Meeting Robert B. Parker

The following is an essay I wrote in college. It used to be hosted at Bullets and Beer, a Spenser Fan site (and still is, for the nonce, here, but the site looks to have been defunct for a while now. For my own convenience, and because it’s my essay, dammit, I’m putting it here.


The Community Library, all that Jefferson County, Missouri, offered its few literate residents in the mid nineteen eighties, cowered on the bottom floor of a strip mall on High Ridge Boulevard. High Ridge Boulevard, the main street of High Ridge, Missouri, carried little enough traffic as it was, and not much of that traffic found its way into the small, one-room library down the hall from the license bureau and across the hall from a going-nowhere travel agency.

Me, I was trying to be a hard bitten city kid in the middle of extra-urban Missouri. Not rural enough for farms, not developed enough to qualify as suburbs, Jefferson County offered everything a growing kid without a car would not want.

I have been a fan of Robert B. Parker since my freshman year of high school. Crime fiction captivated me early, so by the time I finished middle school, I had run through all of the small Jefferson County, Missouri, Community Library’s copies of Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler, Gregory MacDonald, Ross MacDonald, and John D. MacDonald. I stood before the dimly-lit Mystery shelf, amid the musty, if not misty, donations, planning on another bout of Russian roulette with the unknown authors. I remembered that at the end of every episode of Spenser: For Hire, which I could only watch during summer vacation since it came on at 9 p.m., the credits revealed that the show was based on the novels by Robert B. Parker. The TV show was tolerable, so I thumbed the shelf below the Sara Paretsky, not quite to the T. Jefferson Parker. Bingo. Several books, certainly enough to check out for the week while I was in High Ridge. I would in later investigations discover one of the volunteers at the library was almost as big of a fan as I was to become. All of the Spenser novels to that date stood proudly on the bottom shelf.

I read all of them quickly; during the school lunch hour, between classes, and, as often as possible, during classes. I watched the best-seller lists in hopes that there would be a new listing by Robert B. Parker, and when there was, it was only a matter of time before the tasteful library volunteer would donate it to the library.

Spenser became my hero, my blueprint for what a man should be. My own father was four hundred miles away, so I adopted a literary surrogate. Spenser quotes poetry and can do one-armed push-ups. He is cool under fire and makes smart remarks. In short, he is a hero that lots of teenagers could look up to if they bothered to read. I did, and he was mine.

I did not draw the line at Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels. I sought out copies of his other three books, Three Weeks in Spring, Wilderness, and Love and Glory. Through them I could determine some sort of story line for Mr. Parker’s life, and I liked what I read into the books. He obviously felt similarly toward his wife as Spenser did to Susan Silverman, and I found the real-world crossover of what I would call “real” love to be inspiring in this world of divorces and broken homes. I felt bound to this writer, a fellow crime fiction novelist, who projected himself into his character and thought himself a writer and a lover. I can only hope to be as successful someday as he is.

I also felt a surge of respect for Mr. Parker when I read an essay of his in a collection called Colloquium on Crime, in which he says that he doesn’t care what the critics say about his books; as long as the books sell, he is happy. That’s the sort of attitude I like, and the kind I might like to have when I start becoming a famous writer.

The day of the signing was sunny and cloudless in Milwaukee. I woke early, showered, shaved, and primped myself–for meeting Robert B. Parker, but also in case I had to rush directly from the book-signing to work. I took an early bus downtown and sat in the sunshine, looking through the copy of Paper Doll that I had bought when it was first available.

I got to the bookstore a few minutes early and found a line of about twenty people waiting for their chance. I caught a glimpse of him as I took my place at the end of the line. Ahead of me were others with Paper Doll in hand, many of which, I suspected, were bought at the counter display moments ago. The woman in front of me was about five six, gray hair, spectacles, and she carried her copy of the book in a paper bag. Ahead of her was a businessman probably on his lunch break. Who were these people, and why did they want his autograph? He was not their hero, at best he was just a writer they liked.

My only other experience seeing authors in bookstores was a lonely guy in the Waldenbooks in Northridge. Nobody knew who he was, and nobody dropped by to buy his book nor ask his autograph. It was rather like the book signing party attended by Rachel Wallace in the Spenser novel Looking for Rachel Wallace. There was a line here, and these people certainly didn’t feel the special kinship I do for Robert B. Parker. I wonder if many of them knew which poem of Keats that Spenser refers to in Early Autumn, or who said “Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?” that is referred to in Double Deuce. I wonder how many of them are fans of Raymond Chandler. I hope not too many, for I suspected it would trivialize the hero worship I feel for the man.

The line moved pretty quickly, and even though it seemed like a quick forever, we were moving forward. Ahead of me, a bookstore employee commented that Mr. Parker was not allowing her to open the books to expedite the signing–Mr. Parker was doing it himself so he could talk a bit to his fans. I felt admiration swell within me.

