Monday, November 12, 2018

RIP Storyteller Stan Lee -- Excelsior!

As a writer, I am often asked what novelists are my favorites or provide me with inspiration.  I've written about it at length when discussing self-publishing and once specifically about PJ O'Rourke. But as much as I get asked about writers, I never get asked about people I consider great storytellers. I was saddened today to hear of the passing of one of the great ones: Stan Lee.

I was told that as you get older, the first thing you do when you hear someone has died is to subtract their rage from yours. Considering Stan's age, those numbers are not much of a concern since it is still a two-digit number representing over three decades. So, after a bit of math, my thoughts moved on to the things which most impressed me about the man and his storytelling. In the end, I came up with three things, in particular, the man did which will forever impress me. Allowing the hero to be flawed, providing a satisfying ending to each story while allowing the universe to exist forever, and having fun in the world you created.

Stan created or helped to create a zillion or so superheroes. The primary signature of Stan's creations is that every hero, no matter how powerful, is somehow flawed and very human. From Peter Parker's (Spiderman) insecurities and the pain of his uncle's death to Wade Wilson (Dead Pool) who is entirely ruthless-- each and every hero will ultimately have to face and overcome their own flaws. To me, it was one of the greatest gifts a storyteller could ever give an audience. After all, we all have our own shortcomings, and Stan gave us heroes just like us-- flawed.

I'll be the first to admit at first read some of his stories ended in less than satisfying ways.  However, because he made his universe endless, the next story would always provide the answers which were missing from the first and gave a plausible way for things to go on. This serialized method of storytelling is not new, but Stan took the time to perfect the craft. He could leave you hanging, but you let him because you knew eventually you would get a satisfying payoff.

Stan made cameo appearances in every superhero movie made from his stories. Fans would spend the entire film waiting for his arrival and more than a few tried to piece the cameos together to create a new story. He also appeared as himself on many TV shows, hosted a game show for people who wanted to create their own superhero, and an extensive social media presence. In almost every instance, he was visibly having fun being there. After all who wouldn't have fun being Stan Lee?

As with the passing of anyone worthy of admiration, I found myself considering the main regret I had which was that I never met the man. Of course, spending three seconds shaking hands of someone who inspired you and maybe getting a picture seems trivial. But as I pondered that thought, it occurred to me that I had met Stan-  many, many times. I met him through all of my favorite Marvel characters: Capt. America, Spider-Man, Drax, Iron Man, Dead Pool, Star-Lord, Nick Fury, Black Widow, Loki, Groot, Rocket Raccoon, Gamora, … with my introduction of these characters to my grandchildren, Stan Lee will be telling stories forever.


Thursday, October 18, 2018

Life Goes On, With Pauses Here & There

I've always tried to create at least one entry every two weeks, with the goal being to write one every week. I guess my reason is twofold, I want to have some sort of discipline to what I'm doing, and I'm following a model that was given to me by my 10th grade English teacher of trying to write something original every week. Additionally, I feel like if I don't share a particular idea, thought, or memory that occurred to me I might lose the spirit and meaningfulness of it if I wait too long to capture it in written words. This is a goal I don't always meet, in fact back in 2014 I only wrote two entries for the entire year, choosing to blame Mark Zuckerberg for my lack of discipline.

Anyway, for the past year, I've been dealing with something in my personal life that has pulled me away from writing regularly. That means not only writing in this blog but also getting my latest book finished. I'm facing something that a lot of people of my age group are starting to have to deal with: an aging parent. Without going into a lot of details, his situation has changed over the past year, and it requires more and more time on my part, as well as my brother’s. We are continually adjusting our thinking and adapting to the amount of time spent interceding to ensure that he is safe, everyone who encounters him is safe, and that he is happy. I often speak of the benefits of being a military brat, but there is one severe downfall in that because of the distance between you and your extended family you seldom see someone age nor what is required as they get older. Therefore, a lot of what I'm seeing and doing is brand-new to me.

It is the love of my father keeps me motivated and contributes to my willingness to give up my time to ensure he has proper care. I am by no means claiming anything close to sainthood, there are plenty of times when his deliberate actions are frustrating to me and cause me to question if this is the same man who raised me since he seems to be breaking every rule of life he ever gave me. I'm continually reminding myself that he is indeed the same man and that with the passage of time his perception of the world is changing and causing him a significant amount of frustration as well.

But alas, I find that I’ve allowed myself to create another entry that attempts to explain and address a situation that I neither want to explain nor address. My intent when sitting down today was to write an entry about Sock Science, instead of discussing why the clock stops for no man.  It just didn't work out that way. So, I will close this for now and ask for your understanding and patience as I try to adapt to this new normal and still find some way of sharing my thoughts, musings, and something about Sock Science.


Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Still At It

Nine years ago, I sat down at my keyboard and wrote this.  That first entry was not an earth-shattering epiphany of the need to collect and record my priceless thoughts and philosophy.  It was more like a subsurface urge to capture my musings when I noticed calendar reached a particular date.  

Now, nine years later, I'm still at it and covering a wide range of thoughts, observations, and opinions.  Except for one entry, I wrote on November 3, 2012.  I have avoided politics and politicians.  

The idea for an entry usually starts when somehting crosses my mind then gets stuck rather than moving on.  Due to my persona, lots of varied things seem to wander through my brain.  I started out writing about riding and my dog MacBeth,  you will notice many entries feature both MacBeth and Falkor.

I also went to Kuwait for 18 months and talked a lot about living there,  I was even there for one of the worst rains in recent memory.  But then the next year, I spent distracted -- damn you, Mark Zuckerberg.

I discussed my Dad, adventrues in mail order, and the dawning of home voice devices.

Over the years, I reviewed movies, talked about TV shows and tons of concerts including finally getting to see Lynyrd Skynyrd live.  I also talked about new music I discovered and great comedy too. I spoke about music’s effect on me and even though Linda remains one of my favorites,  why Joan and I will always be a thing.

After taking some time off to finish writing it, I talked about my latest novel, to include details on the cover design

I talked about teachers good and bad 

Lots of entries -- almost 300,  lots of readers --over 168K from all over the world, lots of words from lots of thoughts.

Proud to say my blog continues to be 

The thoughts and musings of a man at the precipice of middle age, starting from his 50th birthday.


Tuesday, September 18, 2018

My Year In Live Music 2018, Act IV: Thomas Bailey

When I buy a concert ticket, it is usually because I'm a fan of the headliner.  The investment in a ticket something that requires a bit of consideration, given the price of current concert tickets, it can be a significant investment. Recently, I bought tickets to a show because the three acts performed 80s era music. Each of the three had songs that I really enjoyed and that I looked forward to hearing performed live.

Due to various issues, I have not attended as many shows this summer as I did last year. So, when I bought tickets for the show, I splurged and bought good seats – – even though I was stuck playing the seat roulette game of the Ticketmaster monopoly process. With tickets in hand, I set off hopeful for a show that would be both memorable and full of memories.  

The first act of the evening, was Tom Bailey, formerly of the Thompson Twins. Of the many bands that I listen to in the 80s, the Thompson Twins seemed to be omnipresent. When I was researching songs to use for my concert prep playlist, I discovered they performed a lot of songs that I loved. That made Tom’s appearance more anticipated.

Tom’s current band lineup features a trio of dynamite backing musicians. I was surprised when they walked on stage, and I saw an all-female band was backing him.  Being a big fan of Joan Jett, Nina Strauss, and Ann Wilson, I can appreciate talent regardless of gender. But this was the first band I had seen where the male was the solitary minority as opposed to the other way around. Another surprise was that they were all wearing white outfits which gave them a more formal and cohesive look.  Aside from the Temptations, it has been a while since I saw a band have that level of disciplined professionalism.

But I was there for the music, and the performers did not disappoint. Tom deftly moved from one instrument to another back and forth across the stage as the band treated us to a blend of both old songs and new songs from his recently released album. 

Vicky Warkwick provided solid basslines for each song, and if you're familiar with Thompson Twins music that bass is essential to drive the music forward. She also played keyboards from time to time which added to the fullness of the music when one keyboard simply wasn't enough.   

In almost every concert I find myself concentrating on the motions, or antics of one musician in the band. For this act, it was Amanda Kramer who provided background vocals and keyboards. She was fully engaged and having a great time. She had a wonderful smile and invited the audience to join her in clapping along or raising their arms in the air. I always love it when I find that one musician who seems like they are having the best night of their life.  It looked to me like she was. Aside from the spirit she brought to the music, her playing and singing were on point. 

Paulina Szczepaniak kept the rhythm flowing with her work on the drums. I hated the way the stage layout hid her behind other equipment and prevented me from seeing her perform, but the sound of her expert drumming drove the entire performance forward.

As I mentioned, the performance was a blend of both old and new songs. The newer songs came from the album Science Fiction which Tom had recently released. When I go to concerts to hear the older music, I dread it when an artist tries to re-imagine their hits or tries to introduce a new album that lacks the power and vitality of their original music. Tom Bailey broke that paradigm.

