Sunday, November 20, 2016

Holiday Giving

I have been going back and forth as to whether or not to share this with the world.  Here goes nothing.  I hope I won't have to disable comments.  I post this not to offend anyone, or to initiate any arguments, political or otherwise.  I'm sharing because this is what my family decided as a group to do this year, and I believe it may be of use to others.

This year we sent out variations on the following message, and I'd like to share it publicly now:

"Dear Family and Friends,

"Megan, Olivia and I want to try something different this holiday season.  To say that the election this year was a disappointment would be a huge understatement.  We honestly believe that this is a dark time in our lives, politically speaking.  So we are asking all of our friends and family members that might be sympathetic to the mess that our country is in to please do this for us:  instead of giving us stuff for the holidays, we would like you to take every penny that you would have spent on us and instead donate it to one of the causes that are going to be under siege with a Trump presidency.

"I know we have tried to do this in the past, to unplug the "Christmas Machine," but it somehow always got away from us.  But this year we are going to ask you all to please forego ANY holiday giving to us.  No little tokens. No “just a little something to open.”  No stocking stuffers.  Nothing.  Take every cent you might have spent on gifts of stuff and instead give that money to something truly worthy.  (Kids are, of course, exempt; we are happy to get something for the kids!)

"Last Week Tonight, John Oliver’s show on HBO, had some excellent suggestions and we are sharing them with you below.  This is the complete list of John Oliver’s recommended charities, but feel free to find your own.  You know what the issues are.  And if you have a preference on a charity to which you would like us to donate in your name, please let us know.  We'd love donations to the Trevor Project or the Trans Lifeline.

"An article on John Oliver can be found at  https://www.inverse.com/article/23698-john-oliver-donate-trump-list-president

"The Trevor Project, for LGBTQ youth:  https://give.thetrevorproject.org/checkout/donation?eid=63307

"The Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, for immigrant rights:  http://www.maldef.org/ways_to_donate/index.html

"Planned Parenthood, for women’s reproductive health:  https://secure.ppaction.org/site/Donation2;jsessionid=FA6641A45265C5F542940F5929F82A7B.app259b?df_id=12913&12913.donation=form1&s_src=Evergreen_c3_PPNonDirected_shorturl

"The Center for Reproductive Rights, also for women’s reproductive health:  https://www.reproductiverights.org

"Natural Resources Defense Council, if you care about climate change:  https://www.nrdc.org

"The International Refugee Assistance Project, for refugees from ISIS and other world tragedies:  http://www.refugeerights.org/donate/

"The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to fight racism:  http://www.naacpldf.org

"The Trans Lifeline, a suicide and help line for trans youth:  http://www.translifeline.org/donate

"We all believe that is truly one of those times when like-minded people need to band together, walk the walk, and put our money not only where our mouths are, but where it will do the very most good for the most people.  It’s up to us to shine as much light as we can in these dark times.

"To better days (and holidays) in the future.  And know that we love you all.

"Always, Megan, Tom and Olivia"

So that's it.  If nothing else, I hope the links are useful for any charitable giving you might want to do.  And have the happiest of holidays, from my family to yours.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Stunned

So it's the morning after the 2016 US election.  Trump won.  Dear God in Heaven, Trump won.  We can look forward to four years minimum of misogyny, homophobia, isolationism, racism and God only knows what else.

The main reason voters are citing is that they wanted "change."  They wanted an outsider who would come in and "shake things up."

To which I say, be careful what you wish for.

After the mess he inherited when he assumed office in January 2009, President Obama has been steadily, quietly and determinedly reducing the national debt and rebuilding the economy.  Unemployment is at an historic low.  And he has not gotten one iota of credit for it from the people who voted Trump last night.

I remember reading some years ago about something that I thought was the most peculiar thing I'd ever heard of.  Apparently there is a segment of the Japanese population, usually the older folks, who are literally incapable of hearing Japanese if it's being spoken by a Westerner.  The idea that only Japanese people can speak this beautiful, complex language is so deeply ingrained that even the most fluent of Western speakers is heard as gibberish.  They just can't get their minds around the idea.

I wonder if the same thing isn't going on here.

