Monday, September 29, 2008

Monday Odds and Ends

Is it really the last week of September? Really?

Sorry to step away last week -- deadlines and Life Away From The Internets were both calling. But lots of interesting little things going on.

First, the geothermal system is up and running. We turned it on last week, it fired up immediately, and with the quirky weather we've been having -- cold and windy one day, warm and rainy the next -- we've had a chance to try out both the heating and the air conditioning. For what I am guessing is the first time in the life of the house, there's a constant temperature, and low humidity, in every room, and we're listening for creaks and groans as the floors and walls finally adjust to the change in temperature. We're in the process now of getting the house back in order, moving everything back into the attic and basement storage spaces that we had to clear out to make way for retro-fitting the duct work. Slow going, but we're getting there. I'm hoping to have my new basement office up and running by . . . well, maybe the end of October, if I'm lucky.

Over on the blog of Agent Jonathan Lyons, Agent J is hosting his first ever trivia contest on October 1. Go play. And if you're one of the three lucky winners, you can choose from one of three prizes: a query critique and evaluation of your first five pages, an evaluation of your first thirty pages, or a free book from one of his clients. Like me. Or Jaye. Or David. Or Edward. Well, you get the idea. Have fun.

So, didja see this story last week? About the Bernalillo County (New Mexico) Republican Chairman putting his foot in it and declaring that "Hispanics consider themselves above blacks" and won't vote for Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama? Here's the story from the Albuquerque Journal, "GOP Official's Comments Ignite Calls for His Removal".

I bring this to your attention because that's my Mom (who I blogged about back here), checking in on the matter:

Elaine Miller, a vice chairwoman of the Bernalillo County Republican Party, said C de Baca is scheduled to meet this morning with members of the county party's executive board.

Stepping down "would be in his best interest, so we could get it behind us. So it doesn't affect the election," said Miller, who under party rules would become county chairwoman if C de Baca leaves.
Well, the chairman did step down, but my Mom -- rather than move up as chairwoman, as the rules provide -- agreed, in the name of party unity, to unanimously support the appointment of a new chairman. It was a generous, decidedly unselfish move, and I'm really proud of my mom.

Over on her blog, Josephine Damian is talking about Internet addiction with her usual candor and aplomb. Are the Internets a blessing or a distraction? Opinions differ -- but go see what she has to say, and let her know what you think. She's right here.

Finally, I meant to announce this earlier, but I've been asked by the Goshen Historical Preservation Society to speak about Washington Irving at their meeting on October 16. The meeting is at 7:30 at the Church of Nazarene in Goshen. If you're in the area, come on by. I'm pretty sure it's free -- but I'll put up more information when I get it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Group Hug

Last night I attended the first post-summer break meeting of the Washington Biography Group, "an informal gathering of people who write memoirs or biography," as our semi-sort of official bylaws read, "attended by professional writers as well as people writing personal or family memoirs (and a few who are working up the courage to do so)." I was initiated into the group more than a year ago by Linda Lear (of Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature fame) and it's more of a support group than an instructional one (though that happens, too), as more than 50 writers, readers, and enthusiasts sit and share stories. It's always a useful and pleasant way to pass two hours.

Since this was our first meeting since late Spring (we take summers off), we spent the evening updating the group on how we spent our summers, and it's always interesting to hear the wide variety of projects people are working on. Works in progress include books on 19th century naval heroes, Marty Robbins, Mary Wickes, Russian czars, concentration camp survivors, and institutionalized family members. And that's just for starters.

Other highlights included:

* Linda Lear sharing her frustration on the difficulty of changing publishers to reissue her Rachel Carson biography (and re-clearing alllll your rights);

* Diane Diekman (Live Fast, Love Hard: The Faron Young Story) gushing with excitement about meeting Mel Tillis during her research -- and learning he was a fan of her work;

* Marc Pachter enthusing on the tones of forgiveness in John Lahr's Notes On A Cowardly Lion: and

* My colleague at Arcade, Dr. Stephen Weissman, discussing his forthcoming book on Charlie Chaplin, which I can't wait to get my hands on.

All in all, a terrific meeting. And I think I should add: you don't need to be a writer to attend the meetings. If you're a reader who's passionate about biography, history, or non-fiction, you'll fit right in. Our next meeting is October 27, at the Washington International School in Washington, DC.