While his Science Fiction album has a similar style and feel as his earlier music, it is not a copy or an attempt to recapture the older style. Instead, he somehow manages to allow the original spirit to flow through the new work without it being a copy or cheap duplication.  Yes, it is the first time that I have ever picked up a freshly released album on my way out of the concert venue.

There were two other acts that night, but in my mind, both of them failed to capture the way they were then or the way they should be now. I have been disappointed by concerts in the past, and I've reviewed them here. I'm not doing it this time, because the entire night was not a loss and I would rather concentrate on the good time and enjoyment of Tom Bailey's music over those who failed.  

If the Thompson Twin's Tom Bailey is coming to a venue near you, buy tickets, and go --  Enjoy it for all it is worth. Likewise, any band that includes Vicky Warkwick, Amanda Kramer or Paulina Szczepaniak  Is likely worth seeing – – (Amanda also plays with the Psychedelic Furs).

Long live 80s Rock!


Monday, August 6, 2018

Bang a Gong and Watch Some Stuff

Chuck Barris -- The Gong Master
Back in the late 70s, if you were lucky enough to be home from school sick or on a holiday, you might have been lucky enough to see a master craftsman at work.  On June 14, 1976, Chuck Barris stepped in front of the camera-- Almost Live --as the host of The Gong Show.  Until then he had been a behind the scenes game show creator, one hit song composer (Palisades Park) and possibly trained CIA assassin.  But on that day, Johnny Jacobs announced Chuck as the show’s host and he walked on stage into a role he was born for: Ringmaster of strange and unusual talent.  

The show was on around noonish, but kept getting moved around.  Since this was before VCR/DVR time-shifting, if you did not catch it when it showed live, you did not see it.  I happened into it by chance, home with strep throat and flipping the channels looking for a Gilligan’s Island rerun, or anything besides a soap opera. The show was billed as a game show, but it was indeed a throwback to a burlesque performance.

In addition to Chuck as host, the show featured three celebrity judges, Milton DeLugg and his Band with the Thug, the acts - some decent, some not so decent, some just plain weird.  The basic concept was, the performer had two minutes to impress the judges, and if they failed to do so, after 30 seconds any one of the three judges could bang the gong and immediately terminate the performance.  If they survived the two minutes, the judges gave them a score between one and ten. Winner for the day got a check for $516.32.  Righteous bucks in the 70s for a two-minute act by an unknown.

Rumor had it Chuck was tremendously anxious about appearing on camera and one of the ways he would deal with it was to clap his hands at the end of every sentence. Pretty soon, the audience picked up on it and was copying his claps. He also wore a variety of hats which he pulled down in front over his eyes so he couldn’t even see what was going on. It was also rumored he was drunk or stoned, but he later denied it and said both booze and drugs or forbidden on stage.  One thing was sure, he was having fun, and he was enjoying each act for all it was worth.  His exuberance was contagious and fun to watch.

The acts were—well as bizarre as the show. What other show featured a guy who juggled ping-pong balls by putting them in his mouth and blowing them skyward only to catch them again? Or a woman who spun plates on sticks? A girl who stuffed 30 marshmallows into her mouth? How about a trained hamster? Not to mentions more sane acts like a guy who burped songs, a contortionist and even a few folks who later made it big (Pee Wee Herman, Andrea McArdle, and Cheryl Lynn).  The acts on the show were something between the Ed Sullivan Show and carnival midway, but that’s what made the show the crazed insanity it was and fun to watch.

My favorite judge was Jaye P. Morgan.  She was the first female comedian I ever saw to not only talk in double entendre but also make herself the subject of sleazy jokes. Until then, I had seen men do it but had never seen a woman who took the step. She did, and it was hilarious. Unlike most of the judges, who I had seen on other TV shows or on Laugh-In reruns, I had never heard of or seen Morgan before the show or after. 

Just like a burlesque show, there were running gags.  My favorite two were Gene Gene the Dancing Machine and The Unknown Comic. Gene’s appearance would cause the entire show to stop until he finished his dance, of course, Chuck would also dance while the music was playing. Later, they started throwing balls and other items on stage while Jean was dancing.  The Unknown Comic appeared wearing a grocery bag over his head and would tell jokes which were usually at Chuck’s expense. I recall a rather in-depth and spirited conversation with friends about the Unknown Comic identity. I found out it wasn’t Dan Aykroyd but a comedian named Murray Langston (sorry, Tom).

There were also many memorable events which occurred on the show which are now urban legend. I was fortunate to see some of these when broadcast. One entire show featured nothing but people singing the song Feelings – – badly.  Have You Got a Nickel aka The Popsicle Twins featured two girls dressed in shorts, who took a seat on stage and then suggestively ate popsicles. I missed the one where Jaye P. Morgan, in the middle of Gene Gene’s dancing, opened her shirt toward the cameras but I heard about it. 