As I had tried to get to sleep the night before, all the things I wanted to say to him ran through my mind. I knew my moment would be brief, and I wanted to say something that would strike him, impress him, or otherwise make my face something more than a forgotten blur in one of the bookstores he would visit that day. I was going to tell him that I was a senior up the road at Marquette and hyperbolize that I chose the college simply because Marty Rabb, from the book Mortal Stakes, was an alum. I wanted to tell him that in the course of playing softball, a sport he plays as well, I broke my nose and tried to calculate how many breaks behind Spenser I was. I wanted to promise an inscribed copy of my first published novel to repay him; I wanted to welcome him to Milwaukee and term it “Boston West”. All of these things I wanted to say in my minute, but of course I didn’t want to sound like a babbling idiot or some sort of shut-in who only lives life through the Spenser novels (I live life through all sorts of other novels, too).

“Freda. F-R-E-D-A” was the gray haired woman ahead of me, and she was done rather quickly. Some man in a business suit had chosen this opportunity to interview Mr. Parker at length, and he was standing to the side, talking. I stepped up to the table, fearing an anxiety attack, a dry mouth, a sudden death, none of which actually came.

He is a stocky man, of the hard build that he has put into his fictional alter-ego. He looked the same as the pictures on the books and like the interview I saw on Today, except animated in a way that television and still photographs will never capture. “A name?” he asked.

“Brian. B-R-I-A-N,” I said clearly, and surprisingly audibly. As he wrote the inscription, I picked which of the previous night’s gems I was to offer. “I’ve got to tell you, each time I re-read your novels, I always manage to catch and place another literary allusion. It’s good to see my college education being put to a positive use.”

His eyes did seem to twinkle a bit when he looked up to give my book back. “It’s a good thing,” he said, or words to that effect, and I thanked him and walked out into the blinding Milwaukee sunshine. I hoped that I at least gave him some spot of cheer, some glimmer of humor. It hardly compares with the joy his novels have given me, but it was some token.

I played it cool and waited until I got to my bus stop to see what he had written. “Brian, all best wishes, RBP” in his characteristic scrawl. I closed the book, but before my bus came I had looked at it three more times and during the ride home I began to read the book again. It still says that, and I look every once in a while to check, and I show the inscription to everyone who comes too close to me. I told everyone I saw that day that I met Robert B. Parker, and most of them asked me who he was. It did not offend me in the least; rather, it proved to me that I was among the elite, or at least the literate, or maybe just the few people left in the world who have real heroes and are proud of it.

Book Report: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki (1970, 1999)

Book coverIt took me two tries to read this book; I started it last year and got about halfway through it, enjoying it for what it was before taking it out of my pocket as my carry book and planning to read the last half of it all at once. That didn’t happen, so I started it again this year as my carry book and keeping it in pocket until I finished it.

The book is a collection of informal talks given by the author after sitting with students practicing zazen. The author founded the first Zen temple in the United States, and this book collects some of his insights into Zen.

So, to talk about Buddhism, I find it easy to break it into three parts, and perhaps this is something we could do with all religions. These parts include:

  • The cosmological/theological/heavy philosophy (the eternal, the afterlife, interpretation of the texts).
  • Practical philosophy (the guidance to everyday living).
  • The practice (the things to do when you’re a part of the religion).

Although this book does lightly touch upon the first (that the individual is akin to a droplet of a stream in a waterfall–part of the stream, then alone briefly, and then part of the stream; that breaking out of the cycle of karma is the goal of Zen, as karma is a self-centered way of thinking), it focuses mostly on the last two, which is fitting: the talks were give after the practicing with an eye toward improving that. Basically, it’s to sit still, in the proper posture, breathe right, and clear your mind. Okay, there’s a bit more to it than that, such as dealing with distractions within and without, but that’s it. Strangely enough, although they’re from different schools, this book and Start Here Now don’t differ much on the practice of Buddhist meditation. Perhaps the difference between Shambhala and Zen schools lie at the higher levels of philosophy.

I was most interested in the middle point above; Practical philosophy. Buddhism focuses on recognizing the transience of this life and all of its moods, emotions, and events. Buddhism is much akin to Stoicism, so much that I checked to see if the sutras might have made their way back to Rome before Zeno (the other Zeno) founded the Stoic school. It was only about a hundred years, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the sutras might have made their ways west before the later thinkers made their marks. Both philosophies urge that calmness and detachment which, if you know me, you probably can tell I appreciate.

The Buddhists also talk about nothingness, but when they do not mean it like the Existentialists do. In the Buddhist sense, “nothing” is the eternal something from which everything is drawn. In the Existentialist sense, “nothing” is the opposite of that.

