Sunday, September 8, 2013

Apple & "Jobs" A Personal History

     I should state immediately that this post will offer "spoilers" to the recently released movie "Jobs," starring Ashton Kutcher; however, this is not traditionally the kind of movie that one would necessarily worry about being "spoiled." It is, after all, an autobiography, and anyone who is interested enough in Apple or Steve Jobs to see the movie will most likely know many of the events portrayed in the film.

     Perhaps I should, before offering my opinion of the movie, relate my own personal relationship and history with Apple, and what I knew of Steve Jobs to this point. Being 36 years old, I grew up in an age of technology; my generation was the first to really have home video games, personal computers and cable television. I always held a keen interest in these things, being a "geek" by all traditional measurements. My family had an Atari 2600 (I loved "Combat", the pack-in game, and my sister and I loved to play "Breakout" against one another) and, at a later date, a Commodore 64 personal computer. I don't exactly remember whether the C64 was purchased for me, or for the family in general, but it didn't take long for me to basically confiscate the computer for my own. My parents, in particular my father, were always buying things they considered more educational to somewhat dilute the glut of toys I always asked for. (Of course, I used the C64 for gaming A LOT)

     As I got older, my interest and knowledge of computers grew; as a child, I remember seeing the live  infamous Apple "1984" commercial on TV. My school, although fairly poor for a private school, eventually offered computer classes, and even built a "computer lab." Indicative of the times, the computers were predominantly IBM PCs; I vaguely remember a Tandy or C64 being there among the monochrome black and green screens (no MS Windows on these PCs). There was also 1 single Apple IIc computer, the only one with a color monitor in the entire lab. Sadly, although we asked about it, the teacher didn't know anything about Apple Computers and rarely allowed us to turn it on.

     Even at a younger age, I knew the names of Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Bill Gates. My computer teacher at school was somewhat old school, in that he liked using the command line and didn't necessarily gravitate towards the graphical user interface that the Mac introduced and Windows popularized. He also kept us informed on things he considered important, and I remember hearing of Steve Job's departure from Apple. Basically, for me at that time, Apple was really interesting but obviously not going anywhere, and I followed the rest of the world of the Windows-based PC.

      It wasn't until later that I truly grasped how important Apple had been and what they offered; but like most people, I went with the flow and convinced my parents to buy me a Packard-Bell computer with a 15" monitor and an Intel Pentium CPU running at 100 MHz. It also was among the first computers on the market with the revolutionary Windows 95 operating system. This system took me through high school even though I took it apart, bought expansion cards, reinstalled windows several times, and basically used it as a surgical test dummy to learn how computers work. I've had several different systems through the years, and of course all were Windows based.

     I can remember hearing that Steve Jobs was back at Apple in the early 2000s, and the Apple commercials encouraging us to "Think Different" began appearing. Of course, the arrival of the MP3 was life changing for music fans. I can remember the first MP3 file I ever heard of was "Discotechque" by U2 in 1996, and nobody I talked to knew what an MP3 file was or how to play one; however, the small file size and relatively decent sound quality spawned a paradigm-shift in the music industry. Like any die-hard music lover, I carried CDs in my car and dealt with changing them out and storing them. So the appeal of the digital music player - 10,000 songs in my pocket - was irresistible. I had a Creative Labs Nomad, which was a 20GB ripoff of the original iPod with terrible software and a dot matrix display. Once I put my hand on an iPod Nano's control wheel, and saw how simple it worked, I was impressed.

     Yet I still didn't understand what was happening. I used the iPod with my Windows XP based PC, and the iTunes software wasn't very fast or easy to understand. I didn't buy music digitally, so iTunes was little more than a vehicle for putting my CDs onto the iPod. Then came iCloud, a genius idea so obvious now that the concept of cloud syncing and access to your files from anywhere, at anytime is a must for any tech company. Once I realized the possibilities of an Apple-based world for myself, I began the switch.

