Monday, December 31, 2012

Tom the Collector of Everything

It's that time of year when like the two faced Roman God Janus we look forwards and backwards into our lives. My one friend, Tom the Collector of Everything, takes a couple of extra days off to take inventory on all the things he found this year and some of the things he going to focus on next year. One of Tom's prize possessions is his collection is his comic books.

I wanted to start off the blog this year writing about one of several people I know that could be described as artistically motivated. It's disheartening to notice how many people are only motivated by money, fear and anger. It's barely a step up if you include religion and politics. I don't want to indulge in some kind of chauvinism by claiming artists are a better class of people. Half the artist I've known couldn't balance a check book or they had the emotional stability of nitroglycerin but if you asked them about the big philosophical questions in live -they kind of had an answer. As all the rest of my friends and acquaintances usually responded with some version of how to hell do I know.     

Tom is an exceptional person, he has seven kids, he is now a widower and for years worked as a delivery truck driver -though he has supplemented his income as an illustrator and trader of comic books. His comic book collection alone is over 100,000 issues. That's a staggering number. To give you an idea how big that is, at one time Tom had them stored at his parents house in his old childhood bedroom. His parents asked Tom to remove the comic books because the weight if them was beginning to structurally compromise the house. He has built this collection on almost a zero budget. People in the industry know Tom and several times has been on local TV in the Philadelphia market to talk about comic books.

So what's on his list for 2013 ?  First we start off with the humor magazine Help. It's a personal favorite right out of the Don Drapper / Mad Men era. Like most magazines and self published zines, they burn bright for a short time and then fade away into obscurity. From 1960 - 1965, 26 issues of Help was on the news stands and in the magazine racks. The material was a little more mature than Mad magazine but didn't quite have the bite of the National Lampoon which started publishing in the 1970's.

Magazines and comic books are mostly transient and ephemeral -something that reflects the time they are printed and doesn't always successfully re-invent itself for the next generation. Even the National Lampoon, as successful as it was stopped really being funny by 1985 and finally went out of print by the late 1990's. Humor is rarely hip from one generation to another. Help had plenty of jokes and articles that fit the time with material from Cid Caesar,  Jonathan Winters and Ernie Kovacs. There's even stuff from Terry Gilliam and John Cleese from before they were pythons members -with a photo comic strip of John Cleese on a date with a Barbie Doll.

Number two on the list is Negro Romance. There were several true romance comic books specially for the African American audience but this was back in the 1950's. The Civil Rights Movement was only beginning to make any progress and in large parts of America it was really unsafe to be a "racial minority". All the issues were printed in relatively small numbers. I was told they were unofficially banned in some states and sold from under the counter in other places. There almost no pristine copies and the few that go up for sale have been loving read and reread -and even handed down from an older sibling or relative to a younger one. It's not difficult to imagine these comic books were beacons of hope where in the face of open oppression there was still a chance at falling in love.and having a healthy and meaningful relationship.

Now there are a bunch of titles from the 1930's to the early 1960's that are not really comic books nor are they traditional magazines. They were usually marketed for children and young teens. The articles weren't always meant for passive reading but instead were directions to fun activities.

Boy's Life is one of those activity publications and it was able to stay in print because it's the monthly magazine of the Boy Scouts of America. But there were other youth organization other than the scouts. One of those organizations that I'm aware of is Pioneer Girls though that has evolved into Pioneer Clubs for both boys and girls. The Pioneer Girls was very popular 50 years ago in just about any rural town with a Baptist Church.

One time I was cleaning up after an estate sale. Took with me several boxes of unsold stuff. In one box was there was dozens of old comic books and magazines from the 1940's. Of course I had to share my find with Tom. Most of comic books were in poor shape and not worth muck but there were six issues of Calling All Girls. At first I didn't think anything of it until Tom when through the history of the magazine. Tom also knew a buyer. So what would have been thrown in the trash ended up being a small windfall of $50. As an added benefit I met Tom's friend Loop -he runs the coolest little comic book shop in Berlin NJ. So recently Tom mentioned that he kind of regrets not buying those magazines from back then but if I see any more copies of Calling All Girls, I should contact him first.

So far on Tom's list is Help, Negro Romance and Calling All Girls. But I was starting to wonder if Tom was searching for anything a little more edgy.

Now where ever money and fame cross paths it seems the worse of human nature come out. The most famous and profitable comic book character after Micky Mouse is Superman. The story of how Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were "negotiated" into selling their rights to Superman for $130, it was probably the most one-sided deal since the Dutch bought Manhattan.