The book is written in the proper Buddhist style, wherein the koanesque nature might make you go “Huh?” The question of the sound of one hand clapping appears. Once you get it into your head that the Buddhist way is to see the gestalt and the particular at the same time, you can understand it better (the forest is the trees; the tree is the forest). Some of them do go into paradox territory, but as with any religion, eventually you have to make your peace and accept some paradox.

So I enjoyed the book and got some insights into detachment (and a couple of posts quoting the book–search for the wisdom of shunryu suzuki). But it’s a practical and practice primer on Buddhism, akin to the Max Lucado Christian books: A bit of how to live as a Buddhist, but without the implications and intimations of the religion that you get from the heavier books by Kierkegaard, Niebuhr, Tillich, and so on. If you believe Alex G. Smith, that’s how the Buddhists hook you, with their practical philosophy and practice, but that’s how the Christians hook you, too (Tolstoy’s favored religion features that sort of peasant, practical religion, and that explains why he equates religions based on this practical philosophy level.

Now, where was I before I started name-dropping other things I’ve read? Oh, yes: The book is a good primer into Zen Buddhist thought, especially the practical philsophy and practice components, and you could learn something from it. But don’t read it and declare yourself a Buddhist, as it really lacks a cosmological component that explains it all. Of course, the Zen would argue that you don’t need to know it, just to do Zen. But I’m a Western kid, and I expect a bit more in a complete belief system. Which is why I’ll never be a Buddhist.

Two Road Trips to California: The Grapes of Wrath vs. On The Road

It occurs to me that two of the books I’ve read so far this year, The Grapes of Wrath and On the Road, center on road trips to California.

To recap: In The Grapes of Wrath, the Dust Bowl Effect, crop failures, and unpaid bank loans drive the Joad family from their small farm in Oklahoma and onto California, which has been promised to be a place of plenty and work for everyone but that proves to be something else. It’s rife with Hoovervilles, people who mistreat the Okies, and capitalism exploiting the little guy.

In On The Road, a veteran travels repeatedly to California by various means and goes to San Francisco to listen to jazz music, mostly.

The two books appear only 18 years apart, though, but they seem to come from entirely different ages. The Grapes of Wrath seems to have been set in a past era, like the 19th century, whereas On the Road is a slightly less modern but still modern era book. What happened in the interim?

The Chinese revolution and forced redistribution of land. World War II would seem to be the facile answer; after all, the protagonist of On the Road was a veteran of World War II, and World War II changed everything, right?

No, rather: In the 1940s, we see the electrification of the United States and how it catches up to the urban areas. As Growing Up In The Bend reminds us, rural parts of Missouri did not get electricity until the 1940s and 1950s, and many farmers were still using draft animals on their small farms within living memory even while the cities were running street cars and televisions. So the divide between the books is more a matter of city versus country than anything else.

By the time The Grapes of Wrath hit the streets, the pulps and the presses already had detective fiction a la The Maltese Falcon (1939, film in 1941) and The Big Sleep (also 1939, with the Bogart film in 1946, seven years after The Grapes of Wrath). These books have a more modern sensibility to them because they deal with urban centers in California. The Grapes of Wrath, on the other hand, deals more with the rural areas of the country at the time. By the time On The Road rolls around, the rural areas are mostly electrified and have more of the conveniences we associate with modernity.

Funny: John Steinbeck’s heroes of the rural world elected Donald Trump. Do you suppose they’d be the heroes of The Grapes of Wrath 2017?

Book Report: Rated R by Mike Leon (2014)

Book coverYou might be asking yourself, “Self, did Brian J. get this book because of its lurid cover?” Well, not just because of its lurid cover; I found it mentioned on some blog I read (I forget which one), and I found the back of the book material interesting:

Lily loves movies–especially the bloody ones. They distract her from her broken life, even if it’s only for a few hours at a time. But something unbelievable is about to happen in the backwards little video store where she works. Someone Lily knows is not who they say they are. And when she finds out their dark secret, she will be drawn into a world of violence and destruction as fantastic as any body-count blockbuster. She will be hunted by mercenaries, a ninja master, an invincible cannibal butcher and a psychopathic super soldier more bloodthirsty than death itself. If she’s lucky, she might still be breathing when the credits roll…

It’s a self-published bit by an author with a large number of books available, so I expected something akin to a men’s adventure paperback like the Executioner series or something you’d find on Glorious Trash but with a more modern bent.

The book details how Lily becomes involved with a stone killer hiding out from his past. But he’s just like seventeen or eighteen and is a super soldier. When he defends the video store where they work together from a robber with extreme prejudice, people from his past, including some other super elite soldier types (with gimmicks) come looking for him. And his brother, perhaps even a better killer, breaks out of his special prison and goes looking for a special MacGuffin which Lily and Sid (the super soldier) must find first.