     It started small: I had always wanted a smartphone, and when the opportunity presented itself, my wife and I switched our mobile phones over to an LG android-based phone with a touch screen and seemingly endless possibilities. After a frustrating year of using this half-baked piece of junk, we both switched back to regular, simple cell phones. The Android based phone was such a bad experience, I couldn't understand why smartphones were so popular. I consider myself a fairly advanced user of technology, and if I didn't think the phone was a good product then what did everyone else see in it? (I'll write another post on Android sometime) Of course by this time the iPhone had been out for a few years, but they were more expensive. It wasn't until I bought my 32 GB iPod Touch, and tried a co-worker's iPad, that I truly understood what the iPhone was all about. I could have all the features of my iPod, along with a mobile phone, in one package. When the iPhone 5 came out, with a slightly larger screen and access to my cell provider's faster 4G LTE network, I took the plunge.

     I was so satisfied by the iPhone experience that I can't really imagine not having one. Soon after, I took another leap and bought myself a Macbook Pro, replacing my Windows 8 desktop. It took some time for me to adjust to the subtle differences in the Mac OS vs. Windows, but now I'm completely sold on the advantages of the Mac. Also, things just visually look better on the Mac. Steve Jobs was a stickler for font styles and rounded corners on rectangles, etc., and the Mac OS reflects that attention to detail. Windows, even in its current "metro" style, seems much more utilitarian by comparison. Now, through iCloud, anything I want is accessible to me at basically any time, through my Macbook, my iPhone, my iPad, my AppleTV. It's simple, convenient, efficient. The tech just works, and works the way I want it to. My wife can use it without asking me how to do everything. My daughter has been able to play games on the iPad since she was 2. All without a manual.

     So now I'm a Mac, as the old commercials used to say. The Apple "ecosystem" welcomes me with open arms, and I embrace it. The reason: I got tired of fighting technology. My computer and my phone are tools in the same way a drill or hammer is; if the tool works the way it's supposed to, then the job gets done more quickly and efficiently. Poor quality tools may still get the job done, but it will take longer and cause more frustration.

     I like tools that work.

(to be continued)

Sunday, July 28, 2013

From Beyond the Grave

If you're lucky, you'll have someone in your life that makes the world better. I don't mean a parent, a child, or a spouse - someone who's important to you but not necessarily in your daily circle of life. It could be a friend, a relative, whatever, just one person who delights in spending time with you and vice-versa.

My Grandparents, Emma & Ireland
For me, I had two: my grandparents, Ireland and Emma Prillhart. I was fortunate to grow up being around them quite a bit; I know several people whose grandparents died before they really got to know them, or ever met them at all. Mine lived until I was well into adulthood. My grandpa passed away when I was 23, and my grandmother followed earlier this year, my 36th on this earth. As a child, I spent a lot of time with them, as we lived directly beside of them. Afternoons were spent in their care as my parents worked, and once my grandfather retired he enjoyed having his grandkids around. He always entertained me with a song from his guitar, or by using a slingshot with pinpoint accuracy. I would roll my eyes when we would enter a store or flea market, as he would always bump into someone he knew and talk for what felt like hours to my young mind.

Here I am mixing some cornbread. I
have this mixing bowl at my
house now.
My grandmother, on the other hand, was a steady and reliable homemaker, and worked in a garden and the home all day long. I would spend time in the garden with her, helping gather corn and other vegetables. In the afternoons she would fix supper, and I would sit on the counter and mix cornbread and watch her tend the stove. In all my years, I never saw my grandma drive a car, work a "real job," or type on even a typewriter; at times, she would spend hours reading the Bible and endlessly writing in notebooks. I used to think she was just copying the Bible into her own hand.

Working in the garden
My grandparents didn't have a television for most of my childhood, a decision they made when I was still young. I don't think they were any the worse for it, as there were many other things that occupied their time. In fact, without the distraction of television they were probably happier, although again, at my young age, I did struggle with the concept.

There was also my uncle Danny, the youngest of my Grandparent's five children, who was mentally handicapped and lived with them. He died a few years after my Grandpa. Although he wasn't very affectionate, he loved everyone, and we loved him. He was a big part of the time I spent at my Grandparent's house. We watched baseball at the park across the road, looked at books, played games and just enjoyed the endless days.

