31 August 2010

Star Trek Customizable Card Game

Geeks had already been playing Magic: The Gathering from Wizards of the Coast for a while when, in 1994, Decipher, Inc. launched Star Trek: The Next Generation - Customizable Card Game.  The premise of a customizable card game is that you collect these cards (just like baseball cards), but you play a game with them.  It's like a board game, where you create the board and supply all the pieces with cards.  Because it was initially based upon Star Trek: The Next Generation (Decipher's rights later expanded to include the entire Trek franchise), there was no shortage of secondary and even tertiary material to mine for content.

It was a fun game, though Decipher had at least two things going against them from the outset.  Firstly, because the game was designed with only The Next Generation in mind, as they expanded to include other spin-off series and movies, the new elements were either underwhelming and superfluous, or they were introduced in some kind of convoluted manner meant to introduce new gameplay but was rarely attractive to players.

The other problem was that this was in the dawn of the Internet going mainstream.  Collectors and fans were still largely reliant upon local specialty shops for their supply.  Meeting other players was difficult unless you knew another Trekkie/Trekker.  In the Louisville area, we had several retailers--the best, in my opinion, was Book & Music Exchange on Preston Highway.  They had a steady supply of single cards for sale and even organized a tournament over the summer of 1996.  It came down to a friend and myself, and rather than play one another, we simply flipped a POG slammer of Judge Lance Ito for the win.

Here are some scans of various promotional materials.  Feel free to comment below if you've got any memories of this game!

30 August 2010

I Have No Dream

Remember when you were in school and you were asked what you thought your life would be like?  Five years after graduation, then ten, and so on?  I always sat in awe of how quickly my classmates put pencil to paper.  They knew what they wanted.  I'm sure few of them have actually gone on to achieve any of those ideals, but that's irrelevant.  What matters is, they had gone to bed the night before and dreamed of the life before them.

Not me.

I have never had any lofty goals or envisioned myself accomplishing a single thing.  That's not an exaggeration.  Shiny cars?  I don't even like to drive.  Being rich?  I've had my collections over the years, but with few exceptions I never valued anything enough that I cared if I still owned it tomorrow.  For the longest time, I attributed this apathy to my being clinically depressed.  I began taking anti-depressants about ten years ago.  They helped with the depression, but at no point did I ever start caring about tomorrow.

Five years ago, I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease.  I'm glad I'd already accepted being depressed, because Crohn's exacerbated it.  The frustration of constantly missing out on events with friends and family has made me feel even more insulated than ever--which is saying something, given that I've never been what you'd call "a people person."  I don't say any of this so that you'll respond by saying, "Awww, you poor thing."  I'm telling you because it's led me to have an even greater appreciation for how overwhelmed people can be by things that you may not be able to see.

If you see me out and about, chances are you're catching me on a good day and there may not be anything to call attention to me.  But those instances aren't often.  Gone are the days when I relished being amongst large crowds (like at, say, concerts) because I live in fear of needing immediate access to a bathroom.  I frequently only make it to the bathroom in my own home in time; you know how obnoxious it is just getting up to go to the concession stand in a venue.  Imagine having to make a mad dash to a bathroom.

What all this has taught me, I think, is that the absence of dreams has nothing to do with my physiology.  Treating my depression didn't give me ideas of what I want to do with my life, and Crohn's has taught me to appreciate whatever it is that I'm able to do on a given day.  It's entirely contrary to what we're taught in our youth; that we can be or do anything we want.  I'm reminded of that line from The Shawshank Redemption:
"Get busy livin', or get busy dyin'."
I suppose I should get busy.

28 August 2010

Barkeep's Jukebox: "In Pieces" by Garth Brooks

I'm trying out a new sub-series here, in which I go through an album and suggest a drink to accompany each song.  For those keeping score, I was never much of a drinker and I gave up all alcohol a few years ago when it became quite clear that my Crohn's infested guts simply had no tolerance for the stuff.  My recommendations, then, are based solely upon my fading recollections; you are invited to share any alternate suggestions!