The Washington Biography Group home page is here. Linda Lear's home page is here, Diane Diekman's is here, and Stephen Weissman's Chaplin book is right here.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Collecting Collections, Continued

While we're on the subject of comics collections, a reader e-mailed to ask me if I prefer reading stories in their collected format, as opposed to their original, off-the-rack comic form.

I've got an answer, but let me declare some caveats first.

I like being able to pick up trade paperback collections of complete stories -- particularly of titles I've never read -- not only because it's easier than tracking down the back issues needed to compile, say, issues 45 to 54 of Super Grim and Morose Guy, but it's also cheaper. I like the ease of having everything in one compact, bound book, and being able to tuck it into a briefcase, where I can read it on the Metro or an airplane and lie about it being mine.

As for titles I already read and collect -- like Sandman -- I like being able to read and re-read the stories, or even loan the collection to others, safe in the knowledge that my original issues remain in Overstreet Price Guide Near Mint condition. Not because I want to sell them, but because . . . well, I just like them in nice condition.

But when it comes right down to it, I'm a purist. As much as I like glossy trade paperback or hardback collections, I still prefer comics in their clumsily beautiful, easily damaged, and thus completely perfect comic book format.

I think part of it lies in the fact that, to me, comics are historical documents (they are, after all, technically periodicals). There's a strangely satisfying tactile pleasure in holding an issue in your hands, looking at the glossy cover (and the price! While I never lived in the golden age when comics were a dime, I do remember when they were forty cents!), and smelling the pulp paper and ink. Each issue is a snapshot of the moment in time when it was published -- something lost in the translation over to a more timeless trade paperback.

While advertisements are usually annoying, they do provide an almost twisted historical sense to the reading experience, blaring in all their retro glory about Ataris and Super Nintendos, Dingo boots and fruit-flavored drinks, and Saturday morning cartoons. And on the creative side of things, I like seeing how the writers -- who knew in advance where the full-page ads would be placed -- sometimes work the page break into the rhythm of the story, providing a beat just before a major epiphany or plot advancement.

A trade paperback is also missing an important part of the personality of the original comic: the letters columns. Sandman, for example, was home to one of the most annoyingly pretentious lettercols in comics history; yet it's still fascinating -- especially with hindsight -- to watch readers debate who the prodigal member of the Endless might be, submit bizarre haikus about cats, and speculate on who might die in the closing pages of the final story arc. Lettercols provide readers with a sense of community that's missing from the trade paperback collection -- and while their absence from the trade paperback is understandable, it's still regrettable.

And finally, there was always something exciting in reaching that final page and landing on a cliffhanger that would carry you into the next issue. I remember reading each issue of Alan Moore's Watchmen as they were published in the late 1980s, poring over every panel, reading and re-reading every issue until the next one arrived -- and each one was usually late, so it took about 16 months for all 12 issues to be published.

But that anticipation was part of what made the reading experience so memorable. When I reached the end of issue 7 -- where Dan Drieberg says "I think we should spring Rorschach." -- I couldn't just turn the page and read the next chapter; I had to wait weeks. That's an experience I can't have with the trade paperback.

That said, I'll still continue to read trade paperbacks and other collections. But I still can't help feeling I'm missing something.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Collecting Collections

I just finished reading the first gorgeous volume of Neil Gaiman's Absolute Sandman, and got to thinking about my collector's mentality. I bought every issue of Sandman right off the comics rack in the 1980s and 1990s. I also purchased each of the paperback reprints as they appeared (including the boxed set of the first three) and I've been buying the Absolute editions as soon as they've been published. That means I've got three versions of the same story, in three different formats.

Why? What compels me, and others, to keep shelling out for new versions of stories we already own?

Here was my mentality, at least, going into it (and this is my version of events, mind you -- my wife may differ): when the paperbacks came out, I purchased them to have them on hand for those times when I wanted to re-read the stories, but didn't want to put the wear-and-tear on the original comics because, y'know, you don't want to ruin your comics from frequent re-reading.

And stuff.

*wrings hands*

Anyway, that's all very well, then, so why purchase the Absolute editions? Well, because each volume has all sorts of New and Improved Great Stuff in it, like Gaiman's original pitch to DC Comics (see? Even Neil Gaiman had to pitch an editor!), and copies of some of his scripts and rough pencils from great stories like "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Plus, the books themselves are just plain nice, with black leather covers, cloth bookmarks, and shiny slipcases. It's the sort of book that a bibliophile just has to touch, turn over, weigh in the hands, and, yes, read. You can't help it.

