New Book Now Available!

MarkBook2_CoverMy new book is now available! Don’t Stop the Geekin’ is full of more stories from my childhood in the 80s, growing up in a world that was much less friendly to geeks than it is now. There are some funny moments, some cringey moments, and plenty of pop culture references that 80s kids will appreciate. Chapter titles include:

  • I Was a Second Grade Pencil Thief
  • The Summer of Ms. Pac-Man
  • A Tale of Two Johns
  • Knowing is Half the Battle
  • Mad Math: The Slope Warrior (Beyond Polygons)

Don’t Stop the Geekin’ is available now at Amazon’s Kindle Store. Want an autographed print copy? Click here. Don’t forget to sign up for my email list for exclusive content plus all the latest news on my books!

If Useless Trivia Was an Olympic Sport…

PopCultureLeague-Logo-BigIt’s time for another Pop Culture League challenge. Last week was a simple one, but this time the prompt took a little more thought. Everyone has Olympics on the brain (except me, I watched maybe half an hour here and there) and thus, the question is this: if ________ was an Olympic sport, I’d have a gold medal. What am I really, really good at? It’s tough to analyze yourself. I consider myself to be pretty good at lots of different things, but nothing sprang to mind as being world class, which an Olympic medal certainly would require. I’m a good Dungeon Master, but far from the best. I am a good problem solver, and creative, but not in comparison to the best and brightest of the world. I talked it over with my wife, and she said to quit overthinking it, and told me exactly what my greatest strength was.

I can remember useless trivia with the best of them. Without a doubt, if that was an Olympic sport, there would be multiple gold medals hanging on our fridge.

Detective_Comics_601What sort of useless trivia? Well, I have an uncanny knack for remembering exact situations and moments based on things that seem totally random. For example, I remember exactly what flavor snowcone (blueberry cream) I was reading on a hot summer day when I accidentally spilled it on my aunt’s copy of X-Men #137. I can recall what issue of Batman I was reading when I took a trip with my grandparents to a a family cemetery on Memorial Day in 1989. (It was Detective Comics #601 with art by the amazing Norm Breyfogle). I remember exactly what my parents got me for my 15th birthday (a Sony Walkman, with cool earbuds in a wind-up case), because of the book I was reading at the time, Orson Scott Card’s novelization of the movie The Abyss.

There’s more to it than that, though. It goes beyond just personal memories. I am very good at remembering things I read, and since I read all the time when I was younger (not nearly as much as I’d like to these days, I’m afraid), my brain is full of both interesting, useful facts and also near-useless factoids. FASERIP, the mnemonic for remembering all of the different statistical categories in TSR’s Marvel Super Heroes RPG is a good example. I remember that the special effects team in Return of the Jedi had trouble getting the AT-ST Scout Walker crushed by Ewok logs to look right, using several different types of metal before settling on nickel. Oh, and I know that the Hardy Boys always keep $50 stashed in the steering wheel of their car. So if you ever see them, and need a loan, don’t believe them if they say they’re broke.

Probably the best example, and the one that surely spawned my wife’s declaration of my perfect gold medal event, comes from when we were first dating. She understood my love for Star Wars, as evidenced by my mania for collecting Power of the Force figures as well as the lifesize Princess Leia standup in the apartment I shared with two other geeks. For my birthday, she got me Star Wars Trivial Pursuit, the classic original trilogy version. I was quite excited, and looked forward to the next game night when we could play. I got all my Star Wars fan friends together (the cross section of my friends and Star Wars fans is quite sizeable) and we played a game. My team went second. The other team answered about a dozen questions correctly before missing one, like “Who was the actor who played Lobot?” or some such.

b1500af8206f97b9f14771f946ab5c96Following this, my team went, and we actually managed to win the game without missing a question. One friend bellyached at one of our answers after the win. “How could you possibly know the number of the docking bay that the Millennium Falcon was pulled into?” Incensed at these accusations of cheating, I replied that I remembered it from playing the Star Wars Collectible Card Game, which featured Docking Bay 327 as a location. I don’t think I was the only one who began questioning my life decisions and priorities after that evening. I still have the game, though we haven’t played it since. It’s a great reminder of a fun memory, and I am so glad my wife decided to go ahead and marry me anyway, despite the Star Wars weirdness.

So there you go, the only Olympic event I could earn a gold medal in: knowledge of useless trivia.

 

Here are some other fun entries for this week’s Pop Culture League Challenge:

Jathniel is also a big fan of Star Wars Trivial Pursuit. I didn’t read this before I wrote mine, I promise! We’d get along well, I am sure.

Rediscover the 80s is a world class Contra player. As a fan of co-op and the NES, as well as the Konami code, I approve.

The Toy Box takes the gold medal for cataloging toys. My Transformers wish list spreadsheet might give him a run for his money.

The other awesome contributions to the challenge can be found at Cool and Collected.

The Five Most Overrated and Underrated Star Trek Episodes

TOStitleThe long summer project is complete: all 70 original Star Trek episodes have been watched, screenshots have been taken, and haikus written. The gallery is complete. I really enjoyed watching Star Trek every day, and to be honest, not watching an episode at all yesterday felt very strange, like I was forgetting something all day long.