Thanks to the Internet, a lot of these memorable moments are out there to still be enjoyed, even if they are a little blurry.

During the show’s run, many local communities held their own version of the show. When Ft. Eustis held their version, I had to enter, I had an act sure to get Gonged. My act was to play and sing an original Eddie Cochransque song about love, loss, and undergarments -- She Stole My Underwear. I had only written a chorus and 1.5 verses -- but it was OK because I was going to get gonged.  When I walked on stage and started to perform the song, I was shocked and disappointed to not hear the Gong.  So, I improvised a third verse on the fly and won 2nd place.

My costume? Boxers, t-shirt, combat boots, a silver fox fur pimp hat and a pair of mirrored shades Not sure why I had all that stuff, maybe I knew the need would eventually arise.

Never understood why I was not gonged – the judges must have felt empathy for a poor guy who was heartbroken over having his favorite pair of underwear stolen. I was a strange kid in High School, luckily, I never grew out of it.

On July 21, 1978, the first incarnation of the show came to an end, and during the episode, Chuck Barris sang Take This Job and Shove It.  The Gong Show went on for another two years in syndication before it completely vanished.

As I write this, I have just viewed a few episodes of what is now being billed as The Gong Show, and it is closer to what it was than any other incarnation to have appeared between the original and now. The show is hosted by British personality Tommy Maitland (an uncredited Mike Myers).  None of the acts have risen to the level of absurdity or risqué of the original, but if we give it a few months, it’ll get there.  While Tommy wears many hats during his performance, he has yet to clap his hands together or use any of Chuck’s catchphrases. I think it is an even more sincere form of flattery than if Tommy had imitated Chuck. A show of respect.

I have many good memories of watching Chuck Barris, doing his weird little dances – – clapping his hands – – and wondering what new hat he might be wearing today as he pointed into the camera and promised us he would be back with more STUFF.


Monday, July 23, 2018

Learnt As Bestest Could Be

One of the most oft-heard phrases of my adult life has been "Well, I still haven't used the insert subject here I learned in school for daily life." To a certain point, I agree. I do use algebra when I'm coding and also in and trying to figure out a calculation where I'm unsure of one of the numbers. But mostly, I don't use it to any significant degree. Paul Simon spoke the truth: "all the crap I learned in High School."

There are numerous things I learned in school I don't use in daily life. Some have been taken over by today's technology like how to calculate my taxes manually, and other things would only be necessary if I were in a particular line work, like using an architect's conversion ruler. I really don't think specific lessons where the point of school, but beyond reading, writing, and basic math the purpose was to teach you how to learn for the day when you got to college or trade school.

I admit when I graduated high school the one thing I was reasonably sure I would never use again was my pre-college, required, three years of a foreign language:  Latin.  However, later when I started globe-hopping, I found Latin was invaluable.  It gave me at least a cursory understanding of many other languages. Also, if I were completely lost and did not speak the local language, I would use some of the base elements of the way Latin was constructed to translate signs and other written advice.  The only place this didn't work was the Middle East. But that was trivial compared to the one incident which happened, in the fall of 1982.

I was in the Air Force, assigned in Frankfurt Germany, and had gone to the train station on a Friday afternoon to catch a train out for a weekend of camping.  I was standing in the ticket line with about 10 other folks impatiently waiting to purchase a ticket. There was only one ticket window open and the longer I stood there, the more I began to pay attention to what was going on with the one customer at the ticket window who seemed to be taking forever.

With all the noise around me, it took a minute for me to figure out the man was speaking to the ticket agent in one language while the ticket agent was demanding the conversation take place in German. I noticed the customer was wearing a long black coat and at one point when he turned, I saw a Catholic priest’s collar. I made the bold decision to thrust myself into this situation to try and help. Usually, when I was off base, I decided to stay out of other people's business, but this instance would not allow me to do so. No, I was not entirely selfless, I figured it would help me get out of the train station more quickly.

I went directly to the window and then tapped the priest on the shoulder.  Then I asked him in Latin if I could help. Now, my Latin -- even after years of taking it high school, was not great but it was functional. The priest's entire face lit up as he smiled and responded to me in Latin he was trying to buy a ticket but needed to trade in an unused ticket to have the full fare.  
I turned to the ticket agent who looked at me with a rather dour expression and using my best German, explained the problem as best I could.  The German then also smiled and responded to me, a little too quickly, what was needed to get the priest to where he wanted to go. After trading several phrases back and forth with the ticketing agent I finally understood what was necessary and then in the best broken Latin I could muster, I told priest the steps needed for him to get re-ticketed.  I continued to act as a translator between the two until the transaction was complete and then I walked the priest to the correct track so he could catch his train out.

