Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Selling Wolf tickets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, they've paid the ultimate price.

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Do I look like Buster Poindexter to you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stupid global warming.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Madden cruises

No news is bigger around these parts today than the surprise announcement that John Madden — a national pop culture figure, but a Bay Area icon — is retiring after 30 years as America's most recognizable pro football broadcaster.

I was just scratching the crust out of my eyelids as the story broke on KCBS, San Francisco's all-news radio station, where Madden contributes a live interview segment every weekday morning. And, like many fans around the Bay Area and nationally, I found myself stunned by Madden's announcement, broadcast live.

Although my affection for the NFL product begins and pretty much ends with the 49ers — I don't often watch a regular-season game on TV unless the Niners (or, on occasion, the Raiders) are playing — I can't help but acknowledge the impact that Madden has had on the popularity of football. Or, for that matter, on the popularity of football in general — witness the continued success of Madden NFL, by all accounts the best-selling video game ever created. The former Oakland coach's bombastic personality and easy-to-imitate shtick has become ubiquitous in American culture. (Don't you just know that Frank Caliendo is weeping into his Miller Lite today?)

Mostly, though, I've come to know Madden through his long-running daily spot on local radio. For years, Madden joined legendary morning man Frank Dill's show on KNBR — well before that station transmogrified into "The Sports Leader" — for a spot of chat, usually about sports but often just about whatever Madden felt moved to yak about. During the season, Madden would check in from wherever he happened to be, often from the famed Maddencruiser, the tricked-out bus in which the airplane-averse commentator traveled from game to game.

When Dill retired, Madden couldn't stand Steve McPartlin, the former happy-talk TV host who replaced Frank on KNBR's morning drive. So, Big John took his act across the dial to KCBS, where he interfaced with venerable news anchor Al Hart. Even after Hart stepped down from the daily grind, he'd still pop up every Wednesday to bat things around with his old pal "Coach," whose morning foils now are anchors Stan Bunger and Susan Leigh Taylor and sports reporter Steve Bitker.

The hot rumor now is that Madden will go back to work for Al Davis's Raiders, possibly as general manager or director of football operations. I'd like to think that Madden has too much sense to subject himself to Al's senile shenanigans, but the two have remained close over the years. Anything's possible.

For public consumption, Madden is saying that he just wants to spend more time with his family. He and his wife are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, and Madden's five grandchildren are at the ages where, as the Hall of Fame coach noted, they know when he's gone.

After 42 years in the NFL, and at 73 years of age (his birthday was last Friday), I think the big guy's earned the right to do whatever he pleases.

Happy trails, Coach.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Let's play!

As Thomas Boswell, the legendary sports columnist for the Washington Post, once wrote...

Time begins on Opening Day.

At the moment that my fingers hit the keyboard, the San Francisco Giants are about to begin their first game of the 2009 baseball season, on a gray and stormy Tuesday here in the Bay Area.

The Giants are coming off their fourth consecutive sub-.500 season. The franchise has never endured five straight losing campaigns. Giants fans hope that history holds up, and the Orange and Black can get off the schneid this year.

Whether that will happen is anyone's guess.

San Francisco's brightest ray of sunshine is its pitching staff. The Giants' starting rotation boasts three — count 'em, three — pitchers who have won the Cy Young Award, including the National League incumbent, Tim "The Freak" Lincecum. Following Lincecum is baseball's leading active Cy Young winner, 45-year-old Randy "The Big Unit" Johnson, who has five of the awards in his trophy case. Barry Zito hopes to regain a flash of his former glory after a couple of difficult years. The rotation rounds out with two young pitchers with future Cy Young potential, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sánchez.

One of the game's premier closers, Brian Wilson, anchors the Giants' bullpen. The rest of the relief corps — an inconsistent mess in 2008 — should be bolstered by the additions of veterans Jeremy Affeldt and Bobby Howry.

The G-Men fell shortest last year on offense, fielding the most impotent lineup seen in these parts since the miserable 100-loss 1985 Giants. Key to improvement at the plate will be the development of third baseman (and backup catcher) Pablo "Kung Fu Panda" Sandoval, who dazzled fans with his aggressive hitting in the closing months of the '08 season, and rookie first baseman Travis Ishikawa, one of the stars of the just-concluded spring training exercise.

The Giants' offense will also hinge on another big year from catcher Bengie "Big Money" Molina, San Francisco's RBI leader (and the top RBI man among all major league catchers) last season, and sustained production from the outfielders, veterans Randy Winn (a .306 hitter last year, seventh in the National League) and Aaron Rowand (disappointing both at the plate and in the field in his first campaign as a Giant), and speedy youngster Fred Lewis.

If everything comes together for the Gyros, they could contend in the National League West, given baseball's weakest division and the fact that neither of the top teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks, look any stronger than they were last season.

If the Giants hit the way they did in 2008... well, it'll be a long summer in San Francisco.

Here's wishing good health and good luck to manager Bruce Bochy and his boys.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

No uvas for you!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I'm never going back to my old school

Nothing like a little excitement.

A telephone call to the CHP sent our local high school into lockdown this morning, with a report that an unidentified male with a handgun was spotted in one of the restrooms.

Grim-faced officers descended on Rancho Cotate High School to conduct an intensive, room-by-room search, which turned up nothing suspicious. From our house about a half-mile away, I could hear law enforcement and news-gathering helicopters buzzing overhead.

After about two hours, police sounded the all-clear. Students and teachers were given a 15-minute break to collect themselves, and perhaps inhale some fresh outdoor air. Classes then resumed without incident, although an undetermined number of parents took their students out of school for the remainder of the day.

When I was a student at Rancho Cotate 30 years (jinkies!) ago, the most noteworthy item one ever encountered in the men's room was the sickly-sweet aroma of burning cannabis sativa.

How times change.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

25 years with the Razor

Today on "The Sports Leader" — San Francisco's KNBR 680 AM — afternoon drive host Ralph "The Razor" Barbieri is celebrating his 25th anniversary with the radio station.

If you know anything about the radio business, you know that 25 years in one location is a remarkable achievement.

At the risk of seriously dating myself, I recall when Ralph first joined KNBR as a commentator and host of the evening talk show, Sportsphone 68. (KNBR didn't add the terminal zero until just a few years ago.) In the beginning, I thought Ralph was an obnoxious, self-important, hypocritical jerk. That assessment hasn't changed much in the past quarter-century, but at least I've grown accustomed to him.

The late, legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen first hung the moniker "Razor Voice" on Barbieri shortly after Ralph came to KNBR. At that time, the station was still pursuing a general-interest format of which sports programming was but one component. Caen helped bring Barbieri to the attention of the masses by mocking the broadcaster's raspy, decidedly unappealing vocal quality.

Thus, a career was born.

Aside from Caen's column, the best thing that happened to Ralph occurred halfway through his KNBR tenure, when he was paired with former NBA journeyman Tom Tolbert to form "The Razor and Mr. T." At first, I couldn't imagine the partnership lasting more than a few months, given the cohosts' radically different styles (Ralph the raging pseudo-journalist; Tom the laid-back surfer dude) and perspectives (Ralph is a vegetarian with an MBA from the Wharton School; Tom is a retired pro athlete who loves McDonald's hamburgers). And yet, twelve and a half years later, their show remains KNBR's most popular talkfest. Go figure.

My chief frustration with Ralph has always been that he's a dreadful interviewer — although, to his credit, he's improved slightly over time. When Ralph conducts an interview, it's never about the interview subject — it's always about Ralph and his opinions. Ralph rarely asks a question. Instead, Ralph delivers speeches that may or may not end in questions. The interview subject frequently can't get a word in edgewise.

To test my anecdotal observation, I once took a stopwatch to an interview Ralph was conducting with a member of the Giants organization. Ralph posed one "question" that droned on for nearly three minutes, after which the interviewee got less than 30 seconds of response time before Ralph began interrupting. The rest of the interview proceeded in similar fashion.

Any regular KNBR listener knows that I'm not exaggerating.

Still, the guy has lasted this long for a reason. The banter between Ralph and his long-suffering foil Tolbert is entertaining and lively, and Ralph — despite his frustrating deficiencies as an interviewer — is exactly what sports-talk radio calls for: he's opinionated, he's polarizing, and he's never at a loss for words.

Congratulations to the Razor on his quarter-century celebration.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Paperless San Francisco

The hot story around these parts is the Hearst Corporation's announcement of its intention to either sell or shut down the San Francisco Chronicle — the Bay Area's newspaper of record, and the second-largest paper (in terms of circulation) on the West Coast — within the next few weeks, unless a round of layoffs can stem the paper's tide of red ink.

This doesn't come as a total surprise, as newspapers all over the country are struggling against the ever-rising tide of the Internet.

Still, it's unsettling to imagine the newspaper of Herb Caen, Art Hoppe, Matier and Ross, Scott Ostler, Pierre Salinger, Charles McCabe, Phil Frank, Ray Ratto, Joel Selvin, Tim Goodman, and "Dear Abby" going the way of the passenger pigeon and buck-a-gallon gasoline.

The Chron has never really been a bastion of cutting-edge journalism, outside of its legendary Sporting Green — 45 years ago, satirist Tom Lehrer joked concerning a major news story of the day, "It happened during baseball season, so the Chronicle didn't cover it." That reputation for fluff persisted into the modern Hearst era, which began in 2000 when Hearst sold its one-time flagship paper, the San Francisco Examiner, and bought the Chronicle outright from the DeYoung family.

Nevertheless, the Chron has always been staffed by brilliant writers, most notably its columnists (sports and otherwise). It remains, if not the most hard-hitting news entity on the planet, one of the most readable and entertaining.

I'll be the first to admit that I haven't helped the situation any. I've picked up the actual newsprint Chronicle not more than a handful of times in the past decade or so. Its online presence, however, is an indispensable part of my daily info crawl. I'd miss it terribly if it went away.

Here's hoping that a streamlined Chronicle can find a way to survive.

The Bay Area would not be the same without it.

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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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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop wasting your employer's time and money.

Find other fish to fry.

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

-- from "Antigonish" by William Hughes Mearns

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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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Thursday, January 08, 2009

There's a new zombie in town

I'm not an especially sentimental sort — as regular visitors here will attest — but it makes me sad to see the icons of my youth fade from view.

Just moments ago, I received an e-mail announcing the passing of Bob Wilkins, the longtime host of KTVU's Creature Features. I spent many Friday and Saturday nights in the 1970s and early '80s enjoying cheesy horror and sci-fi flicks with the urbane, bespectacled Mr. Wilkins and his eventual successor in the host's rocking chair, John Stanley.

More than four years ago, I waxed nostalgic in this space about Creature Features and its profound impact on my adolescent years. Rather than reinventing the torture wheel, I'll simply invite you to check out that Halloween 2004 post.

I was privileged to meet Bob Wilkins in person a few years ago, when he made what I believe was his final guest appearance at WonderCon. Bob was obviously in ill health at that time, so I was glad that I took the opportunity to express to him my thanks for all the hours of entertainment. I'm even more glad now.

Keep that coffin lid tightly closed, Bob. You never know what might be trying to get in.

Or out.

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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

So long, Stacey's

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

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

That leads me to another thought, however...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

It's hard in Oakland for a pimp

The Hughes Brothers speak the truth: "Oakland is a pimpin' town."

Apparently, the only people who won't acknowledge that truth are in Oakland city government.

Allen and Albert Hughes, most often referred to collectively as the Hughes Brothers (because their last name is Hughes, and they're... well... brothers), are fraternal twin filmmakers best known for their uncompromising depictions of urban street life, as portrayed in their dramatic films Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, and the documentary American Pimp. (The Hughes Brothers also masterminded the comic book adaptation From Hell, starring Johnny Depp as a 19th-century London detective stalking Jack the Ripper.)

The latest Hughes project is an upcoming HBO drama series entitled Gentlemen of Leisure, about a middle-aged pimp struggling with the responsibilities of fatherhood and family life. The series is set in Oakland, and the Hughes Brothers are eager, for the sake of verisimilitude, to film the show on location.

So far, Mayor Ron Dellums and the Oakland City Council are having none of it. The council has to date refused to approve the Hughes Brothers' permits to begin filming on the streets of Oakland. According to Mayor Dellums, a TV show about pimps doesn't fit his vision of what Oakland is.

Never mind the fact that the rest of the world — including a slew of big-name hip-hop artists from Oakland — sees the city exactly that way.

It's no secret to anyone who follows American popular culture that Oakland is one of the hubs of the hip-hop/rap scene, which has made a cottage industry out of "pimps and hos." (The hip-hop crew Three 6 Mafia won the Academy Award for Best Original Song four years ago, for the song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp.") Hyphy, an entire "brand" of hip-hop music and style, originated in Oakland and its surrounding communities. Rap pioneer Too Short, perhaps the biggest hip-hop star to arise from the East Bay scene, built his entire career explicitly proclaiming the glories of the pimping life in Oakland.

The Oakland city fathers may not like that image. It's disingenuous, however, to deny that it exists, or to stand in the way of legitimate artists documenting it.

For their part, the Hughes Brothers have stated that if the City Council won't grant them permits to lens Gentlemen of Leisure in Oakland, they'll move the production to another city, while leaving the show's fictional setting in Oakland. That means another community will benefit from the economic uplift and job creation that follows a major television production, while struggling Oakland will lose out, even as its likeness — for better or worse — is portrayed onscreen.

If you can't change perception, Mayor Dellums, you may as well pimp it out.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

I can't drive 35

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

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

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

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

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

So, up to 40 it went.

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

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

It's now posted at 45.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Maybe we're just flamboyant

I'm a huge fan of The 5th Wheel, the often-hilarious blog about barbershop singing written by Mike McGee, the original baritone of one of my favorite quartets, the recently retired Metropolis.

Yesterday, Mike posted a list of the competitors in the 2009 Barbershop Harmony Society International Chorus Contest. Because next July's International will be held at the Anaheim Convention Center, Mike jokingly assigns each chorus a "convention host" from Disneyland's cast of characters.

Who did Mike assign to my chorus, Voices in Harmony, the reigning Far Western District Chorus Champions?

"The gay parade dancer."

Seriously, is that any way to talk about northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus? I think not.

As Molly used to say... "'Tain't funny, McGee!"

(Okay, maybe it's a little funny.)

I suppose that any all-male performing organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area will occasionally get tagged with some measure of gay stereotype. After all, residents in sizable swaths of the country are convinced that everyone in the Bay Area is gay. (We, in turn, might characterize folks in those swaths as rednecks, which likewise may not be entirely accurate.) That perception may be especially strong when applied to male choral ensembles, given that one of the largest and most iconic such groups here is the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus.

Before Voices in Harmony formed, I sang with another ensemble, originally called the Pot o' Gold Chorus. Although Pot o' Gold had relocated eastward to Pleasanton by the time I joined, the chorus had been founded in the city of Dublin — hence the quasi-Irish name.

Fittingly, Pot o' Gold's insignia consisted of a rainbow streaming downward into a kettle filled with gold coins. Our stage costume was a black tuxedo accessorized with a rainbow-striped cummerbund. On many occasions, people saw a bunch of guys in stage makeup and rainbow cummerbunds, and from there leaped to a certain conclusion that you've probably already surmised.

Over time, the rainbow logo and accouterments were phased out, as was the Pot o' Gold name. The ensemble performed for several years as the Bay Area Metro Chorus before the merger that created VIH.

One of my fellow singers tells of an incident that occurred the last time BHS International took place in Anaheim, in July 1999. He was enjoying an adult beverage in the bar of the Anaheim Marriott following the chorus contest, while still clad in his Pot o' Gold tuxedo. A patron of the bar saw my comrade's cummerbund, and mistook the rainbow striping as a covert invitation to hot man-on-man monkey love. My friend — who, as it happens, is not gay — demurred.

Like the population of the Bay Area itself, Voices in Harmony is a diverse assemblage. Our membership reflects a variety of ages, ethnicities, occupations, lifestyles, and yes, sexual orientations. Different though we are, we share a common element (where have I heard that term before?) — we're men who enjoy singing and performing at a high level of musical excellence. And I'm proud to share the risers with every one of them.

If that Disneyland parade dancer can carry a tune, he's more than welcome.

Now, I'm off to rehearsal.

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I'm the third monkey

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

Does this make me a bad person?

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Monday, December 01, 2008

The Man of Steal

The 2009 Baseball Hall of Fame ballots were mailed today to all members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America with ten or more consecutive years of service. It's the smallest HOF ballot since the current election system was instituted, with only 23 players listed as eligible.

The most notable newcomer to the list is Rickey Henderson, the longtime outfielder who owns baseball's career records for runs scored (2,295) and stolen bases, and is second all-time in walks with 2,190. Henderson played with nine teams during his 25 years in the major leagues, but is best remembered as a member of the Oakland Athletics, with whom he began his career and served four discrete tours of duty.

Rickey's a dead-solid lock for first-ballot election to the Hall, and deservedly so. He hung around far longer than he should have — he really wasn't much of a player his last four seasons, though he had as good a year as a 40-year-old guy could ask while playing for the New York Mets in 1999. But for the first dozen years of his career, Henderson was one of baseball's marquee superstars, and he was still a quality player for seven or eight years after that.

None of the rest of the incoming class of eligibles seems likely to make the cut. Power-hitting Mo Vaughn might have been a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate had his career not been shortened by injuries. Matt Williams, the Giants' best third baseman during their San Francisco tenure, had some fine years, but not enough of them to earn a ticket to Cooperstown. Mark Grace and Ron Gant were pretty good players, and 1994 American League Cy Young Award winner David Cone was a pretty good pitcher, but we aren't talking about the Hall of the Pretty Good. The remaining newbies — Jay Bell, Jesse Orosco, Dan Plesac, and Mo's cousin Greg Vaughn — net a collective "meh."

Of the holdovers from last year's ballot, Boston Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice should score a long-overdue Cooperstown call in his final year of eligibility. Rice, the American League's best offensive player in the late 1970s and early , just missed the Hall by 16 votes last time. He deserves those last few check marks that would push him over the hump. Were I a ten-year member of the BBWAA, I'd also throw votes to slugging outfielder Andre "The Hawk" Dawson, starting pitcher Jack Morris, and reliever Lee Smith — all of whom, like Rice, should have been inducted years ago.

So, anyway, here's my funny Rickey Henderson story.

I was sitting down the left field line at an Oakland A's home game in the early '80s, when Rickey was the lone megastar on an Athletics club that didn't have much else going for it. Then, as is too often the case now, the A's didn't draw many fans, so the few of us in attendance didn't have any difficulty making our individual voices heard to the players on the field.

One loudmouth in the left field bleachers, who sounded as though he might have been keeping the beer concession in business all by himself, kept shouting, "Rickey Henderson! Rickey Henderson!" over Rickey's shoulder, at a decibel level that ensured that everyone in the Oakland Coliseum — including, I think, the security guards in the parking lot — could hear him.