I wonder if there isn't so much white anger and fear bubbling below the surface that some people simply cannot accept the idea of a black leader making things better.  Which Obama has done, in the face of hatred, obstructionism and deep, deep partisanship.  My sister, who testified before Congress in Obama's first year in 2009, overheard two Congressmen saying to one another that "this guy gets NOTHING."  Anecdotal, but certainly arguable in the light of ensuing events, what with unfilled appointments, executive action having to be taken over legislation, and all the other political crap we've had to deal with for eight years.  I think that some people have their heads so deeply in the sand that they simply cannot see how much better things are than they were eight years ago.  There is a whole cycle of memes to be found that start, "if Obama were white...."  I think there is a lot of truth to be found there.

Which is why we find ourselves as Americans witnessing our first black President turning over the keys to the White House to the first candidate endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

My heart is broken today, and I don't know if it will ever be mended.  I'm nearing the end of my days, but I fear for the world my daughter now will have to live in, in an America divided by hate; an America that seems to say it's OK to treat women and minorities badly; an America that turns a blind eye to global warming until it's too late to reverse it; an America that I truly believe will find itself feared and shunned by the rest of the world.

Monday, October 10, 2016

One Month to Go...

So last night was the second debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  I'm not going to go there, apart from saying that I honestly and truly believe that Trump is a misogynist and a narcissistic psychopath who has no business representing or leading the United States of America.  So that's my politics out of the way.

No, this is about the aftermath, particularly about the idiot woman being interviewed on NPR this morning who is insisting that Trump's comments about women, specifically that "when you're a celebrity you can do whatever you want; walk right up to them and grab them by the p***y," this so-called "locker room talk," is just something that "all men do."

This absolutely not something all men do.

Not at all.

This is an insult to me and to all those who try to go through life respectful of women, of people.  I would never, never, ever engage in this kind of talk, nor would I tolerate it from others.

That Trump is being given a free pass for this, and by a woman, is mind-boggling.  I don't get it.  I don't understand.  Is it a matter of face?  Is it that right-wingers are so invested in this blatantly unqualified candidate that they feel compelled to justify their support of him, no matter what?  What is it going to take for people like her, like Chris Christie, like Rudy Giulani, to say, "Nope.  I'm sorry; this was a huge mistake, and I owe you all a huge apology."  Or at least to publicly state that in view of recent events and remarks made by this candidate they can longer justify their support for his candidacy.  That's a nice phrase, in bland politicalese, but it still lets them off the hook.  A hook on which they were willing to gladly impale themselves upon, but never mind.

Please.  Vote this November.  Turn out in numbers sufficient to send a message to this creep without a conscience AND to all of his ignorant supporters that America will not tolerate him or his message.

Not now.  Not ever.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Best of the Best

Sorry things have been quiet.  I've been laid up after foot surgery a few weeks ago, and I'm terribly behind with my comics.  I'll be on crutches and unable to drive for at least three more weeks, so my lovely wife and daughter surprised me yesterday by making a run to my local comics shop and picking up the books that were waiting in my subscription box.  (Side note:  If you live in Central Pennsylvania, the absolute best LCS is Comix Connection.  Tell 'em Box 35 sent you.)

I've really been enjoying what DC has been doing with their REBIRTH event.  They really seem to be trying hard to put the best of everything in their history back into play in their books.  Clearly, I am a fan of all things Green Lantern, and DC is indeed doing a fantastic job with the whole Green Lantern mythos.

But the book that literally brought me to tears is one that you can still run out and find:  Wonder Woman #4.  This is Wonder Woman's 75th "birthday" and DC is pulling out all the stops, especially since Gal Gadot stole the Batman V Superman movie as Wonder Woman this past summer.  Unlike some of the other books, Wonder Woman is coming out every two weeks with an alternating story line.  Odd numbered books tell the story of what Wonder Woman is up to now, and it's a pretty good story about her search for her lost homeland.

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, or as writer Gail Simone calls her, "Dark Swordy."

But the real gem is what's going on in the even-numbered books:  "Wonder Woman Year One" as written by Greg Rucka and illustrated by the incomparable Nicola Scott.  Nicola Scott is an Australian artist whose work I first saw when she began illustrating DC's Birds of Prey book in 2007. Birds of Prey was bring written at that time by one of my favorite writers, Gail Simone, who I have mentioned in this column before, and the combination of Simone's writing and Scott's art made BoP the book I absolutely had to read first when it came out.  They also knocked it out of the park with Secret Six in 2008-09.  (One of my most prized possessions is an autographed script from Gail Simone of an issue of Secret Six from during their run together.)  The point is that I've been familiar with Scott's artwork for almost ten years, and it has always been fantastic.

