Thursday, April 02, 2009

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

The literate souls among you know, of course, that it was Juvenal, the Roman poet, who posed the infamous question above. Although the words can be variously translated from the Latin, the most familiar English rendering is...

"Who watches the watchmen?"

In the case of the film of that latter name, the answer, apparently, is...

"I do."

This afternoon, I spent nearly three hours alone in a darkened theater (I was literally the only patron) viewing director Zach Snyder's Watchmen, the cinematic iteration of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's seminal 1985 graphic novel. At least, of Dave Gibbons's work — he's recognized in the film's opening credits as the book's "co-creator and illustrator" — as Moore, in a characteristic fit of auteurist pique, refused to allow his name to be mentioned in connection with Snyder's movie.

Although I avoided reading any in-depth reviews before seeing the film for myself, I'm aware from the chatter on various comic-related forums I frequent that comic fandom is of divided mind about Snyder's work. Some diehard Watchmen loyalists decried the liberties Snyder took in bringing the graphic novel to the screen. Others enjoyed — or didn't enjoy — the movie on its own merits.

For myself, I wasn't a fan of the original work back when it first appeared, and I haven't reread it in the 24 years since. (I own a copy of the trade paperback that I'm going to get around to eventually. I promise.) Thus, I was able to approach the film with no ax to grind.

And I kind of liked it.

Given that he was working from a byzantine story told in static visuals that had been widely believed unfilmable, I think Snyder delivered about as good a Watchmen movie as it's possible to make. He managed to be remarkably faithful to the book (to the degree that I remember it), while at the same time incorporating elements that lent themselves to more effective cinematic presentation. Watchmen has, in that respect, a great deal in common with Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which does an outstanding job at bringing Tolkien's story and characters alive, while also being savvy about where to deviate for the sake of good filmmaking.

I'm not saying, by any stretch of the imagination, that Watchmen is the equal of The Lord of the Rings. That would be like comparing an In-N-Out Burger with a sirloin of Kobe beef. One is clearly superior to the other, but they're cut from similar cows.

One of the key evaluative measures for me with any movie is what I call "the watch test." That is to say: Does the film hold my difficult-to-corral attention, or do I find myself glancing at my watch, wondering how soon the agony will end? Watchmen (no pun intended) passes the watch test — despite its daunting length, I only needed a single peek at the time (during a slow stretch about halfway through). Any film that keeps chronically distracted me engaged for two hours and 42 minutes with only a single momentary hiccup is doing a lot of things well.

Is Watchmen a perfect movie? Well, no. Some of the same elements that turned me off to Moore and Gibbons's original bugged me here — the intense, often graphic violence; the nihilistic worldview; the illogical (dare I say ridiculous?) behavior of many of the characters. And while I, unlike the hardcore aficionados, found the film's version of the story's dénouement an improvement over the book, it's still painfully silly. I also question several of Snyder's casting choices, especially the vapid Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre the younger (I'm sure she's a nice girl, but she can't act a lick), and Matthew Goode as an embarrassingly effete Ozymandias (about as imposing as Jonathan Pryce's media-mogul Bond villain in Tomorrow Never Dies, which is to say, not).

Those quibbles aside, a lot of the film works.

Jackie Earle Haley is brilliant as Rorschach, the most haunted of the Watchmen. Indeed, Haley's work here is every inch as strong as the late Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning turn in The Dark Knight, only Haley's performance has the added benefit of subtlety. (Not to mention the fact that he spends most of the film behind a CGI-enhanced mask.) I also very much enjoyed Patrick Wilson as Nite Owl — the only truly likable character in the main cast — and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the vicious Comedian. Billy Crudup does what he can with the central, but ultimately thankless, role of the emotionless superbeing Dr. Manhattan.

In smaller roles, it was a treat to see the underused, underappreciated Matt "Max Headroom" Frewer as a former bad guy trying to go straight, and of course, I'd watch Carla Gugino (who plays the senior Silk Spectre, mostly under cover of old-age makeup) read the phone book.

The special effects are good, if not magnificent, throughout the movie. (One key annoyance: The CGI Dr. Manhattan, performed by Crudup with the aid of motion capture, never looks quite right. I never for a moment believed that he was actually in the frame with the other actors.) The costume and set designs, on the other hand, are outstanding, conveying the sensibility of the comic while adapting beautifully to realistic live-action.

And, in case the R rating wasn't a ginormous tip-off, Watchmen is most emphatically not a film for children. It comes replete with several scenes of close-up, grisly violence, one fairly explicit sex scene (albeit one that seems essential to the development of the two characters involved), and an abundance of full-frontal male nudity in the form of the naked, blue, and prodigiously endowed (albeit by way of CGI) Dr. Manhattan. Don't say I didn't warn you.

If you're a Watchmen fanatic, you've probably already seen Watchmen, or decided to stay home and page through your sweat-stained comics instead. I can't help you in either case. If, on the other hand, you're up for a dark superhero action flick that won't short you on your ten-buck admission, you just might dig it.

Uncle Swan gives Watchmen three-and-a-half tailfeathers out of a possible five.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Maybe you.

Oh, yeah... one tiny continuity error in Watchmen drove me positively bonkers. In the novel, the junior Silk Spectre's real name is Laurie Juspeczyk. Throughout the movie, as well as in the closing credits, the character is referred to as Laurie Jupiter, suggesting that she adopted the pseudonym used by her mother and predecessor, who was known as Sally Jupiter. However, there's a scene in which Laurie tries on Nite Owl's high-tech goggles, which employ fingerprint-recognition software to identify anyone viewed through their lenses. When she looks at her own hand, the readout displays, "Laurie Juspeczyk."

Darn hear ruined the movie for me.

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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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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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Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Breakfast of cheapskates

Today's blogging is fueled by Don Francisco's Breakfast Blend coffee, a free sample of which I received in yesterday's mail.

You know your Uncle Swan's motto: If it's free, it's for me.

According to the Don Francisco site, their Breakfast Blend is "a gourmet blend designed to help the morning person start the day with gusto." Since I am the further possible creature from "the morning person" (if you look up "morning person" in the dictionary, I'm listed as an antonym), this clearly is not the coffee for me. Which may explain why I'm not enjoying it more.

It's decent enough for what I would think of as supermarket-grade coffee. The flavor profile is dark, not especially complex, and leaves a unpleasantly bitter aftertaste. Part of the problem, I think, is that the beans are ground much too fine. It might make a good espresso, if you like that sort of thing (I don't, particularly), but it's been pulverized too aggressively for use in a drip coffeemaker like my reliable Mr. Coffee.

I've actually purchased a fair amount of Don Francisco's coffee over the years. If you enjoy flavored coffee, they offer some nice varieties. Their Vanilla Nut and Butterscotch Toffee are both pretty tasty as a change of pace from the pure and natural. For the non-hardcore cafficionado, the Don's flavored coffees might be just the ticket. (Stay away from the Eggnog flavor, though. It's cloying and, for lack of a better term, peculiar.)

As for the Breakfast Blend, I'm only giving it two tailfeathers out of a possible five.

A good way to liberate your taste buds from a less-than-excellent free sample is the current featured coffee at your local Starbucks. I've been brewing Bella Vista F.W. Tres Rios (trust me, it's better than that ridiculous appellation makes it sound) every morning for the past few weeks, and it's much more along the lines of what I'd envision a perfect breakfast coffee to be. It's bright and tangy, with a clean, crisp, tropical flavor that finishes smooth and goes down easy.

B.V.F.W.T.R. (did you really think I was typing out that entire moniker again?) is available for a limited time, so get yourself on over to the Sign of the Naked Fish-Tailed Lady and pick up a bag or two while it's still around.

At least now I'm awake.

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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 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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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Serenade your love muffin with a Singing Valentine!

Hello, young lovers. (Hey, we're all lovers, and young at heart if not in chronology, right? So, yeah, I'm talking to you.)

Valentine's Day is fast approaching, and you're out there thinking (I know, because I can hear you)...

"What can I do to make this a memorable Valentine's Day for my special someone? Flowers? Done that. Chocolates? Done that. Lingerie? How much Victoria's Secret does one relationship need, really?"

I've got the answer right here for you, bunkie.

Send your significant other (or someone you'd like to persuade to be your significant other, or just otherwise impress) a Singing Valentine, delivered by a quartet of talented vocalists from the International Bronze Medal-winning Voices in Harmony, northern California's premier men's a cappella ensemble!

Now, I know what you're thinking (I can hear you, remember? kind of scary, huh?)...

Voices in Harmony is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, and my sweetness lives way the heck out in the boondocks of East Bumbershoot, New Hampshire. How can VIH serenade my objet d'amour from such a daunting distance?

Have no fear, friend Romeo! (Or friend Juliet — we're equal opportunity Cupids here.)

In addition to our live-and-in-person Singing Valentine service available throughout the central and south Bay Area, VIH can deliver an audio Singing Valentine by phone, or a video Singing Valentine via e-mail, anywhere your heart desires! (Within the limits of current technology, of course.)

Telephonic Singing Valentines cost a mere $20. Video Singing Valentines are a steal at $35. It's a pittance either way, considering the benefits you could score (if you know what I mean, and I think you do) once your dreamboat experiences the ear-caressing, heart-touching vocal magic of Voices in Harmony.

Singing Valentine deliveries can be scheduled throughout Valentine's Day weekend, February 13 through 15. That means triple the opportunities to dazzle your certain someone.

So, why are you still reading this? Pop on over to Voices in Harmony Central and order up some Singing Valentine love!

You know you want to.

While you're visiting the Voices in Harmony site, why not order a copy of our debut CD, Now & Then?

This spectacular album, recorded in the world-famous, Oscar-winning studios at Lucasfilms' Skywalker Ranch, has just been nominated as Best Barbershop Album of 2008 by the Contemporary A Cappella Society.

Don't let that word "barbershop" throw you — Now & Then contains rich choral interpretations of modern classics ranging from The Turtles to Bobby Darin, from Barbra Streisand to Billy Joel, from Disney to Hank Williams. We even toss in a dash of Sinatra, just to show that we can still kick it old school.

A Now & Then CD adds the perfect accompaniment to a Singing Valentine. (Did I mention that Singing Valentines start at just $20? That's practically insane.)

Now go, grasshopper, and let your plastic do the talking.

Tell 'em your Uncle Swan sent you.

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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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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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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Chip and a chair, baby!

Online Poker

I have registered to play in the PokerStars World Blogger Championship of Online Poker!

The WBCOOP is an online Poker tournament open to all Bloggers.

Registration code: 530517

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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, November 26, 2008

Seven argument foods: North Bay edition

A while back, Mark Evanier offered the observation that there are seven foods that immediately engender impassioned argument whenever gourmands debate the question, "Where can you get the best...?"
  1. Hamburgers
  2. Pizza
  3. Chinese food
  4. Barbecue
  5. Philly cheesesteaks
  6. Hot dogs
  7. Clam chowder
I've been pondering Mark's list for the past several days. Now, I'm prepared to take a stab at starting a food fight.