I know. That's exactly the mentality that the Powers That Be at DC are hoping for. "We'll dangle just enough new stuff in front of you," they cackle as they count their shekels, "that you'll keep right on buying different editions of the same thing!" You laugh, but be honest: how many times have you bought a favorite DVD multiple times, just because the studio released the first version in 2002, then a remastered letterboxed version in 2004, and finally a special 2-disc "Anniversary Edition!" in 2007?

Still, I've made some progress lately in shaking my Collector Mentality. For the first time ever, I gave away the original paperback reprints, shipping them off to my brother in Montana.

Er, except for the boxed set of the first three. Because you can't go completely cold turkey, you know.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Jolly Old St. Nicholas

I got a typically pleasant note from my editor the other day informing me that Washington Irving got a nice mention in The Weathercock, the newsletter from the 175-year-old St. Nicholas Society of New York.

The piece is more of a summary of Irving's life than an actual review, though the reviewer notes warmly that in Irving, "one sees distinctly the lineaments of the quintessential and archetypal Saint Nicholas Society member." Given that the Society wanted to burn me in effigy for neglecting to give them a specific shout out in WI,* it's a nice little piece. I'll take it.

The St. Nicholas Society of New York's home page is right here. And my thanks to them for the very kind mention.

* I'm kidding. But only a little.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Getting Better All The Time...

I know it seems I say this EVERY week . . . but I've been assured that the geothermal system will go live today. No, really. The wells are complete -- and have been connected to the house -- and the majority of the work has been completed inside. But now the two have to be linked together -- and that's what's going on today. By the time I get home this afternoon, I should be walking into a house that's finally temperature-regulated.

More than anything, it'll be nice to finally start to reclaim the house, which has been a disaster area for the last six weeks. I've started to work on the backyard, which was a sludgy gray mess, and now -- as you can see from the pic below -- looks like the surface of Mars:

In this little corner of Maryland, our soil is crammed with layers of shale, which get chewed up any time you push a shovel in the ground, and break off in enormous chunks. You can pick up the big stuff, but no matter how much you scoop up, you'll keep finding big pieces of it for weeks, as if it were burrowing to the surface on its own. Which it probably is.

As for the inside, everything we removed from the basement and crawlspace is still crammed in the spare bedroom, my old office, the front parlor, and dining room. The rest of the house is covered in dust from all the cutting and drilling.

But there's progress. Here's the space in the basement, for example, that I cleared out -- and painted white -- all ready to receive the heating/cooling unit:

And here it is as of today, with the unit squatting in place and the ductwork fitted almost perfectly into the space:

And then, of course, there's still this darn thing sitting in the boiler room, ready to be taken apart and taken out:

Typical of my luck, we discovered the doggone thing was not actually empty, even though our furnace stopped burning any fuel from it late last Spring. Apparently there's a clog in the pipe that funnels fuel from the tank to the boiler. So we've got to figure out a way to pipe the remaining fuel -- about 70 to 100 gallons, we think -- from our tank over to our neighbor's tank, about eighty feet away. We can't move it out until then, or it's considered a hazard.

More later. Here's hoping we're up and running this afternoon!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

I Remember.

So many images from that day seven years ago are burned into our collective American consciousness: the plane hitting the second tower. Bodies tumbling through the air like ragdolls. Blackened firemen shouting over the din. Bankers, brokers, deli owners and commuters, fleeing downtown Manhattan.

Let me tell you what was going on in Washington, DC, that morning.

In September 2001, I was working for a small non-profit in downtown DC, in an office building in the Dupont Circle neighborhood, less than a mile from the White House. That morning, I took the Metro to the Farragut West station and walked the five or so blocks to my office, arriving around 7:30 a.m. As I always did – and still do – I turned the television in my office on to the morning news.

It was a slow news day – the biggest news in DC was Michael Jordan’s move to the Washington Wizards – and the talking heads so chattered on about nothing that morning that eventually – at about 8:40 or so – I changed the channel to C-SPAN.

Because I’d changed the channel, I completely missed CNN’s first report – at 8:49 a.m. -- on Flight 11 hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center. I still had C-SPAN on when Flight 175 hit the south tower at 9:03 a.m., and remained unaware that something monumental was going on until I received an e-mail from a colleague in another organization, urging us to turn our televisions to CNN regarding a "probable terrorist attack." I turned my television over to CNN, and four coworkers and I stood in my office, watching – just as you did – as the drama unfolded in New York City.