 Life was never financial easy for for either Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Jerry Siegel continued to script stories and draw for DC comics often under the name Joe Carter. For Joe Scuster things were even tougher. He did some unaccredited work for several horror comic books in 1950's, then dabbled in pop art in the 1960's and because of his failing eyesight ended up working as a deliveryman. Both Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster sued DC comics / Time-Warner in 1975 over the rights to Superman. In the end they only won a token settlement of $20,000 each, per year, for the rest of their lives and their names was restored as the recognized creators of Superman.

It's the 1950's Nights of Horror was one of those low quality publications that could only be found in adult stores and it retailed for $2 - $4 a copy. The average worker brought home less than $50 a week. A group of boys known as the Brooklyn Thrill Killers viciously beat and drown a man. The Police arrest all four members of the gang and in the course of the investigation they found copies of Nights of Horror. This leads to an Congressional investigation to find a connection between pornography and juvenile delinquency.

And what's the common thread? -Joe Shuster. Though his name is not on any of the art work experts today say that all of the illustrations have his style and the characters in Nights of Horror look very similar to Lois Lane and Clark Kent.

More times than not people throw out old pornography than try to resell it. Check your neighbor's trash -but as Tom would say never judge, there could gold in that vintage smut. Today most people don't realize how much of a connection there was between pornography and the first comic book companies but that's another story for later.

A young Steven King was in the attic of his family home. In a box he found his father's collection of Weird Tales. Steven King says this was the beginning of his interest in both horror stories and writing. Weird Tales is the all time classic publication of fantasy fiction. The majority of H P Lovecraft's short stories were first printed in Weird Tales. The magazine is still around with an on-line presence but the original copies from the pre-war years are part of every collector's dreams

 The 1950's despite Congressional investigations and the imposed censorship of a comic book code this was a golden time for  You had Tales From The Crypt, Eerie and Creepy as some of the more recognized titles. Weird Fantasy was one of the less successful titles, it  had only 22 issues but all of them well written and illustrated

Tom had said that Weird Fantasy and other lesser know titles are picking up popularity by collectors rediscovering what made comic books so much fun back then.

Like Nights of Horror, any pre-war issues of Weird Tales, Weird Fantasy is also on Tom's list.

It's kind of funny when real life starts to look like cartoon art. Until now I never knew a comic book called Plop. Tom pulled out one of his copies to show me. 24 issues were published between 1973 - 1976. The stories are horror tales mixed with grim ghoulish humor and all of it is as strange as the cover art.

I remember these comics from my childhood. I grew up in New Jersey and if you weren't racing in the streets as described in a dozen or so Bruce Springsteen songs there was always the race track in Wall Township, the Englishtown dragstrip or Atco speedway.

If Tom was picking comic books like penny stocks, he would say this another quickly appreciating dark horse in the pulp world. You have all those old Hot Rodders now slowly cruising in left lane of life with their turn signal stuck on. They're getting nostalgic for the days when gasoline was 32 cents a gallon and big V-8 was the only engine worth driving. It's one reason why the retro Camero and Mustang are back. It's totally impractical but nothing is more seductive than 400 plus horsepower under the hood.
It's impossible to keep up with the ever growing soap opera of super hero characters. Northstar might be one character you never heard of. He has a connection with the X-Men series. Tom tried to explain the storyline but it was soon just too complicated.

Northstar was the first openly gay superhero some twenty years ago. His sales as a stand alone character plummeted and his sexual orientation was never mentioned again until recently. As Tom would say glitches like that make ordinary characters real collector's items.

 The last on Tom's top ten search list is The 99. The comic book is a very American art form but other cultures have embraced it and made it their own. Most notably is the Japanese. The 99 is partly a conventional superhero comic book with Islamic concepts. The characters are a group of teenagers and each has one of the attributes of Allah which turns them into superheros.

I kind of like because no matter how unique you think you are -underneath it all we are more alike than different.


So may 2013 be a happy and fruitful year for you. If your like Tom the Collector of Everything, hopefully you'll find everything you're looking for.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Happy New Year's Charlie Brown

Charlie Brown was depressed. He would have been the first one to tell you that. Last summer’s baseball season was another string of relentless defeats.  In September school started off on the wrong foot and things only seemed to get worse. It was a struggle to keep his grades just barely above a failing average. All of this would have been tolerable if it wasn’t for Snoopy.
Snoopy had be sick, not really that sick but he wasn’t right. He wasn’t playful and he always was tired. Charlie Brown’s Father said in his trombone voice it was time to take Snoopy to the Veterinarian and see what is wrong.  The Veterinarian broke the bad news, Snoopy wasn’t going to be around very much longer.
Charlie Brown held back his tears. He wanted to cry but he also felt this boiling rage. It was almost Christmas, it was only a couple of weeks away. Even the winter weather was depressingly dismal, it was constantly cold but no snow had yet fallen. Without any snow everything was dull and grey.  After feeding Snoopy that night Charlie Brown looked up at the stars. In the vast dark sky he wondered if anybody was up there listening.
“This is so unfair! Good Greif! This is so unfair” he shouted.  The tears came finally came and he couldn’t stop. Snoopy slowly walked over and rested his body against Charlie Brown’s. 

