks Organic Sumatra-Peru Blend.

Mmm... tasty.

This coffee has a nicely rounded flavor — slightly sweet, with a hint of chocolate in the finish. It also possesses one of the loveliest bouquets I've savored in quite a while, more herbal than floral or earthy. Must be that organic thing.

I'm not sure why there's a drawing of two cats — that's actually a Sumatran tiger and a Peruvian jaguar — on the bag. My barista assures me that this stuff is 100% cat poop free.

When I think of Sumatran animals, I think of orangutans. I've had coffee made by orangutans, and trust me — their brewing skills leave something to be desired.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Barry Zito: The new Steve Blass

The Giants have a fever...

...and the only prescription is less Barry Zito.

If I were Giants upper management — and I'm not — here's what I would do with my $126 million pitcher who has become incapable of getting batters out.

Zito would suddenly develop a "mysterious injury" — let's call it hypertrophic frakulation of the distal metatarsus — that would earn him a slot on the 15-day disabled list and a two-week vacation.

As Zito's hypertrophic frakulation began to resolve in mid-May, I'd send him to the Giants' Class A minor league club in San Jose, where he could work himself back into self-confidence by throwing his legendary curveball past 20-year-old kids fresh out of junior college.

At the same time, I'd bring in a couple of experienced pitching gurus from outside the Giants organization — at least one of whom could teach the knuckleball — to help Zito find a more effective way to set up his eminently hittable 84 m.p.h. "fast" ball.

Once Zito had developed some semblance of competence and a fresh optimism about major league life, I'd return him to the Giants starting rotation — not as the Number One starter, where he routinely faces the opposing team's best pitcher, but as the Number Five starter, where he would routinely face the weakest link in the opponent's rotation.

Then, I'd pray for a miracle.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Enjoy your cruise, Mrs. Lincoln?

Here's an interesting historical juxtaposition...

On this date in 1865, Abraham Lincoln — our 16th President, Great Emancipator, and future star of the five-dollar bill — died, the result of an assassin's bullet that struck him the previous evening.

On this date in 1912, the "unsinkable" HMS Titanic — later responsible for the otherwise inexplicable popularity of Leonardo diCaprio and Celine Dion, and for the insufferable ego of James Cameron — sank, the result of an iceberg that struck it the previous evening.

What do we learn from this?

Be careful what hits you on the evening of April 14, because it could ruin an otherwise perfectly good April 15.

I hope that my friend Donna, who celebrated her [insanely large number deleted, to prevent public humiliation] birthday yesterday, didn't do anything last night that she's regretting this morning.

And if she did, I hope there's video.


Monday, April 14, 2008

What's Up With That? #62: Ain't no party like an Uncle Sam party

Pop diva Alicia Keys opines that gangsta rap was created by the United States government as "a ploy to convince black people to kill each other."

Umm... what?

I'm trying to envision a collection of Caucasian policy wonks holed up in a bunker in Washington, D.C. writing the material for N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton. The imagery just isn't working for me.

Even if we assume, for the sake of ludicrous argument, that shadowy figures at the Justice Department did in fact concoct the idea of gangsta rap, there's an element that I still don't comprehend:

How did the government persuade the performers who ostensibly began the gangsta rap phenomenon to begin recording this stuff?

Maybe the conversation went something like this...

FBI Guy: Hello, Mr. Ice-T. Thank you for meeting with us.

Ice-T: Whatever.

FBI Guy: Mr. Ice-T — may I call you Mr. T.?

Ice-T: Naw, man, that's the brother with the Mohawk and the bling. Just call me Ice.

FBI Guy: All right, Ice. Recognizing that you are a loyal American and a decent, law-abiding citizen, your federal government would like to make you the point man on a unique public relations project.

Ice-T: I'm listening.

FBI Guy: Your government is taking note of this hip-hop — do I have the term correct? — business that's all the rage with the young African-Americans these days. We believe there's a wonderful opportunity here to accomplish something very special for this country, and for the black community in particular, utilizing this exciting medium. And we would like for you to take a leading role.

Ice-T: What do I have to do?

FBI Guy: Our crack staff — no pun intended, Ice — has been composing some funky-fresh — did I say that properly? — lyrical material for the hip-hop genre, which we want you to record. We believe that if you were to make this material popular with the African-American youth, other performers would follow suit.

Ice-T: A'ight. Lemme see what you got. (Pause.) "Six in the mornin', police at my door..." Are you kidding me, man? (Another pause.) "Cop Killer"? What the [expletive deleted] is this?

FBI Guy: We realize that some of this material may seem — how should I put it? — extreme. However, it's our position that...

Ice-T: This crap has me advocating the murder of police officers! Man, some of my best friends are cops!

FBI Guy: I know, it sounds somewhat counterintuitive. But...

Ice-T: I can't record this. It'll incite people to violence. I'm a lover, not a "cop killer."

FBI Guy: Ice, are you familiar with the concept of reverse psychology? That's what we're going for here.

Ice-T: I don't know, man. This seems like crazy talk.

FBI Guy: This isn't crazy, Ice. It's your federal government at work. Some of the brightest minds in Washington are hard at work on this project.

Ice-T: Whatever. So what's in all this for me, man?

FBI Guy: International fame and a multimillion-dollar recording career, for starters.

Ice-T: You gotta give me more than that. I'll lose all my friends in the 'hood once they find out I'm working for The Man.

FBI Guy: How would you feel about a permanent costarring role on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit?