Rickey studiously ignored the guy's incessant chatter for about three innings. At long last, he made the fatal error of sneaking a peek back to check out this character who seemed so enamored with his name. The instant Henderson turned around, the guy yelled, "You sissy!" and cackled like a drunken hyena.

Rickey, who always had a lively sense of humor, broke up laughing.

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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 24, 2008

What's Up With That? #67: That's why it's called the Big House

Because it's essential that Sonoma County continue to solidify its reputation as the pedophilia capital of North America...

A teacher at one of the local high schools was arrested this weekend, charged with allegedly engineering an illicit rendezvous with a teenage girl.

Scott Dietlin, a 34-year-old history and economics teacher at Casa Grande High School in Petaluma, was arraigned today in San Mateo County on three felony counts.

According to Burlingame police, Dietlin made a connection with two underage female residents of that community via their MySpace page. When the girls reported Dietlin's untoward e-mails to local authorities, a police detective continued the conversations until Saturday's scheduled meeting.

I'm guessing that Mr. Dietlin was a tad surprised when his online dream date turned up wearing a badge and Police Special.

Ironically, Casa Grande High's nickname among local kids is "the Big House," a pun on its Spanish name. As my daughter KM said of Dietlin's misadventure...

"He'll be going from the Big House to the Big House."

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Six degrees of me

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

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

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

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

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

It's a small world after all.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Drinking the Kool-Aid

Thirty years ago today, a madman named Jim Jones led 909 of his disciples — known collectively as the Peoples Temple — to mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. Nearly 300 of the dead were children.

The method of self-destruction chosen by the brainwashed masses (though not Jones himself, who put himself out of the world's misery with a bullet to the brain) lent an enduring new metaphor to the American vernacular: "Drinking the Kool-Aid."

Ironically, it wasn't Kool-Aid, but instead a similar powdered drink called Flavor-Aid, that delivered the fatal cyanide.

History makes mistakes like that sometimes.

The day before the mass suicide, Jones's personal security force, the self-styled Red Brigade, murdered U.S. Congressman Leo J. Ryan, two NBC News staff members, a photographer from the San Francisco Examiner, and a Peoples Temple member on the airstrip at Port Kaituma, Guyana. Ryan, representing California's 11th District, had led a delegation of journalists to Jonestown to investigate allegations of abuse within the Peoples Temple, whose followers had relocated from the Bay Area to Guyana in the summer of 1977. As Ryan and his party attempted to flee with 15 Peoples Temple defectors, the Red Brigade opened fire.

Ryan's assistant, 28-year-old Jackie Speier, survived the attack, along with about a dozen other members of the delegation. Speier suffered five gunshot wounds, including shattered bones in her right arm and leg. Today, Speier represents California's 12th District in Congress.

Jonestown was the biggest news story in the Bay Area since the 1906 earthquake — until ten days later, when Dan White, a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in their offices at San Francisco City Hall.

I remember the events of what came to be known as the Jonestown massacre vividly. Because my family was both black and religious (the largest proportion of Peoples Temple members were African-American), relatives from all over the country called our house on the day the news broke, fearing that somehow we had been involved in the tragedy. Clearly, we were not.

909 other people — plus Leo Ryan and the four who died alongside him — were.

Until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the deaths at Jonestown represented the largest single-event loss of American lives resulting from human causes.

Three decades later, the massacre remains burned with laser-like intensity into the memories of those of us who lived in the Bay Area at the time. Jonestown stands as a permanent reminder of the seductive nature of power, as well as the dangers of blind faith.

At least the Kool-Aid company recovered.

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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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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Caught from behind

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

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

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

Well, jump-start my heart.

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

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

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

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

She never did get her Egg McMuffin.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

Swapping out Mikes

The long-overdue shoe finally drops.

The San Francisco 49ers have fired head coach Mike Nolan, replacing him with legendary Chicago Bears linebacker Mike Singletary, who has been serving as the Niners' assistant head coach since 2004.

No sports fan in the Bay Area — indeed, in the nation — will be surprised by this. The hapless 49ers, off to a 2-5 start thus far (they've lost their last four games), nearly dumped Nolan at the end of last season before offering him a tepid "win or else" reprieve.

Nolan, who came to San Francisco three and a half seasons ago, has displayed little ability to resuscitate the floundering franchise that his late father, Dick Nolan, coached in the late 1960s and early '70s. A good-looking guy, a smooth talker, and a snappy dresser, Nolan the Sequel proved to be all hat and no cattle when it came to both drafting talent — he was responsible for saddling the team with clueless quarterback Alex Smith — and winning football games. The erstwhile Team of the Eighties limped to an 18-37 record under Nolan's leadership. And I'm using that word accommodatively.

Hall of Famer Singletary has no head coaching experience, but has been a perennial candidate for top jobs around the league since joining the Niners as Nolan's second banana and linebacking coach. Known for his intensity on defense during his playing days, "Samurai Mike" will have his hands full guiding a football squad with no direction and precious little talent beyond star linebacker Patrick Willis — a Singletary protégé, ironically enough.

If only Singletary had the authority to fire the 49ers' inept owner, Dr. John York, he might actually be able to take the team somewhere.

Other than the cellar of the NFC West, that is.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008


This won't elicit much play beyond my immediate vicinity, but what the hey... I can be provincial when I choose to be.

The man who built much of my town died today.

Jimmie Rogers was an up-and-coming real estate salesman back in the early 1960s when he persuaded the namesake family on whose one-time seed farm the city of Rohnert Park now stands to hire him as their representative. Rogers parlayed that position — and a legendary silver tongue — into a lucrative political and development career.

Rogers's talent for negotiation led to the creation of most of the residential tracts in town, including the one where I live. He was also responsible for the local community center, golf course, numerous commercial projects, and a host of parks and schools. Rogers served for nearly a decade on the city council, and when his development connections drove him out of the political arena, he continued to control the council through his proxies for decades afterward.

Having lived in Rohnert Park for most of the past 30 years, I've heard plenty of stories about Jimmie Rogers, although I met him in person only once, when I was still in high school. I don't know how many of the stories are 100% true.

Without question, Rogers cut a colorful figure around town. He liked to dress like an extra from Urban Cowboy. His hands wormed their way into plenty of pockets and his fingers probed a lot of pies. Where there were palms to be greased, Rogers was the one who gave and got the grease. Where deals were being hammered out in smoke-filled back rooms, Rogers did most of the puffing.

Rogers was frequently accused of playing fast and loose with the legalities of city business, to the point that the FBI took a hard look at him on at least one occasion. But he had as many fans as he had detractors — a friend of mine in the real estate business can't say enough good about the guy.

This much I do know...

If it weren't for Jimmie Rogers, this would be a very different community. And I wouldn't be typing under this roof.

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Monday, October 13, 2008

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

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

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

The reason for this act of urban terrorism?

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Ain't that a Mother's?

Tragic news today.

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

You'll have to excuse me...

I need a moment.

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

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

I sure am going to miss those Circus Animals.

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Monday, October 06, 2008

In the criminal justice system...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Giants post-script, 2008

My brief summation of the San Francisco Giants' season that concluded yesterday:

It could have been worse.

Indeed, I predicted back in March that the G-Men would finish last in the National League West this year. Thanks to the total collapse of the San Diego Padres, San Francisco wound up fourth in its division, only two games behind the third-place (and defending pennant winner) Colorado Rockies. The Giants' 72-90 record is ten games better than the 62-100 I feared might be their reality.

Best of all, the team's influx of untested talent proved entertaining more often than not — especially the break-through season by sophomore starter Tim Lincecum, who struck out a major league-leading 265 batters on his way to serious Cy Young Award contention.

So yes... it could have been worse.

That's not to say that it was good. As the report card below will reflect.

Starting pitching: Lincecum's stellar season (18-5; 2.62 ERA; he could easily have won 25 games given adequate run support and relief help) was the one bright spot for an otherwise disappointing crew. Barry Zito, the $126 million man, redeemed himself after a horrific 0-8 start to to post a 9-6 record over the last four months. Matt Cain, expected to be the staff ace, regressed into inconsistency (8-14; 3.76 ERA), pitching brilliantly at times, dreadfully at others. Jonathan Sanchez blew similarly hot and cold. The less said about fifth starter Kevin Correia, the better. Grade: C.

Relief pitching:Second-year closer Brian "Beach Boy" Wilson vaulted to All-Star status in 2008, notching 41 saves in 47 opportunities. The Giants needed Wilson's superlative services, because the rest of the bullpen was mostly dreadful. The other bright spots were rookies Alex Hinshaw and hard-throwing Sergio Romo, both of whom will get long looks as Wilson's set-up men next year. As for everyone else in the Giants relief corps... egad. Grade: C-.

Catching: Bengie "Big Money" Molina racked up his second consecutive solid offensive season (.292 BA; 16 HR; 95 RBI), while providing dependable defense behind the dish. Molina's backup for most of the season was rookie Steve Holm, until the August arrival of do-everything man Pablo "Little Money" Sandoval. Grade: A-.

Infield: The sweet-swinging Sandoval — who, in addition to catching, saw playing time at both first and third bases — proved to be one of the Giants' two major infield surprises. The other was shortstop Emmanuel Burriss, who played the more highly touted Brian Bocock back to the minors with his sparkling glove play, consistent hitting (.283), and speed on the basepaths.(Bocock's .143 average helped, too.) Both will be penciled into the Giants' starting lineup next spring. Aging and oft-injured veterans Ray Durham (shipped at midseason to Milwaukee) and Omar Vizquel gave way to up-and-comers Ivan Ochoa and Eugenio Velez — the latter's hair-pulling defensive lapses being ameliorated somewhat by his timely bat. Converted outfielder John Bowker saw most of the playing time at first base before a late-summer demotion. Grizzled Rich Aurilia had a commendable year (.283 BA; 10 HR) handling the utility chores. Grade: B.

Outfield: Randy Winn did his best to take over the leadership of the Giants outfield in the first year of the post-Barry Bonds era, and once again was one of San Francisco's most consistent offensive weapons with a .306 batting average. New center fielder Aaron Rowand struggled to live up to his mammoth free agent contract, providing confident defense and a modicum of power (13 home runs, second on the club), but often seeming overmatched at the plate. Last September's star Fred "Don't Call Me Freddy" Lewis solidified his claim to the third outfield spot before being sidelined by a late injury. Nate Schierholtz returned from Beijing with an Olympic bronze medal and a determination to vie for a position in 2009 — he hit .320 in 19 garbage-time games. Grade: B-.

Dugout: It's hard to assess what manager Bruce Bochy and his staff could have done differently or better in this rebuilding season. Ultimately, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the Giants ate their way into a fourth-place finish in baseball's weakest division. Grade: D.

Overall: As stated earlier, this wasn't quite as awful a year for the Giants as it could have been, but this ballclub is years away from contending for a division title, much less a pennant. The Giants were one of the weakest offensive teams in baseball, with power stats that were almost nonexistent (the Giants' 94 home runs were the only sub-three digit team total in the majors). The emergence of All-Stars Lincecum and Wilson, plus budding stars Sandoval, Burriss, and Lewis in the field and at the plate, and Romo and Hinshaw on the mound, gives San Francisco fans hope for the future. Grade: C-.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Wailing at the Wall of Fame

Earlier this week, the San Francisco Giants unveiled their new Wall of Fame, with plaques celebrating 43 players who have made significant contributions to the team's on-field success during its 50 years by the Bay.

As inevitably occurs with sporting honors, the Giants Wall of Fame touched off a firestorm of controversy. The criteria established by Giants management for including players on the wall were in themselves a target for debate: Only retired players who spent nine or more seasons with the Giants, or who played a minimum of five seasons in San Francisco, with at least one All-Star Game selection during that period, can be enshrined.

The retirement requirement (hey, I'm a poet!) excluded the Giants' biggest star of the last two decades, Barry Bonds, who though not playing anywhere at present is not officially retired. The Giants did, however, announce that wall space has already been reserved for Bonds and four other noteworthy current (infielder Rich Aurilia) and former (second baseman Jeff Kent and pitchers Jason Schmidt and Shawn Estes) Giants, whose plaques will be installed once they hang up their spikes.

The nine-year/five-with-an-All-Star criterion left behind such popular ex-Giants as shortstop Jose Uribe, linchpin of the San Francisco infield in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and pitcher Dave Dravecky, whose return to the mound following a bout with cancer helped inspire the pennant-winning team of 1989. Uribe, never an All-Star, left the Giants after eight years; Dravecky's fondly remembered tenure in orange and black spanned only parts of three seasons.

Most of the controversy surrounding the wall, though, points to the players who made the cut, rather than to those who missed it. Howls of dismay arose from Giants fans everywhere when Johnnie LeMaster, a light-hitting, weak-fielding shortstop so despised by the Candlestick Park faithful that he once took the field wearing a jersey with "BOO" stitched on the back, received a plaque. The Wall's creator, the Giants' soon-to-retire managing general partner Peter Magowan, shrugged and said of LeMaster, "He was here ten years. He must have done something right." Umm... what?

Given that I've been following the Giants for nearly 35 years — 70 percent of the club's San Francisco era — I feel eminently qualified to offer my own assessment of the 43 Wall-of-Famers. (I'd offer it even if I weren't so eminently qualified, because that's how I roll.) I'll break the group down into four categories, as you'll see below.

First, the No-Brainers. Without any of these, the Wall of Fame would be a travesty. Start with the five San Francisco Giants players currently in the Baseball Hall of Fame:
  • Willie Mays.
  • Willie McCovey.
  • Juan Marichal.
  • Orlando Cepeda.
  • Gaylord Perry.
'Nuff said, right? To these mortal locks, I'll add:
  • Third baseman Matt Williams (National League Most Valuable Player runner-up in 1994; three Silver Slugger Awards as a Giant).
  • 1989 NL MVP Kevin Mitchell.
  • The two clutch-hitting Clarks, Jack and Will "the Thrill."
  • 1967 Cy Young winner Mike McCormick.
Next up, the Solid Selections. All of these are choices whose worthiness no knowledgeable Giants fan should contest.
  • Bobby Bonds. At his peak in a Giants uniform.
  • Fan-favorite pitcher Vida Blue.
  • Third baseman Darrell Evans. Hard to argue with all those (mostly meaningless) home runs.
  • Felipe Alou, not a great manager but a vastly undervalued player.
  • Star relievers Robb Nen, Rod "Shooter" Beck, and Greg "Moon Man" Minton.
  • Kirk Rueter, who won more games as a southpaw than any other San Francisco pitcher.
  • J.T. Snow, one of the best defensive first basemen ever.
  • Second baseman Robby Thompson, a stalwart for a decade.
  • Third baseman Jim Ray Hart, who posted five creditable seasons before beginning a long, slow slide into mediocrity.
Then come the Questionable Calls. None of these inclusions either excites or outrages me. If I were compiling a Giants Wall of Fame, I'd probably pass on most of these, with a couple of exceptions that I'll note.
  • Infielder Jim Davenport. As manager, Davvy presided over the Giants' worst season, in 1985.
  • Starting pitchers John Burkett and Mike Krukow. Now a beloved broadcaster, Krukow had one 20-win season in a mostly mediocre Giants career. Burkett was a little better pitcher than Krukow, and also one heck of a bowler.
  • Relief pitcher Gary Lavelle, for years the Giants' bullpen stopper.
  • Catchers Tom Haller and Kirt Manwaring. I could make a good argument for Manwaring. He couldn't hit a lick, but he was widely regarded as one of the best defensive backstops of his day, as well as an expert handler of pitchers. Haller later served as the Giants' general manager.
  • Outfielders Chili Davis and Jeffrey "Hac-Man" Leonard. Chili was a better player than most people realize — he finished his career with 350 home runs. But he enjoyed most of his best seasons after he left the Giants. Hac-Man was never as good as his demeanor and reputation.
And now, the final category: What Are We, Kidding? (I believe that speaks for itself.)
  • Pitchers Jim Barr, Bob Bolin, Jeff Brantley, Scott Garrelts, Atlee Hammaker, Stu Miller, Randy Moffitt, John Montefusco, and Rick Reuschel. Most of these guys were middling pitchers who had a fair year or two amid careers of steaming nothingness. Hammaker wasn't even that good — Herb Caen, the long-time San Francisco Chronicle columnist, once theorized that the only reason Hammaker stayed on the Giants' roster was that he was then-manager Roger Craig's illegitimate son. (Herb was joshing. I think.) Reuschel was a terrific pitcher for years with the Chicago Cubs, but he was playing out the string by the time he arrived in San Francisco. He put up a couple of okay years here, but his career seasons were long behind him.
  • Infielders Chris Speier, Tito Fuentes, and the aforementioned Johnnie LeMaster. Speier was a serviceable, if thoroughly unremarkable, shortstop. Fuentes and LeMaster may have been the two worst defensive infielders ever to play for the Giants, with the notable exception of the Bob Brenly third base experiment.
  • Speaking of Brenly, slot him and fellow catcher Dick Dietz here. Brenly was a terrific leader in the clubhouse, but he was an average catcher at best, both on offense and defense. Dietz had one — count it, one — remarkable campaign, in 1970 (.300 average, 107 RBI).

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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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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, 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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Monday, August 04, 2008

Was blind, but now I see

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

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

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

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

Age, my youthful reader, is a harsh mistress.

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Bobby Murcer (1946-2008)

I note in this evening's news that Bobby Murcer has passed away from a brain tumor.

To most baseball fans, Murcer was most closely associated with the New York Yankees, first as a player, then as a broadcaster for more than 20 years. For me, however, Murcer was part of my earliest experience as a San Francisco Giants fan.

Bobby Murcer played two years for the Giants -- the 1975 and 1976 seasons, which (purely coincidentally) happened to be the first two seasons that I followed the Giants on a regular basis.

Murcer, who came to the Giants after four All-Star seasons in New York, was still a pretty good player when he arrived at Candlestick Park. In fact, Murcer was the Giants' representative in the '75 All-Star game. He never really seemed to catch on, though, with Bay Area fans, who still thought of him mostly as a Yankee. (Murcer also had the misfortune to have been received in exchange for the popular Bobby Bonds.)

Despite two pretty good seasons wearing orange and black -- he was the Giants' MVP in 1976, when he hit 23 home runs -- not too many fans here mourned when Murcer took flight for the greener pastures of Wrigley Field, having been traded for second baseman Bill Madlock.

Ironically, the player whose career is most similar statistically to Bobby Murcer's is a guy who will long be thought of as a Giant -- Dusty Baker, who played a single season in the twilight of his career with San Francisco, and later returned to the club as a longtime coach and manager.

Murcer posted a lifetime batting average of .277, with 252 home runs and 1,043 RBI in 17 major league seasons. He led the American League in slugging percentage in 1971, and won a Gold Glove the following year.

So long, Bobby. Remember to hit 'em where they ain't.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

And... we're back!

I've returned. Cue the dancing girls!

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

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

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

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

Back with more shortly.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Smoke gets in your eyes

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

But it certainly is here, these past few days.

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

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

I feel for my asthmatic neighbors.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

The class clown goes down

This paean to the late, legendary George Carlin will not include any words that you can't say on television.