So the book has its postmodern bent, where Lily calls the MacGuffin the MacGuffin. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it has its tongue in cheek. But, boy Howdy, is it lurid. Lily is promiscuous, and she has numerous encounters with Sid and others. They’re not Gunsmith-level depictions of human intimacy, but they’re not couched in the-train-whistle-blows-and-the-train-goes-into-the-tunnel-symbolism, either. The fighting sequences take the worst splatter-instincts of the Gold Eagle or Death Merchant metal-and-anatomy prose Pollock portraiture and amp it up. Which might be part of the post-modern winking of the book. Which is not to say it’s poorly written–the story and text pulled me along in spite of the purple. But it’s probably not for everyone, and I’m not entirely sure it’s for me. Which might be unfortunate, since I bought a second book by the author (not in this series). Both at full price.

It’I enjoyed it better than The Grapes of Wrath. Also, I phrased it that way to better serve as a blurb should the author search for himself and find this review. “Better than The Grapes of Wrath”–Brian J. Noggle, author of John Donnelly’s Gold. Because I’m working on marketing myself and my Internet brand even as I jot down thoughts on things I read.

What was my point? Oh, yeah. Recommended? Well, perhaps, if you want to experience what it is like in the 21st century to read something comparably trashy to men’s adventure fiction was in the 1960s.

A Quiz Wherein Brian J. Has A Failing Grade

The proprietrix of ABC Books shared this link because her bookstore is on’t: The 9 Best Bookstores in Missouri!.

How did I do on the quiz? The book stores I’ve visited have their titles in bold:

  1. Subterranean Books, St. Louis I went once after Sheldon sold A Collector’s Book Shop, but it wasn’t the same without Sheldon telling someone not to pull the book out by the top of the spine.
  2. Prospero’s Book Store, Kansas City My beautiful wife and I went to a number of bookstores in KC a while back, but I’m not sure that we visited this one; I’ve looked at the street view of it, and it looks familiar, but I’m not sure. We drove all over. Somewhere out in the sticks, we went to a bookstore run by one of the aforementioned Sheldon’s former employees.
  3. Yellow Dog Bookshop, Columbia I’ve never been to Yellow Dog, but I’ve been to Acorn Books, which I notice isn’t on the list, which is great because I have a twenty-year-long grudge against Ken, the owner.
  4. ABC Books Of course, I’ve been to ABC Books. The article said it’s a great place to browse on Saturdays; perhaps I would save some money if I only browsed there on Saturdays.
  5. The Book Rack, Cape Girardeau I’ve never been to Cape Girardeau, but if I had, I’d probably have visited.
  6. Hooked on Books, Springfield You, gentle reader, will remember I used to come to ABC Books when I visited Springfield before I moved to the area. I still do, but somehow not as often as ABC Books and neither as much as before I started limiting myself mostly to library book sales.
  7. River Read Books, Lexington I’ve never been to Lexington, either.
  8. Calvin’s Books, Branson We visited this book shop within the last year.
  9. Rose’s Bookhouse, O’Fallon What? This book shop is a mile or so away from the print shop where I worked for two years, and I never heard of it. But we’ll hit it the next time we’re in St. Louis, I’ll wager.

That’s only four of the nine, a failing grade.

I must try harder!

National Lampoon’s Vacation Is The Best Retelling Of The Grapes of Wrath Ever

So upon further reflection upon the book The Grapes of Wrath, I realized that I liked it better when it was retold as National Lampoon’s Vacation.

What? You’re a skeptic? Listen, they’re the same exact story just in different eras and with a slightly different focus.

Joseph Campbell’s monomyth cannot account for all the similarities.

Consider:

  Grapes of Wrath National Lampoon’s Vacation
Broken down vehicle Jalopy Wagon Queen Family Truckster
Deaths on the trip Granma, Gramps Aunt Edna
Transit of dead body Mother lies with dead body overnight to escape from Arizona Aunt Edna taken to relative’s house
Encouraging strangers invite reflection Casy, the former preacher Christie Brinkley, the woman in the red Ferrari.
Danger in the Desert Inhospitable conditions Car crash
Theft Family eats peaches when picking Clark cashes a check by taking money from the motel register
Destination disappointment California closed to Okies Walley World closed
Violence at destination Tom Joad kills again Walley World guard held under gun, made to ride rides
Sequels “The Ghost of Tom Joad” by Bruce Springsteen National Lampoon’s European Vacation, Vegas Vacation, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

You see? The same story!

Trust me, I have an English degree which uniquely qualifies me to find such obvious parallels and to write about them at great length.

