Monthly ArchiveJune 2011



Books & Comic books 27 Jun 2011 02:06 pm

The Stand: No Man’s Land

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I waited until I had all five issues of the latest installment The Stand before reading. I’m glad I did. Marvel’s adaptation of what many readers consider Stephen King’s best book (an opinion King himself doesn’t share, by the way) is best digested in large chunks.

In this latest installment, No Man’s Land, writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Mike Perkins continue their beat-by-beat (almost page-by-page) translation of the story into comics form. This installment is more challenging than those that have come before, as it features a lot of exposition given by a lot of people sitting around in a lot of rooms. Perkins enlivens the proceedings with as many different angles as he can, but at the end of the day, multiple pages of talking heads are still static and don’t play to the strengths of the medium. This isn’t Perkins’ fault — he’s an incredible artist and doing impeccable work here — but is simply the nature of the plot at this juncture.

Luckily, at this point in the story, Aguirre-Sacasa can trade on the emotional investment we’ve made in all the characters over previous installments to transcend the moribund nature of the visuals. These are, after all, people who are grappling with a physical manifestation of evil, a dark man named Randall Flagg who has gathered followers in Las Vegas after a super-flu wipes out 99 percent of the world’s population. The few who oppose Flagg have gathered in Boulder, Colorado, and No Man’s Land deals with their attempts to come to grips with Flagg and formulate a plan to stop him.

Aguirre-Sacasa’s script is wordy, but how else is he to get the ideas across and remain true to the source material? This is a book that doesn’t depend so much on big, grandiose moments (although there are some of those) but rather on small character bits — the vigil beside an old woman’s bedside, quiet conversations on front porches, a character stretched out languidly and strumming a guitar.

The Stand isn’t exactly making Marvel a ton of money, I’d be willing to bet, so kudos to the company for allowing the creative team the room to let King’s epic spool out in this manner. Eventually, this will make one incredible collected omnibus, worthy to be shelved next to the novel for King fans who appreciate the creators’ faithful visual translation. If you’ve been waiting for The Stand: The Movie, the script and storyboards are right here.

Comic books 24 Jun 2011 10:40 am

Remembering ‘The Dean’

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Steady streams of Gene Colan tributes have been finding their way to the Internet this morning following the announcement of the artist’s death Thursday. This is mine.

I’m not exactly sure that my first exposure to Colan’s artwork was Tomb of Dracula #48 (above), but it was certainly one of my earliest. By that time in the 1970s, Colan already had decades of experience drawing comics, including boatloads of super-heroes, but never, in all the years since seeing his frightful rendition of the Lord of the Undead, have I thought of him as a super-hero artist. Even when I encountered his work on Daredevil and Batman, it felt more like he was drawing stories about ordinary people who just happened to put on a costume every now and then. His characters had a great “everyman” feel, similar to the mood that Steve Ditko’s work evokes, although in other ways the two men’s styles were miles apart.

I read Tomb of Dracula when and where I could, given the vagaries of distribution and allowance money, and eventually amassed the entire run in two separate formats — the cheapie, black-and-white Essential collections and the pricier Omnibus versions of a few years ago. Not surprisingly, the black-and-white reprints are a much better showcase for Colan’s mastery of light and dark. The same holds true for the Essential reprinting of his Howard the Duck run.

Some of my favorite Colan stories are the ones reprinted directly from his pencils, such as his superlative Nathaniel Dusk work in the early ’80s and much of his Dark Horse work (Predator: Hell and Hot Water springs to mind) in the ’90s. But whatever he was drawing, in whatever format it was printed, readers knew they were in the hands of a master draftsman with a distinctive style. I’ve never once been stumped when looking at a page and determining if it was Colan’s work; his layouts and characters were like no other.

I’m glad that some of his DC work from the ’80s is about to be collected — Tales of the Batman: Gene Colan Vol. 1 in August and Night Force (another favorite of mine) in October — but I wish Gene “the Dean” could have been around to see them.

Commentary 23 Jun 2011 08:24 am

Park of the past

Here is today’s column from The Alliance Review:

Anybody who grew up in and around Stark and Mahoning counties 30 or more years ago likely has memories of Idora Park.