Ice-T: Dick Wolf? I'm down.

FBI Guy: You're a true patriot, Ice.

Ice-T: Whatever.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

What's Up With That? #61: Worst Effen branding concept ever

Most people who know me at all well know that I don't drink alcohol.

Therefore, the following statement should not come as a surprise to anyone:

I do not want any Effen Vodka.

If you were thinking of giving me any Effen Vodka — say, as a token of esteem for a blog post well done — please keep your Effen Vodka to yourself.

And, while I respect your right to drink all the Effen Vodka you want (assuming that you're of legal drinking age in your jurisdiction), please don't drive after you've had your Effen Vodka. I don't want to see you injure anyone — including yourself — while under the influence of Effen Vodka.

I trust that I have made my position on this Effen Vodka as clear as... well... Effen Vodka.

Thank you.

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Saturday, April 05, 2008

A real-life episode of Big Love

Here's an interesting juxtaposition of stories, headlined cheek-to-jowl on the front page at MSNBC:
"Mormons affirm new church leader"
right underneath...
"Standoff emerges at polygamist ranch"
Sort of goes from Brigham Young to dig 'em young, doesn't it?

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Thursday, March 27, 2008

Nothin' says lovin' like a McMuffin in the oven

Let's all raise a glass to the late, great Herb Peterson, who changed the course of American cuisine forever.

Who's Herb Peterson?
you ask.

Why, the inventor of the Egg McMuffin, of course.

Peterson was a McDonalds franchise owner in Santa Barbara (and a former VP of the advertising firm that held the McDonalds account). In the early 1970s, Peterson, who was partial to eggs Benedict, decided to create a sandwich based on his favorite breakfast fare. His moment of genius: slap a fried egg, a slab of Canadian bacon, and a slice of good old American cheese between the buttered halves of an English muffin, and viola! A handheld simulation of eggs Benedict, perfect for dining on the go.

The Egg McMuffin spawned an entire menu of breakfast items at Mickey D's, including its close cousin, the Sausage McMuffin (like an Egg McMuffin, only with a sausage patty instead of Canadian bacon); the similar McGriddle (like a McMuffin, only with a maple-flavored, waffle-like pancake in place of the English muffin); Breakfast Burritos; and a host of scrambled egg and hotcake combination plates.

Other fast food chains quickly followed suit, leading to such quizzical creations as Jack-in-the-Box's Breakfast Jack (like an Egg McMuffin, only served on a hamburger bun instead of a muffin) and Burger King's Croissan'Wich (like an Egg McMuffin, only... well, you figure it out). Even Starbucks eventually got into the act, although the company recently decided to phase out its line of breakfast sandwiches because baristas complained that they were "too smelly." (The sandwiches, not the baristas. Although I imagine that some of the more bohemian espresso-slingers occasionally get a mite funky also.)

Peterson's brainchild also led to one of the funniest bits of scripted comedy ever produced. On National Lampoon's 1977 album That's Not Funny, That's Sick, a Mister Rogers spoof character named Mr. Roberts (played by future mockumentarian and Mr. Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Guest) interviews a fuzzy-brained bass player (played by future Not Ready for Prime Time Player and Scarlett Johansen costar Bill Murray) in typically inane Fred Rogers style:
Mr. Roberts: Can you say, "Egg McMuffin"?
Bassist: Eggamuffin.
Mr. Roberts: I like the way you say that.
At the time of his passing on Tuesday, Herb Peterson was 89 years old. I once ate an Egg McMuffin that had been desiccating under a heat lamp at least that long.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

What's Up With That? #60: What part of a non-chicken is a Chicken-Free Nugget?

I spotted this product in a supermarket yesterday...

Chicken-Free Nuggets.

Now, that's just wrong.

Plain old chicken nuggets (we'll leave the "Mc" out of the discussion, lest we cloud our minds with anticorporate prejudice) are terrifying enough. Who knows what the devil they're putting in those things? It's my suspicion that they're made of ground-up chicken heads, held together with the gelatinous renderings of boiled chicken feet. (I couldn't prove it in a court of law. I'm just telling you what I think.)

But chicken-FREE nuggets?

I don't even care to contemplate what might be in these.

Perhaps one of my militant vegetarian readers can explain this to me. Why does this product even exist? If you're of a mind that it's wrong to slaughter innocent animals for human consumption, why would you wish to pretend to be engaged in that very activity? After all, no one goes to the frozen foods section hunting for: "Faux Human Nuggets: Like cannibalism, only without the life sentence."

And just look at the list of supposed ingredients:
Hydrated textured soy protein concentrate, soy protein isolate. Contains less than 2% of: rice starch, salt, toasted onion powder, flavorings, spices, maltodextrin, dehydrated celery, sea salt, garlic powder, carrageenan, natural spice oils, spice extracts.
Can anyone honestly believe that unnatural amalgamation is somehow healthier for you to eat than good old poultry, fried fresh on the drumstick?

Me, I'll stick to my local megamart's boneless, skinless chicken breasts. At least I know those were sliced from the carcass of a real, once-live gallus domesticus.

I mean...

I think they were.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

For what it's worth

Five years.

3,990 American lives.

29,314 Americans wounded.

Over $512 billion (with a B) spent.

No end in sight.

"It's worth it." — George W. Bush

You be the judge.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What's Up With That? #59: Mary Ann, meet Mary Jane

Now, sit right back and you'll hear a tale
A tale of a fateful ride;
That ended with a Dawn Wells bust --
Her car had weed inside.