It would be easy to write about my opinions on the best (“City on the Edge of Forever”) and worst (“The Way to Eden”) episodes of Star Trek. But that has been done dozens if not hundreds of times. Instead, I decided to take a look at the most overrated and underrated Treks. I gave each episode a rating from 1 to 10 in a spreadsheet, copied in the compiled ratings from users at the Internet Movie Database, and then found the difference between them. Maybe applying math to something so subjective is folly. But it should give a good indication of the episodes I think are significantly better or worse than the collective hivemind. Each episode title is listed, along with the difference between the two ratings.

We’ll start with the five most overrated Star Trek episodes!

startrek208“I, Mudd” (- 5.5)

One episode of Henry Mudd was too many, and of all the great characters in the show, HE gets a return engagement? Pathetic. The episode tries to be funny but isn’t, and the extended slapstick goofball sequence at the end made me want to stun myself with a phaser. I rated this one the same as “The Omega Glory” and that’s really saying something.

startrek226“Assignment: Earth” (-3.7)

Season finales are usually something great, but this one wasn’t. For most of the runtime, Kirk, Spock, and the rest are absent. This was intended as a backdoor pilot for a new show, so I understand the lack of, you know, Star Trek elements. However, despite featuring two actors who are usually quite good (Robert Lansing and Teri Garr), the Trek-less parts are uninteresting.

startrek113“Conscience of the King” (-3.3)

There are certain elements I enjoy about Star Trek. This episode features none of them. It could just as easily have taken place on almost any other show. A traveling actor is really someone who did something terrible in the past, and when it comes out, bad things happen. There is little in the way of science fiction in this one, and that can certainly work (“Court Martial” is 90% courtroom drama) but this one is just lame.

startrek224“The Ultimate Computer” (-3)

This episode isn’t too bad when taken on its own. However, it came at the tail end of the show’s run, and is based on a theme oft-repeated in Star Trek: technology gone amok. The acting is decent, and there are some impressive visual effects, but in the end, Kirk talks a computer to death, AGAIN. According to Memory Alpha, it’s the fourth time he did this in the series, and by this point, I was tired of it. Maybe if it had been in Season 1, I’d feel differently.

startrek217“A Piece of the Action” (-3)

Similar to the entry above, this episode is yet another rehash of a common Star Trek theme: a planet just like Earth in the Xth century. This time, due to a book left behind by previous Starfleet visitors, the people have a culture entirely based on Chicago gangsters of the 1920s. There are admittedly some funny parts, and it’s sort of charming in a way. Maybe I’m rating it harshly, but when Kirk started talking in al Al Capone accent, I mentally checked out.

Now that the negative parts are over, let’s take a look at the hidden gems. These are the five most underrated Star Trek eps!

startrek312“The Empath” (+1.3)

This is a weird ep, that’s for sure. The set designs are minimalist, probably to save money in the last half of the last season, but the overall effect is eerie and surreal. Kathryn Hays, who plays the titular empath, says not one word, but her expressions and gestures get her meaning across skillfully. The idea of aliens conducting an experiment on the crew is hardly unique, but here it is handled so well that it doesn’t seem stale at all.

startrek105“The Enemy Within” (+1.2)

This one is written by Richard Matheson, a master storyteller, and it shows. Two Kirks are running around after a transporter slipup. It would be easy to make one good, and one evil, and it starts out that way, but it goes much deeper. One half is the aggressive, selfish part, and the other, “true” Kirk gets wimpier and less decisive as the episode goes on. Shatner gets a bad rap for overacting, but he’s just marvelous in this one, from start to finish.

startrek216“The Gamesters of Triskelion” (+1)

This episode contains nearly all the best elements of Star Trek. There are strange alien creatures of all sorts, ranging from lovely humanoids to disembodied, glowing brains. Spock and Bones use logic and emotion to argue against each other. There’s plenty of action, too, with some excellent fight scenes. In the end, Kirk uses his cunning to outwit the supposedly superior brain-critters, and the planet is left in better shape than when they arrived. It’s only missing a space battle!

startrek309“The Tholian Web” (+0.9)

The interplay between Kirk, Spock, and Bones is the heart of Star Trek, and this episode is one of the best examples of it. Kirk, in a super cool spacesuit, goes missing in a parallel dimension. Spock wants to stay and search for him, risking an interstellar incident with the Tholians (one of the only truly alien looking races in the show’s entire run). Bones urges him to leave, as the risk to the crew isn’t worth it. It’s a nice role reversal for the two, and when they hear Kirk’s final orders, only to be listened to after his death… well, it gives me the space goosebumps.

startrek318“The Lights of Zetar” (+0.9)

Let me tell you, folks, there are some real stinkers at the end of Season 3. This one is most certainly not one of them. The effects are good, and there’s a tense sequence where the crew tracks the lights descending on the Starfleet library planet that I enjoyed. The episode has plenty of screen time for Scotty, which is a nice change. Too often, the Big Three get all the action, but not here. Scott’s concern for his “bonny lass”, Shari Lewis, of “Lamb Chop” fame, is touching. Lewis also co-wrote the episode, and gave Scotty a romantic interest because “Kirk always gets the girl”. On behalf of non-alpha males everywhere, thanks, Shari!

So there you have it. I always considered myself a Star Trek fan, but now I feel as if I can truly claim to be a Trekkie. Or is it Trekker? I suppose it doesn’t matter too much. I enjoyed the creative exercise of writing the haikus, and plan to continue it in some way. There’s plenty more Trek out there, after all. It wouldn’t be very bold to stop at the end of the original series, would it?

