Monthly ArchiveFebruary 2008



Commentary 29 Feb 2008 05:21 am

A little extra cash in the leap year?

Here is my column from Feb. 28, 2008, originally published in The Alliance Review.

Thanks to leap year, many of us have an extra pay this February.

Nothing gets a good old-fashioned verbal scuffle going in my house like the announcement of a third paycheck in a month.

My wife asserts the extra check is like “found money,” an unlooked-for windfall similar to collecting $200 just for passing Go. She spends the money like it’s found, too, until it’s all lost.

I admit this month has an extra pay because Friday is the 29th instead of March 1. This is self-evident. Most months, we are paid twice, once every other week. This month, payday comes knocking three times.

But it’s not extra money. It’s a trick of the calendar. We are paid 26 times a year, with set salaries. The boss didn’t look at the date and say, “Oh, we’ll give the proles a bonus 27th pay this because there are five Fridays.”

My creditors — those guys with the lean and hungry faces lurking about the front door, licking their chops and chortling — don’t give me a break by deducting money from my bills. Those amounts are set, too. (Set, game and match, you might say.)

So it’s an extra pay, but not extra money.

It’s like those smart-alecks who have birthdays on Feb. 29 and try to pass themselves off as 5, 12 or 22 years old when they’re really 20, 48 or 88. Just because your actual calendar day of birth only rolls around once every four years doesn’t mean you don’t age one year for every 365 days like the rest of us.

DC Comics used to assert that Superman’s birthday was Feb. 29, as a nudge-nudge wink-wink sort of joke, I guess, that explained how he’s been around since 1938 but remains eternally 29 years old.

Working at a newspaper, even a great Metropolitan one like the Daily Planet, poor Superman probably doesn’t have as much money stuffed away in his tights as he would like. He probably knows a thing or two about the excitement of an extra-pay Friday in a month, too, although he’s too smart to fall for the idea of that third check being “found money.”

Now that he and Lois Lane are married, I wonder if he ever worries about her down there at the mall, spending his hard-earned reporter’s pay while he’s soaring above Earth, rescuing cats from trees, putting out fires with his icy breath and foiling Lex Luthor’s latest scheme. Of course, a guy who can wring diamonds out of anthracite probably isn’t too concerned where his next meal is coming from, is he?

A strictly hypothetical question. Superman is fictional. I know this.

The previous paragraph led me on a 20-minute Internet search to learn if psychologists recognize a specific delusion where the sufferer believes fictional characters are real. The search was fruitless. The very young and the very old sometimes have imaginary friends, and most kids usually grow out of the belief that cartoon and movie characters actually exist, but these aren’t quite the same as otherwise rational adults believing that Superman, Indiana Jones and James Bond are living, breathing people.

This is also different than adults and kids who are misinformed, have been misled, or are just plain stupid. For example, a recent survey by UKTV Gold found that 58 percent of Brits surveyed believe Sherlock Holmes is real, while 23 percent believe Winston Churchill is make-believe. That’s not delusional, it’s just dumb.

Any armchair psychologists out there are invited to chime in on the subject. While they’re at it, what’s the clinical diagnosis for a person who believes a fifth-Friday pay is extra money, then proceeds to blow through it like water?

Just curious.

Comic books 28 Feb 2008 05:43 am

3-D fun

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I’m a sucker for anything in 3-D, so I grabbed a copy of the latest issue of Nick Magazine (March 2008) with a 3-D comics section even though, at age 39, I’m likely not in the target demographic.

The magazine comes in a sealed bag, the better to hide a special second 3-D mini-comic featuring SpongeBob SquarePants. All the eye-popping 3-D effects are by Ray Zone, the acknowledged master of 3-D comic books who has been orchestrating these effects for decades. I have several 3-D comic books in my collection — including my favorite, a Batman graphic novel with art by John Byrne — and Zone has been involved in all of them. (If you click on Zone’s name above, you can visit his website, which is in 3D if you wear the special glasses.)

The Nick Mag comes with a pair of paper 3-D glasses branded with the Post Fruity Pebbles logo. I felt a little self-conscious wearing them to read the comics, so I didn’t attach the earpieces, but just held the lenses up to my eyes like some European sophisticate. Snooty, but not above perusing the material, you see.