Book Report: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

Book coverI told my beautiful wife that I had previously read this book in high school because I am a compulsive liar. I actually read it, now that I think about it, probably in my modern American literature class at the university instead. I remembered the basics of the plot, but that’s about it. Otherwise, I surely would not have read it again.

Make no mistake: I like Steinbeck well enough (see my reports for Travels with Charley, The Long Valley, Tortilla Flat, and Of Mice and Men). But this book, Steinbeck’s magnus opus, is nothing but Depression era full-on socialist/communist agitprop and not a very good story.

As you might know, the plot revolves around the Joad family. Small farmers in Oklahoma, a number of bad years and overdue bank loans force the family off of their land when their home is foreclosed upon (and “accidentally” damaged by the tractor driven by an operative of the new land owner, who turns it into a portion of a larger farm. They buy an old, beaten down truck and begin a journey to California based on a handbill that they have seen promising work picking crops there. They go on the road, have some adventures incidents, and eventually reach California to find that the handbills have drawn hundreds of thousands of people in similar circumstances, and there’s not enough work to go around. So the Joads live in a Hooverville, get driven out, live in a government commune for a while, but leave to look for work up north. They find some work picking peaches, but Tom kills another man and has to go into hiding, so they go to a cotton picking operation some miles away while Tom hangs out, and when his younger sister blabs, Tom goes on the lam. Then a flood forces the remaining Joads out, and life goes on. Well, some other stuff happens, but that’s the nub of it.

Thematically, it’s all about Capitalism Bad, Substinence Farming Good, and Government Socialist Communes Good, Too.

The narrative story of the Joads is broken up by short chapters decrying some bit of capitalism or another. We get bits about the banks, bits about car salesmen, and how capitalism is destroying the country and keeping the little man down. The characters themselves are not very deep; instead, they’re ciphers of good, simple farmers buffetted by the bad winds of change. The main hero, for Pete’s sake, is a hothead who is just getting out of jail for second degree murder, and he commits a second one by the book’s end. The younger brother is ruled by his hormones. The father and uncle are unimaginative. The mother, who holds it all together by being strong, is simple. I get the sense that Steinbeck doesn’t like his characters so much as pity them (an insight I can apply to his other works, too), and that makes for characters readers cannot relate to.

The Joads are isolated, too; although they’re said to be Godly folks (especially the grandmother, who spurts out “Praise Gawd” like she’s got a Christian flavor of Tourette’s Syndrome), there’s no church, larger family, or support system when they fall on hard times. It’s a lot like when Barbara Eihenreich pretended to be poor for a book (Nickeled and Dimed: On Not Getting By In America). The poor cannot get along without government help because extended family, charity, and churches don’t exist.

So I didn’t like the book, and I wonder if it’s on so many syllabi simply because of its anti-capitalist content. It’s not even Steinbeck’s best (The Winter of Our Discontent is far better).

Reading this compassionate reflection of migrant peoples deserving their small plot of land for substinence farming, I’ve got to wonder what Steinbeck would make of current migrations, such as Mexican residents coming through those same areas of California today (and with the same economic goal/impact and resistance from existing residents of the area) and Middle Eastern refugees coming to Europe. Would Steinbeck be as sympathetic to these migrations and so disunderstanding of existing residents who might resist the new people arriving? Steinbeck shows no sympathy to Californians already in California when the Joads and other displaced people arrive.

The book also romanticises a family’s tie to a small patch of land, like five acres with a small cash crop, some dooryard crops for eating, a couple of chickens, and a couple of pigs. If only everyone could have that instead of large tracts owned by large-scale food producers using tractors! However, the economies of scale in large farms and livestock operations provide the food needed by large populations, especially urban populations, of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. A lot of people don’t get that, and insist that hobby farms can provide everyone with what they need. This book certainly wants us to think that, but sustenance farming was mostly sustenance farming, and a couple of bad years could wipe a family out. As they did in the beginning of the book, but Steinbeck does not see a lesson in that.

That’s not to say I didn’t take something from the book: Since I’ve read it, my diction has declined a bit as I’ve started imitating Steinbeck’s representation of sloppy Okie speech, and I’ve started eating beans as whole meals. It did help me along with one of my current goals for 2017, though: I’m hoping to finish reading all the comic books I own, and as I crept along through this book at two chapters a night, I filled the rest of the reading time with comic books. I’m almost ready to start the box of comics I bought at a garage sale nine years ago. So I’m on track for that goal.

At any rate, I’m happy to be done with this book.

I Only Scored 3 of 8 On This Quiz

This old advert from the back of a comic book looks like a quiz to me.

The question is “How many of these old systems do you own today?”

On the plus side, I own more than one of each. So if there’s some weighting to this quiz, I’ll still pass.