(Although, to be accurate, two of Carlin's infamous Seven Words are now spoken on television with relative frequency, and as august a personality as Jane Fonda pitched out the four-letter word beginning with "C" on the Today Show just a few months ago.)

The immediate irony of the news about George Carlin's death (Carlin would mock me from the grave for using a euphemism like "passing") was that Cranky George videotaped his final HBO comedy special, It's Bad for Ya, here in Santa Rosa the first weekend in March. Even though the show was being taped locally, I settled for the live cablecast, since I already pay for the subscription. Now, I'm a little sad that I didn't go and pay homage to the great humorist while he was still with us.

I first became hooked on Carlin's comedy in my junior high school days. I still have my original vinyl copies of all of his classic albums from the '70s — Class Clown; FM & AM; Occupation: Foole; Toledo Window Box; An Evening with Wally Londo Featuring Bill Slaszo; On the Road; plus 1981's A Place for My Stuff. Even now, I can rattle off many of those outrageous routines and rants verbatim. (I tend to bowdlerize them a trifle when I repeat them, but still.)

Carlin is often mentioned in the same breath with such fellow comics as Redd Foxx, Lenny Bruce, and Carlin's contemporary Richard Pryor because they all employed an abundance of profanity and risque subject matter. That is, in my view, a shallow evaluation of all four performers. Foxx's bawdy routines were "inside baseball," targeted at a specific audience that had few resources for uncensored comedy. Pryor used scatological language as a framework for sociopolitical commentary — as his two network television series demonstrated (especially the award-winning Pryor's Place, a Saturday morning kid's show), Pryor could be equally effective when he wasn't working blue. Bruce — who, in my plain-spoken opinion, wasn't the comedic equal of the others, despite his reputation as an innovator — threw out F-bombs as a way of needling the Establishment and giving voice his internal demons.

Carlin, though, liked to play with language. Profanities were his Lincoln logs, his Legos, his alphabet blocks. His "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" riff (from Class Clown), and its sequel, "Filthy Words" (from Occupation: Foole), were less about the words themselves than the concepts and mores that cause us to judge certain words as socially acceptable while deeming others taboo. A lot of Carlin's comedy was like that — a window into the mind of a man who thought a lot about why the world was the way it was, then found funny ways to talk about it. He was as brilliant an observational humorist as Mark Twain and Will Rogers were in their eras. As a stand-up comedian, he was second only to the nonpareil Pryor.

For me, George lost some of his mojo once he qualified for AARP membership. From the early '80s on, Carlin embraced his newfound persona as the angry old man a mite too fully, and his rancorous bitterness (especially on the topics of religion and politics) often overwhelmed the charming, albeit scathing, bemusement that marked his prime years.

That said, whenever he allowed himself to transcend his curmudgeonly stage character and simply wax poetic about the absurdities of modern life, Carlin was hilarious to the end. I had tears rolling down my cheeks at one point during his final special.

Today, I might shed one or two more, realizing that old George is gone.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Cat on a hot tin motorbike

It's officially summer — at least, it will be at 4:59 Pacific Daylight Time today — and we're already experiencing the effects here in Wine Country.

Yesterday, we topped the thermometer at 96 degrees. It's expected to be at least that hot again today.

This is why God created Otter Pops and cream soda.

If we're going to be sweltering, we may as well enjoy some white-hot comic art while we count the beads of perspiration dripping from our noses.

Debuting in 1941, The Black Cat was one of the more popular superheroines during comics' Golden Age. She was also one of the few female characters to headline her own book during that period. In civilian life, Linda Turner starred in Hollywood as a film actress and stuntwoman. She used the skills she gained in the latter field to battle crime as the Black Cat. Linda's costumed derring-do — which frequently involved her performing dangerous tricks on her trusty motorcycle — attracted favorable notice from entertainment reporter Rick Horne, who in true Lois Lane fashion never seemed to tumble to his dream girl's secret identity.

Numerous artists illustrated the Black Cat's adventures during her career, but she is most closely associated with Lee Elias, a talented draftsman whose work bore the unmistakable influence of Milton Caniff of Terry and the Pirates fame. Elias's original Black Cat pages remain popular with collectors today. In the 1960s and '70s, Elias returned to comics and drew a number of superhero, science fiction, and horror series, mostly for DC.

Our featured image of the Black Cat above springs from the pencil of James E. Lyle, whose work will be familiar to Comic Art Friday regulars. Although Lyle usually inks his own pinups, this particular piece was embellished by Bob Almond over a blueline scan of Lyle's pencil drawing.

Comics being the incestuous business that it is, a hit concept is always ripe for replication. The Black Cat was no exception. Her popularity spawned several imitators, most notably DC Comics' Black Canary. Indeed, the original Canary couldn't have been more of a Black Cat clone if she'd tried — both characters were motorcycle-riding martial artists who wore cuffed buccaneer boots. Not coincidentally, both were also drawn at various times by Lee Elias.

James E. Lyle captures the Black Canary in pensive repose, above. Lyle's drew inspiration for this piece from the Police song "Canary in a Coal Mine." I believe that Sting would approve.

The striking similarity between these two heroines inspired an entry in my Common Elements commission series. Video game designer Jeffrey Moy, best known in comics for his lengthy run on Legion of Super-Heroes, brings his trademark flourish to Linda Turner and her newfound friend Dinah Drake Lance below.

On your way now, cats and canaries. Stay cool if you can: Summer's here.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Defend your right to bear flags

On this date in 1846, 33 men hoisted a flag in the square of the little town of Sonoma — just on the other side of Sonoma Mountain from here — and proclaimed themselves independent of the Mexican government, which held the local reins of power at the time.

That flag, emblazoned with a lone star, a red stripe, and the silhouette of a grizzly bear (at least, what creator William Todd intended to be a grizzly bear — wags commented that Todd's bear looked more like a pig), marked the dawn of the short-lived California Republic, nicknamed "the Bear Flag Republic."

The hardy band of insurgents took as their prisoner General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, commandant of the Presidio of Sonoma, and installed one of their own, William B. Ide, as president of the Republic. On June 23, the fledgling state was reinforced by the 60-man California Battalion, under the command of Major John C. Frémont. The following day, Frémont's battalion and the Bear Flag crew routed 50 Mexican troops led by General José Castro at Olompali (in the vicinity of present-day Novato) — the first California battle of the Mexican-American War.

On July 9, the Bear Flag in Sonoma was lowered and replaced with the Stars and Stripes, as the republic accepted annexation by the United States. The Bear Flag's general concept lives on today, in the state flag of California.

As a Californian for the past 32 years, I'm proud of my adopted home.

Even if we do have a bear on our flag.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Primary post-mortem

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

You go, Obama.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, well. There's always Obama.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Like Grant took Richmond

The Dean of Bay Area newscasters has hung up his TelePrompTer.

Last night, Dennis Richmond — the longtime anchor of KTVU-2's Ten O'Clock News — signed off for the final time. Dennis spent 40 years at KTVU (the Bay Area's FOX affiliate, and a major independent station for decades before FOX), the last 32 of which saw him anchoring the area's lone "early" newscast with gravitas and aplomb.

As news anchors go, Dennis was solidly old-school. He rarely cracked wise, offered political commentary, or indulged in tabloid fluff from the anchor chair. In the immortal words of Jack Webb, Dennis stuck with "just the facts, ma'am."

His female co-anchors — and they were always female, beginning with Barbara Simpson in the late '70s, who gave way to Elaine Corral in the mid-'80s, who in turn stepped aside for Leslie Griffith in the late '90s, before perky Julie Haener snatched the job two years ago — came and went (mostly as they crept toward middle age, because that's how the broadcasting business goes), but Dennis remained constant, every night offering his sober and elegant delivery of the day's critical stories.

I would never hope to switch on the television and hear that World War Three had erupted. But if it had, I'd have wanted Dennis Richmond to be there to break the news, in his rich, reassuring baritone.

Now, when the Big One drops, I'll have to settle for Frank Somerville. Not that there's anything wrong with Frank — he's a fine reporter and anchor in his own right. But no one is Dennis Richmond.

Heck, they already named an East Bay city after the man.

Bon chance, Mr. Richmond. Thanks for all the news, good and bad. May your retirement be long, healthy, and fulfilling.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

See Wolves, be Wolves

Congratulations to our hometown scholar-athletes, the Sonoma State University Seawolves, whose baseball squad won the NCAA Division II West Regional this past weekend.

On Saturday, the Seawolves will make their first appearance in the NCAA Division II Baseball Championships, taking place this year at GCS Ballpark in Sauget, Illinois — home of the Gateway Grizzlies of the independent Frontier League.

That Sonoma State has become something of a small-school athletic powerhouse is no small source of amusement to me. I can recall when, in my long-ago high school days, the university barely dabbled a toe in the competitive waters, in keeping with its bohemian, "Berkeley North" atmosphere. Back then, SSU was derisively known throughout the California State University system as "Granola State," a refuge for aging hippies and their college-age progeny. The primary campus sports in that era were Frisbee and spliff-rolling, not necessarily in that order.

Over the years, as SSU gained more traditionally focused administrative leadership, its sports programs expanded and improved. Longtime NFL star lineman Larry Allen garnered national attention while playing at SSU (the school dropped football after Allen's departure, to focus on baseball, basketball, soccer, golf, and tennis), and the Sonoma State women's basketball team is a perennial contender in the NCAA Division II tournament.

The SSU team mascot also underwent a transformation. Originally, the university's athletic teams were nicknamed Cossacks — a nod to Sonoma County's Russian heritage, still in evidence today via such local landmarks as the Russian River and the town of Sebastopol.

Eight years ago, someone at long last picked up a history textbook, only to discover that the real-life Cossacks were bloodthirsty invaders who raped and murdered the female citizens of the communities they ransacked, and who collaborated with the Nazis in their anti-Semitic reign of terror during World War II.


After much public sturm und drang, the SSU administration changed the team nickname to Seawolves, in honor of Jack London's novel The Sea-Wolf, whose author lived out his final years in nearby Glen Ellen. Anyone who's ever read London's book knows that its title character is a vicious, brutal individual not unlike those Cossacks of old, but in this illiterate age, progress is progress.

Best of luck to our young Seawolves as they contend for collegiate baseball glory. Jack London would be proud.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

R.I.P., Rory Root

I'm saddened to hear about the sudden passing of comics retailer Rory Root earlier today.

Rory was the owner of Comic Relief, an exceptional comics shop in Berkeley. I had occasion to drop in at Rory's store a few times over the years, and was always impressed with both the merchandise selection and the congenial staff.

My more frequent interactions with Comic Relief, though, came at local comic conventions. A browse at Rory's beautifully merchandised booth was always an essential part of my con experience.

As previously mentioned in this space, this past February at WonderCon, Comic Relief was the only retailer selling copies of Mark Evanier's eagerly anticipated new book, Kirby: King of Comics, which had been published that very week. Through what I understand were herculean efforts on his part, Rory managed to score 80 copies of Mark's book, and arranged with Mark to sign the book for those who purchased it.

I'm thrilled to own one of those 80 copies. Rory personally dug it out of the shipping box in order to sell it to me, whereupon Mark graciously affixed his autograph to the flyleaf. Kirby's favorite inker, Mike Royer, likewise signed my book as we were waiting together to attend a panel discussion about the book.

I'll cherish my autographed copy of Kirby: King of Comics always... and I won't forget the gentle bear of a guy who made it possible for me to own it.

My thoughts and prayers are with Rory's family, friends, and staff.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Crazy from the heat

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of Will Elder, one of the founding artists of MAD Magazine, who passed away this week at the age of 86.

Elder's manic cartooning and incredibly detailed panels helped set the tone for generations of MAD artists to follow. After departing MAD, Elder and writer-artist Harvey Kurtzman created the popular Little Annie Fanny comic strip for Playboy. (Not that I would know anything about that...)

Our sincere condolences to Mr. Elder's family and fans.

Looking at SSTOL this morning, I realize that I have been — as my daughter KM would put it — a total slack-job about posting this week. It's not that I haven't had anything to write about. For one thing, the television upfronts took place this week, when the various broadcast networks unveil their schedules for the fall season. I'll get to our customary overviews next week.

This week, it's just been too dad-blamed hot.

When the mercury tops 100 degrees Fahrenheit, as it has here in Wine Country each of the past two days, my creative focus melts.

If only I had the power to alter the weather...

...like my favorite Marvel mutant Ororo Munroe, code name Storm.

Storm could lower the temperature to a balmy and tolerable 78 degrees with a simple wave of her hand.

With a thought, Storm could summon a gentle, cooling breeze to waft away the oppressive heat.

Man, I wish Storm was here.

Because it sure is hot.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

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

Just a warning to the world...

Uncle Swan is cranky today.

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

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

I can't be cranky about that.

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

I'm definitely not cranky about that.

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

No crankiness there.

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

Nothing to be cranky about about there, either.

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

I have no idea what I'm cranky about.

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

So watch yourself, buster.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Barry Zito: The new Steve Blass

The Giants have a fever...

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, I'd pray for a miracle.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

On my office walls

A frequent visitor to our Comic Art Friday feature inquires...
You own a ton of art! Do you have it all hanging on your walls? Or do you keep it in storage someplace?
I'm glad you asked, friend reader.

At any given moment, the overwhelming majority of my comic art collection resides in archival-safe portfolios for convenient storage. I use Itoya Art Profolios, which I purchase from Corrick's, an excellent art and office supply shop in downtown Santa Rosa. I maintain separate portfolios for Common Elements and my various character-specific themes — my Wonder Woman collection fills one entire 48-sleeve book, and Common Elements now requires two — plus additional books for my non-theme pieces. (Most of my Itoyas are the 14" x 17" size. I have one 13" x 19" book that accommodates a handful of pieces taller than 17".)

I keep my portfolios in a moisture-proof sliding bin next to my workstation, where I can easily access them for a quick flip-through whenever I get the urge. Art is, after all, for viewing.

Speaking of viewing...

My office wall houses five poster-size frames, into which I rotate various pieces from my collection as whim strikes me. Actually, that's only four-fifths true. One of the five frames is home to the sole artwork that I keep on permanent display — Cully Hamner's dramatic and beautiful Mary Marvel:

I keep this drawing on the wall all the time for two reasons: (1) It's one of my favorite character-themed pieces; and (2) it's huge (16" x 20"), and won't fit into any of my portfolios. (Thanks, Cully!)

Next to Mary is the one frame that's oriented lengthwise, to accommodate art drawn in landscape profile. Currently in that space is "Titans," Steve Mannion's Common Elements creation featuring Thanos and Saturn Girl:

The corner immediately behind my left shoulder, as I'm seated at my workstation, holds two frames that face each other across a 90-degree angle. Today, those frames display Michael Bair's stunning representation of the Valkyrie...

...and "Fox Hunt," Tony DeZuniga's wonderfully composed Common Elements pairing of Zorro and Vixen, commissioned at WonderCon 2008.

The remaining frame is my "showcase" spot — on a narrow wall by itself, it's a high-visibility location that I reserve for some of my most special pieces. It's often the place where I memorialize artists who have recently passed away — works by the late Mike Weiringo and Jim Mooney have been displayed here during the past several months.

Today, it's home to a gorgeous collaboration by two artists who are very much alive and active, penciler Frank Brunner and embellisher Geof Isherwood. Geof took Frank's rough pencil sketch of one of comics' classic couples, the Scarlet Witch and the Vision, and expanded upon it to create this amazing piece of finished art.

Thanks for stopping by my office. I hope you enjoyed the tour!

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Welcome to Matzo Search 2008

If you thought Where's Waldo was challenging, try finding matzo this Passover season.

There's a nationwide dearth of matzo — the unleavened bread that forms the foundation of the Jewish Passover observance — and it's especially critical here in the Bay Area. Thousands of our Jewish neighbors have been hitting local supermarkets and specialty stores in search of the dry, flat, cracker-like substance, and are coming up empty.

That's a problem, because matzo is the only bread that observant Jews can eat during the Passover season, which began at sundown on Saturday and continues throughout this week.

By all reports, a combination of factors contributed to the matzo shortage. Manischewitz, one of the largest U.S. suppliers of kosher products, recently shut down production of certain matzo varieties at its New Jersey plant due to problems with a new oven. At least two major retailers, Costco and Trader Joe's, decided not to carry matzo for Passover this year. Many other markets, including some that target the Jewish community specifically, simply underestimated the demand, and didn't stock up in time.

According to this morning's New York Times, the shortage is being felt all over the country. The San Francisco Chronicle is reporting that the Bay Area, which is home to more than a quarter of a million Jews, has been affected most acutely.

The supermarket where we shop regularly had a scant two boxes of matzo remaining on an endcap of Passover staples yesterday morning. I wouldn't be surprised if both have been snapped up by now.

For what it's worth, our church uses matzo for communion service every Sunday, so we always have a few boxes on hand. (We buy a huge case at a time — because it contains no yeast, matzo keeps pretty much indefinitely if left in the package.) Not all matzo, however, meets the particularly stringent kosher requirements for Passover. Since we don't purchase our matzo with those criteria in mind — we're only concerned that it's unleavened, which all matzo by definition is — I'd have to check the label to see whether the stock we have is Passover-worthy. (If it were, and you really needed a box, I could probably hook you up.)

If you're keeping Passover this week, I hope you've got all the matzo you need. And if you've got any to spare, my friend Neilochka over at Citizen of the Month has a terrific recipe for matzoh brei, an omelette-style dish made with eggs and matzo.

Hag Pesach Sameach!

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

I watched the news today, oh boy

Television news continues to spiral down the toilet.

Yesterday, CBS initiated a cost-cutting move by firing news reporters, producers, and editors at its owned-and-operated stations nationwide. At KPIX-5 in San Francisco, the cuts involved some of the Bay Area's most honored and most respected broadcast journalists: Emmy-winning reporters Bill Schechner, Manuel Ramos, John Lobertini, and Tony Russomanno, and veteran anchor Barbara Rodgers.

All five of these newspeople built impressive careers. Schechner has worked at several Bay Area stations since arriving here in 1972; he also enjoyed national prominence for several years in the 1980s as Linda Ellerbee's coanchor on NBC News Overnight, and as a correspondent and feature reporter for NBC Nightly News. Ramos and Rodgers have each been reporting local stories at KPIX for 28 years.

Within the broadcast industry, the complaint often raised today is that people — particularly tech-savvy younger people — no longer turn to TV for news, thus making news staffs expendable. What the bean-counters fail to comprehend is that TV news, especially in local markets, has become so fluff-filled and tabloid-oriented that it's ceased to be a credible source for journalism. A couple of years ago, our in-town station, Santa Rosa's KFTY, turned its news operation entirely over to amateurs from the community. The experiment devolved into a national joke.

KPIX used to respresent a bastion of solid, dependable journalism against the piffle floated by the Bay Area's NBC and ABC affiliates. I'm sad to see that philosophy dying an agonizing death at the hands of accountants and media consultants.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hey, Nineteen!

My daughter KM is 19 today.