When I was in second grade, we had to move away, and I didn't see them as much. We moved only about 15 miles away, but it might as well have been across the country - I only saw them at church on Sundays and on special occasions. It would be about seven years before we would move again, this time to a house 2 doors up from my grandparents. I was just entering high school, and although I fell in love with computers and video games in my isolation, I was delighted to be near them again. In the summer, I would walk to their house early in the morning and spend the day driving around with Grandpa or learning to play the guitar. Sometimes I'd have some fresh cornbread and fried squash for lunch with my Grandma.

One of the greatest joys of my life is
that my daughter, Bindi, got to know
my Grandma before she was gone.
The point of all of my talking is this: my grandparents were always there for me. They loved me and I absorbed their love. It's a part of who I am. When my grandmother died several months ago, it was a very difficult time. I had the opportunity to kiss her forehead and tell her I loved her the night before she died, and I'm so very glad I did, because she told me she loved me every day of her life, not just with words, but with actions.

Recently, I've been struggling with some personal issues of depression, loneliness and worry. There's been a lot on my mind. Friday, my parents, who are preparing to move into my grandparent's house, have been cleaning out the usual papers and mementos that accumulate over the years. They gave me a stack of report cards, papers and a yearbook from my early years and told me to take them home. Thinking not much of them all, I started leafing through the papers and drawings, reminiscing of an easier time. Mixed in with all of the report cards and kindergarten drawings was a card in an envelope; inscribed on the front:
The mysterious envelope
"Master Chris Allen Newsome"

So I had to open it and read it. There, in the simplest way humanly possible, my grandparents (I assume my Grandma actually wrote & drew in the card) had reached from beyond the grave to tell me that everything was going to be all right:

I love you too, Grandpa and Grandma. Thanks for still being there for me.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Being a Parent

Being a parent is a lot of things, most of which you've heard already; but trust me, unless you are a parent, you really don't understand what they mean.

Over the years I heard my mom say things like, "Having you kids has been the greatest thing that ever happened to me" and "I don't know what I'd do if something ever happened to you." At the time, in that moment, I (like most people) thought it was just mom being mom, paying lip service, etc., etc. Once I became a parent, it was all so clear to me; and yet, it's almost indescribable. My sister-in-law put it the best I've heard: "Did you ever think you could love someone so completely and totally?" She really hit that one out of the park... most people think of their significant others and say something to the effect of "I am totally in love with this person" and "I love everything about them." Cameron Crowe, in "Jerry Maguire," said "you complete me." In truth, the only time you ever really, honestly feel like this is when you are a parent.

The mere thought of your child being hurt sends a deep ache through your body and tears to your eyes. Their cries can slice through you like a lightsaber. Their smiles and laughter can take your soul higher than it's ever been. Truly, one can see divinity in a child's face.

I realize I'm not making much sense in this post, but tonight I'm writing totally off the hip, as opposed to my usual half off the hip approach. There is much swirling through my mind and heart. This is just a method for me to release it. If you are a parent, hug your child and tell them you love them. NOW.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

"On Vacation"

Prior to the year 2010, I had really never been "on vacation." At the age of 34, my only time "on vacation" had been my family's annual whirlwind trip to Augusta, Georgia. My father is from Augusta, and, living in East Tennessee, rarely saw his family. So every summer, when I (and my brother and sister) was out of school, we packed up in the car and left out for Georgia at 4 a.m. Saturday morning. We would arrive at my Grandfather's house somewhere between 10 and 11 a.m., and spend the day with him and various other members of my dad's family. Sunday morning around 10 or 11, we would pack back up in the car and head home.

Twelve hours of driving over the weekend to spend 24 hours (at least 8 of which were spent asleep) in Augusta. In a strange, seemingly copacetic ending, the last time I took this trip was before my senior year of high school when my grandfather died. We stayed a few days that time, and I haven't been back since.