He handed me his business card, but then flipped it over and handed me a pen motioning for me to give him my information - - which I did. This was before e-mail and cell phones so what I gave them was a mailing address to an APO. He took the card and waved energetically at me as he boarded the train, wishing me peace and prosperity-- at least I think that is what it was. Then, I went back to the ticketing window, got my ticket, and took off for a weekend camping in the mountains of southern Germany without giving it much more thought.

Several months later, just before Christmas, I received a Christmas card from the Punjab Province, India wishing me a Merry Christmas from the Archbishop of the diocese there. At the bottom of the card, was the handwritten phrase gratias ago vos pro succurro in meus iter itineris. Roughly translated: Thank you for your assistance on my travels. Who said Latin was a dead language?

Thank you Ms. Charlotte Naffin, my high school Latin teacher.  Apparently, I took from your class more than the memory of your beautiful blue eyes --. Yeah, aside from being a great teacher, she was young and kinda hot.

Quidquid Latine dictum sit, altum sonatur


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

New Customers Only/Existing Customers: Get Screwed

In Business 101 at the University of Maryland, one of the first rules covered was it is far easier and cheaper for a business to keep a customer rather than having to find a replacement or new customer. The concept seems somewhat common sense:  if you've already got a customer you need to do what you can to keep him, and you won't have to spend money find someone new. Therefore, I'm left to wonder what school the current crop of business leaders attended which failed to teach them this fundamental concept.

Since 2006, I have used DirecTV for satellite service. Except for one equipment upgrade a few years ago, I've been delighted with what they provided. Anytime I had an issue, question, or needed assistance they were all over it from the minute I dialed the phone. I admit being nervous when AT&T bought them out, but such things happen, and as long as I was getting the same level of service I would hang around. Then, almost a year after the buyout, the price for service was raised by about 35%.

After receiving the bill, I went to their website and looked around to see if I should just downgrade my package a bit to get my old price back, after all, sometimes prices go up. Then I noticed they were offering new customers the exact package I had subscribed been maintaining for the last 12 years, for the exact price I had been paying before the increase.  So, I called them up and told them if they wanted to keep me as a customer they needed to match the same deal they're willing to give a new customer. They balked and said the deal was for new customers only and there were no current discounts for which I was eligible. Having been through something similar with another company, I tried to call back later to see if I would get a better answer but I received the same response.

While considering my next move, I started to look at other alternatives which were available in the marketplace. I discovered if I added an attic antenna for local channels and a streaming service for things like Discovery and NatGeo I could match all of the channels I had previously been getting. Of course, I would need to raise my Internet speed to guarantee no lagging, but even so, I would save 50% over what I had been paying prior. The bottom line was rather than facing a 35% increase I was going to say 50% and maintain the same channel selection. Even with the minor upfront cost of the antenna and a few other odds and ends to make it all work; I came oput ahead very quickly.

I'm not sure if it was out of some misplaced sense of loyalty, or maybe just a bit of insanity, I decided to give DirecTV one more chance to make things right before I bought the necessary hardware and got on with the transition. When I called them back this time, I started by having them first look up how long I'd been a customer. I wanted the representative to be aware of how long I had been with them before we started discussing the actual problem. The answer remained the same, even though I added the logic there was no extra cost to them for me to maintain status quo since I already had all the equipment versus the costs of bringing in new customer online.  Rather than keeping a decade's old customer relationship, they chose to throw it away, and offer a better deal to an unknown prospective customer which will cost the company a few hundred dollars in equipment and setup costs. This way of doing business is completely abzocky -- or maybe they are having a flashback to when they were a monopoly and there were no alternatives.  If I was a stockholder, I would sell as this business model is not sustainable.

So, a month after cutting the cable. I have full DVR capability for both local channels and my streaming service which costs me zero and is only limited by my own available hard drive space. I am now using a fantastic piece of media management software called Plex which combines all of my available entertainment choices (music, video, streaming, photos, and more) in one easy to use interface. Plus it is costing me 50% less than what I was paying initially.

Last night, I made the mistake of answering a call before I looked at the Caller ID and I was confronted by a sales agent for DirecTV. Before I could say I wasn't interested, the agent launched into a spiel offering me a fantastic deal to come back into the fold.  Interestingly enough, the deal was still more than what they were offering a new customer. I hung up without saying a word.

These people genuinely don't understand the sustainability of a business is based on keeping customers, not continually recruiting new ones while kicking the old ones to the curb in such a way they will never return.