Who would have suspected that sweet, innocent, fresh-faced Mary Ann Summers was a midnight toker?

Gilligan's Island star Wells, today a sprightly 69-year-old, was sentenced to six months probation this week following an arrest in Idaho last October, after a deputy sheriff observed Wells driving erratically.

Upon pulling Wells over, the officer detected the unmistakable aroma of combusting cannabis wafting from the vehicle. A subsequent search turned up four partially consumed doobies, and two cases commonly used for storing marijuana. Wells also failed a field sobriety test.

In addition to the probationary stint, the television legend was slapped with a five-day jail sentence and a $400 fine. (That's the inflationary equivalent of a ticket on a three-hour Hawaiian cruise in 1965.)

Wells reportedly told the arresting officer that the marijuana had been left in her car by three anonymous hitchhikers she had picked up earlier in the evening. Following sentencing, Wells's attorney changed the story, saying that a friend of Wells had borrowed her car on the day in question, and absent-mindedly left his stoner supplies behind. (Memo to Mary Ann: The old "it's my car, but it's not my stuff" gambit played out ages ago. Ask Lindsay Lohan.)

Gilligan fans will recall that Wells's late costar Bob Denver was no stranger to the allure of tetrahydrocannabinol. Denver was busted in 1998 after a package containing marijuana was delivered to his home. At the time, Denver claimed that the package had been sent by his old friend Dawn Wells. Given recent events, that story takes on a fresh new light of relevance.

By the way... the age-old "Ginger or Mary Ann?" debate, does anyone ever pick Ginger?

Perhaps now we know why Mary Ann was so popular.

At least, one of the reasons why.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Spitzer? I didn't even touch her!

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer just learned the danger of keeping an escort service on speed dial.

Spitzer publicly apologized today — albeit without specificity — for his involvement with a high-ticket prostitution ring targeted in a federal investigation. According to news reports, a wiretapped conversation revealed Spitzer soliciting the services of a professional companion in the employ of the ironically named Emperors Club VIP. The assignation allegedly was arranged in advance of the Governor's recent trip to the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel (possibly related to the notorious madam of similar name?) in Washington, D.C.

Can you imagine how this discovery must have played out?

I can just see some low-level FBI flunky sitting in a van wearing a Brooks Brothers suit and a set of headphones, nursing a Diet Pepsi and a bag of Cheetos, listening to the calls coming into the escort service.

Suddenly, his ears perk up. "That sounds like..."

He listens further.

"It is! That's Governor Spitzer! My career is totally made!"

And Day-Glo orange Cheeto dust goes flying everywhere.

Now here's the part that baffles me. According to the reports, Emperors Club VIP charges as much as $5,500 per hour for the services of its (ahem) staff. Call me naïve ("You're naïve!"), but seriously — what "service" could anyone possibly provide in an hour that's worth $5,500? That's practically a down payment on a house, for crying out loud.

Although, I suppose it's as that noted connoisseur of the world's oldest profession, Charlie Sheen, once remarked: "I don't pay 'em for sex — I pay 'em to go away afterward."

Unfortunately for Mr. Spitzer, he didn't pay 'em enough to use a secure phone line.

One last touch of irony: For his costly tryst, Spitzer appears to have registered at the Mayflower under the pseudonym "George Fox." Students of religious history will recall that George Fox was the founder of the Society of Friends, the sect more familiarly known as Quakers. [You can insert your own punch line here.]

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Thursday, March 06, 2008

What were once vices are now habits

I have often said that it is a very good thing that I grew up in a household where neither of my parents used tobacco or drank alcohol. Given my tendency toward compulsive personality, I would likely have smoked and swilled myself into an early grave by now.

If you look up "creature of habit" in your Funk & Wagnalls, you'll find my photo there. (Assuming you still had a Funk & Wagnalls. Which, considering that the venerable encyclopedia ceased publication at least a decade ago, you probably don't.)

Take, for example, my morning coffee ritual.

Now, coffee itself has been a part of my daily climb toward sanity more or less since my college days. During my career in the corporate world, I was fortunate enough to have worked for employers who supplied free coffee for their minions, so I never had to actually purchase coffee.

But when I just the ranks of the self-employed, I had to begin stocking my own java. This meant, of course, that I not only needed to buy coffee, but a machine in which to brew it. I'm now on my third Mr. Coffee in the past six years. It comes in handy on the days when I am either too cheap or too lazy to swing by one of the bazillion caffeine-dispensing outlets I can hit from my house with a smartly flung stone, and pay a college student with a nose ring to brew my coffee for me.

What happened recently, however, is that I have begun grinding my own coffee beans fresh most mornings. This process evolved when a client gave me a gift box of whole-bean coffee from Starbucks last Christmas. My nascent ownership of whole-bean coffee required that I obtain a device that would pummel the brown nuggets of joy into usable powder. So with the aid of my nearby Wal-Mart, I became the proud possessor of a Black and Decker SmartGrinder, a marvel of 21st-century technology that whips tiny roasted pods to a frenzy in no time flat.

Before too long, of course, I had exhausted the supply of Christmas coffee. But now that I owned a coffee grinder, I couldn't simply allow it to lie fallow on my kitchen counter. "Feed me, Seymour!" it cried — remarkable in that small household appliances do not usually speak to me, and also in that my name is not Seymour.

But I digress.