But First… Let Me Take a Shelfie

PopCultureLeague-Logo-BigI am a very goal oriented person. I struggle to get things accomplished in all my hobbies and interests without a sense of direction. Participating in an online contest or challenge is a good way for me to get motivated. I’ve painted several tabletop miniature armies in this way, and honestly, my first book would never have been written if I hadn’t participated in NaNoWriMo. It’s easier for me to work when I set a goal with a deadline to work towards. Also, the support of others online is a great way to keep at things.

When I learned about Cool & Collected’s Pop Culture League, I knew it was just the thing to give me inspiration for blogging. The theme for this, the first week, is “Shelfie”. Participants were tasked with posting pictures of the shelf in their collection they consider their favorite. I knew instantly which one I would use.

This is the most meaningful, nostalgic shelf in my Transformers collection. Only Autobot characters from the first season of the original Generation 1 cartoon are allowed on this shelf. Two versions of each character are represented. G1 toy versions are displayed in vehicle mode. (I’m missing only Slag, the Triceratops Dinobot, of all the G1 versions.) Robot modes are reserved for newer toys based on the original characters. Most of these latter toys are from five to ten years ago. Toy technology has changed, and these characters look great in their new forms. Still, I will always have a soft spot for the 80s versions.

Perusing the rest of the Pop Culture League, I picked out a few other cool shelves to share.

Last Hometown has Godzilla and related figures, plus an adorable Galactus from Super Hero Squad.

Scotch and Spacemen caught my eye due to a nice Gremlins collection. The more mogwai, the better!

Copyright 1984 is very lucky, with a G1 Slag that I totally covet. Also, you can’t go wrong with the Iron Giant and transforming chicken nuggets.

You can find all the “Shelfie” contributions here.

Best First Day of School Ever

13923416_10154309610916341_6479237885830183560_oToday is the first day of school. If my calculations are correct, it’s my 38th first day of school. The first thirteen of those first days were in all the same school district: Willard. The five next first days were at Missouri State University. The twenty remaining first days of school have been as a teacher. This makes the eighth first day in a row that I am back home at Willard Schools.

I don’t have any students today. I’m teaching gifted kids now, 2nd through 6th grade. The gifted program won’t start for another few weeks. I’ve got plenty of other responsibilities on my plate to keep me busy, but I took time out of my day to do something I’ve never done before. My classroom is actually located on the second floor of the middle school. Apart from my two classrooms, there are only some meeting rooms up here. Below me, on the first floor, my former students, the gifted sixth graders last year, are beginning their 7th grade careers.

mark_saxChanging schools is a tough experience. I remember my first day of junior high (what we called middle school back then). It was terrible. I wrote about it in my first book, so I won’t repeat the tale here. Suffice it to say that I was incredibly apprehensive and scared half to death. It all turned out okay in the end, but wow that first day was a doozy. I decided to attempt to find my kiddos at lunchtime just to see how they were doing. A friendly, familiar face can make a big difference in a kid’s day, and I wanted to be that face.

The kids’ reactions were interesting. I got several hugs. Hugs are something I don’t encourage, but you can’t really turn one down either. Most of my former students seemed glad to see me, and seemed excited to tell me about how their day was going. Others were very, very quiet, and seemed to hope that I would please go away so they blend back in with the crowd. I totally respect that, and backed off quickly.

A few common themes seemed to repeat themselves. First, most of the kids had been late for a class. Teachers aren’t taking tardies today so that wasn’t a big deal, it turns out. Second, it was easy to get lost in a building full of 700+ other students. The middle school is an older building (it was actually the high school back when I was a student) and it has been added on to and renovated many times, so the layout isn’t exactly intuitive. The other recurring theme for my kids was a sense of hopefulness and positivity. I heard phrases like “all my teachers seem really nice” and “I have a friend in all my classes!” and things like that. One fellow summed it up very well: “I just have this feeling, like it’s going to be a good year. I’m super excited about everything!”

One young lady seemed especially glad to see me. We talked for a bit and she started rummaging around in her backpack. “I’ve got something for you,” she said. She handed me a small brown box. Inside was a Slinky. I thanked her for the gift but admitted I was a bit puzzled by it. “Well, last year, we broke one of the Slinkys in your fidget box so I got you a new one. Did you know that the ones at the Dollar Store aren’t Slinkys? They are called Magic Springs. Why is that?”

45k2250s1I pointed to the patent information on the box. “It’s a trademark thing.” She nodded and shortly thereafter said goodbye, walking off with a buddy to eat.

I opened the Slinky back in my classroom. It was unusual: black, not silver. I looked closer at the box and it’s a retro collector’s edition, which is pretty cool. I love the sound of a Slinky, and this shiny new one sings a calming song. I took the old, dirty, somewhat tarnished Slinky off my desk, and put it in the fidget box where my students can use it when they return. The new one is a treasured gift now. It joins a motley collection of items, each of which I’ll never get rid of. The collection includes a battered old plastic “#1 teacher” knick knack, a set of super hero magnets, an acrostic poem of my last name: “Awesome, logical, literate, intelligent, exciting.” There’s other stuff, too, but that’s just a sampling.