As to how many of the systems do I have Q*bert on, that’s at least one and probably two or three. Maybe even for, since I have a Colecovision cartridge or two even though I have never owned a Colecovision.

I’d say “I’ve got to collect them all,” but I’ve watched for old systems at garage sales and estate sales when I get to them, but you don’t tend to find many in the wild any more. And I’m not likely to buy them from stores or online sites since that’s not the fun of collecting. The fun of collecting is in the hunting and finding (but, no, honey, I’m not going to practice catch and release with any of my acquisitive hobbies).

Footnoting My Humor, Again Again

I recently quipped, “It was my turn to prepare dinner, and I overcooked the cannibal sandwiches.”

Of course, this is a bit of obscure humor. One must be a northern person of a certain age to get it.

Cannibal sandwiches are open-faced sandwiches of raw ground beef served on rye and topped with raw onion. Or, if you cannot afford onion, onion and/or garlic powder or salt. My sainted mother was not an ethnic Pole or German, but she served us this treat on occasion. I think it’s because she didn’t like to cook.

It’s been decades, of course, since I’ve had a cannibal sandwich since everything is more dangerous these days, or at least the risk of everything is hammered so loudly that its outsized peal keeps us from so many things.

As to cannibal sandwiches, the media continues to extol its risk even into the 21st century.

But it won’t be running these stories for much longer, as people who enjoyed the dish in spite of its risk die out. Not from the deadly food, but from old age, which kills a lot of the risk-ignorant and all the risk-averse.

Oh, and by “overcooking the cannibal sandwiches,” I meant “made hamburgers.” But that was before I took a little slice of humor and tried to blow it up into a Greater Meaning as one is wont to do one one’s eponymous Web log.

Captain Olympic’s Sidekick, Brian J.

Back in the olden days, and by “olden days,” I mean the 1970s and 1980s, comic books were rife with offers for enterprising youths who could order away for catalogs that held various items (seeds, greeting cards, and so on). You could then go and hit up your family or neighbors for sales, and you could get a cut of the sales price in cash or you could get stuff.

My brother and I, we went with Olympic, which was greeting cards:

Not depicted: Captain Olympic, the superhero they would later feature in their ads.

We started with the program a year or so after this particular ad from 1980. We were still living in the projects in Milwaukee, and the prizes were a wonderland of things we couldn’t get except at Christmas or our birthday, maybe. With a little hard work and the sufferance of our neighbors and relatives, we could earn them.

Every so often, they’d send us a new catalog, and we’d hit up people for a box or two of greeting cards. We never sold bunches of them, so we never got to the premium level of prizes like electronics, but we’d have ten or twenty boxes sold, and we’d pore over that catalog, weighing our options for hours and choosing carefully. Over the course of time, we got:

  • A Kodak Winner 110 camera (which you can see in the advertisement above). That little camera documented a lot of my life from the early and middle 1980s (although on Facebook I have a large number of images posted, the only mention I have of it on this here blog is the time I won a photography award in middle school using a snapshot from it.
     
  • The microscope set from the picture above. At the time, I was a well-rounded little smarty pants, and it wasn’t clear whether my smarty pantsness would lead me to science or to the arts. We used it for years, my brother and I, looking at the little slides they sent with it and looking at leaves and stuff. Remembering those days, I got a microscope for my boys for Christmas the year before last, and I don’t think they used it as intended before destroying it. But it does make an effective artillery piece for action figure battles, or so I’ve been told.
     
  • A small notepad/organizer thing that I took to my grandparents’ house alone one night, when my grandfather and I talked geneology. I don’t know if it was for a school project, but it was a rare thing for me to spend some one-on-one time with him, and I felt like such an adult at about ten. I took copious notes in that little notebook, and I lost it not soon thereafter. I seem to have a tendency to lose meaningful notebooks. That’s another story, perhaps a Personal Relics entry to come.
     
  • Our first copy of the basic Dungeons and Dragons set. We got this when we lived in the trailer park, and we spent many afternoons and weekends playing, my brother, the two Jims, and I. I’ve played with many gaming groups in the years between then and early marriage, but it all got started with that set.
     
  • A Polaroid instant camera that I got about the same time (“A Picture Holds 1000 Memories” talks about a picture I took with it). I don’t know why I thought I needed a second camera. Perhaps impatience with developing the film. The film was more expensive, though, so it got used on more consequential things, like pictures of our Pekingese doing smart things.

Some pack rat I am; of the items we got from Olympic, I’ve only got the D&D set left. But lots of pictures from the cameras, so they were definitely worth it.