The inaugural album for this series is In Pieces by Garth Brooks.  I chose this for two reasons.  Firstly, I just posted about the G-man in my speculation about Apple's forthcoming media event.  Secondly, it occurred to me that the kinds of albums that will lend themselves best to this kind of analysis are those whose aesthetics aren't consistent from one song to the next.  Introduction out of the way, as Garth would say...let's get down to it!

"Standing Outside the Fire" - The album opens by imploring the listener to stop being passive.  I would recommend a magarita here.  There's something alluring (to me, at least) about the drink; it calls to mind stories and songs full of adventure, from dancing with exotic women to being chased by card-playing thieves across the desert.

Drink this before you
call the old man out.
"The Night I Called the Old Man Out" - A guy recalls coming of age, being taken to task by his father.  The sound of the song is urgent; there's no time to sip leisurely on something like a mojito or mint julep.  No, this is the kind of song that calls for a shot of courage in the form of something with some bite to it.  You can either take a shot of tequila (following the margarita from the last song) or a cheap bourbon like Old Grand-Dad.  (Remember, the kid in the story is young; he's not buying from the top shelf.)

"American Honky-Tonk Bar Association" - Garth calls the working class to assemble at their local watering hole and blow off some steam about where the nation is headed.  This crowd drinks beer, and while the preference is regional, it's always domestic.  I'd go with a Budweiser or a Coors Light, myself.

"One Night a Day" - Garth lets us know how he's slowly recovering from a break-up, but it's the forlorn saxophone that tells us what we need to know.  This calls for a dry, red wine.  Something to dull the brain gradually, like a chianti or shiraz.  You want that warmth in your cheeks to make you believe your friends who tell you you're gonna be okay.

"Kickin' and Screamin'" - A bluesy number, this one is just a fun song observing how often in life, we're reluctant to leave places we resisted going to in the first place.  I see a rum & Coke with this one.  Something without too much bite or burn, but enough to help your head sway with that mesmerizing lead guitar.  I'd suggest Mount Gay Rum - Eclipse.

"Anonymous" - Not found on the original album release, but present on all subsequent issues, this time we're privy to the interior thoughts of a young boy pining for a girl he's too bashful to approach.  The tone of the song is careful not to feel too sweet or sad; we don't fear him as a stalker, but rather empathize with his sense of isolation.  This one's tricky, because the character is hard to associate with drinking at all.  I would place the song in the context of a young man recalling, rather than admitting, the way he used to pine for a girl.  I'd partner this one with a chilled tumbler of Tito's vodka.

"Ain't Goin' Down ('Til the Sun Comes Up)" - First of all, this song has high energy with driving guitar work and Terry McMillan's harmonica is insane.  Lyrically, though, it's about a young girl running off with her boyfriend of whom her parents do not approve.  The characters would probably be sneaking around with something cheap like Boone's Farm or perhaps Schlitz.

"The Red Strokes" - The piano drives the song, which explores how various parts of life can be associated with specific colors (not entirely unlike partnering specific songs from an album with specific drinks).  Red wine seems the obvious selection here, though I'm loathe to repeat a suggestion within the same album.  Instead, I suggest a tequila sunrise.  It's vibrant in appearance, and feels more exuberant than does wine, befitting the spirit of the song.

Hello, Samantha dear...
"Callin' Baton Rouge" - You really shouldn't pair an alcoholic drink with a song about a truck driver tearing down the interstate.  But this torrid affair began the night before with "sweet red wine," so it stands to reason that if you can't be with Samantha in Baton Rouge, you might open a bottle of strawberry wine in the back of the cab when you pull over for the night.

"The Night Will Only Know" - Two lovers bear silent witness to an attack to preserve their own secret; the ominous sound of the electric guitar here may as well be the scorn of God Himself.  A sneaky coward would drink heavily to quell the guilt; you shouldn't go that far, but pair this one with a Bloody Mary.  Aside from the morbidly ironic name, the heaviness of the tomato juice in the drink will mirror the guilt of the song's narrator.

"The Cowboy Song" - An organic sounding song built around an acoustic guitar, this is a tribute to the cowboys whose way of life bears little resemblance to the way it's been depicted on screen.  In my mind, I see cowboys sitting around a campfire passing around a flask during these reminisces.  That flask holds bourbon.  I would suggest Knob Creek.