Now when I am needing the soothing Slinky noise, and pace around, swishing the smooth black spring back and forth in my hands, I’ll remember the student who gave it to me. And I’ll remember those few moments in the cafeteria when she told me all about her day. And that will remind me of the other kids I talked to that day, her classmates, the kids I’ve spent a day with each week for the past two years. I imagine this will bring a smile to my face and remind me of exactly why I do what I do.

Best first day of school ever.

 

Square Pegs is Tupacast #14!

square-pegs-1You’d think that people would have more time to make podcasts over the summer, but that wasn’t the case this year. After a too-long hiatus, the Tupacast is back with a new episode! I joined Chris and Kevin and this time, our special guest, the illustrious and hilarious podcaster extraordinaire Ferg, for a discussion of the short-lived early 80s TV show Square Pegs.

This is one of my wife’s favorite shows ever, and while I don’t have a strong nostalgia for the show itself, I definitely appreciate the little slice of the 80s it represents. If only the laugh track could be removed…

You can listen to the Tupacast on iTunes or any other podcatcher, or via the link below! Thanks for listening.

Tupacast #14

Red & Blue Robots

IMG_4583

Family Portrait

During my six weeks off school this summer, I got new shelves for my office/painting/computer room. Two large and two small golden oak bookshelves, which I’d had for over a decade, easily, were replaced. Now I have three large and one small black bookshelves. This is something I’ve wanted to do for some time. We moved one of the old shelves into our bedroom, and took some of my books with it. This left me with considerably more space for displaying my stuff. Namely, my painted tabletop miniatures and my toys.

My Transformers and other robot toys look 1000% cooler on the black shelves. All of the colors and shiny bits really pop in a way that they didn’t before. I was perusing the shelves and noticed an abundance of one color scheme in particular: red and blue.

My shelves are loaded with red and blue robots. This is only natural, as I have a psychological issue that compels me to buy Optimus Prime toys. (Details on that here, and here.) But even if you took all the Optimi (plural of Optimus, naturally) out of my collection, there are still a high proportion of azure and crimson color schemes among my beloved robots. I thought it would be fun to highlight some of my favorites, ranging from my earliest toy memories to the newest stuff.

mark_socks

Art by the amazing Chris Tupa

Dragun was the first Shogun Warriors toy I ever owned. Obtaining him was a traumatic event, which I wrote about in my first book. There were other robotic world defenders on the shelves that day, but Dragun was the one for me. My beloved red and blue Shogun Warrior was lost sometime in the 80s, but someday I will find another at a reasonable price.

Voltron (no, not the one with the lions) – I loved the Lion Force Voltron show as much as the next guy. Actually, I obsessed over it way more than the average kid, but whatever. It was the other Voltron, the one composed of fifteen different vehicles, that was most appealing to me. Vehicle Voltron is not as iconic as his animal based counterpart, but there’s no denying the sweetness of the more unified color scheme, which is, of course, heavy on the red and blue.

IMG_4581

Xabungle with ridiculous firepower attachments

Xabungle – several years ago, a friend informed me that a local gaming store was going out of business and having a huge sale on board games and Magic cards. Among the many things I purchased that day was my first fancy Japanese imported toy (that wasn’t a Transformer, naturally). Xabungle is a premium Soul of Chogokin figure from a rather obscure early 80s mecha anime. With a color scheme like that, and a price of $40, how could I resist?

The appeal of red and blue robots has even made its way into recent toy purchases.

G2 Superion – I purchased this set to customize into a Seeker-based Decepticon combiner. When it arrived, seeing it in all its blue and red glory, I had serious reservations about painting it. I’ve resisted as far as the limb robots go, but I think I’ll keep Silverbolt around, he just looks amazing.

IMG_4580

Even Dia Battles’ shadow looks sweet

Dia Battles v2 – Roughly half the first series of Transformers came from a toyline called Diaclone. I’ve always enjoyed learning about them, but the prices for vintage toys were insane. Recently, the line was rebooted in Japan. My interest in Diaclone was mainly based on the toys that eventually became Transformers. That all changed when I saw the new Dia Battles. As soon as I saw the delectable cherry red and glossy blue color scheme, I knew I’d be ponying up for it. No regrets, the toy is amazing! I can’t wait for more toys in the line.

Fortress Maximus – I couldn’t quite afford Metroplex when he came out a few years back, but there was no way I was letting Fortress Maximus go out of stock before I got one. He’s the biggest Transformer ever, right? Obtaining one is a necessity. I ordered him early, and he looks totally amazing. His size is his greatest asset, for sure, but the fact that he happens to feature reds and blues in his color scheme makes Fortress Maximus even better.

 

New Shoes

V49142_01On our way back from Michigan earlier this month, we stopped in Effingham, Illinois. We gassed up, grabbed a bite at Steak N’ Shake, and checked out the Nike outlet store. Connor got a pair of new shoes. This might seem insignificant to most, but it wasn’t for him, nor, by extension, for me.

I have to tell you a bit about my father to explain why. My dad didn’t have a great childhood. They were poor, but it was more than that. To hear Dad tell it, my grandpa was a hard man who was quick to get angry. All Dad’s stories are about how his father whooped him for this, or that, or made them work all day weeding in the garden, that sort of thing. Dad didn’t have much when he was growing up. There weren’t many books, toys, or birthday gifts. Clothes were hand me downs. So were shoes.