After high school, I went through a few jobs, some schooling, met and married my wife, and settled down. I was married in 1998, four years after graduation, and my wife and I bought a house just 2 months later. Being a newlywed, a new homeowner, and having a job that paid just enough to get by led us to spend a lot of time at home. My employer offered me a one week paid vacation every year, but also gave me the opportunity to take it as extra pay instead of time off, so I did that every year. By 2002, I had my own business and couldn't make enough time or money to take any real time off. When the business ended in 2008, we were in financial distress.

I had been married for 10 years at this point, and I had never taken a vacation. It was a miracle my wife hadn't left me. In 2005, I had managed to scrape up a little cash and take her to Gatlinburg, TN, for a weekend. We called it our honeymoon, even though it was several years late. By 2008 my business had failed, I had taken a job I wasn't all that thrilled with and my wife was pregnant. There was no way I was going to be able to get away any time soon.

It seemed like the next 18 months went by in a flash. My daughter was born, I was promoted at work, and we were starting to get our finances back in order. By the fall of 2010, we had scraped together some money with the help of a bonus I earned at work, so we rented a cabin in Pigeon Forge, TN, and spent a week "on vacation." It was amazing. Never before had I been paid while I wasn't working. Spending time with my wife and child every day was priceless.

Me and my dad in St. Augustine, FL.
The next year my brother and his family offered to let us stay in their rental condo in St. Augustine, FL., for a week while they were on vacation. A small disclosure: I had actually been to St. Augustine as a child with my parents on the last real vacation they took. I was so young I don't really remember much, other than partial memories of seashells and starfish. This had to be around 1979 or 1980, when I was 3-4 years old. My wife had never been to the beach either, and had asked at various times throughout our marriage that I take her to the beach. I am somewhat of a nerdy, geeky, indoor-type (if you didn't guess that already) and the beach never seemed appealing to me. I don't really enjoy warm weather, so why would I go somewhere that's even hotter for vacation? Nevertheless, again we scraped up a little cash, and took advantage of my brother's offer.

St. Augustine turned out to be so much more than I thought. Sure, it's hot, but it's a different heat. The water is cool, the wind is nice, the sky is beautiful. We were hooked. As I type this, I'm in a condo right off the beach on Anastasia Island in St. Augustine. This is the third year we've vacationed here, and I can't imagine not making time for it. This week seems to sustain me all year long. We may not always come to St. Augustine, but now we treat the annual vacation as a regular expense and plan for it. In the past, I would downplay the importance of anything that didn't have any long term reward, such as a new roof on the house or remodeling the bathroom. What I didn't see before is the long term reward of time together - making memories with my family. My wife and daughter will be able to talk about trips to the beach and we will all remember the things we've done "on vacation."

Friday, June 28, 2013

Next-Gen Gaming: Why I'm NOT buying an XBox 1 or PS4

In my relatively isolated media bubble, the topics that compete for my attention are relatively simple: comic books, movies & music, technology and video games. Anything that relates directly to one of these things is included as well. So as E3 came and went, the video game world was buzzing as Microsoft and Sony fired their opening salvos in the coming console wars.

Microsoft, which is a relative newcomer in the grand scheme of video gaming, has reigned supreme for years on the strength of its XBox 360, which, had it not suffered so much hardware failure, could potentially challenge the Super Nintendo as the greatest game system of all time. The XB360 concentrated on a great gaming experience with sharp, easy controls and smooth action. The controller is so good that I cannot play a first person shooter with any other one. So there was much excitement over their long-awaited next-generation console, the XBox One. (which we all thought would be the XBox 720) Sony, (the former champion with another GOAT contending console, the PS2) who stumbled out of the gate with the PS3 but delivered a great (if overpriced) console that featured home theater integration, blu-ray playback (Sony introduced this concept with a DVD playing PS2) and great independent titles, has upgraded to the PS4.