Hamburgers. I'm not a serious burger connoisseur. In fact, I'd never order one in a restaurant unless it was the only item on the menu. But if I had a sudden craving for a steaming slab of ground cow, I'd go to Mike's at the Crossroads in Cotati. Mike's serves ginormous, sloppy gutbusters made from Harris Ranch beef, with a sumptuous array of fixings. For years, Mike's gimmick was that they didn't serve French fries. ("Mike don't like 'em," went the tagline.) Now that original owner Mike Condrin has sold the joint, you can get fries one day each week, I'm told.

Pizza. Around here, there's only one contender: Mary's Pizza Shack, a local chain that makes truly awesome pizza. The problem with Mary's pizza is that it doesn't travel well. The thin crust gets soggy quickly, so it's a poor choice for takeout. (We usually opt for Round Table, the big West Coast chain, if we're taking pizza home.) But if you're going to hang out in a pizza joint and eat off plates with a knife and fork, Mary's your girl.

Chinese food. Like most places in California, we have Chinese restaurants on practically every corner. The best in the area, however, isn't in town — it's twenty miles down the freeway in Novato. Jennie Low's, located in the Vintage Oaks shopping center on U.S. 101 in north Marin, serves some of the most sublime Chinese food I've eaten. And I've eaten a small planet in Chinese. Jennie opened a second location in Petaluma last year, but I haven't yet tried that one.

Barbecue. For whatever reason, great barbecue joints don't last long in this foodie mecca. Three excellent places — Richardson's Ribs, Pack Jack BBQ, and Terry's — have all gone the way of the passenger pigeon in recent years. The best of what's left is Porter Street Barbeque (yeah, that's how they spell it) in Cotati. Porter Street does a very nice job with ribs and tri-tip, though I've noticed the quality isn't quite as consistent since their cook passed away suddenly a few years back.

Philly cheesesteaks. Outside of the big chain sandwich shops like Quizno's, I don't know of any place around here that specializes in cheesesteaks, other than a vendor at the Sonoma County Fair that offers a decent version for two weeks every summer. If I were dying for authentic cheesesteak, I'd drive down to the East Bay and sniff out an outlet of a local chain called The Cheesesteak Shop. I've eaten on several occasions at their Pleasanton location, and it's the real deal.

Hot dogs. For me, there's only one place to eat a hot dog, and that's at a baseball game. The concession stands at AT&T Park in San Francisco serve as good a frankfurter as one could ask. Usually, though, I opt for either the Polish sausage or the Louisiana hot links. Both are outstanding. If you insist on sticking with the traditional, you can't go wrong with the standard Giants Dog.

Clam chowder. When you live less than an hour's drive (in non-commute traffic) from San Francisco, the West Coast capital of clam chowder, this one's a tough call. I guess I'll have to vote for Lucas Wharf in Bodega Bay. It's been quite a while since we've eaten there, but I recall the clam chowder with particular fondness.

Them's my choices. Let the chow-slinging begin!

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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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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Dawn of a new day

Did Obama still win?

Yes, it appears that he did.

There may be a handful of folks surprised that the sun rose this morning, on the day after an African American man was elected the 44th President of the United States. But it did. And, I suspect, that handful is smaller than it ever would have been before today.

What still stuns me most is not so much the fact of Obama's victory — although, to be honest, I'm considerably stunned by that alone — but the nature of that victory. Just consider the popular vote: Obama's 52.4% (which may change by a tenth of a point either way, once all of the absentee and provisional ballots are tallied) is the highest mark for any President-elect in 20 years. By way of comparison, Ronald Reagan racked up only 50.7% in 1980, running against a hugely unpopular Jimmy Carter.

Obama won Florida. He won Virginia. He won Indiana, for crying out loud — I would not have believed that possible, based upon my brief personal experiences in that state. North Carolina's 15 electoral votes may yet fall into Obama's column — we're talking about the state that kept the virulently racist Jesse Helms gainfully employed for decades. Obama got 56% of the vote in New Mexico, and 54% in Iowa. He garnered 55% in Nevada, which, despite its proximity to California and its legendary embrace of casino gambling and legalized prostitution (only in counties with populations under 50,000, though — not in cities like Las Vegas or Reno), is a fairly conservative place with a sizable Mormon citizenry.

The overall popular vote favored Obama by roughly six percentage points, which is fairly close to the final pre-election aggregate of the major polls. The vaunted Bradley Effect didn't manifest itself to any significant degree — which, again, surprises me, but not as much as it might have a decade ago.

As ludicrous as it sounds, I think that popular culture helped pave the way for a President who just happens to be African American. Millions of people saw Morgan Freeman as President Tom Beck in the movie Deep Impact; who's not cool with Morgan Freeman? (Well, maybe his soon-to-be-ex-wife, but that's another issue.) Millions more watched Dennis Haysbert as President David Palmer on the first three seasons of 24; Haysbert was so authoritative and reassuring that he's now the "you're in good hands with Allstate" guy. D.B. Woodside then followed Haysbert to the 24 White House as President Wayne Palmer, David's brother and indirect successor. (I was going to mention Chris Rock as President Mays Gilliam in Head of State... but that's probably not a good example.) Seeing these talented African American actors playing strong, capable, decisive Presidents may — even at a subconscious level — have planted the notion in people's minds that, yeah, okay, a black guy could be President. You've gotta name it before you can claim it, as the saying goes.

Certainly, for President-to-be Obama, the tough journey is only beginning. Getting elected is one thing; governing effectively enough to get re-elected is entirely another, as former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush could relate. Everything we've seen of Obama gives me confidence that he's equal to the challenge. How great a President he will be, only time will tell. But he will be President, which in itself is something special.

The additional symbolism of Obama as our 44th President resonates with me, too. One of my favorite baseball players of all time is Willie "Stretch" McCovey, the long-time San Francisco Giant whose number 44 hangs in retired glory at AT&T Park. McCovey was a smooth, cool, easygoing man whose quiet authority made him a respected team leader, and ultimately, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. His 1959 selection as National League Rookie of the Year, 1969 National League Most Valuable Player Award, six All-Star appearances, and 521 home runs — including a National League record 18 grand slams — contributed also. The Giants' annual "most inspirational player" honor, the Willie Mac Award, bears McCovey's name.

Although he won't take office for another 76 days, Obama 44 is already in the running for that "most inspirational" tag.

Now, he'll have to earn it.

In local election news, I was glad to see that my neighbors passed Measure Q, which provides funding (via a quarter-cent sales tax increase) for the SMART passenger-rail system. SMART will run from Cloverdale, Sonoma County's northernmost outpost, to Larkspur in Marin County, where the Golden Gate Ferry terminal is located, with 14 stops in between. SMART has been on the ballot at least twice before, and has lost narrowly each time, mostly due to opposition from Marin County interests. (In 2006, SMART received 65.3% of the combined Sonoma-Marin vote, just short of the two-thirds majority required for a sales tax hike.)

In this era of high energy costs, and given the perennially impacted commute corridor on U.S. 101, SMART makes excellent sense. The railway easement, a now-dormant line formerly operated by Union Pacific, already exists. Now that funding is approved, SMART should be up and running by 2013.

On a related note, it looks as though California voters also approved Proposition 1A, a bond measure that will help fund a high-speed rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles, with eventual extensions to San Diego in the south and Sacramento in the north. Again, this transportation solution is an idea whose time has long since come, and I hope that the measure is officially passed once all of the votes are counted.

All right, election over. Everybody back to work.

One more quick note: This morning on KCBS News Radio, I heard a psychologist talking about the effects of Post-Event Energy Deficiency, a condition many folks may be suffering in the aftermath of an intense and attention-commanding election. That's as may be... but that condition would benefit from a better acronym.

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

We like Zeppelins!

On a list of human-designed things that I think look pretty cool, Zeppelins would rank near the top.

Starting next month, the world's largest Zeppelin will be flying over my house on a regular basis.

I think that's wicked cool.

Airship Ventures, a Silicon Valley startup, begins charter flights with its newly acquired, 246-foot-long Zeppelin later this week. Although the craft is headquartered at Moffett Field north of San Jose, where three mammoth Zeppelin hangars have stood empty since World War II, Airship Ventures will fly regular tours out of our very own Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport beginning next month.

Cruising the Wine Country skies in a humongous German-built gasbag (filled with non-flammable helium, for the comfort of those who've seen that Hindenburg video on YouTube) isn't a cheap date. A one-hour ride will set you back $525 — that's per person, not for the entire 12-passenger vessel — while a two-hour tour will cost $975 a head. (I guess they're not offering three-hour tours, lest the ship get stranded on an uncharted desert island.)

If you really want to party like a rock star, you and eleven of your closest personal friends can pony up $6,100 and have the joint all to yourselves for an hour. Assuming you can get your business handled in 60 minutes, you and your significant other could probably join the 1,350 Feet High Club for the same amount, if that was copacetic with the captain. But you'd probably want to ask permission first. (The Zeppelin's captain, it's interesting to note, is Katharine Board, the world's only female Zeppelin pilot. We're all about the gender equality out here by the Bay.)

In addition to the Wine Country spectacular, tours will be available out of Airship Ventures' Moffett Field home, as well as Oakland International Airport. If you're hankering to shell out beaucoup bucks for an bird's-eye view of Silicon Valley (yawn) or Oakland (ugh), knock yourself out.

As for me and my excruciatingly acrophobic self, I'll be content simply to view the giant inflatable spud from ground level, and wave to the tourists as they pass overhead.

In case anyone's confused, the difference between a Zeppelin and a blimp — aside from the cachet of the imposing Zeppelin name, as opposed to that prosaic and flaccid-sounding other word — is structural. A Zeppelin has an interior skeleton made of lightweight metal; a blimp is just a big balloon.

Incidentally, I wasn't kidding earlier about my affection for Zeppelins. One of my most prized pieces of comic art is a double-sheet spread featuring a Zeppelin. It's pages 6 and 7 from Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze: The Monarch of Armageddon #1, with pencils by Darryl Banks and inks by Robert Lewis. You can see the two halves of the piece here and here. (Sorry I don't have a combined scan to show you, but my Photoshop skills suck. Use your imagination.) This beauty hangs on permanent display in our living room, right over the television. It's often more appealing than whatever's on the tube.

Spongmonkeys like Zeppelins, too. But not as much as the moon.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Gateway to Fresno

They say there's no such thing as a coincidence, and perhaps they're right. (I'm still not certain who "they" are, but that's a conversation for another time.)