Nineteen is my lucky number. My daughter is most certainly the luck of my life. Great student (Dean's High Honors in her first semester of college), excellent horsewoman (with a wall filled with ribbons to prove it), solid citizen (beloved by all who know her), and all-around wonderful person ('cause I said so).

KJ and I could not have bargained for a better kid.

Which reminds me of a Steely Dan number...
Hey Nineteen
That's 'Retha Franklin
She don't remember
The Queen of Soul
It's hard times befallen
The sole survivors
She thinks I'm crazy
But I'm just growing old...
KM does, in fact, remember the Queen of Soul, who just happens to share her birthday.

Happy birthday, Aretha.

And happy birthday to you, Punkin. May my God and yours grant you long life and good days.

You go, Supergirl!

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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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Friday, February 22, 2008

I'm wandering to WonderCon

It's WonderCon time, boys and girls.

Thus, your ever-lovin' Uncle Swan is off for two fun-filled, action-packed days at San Francisco's Moscone Center, rubbing elbows with sweaty comics geeks from all over the West. We'll check out the scene, slap palms with a few old comrades, and with any luck, pick up a new artwork or two along the way.

And of course, we'll report back here next Comic Art Friday, to tell you all about it.

Meanwhile, to whet our comic art appetite, let's flash back to a few of the artistic highlights we've commissioned at WonderCons past.

From WonderCon 2005: Ron Lim rocks Captain America — may he rest in peace — and throws in the U.S. Agent for good measure. Comic Art Friday perennial Bob Almond later put the finishing touches on this one, in ink.

From WonderCon 2006: Alé Garza delivers a lovely yet powerful rendition of my favorite mutant, the weather wizardress known as Storm.

From WonderCon 2007: The delightful Paul Ryan creates an exciting splash page — literally and figuratively — featuring his heroine and mine, Wonder Woman.

What joys will WonderCon 2008 bring to our little collection of funnybook drawings? Drop around in seven days, and find out!

And that, fellow Con artists, is your Comic Art Friday.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Pedals to the metal

Crank up the Queen: It's "Bicycle Race" time.

The Amgen Tour of California gets under way today. In fact, it's already under way, but I don't get up as early in the morning as professional cyclists do.

This event is of local interest for two reasons:

One, today's first stage of the race ends — and tomorrow's second stage begins — right here in my own backyard. Well, not literally in my backyard, but a mere stone's chuck to the north in Santa Rosa's Courthouse Square. The "no parking" signs were already out in full force throughout downtown when I was there yesterday morning.

Two, our hometown two-wheeling hero Levi Leipheimer is the Tour's defending champion. Levi, riding for Team Astana this year, is again favored to win the Tour. Levi — the current USA Cycling National Road Race Champion — will doubtless be hungry to repeat, especially since Astana has just been banned from competing in this year's Tour de France, due to doping allegations involving competitors who were members of the team before Levi signed on.

On the latter point, there's an online petition aimed at encouraging the Tour de France organizers to reconsider their decision and admit Levi and his Astana teammates to the Tour. I've already signed. I'm sure that Levi would appreciate your support as well, if you're so inclined.

We here at SSTOL wish Levi a swift, smooth ride in the Tour of California.

Sad to say, no fat-bottomed girls are competing.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

I'm Karen for you, Valentine

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

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

Whatever happened to local girl Karen Valentine?

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

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

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

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

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

Too bad, really.

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

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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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Friday, February 08, 2008

In simplicity, beauty

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to longtime comic book artist Creig Flessel, who celebrated his 96th birthday last Saturday. Flessel's career in comics began way back in 1936, two years before Superman made his debut. He is best known for his work on such characters as Superboy, the Shining Knight (whom Flessel created), and especially the original Sandman.

Mr. Flessel lives here in the North Bay — in Marin County's Mill Valley, to be precise. He still makes occasional appearances at our biggest local comics convention, WonderCon, where later this month he will be one of the guests of honor.

I'm looking forward to seeing him there.

In the modern era, when so many comics artists hold the view that if one scratch, scribble, or hash mark is good, twelve will be even better (thanks, Image Comics founders, for your contribution to the medium...), it's always refreshing to see an artist capable of accomplishing great things with a deft economy of line.

That's why I'm a fan of the work of Brian Stelfreeze.

Brian is most familiar to comics fans as a cover artist. His work has adorned the faceplates of such series as Batman: Shadow of the Bat (for which Stelfreeze painted 50 consecutive covers), and recently, the futuristic action serial The Highwaymen. He has also drawn interior pages on occasion.

This evocative Wonder Woman pinup demonstrates how beautifully Stelfreeze can communicate physical power, grace, and subtle emotion without scattering random crosshatching all over the page.

Here's another striking example of the Stelfreeze style, this time featuring Marvel's female assassin, Elektra.

I first discovered Brian Stelfreeze's art when he did the covers for a Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze miniseries published by Millennium Comics in 1991 — the same book that introduced me to the work of another favorite artist, Darryl Banks.

A couple of years ago, Darryl was generous enough to allow me to purchase several original pages from the first issue of that miniseries (subtitled The Monarch of Armageddon). I now own roughly two-thirds of the art from that issue, including this spectacular opening splash page, penciled by Banks and inked by Robert Lewis.

Memo to comics artists everywhere: Less is more. Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, and their ilk notwithstanding.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Praise Bozo, and pass the Pepto-Bismol

Ladies and gentlemen, please doff your caps and raise your forks.

Eddie "Bozo" Miller has died.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: Bozo the Clown died? Well, yes and no. The first man to wear the famous Bozo makeup and attire — cartoonist, comedian, and voice actor Pinto Colvig, best remembered as the voice of Walt Disney's Goofy and of Grumpy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — died in 1967. The most famous Bozos — NBC weatherman Willard Scott and entrepreneur Larry Harmon, who owns the Bozo trademark — are both very much alive at this writing.

But I digress.

Eddie "Bozo" Miller was not a clown — at least, not in the traditional sense. Instead, Bozo Miller — no relation to the greasepainted TV icon — was the first of the great modern trenchermen.

That means Bozo could eat.

A lot.

Decades before competitive food-guzzling devolved into Saturday afternoon ESPN fare, and decades before skinny Japanese guys made themselves household names by pounding endless streams of frankfurters and raw oysters down their gullets, Bozo Miller was the undisputed ruler of the independent kingdom of Gastronomy.

Miller first cracked into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1963, when he devoured 27 two-pound roast chickens in a single sitting at a Trader Vic's restaurant in the East Bay. For more than half a century, Bozo dazzled his friends with displays of prodigious consumption. The Guinness book reported that he was undefeated in eating contests between 1931 and 1981.

In his prime, Bozo packed away 25,000 calories a day. He once ate 30 pounds of elk meat loaf — I know, it turned my stomach just typing it — and on another occasion, 324 ravioli. Miller once chowed down 63 Dutch apple pies in an hour. My neighborhood supermarket doesn't even sell 63 Dutch apple pies in a week. Maybe a month.

Not a man to limit himself to a single aspect of conspicuous consuming, Bozo could drink, too. He regularly swilled a dozen martinis before lunchtime. He claimed to have drunk a lion — yes, an honest-to-Simba lion — under the table once. The lion didn't dispute the claim.

When Bozo wasn't eating — and I'm uncertain exactly when that might have been — he was a fixture at Bay Area racetracks. I would not be at all surprised to learn that horses with Bozo's money riding on them usually ran a step or two faster, for fear that Bozo would eat them if they lost. For all I know, he may have.

And here's the kicker: Brian Maxwell, marathon runner and PowerBar inventor, died at age 51; fitness guru Jim Fixx, at 52; health food promoter Euell Gibbons, at 64; low-carb diet doctor Robert Atkins, at 72.

Bozo Miller — the self-proclaimed World Champion of Gourmand Gastronomics — munched, gulped, and scarfed his way to the ripe old age of 89.

Chew on that, why don't you?

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Special victim

I don't know Evanthia Pappas.

But I intimately know someone like her.

Evanthia, a prosecutor who works for the Sonoma County District Attorney's office in the so-called "special victims unit" (dealing with sexual abuse and domestic violence crimes), was diagnosed a year ago with stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer. IBC is a relatively uncommon disease — it accounts for only about two percent of breast cancer cases — and is much tougher to diagnose and treat than solid-tumor breast cancer like KJ's.

The M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston has offered Evanthia the opportunity to participate in a clinical trial of an experimental treatment involving stem cell transplantation into her bone marrow. It's an expensive ticket — Evanthia's portion of the bill totals approximately $250,000 — and no insurance company, pharmaceutical entity, or government program covers it.

With the help of family, friends, and coworkers, as well as our local Greek-American community, Evanthia is raising this hefty sum on her own.

Having spent a dozen years in the health care industry, and seven years and counting as the husband of a woman battling breast cancer, I've read reams of information about breast cancer and its treatment. I know that the course of therapy Evanthia Pappas is attempting probably isn't the light at the end of the dark and terrifying breast cancer tunnel. Most researchers discontinued investigation of bone marrow transplant treatment of breast cancer more than a decade ago, because, quite frankly, there was no clinical evidence that it worked. Sad — infuriating, even — though it is, I understand fully why Evanthia's insurance company won't cover an experiment that the current medical literature doesn't support.

But, as KJ just said to me, "Someone had to be the first to try the treatments I'm getting now."

And she's right. Evanthia Pappas may or may not benefit from this experiment. It may help her body stave off her cancer, and it may not. Her participation in the trial, however, may help medical scientists learn something new that will eventually save other women's lives. For that, if for no other reason, it's worth a shot.

A quarter-million bucks is a ton of cash. But it's a small price to pay for hope.

If you're so inclined, you can make a contribution to Evanthia Pappas's quest for life by writing a check payable to The Evanthia Pappas Transplant Fund (S-5 Account), and mailing it to:
San Francisco Police Credit Union
2550 Irving Street
San Francisco, CA 94122
Evanthia will thank you. And someday, your wife or daughter, mother or sister, lover or friend may thank you, also.

After all, it's only money, right?

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Say Hey, Aaron!

In their first big move of the baseball off-season, the San Francisco Giants today signed Gold Glove-winning center fielder Aaron Rowand to a five-year pact.

Rowand's one heck of a player. A product of the stellar baseball program at California State University at Fullerton (or, as it's often nicknamed, Cal State Disneyland), Rowand is one of the best defensive outfielders in the game today. Fans may recall that oft-aired footage of him from the 2006 season, crashing face-first into the center field wall in Chicago, shattering his nose but holding onto the ball.

Last season, as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, Rowand notched career highs in home runs (27) and RBI (89), all while picking up his first Gold Glove and an All-Star team selection. He probably won't post numbers like that in less hitter-friendly AT&T Park, but he'll cover that huge outfield ground like a human vacuum, and get on base a lot.

Rowand's arrival means that the Giants can move ancient Dave Roberts to left field, replacing the departed and indicted Barry Bonds. It's a far better move for the team than the hotly rumored trade for Toronto's Alex Rios, a comparable player to Rowand (albeit four years younger), but also one who would have cost the Giants one of their youthful starting pitchers — probably Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain. By scoring Rowand off the free agent market, San Francisco keeps its rapidly rising hurling staff intact.

Nice going, Brian Sabean. Keep up the momentum, and you'll have earned that two-year contract extension.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

C.C. Sabathia, see what you have done

Congratulations to North Bay native C.C. Sabathia, who today was awarded this year's American League Cy Young Award.

The Cleveland Indians' ace posted a 19-7 record in the baseball season just concluded, with a 3.21 ERA and 209 strikeouts in 241 innings pitched, the most in the majors this year.

Sabathia becomes the first African American pitcher to win the Cy Young in 22 years, since the Mets' Dwight Gooden in 1985, and the first in the American League since Vida Blue won with Oakland in 1971.

With his 19 victories, Sabathia fell one win short of becoming the 14th member of the Black Aces, the elite group of African American pitchers who have won 20 games in a major league season.

Not too shabby for a kid from Vallejo.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Bad news

Cementing Sonoma County's reputation as the pedophile capital of the free world, here we go again.

A local radio news anchor and reporter has been arrested on charges that he engaged in "substantial sexual conduct" with a minor, beginning three years ago when the girl in question was only 12 years old.

Ron Kirk Kuhlmeyer, who broadcast for Santa Rosa's top-rated station KZST and sixth-ranked KJZY under the name Ron Kirk, resigned his position following his arrest.

Apparently, the police were notified of the alleged crimes by what's known in California legalese as a "mandated reporter" — a person, usually a health care provider or school teacher, who is required by law to report evidence of child sexual abuse.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: There must be something in our water supply that brings this garbage out in people.

I think I'll stick to the bottled kind.

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

In celebration of Cleavage

Just to prove that the need for breast cancer awareness doesn't stop at the end of October (which was National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, in case you were asleep at the keyboard for the past 31 days), let's give an SSTOL Hero of the Day shout-out to the fine folks at Cleavage Creek Cellars, based right here in eternally beautiful northern California Wine Country.

Cleavage Creek was recently purchased by local entrepreneur Budge Brown, whose wife of 48 years, Arlene Brown, passed away two years ago after a lengthy battle with breast cancer. Budge has pledged to contribute ten percent of Cleavage Creek's gross revenues -- and yes, that's gross receipts, not net profits -- to breast cancer research.

As a clever marketing move, the label of every bottle of Cleavage Creek wine features an eye-catching snapshot of one of seven attractive models. Nothing new there, right? Wrong. Here's the twist: Each of the "Ladies of Cleavage Creek" is a breast cancer survivor.

You can read each model's personal story in detail at the Cleavage Creek Cellars Web site.

Cleavage Creek's eight 2008 releases range in price from $22 to $60 per bottle, and can be advance-purchased from Cleavage Creek. Since I don't drink wine, I can't comment on the quality of the product. (If you partake, please don't drive.)

From what I've heard and read about Budge Brown, I'm confident that every bottle is being made with love.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

I'm shakin', baby

Hey, that was some earthquake last night. Of course, they'd schedule a quake epicentered in San Jose on the one night of the week when I happen to be in that fair city.

My chorus, Voices in Harmony, was about a half-hour into rehearsal (my carpool buddy and I arrived late, because traffic on the Nimitz Freeway sucked) when the temblor struck. We'd just finished breakout sessions for the four voice parts, and were just returning to the risers when we heard a low boom that sounded like nearby thunder. Immediately, the entire building started vibrating. The risers swayed crazily beneath my feet — I probably looked as though I were surfing as I attempted to hold my balance.

Our esteemed director, a relative newcomer to the Bay Area, was standing beneath a chandelier as the quake rocked the house. Fortunately, one of our members had the presence of mind to grasp him gently by the shoulders and guide him out of potential danger.

No harm befell either our singers or our rehearsal venue. Being the consummate musical professionals that we are, we continued on with the evening as though nothing had happened.

This magnitude-5.6 shock was easily the strongest seismic action I've felt since the infamous Loma Prieta quake that interrupted the World Series between the Giants and A's. A little exciting, a little fun even, but only as long as no one gets hurt.

Just serves as a reminder that in our part of the world, the terra isn't always as firma as it might appear.

Speaking of Voices in Harmony...

If you're in or near the Bay Area, the best tickets to our two spectacular holiday concerts are already flying out the door. Pop over to our official Web site and purchase your ducats while the getting is still good.

We'll be headlining at the Livermore Valley Performing Arts Center on Sunday, December 2, with our special guests, the UC Berkeley Men's Chorale; and at San Jose's splendiferous California Theater on Sunday, December 16, with our special guests, the Menlo Brass Quintet. (We're not planning any earthquakes, honest.)

Ain't no party like a VIH party, so bring your family and friends to see and hear northern California's world-class men's a cappella chorus (currently ranked third Internationally by the Barbershop Harmony Society).

We now return you to our post-earthquake coverage, already in progress.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

What's Up With That? #55: Moon over my county

As if things weren't weird enough around these parts, a local youth league soccer coach mooned his team's opponents over the weekend.

Perhaps the man's a plumber in everyday life.

Two teams of 14- and 15-year-old girls — one from Petaluma, to the south of us, and one from Windsor, the town to our north, where KJ works — played a rather acrimonious game in Saturday's Windsor Cup soccer tourney. After the game concluded, the adult male coach of the Petaluma team... how about if I let Sgt. Steve Brown of the Windsor P.D. tell the tale?
After the game [the coach] goes to the center of the field and drops his pants and hangs a B.A. to the Windsor team and crowd.
Nothing like showing the young ladies an example of class, character, and sportsmanship, coach. That, and your pair of pasty glutes.

(I'm struggling to recall the last time I saw the phrase "hangs a B.A." in the local newspaper. Or anywhere else, for that matter. So far, I'm coming up empty.)

Mooning (or "hanging a B.A.," if you prefer) is a time-honored method of expressing contempt for one's enemies. Way back in 1346, during the Battle of Crécy in northern France, a battalion of soldiers from Normandy bared their buttocks to the onrushing English forces. Unfortunately for the Normans, the English archers found those rosy French rumps prime targets for their arrows.

Meanwhile back in the 21st century, the Petaluma soccer coach (whose name is not being reported, since he hasn't yet been arrested or charged with a crime) may take comfort in the knowledge that a circuit court judge in Montgomery County, Maryland recently determined that mooning is a Constitutionally protected form of free expression, even in the presence of minors. In his decision, Judge John W. Debelius III wrote: "If exposure of half of the buttock constituted indecent exposure, any woman wearing a thong at the beach at Ocean City would be guilty."

So, let the moon shine, America. Just watch out for those English longbows.

In related news, a representative from our city's Pee-Wee Baseball league called this morning to see whether I might be interested in sponsoring a team.

I didn't say this to the woman on the phone, but I'm not sure that anything involving children should be using the name "Pee-Wee." You might see coaches dropping trou every game in that league.

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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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Monday, October 15, 2007

Happiness is a warm biography... or not

The hot news around these parts lately is the umbrage taken by the family of our beloved local icon, Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz, at a new biography of the late artist.

Schulz's widow and children say that Schulz and Peanuts, written by David Michaelis following seven years of interviews and research (in which the Schulzes actively participated), paints Schulz in an unfairly unflattering light — as a morose, emotionally distant, morally conflicted individual whose comic strip held the failings and foibles of his personal life before a funhouse mirror.

Needless to say, the Peanuts fanatic in me can't wait to read the book, which hits stores tomorrow. The tightwad in me, however, will hold out for the paperback.

I would not be at all shocked if Michaelis's book reveals Schulz more accurately than the artist's survivors will allow. After all, that's what good biographies do.

I also would not be at all shocked if the Schulz family had a point about the book focusing somewhat more on the darker details of Schulz's life and persona than on the happier aspects. After all, that's what best-selling biographies do.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to add much of an expert perspective on the matter. Although I saw Schulz in person on several occasions — we used to frequent the same bookstore, ironically enough — the entire scope of our interaction consisted of my mustering the courage to say, "Hi, Mr. Schulz," one day as we were both browsing the stacks, and his smiling and saying, "Hi," in return. The next couple of times we passed one another in the store, we exchanged that nod of recognition that acknowledged our common memory that we had once spoken.