Recently she and Greg Rucka have been doing an independent comic called Black Magick which I also cannot recommend highly enough.  Every now and then I find something that I love so much that I start handing out to anyone and everyone I know who will stand still long enough to take it from me.  One of these things is the novel Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.  I must have given away dozens of copies over the years.  Another of these is Black Magick.  I've pretty much cleaned out my local comics store so that I can do this.  It's a police procedural featuring a practicing Wiccan detective, and it's brilliant.

Wonder Woman Year One, however, has taken things to an entirely new and higher level.

Part Two of the story, which makes up issue #4 of the new series, details the meeting of Princess Diana and Steve Trevor and the decision of the Amazons to send an emissary to the outer world, an emissary who is chosen by a competition of all the Amazons to find their best.  Diana, the daughter of Queen Hippolyta, wins the competition and agrees to give up her immortality to become the Amazon ambassador to our world.

The artwork is heartbreakingly beautiful.

I am not exaggerating.  I was, quite literally, moved to tears, not once, but twice.  Once when Diana has to reveal to Steve that he is the only survivor of the crash that brought him to their island, and again when I turned the page to see the two-page spread that encompasses and condenses the Amazon Contest.  DC is printing the book on good quality paper and all of the subtle line work and coloring is presented in the best possible light.

I was unable to get permission to reproduce any of the artwork in time for this writing, but a sanctioned preview of the issue can be found here at the Diamond Comics Distributors PREVIEWS website.

I know that when I get around to plugging popular culture and comics, I get enthusiastic and trot out clich├ęs like, "run, don't walk, to your local shop and pick up a copy of YADDAYADDA now!"  So all I can tell you is that the latest run of Wonder Woman is the proverbial Real Deal, and whether or not you like comics, or read comics, or give a hoot about comics, you are doing yourself a real disservice by not picking up the Year One issues and reading them.

And you might want to grab a few issues of Black Magick while you're there.  Either way, you won't be sorry.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Alienating Everybody

Just a brief entry to let you all know that this week I managed to alienate the remaining members of my family, at least those about whom I care a great deal.

My sister made a very public post supporting Olympic athlete Michael Phelps' practice of cupping.  Cupping is the Traditional Chinese Medicine treatment where they put hot cups on your Qi Meridian points and as the cups cool, physics causes the flesh under the cups to get sucked up into the cup.  It's like the opposite of massage and is the reason Phelps swam with those big purple bruises all over his back and shoulders.  (No, he did not wrestle with a giant squid.  Although that would have been cool.)

Sadly, cupping is also COMPLETE BULLSHIT.  It has no medicinal value, and may do irreparable harm.  Those purple marks were bruises, and indicative of damaged tissue, which is never good.  I told my sister so in no uncertain terms, although I did so privately and not in her public forum.  (She is a well-know vegan chef and proponent of whole foods diets.)  Pretty sure she's majorly pissed off at me, regardless.

Secondly, my beloved aunt, the last living member of the generation before mine, sent me a long and detailed email about how it is the good Christian's duty to vote Trump this fall.  To which I replied, "Oh, HELL, no!"  I also may have said something to the effect that I would never, never, never give my vote to that narcissistic psychopath and would do everything in my power to see that he never gets to the White House.  So I'm pretty sure she's pissed off at me as well.

And you know what?

I'd do it again.

Cupping IS bullshit, and Trump IS completely unqualified and possibly dangerous.

Sorry, family.

Monday, July 25, 2016

United Airlines Service Is Terrible

"Fly the Friendly Skies," my @$$.

I am just back from a two-week vacation in Venice, Italy.  It was supposed to be the vacation of a lifetime.  We have been planning it for over a year.  A villa was rented along with friends and family, plans were made, reservations for museums and historic sites made, etc.  Last March I had our travel agent book our airline tickets.  Now in case I haven't mentioned it before, I am a tall person.  I am 6'5" tall, and I suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, and therefore I do not fold up easily or comfortably.  And if I hate one thing about air travel, it is when I have the head of the person in front of me in my lap for most of the trip.  So I instructed our travel agent to either get us Business Class seats or, if those were unavailable, bulkhead seats in Economy Plus.  We had tons of time and lots of notice, and our agent booked us with United Airlines.  It was great.  We had a direct flight to Marco Polo Internation Airport in Venice -- no changes, no layovers.  Although we were not able to get Business class reservations, we did -- for a hefty extra fee -- reserve two bulkhead seats in row 16. Confirmed.  I still have the e-ticket, and if it didn't have other personal information on it, I would share it with you right here.  "Seats 16 A/B ECONOMY PLUS BULKHEAD--CONFIRMED."