The next day and the day after that and the day after that and so forth, school dragged on. Even the Christmas pageant felt like a waste time. When the gang found the most beautiful Christmas tree to put on stage, Charlie Brown could only say “so what”.
Linus knew something was really wrong and privately approached Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown had kept Snoopy’s condition a secret until then. He told Linus the whole story and Linus paused for a moment before he quoted passages from the Book of Job. This was not what Charlie Brown wanted to hear and he fought back the urge to repeat something rude and nasty that he overheard high school kids say. 
Charlie Brown felt all alone.  Sally was still writing out her Christmas list for Santa. His Mom kept on baking cookies. His Dad was planning out the family Christmas party.  But Snoopy was dying, didn’t anybody understand? Snoopy was dying!
The last day of school before the Christmas vacation started was the worse. All the other students were happy except him. All the other students were looking forward to Christmas except Charlie Brown.  Charlie Brown’s Dad promised not to take Snoopy to the Veterinarian for that last trip until New Year’s Day. The thought of it made him sick. He was sick and filled with guilt because Snoopy needed more and more care and attention.  The extra work was a burden but he knew it wasn’t Snoopy’s fault. He wanted it to end but he wasn’t ready to let his friend go.

The family Christmas party at Charlie Brown’s house was a big event.  There were cousins and Aunts and Uncles invited. There was his Dad’s brother, Charlie Brown’s favorite Uncle.  As other adults talked in that silly trombone voice, Charlie Brown’s favorite Uncle had a clear voice like a trumpet, like a trumpet playing Miles Davis. Charlie Brown’s favorite Uncle was not like the other member of the family. He drove a convertible sports car and though he was not married he always had a girlfriend. Charlie Brown’s favorite Uncle was special and Charlie Brown thought he was the smartest man in the world.  
It wasn’t easy for Charlie Brown to start the conversation about Snoopy, even if it was with his favorite Uncle.  Charlie Brown surprised himself when all the words came rushing out.  There was so much history between him and Snoopy.  His favorite Uncle didn’t try to give him advice or just say everything would be alright.
Charlie Brown had million questions like if dogs went to heaven or wondered if life had a meaning? They talked about time. Charlie Brown wondered if one year of human life really equaled seven years of a dog’s life?  Were dog’s lives faster or just shorter? And if they were just shorter was ever moment more precious?
Charlie Brown’s favorite Uncle assured him that it didn’t matter if you were a dog or a person, every moment was precious. So only focus on what is important and don’t worry about anything else. As much as you want to plan on a future, nothing in life was guaranteed; each single moment we live in is all we really have.  Charlie Brown wasn’t sure if that was the answer to his questions but Charlie Brown didn’t feel alone any more.
In the next few days Snoopy got worse. He was unable to eat without throwing up. He would mess himself and could no longer stay in his dog house.  Charlie Brown’s Mom made a place in the laundry room for Snoopy to stay in. With all of his heart Charlie Brown did his best to make Snoopy feel comfortable.
Christmas came and went. Sally was disappointed that she didn’t get everything on her list and began to add the missing presents from this year on to her next year’s list.  Charlie Brown would take an hour or two for himself in afternoons. The weather was still bitterly cold with no snow in the forecast.  As he walked past the school yard he saw Lucy with a football in her hands.
“Come on Charlie Brown. I’ll hold the football for you” Lucy called out.
Of course Charlie Brown was suspicious. He had been fooled Lucy before but maybe Linus had told her about Snoopy.  This time out of kindness Lucy would let him kick the ball.

 Lucy got down on her knees and held the football in proper position. “What are you waiting for Charlie Brown?”
Charlie Brown ran at her with all of his might but this time he focused on the football.  He watched that football as closely as he could and at the last possible second he saw Lucy’s hand begin to pull the ball back. Charlie Brown thought to himself -no, not this time. He leaned a little to his right and instead of trying to kick the ball he kicked Lucy. He kicked her square in bottom and kicked so hard that she lunged forward several feet and landed face first in the frozen turf.
For a moment Charlie Brown was horrified by what he done but only for a moment. To be honest this was what he always wanted to do. Luck rolled over to face him and with a vengeful scream she roared “you blockhead!”
“I’m sorry Lucy” Charlie Brown said but Lucy could see that he was smiling. She wasn’t sure what to make of the situation; this wasn’t the same old Charlie Brown. She was unexplainably excited with the same kind of feeling you get when the roller coaster reaches the very top. That scary moment just before the wild part of the ride begins.  Lucy wanted to run back to her Psychologist stand in front of her house.  She secretly had hidden a couple of books on Freudian analysis there and wanted to see if she could find out why she was feeling what she was feeling. 