The issue has some 3-D advertisements mixed among the comics. The effects are awesome; each panel is like looking into a shadow box. Even word balloons are strategically placed in space to add to the overall effect. The only problem, at least for me, is eyestrain: It’s hard to read 3-D comics for very long without getting a whopping headache.

Still, a little pounding in the temples is a small price to pay for the joy of reading SpongeBob, the Humongoussons, Patty-Cake, Yam and others in 3-D. Get this for a kid in your life, or for the kid in you.

 

Comic books & Movies 27 Feb 2008 04:55 am

Justice League: The New Frontier

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This week, Warner Bros. Animation released the long-awaited adaptation of Justice League: The New Frontier, based on the comic books of the same name by Darwyn Cooke.

Cooke is one of modern comics’ most unique stylists, with a streamlined look that hearkens back to the clean visuals of the Silver Age (Carmine Infantino in his prime, Gil Kane, Curt Swan), even as it seamlessly meshes with the modern day. His Cold War-era story of the formation of the Justice League relies on the work of many Silver Age comics craftsmen, but he brings a new sensibility to the table, too, tying in the heroes with McCarthyism, the Korean War and America’s distrust of authority figures. Some of those riffs play pretty well in 2008, given the current political scene.

But this isn’t a political tract; it’s a comic book brought to life. Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman take somewhat of a backseat to the new guys in town: the Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern and the Flash, whose stories interlock with the Big Three in various ways.

If anything, attempting to adapt all six of Cooke’s double-sized issues into one 75-minute film makes for some rushed storytelling in places. One wants to know more about the Batman’s outlaw status in the beginning of the film, see more of the ideological clash between Superman and Wonder Woman (not to mention the barest hint of a lovers’ tiff — Lois Lane, eat your heart out!), and allow some second-banana heroes like Adam Strange, Green Arrow and Aquaman some screen time. All these are glossed over quickly in the rush to get the heroes together for a big battle against the obligatory Villain of the Week before the movie’s end.

Overall, the animation is good, with characters sticking to Cooke’s 1950s-era model sheet. His Batman is definitely in line with the Golden Age rendition of the character: The long ears on the cowl will turn younger fans off.

Lots of guest voices (Miguel Ferrer, Neil Patrick Harris, Lucy Lawless, and Brooke Shield among them) liven up the film, although no voice is terribly recognizable.

I picked up the two-disc special edition. This includes the movie, audio commentaries, JLA documentary and Batman anime preview from the single-disc release. The second disc (which I haven’t had time to explore) includes three bonus episodes of the Justice League animated TV show and a documentary called “The Legion of Doom: The Pathology of the Super Villain.”

There are worse ways to spend an afternoon or evening. Overall, the books are still better, but that’s almost always the case. The filmmakers have created a solid, enjoyable adaptation.

Books 26 Feb 2008 08:02 am

Might as well jump

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I haven’t seen the movie “Jumper,” but I’ve had students tell me it’s great, it sucks, and that it’s somewhere in the middle.

I decided to wait on the movie until I’d read the book by Steven Gould that inspired it, originally published in 1992. The main character, David Rice, narrates his own story, which begins in a small Ohio town and continues throughout America and, eventually, the world, as he learns he has the ability to teleport. It takes a brave writer to revisit a concept mined so well by others, especially by Alfred Bester in the classic “The Stars My Destination,” but Gould is mostly up for the challenge.

I read somewhere that “Jumper” was originally planned as a young-adult novel until Gould’s editor convinced him to sell it as mainstream sci-fi. Evidence of its YA roots are apparent. It is a coming-of-age story with a likable protagonist dealing with a variety of difficult situations: an abusive, alcoholic father; an absent mother; life as a runaway on the streets of New York; and the temptation to use a great power for evil.

Gould has researched a number of topics in the book quite thoroughly, including child abuse, Alcoholics Anonymous, Mideast political and religious tensions, aircraft design, and a variety of geographic locales. Realistic elements in a fantastic story are extremely important: If the writer gets these wrong, we are less likely to suspend disbelief for the more speculative parts of a tale. Gould gets all the details right.

I especially enjoyed the author’s take on teleportation, and the rules he sets up for his protagonist to follow in his jumps. Rice can’t jump anywhere he hasn’t been physically, so in the opening chapters he spends lots of time traveling by plane, bus and car to extend his range. In later chapters, when he’s more travel-savvy, he jumps from place to place with dizzying speed.