If it's not coincidental, it's definitely ironic that, after winning its first bronze medal in International competition in Nashville this past July, my chorus should win its first District championship in the city dubbed "Nashville West." That's Bakersfield, California, the former home of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, for those of you not up to speed on your country music trivia.

For indeed, it was in Bakersfield — so named because one Colonel Thomas Baker planted an alfalfa field on the site many moons ago — that Voices in Harmony (Northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus; but then, you knew that) found ourselves this past weekend, for the annual convention of the Far Western District of the Barbershop Harmony Society.

Of the Society's 16 districts, the Far Western District spans the largest population base, encompassing California, Nevada, Arizona, and Hawaii. It's also a talent powerhouse: Both the reigning International Champion chorus (the Masters of Harmony, from Los Angeles County) and International Champion quartet (OC Times, from Orange County) hail from the FWD. (As noted above, Voices in Harmony is currently the third-place International chorus. Just thought I'd throw that in again.) Thus, winning in this ultra-competitive region marks a significant accomplishment.

This is my third time as a member of the FWD chorus champion. My former chorus won back-to-back titles in 1999 and 2000, the second of which was contested on the very same Bakersfield stage. That last was a challenging time: KJ was first diagnosed with breast cancer three weeks prior to the contest, and she had just undergone the surgical phase of her treatment. I was inclined to stay home, but she insisted — vehemently, as I recall — that I make the trip anyway. When I arrived in downtown Bakersfield, the streetlights were festooned with banners reminding me that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As I said... a challenging time.

Now, eight years later, KJ accompanied me to the tailbone of the San Joaquin Valley. Despite her often excruciating physical limitations, we had a fine time. We witnessed an outstanding quartet contest, won by a stellar foursome called Masterpiece (my fellow Voice, Alan Gordon, is the baritone in this future International champion). KJ renewed several old acquaintances within the Voices in Harmony family. And of course, there was that District chorus championship business.

Most of our contingent lodged at the Doubletree Hotel, which happened also to be hosting a group of hot rod automobile enthusiasts who, like ourselves, were convening in Bakersfield over the weekend. It appeared to KJ and me that the local "professional women's community" (if you know what I mean, and I think you do) made a sizable profit entertaining the gents from the hot rod (no pun intended) convention. At the very least, the legitimate female companions of the hot rodders shop for their clothing and accouterments at the same purveyors that cater to the local "professional women's community." Suffice it to say that copious quantities of alcohol were consumed, and that a well-lubricated (no pun intended) time was enjoyed by these sons of the open road and their lady friends.

When we weren't in rehearsals, attending the contests, or stepping over inebriated courtesans in the hotel lobby, KJ and I managed to find several surprisingly decent places to eat in Bakersfield. If you happen to be passing through, we recommend that you stop in at any of these fine establishments:
  • Coconut Joe's Island Grill, a kitschy joint in a downtown shopping center that specializes in faux-Hawaiian "beach food." If you like Jimmy Buffett records and the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland, you'll love this. Try the fish tacos — they're served with a delightfully tangy sauce that would probably render chunks of drywall edible.

  • J's Place, a funky little hole-in-the-wall that dishes up the tastiest Southern-style cooking I've had since the late, lamented Terry's closed up shop here in Santa Rosa. I ordered a bountiful plate of fried catfish that was as delicious as any I've eaten. KJ liked their enchilada special. I'm advised that the fried chicken and waffles are excellent, too.

  • Hodel's Country Dining, where we enjoyed a very respectable Sunday brunch. KJ's custom omelette was nicely prepared, and I enjoyed the quiche-like egg-and-cheese concoction enough to go back for seconds. Hodel's biscuits deserve their sterling regional reputation. Bonus points: Our waitress shared her first name with our daughter.
So that's the view of Bakersfield from my rear-view mirror.

If you happen to live (or are spending Thanksgiving weekend) in the Bay Area, and you'd like to kick off your Christmas / Hanukkah / Kwanzaa / Tet / insert-your-favorite-celebration-here season with the newly crowned Far Western District champions, buy your tickets now for our annual concert extravaganza, Unwrap the Holidays with Voices in Harmony. It's Saturday, November 29, at downtown San Jose's historic California Theatre. We've got music, we've got laughter, we've got glorious red tuxedos. Join us!

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Ain't no party like an Orthodox party

On Saturday, KJ and I attended the 20th anniversary of Glendi, the annual ethnic food fair sponsored by the local Russian Orthodox church.

Sonoma County's Russian heritage stretches back more than two centuries, when Russian traders established settlements in the area. A handful of geographic names — our primary waterway, the Russian River; the West County town of Sebastopol — serve as reminders of this historical connection.

Saint Seraphim of Sarov hosts Glendi (which means "party" in Greek) the third weekend of September every year. And every September, we see the placards all over town and say to each other, "We should go." Then other things intervene, or we simply forget. This year, we planned ahead.

The fair spotlights the food of nations where Orthodox religion is the dominant faith: Greece, Russia, the Balkans, and Eritrea. Because I spent two years in Greece during my youth, I harbor a fondness for Greek cuisine. Thus, I was looking forward to sampling some authentic Greek eats, as well as other delicacies.

Before we ventured into the food court, KJ and I stopped to view the sanctuary of Saint Seraphim, which the church is in the process of renovating. Although Saint Seraphim is culturally Russian, its architecture and iconography bears strong similarities to those of the Greek churches I often visited on Crete and in Athens. KJ had never seen anything like it, and was fascinated by the frescoes. One of the priests was leading a tour, explaining the process of fresco painting.

In the food court, we salivated over the numerous offerings. KJ enjoyed a juicy pork kabob and a tasty serving of spanakopita. I dined on a portion of perfectly roasted, sliced lamb, then dug into a plate of zigni, a spicy Eritrean beef stew that reminded me of a sharp-flavored chili, which I sopped up with a hunk of a spongy bread called ingera. After we walked around for a bit, I found room for a gyro piled high with meat, tomatoes, and cucumbers smothered in tangy tzatziki.

All of the food was spectacular — cooked fresh on the premises with obvious passion, by folks thoroughly steeped in the representative cuisines. And it was fun to watch our fellow clueless Americanos stumbling through eastern European dance steps in and around stuffing their faces.

As we departed with a package of dessert pastries for noshing later, we silently kicked ourselves for missing the Glendi experience during the previous two decades. We'll be sure to mark the calendar well in advance of next September.

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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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Thursday, September 11, 2008

A little music, Now and Then

One of the things that I hope our regular readers appreciate is that we don't often attempt to sell you stuff here at SSTOL.

We don't have ads on this blog — I'm not criticizing blogs that post ads, mind you; I'm merely observing that we don't — and I don't take up your valuable reading time by pitching products at you nonstop. Oh, sure, on occasion I'll mention a coffee I enjoy drinking or a great book that I've read, but I don't get a kickback if you run over to Starbucks or Amazon and buy something. We're just friends sharing information.

Today, however, is that rare day when I hope to persuade you to spend a few bucks. Fifteen, to be precise.

My chorus, Voices in Harmony — winners of a third-place bronze medal in International competition this past July 4th — is announcing the release of our debut CD, entitled Now and Then.

The album features an even dozen songs performed by northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus (it says so right on the CD jacket), spanning six decades of American popular music (it says that, too).

As added bonuses, the CD includes one cut each from two exceptional quartets: Realtime, the Barbershop Harmony Society's International Quartet Champions in 2005; and Late Show, whom I predict will be International Champions sometime in the not-too-distant future. (Memo to Late Show: I accept cash.)

Here's the track list:
  • Happy Together
  • Beyond the Sea
  • The Way We Were
  • Pieces of Dreams (Little Boy Lost)
  • Hey Good Lookin'
  • Surfer Girl (performed by Late Show)
  • There Used to Be a Ballpark Right Here
  • This Is Some Lucky Day (with a guest appearance by Realtime)
  • And So It Goes
  • Smoke Gets In Your Eyes
  • With a Little Help From My Friends (performed by Realtime)
  • Diane
  • Little Pal
  • In a Shanty in Old Shanty Town
As I've mentioned in this space previously, Now and Then was recorded at Lucasfilm's world-famous Skywalker Ranch, which means that the audio quality is nothing short of phenomenal. If you close your eyes and listen attentively, you can hear Wookiees trilling (or whatever it is that Wookiees do) on the low notes. Even if you've heard a cappella choral recordings before, trust me — you've not heard a blend quite like this. (Even my thoroughly average singing couldn't muck this up.)

Sadly, as much as I love every SSTOL reader, I can't afford to buy you each your own copy of Now and Then. (Unless your name is Donna and you live in Stephen King's backyard, in which case, yours is in the mail.) The good news is that for a mere fifteen simoleons (plus a nominal shipping and handling charge), you can buy a copy your own darn self. And I highly recommend that you do.

So skedaddle on over to the Voices in Harmony order site and slap down your plastic. (While you're there, you can listen to some enticing preview tracks from the album.)

Tell 'em your Uncle Swan sent you, and our ace fulfillment staff will... I don't know... wave a lightsaber over your CD before they mail it. Or something. Who cares? Just go buy one. You'll be gloriously ecstatic that you did. (We will, too.)

And may the Force be with you.

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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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Tuesday, September 09, 2008

I gaze, therefore I drink

Today's edition of SSTOL is fueled in part by Starbucks Gazebo Blend coffee, which the folks behind the Sign of the Naked Fish-Tailed Lady describe as "created for summertime."

It seems a mite peculiar to be quaffing this particular brew on the first truly autumnal day here in Wine Country — dark, densely overcast, and downright chilly (only 57 degrees, and it's almost noon) — but it's what I have on hand.

Atmospherics aside, it still drinks quite well.

Gazebo Blend is an amalgam of East African coffees, which suits my tastes perfectly. Kenya, my all-time favorite Starbucks coffee, is native to the same region (and likely includes some of the same varietals). Gazebo shares some of Kenya's bright, acidic, citrus-like character, but it strikes my palate as richer, deeper in flavor, and slightly less sharp than Kenya. That makes Gazebo neither better nor worse than my old standby; it's merely a similar-yet-different sort of contrast.

What it lacks in Kenya's distinctive tang, Gazebo more than makes up in comforting drinkability. Starbucks suggests that Gazebo translates nicely into iced coffee, and I can well imagine that it would — although it seems a waste to me to suppress the flavor of excellent coffee by burying it in a blended drink. That's what the house blend is for.

Alas, Gazebo Blend is one of Starbucks' seasonal offerings, and I don't believe it's available at this moment. (I'm working toward the end of a bag I bought last month.) But toss a note in your Google Calendar to watch for its return next summer. If you like your coffee snappy and sunny, you'll get a kick out of Gazebo Blend.

Even if you don't own a gazebo.

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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 19, 2008

My new best friend: Throat Coat

In the main, I tend to be skeptical of folk remedies, homeopathic medicines, and such like. (I think astrology is bunk, too.)