So now I find myself trekking every couple of weeks to Starbucks to buy more whole-bean coffee, thus justifying my ownership of the grinder. The beneficial side effect is that I have frequent opportunity to sample different varieties of coffee, broadening my palate even as I flatten my wallet. The less positive result is that every morning after I drop my collegian daughter at her academic institution of choice, I must engage in the elaborate alchemy of coffee-making: grinding the beans, rinsing the carafe, loading Mr. Coffee with water, replacing the filter, filling the basket with newly ground coffee, initiating the brewing, cleaning the grinder, vacuum-sealing the canister where the beans are kept to ensure freshness...

It's a lot of work.

And the scary thing is, I almost enjoy the ritual.

Which means I won't be able to stop doing it anytime soon.

In case you're curious, this morning's grind is Starbucks Ethiopia Sidamo — "From the Birthplace of Coffee," or so the label says. It's rich, complex, slightly acidic yet not overpowering, and it leaves behind a bright, refreshing, almost lemony aftertaste. It does not, however, inspire me to want to run 10,000 meters or convert to Rastafarianism. Take that, Haile Gebreselassie.

Lord help me if I ever get hooked on espresso.

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Gygax? Dygax. Bygax.

When I heard that Dungeons & Dragons cocreator Gary Gygax had died, in a flash it was 1978 all over again.

Now, you might suppose that — considering my lifelong obsession with comic books — I've been a major-league gamer geek also, as the two addictions often go hand in hand.

In thinking so, however, you would be mistaken.

I never really got into role-playing games. The only reason I ever played any D&D at all is because I had a couple of friends who were into the game for all of about five minutes, so I played the game with them just because it was the thing to do. I found the whole business arduous and more than a trifle silly. Attention-challenged as I am, I could never compel myself to slog through D&D's interminable rule books, or to grasp the myriad bits of arcane lore from which the game evolved. Plus, the multisided dice confused my prosaic, doggedly concrete sensibilities.

About the only part of the game I enjoyed was creating the characters. In fact, somewhere in my files I have shreds of an epic fantasy novel populated entirely with heroes I came up with during my momentary flirtation with D&D — sword-slinging warriors with names like Raldraxx and Pandrill and Skylodon, who teamed up to battle an evil wizard known as Traver Morninglight. It didn't take me long to figure out that I was no Robert E. Howard, much less a J.R.R. Tolkien.

I did like writing funny songs about the various forms of eldritch creatures that inhabited the D&D universe. You'd be amazed at how many hilarious, even ribald rhymes one can weave using Kobolds, Orcs, and Gelatinous Cubes.

Or perhaps you would not.

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Friday, February 29, 2008

WonderCon: Where comics rule, and cash disappears

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to my loyal assistant Abby, who celebrated her seventh birthday yesterday.

Abby does not like it when the boss closes the office for two days to run off to some silly comic book convention thing, as he did last Friday and Saturday. So she's happy that he's back in his chair where he belongs, so that she can lie at his feet and snooze.

Speaking of that silly comic book convention thing...

WonderCon 2008 rocked.

San Francisco's Moscone Center overflowed with pop culture insanity last weekend, and your Uncle Swan splashed along with the colorful tide.

It was, I must say, quite an action-packed weekend:

I convinced a pair of Stormtroopers that I was not the droid they were looking for...

I persuaded Wonder Woman and Supergirl to pose for a photo by name-dropping my close personal friendship with Bob Almond, the King of Inking...

I avoided making the Incredible Hulk angry, because I wouldn't like him when he's angry...

I made a donation to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, battling evil censorship wherever it raises its ugly head...

...and I strolled past more fancy merchandising displays than one could shake an uru hammer at.

I attended several terrific panels. The highlight was Mark Evanier's panel debuting his new book about the life and art of Jack Kirby, Kirby: King of Comics. Mark, who broke into the comics business as Kirby's assistant in the late 1960s...

...led a discussion on the works of Jolly Jack, aided and abetted by such creative talents as Mike Royer, who was Kirby's primary inking collaborator for two decades, beginning in the early 1970s, and Darwyn Cooke, the writer/artist responsible for Justice League: The New Frontier, the film version of which debuted at WonderCon on Saturday night. (It's available now on DVD. You should run out to your local retailer as soon as you finish reading this, and buy a copy.)

Comic Relief, the big comics shop in Berkeley, managed to acquire the first 80 copies of Mark's hot-off-the-press book to sell at the convention. Both Mark and Mike Royer were kind enough to autograph my copy. (According to Mark's blog this morning, Amazon now has Kirby: King of Comics in stock. You should click over there as soon as you finish reading this, and order a copy.)

Mark also hosted an enjoyable one-on-one interview with longtime Marvel Comics artist Herb Trimpe, known for his work on The Incredible Hulk, G.I. Joe, Godzilla, and Shogun Warriors, among numerous other titles. Herb was also the first artist to draw Wolverine, later of the X-Men, in a published comic. If you had a mint-condition copy of Incredible Hulk #181 lying around, you could put your kids through college.

A few years back, I commissioned Herb to draw an entry in my Common Elements theme — a tussle between Doc Samson, a Hulk supporting character Herb co-created, and Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze. I took the piece to WonderCon with me, and Herb kindly posed for a photo with it. It was a treat to meet him and to thank him for it in person, after all this time.

Another entertaining panel featured a group of animation writers — Justice League story editor Dwayne McDuffie prominent among them — developing an outline for a hypothetical animation project using random suggestions from the audience. If you ever see an announcement about Howard the Duck vs. The Green Lantern Corps, you'll know that this panel is where the concept first germinated.