Charlie Brown went home feeling happy, maybe this was the happiest he felt in months. When he got home he saw Snoopy lying in the doggie bed his Mom made. The laundry room was warm but Snoopy shivered with cold. Charlie Brown wrapped his friend in blanket and then laid next to him. He told Snoopy what happened with Lucy and didn’t skip a single detail.  He could hear Snoopy softly laughing.
He held Snoopy to keep him warm. Each breath Snoopy took was becoming more shallow and slower. Charlie Brown’s breathing began to match Snoopy’s.  He couldn’t tell if it was minutes or hours later -or if he was awake, asleep or somewhere in between but that’s when Snoopy died. 
Years later Charlie Brown tried to recall exactly what his favorite Uncle said to him about cherishing each moment. Somehow he forgot the wording but retained the message. He thought if he was lucky he would live to a ripe old age of seven or eight dog lives but even if everything should end right now, he has had a good life. What happened with Lucy and Snoopy that cold winter’s day was the beginning of when everything else changed for Charlie Brown. It was the beginning of a new year and a new life.

 Well Happy New Years everyone.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Accolades for change

It's almost the end of the year and it is customary to compile best of lists or make predictions for the coming year. I can't think of too much that was worth being on a best of list, 2012 was a pretty mediocre for the arts and entertainment world. The viral video has become the pinnacle of artistic expression. Though more professionals are getting involved with internet productions and this could be last stand for the amateur before electronic frontier is completely commercialized, fenced in, censored and tamed.

Back in college in the mid 1970's I use to hang out with a circle of Political Science majors. One New Year's Eve I predicted the fall of Communism and the reunification of Germany. They both seemed like safe bets to me but I figured those events would happen around 2030 after just about everybody alive from World War 2 was dead. It was a shock to see how bankrupt the Soviet Union really was in 1989. The only sector of their economy that worked was their weapons industry -mostly because it openly competed with the rest of the world. Ironically it was their out of proportion military spending and political adventurism in the Third World that brought the whole system down (if you have all those weapons, you have to use them). When the average Russian saw what the West had, they could not help to ask If the Soviet Union is such a great nation why can't they make a toaster that works?

Ten years back I pronounce that Africa will become the New Asia. Even among my few friends and contacts in the investing world no one seems to notice that the 54 nations in Africa have had an average 5%  rate for the last three years. Africa is still a relatively poor place but the Chinese are investing big in the continent. A few years back it was to secure access to mineral rights and commodities. Next Chinese companies purchased and developed large commercial farms. Now the first manufacturing centers are springing up to capitalize on the vast pool of inexpensive labor. The rest of the world still seems to think of Africa as a land of famine, corruption and on-going civil wars.  

The biggest surprise has been the Arab Spring. Five years ago I thought there would be the rise of a popular religious reformer that would bring about a new and more moderate interpretation of Islam. The changes in the Middle East have come from the combined efforts of very conservative Islamists and liberal Secularists. Both these groups fought together in Libya and Egypt -and are now fighting against the government in Syria. In conflicts there are alliances that are made out of necessity and the real battle will be in the peace. You would not be able to see it in the mass media news but Secularism is capturing the hearts and minds of the youth from Morocco to Indonesia.

So like any other prognosticator of the future I'm right about half times. And when I'm right the results aren't quite what I expected or they came to fruition for reasons that were totally out of left field.

One of those small cracks that I see as evidence of bigger fissures of change to come is the alternative rock band AccoLade. They take their name from the painting by Edmund Blair Leighton. What makes them special is they all women and live in Saudi Arabia. Not too long ago this would not be permitted, these women would have been hunted down and jailed.

I have come across a growing number of agnostic and atheist websites from the Middle East. These people have found a way through the internet to contact each other and break though their isolation. One of the biggest trends for potential change is education rates of women. There are places where young girls risk their lives just to got to school but you have the opposite going on in countries like Iran. In Iran education is seen as a right and now over 70% of the college graduates are women. The next Supreme Leader might find it difficult rule without considering what women want -especially when they become the majority of the professionals and managers in the nation.        
Egypt will always be in turmoil unless they get their economy together. One of the most crowded neighborhoods in Cairo is the Necropolis, the huge urban cemetery where thousands of the living now squat between the tombs. I think eventually the Muslim Brotherhood will have to give up on their dream of a Islamic Republic not because religion or government are inherently bad but like many other nations through out history have found out -you get the worst of both worlds when you combine the two together. The strongest states do their best to keep government and religion separate and let people make their own decisions on faith. And the internet is helping to make it possible, as tame as the ideas I just expressed are, they would have gotten me prison term if I said or printed them in half the countries around the world only a generation ago.