27 August 2010

"Planet of the Apes" by Pierre Boulle

I kinda wish I hadn't bought
the movie tie-in cover.
Planet of the Apes
Written by Pierre Boulle
Translated by Xan Fielding
128 pages
Cover Price: $0.60
Fifth printing

Remember when I bought Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?  On the same rack was a copy of Planet of the Apes, and I thought for $2.00 it was high time I explored that world.  (I've seen Tim Burton's 2001 film, but still haven't seen any of the original movie series or television spin-off.)  I'd read Boulle's Bridge over the River Kwai before, but it's always hard to evaluate an author's style when you're reading a translation.

In this novel, for instance, I found the first 15 or so pages slow moving and the final 10 pages or so rushed; neither is criminal, but the combination--in a novel numbering a scant 128 pages--was disappointing.  Everything in between the slow opening and rushed conclusion, though, was genuinely interesting.  The premise, for the uninitiated, is that a journalist accompanies a pair of scientists on an intergalactic voyage to the Betelgeuse system.  Unlike, say, Star Trek, Boulle's intrepid explorers travel at less than the speed of light.  Suggested by Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, the logic suggests that while centuries pass on Earth, the explorers would only feel the passage of a couple of years.

Upon arrival, they discover a planet strikingly similar to Earth (which they designate Soror, in allusion to its sibling-like nature).  To their surprise, though, man is in a primal state and the planet is dominated by apes.  Ulysse Merou is the narrator and point-of-view character; we see the world through his eyes and experiences as a captive who labors to impress upon the scientists studying him that he is just as developed and rational as they.

Is the book an acceptance, or a rejection, of Darwin's theory of evolution?  It's difficult to say.  Ulysse reverently mentions God at a few points.  The Atlantic Monthly review quoted on the back cover concludes that, "This novel is respectfully descended from Swift on one side, and Verne on the other."  Boulle puts Ulysse through quite an ordeal; he is instantly a character to whom we relate and for whom we root...but there is a pervasive sense that Boulle is winking at every turn.

The sexuality of the novel is also interesting; Ulysse is quickly attached to a human woman whom he names Nova.  There is no real communication between them; she lacks the capacity.  In captivity, they are  caged together and, in an act as much of resignation as desire--and shame--they copulate.  The real tension lies between Ulysse and his chimpanzee observer, Zira.  The interspecies attraction adds a tension beyond that of whether or not Ulysse will ever be more than a lab specimen, and I found myself confused; should I want to see man and she-ape unite?  I'm still unsure.  The novel wasn't the spectacle that the film was (certain iconic moments often referenced and parodied, for instance, were nowhere to be found).  Its relative simplicity actually made it more compelling; the scale was more plausible and therefore more identifiable to me as a reader.

I wish I'd kept up with my studies of French so I could read Boulle's original version without the filter of translation.  I found Planet of the Apes less simplistic than I found Bridge over the River Kwai, but it's difficult to say how much of the difference is due to the evolution of Boulle's craft and how much is due to the different translations.

23 August 2010

On Blogging: or, I'm Not That Self-Important

Why blog?  I'm asked that whenever the subject arises with people who don't write, or even read, blogs.  Part of it is that pervasive sense that the offline world has of everything online being an inane exercise in narcissism.  Part of it, though, I think stems from the fact that most people are averse to self-examination.  Even if you're not terribly introspective, the nature of blogging forces one to consider their own experiences.  The very act of composition requires organization on a level more involved than that of verbal storytelling.

Clone Troopers
I don't mean, of course, to suggest that my blog has been particularly deep or high brow.  Most of my posts this month have been scans of sketches I've done over the years of Batman and Star Wars characters.  I've reviewed movies and books, posted set lists from concerts I've attended and even posted some checklists of action figure lines I liked.  I've also espoused my views on political topics, chronicled some of my experiences with Crohn's disease and reminisced about various parts of my youth.  In short, you'll find in this blog the same kind of fare that you would hear in the course of a conversation with me.