Of course you know that I didn't spend the entire weekend listening to industry stalwarts yakking. Artists' Alley beckoned, and its denizens busied themselves adding a slate of gorgeous new artworks to my collection. Let's check out the haul.

For the second consecutive WonderCon, I commissioned a new Common Elements artwork. This year, the challenge went to the legendary Tony DeZuniga, who agreed to bring together the swashbuckling Zorro and the Justice League's Vixen. I had neglected to bring a picture of Zorro — I mistakenly believed that Tony had drawn the character before — so Tony's charming wife Tina prowled the comics vendors until she found a old Gold Key Zorro comic for Tony to reference.

Here, Tony displays his completed creation.

Alex Niño, one of comics' most distinctive stylists, held court at the table next to Tony's. I took advantage of the opportunity to tell Alex that I'm probably one of maybe five people in the world who owns all twelve issues of Thriller, the fabled series from the '70s on which Alex followed Trevor Von Eeden as artist.

Alex responded with this striking drawing of Taarna, from the film Heavy Metal.

Although we always renew our acquaintance whenever we see each other at a con, it had been a while since I had commissioned a new work from the great Ernie Chan. I rectified this oversight, and Ernie delivered this terrific portrait of Doc Savage and his cousin and fellow adventurer, Pat Savage.

I never pass up a chance to have Ron Lim draw something for me. Ron seemed to enjoy creating this pinup of longtime Fantastic Four comrade-in-arms Thundra.

Last year at WonderCon, I struck gold by stumbling upon Phil Noto, who although not listed as a convention guest was setting up at a table. Could lightning strike twice in the same convention hall? Yes, indeed — once again, I lucked into a commission from the again-unannounced Mr. Noto. Here's Phil's Valkyrie as a work in progress...

...and as a finished product in the hands of the artist.

David Williams, who has contributed delightful art to Marvel's all-ages line in recent years, was the perfect choice to draw Mary Marvel. His Marilynesque take on Mary couldn't be more adorable.

I was elated last year when Aaron Lopresti took over the art chores on one of my favorite series, Ms. Marvel. Thus, when comics news sites reported recently that Aaron was leaving Marvel for DC, I was disappointed... until I learned that his first DC assignment will be as the regular penciler on Wonder Woman. This awesome Storm drawing will satisfy my Lopresti jones until Aaron's first issue of Wonder Woman hits the stands.

I had intended to commission a piece from Sidekick artist Chris Moreno. When I saw this amazing drawing of Ms. Marvel in Chris's portfolio, however, I couldn't imagine him drawing anything that I would enjoy more than this. So I bought it from him. Chris's use of negative space in this piece is stunning.

So that, friend reader, was WonderCon '08. Now you know where the money went.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What's In My Pocket? #5: Kershaw Needs Work

Knives are as challenging to purchase for a true knife fanatic as books are to buy for an avid reader. Even if you know the person well, tastes are hard to predict and interpret. Plus, how do you know what the individual already owns?

That said, KJ knocked a home run when she picked up this little honey for my Christmas stocking.

The Kershaw Model 1820 — better known as the Needs Work — has proven to be a handy member of my everyday carry knife rotation over the past two months. With its three-inch blade, the Needs Work is probably the smallest knife I carry on a regular basis. Its size makes it perfect, however, for occasions when I want my knife to be as unobtrusive as possible, or when I'm wearing trousers whose pocket structure renders a larger knife cumbersome.

True to its name, the Needs Work loves to... well... work. I'm not usually a huge fan of the Wharncliffe blade profile, but this Ken Onion-designed utility knife serves wonderfully well as a routine letter-opener, package cutter, and paper slicer. As an example, one of the art pieces I picked up at WonderCon last weekend (come back on Friday for a review of all the new goodies) was a couple of inches too long to fit my portfolio. The Needs Work trimmed it smoothly to exact specifications in nothing flat.

The Needs Work's blade is fashioned from Kershaw's tough Sandvik 13C26 stainless steel, in which I've become a firm believer thanks to previous purchases. The handle material is a grippy polymer that delivers secure feel in the hand. (It's actually a little too grippy for easy deployment from the pocket, but that's a minor complaint.) Ken Onion's patented SpeedSafe assisted opening action snaps the blade into place with lightning speed, and like every Kershaw I've ever handled, this sucker is wicked sharp.

The ergonomics of this little knife rate aces with me. Because of my thick-fingered, chunky hands, I often find a smaller knife uncomfortable to hold and difficult to manipulate. The Needs Work fits my paw like it was custom-molded. The design of the handle is such that I could cut cardboard all afternoon and not suffer a cramp.

KJ, who knows precious little about pocketknives, got an excellent recommendation on this one, thanks to the guy at the local knife shop where she bought it. Good call, dude! (And thank you, KJ!)

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

I'm Karen for you, Valentine

Happy Valentine's Day to everyone in SSTOL-land! May you live in romantic times.

All this hearts-and-flowers talk has me wondering, though...

Whatever happened to local girl Karen Valentine?

Born and raised just around the corner from here in Sebastopol — then nationally renowned for its apple orchards (now mostly gone, as progress would have it), and later as the one-time residence of cartoonist Charles Schulz — Karen Valentine leaped into TV prominence in 1969 on the seminal academic drama Room 222. As perky, neurotic student teacher (and eventually, full-fledged faculty member) Alice Johnson, Karen quickly became one of 222's focal points.