Dad got a good job right out of high school and eventually moved from the factory floor into sales and then management. He worked very hard, for long hours, in order to provide for us. I think his work ethic was due largely to the struggles of his youth. We never lacked for new clothes, new toys, new books, or new shoes at any point in my childhood.

When I was in junior high, I became very concerned about my appearance, like many teens do. I’d been teased and bullied in elementary school, but junior high was better. I wasn’t made fun of very often and got along well with most people. I may not have been Mr. Popularity, but I was “normal” at last and determined to stay that way. Nice clothes, contact lenses, spending hours making sure my hair looked just right, all of it was to maintain my newfound status.

One day, a classmate of mine who I will call The Creep made a comment about my shoes. The shoes were pretty cool, in my opinion: white leather high tops with a contrasting black stripe.  The Creep declared my shoes totally lame, and made disparaging comments about my family’s gross annual income. Clearly we were too poor to get anything but Wal-Mart shoes.

His comments about my footwear really bothered me. We weren’t poor in any sense of the word. Our shoes (and most of our clothes) normally came from Penney’s or Sears or somewhere like that. This pair, though, was, in fact, from Wal-Mart. I remembered the conversation my parents had before I got them. My feet were growing like crazy, and Dad decided it made more sense to get a cheaper pair since I wouldn’t be likely to wear them long. It was a responsible decision and I had no problem with the cool white and black high tops. But then The Creep made fun of my new shoes, and now I was embarrassed to wear them.

Fall arrived, and with it, the Penney’s Christmas catalog. I set my heart on a pair of new shoes in its pages. They were Reeboks, glorious white leather with red trim. High tops, naturally. They were very expensive, but that just added to their appeal. I longed for the day when I could wear them to school; no one could possibly make fun of my choice of footwear with those beauties around my ankles!

zoomShortly after Thanksgiving, Dad looked over the catalog with me. He pointed out a pair of Adidas sneakers on the same page as the Reeboks. He asked what I thought of the Adidas. I thought they weren’t Reeboks, that’s what, and I let him know it. I didn’t think much of our conversation. Christmas day came, and with it, the longed-for Reeboks. I put them on immediately. All was well with the world. I wore them until my feet grew again, which wasn’t very long. I dearly loved the shoes, and thought of them fondly even after I outgrew them.

However, when I was a bit older, Mom told me more of the story behind those Reeboks. Dad had already ordered, picked up, and even gift wrapped the Adidas shoes from the catalog when he asked me what I thought of them. Seeing how much I wanted the Reeboks, Dad went to the trouble of returning the Adidas high tops and purchasing the more more expensive pair instead.

This news totally shifted my mindset. Before, my red Reeboks were a fond memory, but now, ironically, I was ashamed of them. How could I have been so shallow? The Adidas shoes were almost exactly the same as the Reeboks. The only real difference was the logo and the brand name. Was I so petty, so concerned with what was popular, that I had acted like a spoiled brat? Yes. Yes, I certainly had. That experience changed me. I was no longer worried nearly as much about whether my jeans were Levi’s, or my shoes were Nikes, or whatever. No one who really mattered to me cared about stuff like that anyway. Why should I care about it?

Fast forward again to my adult life. When it came to raising my own children, I was determined that they would not ever be concerned with such trivial matters as name brands. Clothes, shoes, backpacks, school supplies, all of these things were purchased based on whatever made the most sense financially. My wife enjoyed finding things for the boys at garage sales and thrift shops, or factory outlets. My boys never, ever complained about this. Not even once.

IMG_20160720_132552220Back in that Nike outlet store in Effingham, Connor was looking at the shelves full of colorful shoes very carefully. He picked out two pairs. One of them was expensive, slightly more than the price of my Reeboks when adjusted for inflation. The other pair cost about half that. I told him to try them on, and Deana and I watched as he got the expensive ones out first. They were clearly his favorite; he had gone back to look at them multiple times. The other pair weren’t nearly as cool looking. He had pulled them because they were cheaper, and this made me very proud of him.

As I stood there, smelling the new shoe smell, hearing the crinkle of the tissue paper stuffed in the toes, I thought back to my Reeboks. I’d wanted those shoes for the wrong reason. It wasn’t because they brought me joy, but because they fit someone else’s idea of what was acceptable. I also thought back to all the hand me down shoes and jeans and slacks that Connor had worn, without the slightest protest, for his entire life. He’d never had any shoes this nice, this fancy. I’d totally spoiled him when it came to Power Rangers toys and Xbox games and Blu-rays, but not shoes.

Connor stood up, just a smidge shorter than me now. He took a few steps, trying out the feel of the slick gray high tops. I had him lean back on the heel and lift his toe, just like my dad always did for me. There was a thumb’s room for growing. “How do they feel?” I asked him.

“Good, they feel good.” He looked down at his feet with eyes full of hope. I teased him that he would probably run faster and jump higher in them; that’s what new shoes do, right? Connor smiled and sat down to try on the other pair, but I stopped him. There was no need.

 

 

 

Halfway to Where No One Has Gone Before

startrek211My last day of school was June 3. I set a goal for myself to watch an episode of the original Star Trek every day during my break. Just for kicks, to spur my creativity during the slow summer hours, I also decided to write a haiku for each episode on a screenshot. I was disheartened to realize that there are 79 episodes featuring Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, while I only have six weeks off. Nonetheless, I kept working toward my goal.