The book isn’t perfect. The opening chapters drag, and some of Rice’s encounters with young people his own age feel as if they came out of a bad episode of “Beverly Hills 90210.” There is also an explicit near-rape scene in the opening pages that is so distasteful I almost put down the book; I’m glad I didn’t, but the whole scene feels out of place in the context of the rest of the novel.

 

Commentary 25 Feb 2008 07:20 pm

A Monday, for sure!

It was a dangerous Monday for technology.

My school computer died, prompting our tech guy to break out the paddles, shout “Clear!” and attempt to shock it back to life. OK, maybe not that bad, but he did have to take the hard drive out of the classroom, leaving me to take attendance the old fashioned way, with pen and paper.

The DVD player in my classroom also went belly up, just as I was ready to show my Film Studies class the classic “Casablanca.” Luckily, I also had a VHS copy that I was able to roll (no, I don’t carry copies of all my movies in multiple formats, but this one I did), so no harm there.

This didn’t happen today, but just last week the USB pin drive that I received as a Christmas gift — with 4 GB of memory — stopped working, swallowing an important set of documents I had slaved on for more than three hours. I called tech support, talked to some guy in India, and he authorized a return, but the data is still gone, gone, gone.

On the positive side, my classes today were great (students are now finished with Act IV of “Romeo and Juliet”), the car ran, I woke up on time, and at 7:16 p.m., my work for the day is finished. It’s all in how you look at things, I suppose.

Commentary 24 Feb 2008 08:05 am

Good deals for new customers

A video store in town has a sign out front that reads, “Half-price rentals for new customers.”

This irritates me. I read somewhere that it costs a business more money to attract a new customer than to keep an old one, yet so many businesses focus their marketing on attracting new customers. If the store offered half-price rentals to everybody, that would make more sense.

Yes, I was a new customer at one time, too, and probably benefited from some special or another. But I haven’t been back for months, and maybe half-off is just the incentive I need. Except I’m an old customer now, so I’m off the company’s radar.

Cable, satellite and phone companies do the same thing. They offer low monthly rates that last for the first year, then jack up prices beginning with the second, when they should consider rewarding customers for sticking with them. Of course, savvy customers start looking for better offers and soon migrate to a different company with better introductory offers. A vicious circle.

On a different marketing issue: I wonder how many Arby’s cashiers have had customers tell them “I love you” because of the restaurant’s latest TV ad? If you haven’t seen it, a harried guy is talking to his significant other on a cell phone while he places his order at Arby’s. He gets mixed up about which conversation he’s involved in and tells the cashier he loves her, instead of saying it into the phone. It’s awkward — especially when the cashier says “I love you” back.

I bet Arby’s cashiers hate that commercial, knowing that every wise guy in the world would be oh-so-original and replicate the scenario. Ugh.

Commentary 23 Feb 2008 05:59 am

No e-mail: Day one

Friday was my first day without e-mail, a six-month experiment I first wrote about here.

It was tough. School was canceled because of the weather, so at least I wasn’t missing any important work e-mails. But it still meant a change in habits. I usually check my personal e-mail account the moment I wake up, then my work account within 10 minutes of arriving at school. At various points throughout the day, I check the work account and sometimes the personal account (the latter because some of my school contacts — like Jostens, our yearbook publisher — use my personal address).

At night, I generally check one or both accounts at least once, sometimes two or three times. (Yeah, I’m an addict.)

Friday, I could do none of this. A few times, I walked past the computer, took a furtive glance around and asked, “Who would really know if I peeked?” But I didn’t.

I admit to one moment of rule bending. I was expecting a very important e-mail that affected a piece of writing I did for The Review, and it couldn’t wait until Saturday. So I had fellow Review employee Jack Weber check my e-mail for me, looking solely for this one piece of mail and not telling me what other new messages I had received. Jack will confirm this, too.

One day down. I can’t say I feel more in touch with anybody because I had personal interactions; if anything, I feel more disconnected and stressed out. It’s going to be a long six months, but at least my experiment is only on Fridays.

Comic books & Commentary 22 Feb 2008 07:43 am

Pekar in public

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Usually, I wait a day or two before posting print pieces here, but I’m too pumped up about this one to hold off. On Wednesday, I had the chance to sit in on some informal chats between comic book living legend Harvey Pekar and students at Mount Union College, then to sit with Mr. Pekar for a one-on-one interview at Mount Union Theatre, which showed the 2003 film, “American Splendor,” based on his writings.