For those of you too callow to recall, Room 222 broke significant broadcast ground back in the day. The show, set in an inner-city Los Angeles high school, boasted one of network television's first thoroughly integrated casts, headlined by African American actors Lloyd Haynes and Denise Nicholas (who was briefly married to soul singer Bill Withers). The plotlines often dealt with topical issues, such as race relations and the Vietnam War.

But let's face it: It was Karen Valentine we tuned in to see.

After 222 ended in 1974, Karen headlined a short-lived sitcom entitled — not surprisingly — Karen. She also made frequent appearances throughout the '70s as a celebrity panelist on the popular game show Hollywood Squares, before launching a decade-long career as the heroine in a skein of maudlin made-for-TV movies.

Although her IMDB listing reflects sporadic acting credits in recent years, I don't believe I've actually seen Karen in anything in 15 years or more. Unlike the remarkably similar Sally Field, who pushed beyond her youthful roles in Gidget and The Flying Nun to become a respected, Oscar-winning film actress, Karen never quite made the on-camera jump from bubbly, fresh-faced girl to mature, sophisticated adult woman.

Too bad, really.

Wherever you are, Miss Johnson, I hope you're enjoying your Valentine's Day.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The missing Linc

It's Lincoln's Birthday today!

Oh, what a joyous occasion!

Lincoln has always been a hero of mine. He hung tough in the face of adversity and violent opposition. He stood determined in his resolve to battle injustice and hatred. Charismatic, yet possessed with a dignified cool. A champion defender of the disenfranchised, and a staunch advocate for the rights of black Americans.

Plus, his monster Afro and aviator shades were wicked cool.


Oh, you meant this Lincoln...

...not this Lincoln.

Never mind, then. Carry on.


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Monday, February 11, 2008

My dinner with George (Lucas)

Okay, full disclosure...

I didn't actually have dinner with George Lucas.

Or lunch.

Or breakfast.

I've never even met George Lucas. (I did once ride the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland with Maclean Stevenson, but that's a story for another time.)

I did, however, spend last Saturday in the mammoth soundstage recording studio at Lucas's fabled Skywalker Ranch, tucked away in the hills of bucolic western Marin County. My chorus, Voices in Harmony — northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus, just like it says on my official coffee mug — is enjoying the privilege of recording our debut CD (entitled Now and Then, and available for advance purchase, if you're so inclined) at Skywalker Sound.

Over the years, I've known a number of folks who worked at the Lucasfilm complex — none of whom are either space aliens or robots, so far as I can tell — so I was aware going in that the Skywalker Ranch experience would be nowhere near as visually amazing as the kajillion-award-winning film and recording output of the place might suggest. Just to quell a few rumors:
  • The security guard at the front gate does not wear a Stormtrooper's white armor. (I did, however, use my Jedi mental powers to persuade him that my van's passengers and I were not the droids he was looking for.)

  • The crosswalk signs do not read, "Caution: Wookiee Zone."

  • The soundstage does not resemble the Imperial Hall of Alderaan — from the exterior, it looks like a decrepit old winery — and, sad to tell, is not staffed by slave girls in gold metal bikinis. (Although it was Saturday, so the slave girls might have had the day off.)

  • Our audio engineer did not carry a lightsaber, or wear a rebreathing helmet.

  • The only Ewok in evidence was a diminutive, furry-faced fellow standing in our baritone section, and I'm pretty certain he came with us.
Prosaic accoutrement aside, our initial recording experience was still powerful and awe-inspiring. Anyone who loves the cinema couldn't help but "feel a stirring in the Force" while standing in the vast hall where so many memorable orchestral scores have been performed. Looking up at the studio's great movie screen, I could imagine our voices — like a Greek chorus of the Aristotelian period — providing dramatic background for some epic battle sequence between the defenders of truth and the purveyors of evil. (Or perhaps Spaceballs: The Musical.)

The last time I recorded with a chorus, we were 40 men crammed into a narrow bandbox of a joint tiled with carpet remnants. We were lucky to create two or three usable takes in a day's labor. On Saturday, the 85 of us — under the guiding hand of one of the world's most accomplished choral conductors — generated celestial sound that, I'm sure, had angels harmonizing along. We laid down half the tracks for a 16-song CD that would be an insane bargain at five times the cover price. (Hint, hint.)

As we departed the legendary confines of Skywalker Ranch at the end of an exhausting yet productive and enormously gratifying day — our voices weary, our lower extremities in agony, but with rapture in our hearts — I reflected upon the wonder of our communal experience. Making music with a group of talented and like-minded folks truly delivers an ineffable satisfaction to the inner being. I wish you all could have been part of it.

I wish Mr. Lucas could have been part of it, too, but I'm guessing that he was otherwise engaged. His organization is currently busy filming the third Raiders of the Lost Ark sequel. (I think it's called Indiana Jones and the Comfortable Recliner.) Had he been present, I'm certain that he would have been moved.

I know I was.

Is that a tear in my eye...

...or just the sunlight reflecting off the ice fields of Hoth?

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

"They think he's a righteous dude."

Here's a thought for your Fat Tuesday...

Do you know what someone should do? Someone should make a sequel to Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

I'll even get it started.