I'm a convert, though, to Throat Coat, an herbal tea from the fine folks at Traditional Medicinals. Because I make my living using my voice, I'm game to try anything that might help me preserve its function — especially when I'm battling some kind of upper respiratory bug, as I have been lately. Throat Coat came highly recommended by colleagues in the speaking business, as well as a number of professional vocalists, so I decided to give it a whirl.

What do you know? It works. And despite the word "medicinal" in the company name, it's perfectly palatable from a flavor perspective. It's slightly sweet, with a hint of earthy spiciness.

According to the box, Throat Coat contains as its key ingredient something called slippery elm. I'm certain that, now that I'm ingesting the stuff on a regular basis, some scientific study will soon appear, indicting slippery elm as a root cause of esophageal cancer, nervous system dysfunction, and early-onset Alzheimer's. But for the moment, I'm enjoying the fact that it keeps my throat lubricated without creating phlegm.

Uncle Swan's bottom line: Throat Coat isn't exactly a miracle panacea, but it does make my throat feel better. If you're a yakker or singer -- or, like myself, both -- try steeping yourself a cup and see whether it helps.

It probably can't hurt.


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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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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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Friday, May 02, 2008

Amazin' armor

Tomorrow — Saturday, May 3, in case you're stumbling into the room a trifle late — is Free Comic Book Day.

Your participating local comics retailer will have on hand a selection of comic books from which you're welcome to choose, absolutely free of obligation. (If your retailer is really cool, he or she may even allow to pick up more than one.) The choices run the gamut from superheroes — the kind you've actually heard of, most likely — to kids' comics featuring Gumby or Disney characters, to Japanese manga. Such popular franchises as Superman, Archie, Transformers, Sonic the Hedgehog, and X-Men are represented in this year's offerings. You'll even find some stuff that's next to impossible to categorize. Whatever your taste in fantasy fiction or humor, you'll find something to like.

Do yourself a favor. Whether you're a long-time comics reader, or you haven't read a comic in a long time, or you've been on Earth for a long time and have never read a comic, swing by your participating local comics retailer tomorrow and snag a free comic or (if your retailer is really cool, like my local comic shop is) two. When you find one that interests you, take one more step: Ask your retailer, "If I like this, what else do you have that I might enjoy?" Then let her or him show you some options.

If you have a kid or two to accompany you, take 'em. What could it hurt? Worst case scenario: The kid gets a free book that ends up in the recycling bin. (You recycle, right?) Best case scenario: You've opened a door for a young person to experience the joys of reading, and visual storytelling, and sequential art appreciation.

Your Uncle Swan thinks that's not such a bad outcome.

Speaking of this weekend...

Tony Stark makes you feel
He's a cool exec with a heart of steel.
As Iron Man, all jets ablaze
He fights and smites with repulsor rays!
Amazing armor, he's Iron Man!
Ablaze in power, he's Iron Man!

Yes, the cinematic version of Iron Man premieres today, as you certainly know unless you've been living among the Amish for the past several months.

How excited am I about this? Excited enough to do something I never do — go to a theater on a film's opening day. Everything I've seen and heard about the film suggests that Iron Man will rank among the better cinematic representations of superheroes in recent years. The trailers have looked incredible, and Robert Downey Jr. couldn't be more perfectly cast as industrialist-slash-playboy Tony Stark, the man inside the famous red-and-gold supersuit.

As I related on a previous Comic Art Friday, Iron Man was one of my favorite Marvel heroes in my earliest days of comics reading. I still own the little hand-carved Pinewood Derby slot car, hand-painted gold with red accents, that I made nearly 40 years ago when I was a Cub Scout, that I nicknamed Iron Man.

Over the years, my enthusiasm for old Shellhead has dimmed considerably. Marvel's editorial department has seemed bent of late on destroying everything that made the character interesting and likable, in favor of portraying him as a ego-consumed, monomaniacal chump. I liked Tony a whole lot better when he lived in acute awareness of his own humanity, and didn't think he ruled the world.

Still looking forward to the movie, though!

An Iron Man film and a Free Comic Book Day... could a weekend get any better than this? Actually, it can.

My chorus, Voices in Harmony (currently ranked third internationally by the Barbershop Harmony Society) begins its annual weekend retreat — we call it an Advance, because we never "retreat" — this evening, in preparation for this year's competition cycle. Three days of grueling work, but great fun nevertheless. (Have I mentioned yet that our first concert of 2008 is only a month away, on Saturday, June 7? Great seats still available!)

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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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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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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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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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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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, December 25, 2007

Sweeping up the reindeer droppings

Another Christmas is fading into the annals of history. As usual, my family has been more gracious to me than I deserve. And as usual, I wish I'd had a few thousand dollars to toss around while I was shopping for them.

Well-fed and happy, however, I think we're all grateful for one more Christmas. We're more acutely aware than some that it's never a given.

Speaking of given... let's run the highlights.
  • For the sharp-dressed man in me: Several nice shirts and pairs of dress-casual trousers. I rarely — okay, never — buy clothing for myself, so such gifts are always welcome.

  • For the sharp-bladed objects freak in me: Two new pocketknives. The Smith & Wesson scrimshaw folder will mostly be a display item, but the Kershaw Needs Work has been busy on package-opening duty since I received it last night. I'll write more about the latter in a "What's in My Pocket?" post, coming soon.

  • For the comics geek in me: Matching copies of The Marvel Encyclopedia and The DC Comics Encyclopedia. Great reference works that will come in handy for future art commission projects and Comic Art Fridays. Santa also left a gift certificate for my friendly neighborhood comics shop.

  • For the gadget geek in me: A Sony digital voice recorder. Terrific for recording interviews, chorus rehearsals, and quick memos to my increasingly absent-minded self. Also, a projection clock that automatically sets itself to atomic time. I'll always be a little nervous when it hits midnight.

  • For the sports geek in me: Two electronic sports trivia games. Obsessed With Baseball has already been given ample opportunity to humiliate my knowledge of the national pastime.

  • For the infomaniac in me: The 19th edition of Uncle John's Bathroom Reader. Always useful during those marathon sessions you-know-where.

  • For the cinemaniac in me: From my daughter, DVDs of The Terminal and Mystic River. Spielberg and Eastwood — how can you go wrong?

  • For the chef in me: A few handy kitchen gadgets, including a new battery-operated can opener and a sure-grip spatula.
I bought KJ some new clothes, including the outfit she wore to celebrate Christmas today. I also got her a pro-quality FoodSaver, which I've wanted to give her ever since I wrote copy for the manufacturer's Christmas catalog a few years back.

My personal gift to KM was a silver bracelet — ironically, her mom bought her a bracelet (albeit a very different one) also. Now what KM's officially an adult, it's time to indoctrinate her into every American woman's obsession: jewelry.

I hope you got something nifty from someone in your life, and that you shared some wonderful things with those around you as well.

Happy Christmas to all... and to all, a special two-hour edition of Deal or No Deal.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Eight years of News From ME

Happy blogiversary to writer, humorist, and all-around good guy Mark Evanier, whose celebrated blog, News From ME, marks its eighth year of existence today.

Mark's blog was the first I ever read on a regular basis. My enjoyment of his daily — and usually, several times daily — jottings helped inspired the genesis of SSTOL, some three and a half years ago.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Mark's oeuvre, suffice it to say that his nearly 40-year career writing for television and comics spans more credits than your average small-town phone book. For the small screen, Mark has written hundreds of sitcoms (everything from Welcome Back, Kotter to Bob, in which Bob Newhart played a comic book artist), variety shows (including That's Incredible! and the infamous Pink Lady and Jeff), and animated series (he was the producer and chief writer of Garfield and Friends, among numerous others).

In the comics world, Mark broke in as an assistant to the beyond-legendary Jack Kirby. Although he's written all kinds of comics, from superhero (DNAgents) to adventure (Blackhawk) to just plain fun (Scooby-Doo), Mark is best known as the cocreator, with artist Sergio Aragonés, of the hilarious sword-and-sorcery spoof Groo the Wanderer, about a Conanesque barbarian who loves fighting and cheese dip. (You had to be there.)

Mark and Sergio are currently teaming up to write the further adventures of Will Eisner's The Spirit, following an epic run by cartoonist Darwyn Cooke. I've met both Mark and Sergio at various comic conventions in recent years. Two nicer gentlemen you will not find, in any industry. (Sergio Aragonés is, in my never-humble opinion, one of the funniest human beings on the planet, on paper and in real life.)

If you're not already making a daily pilgrimage to News From ME, drop around and check out Mark's musings. Because Mark is one of the leading lights in the Writers Guild of America, his blog is your best source of ongoing information about the WGA strike. It's also just a wonderful read.

Here's to eight more years, Mark — and eighteen more after that!

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A fresh coat of paint

Hey, everybody, check out that snazzy new header!

The Mysterious Cloaked Figure — one of our blogosphere buddies lo, these many moons — recently applied his considerable talents in graphic design to the SSTOL brand and came up with this classy new banner. Thanks from the bottom of Uncle Swan's downy little heart, MCF!

If you're not already reading MCF's Nexus of Improbability, you should be. Get your britches on over there and show the MCF some love, will you, please?

Which reminds me...

I'm updating my blogroll over the next couple of weeks, deleting some of the links that have given up the ghost (or at least have stopped updating regularly) and adding some new folks whose work I'm currently enjoying. If you know of a blog I ought to check out — yours, or someone else's — drop me a note and clue me in about it.

I'm interested in all sorts of subject matter, as long as the content is cogent, lively, and well-written. Pop culture snark is SSTOL's primary stock in trade, but I dig other bloggy flavors also. Hit me with your best linkage!

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Twitter me this, Batman

I keep forgetting to mention this, but I now have a Twitter account.

For those of you who don't keep current with happenings on these here Internets, Twitter can best be described as a microblog. It allows the user to post short messages of 140 characters or less. The blurbs can either be accessed at the main Twitter site, or subscribed via text message, or appended to the sidebar of a standard blog, as I've done here.

Most people, apparently, use their Twitter accounts to keep their friends up to date on the minutiae of their lives: "Eating dinner. The creamed spinach is excellent." "Watching CSI. I miss Sara already." "Sitting on the toilet with my laptop." (Twitter actually encourages this sort of banal folderol by labeling its input box, "What are you doing?")

Instead, I intend to use my Twitter presence to record the frequent one-liners, bon mots, and random inane jottings that spring nonstop from my fevered imagination, but aren't substantial enough to warrant an entire post here on SSTOL. Some of you may find these bursts of brain-babble amusing, or evidence of mental illness, or both.

Look to the right of your screen, just below my profile and homepage links. The caption that says, "Swan's All A-Twitter"? There you go: the five most recent notations I've made. If you want to catch up on anything you've missed, click the link entitled, "Follow the Swan on Twitter."