Schulz had no idea that I starred as Snoopy in my high school's production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown during my senior year. I, being me, was far too humble to mention it. (A member of our cast actually went so far as to invite Schulz to take in one of our performances. He politely declined, but wished us much success. Rumor had it that he and his wife Jean did, in fact, slip in unobtrusively one evening and observe part of the show from the back row.)

I suspect that the real Charles Schulz was like most of us — a complex individual with positive and negative attributes, and qualities that could be either negative or positive, depending on the context. I'm sure that he was as lovable as his family nostalgically recalls, with feet of clay that they would prefer remain unadvertised.

In short, I think Schulz was probably altogether human.

I would expect the man who unleashed Charlie Brown on the world to be nothing less. And nothing more.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

And like that... he's gone

Tonight, Barry Bonds played his final home game — and, in all probability, his final game, period — as a San Francisco Giant.

After 15 seasons, I will miss the big lug.

As a Giant, Bonds won five Most Valuable Player awards (he brought two with him when he came over from Pittsburgh), and one could effectively — and, in my never-humble opinion, accurately — argue that he should have won at least two more. For most of his tenure in San Francisco, Bonds was the most dominant, most imposing, most statistically singular baseball player of his generation — perhaps of any generation. This season, he chased down and captured the most legendary record in professional sports, in that handful of games when he wasn't looking like a 43-year-old bodybuilder with gimpy knees.

I've been watching baseball with avid fascination for nearly 40 years. I never saw another player like Bonds.

Did he inflate his statistics — and his uniform — with anabolic steroids and human growth hormone? I don't know. Maybe. Probably. There's no concrete evidence that he ever failed a drug test, but yeah, if I had to guess, I'd vote for the juice. (But not The Juice. That's a whole other story.) How much did it help, if he did? Hard to say. The Bonds who joined the Giants in 1993 was already the best ballplayer I'd ever seen, and even his harshest critics grudgingly acknowledge that he was probably pharmaceutical-free then, and for at least another five or six season thereafter. How much better could he have become, really?

I guess you'd have to ask Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Sammy Sosa, and Ken Caminiti for starters. Except Caminiti's dead. I suspect you should ask Roger Clemens, Pudge Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, and Albert Pujols, too. Not that there's any conclusive evidence there, either. We're just shooting the hypothetical breeze here, right?

You see, that's the reason why an inveterate baseball purist such as myself just sighs and shrugs when the discussion of Bonds, performance-enhancing drugs, and the non-existent asterisk arises. There's as much documented empirical evidence against several dozen other stars, near-stars, and wannabe-stars as there is against Bonds, and no one breathes a word about striking any of their accomplishments from the Baseball Abstract.

We all know why that is. Barry Bonds has all the personal charm of a Gila monster, at least when dealing with members of the fourth estate. Nice guys may finish last, but at least they get the benefit of the doubt. Everyone wants to take down the dude who acts like the wrong end of a horse.

I'm not Barry's apologist. He doesn't appear to want or need one — unless it's his old pal Greg Anderson — and I wouldn't accept the job if offered. But the bottom line is that if (and I believe we still have to say if, Game of Shadows notwithstanding) he used the juice, he wasn't alone. That doesn't excuse it if he did, but it means that in order to serve justice, we'd have to hunt down every Tom, Dick, and Jose who likewise did the stuff, and erase every accomplishment that every one of them ever did. That's assuming that we could prove anything against anyone at this late juncture. And that we could catch everyone who ought to get caught.

Yeah. Good luck with that.

While you're busy with the snipe hunt, I'll be over here remembering 762.

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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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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Farley's last travel

I was deeply saddened — though not surprised — to read this morning about the death of longtime San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Phil Frank, creator of the comic strips Farley and Elderberries.

Frank had been seriously ill for several months (the Chronicle published reruns of his strips in the interim), and only a few days ago issued a public announcement of his retirement from cartooning. It was the kind of announcement that you just knew would soon be followed by an obituary.

According to the newspaper, Frank was 64, and died from the effects of a brain tumor.

Farley was always one of the best reasons to read the Chronicle, especially since the passing of veteran columnist Herb Caen. The only strictly local comic strip in the country, Farley offered a daily dose of Bay Area flavor — often political, but even more often, merely whimsical — in Frank's inimitable, warmly humorous style.

When it debuted in the mid-'70s, Frank's strip was entitled Travels With Farley, and featured its mustachioed protagonist (a self-caricature of the artist) journeying the American countryside, often employed as a park ranger. A decade later, Frank changed the focus of the strip to San Francisco and its environs, and Farley continued to grace the Chronicle's pages daily (under its truncated title, and with its lead character now working as a newspaper reporter) for another 22 years.

Although Farley wasn't specifically a political cartoon, Frank enjoyed using the strip to tweak the foibles of local politicians. One of his favorite targets was former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, as seen in this strip from August 2003 (click the image to see the strip full size):

A dedicated student of regional lore, Frank served as a local historian for his home town of Sausalito as well as western Marin County for many years. He was active in environmental causes, and often donated his original cartoons to conservationist charities, such as the Marine Mammal Center.

Phil Frank is survived by his wife, two adult children, and the legion of characters he made an indelible part of Bay Area culture. I, along with his many other fans, will miss him — and Farley — greatly.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Hero of the Day: The Big Kahuna

In the midst of a dismal season for the Giants, a moment of class and brilliance shone like a beacon in last night's game at The House That Barry Built.

During a break in the action, a camera operator for Fox Sports Bay Area trained his lens on a young man in the stands, who was busy with a laptop, scorebook, and headset microphone. It was obvious to any observer the kid was calling his own play-by-play and recording it into his computer.

In the next half-inning, the camera's eye found the young man again. This time, Jon Miller — the Giants' lead announcer — was seated next to him. When the duo appeared again a short time afterward, Miller and the boy were ensconced in the press box, with the kid nestled between Miller and his broadcast teammate Dave Flemming as they called the game.

This incident resonated with me, recalling my long-ago days as an aspiring sportscaster, sitting in the upper deck at Candlestick Park and pretending I was Hank Greenwald. At the time, I would have traded my most prized possession for a chance to have one of my announcing heroes take notice of me and invite me up to the booth.

I'm sure Jon Miller remembered times when his present dream job had seemed like a distant, nearly impossible fantasy, as it perhaps does to this young fellow. He certainly gave that kid a memory he'll never forget as long as he lives. It cost Jon nothing but a few minutes of his time.

In a sports world fraught with scandal and scuttlebutt, it's a joy to see a sports professional taking time just to do something nice for a fan. I know these moments happen much more often than we ever hear reported, but it affirms one's humanity when we catch a glimpse of such a case as it happens.

Good on ya, Big Kahuna.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Bright college days

I have officially become an obsolete parent:

My only child started college today.

KM is a freshman at our local junior college, a fine institution of higher education with a Starbucks across the street and a Taco Bell on the nearest corner. (Hey, she might get hungry.) She's taking four classes #151; English, psychology, art history, and her fifth year of Spanish.

Since KM is only just beginning to drive, Dad's taxi service will shuttle her to and from campus for the time being, giving the old man a daily opportunity to bask in the reflected glow of academia and pine for lost youth.

I recall my own first day of college as though it were only 28 years ago. (Which, not entirely coincidentally, it was.) That first evening, with the summer waves lapping at the distant Malibu shore, our resident assistant gathered everyone in our dormitory's main living room. He passed around a roll of toilet paper, telling each student to take as many sheets as he felt he needed. Once the roll had circled the room, the RA announced that, for every sheet of TP one had taken, he had to reveal a fact about himself. (The first sheet counted for name, hometown, and major.)

Being no one's fool, even at the callow age of 17, I had taken a mere five sheets — hardly sufficient to peel back the veneer of mystery with which I prefer to enshroud myself. One of my fellow dormies, conversely, unspooled so many squares of tissue that he was compelled to expose knowledge to which none of the rest of us really needed to be privy, such as his favorite sexual position (I'll give you a hint: it's a two-digit number) and his preference in pubic grooming (I'll give you a hint: Gillette).

Living at home, KM will escape such torture. At least for this academic year.

In the immortal words of the legendary Tom Lehrer:
Bright college days — oh, carefree days that fly,
To thee we sing with our glasses raised on high.
Let's drink a toast as each of us recalls
Ivy-covered professors in ivy-covered halls.

Turn on the spigot,
Pour the beer and swig it,
And gaudeamus igit-tur.

Here's to parties we tossed;
To the games that we lost —
We shall claim that we won them someday.
To the girls, young and sweet;
To the spacious back seat
Of our roommate's beat-up Chevrolet.
To the beer and Benzedrine;
To the way that the dean
Tried so hard to be pals with us all.
To excuses we fibbed,
To the papers we cribbed
From the genius who lived down the hall.

To the tables down at Mory's
(Wherever that may be),
Let us drink a toast to all we love the best.
We will sleep through all the lectures,
And cheat on the exams,
And we'll pass, and be forgotten with the rest.

Soon we'll be out amid the cold world's strife.
Soon we'll be sliding down the razor blade of life.
But as we go our sordid separate ways,
We shall ne'er forget thee, thou golden college days.

Hearts full of youth,
Hearts full of truth,
Six parts gin to one part vermouth.
For the record, the first college punk who shows up at my house to pick up my daughter in a beat-up Chevrolet will be invited to admire my knife collection.

Up close.

[UPDATE: Now there's an odd coincidence. After I posted this article, I took my daily stroll through my blogroll. Two of my favorite bloggers, Mark Evanier and The Ferrett, both riffed on Tom Lehrer in their posts today. Great minds really do think alike. That, or my tinfoil hat has stopped working, and aliens have infested my brain.]

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Friday, August 03, 2007

America's Junior Ms.

Among the many distinctions that apply to this happy little corner of the universe that I call "home," Rohnert Park is home to the annual California's Junior Miss pageant. In fact, the venue where the event takes place is a mere stone's throw — assuming you possess a howitzer-like throwing arm — from my humble abode. And, it just so happens that all of California's Junior Misses will be gathering here in but a week's time, to crown one of their own to represent the Golden State at the America's Junior Miss 2007 national finals in Mobile, Alabama.

Personally, I think winning a contest that's going to send you to Mobile, Alabama isn't much of a victory. But then, I'm not a pageant parent.

I am, however, desperate for a clever lead-in to today's Comic Art Friday, which features Ms. Marvel, often erroneously referred to as "Miss Marvel."

This is what happens when I get desperate.

Maybe it's simply because I'm resistant to change, but I've always remained partial to Ms. Marvel's original costume, in which she made her debut in those long-ago, fashion-eccentric 1970s. Sure, it was merely a feminized retooling of the already familiar uniform of Captain Marvel — Marvel Comics' space-spanning stalwart, not the "Shazam!" guy. Sure, it was impractical as superheroing wardrobe — who'd wear a billowing scarf into a fistfight? Sure, it was clearly designed for sex appeal — what's up with the navel-baring midriff cutout? But doggone it, it was cool.

So, thank you, Matthew Clark, for presenting Carol at her sartorial finest. Exquisite linework, by the way.

These days, of course, the divine Ms. M. sports a drab, monochromatic outfit that looks like a high-necked tankini with a stylized lightning bolt (or is that a letter "S"?) down the front. The scarf migrated from her throat down to her waist, where it functions as a belt... on a costume that really doesn't appear to require a belt. Insanely long gloves and thigh-high boots complete the ensemble.

It doesn't really work for me visually, but doggone it, Jeffrey Moy sure makes her look cute in it. But then, Jeff can make a superheroine look cute in anything.

Now that I think about it, Ms. Marvel's current uniform, accented with its sash and opera gloves, makes her look for all the world like a pageant contestant during the swimsuit competition.

If Carol were in the running for America's Junior Miss, she'd get my vote. (I don't think they have a swimsuit competition in America's Junior Miss, but I told you I was desperate.)

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

Everything I really need to know, I learned at the racetrack

KM and I enjoyed our annual father-daughter outing to the races at the Sonoma County fairgrounds today. Now that she's 18, I take it as an honor that KM still consents to go anywhere in public with me. But, given her singular obsession with all things equine, she'd never miss an opportunity to spend an afternoon admiring an endless parade of well-kept horses, even if it means hanging out for several hours with the old man.

Going to the track is always an educational experience. Permit me to share with you some of the life lessons I gleaned from today's excursion.
  • In between races, the track should perform a valuable public service by airing episodes of What Not to Wear.

  • A fish taco is a welcome taste treat in any surroundings.

  • Russell Baze is one of the greatest athletes of our time. He seems like a nice fellow, too.

  • Everyone is an expert at the racetrack. Often, the greater one's handicapping expertise, the fewer one's teeth.

  • The produce man from our supermarket is stalking me. I see him everywhere.

  • Operating a parimutuel betting window must be one of the suckiest jobs on the planet.

  • I could never be a track announcer, because (a) I'd get the names of the horses confused, and (b) I can't talk anywhere near that fast.

  • There really ought to be a law against micro-miniskirts on women within shouting distance of menopause. Or maybe just on women, period.

  • Describing gelded horses as "chopped off" is probably not the most effective means of communicating certain facts of animal husbandry to one's children.

  • Every time I see a jockey, I want to buy him a sandwich.

  • People who wouldn't dream on shoving their hands into a recently used toilet have little compunction about reaching out to capture droplets of the waste water being used to dampen the racing surface, even though it's pretty much the same thing.

  • The gray horse never wins. Except in the sixth race at Santa Rosa.

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Monday, July 30, 2007

The Sage of Santa Clara (1931-2007)

It's a sad, sad day here in the Bay Area...

The Genius has died.

Bill Walsh, who guided the San Francisco 49ers to four Super Bowl championships (all right, you nitpickers, three — but the team that won Super Bowl XXIV the year after Walsh's retirement was essentially the same team that had won with Walsh coaching the year previously) and six division titles, died this morning after a tough battle with leukemia. The architect of the fabled West Coast Offense was 75.

One could argue, with little fear of refutation, that Walsh was the most influential and innovative head coach in NFL history. Influential, as reflected in the legions of Walsh protégés (and second- and third-generation protégés) who followed the white-haired strategist to coaching prosperity. Innovative, in that the style of offensive football Walsh introduced completely changed the way the game is played, not just in the NFL, but also at the college and even the high school levels. Every significant coach who has drawn up a playbook in the past 25 years has borrowed something from Bill Walsh.

It's a cliché, especially in sports, to say of the recently deceased, "I never heard anyone say a bad word about the man." In Walsh, the cliché found its reality. His former players — including current and future Hall of Famers Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Steve Young, and Ronnie Lott — revered him. His former assistants credited him with their accomplishments. The media loved him, knowing that the Sage of Santa Clara could always be counted upon for a meaty soundbite.

In a lot of ways, Walsh was the antithesis of the stereotypical Knute Rockne/Vince Lombardi image of the head football coach. He was erudite, intellectual, and soft-spoken é at least, outside the locker room. He struck more the impression of a university philosophy professor than of a man who made his living drawing X's and O's on a whiteboard. Walsh also possessed a mischievous sense of humor: When the 49ers arrived in Detroit in January 1982 for their first-ever Super Bowl appearance, the hotel employee on hand to assist with their luggage seemed oddly familiar. It was the team's head coach, outfitted in a bellman's cap and uniform.

Because Walsh became so thoroughly identified with the offensive system he pioneered, many fans forgot — or perhaps never knew — that he began his career as a defensive coach at Cal-Berkeley and Stanford in the early 1960s. He changed his focus to offense when he was hired by Al Davis as an Oakland Raiders assistant coach in 1966.

It's also easy to forget, given Walsh's tremendous triumphs with the Niners, that he came to NFL head coaching relatively late — he was 47 or 48 when San Francisco lured him away from Stanford — and that his first two 49er teams finished with 2-14 and 6-10 records. Then, with a short, scrawny kid from Notre Dame leading the charge at quarterback, and a quartet of unproven defensive backs (third-year safety Dwight Hicks and his three rookie "Hot Licks" — Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, and Carlton Williamson) snatching interceptions from the air like they were cookies in a jar, Walsh's Niners went 13-3 in 1981, and never looked back.

Walsh was a progressive thinker, off the gridiron as well as on. He created the Minority Coaching Fellowship, a program that invited African American coaches to the 49ers' camp to gain NFL insight and experience. Current University of Washington head coach Tyrone Willingham was among the many who benefited from Walsh's desire to reach out. Today, the NFL's ongoing initiative on minority hiring stems from Walsh's leadership.

Thanks for all the marvelous memories, Coach. We'll miss you.

Our condolences to Coach Walsh's family, and the countless friends, colleagues, and fans who will continue to honor his legacy.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

Here, there be giants

It's Comic Art Friday, and everyone who's anyone is in San Diego, except for me. (Last time I checked, I was still someone.)

That's because this weekend is Comic-Con International (also known as San Diego Comic-Con, or SDCC), the planet's largest annual gathering of comic book fans and industry professionals. They're expecting capacity crowds in excess of 125,000 every day of the convention — all the more reason for me not to be there, as much as I loves me some comics. One of these summers, though, I'll buckle down and hie myself to Sandy Eggo to take in the sights, sounds, and smells. (If you think I'm joking about the latter, you've never been in an enclosed convention center packed with countless thousands of hygienically challenged comic book geeks. Trust me on this.)

For those of us not venturing to the sunny Southland, there's still comic art to be slavered over. So let's get jiggy with it.

My good friend and fellow comic art collector Damon Owens has long been dropping my jaw with his stunning collection of commissions featuring "The Brotherhood," a mythical supergroup comprised of comicdom's greatest black heroes and heroines. Several of Damon's finest Brotherhood artworks spring like Athena from the pencil of industry veteran Val Semeiks, best known for his work on the DC Comics series The Demon and Lobo, and Marvel's Conan the Barbarian.

With one of baseball's Giants fast approaching the national pastime's most storied individual record, I decided it was time for a Common Elements artwork featuring two of comicdom's giants — the Doom Patrol's Elasti-Girl (no relation to the similarly named materfamilias in Disney/Pixar's The Incredibles) and the late, great Dr. Bill Foster -- aka Black Goliath, Giant-Man, and just plain Goliath. Val Semeiks's potent style seemed to fit the project perfectly, so I commissioned him to create it.

Val's first rough sketch immediately captured my imagination. The majestic scale of his figures and the broad, sweeping scope of his design couldn't have been more ideal for the characters. Then, Val added a stroke of brilliance — using my Sonoma County environs as the backdrop for the drawing. What could be more apropos than two colossal heroes striding across a vineyard in my own backyard?

Val's tightened layout revealed still more of his magic touch. Now, I could see the personalities of the characters shining through — Elasti-Girl's lighthearted charm, and Goliath's intelligence and determination. The landscape seemed so familiar that I'm certain I've driven past this very spot a thousand times... minus the humongous superheroes, of course.