As a kid, I went to this little-amusement-park-that-could almost every summer because I had relatives working for businesses that held shop picnics there. My recollection of Idora, located on the south side of Youngstown, is an idealized mixture of these visits, when cousins and whatever friends I begged my parents to allow me to invite lugged coolers and picnic baskets through the front gates.

We stored all our foodstuffs in pavilions while we rode what passed for thrill rides in an era before people flipped upside down and shot into the sky at speeds of more than 100 mph in the name of entertainment.

The Jack Rabbit, just inside the front entrance, was my first-ever roller coaster, a traditional wooden structure painted white. Riders were seat-belted into cars, with only a flimsy metal bar that lowered onto their laps for protection.

Up, up, up we climbed that first hill, courtesy of a creaky chain that sounded as though it could snap at any moment. Then came the joy of free fall on the first major drop, building just enough momentum to carry us to the top of a second, smaller hill. The rest of the ride, true to the coaster’s name, was a series of small jumps and hops until we breathlessly disembarked.

Falling out of the Jack Rabbit was a very real concern, especially when you were rattled around hairpin turns like marbles in a jar. Today, safety-minded groups or state/county inspectors likely would put the kibosh on such minimal protections, but these were the ’70s, baby, a simpler and more freewheeling time.

Located closer to the center of the park, the Wild Cat, painted a lurid yellow, was the Jack Rabbit’s big brother in every way — its higher hills and faster cars created louder screams among guests. I must confess, my first few years at Idora, I didn’t have the guts to ride it, and would often be left sitting on a nearby bench while everybody else waited in line.

After I manned up and gave it a go, I was as zealous as a new convert at an old-fashioned tent revival. The Wild Cat made the Jack Rabbit, my former greatest coaster, nothing more than a warm-up act.

When we tired of coasters, we migrated to the bumper cars, the not-so-scary Kooky Kastle, the carousel, and other attractions along a midway that today would be right at home at a county fair.

In retrospect, perhaps the greatest thing about Idora was that it was big enough to provide genuine thrills, especially to 10-, 11- and 12-year-old guests, but small enough that Moms and Dads felt comfortable turning kids loose at the front gates and letting them fly solo with minimal supervision. Cell phones didn’t exist, so free reign of the park meant no parental interference for hours, especially if you were savvy enough to duck into the crowd or behind a wastebasket when you saw a familiar adult face ahead of you on the concourse.

On our last few visits, it was obvious — even to clueless kids — that something was happening, or not happening, at Idora Park. The paint on the Wild Cat started to chip and peel; the Powers That Be turned the cars on the Jack Rabbit backwards, rechristened it the Back Wabbit and desperately, so it seemed to us, promoted it as a new ride; and crowds started to thin. Maybe this was because the shops and factories on which the park depended for summer revenue eliminated picnics or closed for good, or because larger amusement parks offered bigger, newer thrills.

Whatever the reason, on my last visit to Idora, we were able to step off the Back Wabbit and immediately get back on, dozens of times, with no waiting in line. It was a great, if nauseating, way to spend the day, but it didn’t bode well for the park.

Idora closed for good in 1984 after a fire damaged the Wild Cat and other rides. Two more fires in subsequent years eliminated any chance of it reopening. The Jack Rabbit and the Wild Cat eventually were bulldozed, and just like the destruction of the dance hall in that song by the Kinks, “part of my childhood died — just died.”

Now Idora Park exists only on websites maintained by former kids who remember the park’s glory years, a piece of northeast Ohio nostalgia for the days of our shag-headed youth. No matter how high I might climb at Cedar Point or Six Flags, those rides will never measure up to the first mountains of childhood, accessible now only in my dreams.

Books & Comic books 17 Jun 2011 12:26 pm

Batman & Robin The Deluxe Edition: Batman vs. Robin

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I just read a quote from somebody, somewhere (it’s hard to track down all these things) calling Grant Morrison the greatest comics writer of our time, and this collection goes a long way toward proving that. Jason Aaron, in his latest “Where the Hell Am I?” column (a reference I can track down) even goes so far as to say that if Morrison “started randomly beating editors with a baseball bat tomorrow, he would still be able to find work come Monday.”