It's 20 years after Ferris's infamous day off. Ferris has settled into life as a prosperous marketing executive with a major Chicago-based corporation. One morning as he's on his way to work, he stops for a latte at a Starbucks in the ground floor of his office building. By cosmic coincidence, the customer in front of him in line is Sloane Peterson, his high school sweetheart, whom Ferris hasn't seen since they both went off to different colleges nearly two decades earlier.

Ferris and Sloane strike up a conversation over that fine Starbucks java, recapping the events of the past 20 years for one another. As they're talking, they see a homeless man standing outside the window, cadging change from passersby. Imagine their shock when they realize that the scruffy mendicant is their old chum Cameron, whose life has taken a hard left turn over the cliff of despair.

There's only one thing for Ferris to do: Take Cameron on another wild outing through the sights and sounds of Chicago, to help him regain his mojo.

The title: Ferris Bueller's Day Back.

Someone should make that movie.

And if someone makes it without giving me proper screen credit and a sizable renumeration, I will go to their home in the Hollywood hills and puncture their kneecaps with a power drill. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

While they're at it, someone should make a sequel to Bull Durham, too. But I'll save that pitch for another Mardi Gras.

Oh, and don't forget, kids...

For some of us, every Tuesday is Fat Tuesday.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl XLII commercials

At least the game was exciting.

Since the last vestiges of the 49ers dynasty are more than a decade in the rear-view mirror, in recent years I've mostly watched the Super Bowl to check out the commercials.

It's a good thing that Super Bowl Extra-Large Plus Two turned out to be a tightly contested, down-to-the-wire funfest, because this year's Super Bowl ads? Weaker than that Vitamin Water that Shaq the jockey was hawking.

These were the most memorable of a largely forgettable collection:
  • Bud Light: Man Breathes Fire. Any commercial that involves singeing a cat scores in my book. You know how I feel about cats.

  • Tide To Go: Job Interview. For my money, this one did everything an ad is supposed to do: it caught my attention; it stuck in my memory; and most important of all, it made me want to buy the product.

  • Budweiser: Rocky the Clydesdale. Yes, it was cute and hokey, but I loved the horse who finally made the Budweiser coach-pulling team after umpteen attempts, with a little help from his friend the Dalmatian.

  • Planters Nuts: A Dab of Cashew Will Do Ya. A homely woman rocks the pheromone boost she gets from rubbing cashews into her pulse points. This one was all kinds of creepy and weird, but it worked for me.

  • Coca-Cola: Macy's Parade. Three giant balloons get into a fight over a bottle of Coke. Charlie Brown wins. I'm not sure it made me want to slug down a Coke, but it was funny and unique. Plus, it's Charlie Brown, man. Charlie Brown rules.

  • SoBe Life Water: Thriller. Naomi Campbell zombie-dancing with animated lizards to the King of Pop's venerable classic. At least Michael didn't put in an appearance.

  • T-Mobile: Charles Barkley Out-Parties Dwyane Wade. The Round Mound of Rebound still has the magic. Comedy gold.
There were, of course, far more spots that I didn't find amusing or compelling:Wake me up in time for the next Super Bowl. Or better yet, for the Iron Man movie.

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Just call me Uncle Silverback

It's January 31, and you know what that means...

It's National Gorilla Suit Day.

Don't make the same mistake I made last year on this auspicious occasion. I was shopping for necessities in our local Wal-Mart (what can I say... I'm cheap) when I happened to pass a certain simian rifling through the discount DVD bin.

"Pardon me, ma'am," I said, "but that's an exceptionally fine gorilla suit you've donned for National Gorilla Suit Day."

"I'm not wearing a gorilla suit," growled the Wal-Mart denizen, clutching NASCAR's Greatest Laps, Volume 27 in one hairy mitt and a three-disc Chuck Norris retrospective in the other.

Color me embarrassed.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Religious dead pool update

It's an unhealthy week to be the leader of a major religion.

Both Archbishop Christodoulos, the head of the Greek Orthodox church, and Gordon Hinckley, the president of the Latter-Day Saints, died within the past two days.

If you see Pope Benedict and the Dalai Lama checking each other's pulses, you'll understand why.

No one wants to be the third leg of the trifecta.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Playing catch-up

I apologize for the paucity of posts this week. What with KJ's return from her lengthy hospital stay, plus a flood of business-related projects, blogging time has been nigh onto nonexistent.

But fear not, friend reader. Your Uncle Swan has been taking faithful note of the happenings of these past days, and plans to deliver his customary pithy commentary on these goings-on over the weekend. So be sure to drop around.

In the meantime, Grasshopper, be patient.

While you're waiting for maximum bloggage...

Starbucks' special of the month is a delightful Guatemalan coffee called Casi Cielo. It's a little bit citrus, a little bit chocolate, and a veritable cornucopia of coffee flavor. I'm quaffing a cup even as I type, and man, is it ever yummy.

I highly recommend that you bop down to the House of the Green Mermaid — you know it's never more than two minutes away — and grab a pound of this rich caffeinated treat. Uncle Swan gives this one five big tailfeathers out of a possible five. (And no, I don't work for Starbucks. I just dig great coffee.)

Remember: The Swan loves you.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

What's On My Desk? 2008

KM and I just completed our annual post-New Year foray to our local shopping mall, to raid the calendar kiosk during its closeout 50%-off sale.

This year, my desk will be showcasing this calendar:

I haven't had a movie calendar on my desk in a few years, so this will be a pleasant change. In 2007, I reverted, after a hiatus of several years, to The Far Side, which released an authorized desk calendar for the first time in a while. The previous year, if I recall correctly, I used a sampler of "Stupidest Things Ever Said." (I was relieved to note, at year's end, that I had not been quoted.)