Which takes us to the finished pencil art:

The detail in Val's completed drawing is nothing short of superb. Both of our heroes sparkle with life and character, and the Wine Country setting is picture-perfect — right down to the splendidly rendered vineyard and winery, and the hot air balloon hovering low over the landscape near Goliath's thundering foot. (If you've never been here, you haven't lived until you've taken a drive through Sonoma County on a foggy autumn morning, and seen the sky dotted with colorful balloons.)

Like the aforementioned Giant, Val Semeiks smacked a towering home run with this commission. Thanks, Val!

About the featured heroes:

Elasti-Girl (real name: Rita Farr) starred in one of the most unusual superhero series of the 1960s, Doom Patrol. Created by the legendary writer Arnold Drake (who passed away earlier this year) in partnership with cowriter Bob Haney and artist Bruno Premiani, the Doom Patrol was DC Comics' first attempt to imitate the angst and conflict of Marvel's popular super-teams, the Fantastic Four and X-Men. Drake, who wrote even the most serious of stories with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, went Marvel one better by actually killing off the entire Doom Patrol in one momentous 1968 issue. DC has revived the characters repeatedly in the years since, most recently in the aftermath of the Infinite Crisis mega-event. But the Doom Patrol just isn't the same without Drake at the helm.

The multiple-codenamed Bill Foster's history in comics lore precedes his career as a superhero by several years, making him one of a relative handful of characters (Patsy Walker/Hellcat, Jim Rhodes/War Machine, and Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel are three others who leap to mind) to be firmly established as non-super supporting characters before embarking on careers as costumed crimefighters. Dr. Foster debuted in a 1966 Avengers story as a colleague of scientist Henry Pym (the superhero variously known as Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath, Yellowjacket, and just plain Doctor Pym), and appeared numerous times over the succeeding decade before replacing Pym as Marvel's resident super-sized hero in 1975. Foster was murdered — to considerable fan outcry — during the events of Marvel's Civil War mega-event last summer.

Perhaps Bill Foster — like Rita Farr before him — will at some future point reemerge from the oblivion of comic book death to fight evil again. Until then, we can admire this artistic tribute to his memory, and wonder what might have been.

And that, fellow homebodies, is your Comic Art Friday.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

My date with the Mitchell Brothers

Someone said to me recently, "The older I get, the more dead people I know."

Although it would be a stretch to say that I knew the notorious Mitchell Brothers, Jim and Artie, I did meet them once.

Now that Jim has joined his brother in the Great Beyond — Jim having sent Artie to his demise with a rifle bullet back in 1991, then passing away himself this past weekend, just a few miles from my house — I can regale you with my sordid tale.

Actually, the tale itself isn't all that sordid.

In 1983, when I was a student in the Broadcast Communication Arts Department at San Francisco State University, I once interviewed the Mitchell Brothers in their native habitat, the world-famous O'Farrell Theater.

Here's how it all went down. (Figuratively speaking, of course.)

When I was assigned to write a term paper on alternative media, I thought it might be interesting to do a piece on the pornography industry. Since the Mitchell Brothers were headquartered right across town, this intrepid budding journalist called the O'Farrell and asked whether Jim and/or Artie would be willing to give a college kid a few minutes of their time to further his... umm... education. (What could it hurt, right? All they could say was "No.")

Not only were the brothers willing, they invited me over to their digs to chat with them live and in person. So, I hopped the Muni Metro "M" line to downtown San Francisco, and hiked the few blocks up to the O'Farrell. True to their word, Jim and Artie had given my name to the guardian of the front door, and I was directed upstairs to their office. I didn't even have to pay the cover charge.

For two pillars of the smut business, Jim and Artie Mitchell seemed astonishingly normal — two regular Joes from the East Bay who had made themselves a modicum of fame (and, I suppose, a few bucks, though they were reluctant to discuss the actual finances of their empire) producing sex films and running their glorified strip joint. (Although there were porno movies on view in the main screening room, the majority of the O'Farrell's clientele appeared to be more interested in the various live nude performances available.)

Jim did most of the talking during our interview session, Artie being more intent upon chatting up (and quaffing brewskis with) the constant stream of scantily garbed female employees who wandered in and out of the office during my visit. Since my paper was about media, our conversation focused on the Mitchell Brothers' film career, hallmarked by the infamous Behind the Green Door, starring former Ivory Snow cover girl Marilyn Chambers. (Sadly, Ms. Chambers — with whose softcore oeuvre I was intimately familiar, from late-night cable TV viewing — was not on the premises at the time.)

I was surprised to learn from Jim that the Mitchells had produced what was at the time the most expensive porn film on record — a magnum opus entitled Sodom and Gomorrah, which, according to Jim (no relation to the much-later sitcom starring John Belushi's little brother), had cost upward of a million dollars. I couldn't understand then how one could spend a million bucks shooting a cheap sex flick, but I'm just reporting what the man told me.

What struck me most about the Mitchells (Jim Mitchell, at least) was that they seemed to fancy themselves true cinematic pioneers. Make no mistake, they understood that their bread and butter was in showcasing nekkid people doing various permutations of the procreative act, but they considered their works legitimate art. At least that was their story, and they stuck pretty closely to it.

I chatted with Jim and the semi-present Artie for roughly 45 minutes — taking copious notes as rapidly as my fevered hand would scribble — before taking my leave. They graciously offered me the run of the O'Farrell's entertainment offerings for the rest of the afternoon, but I begged off. (At least that's my story, and I'm sticking to that, too.) I then ducked out into the cold gray San Francisco daylight and scrambled back to the nearest Metro station before anyone I knew could see me.

What happened between the Mitchell Brothers several years later has been well chronicled in the press, as well as in a 2000 film entitled Rated X, starring real-life Hollywood siblings Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen as Jim and Artie.

I, of course, saw no hint of discord during my brief interface with Jim and Artie. All I saw was a couple of guys who seemed to be serious about their chosen profession... and who appeared to be having tons of fun surrounding themselves with unclad women. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) They were unfailingly pleasant and polite to the nervous, goggle-eyed college kid who stumbled into their establishment one breezy afternoon.

And now, I suppose, they're reunited.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

All of the leaves have gone Green

Every time the girls and I head off to church, we drive past a massive construction site on the Sonoma State University campus. Rising from the hardware-strewn landscape is the nascent structure which, according to the attractive billboard on the corner hillside, will someday blossom into the Green Music Center, a state-of-the-art concert venue rivaling the finest performance halls in the nation.

But I'm not holding my breath.

As you'll learn from this excellent article in today's San Francisco Chronicle, the Green Music Center has become both the biggest white elephant in the history of Sonoma County, and the albatross around the neck of SSU President Ruben Armiñana. Ten years in the making, with no completion date in sight, and bleeding cash like a stuck bank vault, the Green is a local laughing stock — to everyone but the faculty of SSU, who are sick and tired of losing much-needed educational funds to President Armiñana's pet boondoggle.

Of course, as a musical performer and patron of the arts myself, I'd love to see the Green completed. Heck, I'd love to sing on its stage someday. But I'll be older than Tony Bennett before that happens. At this writing, the Green is only about one-quarter finished after a decade in the works. Its budget has boomed from a tidy $20 million or so to a figure rivaling the gross national product of half the Third World. Even though construction proceeds in occasional fits and starts, no one — including Ruben Armiñana — has any clue where the megamillions needed to wrap up the project are going to come from.

I know one thing: They're not coming from my wallet.

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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: Biffy.com.

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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Friday, June 08, 2007

We'll remember always, Graduation Day... and Super-Con '07

This week's Comic Art Friday is proudly dedicated to my daughter KM, who graduates from my high school alma mater today.

The second half of KM's senior year has been an emotional challenge, what with her mother's rediagnosis with cancer and repeated hospital stays compounding all of the "What do I want to be when I grow up?" turmoil that always accompanies this time in a young person's life. KM has managed to keep her spirits — and her grades — up, for the most part, through all of the adverse circumstances. She's a good kid, and I'm a lucky dad.

You go, Supergirl!

Speaking of Supergirl, this charming rendition of the Maid of Steel sprang from the pencil of Steve Mannion, whom I met at long last at Super-Con in San Jose last weekend. Steve, who lives in New Jersey, has done a couple of other commission projects for me, including the Mary Marvel pinup seen in this space a week ago today. Distance being what it is, I'd never had the opportunity to meet him and personally thank him for the wonderful art he's added to my collection. As befits a man who creates such exquisite pictures, Steve turns out to be a delightful fellow who recalled in fond detail the other commissions he's drawn for me. He was even kind enough to pose with his latest masterwork.

Super-Con was, as always, an enjoyable, well-run event — more intimate and friendly than the Bay Area's other major comics event, the massive WonderCon. I wasn't impressed with the new venue at the San Jose Convention Center, where amenities were sorely lacking. The guest list, however, was stellar, and con directors Steve Morger and Steve Wyatt bustled about making certain that a great time was had by all.

For me, the highlight of the event was a panel on the art of inking. Before the con, superstar artist Frank Cho surrendered the pencil rough of his upcoming Jungle Girl #1 cover to a host of talented inking specialists, each of whom brought a unique perspective to the finished work. (You can see some of the iterations, as well as Cho's original pencil art, in Steve Morger's gallery at Comic Art Fans.) On Saturday, several of the inkers gathered to talk about their specialty.

Seen in the photo above, from left to right:
  • The artist known as Buzz, best known for his work on such series as JSA and Vampirella.

  • Michael Bair, noted for his collaboration with penciler Rags Morales on DC's Identity Crisis.

  • Tony DeZuniga, cocreator of the Western hero Jonah Hex; an industry legend who shepherded the comic art careers of many of his fellow Filipino immigrants in the 1970s.

  • Frank Cho, creator of the Liberty Meadows newspaper strip, and currently the penciler of Marvel's Mighty Avengers.

  • Bill Morrison, cofounder of Matt Groening's Bongo Comics and illustrator of the comic book adventures of The Simpsons.

  • Danny Bulanadi, a prolific inker for Marvel Comics who drew everything from Captain America to the Micronauts.

  • (obscured) Alex Niño, an innovative stylist who was the second and final artist on one of my all-time favorite comic series, Thriller.

  • Ernie Chan, revered for his work on Marvel's Conan series of the '70s and '80s, both as inker over the great John Buscema, and later as primary penciler.

Just seeing this assemblage of talent — perhaps 300 years of professional comic art experience between these gentlemen — was an indescribable treat. Even better? Coming home with some of their art.

Tony DeZuniga, to whom Michael Bair referred as "the master draftsman," created this evocative addition to my Black Panther gallery. Tony's technique rivals that of any artist whose work I've seen up close. He uses light, shadow, and line the way Mozart used notes. Tony and his wife Tina are also two of the sweetest people I've ever met at a convention.

Acquiring another commission from the amazing Buzz is always a thrill, and the one-named wonder came through yet again for me. Here's Buzz, diligently working away at my Storm pinup...

...and proudly displaying his finished creation.

Let's see... what else did I get? Ah, yes — Alé Garza, currently the regular penciler on the Supergirl monthly series, delivered this dynamic rendition of Taarna, my Heavy Metal heroine.

And last, but by no means least, Ms. Marvel penciler Aaron Lopresti drew his current assignee in her original — and still best — costume from the '70s. Aaron added a splash of colored marker to really make Carol's classic uniform stand out.

As previously noted, Super-Con offered a great time to everyone who attended. I certainly had a blast, and am looking forward to next year's event.

I'm off to graduation. That's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Thirteen Black Aces

Yesterday at McAfee Coliseum, baseball's Oakland Athletics honored the four members of the Black Aces with historical connections to the A's: Dave Stewart, Jim "Mudcat" Grant, Vida Blue, and Mike Norris.

Who are the Black Aces? I'm delighted that you asked.

The Black Aces are the (to date) 13 pitchers of African American heritage (including one African Canadian, Ferguson Jenkins) who have won 20 or more games in a single major league season. The name "Black Aces" comes from a book written by Grant (with assistance by journalists Tom Sabellico and Pat O'Brien), examining the careers of these noteworthy athletes. Grant also immortalizes the accomplishments of several Negro League pitchers whom he believes would have been 20-game winners in the majors, had they not been barred by segregation.

I highly recommend Grant's book; it's one of the most heartfelt and eye-opening sports reads of the past decade. In hope that the more baseball-minded among you might be encouraged to check it out, allow me to provide this brief introduction to the 13 Black Aces, presented in order of the date upon which each entered this exclusive club.
  • Don Newcombe — Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers (1949-51, 1954-58), Cincinnati Reds (1958-60), Cleveland Indians (1960); three Black Ace seasons (1951, 20-9; 1955, 20-5; 1956, 27-7; all with the Dodgers). The major leagues' first great black pitcher, Newcombe remains the only player in baseball history to win the Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and Cy Young Awards. (He was, in fact, the first recipient of the National League Cy Young, in 1956.) In addition to being a dominating pitcher, Newcombe was also accomplished at the plate — a fearsome slugger, he was probably the best-hitting pitcher since Babe Ruth.

  • Sam Jones — Cleveland Indians (1951-52), Chicago Cubs (1955-56); St. Louis Cardinals (1957-58, 1963), San Francisco Giants (1959-61), Detroit Tigers (1962), Baltimore Orioles (1964); one Black Ace season (1959, 21-15 with the Giants). The much-traveled Jones, nicknamed "Sad Sam" or "Toothpick Sam," led the National League in strikeouts three times. In his Black Ace season, he led the senior circuit in earned run average and was named National League Pitcher of the Year by The Sporting News. Jones died in 1971 at the age of 45.

  • Bob Gibson — St. Louis Cardinals (1959-75); five Black Ace seasons (1965, 20-12; 1966, 21-12; 1968, 22-9; 1969, 20-13; 1970, 23-7; all with the Cardinals). Gibson was the most terrifying hurler ever to step onto a major league pitcher's mound. Famed as much for his intimidating demeanor as for his awe-inspiring fastball, Gibson made even great hitters' blood run cold. A talented all-around athlete — he won nine Gold Gloves as the National League's best fielding pitcher — Gibson played pro basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters for a year before focusing on baseball. He was the National League Cy Young winner in 1968 and 1970, the league's Most Valuable Player in '68, and the MVP of the 1964 and 1967 World Series.

  • Jim "Mudcat" Grant — Cleveland Indians (1958-64), Minnesota Twins (1964-67), Los Angeles Dodgers (1968), Montreal Expos (1969), St. Louis Cardinals (1969), Oakland Athletics (1970, 1971), Pittsburgh Pirates (1970, 1971); one Black Ace season (1965, 21-7 with the Twins). The man who gave the Black Aces their name is probably better known today as a baseball broadcaster (for the Indians and the A's) and historian than he was as a journeyman pitcher. He enjoyed his best seasons in Minnesota during the mid-1960s.

  • Ferguson Jenkins — Philadelphia Phillies (1965-66), Chicago Cubs (1966-73, 1982-83), Texas Rangers (1974-75, 1978-81), Boston Red Sox (1976-77); seven Black Ace seasons (six with the Cubs: 1967, 20-13; 1968, 20-15; 1969, 21-15; 1970, 22-16; 1971, 24-13; 1972, 20-12; one with the Rangers: 1974, 25-12). Canada's best-known non-hockey sports export, Jenkins was the first player from the Great White North to gain election to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He's arguably the most successful "finesse" pitcher in modern baseball history, along with another Cubs legend, Greg Maddux. Like fellow Black Ace Bob Gibson, Jenkins spent a season playing basketball with the Globetrotters. Fergie's entry into the Hall of Fame took a year or two longer than it should have, as several writers initially refused to vote for him due to a drug-related arrest in 1980 that resulted in his temporary suspension from the game.

  • Earl Wilson — Boston Red Sox (1959-66), Detroit Tigers (1966-70), San Diego Padres (1970); one Black Ace season (1967, 22-11 with the Tigers). Earl Wilson holds a special place in my baseball memories, as he was a star for Detroit in the years when I first became a Tigers fan. (I switched loyalties to the Giants in the mid-1970s when my family moved permanently to the Bay Area.) Wilson is probably best remembered by historians for two unique accomplishments: he was the first African American pitcher employed by the notoriously desegregation-resistant Red Sox (Boston was the last team in the majors to integrate, in 1959 — a dozen years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier); and he's one of only two pitchers (Rick Wise was the other) to hit a home run in a game in which he pitched a no-hitter (against the Los Angeles Angels, in 1962). A former catcher, Wilson maintained his power stroke throughout his career, hitting 33 home runs as a pitcher — only four other major league pitchers hit more.

  • Vida Blue — Oakland Athletics (1969-77), San Francisco Giants (1978-81, 1985-86), Kansas City Royals (1982-83); three Black Ace seasons (1971, 24-8; 1973, 20-9; 1975, 22-11; all with the A's). Vida is my all-time favorite pitcher, and ranks alongside Barry Bonds and Willie McCovey as one of my all-time favorite baseball players, period. It's sad to imagine the statistics he might have compiled, were it not for the drug habit that plagued him during the prime of his career. The American League MVP and Cy Young winner in his breakout 1971, Vida became the first pitcher to start All-Star Games for both leagues (1971, for the AL as an Athletic; 1978, for the NL as a Giant). It never ceases to strike me as bizarre that three of the pitchers most statistically similar to Vida — Catfish Hunter, Hal Newhouser, and Don Drysdale — are in the Hall of Fame, while Vida is not. (My argument would not be that Vida belongs in the Hall, but rather that Hunter, Newhouser, and especially Drysdale don't belong there.)

  • Al Downing — New York Yankees (1961-69), Oakland Athletics (1970), Milwaukee Brewers (1970), Los Angeles Dodgers (1971-77); one Black Ace season (1971, 20-9 with the Dodgers). Whatever else Al Downing might have done during his lengthy major league career will always be overshadowed by the fact that he was the pitcher who served up the ball that Henry Aaron belted to break Babe Ruth's career home run record. Downing was a solid journeyman whose best years, aside from his 1971 20-win campaign, came in the mid-'60s when he was a starter for the Yankees.

  • J. R. Richard — Houston Astros (1971-80); one Black Ace season (1976, 20-15 with the Astros). His career cut tragically short by a near-fatal stroke in 1980, Richard was on a path toward a Hall of Fame career. Standing six-foot-eight, he was one of the most physically impressive athletes I ever saw. Sadly, Richard fell on hard financial times after his baseball skills evaporated, and wound up homeless on the streets of Houston. I understand that he has recovered his life in recent years, as a minister and social advocate.

  • Mike Norris — Oakland Athletics (1975-83, 1990); one Black Ace season (1980, 22-9 with the A's). Of all of the Black Aces, Norris is the only one who can accurately be described as a flash in the pan. His stellar 1980 campaign established the high point of a brief and otherwise unremarkable major league career, marked mostly by arm injuries and off-field struggles related to drug abuse. He's had some health challenges in recent years, resulting in physical impairment — he was walking with a cane at yesterday's ceremony.