So why do I blog, if it's the same kind of stuff I would just talk about?  I have an answer to that, and a follow-up question.  My answer is, I enjoy it.  I don't get to converse with people as regularly as I'd like; one of my friends is out of town regularly with his archaeological work, others are teachers inundated with lesson plans, conferences, etc. and some are parents with the scheduling restrictions that go with having young'uns.  By blogging, I can put forth my part of a conversation, and allow others to find and respond on their schedule.  I keep up with the blogs of friends who maintain them for the same reason; it gives me a chance to find out what's on their mind, as they see fit to "put it out there."  And it's not just a private conversation; the nature of blogging means anyone who finds my remarks is welcomed to respond with whatever questions or remarks they might have; there is a communal aspect to this that I enjoy.

My question, then, is why so many people are of the mind that certain subjects are perfectly acceptable for verbal conversation, but somehow become a waste of time in print?  I touched on this in my recent blog about Twitter, but it seems even more relevant here.  There seems to be a sentiment that only professional writers should put pen to paper, and then only about Important Things.  I personally think this comes from the reluctance too many people have to actually read and write.  It's as though "regular" people just talk about things; if you bother to write about their thoughts, either they must be important or you think too highly of them.

My wife once remarked that she doesn't feel the need to read my blog because she expects I'll just talk with her about whatever's on my mind.  To a large extent, that's true, but I have to say I feel like she's missed the point of why I have the blog.  It's not merely to substitute for verbal conversation.

I enjoy the way that composing a blog entry allows me to explore a subject, but to revise my remarks until I get them right.  There are some topics I think are best suited for discussion in written form; for instance, my recent post about how my grandfather used to take me to a comic book shop every other Saturday.  I can talk about that, sure, but it felt more appropriate in written form.

22 August 2010

Sketches from "Star Wars"

The mid-90s were a bit of a renaissance for Star Wars fans; the controversial Special Editions hadn't arrived and no one had heard of Jar Jar Binks.  I'll never forget one Christmas, getting both the Star Wars Trilogy VHS box set and the Star Wars Trilogy: Original Soundtrack Anthology CD box set.  Add to those the awesome Super Nintendo games (Super Star Wars, Super Empire Strikes Back and Super Return of the Jedi), Timothy Zahn's novels (Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command), the return of Star Wars in comic books (thank you, Dark Horse Comics!) and the toy aisle (thank you, Hasbro, even if your 1995 figures were clearly on steroids).  Naturally, a geek like me just had to do some sketchin', inspired by all this.  Here are two of my surviving efforts:

"The Price for Arrogance"
This was, obviously, inspired by the climax of Return of the Jedi.  I've always loved that moment when Darth Vader stands by watching The Emperor electrocute Luke Skywalker, who is pleading for his father to help him.  That moment is really powerful because we can't see behind Vader's mask; we don't know if he's unmoved or tormented until he makes his move.  The background is blue, reflecting the color of Palpatine's Force lightning, and I gave a red tint to the eyes to 1) introduce a new color to the composition and 2) try to suggest the swelling emotion within the Dark Lord of the Sith.  I figured since Vader's original helmet design featured a reddish tint to the eyes, I could fudge a little.

"The Dark Side"
This one was suggested by the comic book mini-series Dark Empire, in which Palpatine returns to live within a clone body and tempts Luke Skywalker to the Dark Side.  Luke believes he can get close enough to Palpatine to destroy him this way, but of course risks becoming that which he pretends to be.  Luke was taken from Dave Dorman's painted cover for the first issue; I can't recall now where I got the image of Palpatine, but it's very likely also from a work of Dorman's.  You can see where I tentatively placed the helmet of Darth Vader; I was never entirely sure he belonged in the sketch so I never returned to it.  I thought about placing instead a Star Destroyer, and a few other things, but none of them ever felt right.

17 August 2010

The Nature of @Conversation

Chances are pretty good that if you're reading this, you know I'm a fan of Twitter.  The subject has been on my mind off and on for a few months as something to explore and articulate here, but it seemed pretty superfluous after reading Roger Ebert's definitive piece, "Tweet! Tweet! Tweet!"  I'm many things, but I'd like to think I'm not arrogant enough to see myself as capable of outdoing Ebert.