Today marks the halfway point. The 40th episode, “Friday’s Child”, has now been screenshotted, written, and posted. I’ve managed to watch Star Trek every day. Most days, it’s one complete episode, though I doubled up here and there in order to stay ahead if needed. One day, I only managed to watch half an episode, but all in all, I’m pleased with my progress so far. I’ve never watched the entire show in order like this, and most episodes either I’ve never seen, or don’t have any memory of watching. The viewing has been quite enjoyable, as I expected. Taking the screenshots and writing the haikus has been even more fun than I thought it would be.

startrek107If you look around for the “best” Star Trek episodes, you’ll find that most of them are from Season 1 and the first half of Season 2. Thus, I’ve already watched most of the “best”. Looking forward, only “The Trouble with Tribbles” and “The Tholian Web” are generally thought of as being standout episodes. Few indeed are the TV shows that get better, and not worse, the longer they run, and it would appear Star Trek is no exception. Some of the “worst” of Trek is yet to come, including most notably “Spock’s Brain” which I’ve never seen but cannot wait to experience for the first time. I’m somewhat concerned that it will be hard to get through Season 3 in particular, but momentum is on my side at this point.

There’s a decades-long debate over which is best, Star Wars, or Star Trek. Usually, I answer Star Wars. Jedi Knight and X-wings and Darth Vader have had a huge effect on me since I was a kid. I’ve always enjoyed Star Trek, sure, but I’ve never had the same fondness for it. However, with a daily dose of Trek this summer, I have grown to love it just as much. Really, Star Wars and Star Trek are totally different from one another. Star Wars is a space opera, an action adventure with some sci-fi trappings here and there. Star Trek is more “hard” science fiction, and explores some heady ideas and concepts that Star Wars isn’t concerned with. It’s more cerebral, if you can say that without seeming snobby. I love it when problems are solved by lightsabers and trench runs as much as the next guy, but in Trek there are conflicts that can’t be solved with phasers, proton torpedos, or fists (though Kirk always tries punching if he can). Picking Star Wars or Star Trek as a favorite is as impossible as picking my favorite child; I love them both equally, yet differently, paradoxical as that may be.

startrek206A few random thoughts to wrap this post up:

  • Kirk and Spock are great characters, but my favorite is Bones, hands down. McCoy doesn’t get nearly the screen time as the other two, but he always makes the most of it when he does. When he says “I’m a doctor, not a…” it brings a smile to my face. “Friday’s Child”, “Devil in the Dark”, and “Shore Leave” are standout episodes for DeForest Kelley, absolutely worth viewing if you love Bones. (I also adore Karl Urban’s version of the character.)
  • Taking a screenshot of each episode made me much more aware of the way the show was photographed. There are some truly stunning shots in nearly every episode. The sets, lighting, costumes, and makeup are fantastic, especially considering they are nearly fifty years old. The use of color in the series, in particular, is truly great. I can only imagine that as color TVs were adopted, Star Trek was one of the most impressive shows to watch.
  • I’ve been watching on Netflix, and all but one episode (“Obsession”) has been the remastered version. I don’t want to get into a debate over the merits of remastering here, but I appreciate far more what was done with these Star Trek episodes than I do the changes George Lucas made to the original trilogy. For the most part, the new effects are excellent, and blend in well. The only exceptions are the shuttle craft scenes. They don’t look nearly as good as the Enterprise shots. My favorite alterations were in “The Doomsday Machine”. The titular planet devourer is jaw-droppingly impressive in the remastered version.

So far, I’ve loved my little summer project, and look forward to finishing it up on August 21, 39 days from now. I’ll share my own personal top ten episodes at that point. Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter (@marcallie) or check out the Star Trek Haiku gallery for daily updates!

Ecto-Cooler Makes Me Feel… Okay, I Guess

Photo Jul 10, 5 28 49 PMI’ve figured out that people who are my age are the target demographic for most everything that is mass marketed these days. Properties that were big in the 80s when I was a kid are being mined voraciously for presentation in movie theaters and store shelves. Transformers, Star Wars, the entire Marvel cinematic universe (not purely 80s, but along the same lines), the list goes on and on. And now, Ghostbusters, a classic film beloved by many, is the latest nostalgia-fueled hype machine.

I like Ghostbusters. It’s a great movie. It’s perfect in nearly every way. However, I don’t LOVE Ghostbusters, not like I love Star Trek or Indiana Jones. I’ve probably watched it two or three times with my kids, but it’s not an annual must watch, like, say, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I don’t own Ghostbusters on DVD or Blu-ray. I like it, but I don’t go nuts for it; that’s the point I am trying to get across.

A few months back, news broke that Ecto-Cooler, a flavor of Hi-C drink that was loosely tied to Ghostbusters, was coming back. I generally ate school lunches as a kid, so I didn’t drink milk, and not much Hi-C of any flavor. I don’t have the nostalgia for it that I do Boo Berry or C-3POs cereal. However, everyone online was losing their minds over Ecto-Cooler’s return. When it appeared, cases of the retro drink were being sold on Ebay for exorbitant prices. I began looking for it when we went to the store, with no luck. Not finding Ecto-Cooler made my desire for it increase. I checked online to see if I could order some at anything close to retail price. Alas, it sold out nearly immediately when it did come in stock anywhere.