Pekar was gracious, affable and seemed to enjoy the opportunity to talk about his work. Someday, I plan to write a more subjective piece about how cool — and surreal — it was to sit on the floor with Pekar for the interview (there were no chairs initially in the room where we talked), and my impressions of the man and his work. For now, here’s the piece as published today, Feb. 22, 2008, in The Alliance Review.

By the way, the photo above did not run in The Review. It is courtesy of ace photographer Ed Hall Jr., who thought I might want it for my digital scrapbook. That’s Pekar at left, me at right. (To see the photos that did run in the paper, you have to either buy a paper — what a novel idea! — or be a registered subscriber to the website. If you are registered, click here. If you aren’t, then don’t.)

Anyway, the story:

“Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff,” goes the tagline for the movie “American Splendor.”

Harvey Pekar, the Cleveland comic book writer whose life is the basis of the 2003 film, confirmed it Wednesday, addressing small but enthusiastic crowds at Hoover-Price Campus Center and Mount Union Theatre.

In brief stories illustrated by various artists, Pekar, 68, chronicles many of life’s ups and downs — waiting in line, the common cold, dealing with malfunctioning cars and malfunctioning relationships, even plunging a toilet.

“A man without a toilet, he’s lost,” said Pekar, referring to a piece called “Today I Am a Man,” where he equates his conquest of a clogged commode with a Bar Mitzvah. “The piece as it appears in the comic is humorous. I’m making fun of myself, but actually I was pretty upset. There are certain people you should know to make your life easier … but I’ve been lax. Now I have a good plumber lined up.”

The Cleveland native began self-publishing “American Splendor” comic books in 1972. While the title was a critical success, it was a financial failure.

“If you want to make it as an artist, get a day job,” he advised, “one you can tolerate — because you’re going to be there for a while.”

Pekar’s day job was as a file clerk at a V.A. hospital. He eventually came to the attention of late-night talk-show host David Letterman, who booked the writer to appear on his show several times. Their relationship was contentious. Pekar, who affected a “Cleveland working-man” persona for the appearances, once railed on the air about the morality of General Electric owning NBC.

“It didn’t help sales (of the comic book) at all,” he said.

Pekar’s writing method is to sketch out pages using stick figures, word balloons and thought balloons, along with advice to the artist. “The details are what’s really important,” he said, noting that he looks for personal experiences with an eye toward turning them into comic book vignettes, but isn’t systematic about it. He likes to write about topics like going crazy when he loses his keys.

“It’s probably symptomatic of something much deeper,” he admits.

Because of the relatively low circulation, Pekar said he has never had problems with friends and coworkers taking offense at how they are portrayed in the comic. “If you’re selling, like, 25,000 copies, you’re not exactly plastering the world with the stuff.”

He has grown accustomed to seeing other people play him on stage and screen. “American Splendor” was the basis of three plays before being tapped for the big screen. He viewed the original $1,500 option payment as “found money,” but doubted it would ever be filmed.

“Why would somebody make a movie about a guy who sold very few comic books and lost money at it?” he said. To his surprise, it became “a pretty good movie.”

“American Splendor,” the film, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the International Critics Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003. It was roundly praised for the performance of Paul Giamatti, who played the writer.

Giamatti was a “quick study,” offered Pekar. “He looked at the old tapes, read the comic books, and he had it.”

Today, Pekar is retired from his clerk job and writes full-time. He and his wife, Joyce, live in Cleveland Heights. The higher profile the movie gave him led to frequent speaking engagements, book and comic book contracts and the chance to pursue an eclectic assortment of writing.

This year, Pekar said Vertigo/DC Comics is scheduled to release four new issues of “American Splendor.” He has finished the script for a graphic novel about stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce, is researching a 150-page history of the Middle East, and is considering a book about Socialist Louis Proyect.

Pekar’s appearance and a special screening of the movie were sponsored by the Mount Union College English Department and presented by the English Society and student members Ryan Conatti of Mentor and John P. Gallo of Lisbon. The writer was introduced by David Thiele, assistant professor of English.

Pekar said he chose comics as a medium of expression because he felt he could create something there that had never been done before.

“Comics are as good an art form as any other,” he said. Although they often are used to publish “schlock” super-hero adventures, he noted, “You can use any word in the dictionary … you’ve got the same choices as Shakespeare.”