Of course, kids don’t have these sorts of opportunities now. I know in my own life, when I hit middle school or high school, suddenly all my selling went from Olympic greeting cards to school fund raisers of various stripes. Did schools just start with the using children as fundraising tools at that time, or did I just age into it and/or move to a place where it was more common? I don’t know; however, I do know that kids today never hit me up for their own good, but instead from a very early age try to sell me things for their various programs and school functions. I suppose there’s a free enterprise versus ward/tool of the State essay in it were I so inclined. But not today.

UPDATE The top of this ad from 1984 shows Captain Olympic:

You see? I was not making it up!

The Source of America’s Obesity Epidemic–Revealed

Apparently, kids in the olden days were worried about being too skinny given this historical evidence found in the back of every single Marvel comic circa 1980:

The image is that of a young lady, but it’s probably not directed at the ladies, you know (although there is such a thing as too thin for a woman, and if you look at fashion and health magazines, you’ll see it). Instead, it’s directed towards people like me circa 1980.

Rest assured, me in 1980, you’ll gain those inches and pounds once you reach middle age.

I haven’t picked up a recent comic, but if they had any advertising in them these days, I would expect them to have the opposite sort of come-ons. As much because the kids are a little heavier these days, but the average comic book reader these days has probably also reached that place where the pounds and inches come easily. We’re not too far off from television advertisements where the announcer says “See our ad in The Incontrovertible X-Men!

I’ve Never Even Been To Arlington

Police Tase Suspect in Pikachu Onesie During Brawl Outside A-Town Bar & Grill:

A wild fight outside Ballston’s A-Town Bar & Grill last night resulted in two suspects being tased by police, including one man who was brawling while wearing a Pikachu onesie.

The incident happened around 9 p.m. on the 1000 block of N. Randolph Street. According to police, it started when the man in the Pikachu costume, Steven Goodwine, Jr., tried to pick a fight with the bouncers at A-Town after being kicked out of the bar’s weekly “Sunday Funday” festivities.

Although I have never been to Arlington, I have dressed in a Pikachu Onesie. Once.

Halloween, 2017, he added in explanation, and then he shifted his weight nervously, realizing he had said too much already.

Nogglestead, Lacking

As the early spring reboots into a last touch of winter here in southwest Missouri, the threat of snow again looms at Nogglestead. Well, “threat” and “looms” overstates it a bit. When the meteorologists say “snow,” they mean “flurries.” Still, in a bucolic country setting, snow flying in the air over the barns and fields looks absolutely lovely.

I’ve been a fan of the vista ever since I was a young boy in college, when I went to my grandmother’s house in the Wisconsin countryside for Christmas, and I remember after the meal, sitting on her downstairs sofa, which faced her patio doors. Outside, the patio and her rural back yard, which sloped away from the house and into some woods. I sat there in the darkness for a bit and watched the snow fall while the rest of the festivities continued upstairs. I wanted a view just like that.

I mean, when it snows, it’s beautiful at Nogglestead.

However, there’s not really a good place to sit to watch it except at a desk or table.

Our den is below grade, so looking out there allows you to see the raised flower bed directly outside and the bottom of the deck. Our living room is narrow and on the interior of the house, so it only has a small window and a door flanking a fireplace. Our dining room has a pretty good view of the back yard as does our master bedroom, which looks out sliding glass doors into the back yard as well, but it requires sitting on the bed or the floor. Out front, you can see the lower view above sitting at a desk in the parlor (if you look around the record player) or the new guest room (which still lacks most amenities, but has an old desk and an uncomfortable chair you could sit on to watch the snow fall. I dream about a three season room addition to the back of the house, but a three season room specifically omits in the name the season where the snow falls. Nothing here compares to that remembered view from my grandmother’s.

I hearken back to other places I’ve lived, and none really offered that view. The trailer park offered views of other nearby trailers; akin to that, the house in Old Trees looked to the houses on either side of it. In Casinport, I got the closest, where I could look out the window in my office and see our wood-shrouded back yard.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever have a view like that: Interior walls these days tend to be taken up by book cases or large entertainment systems, so the sofas and comfortable seating tend to be with their backs to the windows.

Of course, it’s really a silly thing to consider should I look for another home in southwest Missouri. We don’t tend to have many snowy days and nights here. Counting today, which features some light snow that is not really sticking, this winter has featured something like three, and the snowfalls have not lasted long even on those days. So arranging my home or choosing a home to provide this tableau would be a waste of time.

But when the snow flies in large flakes, as it is today, I just wish.

The Wisdom of Shunryu Suzuki (I)

From Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

After you have practiced for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid, extraordinary progress. Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always little by little. It is not like going out in a shower in which you know when you get wet. In a fog, you do not know you are getting wet, but as you keep walking you get wet little by little. If your mind has ideas of progress, you may say, “Oh, this pace is terrible!” But actually it is not. When you get wet in a fog it is very difficult to dry yourself. So there is no need to worry about progress. It is like studying a foreign language; you cannot do it all of a sudden, but by repeating it over and over until you master it.