Don't ever tell me that I don't strive to offer value around this joint.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Licensed to thrill

Beware, California...

my daughter has joined the ranks of licensed drivers.

KM passed her road test on the first attempt, with no errors, earning an "Excellent!" on her score sheet from the DMV adjudicator.

You go, Supergirl!

Thank heaven that she doesn't have access to a Hot Rod Lincoln.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels

The raindrops should be hitting the roses at any moment now here in lovely Sonoma County (what the heck ever happened to our customary Native American summer?), so here are a few of my favorite things, at least for today:
  • Dead animal flesh cooked over charcoal. I grilled a tri-tip on the old Char-Broil tonight that was sublime — perfectly marinated and done to a turn. Too bad you weren't here to eat some. Then again, there wasn't enough for you anyway. And you weren't getting mine. Take that, PETA.

  • Former Yankees manager Joe Torre, for having the gumption to tell George Steinbrenner to stick his 33 percent pay cut and one-year lame-duckitude where the Times Square neon doesn't shine.

  • My new Dr. Scholl's everyday walking-around shoes. They're comfy.

  • The Highwaymen, the rollicking Wildstorm Comics miniseries cleverly written by Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman and drawn with razor-edged gusto by Lee Garbett. Of course, because I love it, it didn't sell worth a tinker's dam, and the fifth issue of the cycle marks the last time we'll see engaging mercenaries Monroe and McQueen ("One drives; one shoots"). If Wildstorm publishes a trade collection (which I doubt they will, given the lackluster sales of the monthly), buy it.

  • Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill. The langostino "lobster" that earned the chain all that untoward publicity a while back is on the menu again for a limited time. Get 'em while they've got 'em.

  • My daughter KM, who's enjoying her first semester of college. She's also taking her driver's license test on Monday — wish her luck!

  • Christopher Walken, who demanded — and supervised the auditions for — a bare-butt double for his latest film, Five Dollars a Day. I have no idea who thought anyone wanted to see Walken's pasty, 64-year-old glutes writ large on the silver screen, but good on Crazy Chris for refusing to drop trou.

  • The matching "Phoenix" and "Arizona" pictorial mugs I brought back from my recent trip to the Valley of the Sun.

  • Costco. It's the only place in town at the moment where regular gasoline is still less than three bucks per gallon.

  • Guy Fieri, our culinary local boy made good. KM and I spotted him and his family walking north of his downtown Santa Rosa restaurant, Tex Wasabi's, one day last week. Nice to see that with all his Food Network fame, Guy still hasn't lost that hometown touch. (Or the board shorts and flip-flops.)

  • The daunting new charts my chorus is learning. Just today, I downloaded an eight-page holiday arrangement that I have to familiarize myself with between now and Tuesday, on top of two others we've received in the last couple of weeks. Fun, complex, challenging music to sing, but the memory stick in the musical corner of my brain is filling up fast. (Yes, I'll get over it.)

  • Good coffee. You can never get enough good coffee.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Sure it's tall, but it's no Burj Dubai

A 1,200-foot skyscraper, in the middle of the most geologically unstable major city in the United States.

What could possibly go wrong?

Sure is pretty, though.

You're looking at the final design for the new San Francisco Transbay Transit Center complex, unanimously chosen today by the Transbay Joint Powers Authority over two equally impressive alternatives.

The winning proposal, created by the talented architects at Pelli Clarke Pelli in conjunction with the Hines development firm, features this sleek, dramatic tower that will overlook San Francisco Bay. If built to its suggested height of 1,200 feet, the Transbay structure will dwarf everything else in downtown San Francisco by a long shot, including the world-famous Transamerica Pyramid, currently The City's tallest building at 853 feet.

Your acrophobic Uncle Swan will content himself with viewing the marvel from ground level.

Meanwhile, across the pond in the United Arab Emirates, the still-under-construction Burj Dubai now exceeds the 1,800-foot mark. Despite its already astounding height, it's only two-thirds complete.

Although Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the architectural firm that designed Burj Dubai, remains tight-lipped about the structure's final dimensions, most experts guess that the Burj will top out at around 2,700 feet. If those estimates prove accurate, Burj Dubai will be the tallest object ever built by humankind, breaking the previous record (held by a radio tower in Warsaw, Poland, which collapsed in 1991 — not exactly a positive omen) by a good 600 feet. It's already the tallest self-supported structure on the planet, as of about a week ago.

Good luck getting me up in that.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

There be pirates here, matey!

Avast there, ye lubbers!

Today be September 19, and ye be knowin' what that means...

Talk Like a Pirate Day, it be!

All ye scurvy scalawags and wayfarin' wenches best keep yer powder dry and yer cutlasses swingin', if ye know what's best fer ye! Don't give ol' Cap'n Swan an excuse to make ye walk the plank!

Consider yer timbers shivered!


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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

What's In My Pocket? #4: Chris Reeve Sebenza

Knife collectors have a term: "safe queen."

A safe queen is a knife that you never use or carry, in order to maintain it in pristine condition. Typically, a safe queen holds particular value to the collector — usually monetary value that would be diminished with usage. It's a knife, to explain the metaphor, that you keep in a safe and treat like a queen. It's an investment, not a tool.

From my perspective, the concept of safe queens is silly. A knife is a tool, and a tool only has value if it's used for its intended purpose. Safe queens are like CGC-graded comic books, slabbed and sealed in plastic, never to be opened. Just as a comic whose contents can't be viewed is redundant in my opinion, I think a knife that can't at least slice open the daily mail is redundant, too.

Not that point of view prevented me from keeping at least one safe queen in my collection for the longest time.

Meet my Sebenza. (I hear The Knack in my head every time I say that.)

Made by Boise, Idaho-based Chris Reeve Knives (no relation, so far as I'm aware, to the late, lamented Superman star), the Sebenza is considered by many blade aficionados to be the finest production folder available. Its sturdy bead-blasted titanium handle houses a razor-sharp blade made of S30V stainless steel, one of the most durable American knife steels on the market today. The Sebbie's rock-solid lockup, butter-smooth action, brilliantly functional design, and flawless fit and finish are often imitated, but rarely equaled. (I know this from experience, as I also own a couple of decent Sebenza knockoffs. Quality knives, and well-used, but not in the same league.)

Chris Reeve's exacting specifications and personalized approach — although built from standardized components, each Sebenza is assembled by hand, and comes complete with its own "birth certificate" listing the manufacture date and salient details — has earned the Sebbie its lofty reputation. (Mine, by sheer coincidence, was "born" on my wife's birthday, four years ago.) The quality comes at a price, as a new Sebenza will set you back anywhere from $300 to several times that amount, depending upon the options ordered. No wonder, then, that many Sebbies never see the light of day, their owners content to lock them up in secure quarters and only occasionally take them out for careful admiration.

I used to be one of those owners. For the longest time, I kept my Sebenza (there goes Doug Fieger again!) tucked away in its box at the back of a desk drawer. Once a week or so, I would risk exposing the knife to air and sunlight so that I could marvel at its mirror-finished blade and its handsome inlays of reddish-brown cocobolo wood. Then, ever so gingerly, I would return my prize to its refuge until I once again hankered to fondle its titanium scales.

Then, one day, I realized how stupid that was.

It's a knife, for crying out loud, I told myself. Use the doggone thing.

My hands trembled when I ran my Sebenza's blade under the flap of its first envelope. I held back a tear the first time I clipped it into the rear pocket of my dress slacks. (You didn't really think I'd stick it in my crusty old jeans for its maiden voyage, did you?) I shuddered in horror as I tenderly wiped the first crumbs of Priority Mail cardboard from its rapier edge.

I got over it.

I make it a point to carry — and yes, use — my Sebenza often now. It's a regular participant in my everyday pocket rotation, and it's always the knife of choice when I'm wearing my Sunday-go-to-meeting duds. I keep it away from the heavier-duty cutting jobs, but it opens newly arriving packages like nobody's business.

Every once in a great while, I still stroke it lovingly and call it "my Precious."

Just kidding.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

You bet your sweet Biffy

Today, as KJ and I were driving home from her daily radiation treatment, we found ourselves on the freeway behind a white pickup with Texas plates — notable primarily because we live in northern California, where we regard Texans as an alien species — and a sticker in the rear window touting a Web site:

What in the wide, wide world of sports, we asked ourselves, is a Biffy? A gardening tool? An online utility? Buffy the Vampire Slayer's gay cousin? Our minds boggled at the possibilities.

Needless to say (note to self: if it's needless, why am I saying it?), we fired up the Dell and looked up the site the moment we arrived at home.

Oh, my stars and garters.

It's a bidet.

For those of you unfamiliar with this uniquely European plumbing fixture — that would be everyone here who somehow missed seeing Crocodile Dundee — a bidet is a water-based personal sanitation device used for cleansing the nether regions after elimination.

To put it more bluntly, it's a butt-washer.

Apparently convinced that American rectal hygiene leaves something to be desired, the folks at Biffy have set themselves to the task of marketing a bidet accessory that can be mounted to a standard toilet, instead of as a stand-alone appliance in the European tradition. The Biffy site describes the operation of the unit in graphic detail:
When you are sitting on a toilet seat your bottom is perfectly positioned for thorough bidet cleansing. The toilet seat supports your cheeks while your body weight presses down, spreading your cheeks apart and exposes your bottom parts to the cleansing rinse of the Biffy. In just a few seconds fresh water rinses your bottom completely, like a bidet, only much better for your body and your health.
I don't know about you, but I just don't care to think about my "cheeks" in quite that way. I guess I'm just anal like that.

So to speak.

By the way, you simply must check out the Biffy promotional video, accessible from the Biffy home page. (No, you deve, it doesn't show anyone actually using the device.) Trust me, you haven't lived until you've heard a toddler telling you how much she loves her Biffy. (Frankly, everyone in this video seems just a little too cheery about the whole business for my taste.)

Me, I'm sticking with good old T.P.

It's the American way.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

What's In My Pocket? #3: Heckler & Koch HK34

When deciding which folding knife I'm going to shove into my pocket on a given day — and sometimes, at various times during the day — I have to consider several factors.

If I'm wearing close-fitting slacks (because, you know, the ladies are all about the booty), I'll choose a knife with a narrow profile, thus avoiding an unsightly bulge. (Ahem.) If it's a dressier occasion, I'll pick a knife that looks classy and professional — a "gentleman's knife," in cutlery parlance — should I need to use it in the presence of others. Often, I'll choose a blade profile based on anticipated tasks for the day (lots of mail or packages to open? cutting cardboard for shipping?). Sometimes, I just like the way a certain piece feels in my hand at the moment.

But when I want a knife that I can play with should I get bored — because my attention span is about as long as Nicole Richie's skirt, and as elusive as her appetite — I strap on my HK34.