And then, at 9:37 a.m., Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.

Our first notice that something had happened was a crawl on CNN, reporting that a helicopter had crashed on takeoff at the Pentagon -- a report that was almost immediately modified to report a "huge fire." I turned to look out my window – a south-facing view mostly of the building across the street, but in one of those holy shit moments I’ll never forget, I could see the sky was already filled with black and orange smoke from the Pentagon fire, about four miles south of my office.

There were a number of confused phone calls from family, friends, and colleagues outside of the area who had learned of the attacks and were calling to see if we were okay, and urging us to get out of the city. That was easier said than done – I had taken the Metro in to work, but with a possible terrorist attack underway in the nation’s capital, I was nervous about getting on an underground train, remembering with a shudder the sarin attacks in a Japanese subway.

The complete lack of information, while understandable, made me angry. One report claimed a car bomb had gone off at the State Department. (Given that we were only a few blocks away and had heard nothing, that seemed doubtful.) Another said the National Mall was on fire (an error based on the huge amount of smoke coming from the Pentagon). Reports were coming in that the Capitol was being evacuated (true), that a plane had been spotted flying in over the White House and was being shot down (untrue), and that martial law had been declared in the District (patently false).

With the city on the verge of shutting down – and with no information coming in that we felt we could rely on – we had no idea what to do. Finally, the five of us decided we would all climb into one car, head southwest across the Potomac River into the Fairfax region of Northern Virginia, and then wing it. At the very least – or so our logic went – we would be out of the city.

It was a beautiful day in Washington that morning – clear, crisp, and slightly warm — but as we pulled out of the garage in our building, it was almost eerily quiet. Cars moved slowly and deferentially down 19th Street toward the National Mall, where every driver in western DC obviously planned on taking the Eisenhower Bridge across the Potomac into Rosslyn, Virginia. All incoming traffic had been stopped, so all lanes were open leaving the city.

We crawled along — again quietly and respectfully, as if we all appreciated that we were all doing the same thing, for the same reason. With the weather so warm, nearly every car had its windows open, and the radios were blaring as we all tried to get some sort of news. In our car, we listened to Howard Stern (and say what you will, he reported courageously and magnificently that day, trying hard to filter out unverified information, and taking calls from New Yorkers providing harrowing, sometimes hysterical, eyewitness accounts) and rotated down the dial toward local coverage.

We were sitting on Constitution Avenue, stuck in traffic as we moved toward the bridge. Every car had its radio playing, and as we all waited to take our turns moving onto the bridge, people leaving town on foot would stop and lean in through the windows of stopped cars to listen to the radio. When the cars moved ahead, pedestrians would resume walking, until traffic stopped again, at which point the walkers would all poke their heads in through the window of another car, leaning on the doorframe like we were all old friends sharing news and gossip. Which, that day, we were.

As we moved onto the Eisenhower Bridge — with pedestrians continuing to stick their heads in rolled-down windows — a minivan, already crammed full of people, pulled across three lanes of stopped traffic, threw open its doors, and waved inside a young mother pushing a stroller.

That’s a moment I’ll never forget.

Humanity, I love you.

Seven years later, sometimes in spite of it all, I still do.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Scott, Stink, Skelter, and ScreamTV

Naw, it's not the Four Horsemen of the Nerd Apocalypse; it's just screenwriter, director, Friday the 13th novelist, comic book writer-and-drawer, and good pal Scott Phillips ("the other one," he says) being interviewed over at, where he talks about writing, killer hippies, filmmaking on a budget, Kamen Rider, and why ComiCon doesn't suck, in spite of the commercialism.

Scott's a talented fellow and one of the funniest guys I know (check out his latest comic, Drawtard), but he's also quick to dispense with steaming buckets of good advice like this:
And if you're one of those people who says things like, "If I just didn't have to work my day job, I could get so much done," stop making excuses and start DOING STUFF. When I was younger, I worked a physically exhausting job installing gas pumps and underground tanks, came home, washed the gasoline off myself, then sat down and wrote. Put away the videogames and write a script or make a movie. I know some very talented people who talk all the time about the various projects they want to do, but they never get off their asses and work on anything. Talent is great, but it doesn't mean as much as determination and discipline, in the long run.
Check out Scott's interview right here, and visit his webpage by diving in here. While you're at it, order Scott's latest film, Gimme Skelter, or at least Netflix the thing, for cryin' out loud.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Booze Up and Riot!