Funny, because here we have a Frank Quitely cover of Robin preparing to put a bat — well, OK, a samurai sword — to Batman, proof that maybe the Boy Wonder feels a similar sense of job entitlement.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this second collection, part of my “summer of reading comics from the library instead of buying them” initiative. Morrison obviously likes playing in the Batman’s sandbox, and his stories play into larger goings-on in the Batman mythos even as they transcend them. Case in point: a wild arc here centering on the return of Bruce Wayne from the Lazurus Pit that ends up being the wildest spin on hero resurrection in many a year.

As always, Morrison makes the reader feel as though he’s missed an issue of exposition between the closing of one arc and the slam-bang opening of another. While disconcerting at first, I’ve grown to like the way it highlights how much unnecessary setup is included in modern comics. A screenwriting maxim notes that a writer should begin as late in a scene as possible and exit the scene as early as possible; Morrison puts the advice into hyperdrive, beginning as late in the story as possible and catching us up as the plot hurtles along. Here, he mixes in characters and heroes from his earlier run on Batman (which I haven’t read) with little or no explanation, but none is really needed: What we have to know is deftly spun into the tale itself, if readers are patient enough to wait.

While I can imagine some of Morrison’s concepts becoming the basis for Batman stories in other media — movies or TV or video games — the stories themselves work in only one place: the four-color world of the comic book, in a sandbox that may seem small when creators of lesser talent play in it, but which becomes a world without boundaries in Morrison’s fertile mind. Morrison and his artist collaborators — here, primarily Cameron Stewart, Andy Clarke and Scott Hanna — are working with stories that can only be properly told in the ongoing, hopelessly complex yet remarkably straightforward world of DC Comics’ Batman.

And you know what? Morrison’s gonzo work here has me just about convinced to plunk down hard-earned money for his run on Superman starting in September, just to see what kind of life he can inject life into that moribund franchise.

Books & Comic books 17 Jun 2011 11:34 am

The Invincible Iron Man

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The back-cover copy of the Invincible Iron Man collection by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca promises “an ending you will not see coming!” I suppose this is truth in advertising, because I never expected that a gargantuan collection of the first 19 issues would end on a cliffhanger.

I don’t blame the creators, but rather Marvel Comics, which should know better than to leave things so unresolved. Is there a second hardcover collection? I don’t know, but I guess I’ll have to find out. That is, if I care enough to continue reading after this point, which is debatable.

I usually enjoy Fraction’s work, and indeed the first seven issues here, the “Five Nightmares” arc, is primal Iron Man for a new generation. It puts our hero in a high-stakes confrontation with an enemy intent on the destruction of Stark Industries, it doesn’t blink in terms of keeping our hero in jeopardy, and it ends with a fun coda that guest-stars Spider-Man and pokes gentle fun at those woebegone Marvel Team-Up pairings of years gone by.

The problems start with the next arc, a tie-in to the mostly rotten Secret Invasion company-wide crossover of a few years back. You know you’re in trouble when it takes a “Previously” summary box between issues 8 and 9 to bring readers who haven’t missed an issue of the book up to speed. What follows is Fraction’s systematic deconstruction of the Iron Man mythos, the stripping away of Tony Stark’s intellect, the defection or destruction of his friends and allies. It’s all sordid and grim and not very much fun. (The loss-of-intellect thing is also shamelessly cribbed from the classic Flowers for Algernon, right down to the misspellings in Stark’s last, puerile e-mail letter.)

Sometimes it’s necessary to lay a hero to waste so that his eventual triumph is all the more compelling, but that character arc doesn’t play out here. Rather, it’s just a ruthless trampling of Stark, largely for something that doesn’t even happen in Iron Man’s own book, that ends without a proper resolution.

What I like throughout these issues is Fraction’s characterization of Stark’s intellect. He’s a guy who can kick Reed Richards’ ass in chess, and that’s cool. He’’s also probably the only guy smart enough to interface directly with the Iron Man suit, which makes the book less about a guy in an armored tank and more about one specific guy in an armored tank. Fraction also does wonders for Pepper Potts, Stark’s once receptionist elevated to head honcho of Stark Industries, albeit just in time to close down the company, making her strong, independent, and savvy.