Commentary 21 Feb 2008 07:47 pm

He’s swearing off Friday e-mails

The following is my print column, originally published on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008, in The Alliance Review.  

Could you go one day a week without e-mail?

Business owners and managers around the nation — and around the world — are telling employees to try, from technology-rich Silicon Valley to at least one NBA team. The movement is No E-mail Friday — a day to lay down the mouse, take fingers off keys, and talk to co-workers face to face instead of sending.

E-mail — a tool designed to save time and increase productivity — has done the opposite. According to talking heads on various cable news networks, approximately 170 billion e-mails are sent worldwide daily. The average office worker is interrupted, on average, once every two minutes by some kind of cyber-message.

This translates into billions of dollars in lost productivity, longer work hours, and a loss, on average, of 10 IQ points from the start to the finish of the day as the mind reels from repeated interruptions. (One assumes the IQ resets the next morning, or America’s office workers would look like the shuffling zombies in “Shaun of the Dead.”)

Last April, ABC News ran a story about U.S. Cellular Vice President Jay Ellison, who instituted a No E-mail Friday policy after receiving an average of 200 e-mails a day. The story said Ellison came down with a bad case of “cyber-indigestion,” prompting him to order compulsive e-mailers in his company to stand down on Friday, and then to stand up — as in leave their cubicles and go talk to somebody.

The results were comical. Employees learned that a fellow worker with a gender-neutral name was a woman; most had addressed her as “sir” in e-mails because they had never bothered to meet her. One worker discovered an associate whom he assumed worked in a different building was not only on the same floor, but also right across the hall.

I once knew a person who, every few months, gave up drinking for a week, just to prove he could. That he felt compelled to do this probably indicated he had a real problem with alcohol; the fix revealed what was broken.

No E-mail Fridays give me the same vibe, a bunch of technophiles forced to go Amish to see how the other half lives.

Still, the concept intrigues. Could I go every Friday without e-mail?

Confession time: I’m an inveterate e-mail addict, with home and work accounts. I check my e-mail multiple times a day, every day. Most of it is junk. I have a few acquaintances who forward every chain cyber-letter or cutesy inspirational story. Then there are the advertisements for Viagra, stock tips, and pleas from foreigners to hide money in my bank account. Delete, delete, delete.

Along with that come occasional important nuggets from students, parents, co-workers, and friends — stuff that warrants a response. Every so often, a reader will weigh in about something I’ve written here, either to say attaboy or go jump in the lake.

I leave my e-mail account open constantly at home, and I peruse it every few minutes while doing other tasks on the computer; I’ve looked at it twice since starting this column. It’s an obsessive-compulsive thing, like constant hand washing or checking repeatedly to make sure the lights are turned off.

When I told my wife I was jumping on the No E-mail Friday bandwagon, I added the caveat that I would still check my work account out of respect for co-workers. “What good is a No E-mail Friday where you check your e-mail?” she asked.

She’s right. I need to go all the way.

So for the next six months, I’m not checking e-mail on Friday. Not even peeking. If I need to communicate with somebody, I’ll pick up the phone, write a note, or physically track him or her down.

Georgette Huff, who writes in this space Mondays, has given up for one year buying anything made in China. Next to her, my experiment looks like chump change, I know. To quote a character in “The Miracle Worker” by William Gibson, “I’d sooner have a more heroic issue, myself.”

But we go where we are called, and I feel called to cast off Friday e-mails for half a year. I’ll update periodically, both here and on my blog, to let you know how I’m doing.

Meanwhile, feel free to communicate with me about this column by e-mail, but don’t expect a response until Saturday.

At 12:01 a.m.

Commentary 21 Feb 2008 07:45 pm

Cosmic karma (or is that ‘kosmic carma’?)

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I’ve driven to Canton twice this week, and both times I have angered the gods of the traffic lights. The trip includes at least a dozen stop lights, and both times, the majority of these were red.

Have you ever calculated how much time we lose at red lights? Me, either, but it’s substantial. When lights are with me, I can make the trip from Alliance to Canton in about 20 minutes. When they are against me — this week, for example — add an extra 10 minutes, at least.

I don’t know what the answer is — maybe offer up a stop sign as a sacrificial offering or something, or better yet, stop driving to Canton altogether.

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