  • Dwight "Doc" Gooden — New York Mets (1984-94), New York Yankees (1996-97, 2000), Cleveland Indians (1998-99), Houston Astros (2000), Tampa Bay Devil Rays (2000). The poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote, "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: 'It might have been.'" I don't know whether Whittier was either a prophet or a baseball fan, but were he either, he might have been writing about Dwight Gooden. His career derailed prematurely by injuries — a derailment exacerbated by chronic problems of a pharmacological nature — "Dr. K." fell from future Hall of Famer to has-been (or, in the words of a memorable Sports Illustrated headline, "From Phenom to Phantom") throughout the 1990s. His drug and legal problems continue to this day — he spent several months in prison last year on a probation violation. At his mid-'80s peak, however, Gooden was as terrific a pitcher as I've ever seen. "It might have been."

  • Dave Stewart — Los Angeles Dodgers (1978, 1981-83), Texas Rangers (1983-85), Philadelphia Phillies (1985-86), Oakland Athletics (1986-92, 1995), Toronto Blue Jays (1993-94); four Black Ace seasons (1987, 20-13; 1988, 21-12; 1989, 21-9; 1990, 22-11; all with the A's). Of all the players I've seen in my 40 years of baseball fandom, Dave "Smoke" Stewart underwent perhaps the most dramatic and impressive career renaissance I've ever witnessed. A mediocre — at best — pitcher in his early years with the Dodgers (we San Francisco fans used to joke that his nickname came from the way Giants hitters smoked the ball around Candlestick Park whenever Stewart came into a game against us), Rangers, and Phillies, Stewart suddenly blossomed when he arrived in Oakland in 1986. Seemingly overnight, he transformed from a lackluster hurler to the best pitcher in baseball over a four-year stretch from 1987 through 1990. During those four years, Stewart dominated his league like no pitcher since the heyday of Sandy Koufax. He pitched well, if less overpoweringly, for another three seasons afterward. These days, the 1989 World Series MVP (against my Giants, no less) writes a superb baseball blog called Throwin' Heat. Fans of the nation's pastime will enjoy Dave's insights.

  • Dontrelle Willis — Florida Marlins (2003-present); one Black Ace season to date (2005, 22-10 with the Marlins). The only Black Ace currently active, Oakland-born "D-Train" reminds me somewhat of the young Doc Gooden. He's not quite as dominant, but he hopefully lacks some of Doc's unfortunate baggage. At this writing, Willis is putting together a solid 2007 season — he's 7-3 with a 3.96 ERA after two months. If that pattern holds, he could easily repeat his Black Ace record of two years ago. I wish him all the best... except when pitching against the Giants.
And now the sixty-four-thousand dollar question: Why have we seen only 13 African American 20-game winners in the 60 years since Jackie Robinson? That's a discussion for another time.

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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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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Voices in Harmony in concert Saturday!

All right, already — I'll get back to my usual arcane mutterings in just a moment. But first, a word from our sponsors.

Those of you living in the San Francisco Bay Area — and you know who you are — would be doing your ears a ginormous favor if you dropped by Spangenberg Auditorium in Palo Alto this coming Saturday. (That's May 19 — Armed Forces Day, in case you don't have a calendar handy.)

Northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus, Voices in Harmony — currently ranked seventh in the world, and looking to leap into the top five this summer — will rock the house as only 100-plus perfectly synchronized, testosterone-fueled larynges can. Under the direction of world-renowned conductor Dr. Greg Lyne, ViH masters the musical gamut from show tunes to jazz, from pop to gospel. (And yes, we'll throw in a little barbershop for you hardcore fanatics.)

Special guest performers for this concert date will be the stellar vocal jazz ensemble Clockwork, and one of the West Coast's top male quartets, Late Show. As the great Don Cornelius used to say, you can bet your last money, it's all gonna be a stone gas, honey.

Or, to be a tad more contemporary, this is one bomb-diggity fresh joint, yo.

Trust me, kids — you haven't heard anything like Voices in Harmony. You just haven't. I don't care how many choruses, choirs, or vocal groups you've experienced previously. And I'm not just saying that because of that handsome smiling devil in the center of the second row. (At least, not entirely.)

So what are you waiting for? Go buy some ducats for either the matinee or evening performance, clear your Saturday schedule, and prepare to be blown away.

Believe the hype.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled blog, already in progress.

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

What's Up With That? #48: What's this green stuff in my Cha-Cha Bowl?

Thirty years after serving 10 months in federal prison for smuggling marijuana, former Giants star Orlando "The Baby Bull" Cepeda has been caught once again with the evil weed.

The CHP busted Cepeda the other afternoon, blazing down I-80 at 83 miles per hour. When the Hall of Famer rolled down the driver's window, a certain unmistakable whiff alerted the arresting officer to the fact that Orlando had been doing another kind of blazing as well. A search of Cepeda's Lexus by a drug-sniffing police dog turned up both ganja and a bindle containing a suspect white powder, believed to be either cocaine or methamphetamine.

Giants cognoscenti will recollect that Cepeda's much-deserved enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame was delayed by more than three decades, as the former slugging first baseman's drug conviction prevented him from garnering the votes necessary for election. Cepeda was at long last inducted by the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee in 1999, after an intensive PR campaign mounted by the Giants.

In recent years, Cepeda has been visible as a member of the Giants' public relations staff, and as the namesake of Orlando's Caribbean BBQ, a food concession at AT&T Park. This popular snack stand is the home of the world-famous Cha-Cha Bowl, a faux-Latin riff on the basic rice bowl. Being a dedicated hot links and nachos kind of ballpark diner, I've not had a Cha-Cha Bowl myself, but I'm told that they're mighty tasty.

Just don't try to smoke one.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2007


To paraphrase the late Lewis Grizzard: Elvis is dead, and I'm feeling a bit scattered myself.

With everything that's going on around here — both the stuff you know about and the stuff you don't, for which you ought to be eternally grateful — my perpetually diffuse focus is even more fuzzy than usual. So let's go the quick-hit route.

Now watch the colortinis as they fly through the air:
  • Brickbats and boo-hisses to the moron who ruined my Tuesday evening commute to chorus rehearsal for the foreseeable future, by dumping 250 yards of molten steel, concrete, and asphalt on my section of the McArthur Maze. Nice going, ace.

  • Did I mention that he's a convicted criminal with a history of heroin abuse? Why am I not surprised?

  • Freeway disasters aside, it's a fine time for sports fans here by the Bay:

    • The Warriors, who haven't seen the NBA playoffs without satellite TV since the early days of the Clinton Administration, are poised to dump the Dallas Mavericks and advance to Round Two.

    • The offensively anemic Giants have turned their once-flagging fortunes around, behind the smoking bat of Barry "U.S." Bonds (742 career home runs, and counting) and the hottest starting rotation in the major leagues — the other Barry (Zito), the two Matts (Cain and Morris), my homie from Pepperdine (Noah Lowry), and the resurrected Russ "Lazarus" Ortiz.

    • The Sharks are threatening to make a run at the Stanley Cup. (Say it with me: It's soccer on ice, with sticks.)

    • The A's are... well, nobody cares.

  • While the universe spirals into entropy (why is it so hot? and why are we in this handbasket?), high school students in Charleston, West Virginia, are ticked off because their educational administrators won't allow them to simulate sexual intercourse on the dance floor. Says senior Crystal Lucas of the school board's ban on booty popping, grinding, bumping, humping, hunching, goosing, freaking, and dirty dancing: "It makes me not look forward to my senior prom." Oh, to be young and feckless. (Look it up in your Funk and Wagnalls.)

  • A sad note: Sax player and bandleader Tommy Newsom, for years the butt of Johnny Carson's ridicule on The Tonight Show, has passed away from liver cancer at the age of 78. After all those years of merely looking dead, Tommy now really is.

  • Britney Spears has canceled tonight's comeback performance, scheduled for L.A.'s Forty Deuce nightclub. According to reports, the concert's promoters determined that after several rehearsals, the Queen of Trailer Trash Pop "wasn't quite ready." (Translated: Not sober enough to remember lyrics, or to avoid an embarrassing tumble off the edge of the stage.)

  • Four years ago today, President Bush stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared the war in Iraq over. "Mission accomplished," remember? "The United States and our allies have prevailed." Funny how many brave men and women we keep losing, in a war that ended four years ago. Then again, it's really not funny at all.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

A real-life hero: Mario Kawika DeLeon, Sgt., U.S. Army

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to the memory of a hometown hero.

On Monday of this week, Mario Kawika DeLeon, a 26-year-old U.S. Army sergeant from Rohnert Park, California, lost his life to a sniper's bullet while on patrol in Baghdad. Kawika — Sgt. DeLeon was commonly called by his middle name, "David" in Hawaiian — was a member of the Army's 1st Infantry Division, known in military lore as "The Big Red One." He graduated from Casa Grande High School — archrival of my alma mater, Rancho Cotate High — and attended Santa Rosa Junior College, where my daughter KM will be a student in the fall.

I didn't know Kawika DeLeon personally, but my dear friend Donna e-mailed me to say that her parents and his were close friends, back in the day. Donna herself worked for a time with Kawika's mother, Barbara. Thus, aside from the fact that we probably rubbed elbows at Wal-Mart or Costco at some time or other, Sgt. DeLeon and I are separated by a mere two degrees.

To paraphrase John Donne, the bell tolls for me.

According to his obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, Kawika was a fan of the Star Wars film franchise, the animated TV series ThunderCats, and X-Men comics. I don't have any ThunderCats art — a generation older than Kawika, I wasn't watching many cartoons in the '80s. Instead, I'll share from my art collection some images of my own favorite feline hero, the Black Panther, and my best-beloved among the X-Men, Storm, in Kawika's honor.

The quotes below are excerpted from the Chronicle's obit by Steve Rubenstein.

Mario DeLeon loved the old "Star Wars" movies, fast cars, hip-hop music, shooting pool and hanging out with his pals in Rohnert Park.

He loved his wife, Erika, and his 2-year-old son, Keoni.

And, in February, he told them he'd be home soon from his Army tour of duty in Iraq.
"He kept saying, 'Nothing's going to happen to me, nothing's going to happen to me,' Erika DeLeon said.

"He was fearless. In his mind, he was so strong and so brave. He was so sure of himself. He said he was coming back, and so we all knew he was coming back. That's how he was."
A tall, large man with what one friend described as a "goofy grin," DeLeon enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school and served for four years, including a tour in Afghanistan.

After attending college for a while, he served two years in the Air Force Reserve before rejoining the Army last year. He was sent to Iraq over the winter, and spent most of his time on patrol in Baghdad.
"He loved making everyone laugh," his wife said. "Nobody could make people laugh like Kawika. He lighted up everyone's day."

He drove a 15-year-old Nissan and he was pretty good at the motor sport technique known as "drifting," or driving sideways in a controlled slide. He and his friends enjoyed watching drifting competitions, reading car magazines, and talking about the best pro drivers and the latest tricks.
In the evenings, the DeLeons would hunker down on the sofa and watch a "Star Wars" movie — he had the complete set — or episodes of the old "ThunderCats" cartoon show, in which giant human cats battled the Mutants to save the innocents on a planet called Third Earth. In his 20s, DeLeon still enjoyed the animated shows and "X-Men" comic books he treasured as a kid.

"At first I didn't like watching those shows," his wife said. "But he was so passionate about it. He'd say, 'But Babe, everyone has to watch it.' So I did. And now I'm wearing the 'ThunderCats' sweater."
Above all, Erika DeLeon said, her husband was a gentleman.

"Sweet, polite, kind. I never met anyone like him. I wanted his son to grow up like him. Now all he has is pictures."

He is survived by his wife and son, by his mother, Barbara, and by his brothers, Gabe and Bruce. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Rest in peace, Kawika. Your sacrifice humbles us.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

What's Up With That? #46: No Tiggers allowed

Over the hill in Napa, a lawsuit is brewing against the local school district because an eighth-grader got busted for wearing Tigger socks.

Considering some of the trouble Tigger's gotten his striped self into recently, perhaps this makes a peculiar kind of sense.

Toni Kay Scott, a 14-year-old honor student, has been cited more than a dozen times for wearing apparel in violation of the Napa school district's dress code, which forbids denim (the only fabrics permitted are cotton twill, chino, and corduroy) as well as clothing bearing words or images of any kind — including Pooh's lovable spring-tailed tiger friend. Napa's school-going youth are also prohibited from wearing any items outside a narrow color palette that includes blue, white, green, yellow, khaki, gray, brown, and black. (They're not exactly embracing sartorial diversity over in Napa.)

As a parent, I understand the school district's concern about gang colors, potentially offensive T-shirts, immodest clothing, and such like. But seriously, people — Tigger socks?

I'd hope the folks in charge of spending my tax dollars to educate my child and the other offspring of our community would have more important tasks on which to focus than punting a kid out of class for wearing Disney-print hosiery.

The last time I checked, the Crips and the Norteños weren't using Pooh and Piglet as insignia.

But wouldn't it be a happier world if they did?

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

They're dropping like flies

Death must be in the air these days, and I don't believe it's just the stench of human decomp wafting over from Abby Chapel of the Redwoods.

Let's pause for a moment to reflect on some of the passages we've noted recently...
  • When wine mogul Ernest Gallo, the 297th richest person in America, died last week at the ripe old vintage of 97, my thoughts turned to his younger brother Joseph, who passed away about three weeks earlier.

    Joseph Gallo owned a cheesemaking enterprise known today as Joseph Farms. (Good stuff, as stock American-made cheese goes. We buy Joseph Farms products quite often.) Originally, the company was called Joseph Gallo Cheese. Ernest and Julio Gallo, however, didn't like the fact that their junior brother was slapping the family name on his dairy output, so they sued Little Joe over the rights to the Gallo moniker... and won. Thus Joseph Gallo — despite being every bit the Gallo his elder siblings were, genetically speaking — was legally estopped from using his own name on his cheese.

    Blood may be thicker than water, but wine is thicker than either.

  • Wow... Richard Jeni. There's been any number of comedians whose lives played out like horror headlines waiting to be written — Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Freddie Prinze, Sam Kinison, and Mitch Hedberg are just a handful of the names that leap to mind — but Jeni didn't seem like that kind of guy.

    Jeni always seemed amazingly normal for a comic, and his wry observations about life were earnest and easily to identify with. Whatever his demons were, they didn't surface in his comedy to any pathological degree.

    Maybe that would have helped.

  • Most casual comic books readers likely never knew who writer Arnold Drake was. To the cognoscenti, Drake was a legend — an iconoclastic creative talent who specialized in unique ideas and good old-fashioned fun.

    In the realm of superhero comics, Drake's best-known creations reflected his wonky sensibility: Doom Patrol, which was kind of like the X-Men as seen through a funhouse mirror, and Deadman, the bizarre tale of a murdered circus acrobat who wandered the earth hunting his killer. But Drake was more than just a scribe of muscular, slam-bang fantasy — he also invented a clever comedy series called Stanley and His Monster that in many elements prefigured the later Calvin and Hobbes. Drake also wrote dozens of issues of Little Lulu.

    I sat in on Drake's delightful showcase panel at WonderCon two years ago. The man knew where all the industry's bodies were buried, and he knew how to tell a great story. I'm grateful now that I took the opportunity to see him in person while he was still among us. He was a genuine treasure.

  • I felt a twinge of sadness when I heard some time ago that the Stardust Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas had shuttered. That twinge hit again as I read the news this morning about the old joint being imploded to make room for a new megadevelopment. By the time of its demise, the Stardust wasn't the swankiest joint on the Strip, but it sure held a history.

    KJ and I enjoyed a terrific evening at the Stardust some years back. We dined at the 'Dust's resident outlet of Tony Roma's Ribs, then caught a pretty decent production show called Enter the Night. Of course, the show that made the Stardust famous, Lido de Paris, was long gone by then, its stars Siegfried and Roy having jumped ship for the Mirage several years earlier. But we had a nice time anyway.

    I'm told that the Stardust's legendary sign, at one time the largest display on the Strip, has been preserved by the Neon Museum in Vegas. As for the Stardust itself, the lights are out, and the party's over.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Dazed and WonderConfused

I haven't yet seen any official attendance figures for last week's WonderCon, but take it from a guy who was there for the first two days of the three-day event: A veritable sea of humanity (and perhaps other lifeforms as well) poured into San Francisco's Moscone Center South for the Bay Area's largest annual geekfest.

My WonderCon weekend began on Friday at 9 a.m. deep in the bowels of the convention center, where I spent two hours preshow as a WonderCon volunteer. My assignment: stuffing plastic swag bags to be handed out to attendees upon arrival. In truth, there wasn't much actual stuffing. Only two items went into each bag: (1) a pin advertising the science fiction movie The Last Mimzy (coming soon to a multiplex near you); and (2) a postcard-sized flier advertising an indie flick entitled Yesterday Was a Lie (probably coming direct on DVD to a Best Buy near you).

I was supposed to be on stuffing detail for three hours, but we ran out of bags and stuffing paraphernalia around 11 a.m. My responsibilities thus fulfilled, I gratefully accepted my complimentary admission badge, then spent the remaining hour before the convention opened waiting for my insanely hot cup of Peet's coffee to cool to potable temperature.

At last the doors opened, and I joined the throng that flooded onto the main floor. I made a beeline — as least, as much of a beeline as a middle-aged fat guy can make in the midst of a whelming crowd — to Artists' Alley.

With a handful of previous con experiences under my belt, I knew in advance that the best approach for success in acquiring new art at a comic con is a carefully crafted battle plan. Before the event, I reviewed the roster of attending artists, and developed a prioritized shopping list of artists from whom I wanted to commission drawings, along with the character I wanted each to draw. Of course, the Robert Burns rule came into effect immediately, as neither of the first two artists on my list had yet arrived by the time I reached their tables. So, I dashed about lining up other commissions while keeping an eye peeled for the latecomers. Both soon turned up, and by the time I headed off to my first panel at 2 p.m., the first several items on my list were checked off.

I spent three delightful hours listening to panel discussions moderated by the redoubtable Mark Evanier, a prolific writer for both comics and television. (Mark is also one of my blogging heroes; if you're not reading his News From ME, your life is seriously lacking.) Mark missed WonderCon last year due to a sudden illness, but he was back in form this year. Actually, he appeared in significantly smaller form this year, having recently shed 110 pounds by way of gastric bypass surgery.

I thoroughly enjoyed Mark's chats with comic writer and historian Gerard Jones (whose panel I attended at last year's WonderCon, and was kind enough to autograph my well-thumbed copies of his books The Comic Book Heroes and Men of Tomorrow), cartoonist extraordinaire Sergio Aragonés of MAD Magazine fame (one of the most personable human beings you'll ever run across), and longtime MAD editor Al Feldstein, whose Friday panel focused on his pre-MAD years as artist, writer, and editor for the notorious EC Comics of the 1950s.

By the end of Friday's festivities, I had three and one-half commissions in hand (I'll explain in a minute) and still more on waiting lists for Saturday. Friday's haul included...

* Delivery of the Hellboy/Hellcat Common Elements artwork that Tom Hodges completed in advance of the con.