I joined Twitter back on 3 April 2009, and was almost immediately confused by it.  140 characters was awfully brief (and spaces count!).  I'm loathe to use letters in lieu of words (such as "u" for "you").  I have long prided myself on my expansive vocabulary; it seemed contrary to everything I value about language to whittle down my thoughts until they fit as a tweet.

Enter: Natasha Badhwar.  I kept seeing her tweets re-tweeted often enough that I broke down and began following her directly.  Badhwar is an Indian writer and filmmaker, and what she does with 140 characters is nothing short of art.  Here's one from 13 August:
"Ideals bruised. Love feels confused. Yet I feel fine, ready for something new. Tears? No, thats just a raindrop from last night."
It doesn't read as an excerpt, teasing a larger composition.  It is complete unto itself, organic and visceral in its clarity.  Like nearly all of her tweets, there are no other referencing remarks to establish context.  She simply posts the composition, and like any artist, lets her audience make of it what he or she will.  I defy anyone to peruse her tweets and not characterize them as art.  She proved to me that I was wrong to think the 140 character restriction intrinsically excluded anything clever or thoughtful; but rather, that Twitter offers those of us prone to prattling a much-needed, unforgiving editor.

There's more to Twitter than this.
Surely, though, this is the exception; most tweets are inane declarations of ham sandwiches for lunch, right?  This is the accusation most often levied against tweeters; that the're airheads, wasting not only their own time, but that of those who read what they post.  I heard this most recently at a birthday celebration for my mother-in-law; her brother-in-law and stepson proudly declared that they were much too intelligent to participate in such a wasteful activity.  I wanted to argue the point, but the energy of the room drowned out any momentum I might have had and anyway, it seemed off-topic.

I did, however, pay close attention to the conversation the rest of the night.  It revolved around movies ("Have you seen anything from Green Hornet yet?"), politics ("Israel's going to bomb Iran, just you wait.") and what each person had been doing lately ("My boss wants me to get a haircut, but he keeps telling me he won't actually tell me to get one.").  I came to realize, listening to them, that they'd fit in perfectly on Twitter.  The only thing different between their conversation and the average tweet-stream is that their conversation happened offline...and was confined to just themselves.

This brings up the social nature of Twitter.  I've "met" people around the world through Twitter.  Many of those I've befriended have Crohn's disease; some have had it for years and others have only recently been diagnosed.  I can't speak for them, but I can tell you that there are no support groups in my area and I turn to online connections as a substitute.  I may never meet these people in person, but none of us are on a schedule; I can tweet any of them at any time, and I can expect a reply whenever they check Twitter.  Having a condition that has frequently isolated me from my friends and family, I sincerely appreciate the sense of community that Twitter has afforded me.  I genuinely value the people to whom I have been introduced via Twitter.

When he says it, it's news.
When you say it, it's conversation.
I'm amused by how many older viewers fixate on watching cable news (especially Fox News; you can argue their politics all you want, but they've done an amazing job establishing a dedicated viewership).  I follow Anderson Cooper, NPR news and Huffington Post on Twitter.  They keep me posted on breaking news, and I can follow up on the stories at my discretion--rather than being at the mercy of a TV broadcast.  Let's face it: TV news will grab one story and stay on it for hours on end at the price of anything else happening in the world.  The world of Twitter, though, affords me the ability to follow as many stories as I wish, in whatever order I wish.  Even if you have no use for artistic compositions, it's hard to argue that TV is a better source of information than the Internet, and the up-to-the-second nature of Twitter makes it the cutting edge of information.

I believe those who disparage Twitter have an inflated opinion of how meaningful their own conversations and daily habits really are.  Twitter is, ultimately, a venue for conversation; movies, politics, even the mundane little tasks we perform daily--these are the same topics shared between people offline as well as online.  The difference is that Twitter's 140 character limit forces people to be more thoughtful about how they say whatever it is they have to say.