In no particular order -- and for no particular reason (I'm not even in a bad mood!) -- here are Things That Bug Me:

* Child Actors Who Shout Their Lines.

Shouting your dialogue does not make it funny or more entertaining. Yes, I am talking to you, Cole and Dylan Sprouse from The Suite Life of Dumb and Dumber. It didn't work for Larry Mathews from The Dick Van Dyke Show, nor for Christopher Olsen from The Man Who Knew Too Much. Cut it out.

* Debit Card Readers That Ask Too Many Questions

You know what I'm talking about. You've waited in line at CVS for twenty minutes just so you can buy a lousy Coke Zero. You get to the register, swipe your card in the card reader, and punch in your four digit code.

Want cash back? the machine asks.

You push the button for "No."

>Total is $1.59. Is this okay?


>Are you sure?


>Are you REALLY sure?


>Cuz I can do this over again. Want to start over?


>Are you sure?


>Is that, 'Yes, I'm sure I want to start over?' or 'Yes, I'm sure I don't?"

Wait, what? CANCEL! CANCEL! *mashes keys with palm*



* Learning That Wonderfully Crappy 80s bands like Loverboy, A Flock of Seagulls, Bananarama, and Men Without Hats, are "Back In The Studio Working on a New Album."

Trust me, Haircut 100, no one is really all that excited about your new songs or a new album. Just sing "Love Plus One," collect your check, and move on.

* Getting DVDs From Netflix That Skip

This is happening more frequently as Netflix gets more and more popular. Really, there can't be that many people renting The Pacifier, can there? Then why does each disc show up looking like it's been used in an Ultimate Frisbee competition? And why does every defective disc seem to stop working right as the movie approaches its denouement? I need closure, darn it.

* The Phrase "Whole 'Nother."

The word you want is "another." That's it. You say, "that's another topic," and not "That's a whole 'nother topic." I know, I know -- it's sorta dropped into the vernacular. But that doesn't mean it doesn't drive me crazy.

And while we're on the subject . . .

* Talking Heads Who Repeatedly Use The Phrase "Drank The Kool-Aid"

I'm not a fan of this phrase to begin with, but Anderson Cooper must have said it 200 times during the Democratic convention -- and the more he used it, the more his co-anchors followed his lead and dropped it into their own comments. Enough already. After ten references, it just sounds dumb.

* Those Weird Infomercials That Use Sets Resembling Larry King Live

Have you seen these yet? They're usually for get rick quick schemes or dietary supplements, and the producers of the infomercials have very cleverly decorated the set to resemble a somewhat generic Larry King Live set, complete with the colored dot map in the background, the curved interview table, and the big microphones. Like we're gonna be fooled into thinking Larry King wants to discuss the value of coffee enemas on his show.

Oh. Wait.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Trophy Room

Does anyone here really follow the sage advice "Never read your reviews?" It's advice nearly as old as the printed word itself ("Gutenberg! Put down that copy of Ye Kirkus Reviews, and don't believe a word they say about 'making religion too common...'!") and while many writers over the centuries have both dispensed the advice and claimed to follow it, the truth is, most of them read their reviews with a devoted fervor. Just like we do.

Do you keep them, though? I'll be the first to admit to being a packrat and collector -- while I finally threw out copies of articles I'd written for my college newspaper, I still have copies of an old Batman fanzine I wrote for back in the late 1980s -- but when it came to reviews of my own work, I wasn't sure how I was going to feel about them. At the very least, I was going to clip them out and save hard copies in a file some place -- unless, of course, they were all bad reviews, in which case I would claim I never read them, throw out my laptop, curl up in the fetal position, and suck my thumb.

Fortunately, that didn't happen. But apart from filing it away, what do you do with a good review? Within weeks of its release, Washington Irving was featured in the "Required Reading" section of the New York Post, and I was so thrilled, I printed it out and framed it. Then came a positive review from the Associated Press. Great, that goes on the wall, too. The New York Times? You bet. The Washington Post Book World? And it was on the cover? Absolutely.