Although it bears the logo and brand name of the German firearms giant Heckler & Koch, the HK34 is an all-American knife, manufactured in Oregon by Benchmade. Engineered by cutlery designer Mike Snody, the HK34 bears the stylistic hallmarks of its creator, including a drop point blade, a pronounced finger ridge, and a relatively beefy profile. It's built for heavy-duty use. Not that I beat it up much, given my customarily sedate activities, but my HK34 is probably one of the toughest knives I own. It's a masterfully constructed tool.

But that's not why it's so cool.

The HK34 incorporates Benchmade's exclusive AXIS locking mechanism. The blade pivots around a hefty steel axle, which braces and locks the blade into place when the knife is open. An AXIS lock is practically impossible to dislodge in the course of use — you could chip a hole into a brick wall with it, and not compromise the stability of the lock. (You'd trash the blade, of course, but at least the knife wouldn't fold up in your hand.) When locked, an AXIS-equipped Benchmade is the closest thing to a fixed blade that you can find in a folding knife.

When slid back into the open position, however, the AXIS lock allows the blade to pivot freely in a semi-circular motion, almost like the swing of a butterfly knife or balisong (the product that made Benchmade famous). With a little practice — and I've had ample practice — you can flip the blade open as quickly as you could trigger a mechanically assisted knife. (Which, as we all know, is illegal to carry in this jurisdiction if the blade is two inches or more in length. Just so we're clear on that.)

Its quick-draw quality, coupled with its bank-vault lock-up stability, is what makes the HK34 "fun to drive." It's a real workhorse, too — as durable as all get-out. Plus, it's sleek enough in appearance that I can use it almost anywhere without panicking the natives. It's not the most ergonomic knife I own — even with the rubberized scales, it feels ever so slightly less comfortable in hand than some of my other everyday-carry pieces — but its positives far outweigh this one minor quibble.

When in doubt, whip that HK34 out.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

A golden anniversary

Happy 70th birthday to my favorite piece of steel that I can't clip inside my pocket: the Bay Area's most magnificent manmade landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge.

After 30 years of living here — and despite the fact that, during my last two years of college, I crossed the span five days per week — I still gasp a little every time I exit the Waldo Tunnel southbound and the Golden Gate Bridge rises into my view. It's a truly awe-inspiring work of engineering mastery combined with unparalleled artistic majesty.

People have designed and built plenty of cool things all over this planet, but the 'Gate is assuredly near the top of the "cool list."

My most dramatic memory involving the GGB: Ten years ago this August, my family and I were northbound on the 'Gate (we'd just left a performance of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus at the Cow Palace) when we learned via a radio news report of the death of Princess Diana. Because Diana was KJ's personal heroine — she remains Diana-obsessed to this very day — the bulletin struck our car with an overwhelming tsunami of emotion. I can't imagine a more powerful place to hear such tragic news.

May the local paper-shufflers never mar the aesthetic grace of this incredible structure by installing an anti-suicide barrier.

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

The best part of waking up is cat poop in your cup

Here's the sort of thing that gets reported on CBS Radio on a slow news day in late winter...

The most expensive coffee in the world is Kopi Luwak, also known as civet coffee, from certain remote regions of southeast Asia. Kopi Luwak is ground from coffee beans that have been swallowed, then partially digested by a vaguely feline creature known as the palm civet.

In short, Kopi Luwak is cat poop coffee.

You know I love my coffee, but there's no way I'm drinking this.

Roasted Kopi Luwak coffee beans sell for between $120 and $160 per pound from an online outfit called Animal Coffee. For the truly adventurous, Animal Coffee sells "completely unprocessed natural Kopi Luwak" — in other words, with the beans still embedded in palm civet feces, "exactly as found when hand-collected in the jungles of Sumatra." Oh, joy.

And here I thought my grandmother's chitlins were disgusting.

Incidentally, the palm civet is the animal best known — aside from its coffee-excreting habit — as the original source of the SARS virus that caused so much panic a few years ago. Just in case it wasn't bad enough that people were brewing their morning cup o' joe from chunkies that came out of the darn thing's butt.

What I'm curious to know is, who's buying this coffee? Future Fear Factor contestants with money to burn? Apparently, one possible answer is the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which, according to the Animal Coffee site, included Kopi Luwak as one of the freebies in the swag bags given to nominees and presenters at last year's Emmy Awards.

I wonder whether anyone told the TV stars where their coffee came from.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Stump the artist!

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to fantasy novelist Peter S. Beagle, author of — among numerous other works — the popular The Last Unicorn. The animated film based on Beagle's famous novel is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, with a newly remastered DVD presentation from Lionsgate Entertainment.

What you may not know is that for the past quarter-century, Beagle has been involved in a legal dispute with the producers of The Last Unicorn over his rights and royalties. Although the movie is widely considered a classic — it was one of the first American animated films to be animated in Japan, and many of Japan's best-known animators worked on the project — Beagle has never received a dime of profit from the production.

Beagle's U.S. publishing representative, San Francisco-based Conlan Press, has struck a deal with Lionsgate to directly purchase copies of the new The Last Unicorn DVD for resale. Conlan's even offering autographed copies, hand-signed and personalized by Peter Beagle himself, for an extremely reasonable price. For every DVD Conlan sells, Beagle receives about half the funds. So now, at long last, there's an opportunity for Beagle — who's experienced some tough times over the years — to recoup some financial benefit from his most famous creation.

My daughter KM received her autographed copy in yesterday's mail. I've ordered another autographed copy that will soon be winging its way to my goddaughter in Maine. And it wouldn't hurt my feelings one iota if you, friend reader, dropped over to the Conlan Press Web site and ordered up a copy of The Last Unicorn for yourself, or someone special. In fact, I'd be thrilled if you dropped a note in the comments section to let me know that you did. It's a delightful film, and if you buy your DVD directly from Conlan, the money goes where it should have gone all along.

I thank you, and Peter Beagle thanks you.

I'm sure that as a fantasy writer, Peter Beagle is often asked the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" I get that same query about my Common Elements art commissions. And I answer in the same way that I imagine Peter Beagle does: "I make them up." In fact, concocting ever more mesmerizing combinations of unrelated comic book heroes tied together by some arcane connection is the second-greatest thrill — aside from admiring the art itself — I derive from my comic art collecting obsession hobby.

My greatest thrill? Coming up with a Common Element even the most expert of comic mavens can't decipher. Because I'm devious like that.

On today's featured Common Elements project, I managed to stump even the artist who drew it. I'm as giddy as a schoolgirl with a new DVD of The Last Unicorn, personally autographed by Peter S. Beagle.

Starring in this Common Elements spectacular are two of the lesser lights in the DC Comics universe: The Huntress, seen swinging into action at center stage, and Deadman, reeling into the foreground. This phenomenally designed and beautifully executed drawing sprang from the fertile mind and pencil of artist Luke McDonnell, most famed for his tenures on Marvel Comics' Iron Man and DC's Green Lantern, but a favorite of mine thanks to his work on one of my best-beloved comics from the late '80s and early '90s, Suicide Squad.

After this artwork was completed, Luke e-mailed me to ask: "The common element of this team-up escapes me; care to divulge?" After shouting "Yes!" and pumping my fist into the air in imitation of Tiger Woods, I was only too happy to fill Luke in.

The two leads in this little action drama are the only two superheroes of whom I'm aware whose first names are state capitals. Out of costume, the Huntress is Helena (as in Montana) Wayne, daughter of Bruce (Batman) Wayne and Selina (Catwoman) Kyle in an alternate timeline in which those two legends hooked up. (The current Huntress, who appears DC's Birds of Prey series, has a different backstory and surname, but she's also named Helena.) For his part, Deadman's real name is Boston (as in Massachusetts) Brand.

And before you wags write in, Black Lightning — real name: Jefferson Pierce — doesn't count. His middle name is not "City." Nor do any of the numerous superheroes whose last names are state capitals — i.e., Roy (The Human Bomb) Lincoln; Kyle (Nighthawk) Richmond. Jean (Phoenix) Grey doesn't cut it, either.

Although, now that I think about it, I believe there might be a superheroine whose first name is Madison. But I can't remember who she is.

Luke McDonnell, however, got the last word on this conversation. He stumped me with the villain who's tussling with Deadman and the Huntress here. For the record, it's the Lizard, Spider-Man's reptilian nemesis. But I didn't figure that out until Luke told me.

Well played, Mr. McDonnell.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Remember: Save the unicorn, save the author.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Deuces, aces, and Presidential faces

Because you can never have enough iconic representations of old white dudes in your pocket, the U.S. Mint has unveiled its new series of dollar coins featuring portraits of all 43 Presidents.

Or at least, all of the dead ones.

The new dollar coins capitalize (no pun intended) on the popularity of the 50 States quarters the Mint has been circulating for the past several years. Every year, four new Presidential Dollars will hit the streets, following the chronological order of the Chief Executives. All of the Presidential dollars showcase a sharp new bust of the Statue of Liberty on the reverse... an innovative edge design, inscribed with the circulation date, along with the traditional mottoes E Pluribus Unum and In God We Trust.

The Presidential Dollar coins supercede the Sacagawea Golden Dollar, a relief to the overwhelming majority of Americans who can neither spell nor pronounce "Sacagawea."

Looking at the first four iterations of the Presidential Dollar, one unassailable fact occurs to me: Our Presidents have not, in the main, been attractive gentlemen.

One more reason to vote Obama in '08.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Bow before my intellectual superiority!

How smart are you?

Unfortunately, I am still not as smart as Mark Lowenthal, Bob Blake, or Grace Veach.

But then, you probably aren't, either.

Unless you're Eugene Finerman. Then you probably are.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

What's In My Pocket? #2: Spyderco Volpe

What qualities bring a new knife into my collection? Tough question. As is true of my comic art collection, I can't always explain the reasons why I'm drawn to a particular piece. But when I lay all of my knives out side by side — as I do on occasion, when that mood strikes me — certain themes emerge:
  • Most of my blades are fairly large. Of the pieces I'm likely to shove in my pocket on any given day, only one has a blade shorter than three inches. Most measure at least 3.5 inches. That's mostly because a smaller knife doesn't fit comfortably in my chubby little hand.

  • All of my blades are practical tools. I never buy a knife I can't actually cut stuff with. Because a knife is, above all else, a device for cutting stuff. That's a key reason why I don't own any tanto-style blades, whose only real purpose is defensive. I've lived a long time without ever needing a weapon. But I need a letter opener — or box cutter, or paper slicer — several times every day.

  • I like a little style with my sharpness. Aethetically, I want a knife with eye appeal. Not one that makes me look as though I've watched too many episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. (I have, but that's not the point.) Just one that, when I flick open the blade and hold the piece in my hand, causes me to squee just a bit on the inside.
Because I'm such a dogged creature of habit, it sometimes takes me a while to work a new blade into my everyday carry rotation. Here's a knife that I owned for quite some time before I ever showed it the inside of my pocket. Then, for whatever reason, I selected it for Christmas present opening duty a month ago. It's probably the prettiest knife I own, so perhaps I just felt festive that day. I immediately fell in love with it. It's been a regular in the rotation ever since.