06 August 2010

The Great, Every-Other-Weekend Escape

Three years after my parents's divorce, my mom and grandmother went into business together running a consignment shop, Something Old Something New.  The official schedule was Tuesday through Thursday, 10AM-5PM, Friday and Saturday, 10:30AM-5:30PM.  In those early years, though, it was pretty common for them to go in much earlier, stay much later and to be there on Mondays, as well.  I might write more about the shop in a future blog, but right now it's only relevant to account for Saturdays.

My brother and I were on the standard, every-other-weekend visitation schedule.  I stopped going to our dad's after a while and, like the shop, that's a subject for another time.  I was old enough to be left alone, or even to supervise my brother, but it came to be that every other Saturday while mom was at the shop, our grandfather would come out from Louisville and take us for the day.  Whether it was just to give us something to do other than sit around at home, or because he wanted more involvement with us, I can't say.  I could ask, I'm sure, though this far removed I'm sure no one really remembers anyway and I can't see where it makes any difference on the experience itself.

The Great Escape, Louisville
He'd come and get us usually around the time the shop opened; I recall him picking us up there frequently.  Once we got back to Louisville, our first stop would almost always be The Great Escape on Bardstown Road.  The Great Escape was, and is, a superb comic book shop; the staff has always been as knowledgeable as they are friendly.  These days, they carry every kind of entertainment media from paperbacks to vinyl records, from VHS to Blu-ray Discs, from gaming cards to Wii games.  Anyway, neither my grandfather nor my brother had any interest in even going into the place, but I'd get a crisp $20.00 bill and be turned loose.  I think he was so supportive of my hobby because it reminded him of my Uncle Stuart and his love of comics; he drowned as a teen a few years before I was born.

I got a thrill from being able to go in and shop entirely on my own.  No one rushing me, no one scrutinizing what I was browsing, no one in fact even knowing my name inside the place.  In those days my reading largely revolved around Batman, Superman and Star Trek.  I know--real diverse and original on my part.  In the early 90s, it became common for popular characters to have multiple titles dedicated to them.  And to ensure that readership was comparable among all those titles, ongoing story arcs would be continued not within the confines of one of those periodicals, but throughout all of them.

You couldn't, for instance, read what happened after Batman #X in Batman #Y; you'd be three issues behind by then.  Instead, you had to buy Detective Comics #Z the very next week, which would pick up where Batman #X left off.  Batman and Superman each had so many that they were literally published at least weekly.  This meant that every other Saturday, I was there to pick up at least four issues just to keep up with those two characters.

Catwoman #1
Batman was far and away the biggest drain on my $20.00, because in addition to the "regular" Bat-books (Batman, Detective Comics and Batman: Shadow of the Bat), there was the anthology series Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight and The Batman Adventures (based upon Batman: The Animated Series and written with readers in mind who would have been age appropriate for the animated series).  Furthermore, both Catwoman and Robin had their own spin-off solo books and it seemed there was no shortage of Batman mini-series and one-shot specials to be published, in addition to the Annual issues for the ongoing books.  By the 90s, it was common for a unifying theme to tie together nearly every Annual that DC published; you could read just the books that interested you and should be fine, but if you read each and every one of them, it would create a massive story that involved every character they published.  It's amazing that $20.00 kept me up to date with as many stories as it did!

Batman doesn't wear wizard caps.
Even more amazingly, I supplemented my comic reading with a handful of regular purchases.  For instance, no comic reader in the early 90s would have considered allowing a month to elapse without acquiring the latest issue of Wizard: The Guide to Comics.  I can still remember when each cover placed a purple wizard's hat with stars atop popular comic characters in specially commissioned artwork from the top talent in the industry.  I also liked to buy Previews, a monthly solicitation catalog showcasing everything--and I mean, literally everything--that any comics publisher intended to sell the next month.  One year, they serialized one of Frank Miller's Sin City stories, "The Babe Wore Red."  Each issue featured two pages from the story, and it was exciting for me to follow from month to month.  Eventually, Dark Horse Comics published the entire story in comic book form (along with a couple of other short stories), but I'll always pride myself on being among those who read it in its original, serialized form.  Plus, Previews was much larger than the standard comic book, so it was like seeing a movie in the theater vs. its full screen, cropped version on TV later.