Also known as the Groundhog Day theory of self-improvement.

Book Report: The Bookmakers by Zev Chafets (1995)

Book coverI remembered the author’s name from his New York Daily News column from early in my IT/office-based career, where I spent time during the day reading a pile of newspapers’ Web sites during the work day. So when I encountered this book at some book sale or another, I picked it up.

In it, an author, Mack Green, encounters a mugger one night. As he has been a bit on the skids recently, without a decently selling book for a couple of years, Green dares the mugger to shoot him, and when the mugger does not, takes the gun away and sends the young man running. The experience energizes him, and he decides to write a novel based on an author’s last year before committing suicide. He tells his agent, a former priest whom Mack plucked from the fold and made into a famous literary agent because he represented Mack, and he decides he’ll work with his normal publishing house and favorite editor, a fellow named Wolfowitz whom Mack plucked from an accounting position at the publishing house and made into a powerful editor because he was Mack’s editor and because he has an eye on the financial side of publishing. But the agent pays off his bookie with his share of the book’s proceeds, and the bookie then enlists a relative in Hollywood in picking up the movie rights. And the editor has had it in for Mack after a nearly forgotten (by Mack) dalliance with the editor’s wife. Many of these people think the book would be a better success if Mack killed himself at the end–or was killed and made to look like a suicide. To write the book, Mack returns to his hometown in Michigan and hooks up with a hoodlum friend from high school and his first love.

I enjoyed the book; it reminded me of Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen a bit, with its odd collision of amusing characters. It’s light hearted, but not quite as zany as you get from those other guys, but a fun book to read. Strangely enough, it made me want to write a bit of fiction myself again, probably one with jump cut chapters that bounce among the characters since that’s the rage these days. Of course, I guess I did that a bit myself, but not between protagonists and antagonists.

A solid book, and I’ll look for more Chavets in the future.

An Ode To Brian J.’s Repair and Painting Skills

A board came loose from beneath my shed, and it’s been waving in the breeze for a couple of months (probably in multiples of twelve). I had a couple of minutes to look at it this afternoon.

I headed out with my drill and a couple of screws to tie it back down. A shard of it had broken free with the screw intact. So I tried to remove the screw from the shard so I could put it all back together, but I stripped the screw head. Fine, I’ll just align the board properly with the shard with the screw in it and screw the rest of the board back into place.

The board no longer fit into the slot alloted to it. I tried to tap it in with a hammer, but after examining the board below it, I saw that it had warped up so that the whole length of the board was not going to fit. Judging by the twist at the end of the loose board, I don’t wonder if the slow warping of the bottom board wasn’t what caused the board to spring loose in the first place.

Now, I suppose the proper way to fix it would be to replace both of the boards. However, that’s not the way we do it in my family.

With long enough screws, anything is possible. So I screwed the board back into place with a little overlap at the bottom.

So, now, a musical interlude describing how to best inspect my repairs and paint jobs:

Watch for an update in this space in a couple of weeks, wherein Brian discovers that an animal of some sort had been using this loose board as a gateway to a den and has died under his shed and has begun to smell really, really bad.

Book Report: Three Novels by Damon Knight (~1957b)

Book coverIt’s funny that I read this book right after A Confession and Other Religious Writings by Leo Tolstoy. One might think that Damon Knight wrote it after reading the work, as it touches on some of Tolstoy’s themes.

This volume contains three novellas:

  • “Rule Golden”, whererin a journalist goes to a secret government installation (in Chillicothe, Missouri) where they’ve got an alien. The alien uses the journalist to help him break out of captivity and to spread a bit of a contagion that causes people to feel pain for the pain they cause. This causes society to break down as people move back to small farms. This tracks quite with “The Law of Love and the Law of Violence”.
  • “Natural State”, which tells the story of an actor from one of the last remaining Cities travelling to the countryside to try to sell manufactured products to the dirt people, only to discover that they have all their needs met via genetically engineered animals. It explores the dystopian urban future, with the perpetual crises and breakdowns there versus the fresh air.
  • “The Dying Man” tells about an immortal, stratified class between Students and Players. The Students must constantly refashion the world to amuse the Players, as no one dies and life’s meaning is only endless pursuit of transitory pleasure. A Player falls in with a Student who becomes ill and starts aging in a world where no one does. As he grows, he learns the meaning of life and ends up a small farmer before he dies.

The three stories are only 190 pages total, each shorter than the preceding. Interesting, of course, in the way that science fiction and especially golden age science fiction is, but a little hippie-dippy in theme.

Will my science fiction kick last? Who knows.

Fun fact: I bought this book almost 10 years ago. Proof that I get around to reading the books I buy at book sales. Eventually.