We try to be good travelers.  We pack our liquids properly; we have our electronic devices charged and ready to be shown to TSA agents; in short, we waste nobody's time including our own.  So we arrived at the airport three hours before our flight was scheduled.  And that's when the vacation started to go to hell.

United no longer has as many human agents for baggage check-in as they once did.  They now use electronic kiosks which scan either your e-ticket or your passport.  We scanned our passports, checked our one bag, and the machine spit out our seat assignments.  They were not together.  They were not even in Economy Plus.  They were in Coach.

I had brought all the necessary receipts, so I found a human, and showed them that I had paid extra for bulkhead seats, and had seat confirmation.  They treated me like a shoplifter.  Eventually a supervisor deigned to actually look on his terminal and saw that we had indeed paid for Economy Plus.  He found us two seats in Economy Plus, but they were not together.  And they were not bulkhead.  His suggestion was to "contact United customer service when you get back."

SERIOUSLY??!?!??!  When I get back?  I paid for these f--king seats TODAY, pal!

He DID do us the "favor" of arranging for us to sit together on the trip home.  In Plus.  But not at the bulkhead.  Not at the seats for which I still have the piece of paper telling me were confirmed.

We decided we would have better luck with the gate agent.  The first agent told us he'd look into it, but never touched his keyboard.  You know how sometimes when you're dealing with someone, you get a vibe that they have absolutely no interest or intention of helping you?  This guy was giving it off in waves.  After twenty minutes, we asked him again.  He said he was still looking into it.  He must have been using his psychic abilities, because he never looked at his terminal.  A second agent, a blonde woman, showed up.  We asked her.  Same crap, different person.  She was looking into it for us.  Again, using a crystal ball perhaps, but not her computer terminal.  Another twenty minutes, another agent. We asked her.  She actually tried to use the computer, but her password didn't work.  It was rapidly descending into absurdity.

Finally, our angel of mercy, a middle-aged woman named Martha Green, came over to the gate.  We told her our story from scratch.  She couldn't help with the bulkhead seats, she said, but she was able to get us seated together.  She did it in less than two minutes.  All it took was finding a solo passenger, and switching him with my wife.  She paged the guy to tell him about his new seat and when he didn't show up, she gave his new boarding pass to the lady at the gate and said simply, "When Mr. XXXXXX shows up, give him this."

So we left for Venice (two hours late, but that was a whole 'nother clusterf--k) but what should have been a joyous departure full of anticipation was instead full of anger and resentment.  And of course, I had some a-hole fully reclined in my lap for the trip, albeit with a bit more room thanks to our Plus seating.  And we had the same problem for the return trip looming over us for the entirety of our vacation.  (And indeed, on the trip home I once again had a short woman in front of me who felt the need to fully recline her seat for the entire 9-hour flight.  Awful.)

Our travel agent is trying to get us a refund of the bonus we paid for the seats we never got.  She did get the United agent she spoke with to admit that there was no earthly reason for us to have been bumped from our bulkhead seats.

United, if you are reading this (ha!) all I can tell you is that I don't want any coupons or miles, because I plan to never use your airline again if I can possibly avoid it.  I don't want any crappy merchandise with your logo on it, because I don't want to advertise anything but your lousy service.  I might accept free first class tickets to any destination you serve, but I think I'll see that only if hell freezes over.

No, what I really want is an apology.  And your assurance that the next poor slob who tries to reserve himself some comfort in advance isn't bumped because of greed, or stupidity, or to accommodate a friend of someone on the crew, or to butter up a loyal 100,000 mile United customer.  I don't know how it happened, and I don't care.

United, you effing OWE ME AN APOLOGY.

Friday, July 8, 2016

First Jobs In The Theatah (Plus Propmaking in the Stone Age!)

Before I have to disappear for a while thanks to some upcoming surgery, I wanted to at least get this out there.  So -- Chapter 3 in my story, for what it's worth.