It was a treat to meet Tom and his wife (that's her elbow and purple sneaker at left) in person. I had hoped to catch Tom's panel on Star Wars art, but I was still frantically lining up commissions when the discussion kicked off at 1 p.m. Friday.

* A new Common Elements commission penciled by Ron Lim, featuring Spider-Man and the Manhattan Guardian. (The common element: Both characters worked for newspapers in civilian life: Spidey/Peter Parker at the Daily Bugle; Guardian/Jake Jordan at — not coincidentally — the Manhattan Guardian.)

I'd never attempted a CE at a con before, given the time constraints. I knew that Ron could pull it off, given that he drew another two-character (Captain America and the U.S. Agent) sketch for me two years ago at WonderCon.

Getting Ron's terrific pencil art done was only half the battle, though. On Saturday, I hoped to ask inker Danny Bulanadi (a no-show on Friday, but his representative Frank assured me Danny would be at his table all day Saturday) to finish the piece.

By the way, Ron and his wife recently welcomed a new baby to their family. Congratulations, Lims!

* This jaw-dropping depiction of Taarna by the artist known as Buzz.

I'm always delighted to see Buzz at a con, not only because I love his art — one of the most distinctive stylists of his generation, in my never-humble opinion — but also because he's one of my favorite artists to talk with. Buzz (who I'm certain has an actual name, though I have no idea what it is) has a point of view about everything under the sun, and isn't shy about sharing his thoughts about the comic industry, his fellow artists, and even world events.

Buzz's eyes lit up when I handed him the reference scan of Taarna. This was his first opportunity to draw her for a commission — he admitted having drawn her a time or two for his own amusement — and he poured his heart and soul into this artwork. This was the only piece Buzz worked on all day Friday, and the result is stunning.

* A dramatic pencil sketch of Wonder Woman, by the criminally underrated Paul Ryan.

I knew from reading his Web site before the con that Paul — who's best probably known for his work on Fantastic Four — enjoys drawing our favorite Amazon. Thus, this assignment was a natural fit. I watched him start this piece several times before he finally hit on the concept he wanted to finish. It turned out beautifully. I'm always thrilled when an artist shows a character doing something visually interesting, rather than the familiar stock poses.

Paul, his charming wife Linda, and their daughter Heather were as nice as pie, to use a hoary cliché — lovely people, gracious and extremely accommodating to Paul's many fans. This picture of Paul, by the way, was taken by Heather, who just may have a budding career in photography.

So that was Friday.

Saturday — a day when seemingly half the population of the Bay Area crammed into Moscone South — found me making numerous surreptitious checks on the progress of my remaining commissions (at least, I hope the artists thought they were surreptitious), and browsing the numerous vendor stalls on the convention floor. I broke up the day with a two-block stroll over to the Westfield Center's food court for lunch — silly me for thinking a Saturday afternoon would be any less congested at San Francisco's newest and largest mall — and by catching a few excellent panels.

The two highlights among the latter were a MAD Magazine showcase with Mark Evanier hosting Al Feldstein and Sergio Aragonés...

...and a fascinating discussion of the process of translating comics to television animation. This informative and fast-paced chatfest featured the insights of one of my writing heroes, Dwayne McDuffie (Static Shock, Justice League Unlimited), along with fellow scribes Adam Beechen (Teen Titans), Stan Berkowitz (Legion of Super-Heroes), Greg Weisman (Gargoyles, the upcoming reimagining of the animated Spider-Man), and moderator Shannon Muir (Extreme Ghostbusters).

But what really counts is the art, yes? Saturday's pickups included...

* Danny Bulanadi's embellishment in ink of Ron Lim's Spider-Man / Manhattan Guardian commission.

Danny did a bang-up job inking over Ron's pencils. I took the finished piece back to Ron for his approval, and he, too, was pleased with Danny's work. (Ron also re-signed the piece in ink, so his signature would match the rest of the finished art.) Both Danny and his representative Frank were quite friendly, and lots of fun to chat with.

* Taarna, take two: This time, by the wily veteran Tony DeZuniga.

Tony's table was immediately adjacent to Buzz's. Throughout the time Buzz was working on his Taarna masterpiece on Friday, I kept glancing over at the sketches Tony was drawing, and thinking, "I'll bet Tony would do an awesome Taarna, too." And of course, he did.

The above photo was taken by Tony's lovely wife Tina, who insisted on letting some no-talent clown sneak in next to Tony for the money shot.

* A spectacular Storm by the great Phil Noto.

As luck would have it, though, my opening moments frenzy on Friday took me past a table where sat the talented — and always popular — Phil Noto sat, drawing board in hand. Noto hadn't been scheduled to appear at WonderCon, which was the only reason he didn't already have a massive line at his table the instant the doors opened, as he usually does. In fact, there was no one even within spitting distance of Phil's table. (Not that you'd want to spit. It's just an expression.)

I asked Phil if he was taking a commission list. When he answered in the affirmative, I could scarcely restrain my giddiness as I put in my request. On Saturday, Phil came through with a beauty.

* Aaron Lopresti's gorgeous Supergirl, wearing her hip, trendy disco-era costume from the 1970s.

This was, I think, the third con I've attended at which Aaron was a participant. I'd never before been lucky enough to even get on his sketch list, much less actually score a commission from him. As it was, this was the very last piece he finished on Saturday evening, and I was ecstatic that he got it done.

When I asked to take his photo with the art, Aaron laughed and asked, "Should I be holding the money, too?" We mutually agreed that we could do the "money shot" without the actual cash in view. Funny guy, that Mr. Lopresti.

* A cute and vibrant Ms. Marvel, courtesy of Runaways artist Michael Ryan.

I loved Michael's recently concluded run on New Excalibur, so having him draw this piece for me gave me goosebumps. (Okay, that's an exaggeration. But it was pretty cool nonetheless.) Michael's style reminds me a lot of Mike Weiringo, another contemporary artist whose work I admire. I enjoy Scot Eaton, the artist who replaced Michael on New Excalibur (and about whose work Michael was graciously complimentary), but since I don't read Runaways, I've missed Michael's art of late. Now I won't have to.

To Michael's immense credit, he kept plugging away at this drawing even as the rest of Artists' Alley was packing up for the night all around him. When he finished, he seemed concerned that he'd drawn Carol too young-looking (in the comics, she's a woman in her early-to-mid-30s). I assured him she looked just fine to me. He shrugged and said, "I tend to draw every character young, I guess. Or at least, that's what people keep telling me."

With my portfolio bursting with fresh art, and my mind reeling with fond memories of associations new and renewed, I wearily concluded my two-day junket into the dark heart of WonderCon.

My feet still hurt.

One non-comic-related highlight of the convention: I got to meet one of my favorite character actors — Ernie Hudson, who'll forever be remembered as Winston Zeddemore in Ghostbusters. We chatted briefly about roles of his that I especially enjoyed; in particular, Hawk in the 2001 TV movie Walking Shadow, based on a Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker. I told Ernie that, as much as I enjoyed Avery Brooks's familiar portrayal on Spenser: For Hire, his Hawk more closely fit my mental image of the character from Parker's books. Ernie confessed that Parker had expressed a similar opinion. Great minds think alike.

Oh, yeah — I overheard someone saying that 300, which premiered at WonderCon, is the greatest movie ever made. I'm guessing that person has never seen Citizen Kane. Or Casablanca. Or even Dark City.

And that, at long last concluded, is your Comic Art Friday.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

We ain't got no body

And now, this public service announcement:

My personal assistant Abby disavows any connection with the proprietors of Abby Chapel of the Redwoods Mortuary, located in our fair burg.

Said proprietors find themselves in all manner of hot water of late, after our dutiful local law enforcement officials discovered nine decomposing corpses that the mortuary had stored in an unrefrigerated warehouse.

If you know anything about the atmospheric and olfactory effects of decomposing corpses, you can probably guess how this little problem was uncovered.

The mortuary was attempting to use a swamp cooler to keep the warehouse temperature sufficiently low, and had sprinkled the bodies with carpet freshening powder to cover any untoward aroma. The stench of decaying human remains suggests exactly how well the swamp cooler and Carpet Fresh accomplished their dubious task.

Our city officials are working with the California State Cemetery and Funeral Bureau to pull Abby Chapel's operating license.

My personal assistant Abby declines any further comment.

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Friday, March 02, 2007

It's WonderCon weekend!

That's right, true believers: WonderCon, Northern California's premier comic book convention, invades San Francisco's Moscone Center for three days, beginning today at noon. I'll be making the scene both today and tomorrow — taking in the plethora of colorful sights and sounds; rubbing elbows with the near-famous, the wannabe famous, and the formerly famous; and most importantly, scoring a few new commissioned artworks for my collection.

In next week's Comic Art Friday, I'll deliver a full-blown report on my WonderCon experiences. But today, let me give you a sneak peek at one of the pieces I'll be bringing home.

When I spied the name of Star Wars artist Tom Hodges on WonderCon's guest list a few weeks ago, I shot him a quick e-mail to see whether he planned to accept commissions during the con. Tom wrote back to affirm that he will, indeed, be drawing for the fans here in the Bay Area. He also noted that he had some time available before the con, and if I'd like to preorder some art, he'd complete it at home and bring it to WonderCon with him.

Never one to pass up a golden opportunity, I seized the chance to ask Tom to add a new chapter to my ever-growing Common Elements gallery. Earlier this week, Tom sent me this scan of his spectacular creation, teaming Mike Mignola's signature hero, Hellboy, with Marvel's feline Defender, Hellcat.

My first exposure to Mike Mignola's work actually wasn't connected to either Hellboy, the character for which he's best known, or even to comics at all. Several years ago, Mignola worked as lead character designer on the Disney animated film Atlantis: The Lost Empire. When I saw the movie, I was curious about the design style, which struck me as decidedly un-Disney. Upon further investigation, I was chagrined to discover that the artist in question (a Bay Area native, no less) had risen to superstardom during my most recent hiatus from the comics scene, hence my embarrassing lack of familiarity. (Much later, I remembered that Mignola had illustrated a few issues of Power Man and Iron Fist for Marvel in the early '80s, albeit in a markedly different style from his Hellboy work.)

Tom Hodges's work shows a striking amount of Mignola influence, so I knew that he'd be the perfect artist (since, well, I can't afford Mike Mignola) to draw my Hellboy-centric Common Elements piece. As you can see, my instincts were spot-on.

In contrast to Hellboy, Hellcat is a heroine whose history I know quite well. In her everyday identity of Patsy Walker, Hellcat has amassed one of the most convoluted backstories in all of comics. When Patsy first showed up way back in 1944, she wasn't a superhero — she was the star of an entire line of teenage romance and humor comics. think of her as a kind of female version of Archie. The popular Patsy continued her youthful adventures for more than two decades in a number of titles published by Timely Comics, the company that would eventually morph into Marvel in the early 1960s.

Patsy made her first appearance in a superhero story in — coincidentally enough — the first comic book I ever owned: Fantastic Four Annual #3. By the early '70s, she was popping up frequently as the lab assistant of Dr. Hank McCoy, better known as the Beast of the original X-Men. Before long, Patsy adopted the costume formerly worn by another Marvel heroine, the Cat (who by this time had transformed into the were-woman Tigra), and gave herself the code name Hellcat.

Patsy's finest exploits as a crimefighter came as a member of the Defenders, my favorite superhero team of the '70s. Originally a showcase for Marvel's three most iconoclastic headliners — Doctor Strange, the Sub-Mariner, and the Hulk — over time the Defenders became populated by minor-league heroes who didn't own their own titles — notably Nighthawk, the Valkyrie, and our girl Hellcat.

Both Nighthawk and Valkyrie have previously headlined entries in my Common Elements series. Here, Nighthawk teams with Green Lantern Kyle Rayner in a moody scene by horror specialist Kyle Hotz.

Meanwhile, Valkyrie joins the X-Men's Nightcrawler, in this gorgeous pencil rendering by Dave Ross.

Patsy and her new friend Hellboy will come home with me from WonderCon, courtesy of the talented Tom Hodges. I'm looking forward to meeting Tom in person later today.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. I'm off to the con!

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Monday, February 26, 2007

All he wants to do is bicycle, bicycle

Congratulations to local hero Levi Leipheimer, who pedaled his way to victory in the Tour of California cycle race that ended yesterday.

Levi, who never trailed at the end of any stage of the race, completed the 539-mile, eight-day Tour in a total time of 24 hours, 57 minutes, and 24 seconds. That works out to an average of 25.6 miles per hour. Levi finished 21 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor, a cyclist from Germany.

His legs, I'm told, look fantastic.

There is, apparently, no truth to the rumored connection between Levi and the mysterious John Jacob Leipheimer Schmidt.

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

It's Fat Tuesday, and I'm a bit fluffy myself

As I sit here sipping my Starbucks Kenya from my Mickey Mouse coffee mug ("It's really swell!"), I'm thinking.

You know what happens when I do that.

Get on your bikes and ride: The Tour of California bicycle race kicked off here yesterday. The first stage concluded with a 90-bike pileup in downtown Santa Rosa. At our house, we're rooting for local hero Levi Leipheimer, who's currently wearing the yellow jersey — which means that he's either leading the race, or knows where the urinals are located.

We figure Levi deserves a little applause, mostly to make up for what his parents did to his psyche by naming him Levi Leipheimer.

You really can find IT on eBay: For years, I've been hunting for a CD by an obscure '90s a cappella cover band from Washington, DC called Brock and the Rockets. The Rockets — four men, four women — performed at the very first Harmony Sweepstakes finals KJ and I attended, in 1993. In the years since, I've worn out my cassette tape of their sole album, entitled Out to Launch.

A couple of weeks ago, by sheer serendipity, I discovered a copy of the CD on eBay for just $3.99. I'm one happy Solid Rocket Booster. You haven't lived until you've heard Catherine Boland Hackett's hilarious rendition of Julie Brown's "I Like 'Em Big and Stupid."

Life begins on Opening Day: The Giants undergo their first full-squad workouts of spring training today. The wonderful thing about the first day of spring training is that every team is undefeated, every pitching staff looks like the second coming of Cy Young, every batting lineup looks like Murderers' Row, and every infield looks like Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. Hope springs eternal in the spring.

Will this be the year Bonds breaks Aaron's record, if he's ever going to? Will Zito flourish in the National League? Will Durham prove he deserved the new contract? Anything seems possible. I loves me some Giants.

Our long national Monday nightmare is over: NBC has finally pulled the plug on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Starting next week, the oddly titled drama The Black Donnellys (odd because, from what I can tell from the previews, none of the characters are black; but then, if they were, the show would probably be called The African American Donnellys) slips into Studio 60's timeslot, by all accounts permanently.

As one of the few hardy souls who stuck it out with Aaron Sorkin and company until the end, allow me to offer three quick insights about what went wrong here:
  1. Studio 60 was a show about comedy writers and comedians, but almost no one in the cast was a comedy writer or comedian. The scripts never gave the one real-life comic in the crew (D.L. Hughley) anything funny to say or do. The actor playing the show's comedy star (Sarah Paulson) was the least funny person in the cast. Why didn't Sorkin stock the crew with genuinely funny people?

  2. The show wasted tons of airtime on relationship stories that lacked chemistry. The romance between the characters played by Paulson and Matthew Perry was doomed from the start — you never believed those two people felt anything for each other that was hotter than day-old oatmeal. The late-blooming love story between Bradley Whitford's producer and Amanda Peet's network executive seemed sillier and creepier every week. The one truly intriguing combination — Nathan Corddry's geeky comic and Lucy Davis's shy English writer — never got off the ground.

  3. The writing, to put it politely, sucked. I can't remember a show that loved to pontificate as much as Studio 60 — unless it was Sorkin's previous effort, The West Wing. There, at least, the White House setting gave the pontificating some gravitas. TV writers and comedians pontificating just came off as gratuitous and self-important.
Mrs. Butterworth, I think I love you: Today is National Pancake Day, which means that you can stop in at your friendly neighborhood International House of Pancakes before 10 p.m. today, and scarf down a free stack of three buttermilk pancakes. In exchange, the IHOP folks ask that you consider making a donation to the Children's Miracle Network, or another charity of your choice. So eat up, flapjack lovers.

(Not that I'm quibbling or anything, but I hardly believe that serving French toast, English muffins, and Belgian waffles qualifies a restaurant as "International." But maybe that's just me. I definitely would not bring up this point with your waitress, should you decide to go for the free stack.)

Happy Mardi Gras! Remember: For some of us, every Tuesday is Fat Tuesday.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

The stuff that dreams are made of

Paging Sam Spade: The Maltese Falcon is missing once again.

Okay, so it's not the actual Maltese Falcon from the legendary 1941 Humphrey Bogart film of the same name. It's a replica of identical vintage, used originally in publicity stills for the movie. The stolen statue most recently resided at John's Grill, the venerable San Francisco restaurant where Falcon author Dashiell Hammett held court decades ago.

The filched Falcon was birdnapped sometime last weekend, along with several books autographed by Hammett, from a locked cabinet on the second floor of the eatery. The replica bears the signature of actor Elisha Cook Jr., a San Francisco native who played a nervous gunsel named Wilmer in the film.

Kasper Gutman was unavailable for comment.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Newsom knew some, in the Biblical sense

The hot news here in the Bay Area centers around the resignation of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's reelection campaign manager, who decided to hand in his walking papers after he learned that the mayor had been slipping his wife a little "San Francisco treat," if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

Imagine: A guy getting all bent out of shape over something trivial like that.

As reported by the Chronicle this morning (and confirmed by the mayor himself at a press conference that ended moments ago), Newsom had an affair with Ruby Rippey-Tourk — at the time, his appointment secretary — about a year and a half ago. This was during the period when Newsom and his then-wife, FOX News host Kimberly Guilfoyle, were divorcing. Ruby's husband, Alex Tourk, has been one of the Gav's right-hand men for most of his political career. Several news reports indicate that the Gavin/Ruby tryst was pretty much an open secret at City Hall — everyone in the building knew who was zooming whom, except for the cuckolded Alex. But then, the husband is always the last to know.

Ruby apparently outed herself and Gavin to hubby as part of her 12-step rehabilitation for a substance abuse problem. I guess it's true what they say about those addict chicks.

I also suppose this clears up any lingering questions about the Gav's sexual orientation.

The best thing about the Newsom story for me is that Ruby Rippey used to be a news reporter at our local TV station, KFTY-50 in Santa Rosa. Whenever she came on, KJ and I used to have a good chuckle over her oddly alliterative name.

It certainly seems that the mayor gets around a lot, to put it mildly. Just a few months ago, we were hearing about his relationship with a 20-year-old coed at our hometown institution of higher education, Sonoma State University. The story was that when Gavin and his youthful hottie showed up at the grand opening of San Francisco's Westfield Center, it was apparent to those present that the young lady had been drinking, despite the fact that the legal imbibing age in California is 21.

Rumor has it that Ruby Rippey-Tourk (say that three times fast) may have a sexual harassment lawsuit against her former employer/paramour in the pipeline. Won't that trial be fun?

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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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