The Spyderco Model C99 — aka the Volpe — bears the brand name and insignia of one of America's finest makers of folding knives: Spyderco, based in Golden, Colorado. The knife itself, however, is manufactured in the sleepy hamlet of Maniago, Italy by Fox Cutlery, one of Europe's premier knifemakers. (Volpe means fox in Italian.) Although the Volpe incorporates Spyderco's trademark round hole opening effect, the rest of its details sprang from the imagination of Italian cutlers Gabriele Frati and Gianni Pauletta, known collectively as G&G Design. It is, to use a word that Signori Frati and Pauletta might approve, bellissimo.

The Volpe's drop point blade is crafted from N690Co stainless steel, an outstanding Austrian-made chromium steel notable primarily for its unique cobalt/vanadium alloy composition. (Vanadium is among the elements added to steel to increase its hardness and edge-holding capability; cobalt is far less commonly used.) Like every Spyderco blade I've owned, this bad boy arrived screaming sharp and has remained so. The round Spyderhole enables smooth one-handed opening (your thumb catches in the hole and slides the blade from the handle), even for a klutz like me. The indentation on the upper edge of the blade provides purchase for your index finger during a downward cutting stroke — a terrific control feature if you're making a long, straight cut.

G&G Design lent warmth and attractiveness to the Volpe by adding blonde olivewood inlays to the handle. (Mine have gorgeous butterscotch grain. I'd post a photo, but I can't find the camera today. So the stock shot above will have to suffice.) On the flip side, Spyderco's spider logo ("the bug," as they call it) is laser-cut into the frame.

And it's shiny. Really shiny. Chrome bumper on a '72 'Vette shiny.

Mmmm.... shiny.

All in all, the Volpe makes a stylish yet functional presentation. It's classy enough to carry on any occasion, much like a traditional gentlemen's folder. Its ergonomics are excellent, its fit and finish top-notch, its utility outstanding. And, after it's warmed in one's pocket for a while, the Volpe's olivewood inlays smell nice. I can't make that statement about any other knife I own.

I think I'll see if the mail's here.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Last call for The Grab Bag

When people learn that I'm a former Jeopardy! champion, one of the first questions they often ask is, "How did you learn all that stuff?"

The man responsible for at least part of the answer died last week, at age 79.

For nearly 40 years, Louis Malcolm (L.M.) Boyd wrote a weekly newspaper column presenting arcane facts distilled for a mass audience. The column was published under various names in some 400 papers nationwide at the time Boyd retired in December 2000, but in the San Francisco Chronicle — where I first discovered it in the mid-1970s — it was known as The Grab Bag.

The Grab Bag appeared every Sunday in the Chronicle's "light reading" section, the Sunday Punch. In it, one found a veritable treasure trove of trivia, esoterica, results of various surveys, and factoids of every description, reported with conciseness (most Grab Bag items were only a sentence or two in length) and gentle humor by the redoubtable Boyd. You can browse a sampling of typically Boydian nuggets here.

Boyd started writing his trivia column for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (where Boyd used the nom de plume Mike Mailway) in 1963. He and his wife Patricia began syndicating the piece nationally in 1967.

Boyd often salted his columns with wry observations on the interaction between the sexes, which he attributed to "our Love and War Man" — in reality, these tidbits came from Mrs. Boyd.

Although I can't point to a specific instance with absolute certainty, I have no doubt that, at more than one juncture in my Jeopardy! career, I came up with a correct response to a clue only because I had once encountered that very morsel of obscure information in a Grab Bag column.

Thank you, Mr. Boyd.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Selena's grace, Hippolyta's strength

Comic Art Friday reminds you that this coming Wednesday, January 31, is National Gorilla Suit Day. It's time to bust out that monkey drag and bust a move. You know you want to.

Not long ago, someone browsing my themed comic art galleries e-mailed me the question, "Why Mary Marvel?" I get that query quite often, actually, when people look through my art collection. No one ever asks why I collect Wonder Woman images. I've yet to have anyone inquire as to why I have themed galleries dedicated to Ms. Marvel (though some think it's peculiar that I prefer her original costume to her current one... don't you, Bob Almond?) or the Scarlet Witch, or even Supergirl (the latter of which is dedicated to my daughter, as I've explained previously). I suppose there's a subtle yet obvious reason why I collect art featuring the Black Panther or Storm, so I never get asked about those, either.

My Mary Marvel collection, on the other hand, always seems to have people scratching their heads.

The answer is simple. To my mind, Mary Marvel represents everything that used to be great about superhero comics, and is now largely lost. Despite her enormous power, Mary remains kindhearted and innocent — as were the comics of my youth, for the most part. Mary recalls to me the wonder of superhero fantasy that I first experienced when I picked up my very first comic book — a secondhand copy of Fantastic Four Annual #3 — in those long-distant and halcyon mid-1960s: The idea that an average, otherwise unremarkable person could be endowed with superhuman abilities, and would dedicate those abilities to championing good and helping those in need.

Most superheroes embodied that fantasy, back in the day. Many lost their way in recent decades, becoming as dark-tempered and brutal as the evildoers they're supposed to be fighting. But every time I look at a picture of Mary Marvel, I remember the superhero universe as it was, and as I hope (without much reason for optimism) that some aspects of it might be again someday. Even if I have to write those stories myself.

Besides which, artist Marc Swayze's original concept of Mary Marvel — a gently feminine twist on C.C. Beck's classic Captain Marvel costume — remains one of the most elegantly simple character designs in the history of superhero comics.

Mitch Foust, one of my favorite pinup artists of the present day, does a nice job here of capturing Mary's sweetness and light — along with a soupçon of girlish flirtation — in this drawing.

One of the qualities I enjoy in Mitch's work — aside from the grace and fluidity of his pencil line — is that his women are undeniably sensual, but generally in a manner appropriate to the character. I'm pleased that his rendition of Mary retains a youthful, coquettish air that steers clear of blatant cheesecake.

Completely different in style from Mitch's piece, but no less striking, is this sketch Bay Area artist Nathan Gilmer created at a recent "Starving Artist Saturday" event at my local comic shop, Comic Book Box.

Nathan's poetic naturalism made him an excellent choice to add another Mary to my gallery. I like the fact that his Mary possesses the anatomical proportions of a genuine teenager, rather than of a Hawaiian Tropic swimsuit model. I also like the subtle touch of drama and power Nathan lent to his depiction here. The kid's got talent.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Don't forget: Wednesday is National Gorilla Suit Day!

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

We built this City on rock and roll

It being our anniversary and all, KJ and I spent yesterday hanging out in The World's Coolest City. (You do know that's San Francisco, right? Who would go to Honolulu just for a day trip?) We cruised Pier 39, strolled Fisherman's Wharf, then headed downtown to see the new Westfield Centre and Union Square. As you can tell, unlike many locals, we've never been too snobbish to trek through all of the touristy stuff now and again, because, what the hey, we like the touristy stuff now and again.

So in case you're contemplating a visit to Baghdad by the Bay (it used to be a nifty nickname when the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen coined it decades ago, but of course Herb had no idea how that whole Baghdad thing would turn out) sometime in your immediate future — or you're a Bay Area resident who's amenable to climbing down off the old high horse once in a blue moon — herewith follow a few random notes on our little excursion.
  • Yesterday, Pier 39 celebrated the 17th anniversary of the unexpectedly permanent arrival of the sea lion pod that has inhabited the pier ever since. The sea lions appeared to be observing the auspicious occasion by napping in the sun. Which is, so far as I can determine, pretty much what the sea lions at Pier 39 do every day, tourist attraction or no.

  • We ate lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, whose San Francisco branch is virtually indistiguishable from any of the other branches of the chain. The Hard Rock relocated to Pier 39 a while ago from a truly miserable location on busy Van Ness Avenue, a spot far distant from most of The City's major tourist venues and parking-challenged to boot. Coolest memorabilia item at the SFHRC: the black fedora Michael Jackson wore in his "Smooth Criminal" video. Who knew then that the whole "smooth criminal" thing wasn't just a song title?

  • Pier 39 is home to a collectible cutlery shop humorously dubbed We Be Knives. This dingy, poorly lighted hole in the wall is home to a dazzling array of sharp steel objects capable of sending a connoisseur like myself into paroxysms of envy. I was surprised to see that the place sells balisongs (Filipino butterfly knives), given that such items are legal to own in California, but illegal to carry on one's person. I wonder whether a knowledgeable police officer could write you a ticket the moment you stepped out of the store after purchasing one.

  • Sad observation: The quality of the resident street performers at Pier 39 has either deteriorated over time, or we just happened to catch the comedy juggler on a bad day.

  • Delicious irony: The odd juxtaposition of chain restaurants Hooters and In-N-Out Burger on Fisherman's Wharf. Of course, just being able to write a sentence that contains both "Hooters" and "In-N-Out" is amusing in itself. But the irony derives from the fact that Hooters prides itself on being a testosterone-fueled bastion of lustful objectification, while In-N-Out is a family-owned outfit famed as much for its squeaky-clean image and the proselytizing of its devoutly religious owners as for the quality of its hamburgers. In-N-Out is the only chain restaurant of which I'm aware that prints Bible references on its packaging materials (sandwich wrappers, soft drink cups, etc.). You've gotta know that the In-N-Out people passed a kidney stone when they learned that a Hooters was moving in next door to one of their burger joints.

  • The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, which oversees the preservation of Alcatraz Island, is apparently mounting a major fund-raising push to restore the long-decommissioned prison and current sightseeing location. I did my civic duty by purchasing an overpriced "Save the Rock" coffee mug. Al Capone and Robert Stroud thank me.

  • I also bought a new pair of sneakers at the Wharf's Payless Shoe Source. My feet thank me.

  • Given the eerily identical selections of merchandise in most of the souvenir shops along the Wharf, I would not be at all surprised to discover that the same guy owns all of them.

  • Westfield Centre, the new shopping mall on Market Street, lives up to its advance billing as one of the spiffiest commercial spaces on the planet. It's also one of the most confusing to navigate.

  • The men's rooms at the Westfield Bloomingdale's are much nicer than those at Macy's in Union Square. Just in case you happen to be downtown, and need a pit stop. In fact, I'm going to call the place Bathroomingdale's from now on. (I'd imagine that the facilities at Neiman Marcus are nicer than either Bloomie's or Macy's, but I didn't have to go while we were in there.)

  • From what I can tell, Mayor Gavin Newsom's highly touted efforts at getting the homeless folks off downtown streets are having zero effect.