Salvador Larroca’s art is the perfect match for such a cutting-edge (or as Stark says once too often in these issues in relation to his inventions, “bleeding-edge”) book. I don’t know how I would like it elsewhere, but here it’s virtually flawless.

I’ve always liked Iron Man, but outside of his appearances in other Marvel titles I read, I haven’t followed him in years. At the outset of this collection, I was ready to change that. By the end, I’m thinking probably not.

Commentary 16 Jun 2011 10:29 pm

A dream deferred

This week’s column, minus an annoying typo in the third paragraph that somehow made it into print:

One of the more interesting conversations swirling on Twitter over the last few weeks has been “Screw Plan B.”

In reality, the tag line — called a hashtag on Twitter, where it’s accompanied by a pound sign, like #screwplanb — was much more blunt and involved the Anglo-Saxon term for fornication, but I sanitized it for family newspapers.

The gist of the argument revolves around whether it’s a better life strategy to pursue one’s dream, however much of a long shot it may be, full steam ahead and damn the torpedoes, or to have the life-planning equivalent of training wheels, the so-called Plan B, should your primary passion prove unfeasible. So actors who are set on becoming, say, the next Marlon Brando or Elizabeth Taylor might also want to have accounting degrees should Plan A fail.

One school of thought is that a backup plan is prudent, so that if a career as an online pervert doesn’t work out, you can fall back on Plan B and become a New York congressman. Certainly, parents who pay astronomical sums of money for their children’s education — money that could be used to finance their own dream trips to Europe, if not full-fledged retirement — don’t want to consider that their little darlings might return home in four or six years with an unusable philosophy degree when they could be out making beaucoup bucks as investment bankers on Wall Street, where ethic pondering is strictly optional.

A second school of thought is that Plan B is a recipe for failure, an admission that Plan A is a youthful whim that will soon be outgrown, and that one’s dream of becoming an artist or a race car driver or a park ranger will soon give way to being an art teacher or a mechanic or a park board member anyway, so why not be ready?

The debate has been fascinating, with some commentators finding Plan B to be a necessary evil, some finding it to be Evil Incarnate, and others noting that one can never have too many options.

As an educator — and one for whom teaching was Plan B — I am fascinated by the passion that people exhibit while defending their opinions, from “couldn’t be happier, Plan A starts beginning of August … all my dreams are coming true” to “begging your family/friends/fans for money/food/housing IS a Plan B. You’re not supporting yourself if you can’t pay for yourself.” My intrigue stems from talking with students who grapple with balancing a desire for autonomy and authenticity in their future careers with sober financial realities.

I had a student who expressed such a quandary recently. He was torn between a desire to make music, a field where he exhibits talent and promise, and the urging of adults in his life to go to college. I counseled that he could do both, studying the business of music while pursuing his own endeavors in his spare time. He wasn’t sure he could, and I understand — it’s easy for creativity to be stifled beneath a steady crush of classes, assignments and part-time jobs. By the time spouse, kids and house come along, Plan B jockeys from backup to primary, like a slow nag that suddenly finds itself the odds-on favorite.

How many potential Dylans or Lennons, not to mention Steinbecks, Curies and Hawkings, have had sparks extinguished by similar choices? We’ll never know.

In many ways, however, the Plan A/Plan B conundrum is a false choice, predicated on a belief that life is a series of either/or decisions, like a road map for cars that can never turn around after they’ve passed a particular intersection.

As anybody who’s lived for a while can tell you, life is more like the inside of grandma’s yarn bag after all the skeins have gotten hopelessly tangled. Things happen, opportunities arise or are denied, and often the best you can do is simply tie a knot and hang on. The colors don’t always match the original pattern, but sometimes that only makes the final project that much prettier.

Or as John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”

But would he ever have had the opportunity to say it while following Plan B?

Books 13 Jun 2011 12:33 pm

Full Dark, No Stars

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I’ve written before about the enjoyment that Stephen King’s books brought to my adolescent years, so much so that it’s hard for me to read him now without a sense of nostalgia and warm wishes that make an objective review possible.