As parts of the world are become incorporated into larger trading blocks or influenced by into de facto rule by a super-state; other parts of the world economically crumble into failed states. The failed states become threats to world peace because they react to their poverty with a ideology of desperate violence.

One economist brought up the history of coffee. Once it was an Arab monopoly. Coffee was once a rare and exotic commodity in the rest of the world. As world trade developed the Islamic world retreated into itself. Today coffee is world's most traded commodity and almost all of it consumed in the Middle East is imported.

So I'll end things here with a song by The Clash. the tune is like 30 years old and yet it seems more contemporary than ever.

For next year the old regime in Syria will fall. Egypt will take another five years before it gets its act together. Both the Iranian and Saudi governments will start to worry how much longer they can control their populations. Some one right now is reading a blog and is thinking "what if".


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Year of the Zombie

 You would think life is tough being a zombie but really things may have never been better for this cate-gory of the undead. in the Chinese zodiac 2013 is the Year of the Snake but in popular culture thia could be the Year of the Zombie.
 Zombies are one of those stock characters that can be wide range of things and still be recognized as themselves –those undead people that we want to avoid becoming. Since zombies have no anti-deformation league or a team of lawyers to represent them; zombies have become the perpetual punching bag in a gazillion first person shooter video games or the cheap mayhem of low budget horror films that can barely afford extras covered in fake blood

Movie zombies have gone through their own evolution; from creatures that incorporated their Haitian origins to, animated but dead, virus ridden eating machines.  Hollywood’s fascination with zombies started the movie White Zombie in 1932. It is a creepy atmospheric movie noted for its over the top acting and an early starring role for Bela Lugosi . In defense of the actors from the early 1930’s , sound was still a novel innovation and many film actors continued to  use techniques from the silent movie era.  Even the more natural actors from the first few years of the 1930’s  lacked subtlety and many times talked in that kind of slow well enunciated speech that made you think everyone was either deaf or stupid

White Zombie is an excellent choice for any all night long bad movie marathon. It’s bad enough to laugh at but good enough for any film student to be inspired by.  Recently the story was sold on option to be remade though the project remains on the shelf until a number of small copyright issues are settled.

For a while zombies stayed in the back ground of the movie monster pantheon. The next big step came with George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead. In 1968 this was a landmark film and it changed the direction of horror movies from the psychological fear of what lurked in the dark to an in your face presentation of gore.  Friday The 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hotel Hell, Halloween and dozens of other similar films all built on the success of Night Of The Living Dead.  

In Night Of the Living Dead, cinematic zombies didn’t need voodoo to justify their existence. Also and maybe unintentionally an element of grim comedy was added to realm of zombies   with the character of Sheriff McClelland. Several times he explains for the news cameras how his fellow citizens in Pennsylvania should deal with zombies.  I think the best all time Sheriff McClelland quote is “Yeah they’re dead. They’re all messed up.”

Next was The Omega Man, instead of a mysterious blast of radiation, the zombie-like denizens of this movie are transformed by virus.  It opened up so many new possibilities for zombies. They were no longer exotic immigrants from Haiti, they were our neighbors and former fellow citizens. They could stand in to represent middle class Americans or religious cult members.  In the 1970’s the zombies in The Omega Man didn’t look that different to us from the members of Sun Myung Moon’s  Unification Church. 

The other thing I find noteworthy is The Omega Man was a Hollywood studio film with a sizable budget  and professional actors like Charlton Heston and Rosalind Cash.   Night Of The Living Dead had a four hundred fold return on investment , Hollywood saw there was money to be made in zombies .

Zombies may have come to full bloom. While watching the coming attractions at the local cimaplex the trailer for Warm Bodies caught my attention, is this the beginning of a new genre? The zombie romantic comedy –girl meets zombie but she won’t give him up for dead.

My resident experts on zombies tell me this trend has been around. If you take past hit films like Shaun Of The Dead and Zombieland, both of those movies have a comic romantic element in them. They're zombie films you can take a date to.  

I guess as time goes on zombies will continue to develop. I have in my slush pile of movie scripts one title -The Unthinking Dead, were a corrupt town mayor has a voting constituency of zombies.  Zombies make the perfect citizen because they pay their taxes on time but don’t really need that many city services

And I just heard a pitch for a movie where zombies learn to like bacon instead of brains. Where two slacker brothers – and charter members of their local Epic Mealtime fan club, go out to save the world’s bacon.  There isn’t a working title yet but if you come up with one, please post me –just a little food for thought.