In case you're curious, the highlighted film for January 3, 2008 is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (Memo to George W.: You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you.)

For completeness' sake, KM's new 2008 wall calendar features the cast of Heroes. Save the calendar, save the world.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

What were you doing New Year's Eve?

Happy New Year to every friend and associate of this fine blog. May 2008 bring you and your loved ones tremendous good, and none ill.

Whatever 2008 may deliver, we can be assured of one certainty: People will continue to behave in stupid ways. As proof of this assertion, we offer the following, all of which occurred within the final 24 hours of 2007:There's a brightness control on my computer monitor, but adjusting it doesn't make the people I read about on the Internet any brighter. I doubt that will change in 2008.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Even white boys got to shout

One of KM's favorite gifts this Christmas is a wireless FM transmitter that enables her to play the output from her iPod through our car's stereo system. As we were driving home tonight, she was booming "Baby Got Back" — or, as I like to call it, "The National Anthem" — from the speakers.

It's hard to think of another hip-hop or rap single that has made as pervasive an impact on modern pop culture as Sir Mix-a-Lot's infamous paean to the female posterior. An online poll conducted by VH1 last year named "Baby Got Back" the sixth greatest song of the 1990s, and I would not have been surprised if it had landed in the top five.

Which brought to mind two questions:

First: Why is it that some men are predominantly fixated upon women's buttocks, while others are breast fanciers? And why is it that, in America at least, men of color tend to be the former, and men of the Caucasian persuasion the latter?

It's clearly cultural, not genetic, if my own experience is any gauge — my DNA hails from both western-central Africa and northern Europe, but I've always been in the Mix-a-Lot camp. Not that I'm exclusive in that regard, mind you. I love pizza, but it's not the only food I crave, if you know what I mean... and I think you do.

Clearly, additional research is in order. I'll get back to you.

Second: Am I the only human alive who waxes nostalgic about The Watcher, that weird UPN series in which Sir Mix-a-Lot starred in the mid-'90s? (Like the other newcomer networks, UPN was so desperate for programming in its early seasons that practically anything that could be filmed might turn up on its air. Remember when FOX first started, and they were throwing on stuff like Werewolf and The New Adventures of Beans Baxter? Ye gods.)

For the 300 million of my fellow Americans who didn't tune in to this bizarre little morsel of televised fare, Mix-a-Lot played a nameless cyber-voyeur who lived in the penthouse of a Las Vegas hotel-casino. The walls of the Watcher's suite were lined with monitors, through which he could access the video feed from any surveillance camera in America's most hard-wired metropolis.

The show was a dramatic anthology, a Twilight Zone rip-off with the old Mix-Master introducing a trio of strange vignettes, usually dark morality tales. Most of the stories ended with the kind of forced twists that would have ended up in the Night Gallery slush pile, or at the conclusion of an M. Night Shyamalan flick. The portly Mix-a-Lot would reappear between stories to mock the unfortunate characters in sardonic tones.

Whoever signed off on the decision to cast a one-hit-wonder rapper as a Serlingesque interlocutor was some kind of mad genius. Or perhaps just mad, period.

I seem to recall that all of the female characters on The Watcher sported remarkably prominent glutei maximi. That could just be wishful thinking on my part, though.

Some enterprising house DJ should concoct a mash-up of "Baby Got Back," Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls," and Spinal Tap's "Big Bottom," and release it as a digital download. I'd snag that for my iPod.

If I had an iPod, that is.

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Now we are (forty-) six

Another year, another birthday.

The girls got me one of the two things I really wanted: Schulz and Peanuts, David Michaelis's controversial biography of cartoonist and local legend Charles Schulz.

I'm looking forward to reading it, so that I can see what all the furor is about.

The second thing I wanted, I found for myself on eBay: A DVD-ROM set containing every issue of Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer published by Marvel Comics through December 2006. (I already own the version that compiles all the back issues of The Amazing Spider-Man.)

Graphic Imaging Technology, the company that created these software libraries, is losing its publishing license from Marvel at the end of this month (Marvel has decided to offer its own online subscription archive service instead), so these items will no longer be manufactured after the first of the year. (You'll be able to hunt them up on eBay indefinitely.) I still want to get the Avengers version while it's available cheap. [UPDATE: Score! I found the Avengers DVD-ROM for a nice price on eBay. Happy birthday, me!]

Birthday greetings have already begun to pour in. I've received voice mail messages from my friend Donna, and from my cell phone service provider. (I'm pretty sure that Donna wasn't schmoozing me for more business.)

At my advanced age, I have much to be grateful for. I'm in decent health for a middle-aged fat guy. I'm surrounded by people who love me (or at least are willing to tolerate me, which is kind of the same thing). I spend at least some part of every day doing something I enjoy. I'm not in prison — they've never been able to make those charges stick — I'm not in debt, and I'm not in the cemetery.

As the great Joe Walsh once said, life's been good to me so far.

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Monday, December 10, 2007

We got your human rights right here

How ironic that, on Human Rights Day — the date on which the United Nations issued the first global declaration on human rights — the White House orders Presidential press secretary Dana Perino not to comment on the CIA's destruction of videotapes showing terror suspects being tortured.

Because torture doesn't really have anything to do with human rights.

So, happy Human Rights Day...

Unless you're a prisoner — or an employee — of the Bush administration.

In which case, you don't have any.

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