I'm torn about it, though. Because while I'm a packrat, I'm not, for example, one of those people who ever hung up my college diploma. The Big Official Certificate I received when I was awarded a Presidential Scholarship sits in a manila folder in a box in the basement. Even letters I received from several Senators thanking me for help on one piece of legislation or another are languishing in a cardboard box. I treasure them all, certainly, and they're all saved and valued as important mile markers on the road of my life. While I never put them out on display, neither could I bring myself to throw them out.

I hope, and think, my approach to reviews -- both good and bad -- will be similar to that of our next door neighbor, a feisty New Zealander, who is not only one of my favorite people in the world, but also happens to be a first class rock and roll drummer. Since the early 1970s, he's recorded and toured with the best, and he was the drummer of preference for Eva Cassidy, a dynamite, up-and-coming jazz singer who died too young in 1996.

One evening, while Barb and I were enjoying a terrific dinner at his home with him and his wife, I excused myself to use their downstairs restroom, a small half-bath only slightly larger than a closet. And there on the wall of this little bathroom was a gold record he had been awarded for playing drums on Eva's Songbird album.

A gold record.

In the bathroom.

That, more than anything, should help us all keep things in perspective. That gold record was a beautiful reminder of something he had accomplished -- but, as our friend always points out, that was all part of his past. He was proud of it, but was still moving forward.

Reviews and awards are nice -- and, I would argue, important. But they're also a tribute to your past. I've looked at mine on the walls for the last half year. But when I move to my new office space, I'll likely put most of them (most of them) in a drawer, close it with a satisfied bang!, and start typing away on the next project.

How about you? What do you do with reviews and clippings?

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Right Kind of Republican Woman

Given that John McCain formally accepted the Republican nomination for President last night, I’d like to say a few words, if I may . . . about my mom.

For the past week, my mom has been an Official Voting Delegate for the State of New Mexico – meaning she was down there on the floor of the convention all week in St. Paul, and when each state formally cast its ballot to nominate McCain, my mom got to determine how New Mexico voted. But more than just the formalities of the nomination, my mom’s had a great view of the proceedings. If you’ve seen the floor plans of the seating chart for the convention, you’ll see that New Mexico – since it’s considered a swing state – has some primo seating right near the front.

My mom has been a Republican for as long as I can remember. Even before I was aware of politics, I remember sitting with my parents in our house in Albuquerque, watching the returns come in on the 1976 election and hoping against hope that Gerald Ford wasn’t going to lose to the upstart Jimmy Carter. Why? I didn’t know – I just knew it was important to my mom, and so it was important to me.

But here’s what’s really interesting about my mom: she’s the kind of Republican the current guardians of party hate: she’s pro-choice, doesn’t believe in creationism, supports gay marriage, thinks a bit of responsible gun control is reasonable, and doesn’t think a lack of religion automatically makes someone immoral or valueless. My mom believes in better government (which doesn’t always necessarily mean a smaller one), responsible budgeting, and keeping government regulation out of your private life. That’s the Republican message I heard from my mom my whole life—and thus, when it came time for me to register to vote at age 18, I had no problem registering Republican, either.

Anyway, those views no longer hold up so well in a party that’s become increasingly evangelical, and my mom – despite impressively winning a seat as a delegate – has felt like something of a pariah at the convention. As a self-proclaimed moderate, she’s a bit of an oddity—which also means she’s also been actively sought out by the BBC and CBS, for example, who are genuinely interested in hearing what she thinks. She’s relatively high on McCain (though she always sounds sorta like someone talking up a blind date), but when I talked with her two days after the Palin announcement to see what she thought, her response was typically diplomatic: "I’m still listening." This was before Palin’s acceptance speech, so I’ll have to see what my mom thinks now.

To her credit, she’s always been perfectly understanding when both my brother and I announced that we just couldn’t do it, and would be voting for other candidates. In 2004, for example, I threw away my shot and voted Libertarian. This election, I’ve already made it clear that I’ll be voting Democrat. That disappointed most of my Republican friends, I know -- but not my mom.

I’ve gotta hand it to her – and this is yet another of those reasons why I love and admire my mom: unlike, say, me – a registered Republican who’s gotten crabby and cynical about the Republican party and has all but given up – my mom is still hanging in there, trying to make things better. She was in St. Paul, working hard to make it clear to reporters, analysts, and even other Republicans that you can still be a Republican even if you believe in funding for the arts, or don't go to church every Sunday.