Maybe zombies will someday return to their Haitian roots. In another movie idea an American insurance adjuster is transferred to Haiti. His job is to investigate claims on life insurance policies –and if the dead person is a zombie, he has to “claw back” some of the money from the beneficiaries.
                                             How ever you like your zombies, it seems they are here to stay.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Christmas Story

Once upon a time Christmas was a simple holiday. The earliest Christian churches down played it because they felt the birth of Jesus was nowhere near as important as his death and resurrection. The Puritans of Boston Colony practically outlawed any celebration of Christmas other than church service, which every citizen was required to attend or they could be fined up to two schillings (which was a lot of money back then). It makes you wonder why there are no Puritans today.

So here is Christmas, a huge fat pageant of exuberance and excess, loaded up with pagan symbolism and it's represents for some the front lines of the culture wars over the soul of America. For the overly faithful it has become the height of rudeness to say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas -as though there is only one holiday in December. My friend Harrison has come up with several retorts for the militant wing of the Jesus fan club, which are all out of spirit with "peace on Earth, good will towards men". As Harrison would say it's becoming Christmas uber alles.

Harrison is an assumed name, he prefers I don't use his real one. Twenty years ago when my wife and I were selecting baby names, as a joke I came up with Harrison Mackenzie James, something to honor my wife's Canadian heritage. Yes my wife is an ethnic Canadian but she doesn't like to draw attention to that fact. So neither of our sons got stuck with that name but I saved it for a character in a half finished story. Harrison Mackenzie Jones -Hero of the Northwest Territories, I haven't gotten too far with the plot. It's difficult writing adventure stories where every conflict is resolved with a hardy handshake (the way real Canadians do, even the ones who play hockey end the game with a handshake -right eh?).

Harrison has read my writings and has latched on to the name. He is also excellent wingman and partner in crime. Like Cheap John, Tom the collector of everything, Slow Paul, Shady Ric, Keith aka Jabba the Hut and several other denizens of my (guy) life; Harrison is in that club of  friends my wife neither approves or wants to know too much about. Yesterday I was out on the quest to find the perfect gift for one of my nieces. She is in love with Thomas the Train and wants Cranky. The last week I failed to find Cranky because I thought he was another steam engine with an irritable attitude -instead he a happy little crane. So over breakfast I declare "today I'm getting Cranky" and my wife replied "good for you".

I picked up Harrison on the way to mall. Harrison was grateful because he still had some Christmas shopping to do and he was "in between" checks and his car is in the shop. On the drive down we're soon singing Christmas songs, Harrison does spot on impersonation of Tom Waits and sings "Santa has been drinking". Next we mix and match Christmas songs until we come up with "Yoko got run over by a reindeer".  While walking across the parking lot Harrison in his loud classically trained voice belts out:
                                                            "It's coming on Christmas
                                                             they're cutting down trees
                                                             they're putting up reindeer
                                                             and singing songs of joy and peace
                                                             wish I had a river -just to see if Joni Mitchel could swim"

A couple of fellow shoppers clap and one person shouts back at us about how much he hates that song.

The quest for Cranky didn't turn out to be an epic adventure. It's easier to find things when you know what you're looking for. Cranky was waiting for me in the third department store I went to. Harrison shopped with the precision of a cruise missile and in short time finished up everything he needed to do. With our missions completed we went to the food court for a cup of coffee.

Harrison for a moment was absorbed in his thoughts looked over to me and said "I could have been somebody".  

I had known Harrison back from my days in South Jersey. He was a radio DJ on a popular college station. As a gig it didn't pay anything but on the air Harrison was minor cult of personality. And here we are now three decades later. I'm embedded into middle-class suburbia and Harrison, though only a couple of paychecks away from destitution, was an indomitable spirit with a personal philosophy of confronting the world and not hiding from it.

Harrison assured me he never told anyone this story. He was doing his Saturday afternoon show and broke away from the usual alternative rock, pop and schlock; and played few selections of African folk music. Several new records came in (yes it was the days of vinyl) that no one else was willing to touch them because they didn't recognize any of the artists or the liner notes weren't in English. The music was exceptionally good.

Normally that part of the college was empty on the weekends so it was a surprise when this skinny kid comes by. He's a student and works on the janitorial staff, that's why he's in the building on a Saturday and the kid is totally blown away with the music. This kid isn't some new age world music debutante, he's actually from African. He knows the music and can translate the lyrics. His name is Lyle.

Afterwards Lyle would visit every other Saturday. He was friendly guy, soft spoken and polite. He eventually began to talk about his home in Africa and that his father was an Assistant Secretary to the Department of the Interior in Zimbabwe. Lyle was rather dismayed that the average college student was only concerned with getting drunk or laid. He had taken a liking to Harrison, because Harrison at least knew where Zimbabwe was and how the country got its name.