Photo Jul 10, 5 29 36 PMLo and behold, on July 1, my buddy Nick messaged me that Ecto-Cooler was in stock at Amazon. We were in the car at the time, driving to a church meeting. Turns out Ecto-Cooler is one of those Prime Pantry things. Prime Pantry is basically a method of ordering groceries and such where you choose items that fill up a percentage of a large box that is shipped for a flat rate. A case of twelve Ecto-Cooler cans cost $6.24, but filled only 22% of the Prime Pantry box. It seemed wasteful to ship the whole box for a drink I’d never even had before, and there were only five minutes before church services began. I first decided to just skip it and hope that the green stuff was still in stock later when I could fill that box more wisely.

But then, the anticipation and hype welled up in me. It was too much to resist. I filled my shopping cart with random stuff from Amazon’s suggested items. I ended up with a Prime Pantry box more than 99% full, and all it cost me was $55.86, including $5.99 for shipping. WHAT A BARGAIN, AMIRITE?

It turns out Prime Pantry boxes aren’t two day shipping. And it also turned out we decided to travel to visit Deana’s folks in Michigan for a few days. We left on the day the box would be delivered. On a highway somewhere in Indiana, Amazon notified me that our package had been delivered. My case of Ecto-Cooler was waiting on our porch. Worried that a big box from Amazon shouldn’t be left out for the duration of the trip, I contacted a friend to pick up the box for me.

Knowing my Ecto-Cooler was at home ready to drink turned my anticipation into something approaching obsession. I badly wanted, nay, NEEDED to taste it. We returned home late last Saturday evening, woefully, too late to stop and get the box. Sunday morning and afternoon were taken up by worship services. As soon as afternoon services were over, I texted my buddy. No response. We went shopping, stopped and got drinks (none of them green, sadly). Finally, early Sunday evening, I heard back from my friend. I wen to his place, made some small talk, grabbed the much larger than anticipated box, and headed home.

Photo Jul 10, 5 31 02 PMHere’s what was inside:

Oh, and, also, Hi-C Ecto Cooler Citrus Juice, 11.5 Ounce (Pack of 12), not even remotely close to optimum drinking temperature. Into the fridge three cans went. I waited impatiently for them to cool. To pass the time, I opened the packages of the Special Limited Edition Ghostbusters Twinkies I had picked up earlier that day at the store. Did I forget to mention that? Yes, the Ghostbusters hype was real. I don’t even like Twinkies, but one package boasted “Key Lime filling”, and I do like Key Lime. The other was coated in “White Fudge” which made it sound like a delicious Little Debbie Zebra Cake. As the temperature of the cans slowly dropped, I laid out two Twinkies to eat with my Ecto-Cooler, one of each flavor.

Finally, FINALLY, the cans were cold. I cracked one open, pouring a small sample for Deana and Connor. At long last I took a swig myself. The cool, tangy liquid hit my tongue sharply. I breathed in, like wine experts do in movies, trying to savor the aromas and distinctive flavors. I was expecting to have my mind blown, like the Stay-Puft Man when the Ghostbusters crossed the streams.

Photo Jul 10, 7 22 54 PMIt was OK. It reminded me of orange soda without the bubbles. Nothing special at all. Ect-OVERRATED.

I was disheartened. Perhaps the Twinkies would provide a more overwhelming culinary sensation? Not really. The Key Lime filling was barely lime at all, and the cake was pretty greasy. The White Fudge was all right on the outside, but the filling was too thick and gloppy. It reminded me of meringue, which I don’t care for at all.

It has been two days since the Ghostbusters marketing juggernaut bowled me over. I drank one Ecto-Cooler yesterday. The remaining Twinkies sit, uneaten, in the cabinet. I’d rather have a Cosmic Brownie over either of the two sponge cake treat options, any day. On the bright side, I’ve got enough wipes and TP to keep my bum happy for several weeks, and plenty of chips for lunches when I start back to work next week.

Terror Strikes in the Dead of Night

444146In the middle of the night, early last Sunday morning, my wife shook me awake. Before I managed to open my eyes, I heard knocking on our front door. The banging was incredibly loud, and did not stop. I rolled out of bed, heart pounding, and attempted to get dressed. I asked my wife Deana what was going on, and she said only “someones at the door”. I heard voices outside, sounds of yelling, as I groggily reached for my glasses.

Before I continue too far with this tale, there is something you should know about me. I am a “scaredy cat”. My overactive imagination gives me nightmares, and I often wake up paralyzed by terror. I’m scared of many things, including snakes, the dark, fire, deep water, whales, and giant squid. A lifetime reading about UFOs and the paranormal has only increased my tendency towards fear, as has my love for sci-fi, fantasy, and horror in various media, including movies, radio, TV, books, and comics. For these reasons, my mind tends to go to some very strange places when I am thrust into tense, unusual situations.

Like, for example, someone banging loudly on the front door at 4:30 in the morning.

I stood in the dark for a moment, breathing hard, my heart pounding in my chest, trying to muster up the gumption to act, to do something. Groggy, I pulled on a T-shirt, as the sounds from outside moved around to the back of the house. Suddenly, our nighttime visitors banged on the bedroom windows, just a few feet away, shining bright lights in. Thankfully, the blinds were down, so the outsiders couldn’t see in. Still, white beams of light penetrated around the edges, casting eerie shadows over the room.