That’s still true for Full Dark, No Stars — his latest collection of novellas/short stories — so take it with a grain of salt when I say that King is really in top form here, a nice follow-up to Under the Dome, a behemoth of a novel that was fun, but also an overwrought Twilight Zone episode. Here, King is exploring the darker sides of relationships and revenge, with four stories that revolve around these themes. (To be fair, “Big Driver” has nary a marriage in sight, but it does have a twisted mother/son relationship to compensate.)

As King himself notes in the afterword, these are dark stories, maybe a little more than even the standard King horror outing. My favorites are the two bookends — “1922,” about a man who kills his wife and throws her body down a well, and “A Good Marriage,” about what happens when a wife learns her husband is harboring a dark secret.

All in all, the stories are propulsive, and it was hard to set the book aside in the middle of one. That’s the quality I like best about King’s work, and it’s amply displayed here. (My paperback copy included a fifth tale, the strictly throwaway “Under the Weather,” with an ending you can see coming far too early.) My grade: B+

Commentary & technology 10 Jun 2011 08:21 am

Fly the unfriendly skies

Here’s my column from June 9, as originally seen in The (Alliance) Review:

Statistically speaking, you’re much safer flying than driving, but most people suffer more angst getting into a plane than a car.

I was thinking about this during a recent flight and trying to decide why. Maybe it’s tied to fear of falling, a common phobia; we might crash in cars, but we plummet from planes. Maybe it’s because familiarity breeds complacency; most of us ride in automobiles often, but fly infrequently. Maybe it’s because as drivers, we control our own destinies, while as plane passengers, we entrust ourselves to others. Or maybe it’s because car accidents are seldom national news, while plane crashes, being more rare, almost always make the front page or the top of the network evening broadcast.

But ultimately, I believe it’s because only on planes are we told the worst-case scenarios moments before the trip begins, when flight attendants run through all the things that could go wrong with the little puddle-jumper or jumbo jet onto which we are strapped.

If a grinning, sexually ambiguous person in a blue nylon jumper popped out on my dashboard each morning to remind me that, in the event of an emergency, my seat could be used as a floatation device, I might be more apt to fear driving.

There is nothing quite like having a lesson in oxygen-mask use to make one reach the point of hyperventilation. No need to tell me to put on my mask first before attending to any children; believe me, if any kid is sitting nearby, I’m grabbing his mask, too.

As if this isn’t enough, hapless passengers next receive a quick reminder of where emergency exits are located, although flight attendants rarely take the time to stand in the row next to the exits to show clearly where they are. Instead, they have developed some mime-like system of hand gestures, pointing down the aisle, thrusting their index fingers diagonally like a “Saturday Night Fever”-era John Travolta, and then poking their thumbs behind them, presumably to show us that they are taking their chances in the cockpit while the rest of us are torn apart in a depressurized cabin.

Life is full of places where these blue-garbed, smiling messengers of potential doom could be useful. I’d love to see them in a Starbucks restroom, reminding patrons that the stalls are cleaned only once a day, have been out of toilet paper since the breakfast rush six hours before, and are often visited by people who push all their worldly possessions in shopping carts.

“If the smell becomes too repugnant, oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling,” they could offer cheerily. “Please be sure to properly position your oxygen mask before attending to any children.”

I’d also like to see flight attendants at the grocery, warning patrons of the dangers posed by people who shop in store-provided Hoveround or Rascal motorized scooters. They drive like they’ve just opened up their Harley-Davidson full-throttle on the interstate, and woe to any two-legged shopper standing in the middle of the cookie aisle.

“Please place your complimentary shin guards in the upright position at this time,” the attendant could say. “The manager will turn off the ’shin guard’ sign when it is safe for you to walk about the store. Until then, please maintain your cart in a defensive shopping mode.”

I’ve often wanted to see an Old West-style showdown in the middle of the frozen foods aisle between two shoppers on motorized scooters, neither of them willing to go around the other. In the background, the theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” blares and tumbleweeds blow. The two combatants size up one another, the last box of Tony’s Pizza equidistant between them. They squint, they grimace, they rev their engines. They drop their scooters into gear and the world falls away …

But I digress. We could also use flight attendants to warn us about the dangers of marriage (”Before you take this man to be your lawfully wedded spouse, pay close attention to the prenuptial agreements at each exit …”), school (”Smoking is not permitted in the building at any time, including in the restrooms.”) and work (”This is a non-stop job that lands at retirement in 40-plus years — if you’re lucky!”).

