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!

Red & Blue Robots


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.


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.


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.


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?

The Day I Met Mr. Penguin

13483068_10154310221373928_4834849933596836400_oOn March 11, 2008, I sent an email that would make a huge difference in my life. An “editors wanted” post had gone up on a video game forum I frequented. A guy named BAPenguin was looking for help as he started a site dedicated to cooperative video games. As the father of two boys aged 13 and almost 7 at the time, most of my video gaming was done teaming up with my kids. I considered the request for a moment, then figured why not? I emailed Mr. Penguin (literally, that was the greeting I used) and expressed my interest, attaching an essay I’d written for a Transformers contest as a writing sample. I wasn’t sure whether I would hear back from him or not, but figured it was worth a shot.

Later that day, I did indeed hear back from Mr. Penguin, whose real name was Nick Puleo. Nick asked me to write a news article as a final test which I apparently passed. I have been writing for Co-Optimus ever since. It has been a great creative outlet for me, and I am quite proud of my work there. Besides news and reviews, I’ve done a few regular columns: Co-Op Classics, Co-Op Casual Fridays (featuring more kid/family oriented fare), and Tabletop Co-Op, based on board and card games. Nick graciously allows Tabletop Co-Op even though Co-Optimus is primarily a video game site.

As you might expect, Nick and I have come to know each other well through these eight years. Countless Google Chats about administering the site inevitably led to more personal discussions. We teamed up to play co-op games online, followed one another on Twitter, and shot the breeze and/or cracked jokes during Co-Optimus staff Google Hangouts. I am notoriously bad at meeting deadlines, and though Nick has to be frustrated when I need another day/week/month, he never treats me badly. Even when I broke the website entirely, more than once, he was totally cool about it.

0000_co-op_classicsEight years is a long time, and both Nick and I have gone through many changes in our personal lives over this time. Nick and his wife had a baby what seems like yesterday, and now she’s going to be a second grader. My thirteen year old is now a married college student, and my seven year old starts high school in the fall. Nick got a promotion at work, and I took a position in another school district. All these changes make it feel like I have known Nick for a very long time.

This past week, Nick and I finally got to meet face to face. A business trip brought him to St. Louis, just four hours away from us. The timing was perfect, right in the middle of my summer break. Deana and I picked Nick up from the airport, and in the sweltering heat, I finally got to shake the hand of a man I consider to be a great friend for the first time. It was a wonderful moment. We toured the Botanical Gardens, ate lunch at an interesting placed called The Shaved Duck, and went way, way up in the Arch. The day was hot, sweaty, and tiring, but it seemed very comfortable and relaxing at the same time.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but the internet is an amazing thing. I’ve met many people online, whether by playing MMOs or through Co-Optimus or by listening to podcasts and reading blogs. I consider them to be my friends, some of them even my best friends. And yet, for all but a very few, I’ve never even been in the same city as them. The physical distance between us has not weakened our relationships at all. And it’s all because of the internet.

So thanks, Al Gore, for inventing this wonderful thing that allows people to become close to one another, even when they’ve never met “in real life”. And thank you, Nick, for the opportunity to get to know you, and to finally have that bro hug, eight years later.

Co-Optimus Review: TMNT Mutants in Manhattan

20160613221937_1I don’t get to play as many video games as I used to, but every once in a while, a Co-Optimus review code gets sent my way. I was tasked with writing a review for the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles video game. It’s called Mutants in Manhattan, and while it isn’t a direct movie tie-in, the timing is all about the marketing.

Some of the older TMNT video games are among my favorites of all time. The screenshots looked great, and it was a beat ’em up, so I was rather excited to play. Turns out my anticipation was unjustified. Here’s a relevant excerpt:

Unfortunately, there are many problems that pop up as you make your way throughMutants in Manhattan. In a nutshell (turtle shell?), the game is uneven and unpolished. The difficulty spikes dramatically, then levels off, leaving you angry and confused. Some levels are brief and simple, while others feel artificially long and frustrating. There’s the core of a decent brawler here, but too many bugs and bad design choices to make it fun for most people, and particularly for the younger audience for which it was presumably intended.

You can check out the whole review at Co-Optimus. Cowabunga!

The Star Trek Haiku Project

startrek102As a teacher, one of the big highlights of the year is summer break. I always have such great intentions as my six weeks off school begins. However, I hardly ever seem to actually cross everything of my summer list. This year, I am hoping to change that, for at least one of my summer goals.

I decided to watch one episode of the original Star Trek every day. Throughout the years, I have already seen most of them, but probably not all. Watching through them in order, regularly, sounds like a good way to spend an hour every day. But watching TV isn’t exactly the most creative activity, so I decided to make it so (pardon the pun, and I know that’s a Next Generation line, but still).

After I watch an episode, I will write a haiku based on it. I’ll take a screenshot of the episode, write the poem on it, then share it with the world. The running gallery can be viewed here, or from the tab at the top of the page labelled “Star Trek Haiku”. You can also follow me on Twitter @marcallie, or search for the hashtag #startrekhaiku which I will be using for all these tweets.

I’ve watched three episodes so far, and I am truly enjoying them. I have a fondness for the original show, though many find it cheesy and overbearing. The remastered episodes look gorgeous, with just the right level of change to improve the show without being noticeable. (Star Wars did it WRONG, for sure.) I might blog about an episode here and there, if I have something interesting to say. Otherwise, I will just keep it to 5-7-5 syllables! Hey, that rhymes with Tribbles…

I Can’t Get Into Groove

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Scale? What’s that?