  • We dined, as we usually do when we're in the neighborhood, at the Cheesecake Factory restaurant atop Macy's. The Jamaican black pepper shrimp was excellent, as was the vanilla bean cheesecake. You can ask for Amy's table, and tell her your Uncle Swan sent you.

  • Every time we eat at the Cheesecake Factory, I find myself at some point mesmerized by the neon sign of Harry Denton's Starlight Room nightclub across Union Square. I have no idea what the attraction is, but that darned thing commands my attention like a candle flame draws moths.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

What's In My Pocket? #1: Kershaw Storm II

A recent conversation on David W. Boles's thought-provoking blog, Urban Semiotic — which you should be reading daily, if you aren't already — reminded me that I haven't written much here about my blade obsession.

Let's remedy that omission, starting now.

As far back as I can remember, I've been fascinated — some might say morbidly fascinated — by sharp-bladed objects. (The Freudians among you can make of that what you will.) One of my few nostalgic possessions from my childhood is a wicked-looking hunting knife in a leather sheath — a relic of my Cub Scout days some 35 years ago. Being the consummate indoorsman that I am, I despised camping — not to mention pretty much everything else that went along with Scouting — but I loved having an excuse to pack around a big honking bowie knife.

Throughout most of my youth, I carried in my pocket a Swiss Army knife of one make or another. My knives were always of inexpensive manufacture, given that I was then as I am now, an inattentive sort prone to misplacing things. And it wasn't that I was handy or craftsmanlike in any way, shape, or form. I have little interest in carpentry or other tool-intensive vocations, plus I possess the manual dexterity of a punch-drunk fighter wearing boxing gloves. I just liked fiddling with the knife.

When I went off to college, I stopped toting a knife around for a couple of reasons: (1) a Swiss Army knife made an uncomfortable lump in the front pocket of the snug-fitting jeans we were wearing so fashionably in those halcyon times; and (2) my fellow dormitory residents displayed a shocking propensity for cutlery theft. (I can admit this now that the statute of limitations has elapsed: I lost to someone's pilfering fingers a couple of sweet switchblades that... well... someone smuggled across the border from Tijuana, in addition to my SAK.)

Having broken the pocket-carry habit, I meandered through my young adult years content to stash my Swiss in my briefcase. Only occasionally — on package-opening holidays, for instance — did I return it to its rightful place in my trousers. Over the years, I indulged my jones for steel more furtively, casting occasional longing glances into the window of the cutlery shop in the local shopping mall — whose proprietors surely wearied of wiping my nose prints off their glass.

Then, as serendipity would have it, I found myself one day browsing the sporting goods department of a certain discount megastore. Like an asteroid captured by the gravity of Jupiter, I was pulled inexorably toward the knife counter. I wiped drool from my chin as I stared slack-jawed and glassy-eyed at the photographs of the cutlery specimens available for sale. One knife in particular caught my eye — a sleek, curvaceous vision in stainless steel.

Summoning my courage, I asked the GED recipient behind the counter if I might see an example up close. After a prolonged period of fumbling with keys and burrowing through boxes, the clerk placed into my sweaty, trembling palm the object of my desire:

And that cold steel monkey climbed onto my back once again.

The blade that launched a dozen subsequent purchases is still one of my favorite EDC (everyday carry, in knife-speak) pieces. The Kershaw Model 1475ST — aka the Storm II (the just-plain-Storm looks identical, but is smaller) — is made in the good old U.S. of A. (Tualatin, Oregon, to be precise) by Kershaw Knives, an American subdivision of Kai Corporation, the well-respected Japanese cutlery manfacturer. The Storm's sweeping reverse-curve silhouette and sequential decorative holes reflect the signature styling of Hawaii-based Ken Onion, knifemaker to the stars (Onion has created custom blades for such celebrities as Nicolas Cage and Aaron Neville) and one of Kershaw's leading affiliated designers.

My Storm fits my chubby fist as though molded to my grip. Its razor-sharp blade (trust me on this!) is crafted from Sandvik 13C26 stainless steel, while its scales (the bilateral handle components) are hefty 410 stainless with sandpaper-like inlays for secure handling. It opens smoothly via either a thumb stud or index-finger flipper, locks its sturdy blade into place with a satisfying ka-chunk, and cuts like nobody's business. Thanks to its flat profile, it rides my pocket so inobtrusively that I can easily forget that I'm carrying it.

Plus, it shares its name with one of my favorite superheroines. How cool is that?

I'll share other items from my blade drawer in future "What's In My Pocket?" posts. Right now, I feel the need to cut something.

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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Famous Monsters of Filmland

When I was a kid, I loved monster movies.

I say that to draw a distinction from modern horror films, which are roughly divided between slasher flicks and supernatural thrillers such as The Ring. I'm not, and never really have been, a fan of those genres. For my money, Hitchcock fairly well both opened and closed the book on slasher films with Psycho — one of my dozen or so favorite movies of all time — and pyrotechnic ghost stories just aren't my cup of tea.

But back in the day, movies had monsters. Frankenstein (which properly refers to the scientist, not the monster, but I use the name accommodatively here). Dracula. The Wolf Man. The Mummy. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. King Kong. Godzilla. Gamera the giant flying turtle. The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

You know... monsters.

And because movies had monsters, monster movie fans such as my younger self had Famous Monsters of Filmland.

For monster movie fans — and fans of science fiction, horror, and fantasy films in general — Famous Monsters of Filmland (often referred to simply as FM) was the Magna Carta, the Constitution, and the Ten Commandments rolled into one sensationalistic, hyperbolic, photography-packed magazine. Everything you ever wanted to know about genre films and the people who created them found its way into the pages of FM. Before there was an Internet Movie Database or a Wikipedia, FM provided one-stop information-shopping for youthful connoisseurs of frightening film fare.

Behind Famous Monsters stood a giant of a man named Forrest J. Ackerman. "Uncle Forry," as we legions of readers called him, edited and published FM, and wrote a fair amount of the material appearing within it. Ackerman is often credited, and I believe correctly so, as the father of modern fandom. Everyone who's ever attended a Star Trek, comic book, or science fiction convention owes a debt of gratitude to Uncle Forry, who first made obsessing over such things not only respectable, but marketable.

Forry Ackerman is also the guy who coined the term "sci-fi" as a shorthand reference to science fiction. (I'll let you be the judge of whether that was a good thing. But I believe the Sci-Fi Channel people should be paying Forry royalties, if they aren't already.)

From the time that I was ten years old until I began high school, Famous Monsters of Filmland was my near-constant companion — much to the consternation of my parents, who tended to look askance at my fondness for scary movies in the same way they detested my addiction to superhero comics and Star Trek. My friends and I would pore over every issue, and discussed in animated detail what we read.

In Famous Monsters, I learned of the special effects wizardry of Ray Harryhausen and Paul Blaisdell. I discovered the makeup secrets of Lon Chaney, Senior and Junior, and the up-and-coming Rick Baker. I took peeks behind the scenes at Hammer Films and American International Pictures, two of the great horror factories of the '50s and '60s, and Toho Studios, home to all those wonderful Japanese monster films. I read about the genius of such visionary filmmakers as Roger Corman, George Pal, Samuel Z. Arkoff, Terence Fisher, and of course, Hitchcock.

When it came to monsters, Forry Ackerman not only talked the talk, he also walked the walk. His Los Angeles home, fondly designated "the Ackermansion," warehoused thousands of props, stills, and other items of memorabilia from the movies he loved. Back in the day, Uncle Forry would give tours to fans who dropped by for a visit. Next to Disneyland, the place I wanted to see more than any other on earth when I was a kid was the Ackermansion. Sad to tell, I never had the opportunity.

Though my interest in monster movies faded as I grew older — as did the monsters themselves — I am a film buff and pop culture fanatic today at least in part because of Famous Monsters of Filmland, and the movies it so lovingly chronicled.

Thanks, Uncle Forry. I hope you're having a devil of a Hallowe'en.

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Saturday, December 25, 2004

There's no place like home for the holidays

It's been a quiet, soothing Christmas here at SwanShadow Central. We were supposed to go to my mother's for lunch, but one of her sisters back East had a serious heart attack this week and remains in intensive care. Given that Mom's had a ton on her emotional plate — and practically nonstop phone calls with medical updates — this week, I suggested she attempt to get some rest today, and we'll catch up with her another time soon. (Anticipating a last-minute change in plans, we had already laid in provisions for an easy-to-prepare Christmas repast of pork tenderloin and suitable accompaniments. It pays to think ahead.)

As it happens, this was all for the best. KJ's been sick with a URI the past several days, and needed more than anything to just recline on the couch and sleep, which is exactly what she did most of the day today. KM and I entertained one another playing some new games: the interactive TV trivia game Scene-It (one of KM's top requests this year), and an excellent word game called Huggermugger that a couple from church bestowed upon us. We also watched I, Robot on DVD, and several repeats of A Christmas Story, thanks to the marathon showing of the latter on TBS. (I keep waiting for Ralphie to shoot his eye out, but he never does. And I can never quite get beyond the realization that this sentimental trifle was directed by the same guy who made Porky's.) This evening I made big pots of hot oatmeal and fragrant tea, which just hit the spot.

People are always too kind to me in their holiday gift-giving, and this year was no exception. With no slight intended to any of the fine consumer products bestowed upon yours truly by family and friends this fine Yuletide, here are a few of Santa's greatest hits.

One of those programmable digital clocks (generally spotted in The Sharper Image, Brookstone, Spencer Gifts, and other overpriced gadgetry outlets near you) with the little LED wand that whips back and forth, appearing to make the time, date, and assorted cutesy sayings float in midair, thanks to the miracle of persistence of vision. The kitsch-loving Vegas geek in me adores cheesy stuff like this, although rarely enough to actually shell out cash American for it. Some friends from church knew I would love this gizmo, and they were right. It seems like the kind of fragile toy that will survive perhaps a week or two, but it'll be a kick to watch while it lasts.

A sharp winter jacket from the in-laws. Now that my best outdoor jacket is outdated — it bears the chorus's recently retired logo on the breast — it'll be nice to have a new one. Not that I'm outdoors a lot, or that our winters are especially severe, but it likely will rain here from time to time between now and April, and even more likely on days when I have to go somewhere.

A cute little laser-engraved display piece with a Giants logo on it that KM found for me at a crafts fair. It's a mate to the howling wolf piece she gave me last year. Daughters are cool.

As usual, I received several nifty tomes for bathroom contemplation over the next weeks and months. The best of this year's crop appears to be The Complete Armchair Book of Baseball, a compilation of essays from a variety of noteworthy scribes who follow the Greatest Game Ever Invented.

Looking about the living room at the tsunami of opened gifts, and my family relaxing in front of the television, I'll join Tiny Tim Cratchit in saying, "God bless us, every one."

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