Then one day Lyle asked Harrison "would you like to meet my father?" He gave Harrison an invitation to Christmas dinner in New York City.    

Harrison broke from his story for a moment, looked down in his coffee. "It was either 85 or 86, it snowed that winter. You know Lyle thought I'd be great working for the government of Zimbabwe. That's why he wanted to introduce me to his dad."

Harrison described that perfect winter's day in the city. It snowed big white fluffy flakes that covered everything and made the city look bright and clean. It was like a movie but better. The invitation only had an address but that address was to the very exclusive Stuyvesant Club. One of those enclaves of the privileged, a place that doesn't advertise -either you belong there or you don't. The doorman verifies your invitation and then you're whisked up thirty or forty stories up to what looks like a country club in Connecticut except for the view of skyscrapers out the windows.

"Best beef dinner I ever had" Harrison said in a voice that sounded like a daydreaming child. Harrison returned to his story. He talked to Lyle's father, a warm but formal man, the product of an English boarding education. There was a steady flow of pleasant conversation, it was the diplomatic kabuki of powerful people being nice to each other. After a couple of drinks they sat down to dinner with twenty other folks from the Zimbabwean Embassy. The one odd thing were the place setting, the dinner plates with a bright polished metallic finish that looked like little UFOs dipped in liquid mercury.

After dinner, one man at the end of the table dominated the conversation. A Sir Richard Blackthorne, one of those old colonial carryovers from when Zimbabwe was ruled by an all white government as Rhodesia. According to Harrison, Blackthorne was one of those characters would have fit perfectly into the royal family or the what the average person would identify as a condescending twit. Blackthorne began to talk about the dinner plates. Zimbabwe had just discovered huge deposits of Chromium ore in its western hills. The dinner plates were so silvery and shinny because they were plated in chrome. Blackthorne continued on how chrome was superior to any other metal plates -better than silver and certainly better than gold.

Harrison looked directly at me. "You know where I went wrong? I let Sir Dick get under my skin. If I had just sat there and only pretended to listen... things could have been different. But no I huffed and said  loud enough for everyone to hear me - what do think these dinner plates are going to cost?"

The table of guests went silent. Then Blackthorne began to mock Harrison as being another cheap America who can only see the price but never understand the value. That chrome dinner plates are worth the price because they're meant to last a lifetime.

Harrison started to act out that past conversation between him and Blackthorne.

I asked Sir Dick "Is this what the world really needed another over priced luxury item? Chrome is better than gold for dinner plates -like who cares?"

In a accent more appropriate for a Monty Python skit Harrison went into Blackthorne's explanation about how gold stands up to almost anything but not everything. How gold tarnishes when it comes in contact with eggs. And what was part of the dinner that night? Asparagus in hollandaise sauce! Hollendaise sauce has eggs in it!  The hollendaise sauce would have tarnished the gold but never the chrome!         
Harrison took a sip of his coffee. "That's when I looked Blackthorne right in the eye and said -oh you mean there's no plate like chrome for the hollandaise?"

"Two guys came and escorted out, that could have been the best job I every had" Harrison finished his coffee, smiled and wished me Merry Christmas.

And I don't know if that whole story is bullshit, or partly true, or as improbable as it sounds the complete and honest truth. Harrison is capable of all three possibilities and like any other Christmas story who knows what the truth really is -it depends on what you want to believe.

Oh, this morning Harrison sent me the link for this video. Merry Christmas.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What would Jesus buy?

Yesterday, Tuesday the 18th of December, we had had an afternoon thunder storm with summer time hail. I'm 40 miles (65 km) west of Philadelphia and I'm 40 degrees north of the equator. The lawn is still green and it looks like it needs to be cut. Yes, these are strange times.

I feel like the Knights of the Round Table from the movie Monty Python And The Holy Grail -what is your quest? Today the one big quest is to find Cranky, he goes with the Thomas The Tank Engine play set for my niece. At first I didn't realize which character was Cranky and I was looking for an engine with an irritable expression, just didn't think Cranky was a happy little crane.

Cranky seems to be the undercurrent. Economically things are better but half the people I know are still out of work and the other half just hate their jobs. What happened in Newtown Connecticut still casts a dark shadow over everything and the issue of gun control has given plenty of people fodder to argue over. There's the coming fiscal cliff -who's to blame and what does it really mean. I was listening to one local yammering about how Obama is part of Muslim world conspiracy to take over America. It enough to make you want to shout -what about peace on Earth and shut the hell up.

Billy J down in Pottstown is still out there in his one man campaign against Wal Mart. It been fun to watch because Billy has been successful getting the public to see how harmful the Mega-Merchandiser is. Yes the parking lots of the two Wal Mart supercenters (less than 10 miles apart) are full but Billy has made his mark and few less shoppers are there this year and maybe a few less next year.