Several scenarios ran through my mind as I walked to the front door.

hillsufoScenario A: My family and I were being abducted by aliens. This was perhaps the least likely scenario, but the thought of it made my blood run cold. We would be like Betty and Barney Hill, or the guy from Fire in the Sky. There were a few strikes against this explanation. Typically, abductions happen on deserted country roads at night, and there didn’t seem to be any of the other typical phenomena associated with aliens. Our electricity was working fine, and I didn’t smell ozone or anything strange. (Other than the stink of raw terror emanating from every pore of my skin, that is.)

Scenario B: Overnight, America had changed from a democratic republic to a Hunger Games-style totalitarian government. Jackbooted thugs were coming to take us off to some desolate District where I would be forced to raise crops. My wife was strong, and would thrive, but I would likely die of pollen allergies or asthma before my next birthday. The outside voices seemed to be human, which was more evidence for the truth of this explanation.

Scenario C: The FBI or some other government agency had finally determined that I didn’t delete all those Napster MP3s, and they were coming to take me away to jail for my egregious crimes. I tried to think what songs I might have missed when I went through a few years back and weeded out everything I didn’t really own. Was it “That’s the Way I Like It”, which I burned to a CD for a 70s reward party for my fifth graders a more than decade ago? Maybe. I supposed the judge would let me know before I was thrown into prison. Of all three, this scenario seemed the most likely explanation for our strange mid-night visitors.

c5cda21a626f04c4d3f18652ffadc761My wife and son stood, scared stiff, in the living room. Deana whispered. “They were banging the sliding doors so hard the curtains were waving!” I nodded, my throat dry. Steeling myself, I walked to the door, prepared to discuss the terms of my arrest. An odd sound reached my ears, in between loud bangs on the front door. It was a piercing, dissonant, continuous tone, perhaps a siren or warning or horn of some kind. This new information drew me back to Scenario B as the most likely. Sirens and fear seemed just like what the Capitol would use in order to subjugate the population.

I opened the door for the Peacekeepers I presumed lie beyond.

But I was not greeted with white-armored soldiers. Instead, two police officers flashed their flashlights at my face. Behind them, a neighbor of ours stood. The officer in front informed me that the horn in our car was going off. Slowly, through the adrenaline rush, my brain put two and two together: the car horn was what I had heard in the living room. I walked over to the car, popped the hood, and the horn blared even louder. My neighbor said something about trying to stop it himself, but I couldn’t really make it all out in the din. I looked down into the mess of oily blocks and wires and parts under the hood of my car.

T-1000.6Again, I feel compelled to pause to tell you something else about me. I am not exactly a car guy. We own three vehicles, none of which are less than twenty years old. One is usually in the shop for repairs at any given time. I am not totally helpless in regards to auto maintenance: I can change a tire when needed, and know how to check the oil, and even how to top it off when it’s low. I know where to add brake fluid and windshield wiper fluid. In a pinch, I could probably fill the radiator. Fluids, I can do, for the most part. When I’m particularly feeling adventurous, I can recharge the freon in the AC, but I’m scared the whole time that the freon will leak and my arm will break off like the T-1000 at the end of Terminator 2.

I said all that to say this: as I looked under the hood in the early, early morning hours of last Sunday, I had no idea how to turn off the car horn. (Horns don’t take fluid, do they?)

One of the cops must have figured out why I was just standing there, and offered helpful advice: “You’ll have to pull the fuse, or disconnect the battery.” Now, I know what fuses are, and recall changing one out in this particular car several years before. Oddly, I couldn’t exactly bring to mind the exact location of the fuses as I stood in my PJ bottoms and T-Shirt in the middle of the night with the horn blaring and two police officers watching my every move.

I could practically feel the eye roll on the back of my head as the cop continued. “Fuses are usually under the steering column or somewhere close.” He pointed his flashlight at a spot right by where the drivers side door opens. “There it is, see where it says FUSES?” I got on my knees and tried to read the tiny labels in the blue-white brightness of the flashlight. I didn’t see one labelled HORN or NOISE or HERE YOU IDIOT so I just started pulling them from the bottom row.

car-fuse-boxIt’s hard to pull fuses with your fingers, did you know that? I was in a weird state, half asleep, half shaking with nervousness, and anything requiring manual dexterity was a challenge. The other cop had mercy on me and produced a small set of pliers from his vehicle. Somewhere in the middle of the third row of fuses, the horn stopped sounding. I threw the fuse on the floorboard, my knees tender and numb from crouching on the concrete in my thin pajamas.

In the silence, my neighbor explained that he couldn’t sleep earlier, so he watched some TV, turning it off at around 3:45. He then noticed the horn, and was worried that there was a wreck or something, so he checked it out. He tried to get our attention by knocking and ringing the doorbell to no avail. After he couldn’t rouse us, he called the police. Apparently even they had been knocking for quite some time. All told, the horn had been going full blast for 45 minutes or more. The cop seemed incredulous that we didn’t hear it earlier. He probably suspected we were sleeping off a bender or something, but the truth was that we were just dog tired. The neighbor left, followed by the police, and I went back inside. I explained to Deana and Connor what had happened, and we went back to bed. It is very difficult to fall back asleep when your heart rate is roughly eight times normal.

I keep having more nightmares. These new terrors don’t include aliens or Peacekeepers. Instead, it’s the same two cops, beating down the door because the horn doesn’t work and that’s technically illegal. I suppose I’ll just fill that horn fluid up, pop back in the fuse, and then these new nightmares should go away, right?

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