Having flight attendants in places other than planes might not make us fear flying any less, but they might keep us too busy worrying about life’s other dangers to mind a little turbulence mid-flight.

Books & Comic books & Commentary & Movies 04 Jun 2011 09:05 am

Guilty pleasures were meant to be shared

This week’s column:

A few weeks ago, “guilty pleasures” was the theme of a “Dancing with the Stars” episode.

Understand that “Dancing with the Stars” itself is somewhat of a guilty pleasure, a show I started watching out of the corner of my eye because my wife is a fan. I was probably reading Proust or Mickey Mouse or something equally high brow at the time, but soon became enamored by the various wannabe celebrities who are either on their way up or on their way down the publicity pecking order and are willing to exploit themselves with skimpy costumes and funky-fresh dance moves.

On “guilty pleasures” night, contestants gyrated to such deathless hits as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” (which in some circles is known as “Don’t Stop Dry Heaving”), Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” (even when my love is a frozen Popsicle at the bottom of the Atlantic) and Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” (about which the less said the better).

The experience got me thinking about various guilty pleasures in my personal pop-culture pantheon, both musically and beyond. Here are a few things I devote far too much of my too-limited free time to enjoying:

n I’m a big fan of “Flash Gordon,” the glitzy 1980 version of the classic comic strip character, directed by Dino De Laurentiis (grandfather of cooking show cutie Giada De Laurentiis, another guilty pleasure who can blow hot air into any man’s soufflé). The movie is so very bad on almost every level imaginable — from campy dialogue to goofy hawkmen with giant feathered wings — that people look at me weirdly when I tell them how many dozens of times I’ve watched it. But I always cleanse my palette with a screening of “Citizen Kane,” I promise.

n Another guilty pleasure from the same era is 1983’s “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” I confess to a fondness for anthology films in general, probably because very little holds my attention for longer than 20 minutes anyway. This one has four segments patterned after the classic TV show, with Burgess Meredith providing the Rod Serling-esque narration. The last one, a brilliant retelling of Richard Matheson’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” is my favorite, but they’re all equally wacky and charming. I list this as a guilty pleasure both because veteran actor Vic Morrow and two extras died during an on-set accident and because it doesn’t hold a candle to the original, even though I still think it’s fun.

n Every month, I don a pair of sunglasses and a trench coat, enter a local drug store and buy a copy of Life With Archie magazine. I make a point of telling the cashier it’s for my (non-existent) 11-year-old daughter because the cover is filled with blurbs about Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and “Twilight.” Sandwiched between these bubblegum features are two great comic book stories that explore what would happen if Archie Andrews had married Betty and Veronica. (Not at the same time, of course, which would be more interesting, but in different “What If?” scenarios.) The answer: He would be swamped with all kinds of adult problems and be very unhappy in a soap opera sort of way. I love ‘em, even if I leave with the magazine in a plain brown wrapper.

n Despite a middle-aged paunch and a hairline that has receded to my vertebrae, I have not matured musically much further than a typical 15-year-old male. I love obnoxiously loud metal guitar and raspy-voiced, antisocial lead singers, even when I can’t tell what they’re singing — maybe especially when I can’t tell what they’re singing. So my 2002 Neon is filled with the melodic strains of artists like Rob Zombie, Alice Cooper, Ozzy Osbourne and a host of ’80s hair-bands too terrifically terrible to mention by name. (Call them the Too-Guilty-for-Prime-Time Players.) At red lights, I make sure to turn down the volume or slip in some Mozart to make it appear that I’m a quiet, unassuming English teacher, but when I hit the open road, I spiritually revert to acne-pocked teenager mode. Party on, Wayne. Party on, Garth.

So now that I’ve bared my soul, it’s your turn. Send me your own guilty pleasures, indicate if I can or cannot publish your name, and maybe if I get enough, I can dedicate a future column to sharing.

After all, another of my guilty pleasures is laziness, and if I can fill a column with reader responses, it means less work for me.