Once I made my selections, we'd pick up lunch.  Just a couple of doors down from The Great Escape at the time was a Hardee's and man, their fried chicken was flat-out great.  If we had other stops to make, we'd hit the Hardee's on Breckinridge Lane instead on our way back to his house.  Alternate stops usually involved picking up a bottle of whiskey.  I could have cared less, except that I discovered the brass tin box the bottle came in was just the right dimensions for holding baseball and trading cards.  It might have been weird for a kid to keep his cards in a tin clearly designed for a bottle of booze, but if I gave it any thought at all I was just amused.

A staple of Pappaw's fridge
We'd get back to the old man's house around noon, and we'd settle in for lunch.  To this day, I could walk into his house and know that the refrigerator would be stocked with Pepsi, Bud Light and a carton of orange juice.  There'd be some deli meat, too.  His kitchen table and chairs remain my favorite set of furniture ever: the table is round and white, with orange triangles with rounded edges set inside.  It creates the effect of looking at an orange-inspired piece of pop art.  The bucket-seat chairs are upholstered in a vinyl/leather-ish material that matches the orange on the tabletop.  How my stoic grandfather ever came to own something so whimsical I will never understand, but to this day I get a thrill just walking into his kitchen and seeing it.

After lunch, he'd pull out a coffee mug that he'd put all his spare change into over the intervening two weeks.  I would count it out and divide it evenly between my brother and myself.  If you're wondering about how fairly my brother was treated in all this, don't worry.  He had no interest in buying anything other than a truck, despite being about a decade away from being old enough to drive.  He collected a $20.00 bill to match the one I spent at The Great Escape and he combined it with his half of the coffee mug change for his savings.  When the time came, he had a truck to show for his patience and planning.  This is, of course, just one of the many ways in which my brother and I are unalike.  There are many times I wish I was more like him.

My brother would slip off to the living room and watch TV, and I would sit at the kitchen table and read the day's purchases.  I would read Wizard and find out what was going on in other publications, even ones I never intended to read for myself, just out of curiosity.  I liked knowing what was going on with other titles in case I took a fancy to try one out.  I was completely ready to jump aboard Green Lantern when the time came that they introduced Kyle Rayner as Hal Jordan's successor, adding to my regular "buy" list.  I loved thumbing through Previews; it was like if the Sears Christmas catalog was only about things that interested me, and came out every month instead of once a year.  I might buy less than one percent of everything solicited in its pages, but I loved to know about everything I could have bought.

Often in the later afternoon, my grandfather's brother Don would drop by and they'd drink their Bud Lights and shoot the breeze.  I remember Donny talking about something he'd seen on TV the night before, usually on one of those somewhat legit/somewhat sleazy expose shows.  He was out of the target age bracket, but I'm here to tell you, he was exactly the kind of person reality TV has tried to reach.  By 6:00, 6:30 at the latest, my mom and grandmother would arrive to pick us up.

I hated to miss these guys
Now, this was problematic for me because FOX-41 aired Star Trek: Deep Space Nine at 6:00 and WAVE-3 aired Star Trek: The Next Generation at 7:00.  Fortunately enough for me, FOX was kind enough to re-air Deep Space Nine on Sundays at 5:00 and half the time University of Louisville football games would run into its time slot and it wouldn't come on on time regardless.  Sometimes we'd come straight home and I'd get to see most of The Next Generation.  Other times, we'd go out to eat and I'd just content myself that I'd see the next episode and catch the one I missed in reruns.  It was hard to complain, given how well I'd made out earlier in the day.

I can't say now just when, or even why, that biweekly schedule came to a stop.  I can't even tell you know whether I stopped most of my comics buying before or after he quit getting us every other Saturday.  I remember I made the decision to quit most of my comic buying after the "Zero Hour" event wiped out DC Comics's continuity and hit the "restart" button on storytelling.  I'd just had enough with the massive crossover storylines.  I hadn't considered it at the time, but my own life kind of shifted paradigms when they did that.  I never completely left the world of comic books, but I certainly quit being the obsessive consumer I had been and allowed my attention to be occupied by other things as I tried to make sense of being a teenager.

[Notice: If you come across a photo of a bucket of Hardee's fried chicken, I would greatly appreciate it if you'd let me know so I can add it to this entry.]