After graduating with a 5-year degree in Drama, it was time to look for paying work.  At that time there was a massive "cattle call" style audition for something called the South East Theater Conference, or SETC.  Mostly it was used to help cast the giant "outdoor dramas" that were more popular back then than they are now.  Shows like "The Trail of Tears" and "The Book of Job" which ran all summer long in outdoor theaters, largely as tourist attractions.  But there were also dinner theaters and regional theaters doing casting as well.  I ultimately accepted an intern position at a dinner theater in Lexington, KY, which was supposed to offer room, board, a very small salary and a chance to learn the trade by working with more experienced professionals.  Sadly, it was grossly misrepresented and the interns were essentially slave labor.  Or at least indentured labor.  I did not learn anything new, but in fairness I was given the chance to put what I had learned at U.Va. into practice.  I did stage lighting, sound, prop creation, scenery building, and so forth.  The "room" turned out to be a cot in the basement of the owner's dad.  The "board" was dinner theater leftovers.  Luckily my sanity was saved by the fact that my roommate at U.Va. also took the same internship and we were thrown into it together.  I learned how to make props and dress sets on the cheap, by borrowing and scrounging and exchanging ad space in the programs for something essential (like, say, an antique candlestick telephone or a vintage lava lamp.)  I mostly wanted to perform, though; not intern as a stagehand, so I was always auditioning and lobbying for a chance to audition.  The owner was very reluctant to lose his cheap labor force, though, and resisted mightily.  I finally got a decent speaking part in "Fiddler On The Roof" and when the show closed, I was dismissed.  Not for anything wrong that I had done; hell, I taught them more about props and sound than they ever taught me.  I think the owner was just tired of having me try out instead of working in the shop.

I did leave them with some great stuff that I had learned how to do.  I built a vacuform machine for things like door moldings and set trimmings.  (A vacuform machine is basically a wooden frame that holds a sheet of thin plastic which you soften using heat.  Underneath this frame you place a mold of whatever you want to duplicate.  The top frame fits snugly over the bottom frame -- the one with the mold -- and is connected to a vacuum cleaner.  You put the softened plastic over the mold while sucking out the air and bam! instant mold.)

 A basic home-made vacuform machine.


 Photo courtesy of Punished Props: A vacuform machine with the mold in place, and with the molded softened plastic.  You can turn out as many copies of the mold as you need to make.

Another neat trick I left them with:  Making a bell with instant urethane moulding foam.  Instant foam is a two-ingredient product: you add Ingredient One to Ingredient Two and you get a growing mass of insulation-type foam.  If you place Ingredient One in a cup and add Ingredient Two to the center, it will "boil over" the rim of the cup and form the shape of a bell when it hardens.  It's versatile stuff, and in the days before EVA foam carving, it was used for a ton of different things.  Here's an incredibly boring video about it from the manufacturer:  



When I was actively making props, urethane foam and light woods like balsa were the tools I most often used.  Today's propmakers are doing insanely creative things with materials we never dreamed of using.  Things like floor mats and a moldable material called Worbla are de rigeur work materials for props and armor, and being from another age, I have almost no experience with them.  About the only props I've made recently are a lightsaber hilt (from leftover plumbing materials) and a steampunk style Doctor Who sonic screwdriver.

My homemade lighsaber.  Yoda is not losing any sleep.

And that's pretty much it.  About ten years into my career as an actor, I was still working children's theater and dinner theater.  It was fun and rewarding, and for the most part paid the bills, but then I began getting more and more sick from Crohn's Disease.  I also began having other autoimmune-disease related problems that have since been diagnosed as things like rheumatoid arthritis and some weird neurological degeneration thing similar to ALS that affects my sensory nerves more than my motor nerves and has caused peripheral neuropathy.  When I collapsed on stage during a performance and turned out to need a transfusion of 11 pints of blood thanks to an internal hemorrhage (thanks to Crohn's) I knew I had to seriously start looking at my life.  I didn't think I could continue to live out of my suitcase as an itinerant performer any more.

I basically decided to look at things I loved.  I knew I didn't want to do anything that would directly or indirectly harm the environment, and I knew I loved books and reading.  I knew that my favorite work-study job back in college had been at the library.  So I learned to become a librarian.  I eventually met my wife, had a kid, and stayed in the library business a lot longer than I would have been able to stay an actor.  Ultimately I had to quit that job, too, because of poor health. 

Which brings me to today.  I am effectively disabled thanks to autoimmune disease.  I find it difficult to leave the house most days because I am chained to the plumbing, so to speak, but thanks to the internet I don't feel as trapped as I certainly would have a generation ago.  I have a wife and a daughter whom I love very much, and to whom I dedicate these scribbles.

For what it's worth to you, that's my story.