There is a lull in Transformers fandom at the moment. We are in the dark days between two toylines. Last year was the excellent Combiner Wars, featuring modern takes on the iconic five-in-one combiner teams of the past. This years line, Titans Return, looks to continue the great stuff, with characters from the latter years of G1 getting their first new toys in decades. That’s all well and good, but as of this writing there are no Transformers on the shelves to be excited about.

During this quiet time, a highly desired Combiner Wars toy was released: Deluxe class Groove. A bit of background before we proceed: the first Combiner teams available last year had one new member that wasn’t a G1 original. Superion came with Alpha Bravo, a helicopter. Menasor came with Offroad (I had to google his name!), a truck. Both toys shared the same color scheme as the missing G1 members. Defensor came with Rook, an armored SWAT team vehicle. Rook was a bit different in deco from his G1 counterpart, but more about that later.
I had mixed feelings about these lineup changes. It looked weird seeing a helicopter on Superion and a truck on Menasor. I delayed purchasing the CW toys for budget reasons, and when funds finally became available, new releases had been announced. There would be special, online only toys of the original G1 characters for the “missing” Aerialbots and Stunticons. Slingshot was an airplane, and Wildrider was a sports car, and all was right with the world. I purchased them as soon as they were available and thought how awesome it was to not have been “forced” to buy Alpha Bravo and Offroad.

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Hulk Hands mode not pictured (but awesome)

Let’s go back to Rook for a moment. He was mainly white with some blue trim, big and blocky, and his head reminded me of a football helmet. He was super posable, and looked great as an arm, or a leg, or a robot, or a SWAT vehicle. Rook was almost nothing like the G1 Protectobot he replaced, motorcycle Groove. I grew quite fond of Rook over time. Rook might be the best CW toy. I never look at my Defensor and think Rook doesn’t belong there, like I did for Alpha Bravo and Offroad. Somehow it seemed acceptable for CW Defensor to be a bit different than G1 Defensor. My feelings were beginning to change.

Bruticus, the Combaticon combiner, was released late last year. True to form, Hasbro changed one of the limbs/members. Blast Off (same character this time, not a new one sharing the same color scheme) was an airplane, not a space shuttle. I was a bit surprised when I saw the pictures and the plane limb didn’t bother me in the slightest. A space shuttle is a strange choice among the other war vehicles on the team, so changing it to a fighter jet made sense. Also, airplanes and space shuttles are the same basic shape, so Bruticus still looked plenty G1 for me. This tolerance for a change from the original toy is unusual for me; I consider myself a G1 fan first and foremost. Would I purchase a space shuttle Blast Off if it was on American shelves? Probably, but only to see the new mold, not because I consider the airplane version Blast Off to be inferior in any way.

It just feels right to me

Last month, a deluxe-sized version of Protectobot Groove was released (said release was a mess, but that’s not the point of this story). I snagged one off Amazon and he arrived two business days later. I opened Groove, transformed him to a motorcycle, and waited for the sense of completion and G1 accuracy to wash over me. It never came, so I set him aside. Groove is merely “all right”. I don’t usually care for motorcycle Transformers much, but Groove is a good one. He’s a bit plain looking in color scheme, but so was the G1 version. I find myself preferring Rook to Groove in nearly every way. The only area in which Groove could be considered superior is strict adherence to G1. Given the plainness of the toy as well as the goofiness of a motorcycle being as large as a helicopter or ambulance, I don’t see myself using Groove as a Defensor limb over good ol’ Rook.

I’m shocked to say it, but I prefer a new character over a slavish recreation of a G1 toy. Granted, it was a pretty bad G1 toy in the first place, and I have no particular affinity for it since I never had one as a kid. I feel like my priorities as a collector are shifting a bit. I’m not sure exactly what I’ll do with Groove now. Maybe I’ll make that all-white Optimus Maximus I’ve been thinking about. Or maybe I’ll trade it for something else that gets me more excited. Perhaps it deserves to belong in the collection of someone who really, REALLY wants a G1 accurate Defensor. For once, I’m surprised to NOT be that guy. And I am totally fine with that.


New Co-Optimus Article: Dead of Winter

It’s been a couple months since I’ve written about board games. I’ve been playing plenty, but not very many co-op games, which of course is the focus of my Tabletop Co-Op column. However, a few weeks ago, I had the chance to play one I’ve had my eye on for some time: Dead of Winter. It’s another zombie themed game (I know, I know, the genre is overstuffed) but despite the theme, it is one of the best co-op games out there right now. Here’s an excerpt from the review, which you can read over at Co-Optimus.

Choosing between the needs of the many and the needs of the few adds so much to the game, but the decision making goes further than that. In between rounds of play, you draw from the Crisis deck. This draw usually gives players a choice of two options. They can either meet the conditions of the card for a minor benefit, or ignore the card and take a consequence. An example might be to take in a group of starving kids and gain morale (a sort of sliding scale that cannot reach zero), or leave them to their own devices and lose morale. Of course, taking the kids in means more mouths to feed later, so the cost is not inconsequential. One that came up when I was collecting gas cans was a cold spell Crisis card that required us to burn gas to avoid losing lives. It was hard to pony up the last gas can in hand that round, for sure.


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