Mom, I hope you can do it. This is, after all, the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Republicans can, and should, live by their example -- and yours.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Bill Melendez (1916-2008)

If you love Charlie Brown, you loved Bill Melendez. But you probably didn't know it.

Back in the 1960s, when it came time to turn Charles Schulz's hyper-successful Peanuts comic strip into the animated cartoon that would eventually be called A Charlie Brown Christmas, animator José Cuauhtemoc "Bill" Melendez was the man hand-picked by Schulz for the job. Taking Schulz's almost impossibly simple lines and turning them into moving images was tough, but Melendez -- who had cut his teeth at an upstart animation studio called Disney in the late 1930s -- figured out the mechanics of making the images work.

"Charlie Brown has a big head, a little body and little feet," Melendez told the LA Times in 2000. "Normally, a human takes a step every 16 frames -- about two-thirds of a second. But Sparky's [Schulz's] characters would look like they were floating at that pace. After several experiments, I had them take a step every six frames -- one-fourth of a second. . . . It was the only way that worked."

Melendez's fingerprints were all over the first Peanuts television specials -- as well as the first full-length film, A Boy Named Charlie Brown -- giving initially-skeptical studio heads confidence in the characters as a viable animation franchise. More importantly, Melendez gave life to characters that had previously existed only on the comics page, and created some of the most influential, and iconic, bits of animation in popular culture. (Listen to the jazz riff "Linus and Lucy" from A Charlie Brown Christmas and see if you can do it without immediately thinking of various characters dancing goofily, shoulders out, heads lolling from side to side. You can't, can you? I'll bet you even did those dances yourself.)

Technical prowess aside, Melendez also gave voice to Snoopy, providing him with the now-familiar groans, yips, and laughter.

Bill Melendez died on September 2, 2008, at age 91.

Good grief, indeed.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Into the Homestretch . . . But Still A Mess

From the Thanks for Asking! Department, we're still in the process of installing the geothermal system, so we're not yet basking in the luxury of indoor cooling -- but we're getting there. Two 350-foot wells have been drilled and a loop of black tubing has been run down each, then grouted into place inside each well. The two open ends of each black tube are now sticking out of each well, ready to be tied into the main system. And as you can see, it's a complete mess:

That gray sludge you see is pulverized bedrock -- which, once it mixed with the bit of water that came out of the ground, has now taken on the consistency of putty. At the moment, walking across this section of our yard is like walking on a waterbed. I've been assured that all this yucky stuff will be scraped off and buried in the trench that will connect the wells with the house.

Speaking of messes, our HVAC crew is doing yeoman's work in removing the old boiler-based system from the house. The 80-year-old boiler -- which was too heavy for me to remove from the basement myself -- has been expertly dismantled and hauled away, and now the 4-year-old replacement boiler has also been disconnected and is waiting to be shipped to the Great Scrap Iron Heap in the Sky:

All that other junk in the background? Also stuff that came out of the boiler room. Yup, it's gross.

The rest of the work is scheduled to be completed early next week, and the system should be fired up by mid-week. I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

I Love This Town!

Can it really be post-Labor Day already? Weather-wise, it doesn't seem like it -- although we've been blessed with cooler temperatures in Maryland for most of the summer, more heat is on the way, and the lack of rain has turned every yard in town a crispy brown. Still, it won't be long before the flowers start to fade and trees start to shed.

In our neck of the woods, though, Labor Day marks more than just the start of the turn toward autumn; it's also the beginning of the drop in tourists and out-of-town visitors that make Washington, D.C. such a mess during the summer. Suddenly, public parking lots near the monuments are empty. The Smithsonians look like abandoned, though perfectly-preserved, warehouses, giving you lots of time to stroll and read every sign. The Metro is all but deserted, giving you room to spread out and lay your bags or the newspaper in the seat next to you.

Barb, Madi and I went into the District on Saturday evening -- not yet Labor Day at that time, I know, but the crowds were already down -- for a leisurely walk through the Ripley Gallery, where there's a terrific exhibit on the works of Jim Henson, and a slow stroll through the Natural History Museum, where there was a nature photo exhibit Madi wanted to see. After dinner at the DC Hard Rock Cafe (where we sat below a large frame holding . . . well, somebody's bandana, we were never sure whose...), we then walked the west end of National Mall to visit some of the sites as the sun was going down.

It was dusk as we stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, with a slight haze as the heat of the day burned off. Looking east from the steps, here's the view we had:

And then this, directly behind us:

I love this town.