05 August 2010

"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain
First published: December, 1884
Published: 1 July 1959
Cover price: $1.75

I've read a lot of things in the last couple of years because I wanted to read them.  This is the first time I read out of guilt.  This summer, I've become an avid follower of Roger Ebert on Twitter and he touched off a roiling debate about whether video games could be art.  Ebert pitted all of video game-dom against a lone representative of literature: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  It seemed like something I ought to have read sometime before turning thirty; in all honesty, probably before thirteen.  Eventually, I concluded there was no video game I hadn't played that made me feel guilty the way I felt for not having already read this book, and I set about finding a copy of it.

Sure, I could have downloaded an ebook version; it's been in the public domain for a while now.  And it's still in print.  Eventually, I came upon a 1959 Signet paperback edition at Half Price Books.  Its back cover is rough, but it had the right smell.  Smell's important to me with books.

There is a note from Samuel Clemens ("Mark Twain") that cautions against searching for a plot, moral or motive in Huck Finn.  I came to appreciate the warning, because the title, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is quite apt.  There are entire passages of this that have absolutely no connection to other passages save being told in the first person by Huckleberry Finn.  It reminded me of reading an ongoing comic book, where a story arc might be told over a few issues, then segue into another story arc over another few issues, and so on.  One could trace the continuity through segues, but the arcs themselves often existed entirely independent of one another.  The main problem here is that I often found myself concluding a chapter with no real compulsion to begin the next; I could stop at nearly any point until the final 80 or so pages.

Some passages are humorous; others, outright dark.  Huck's father, Pap, is a genuinely menacing figure, the kind that is often one-dimensional in today's storytelling but Twain has made him far more visceral than that.  Pap makes clear that he will not stand for his son to surpass him in any capacity, going so far as to threaten him should he be caught going to school now that Huck's education has already gone farther than his.  I've never witnessed that extreme, but I've been around more than a few good ol' boys in my time whose self-image rested on being superior to their sons, and were obviously threatened by their children's success.  It's a dirty little secret of life in the country, and I found it strangely refreshing to see it presented so strikingly here.

The most obvious theme touched on throughout Huck Finn (for Twain's caution said nothing about looking for one of those) is that of racial identity during the time of slavery--and this includes more uses of "The 'N' Word" than a Chris Rock special.  Aside from the illustrious Tom Sawyer, Huck finds companionship primarily in the slave Jim.  Huck has been instilled with all the stereotypical racial notions of his time and place, but spending time one-on-one with Jim (on the lam together, no less) brings Huck closer to realizing that he and his African-American companion have fewer meaningful differences than he had been led to believe.  Huck never quite commits himself to racial harmony, but he does reach a moral crossroad when he is forced to choose between doing the "right" thing and letting Jim be sold back into slavery, or do the "low" thing and help him escape.

"All right then, I'll go to Hell," Huck says, resolved that he owes it to Jim to violate the very principles in which he was taught to believe.  It is the most celebrated line of the entire tale, and for good reason--it is genuinely triumphant.  It's the literary equivalent of seeing Rick Blaine commit himself to helping Victor Lazlo escape Casablanca.  I can't say what readers in 1884 felt, but in 2010 I smiled and nearly pumped my fist.

Twain's other note wishes us to know that he has painstakingly reconstructed various regional dialects in as authentic a fashion as possible.  I have no cause to doubt his firsthand knowledge of how folks in Mississippi, Arkansas or Illinois spoke.  But I did find it tedious having to frequently re-read a sentence to make sure I properly translated it.  Because the entire novel is told in first person from Huck's perspective, this dialect-appropriate style is pervasive from start to finish, and I found it cumbersome at times.  Surely, it adds to the charm of the novel and its authenticity, but it slowed me down several nights.

Ultimately, though, I have to thank Roger Ebert for shaming me into reading this classic work of American literature.  I wondered at several points along the way where any of it was headed, and by the time I found out, I, like Huck himself, was left with the realization I had already committed myself to its conclusion.  And like Huck, I walked away happier for the experience and perhaps I did some growing along the way.