My biggest fear today is the local Wal Mart might have the last Cranky The Crane on the shelves .

I will have consult the other Billy of the Christmas Season, also known as Rev. Billy C Wirtz. Rev. Billy Wirtz is the man with the message, yes -what would Jesus buy?

Still some time today I have to find Cranky the Crane. When my two sons were little children, they were very enamored with Thomas the Tank Engine. Just back then it seemed the pieces were lot less pricey and easier to find. And when we couldn't find a piece, that was okay my boys would play around that. I'd help them too, tell them stories about Thomas and all the cheeky little steam engines on the Island of Sodor. Like the time Gordon got addicted to painkillers because his sleeve bearings were old and scraped -and how Gordon got better with proper lubrication and a stint in rehab. 

We had other imaginary adventures on Sodor, like when Sir Toppem Hat divorced his wife and got a new girlfriend. Then Sir Toppem Hat had to pick which steam engine to sell to pay for the new vacation house in the Cayman Islands. Or the time when the new steam engine from the factory was accidentally shipped to Mordor instead of Sodor. Or when Frank the Boxcar had an operation and came back as Francesca the Flatcar -boy was Percy embarrassed over that one.

It's really not about things. You have encourage your children to think, to be creative and always know that you're willing to spend the most precious thing in the world on them -not your money but your time.    

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Gift of the Magi

This the season to go shopping. Like when did all this craziness begin? It seems it began right at the first Christmas. When the Three Wise Men, the Magi, came bearing gifts for the new King of Kings. The Magi traveled far from Persia. They used astrology and when they saw the right lineament of stars they followed it. So you have three pagan mystics who are among the first to recognize Jesus Christ. Is it me? -Or does this story sound a little incongruent?  Especially in the light of what most modern Christians think about astrology.

The first Christmas -at least according to the Bible in Book of Luke happened on a cold night when the shepherds were out in the fields. Which really only happens in springtime when the ewes are giving birth to their lambs. It's when the flock is most vulnerable, otherwise any shepherd was willing to get a good night's sleep in a warm bed and let the dog guard the flock.  

There has always been a connection between many Christian holidays and the Pagan ones they supplanted. As one historian pointed out, it's easier to get people to change their Gods than their holidays. So we have Christmas in the winter and celebrate Easter instead of Resurrection Sunday. (Easter is a whole other story in itself)

And the issue of the Virgin Birth isn't something you want to discuss over Christmas dinner. Though one of my friends who is both sanctified and a graduate of a Bible college felt that Mary's virginity was proof that she didn't commit adultery. Back then adultery was a capital crime.   

It's funny if you really examine the Christmas story, it is kind of loopy but it still makes you feel good. Over the years I have had the opportunity to listen to a wide variety of people talk about their holidays and their faiths. These days I refrain from saying things like "that's silly" or "how can you believe that nonsense". In the end it's all good. In all those conversations I don't think I learned much about God but I have been able to see inside people. See what they value, what they fear and what inspires them to be a better person.

So this is Christmas. A time for celebration, a little excess and an excuse to be as generous as the Magi.  

Shopping for some people is easier than others. The easiest person on my shopping list is Tom, otherwise know as "Tom, the collector of everything". He is a hoarder but then again so am I, though my wife keeps it down to an inconvenient clutter. Actually I can say I'm more than just casually acquainted with a dozen or so obsessive collectors or full blown hoarders. Most these people are guys -yes guys tend to collect things and women tend to collect cats. Anyway these guys are mainly bachelors and their houses, garages or man caves are like little museums (or junk yards). Now I'm starting to wonder about my next gift to Tom, does he suffer from an addiction and am I being an enabler?

I'll still get Tom a gift, I don't want him to think I'm cheap.

Maybe that's one of the differences between collectors and hoarders. Collectors, people like Tom, share their collections and show off their big finds. Whatever they collect, that collection is their passport into a community of like minded people.

True hoarders are so much less connected to other people. They pack away and hide their stuff until they have no where else to put it -and it begins to take over the living space, both physical and socially. Every hoarder seems to be preparing for some unknown emergency and does not feel safe and secure unless they have at least two of everything.

Maybe that's where the Magi come in. From Magi we get the word magician. And maybe that's an important part of Christmas and life in general -not magic like sorcery -not some conjured supernatural event -but the magic act. The magic act, where through illusion and harmless trickery we see something we know is physically impossible but we still take it in and marvel at it.

Life is that great magic act, mostly filled with mundane chores and yet every moment really is a miracle. Love and friendship, you learn not to look too closely at it -you know where the warts and imperfections are but that's okay because even if it's half illusion, they are the best gifts life can offer.