Each console has its strength and weaknesses, but here's what neither of them offer:

Backward compatability. This is a real thorn for me, and a lot of people; Sony started the trend with the PS2 by offering the ability to play your old PS1 games, a genius move that helped justify the extra cost of moving to the new gaming system, only to basically abandon it with the PS3. Microsoft treated backwards compatability in their XBox 360 as an afterthought, making sure top games like Halo worked but not placing any emphasis on it. What's interesting about this is that before Sony offered that to us on the PS2, we as gamers had never thought about it before; and now we are angry that these companies have taken it away from us. Microsoft in particular is committing a huge transgression against its customers by not even allowing the purchases made with their XBOX LIVE accounts to transfer to the new system.

Affordability. This may seem petty, as I paid $300 for my PS3 five years ago, but for a system that includes 1 controller, no games, and can't even play my old games, $399 for a PS4 and $499 for an XB1 feels like highway robbery. I can remember being 9 or 10 years old and begging my parents for a Nintendo Entertainment System that cost $199 and came with 2 controllers, a light gun, and 2 games. Now, I realize that things cost more now, but look at the value there - I was able to make the initial purchase and take the thing home and play it right then without having to make an additional purchase. I was also able to play with a friend or family member as well, again at no extra cost.

Replay Factor. I'll confess - I don't do online gaming. So for me, getting Call of Duty: MW3 is like spending $60 for 4 hours of entertainment. That's not to say that this game and others aren't fantastic, but once I finished COD:MW3, I didn't touch it again. When I was a kid, I played Super Mario Bros 3 literally hundreds of times. It didn't matter how many times I beat it, there was always something new to discover and some new twist to the way I played it. My favorite game of all time is Maniac Mansion, a story about a mad scientist, his crazy family, an alien tentacle, and a meteor. It sounds zany, but I have actually played and beaten the game over 100 times and it still doesn't get old. The game features multiple solutions and scenarios that are entertaining and engrossing. I don't care that it has no photo-realistic dogs or epic soundtrack.

The point I'm getting to is that I really have no interest in spending $500 to play the next Call of Duty or God of War game because I'll only play them once. You may think I am just getting old (I've lamented about this in another blog post already) but I say I'm getting wiser. As the father of a 4 year old who loves to play games (already, I know!), I think she won't miss either of those titles. I certainly won't miss having to turn the XB1 on every day just to let Microsoft know I'm alive, either.

I did take the plunge recently though, and bought a new game system: the Nintendo Wii U. I have a Wii, (which played GameCube games, by the way) and my daughter loved it. After looking at the Wii U, finally in HD, with the iPad-like main controller that can be used instead of the TV, I decided to go in Nintendo's direction. They've been largely dismissed by the "serious" gaming crowd, as they don't cater to the first person shooters and massive role playing games of the other 2. But I offer this opinion: they have better, longer lasting games.

The first game I fell in love with, like many gamers of my generation, was Super Mario Bros., the pack-in game with the original Nintendo Entertainment System. It was simple to play, easy to get good at, and difficult to master. Yet every time I beat the game, I came back for more. The sequels were even better, introducing us to new concepts and maintaining a high level of re-playability. Super Mario Bros. 3 may even be the best video game of all time. Another Nintendo classic is Metroid, which has always appealed to my interest in sci-fi and fantasy in general. Throw in The Legend of Zelda, and you have 3 very enjoyable, consistently fantastic and highly replayable games that are going to continue on the Wii U. I bought "New Super Mario Bros U" with the console and have loved every second of it - and so has my daughter. We're looking forward to Super Smash Bros U, Mario Kart U, and many more titles. We'll love playing them over and over in the years to come.

That's worth a lot more than one or two exclusive titles that I'll play through once and sell for 1/4 the price I paid for it.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Oh, what a life

It's incredibly easy to become so wrapped up in our own lives, with specific needs and desires, that we break down into whining children when something doesn't go quite the way we want it to. I'm not going to write another one of those "look how good we've got it" essays, instead I merely want to share a couple of experiences I've had lately.

First, our dishwasher died. Far too soon, if you ask me, as it had a relatively much shorter life than the other major appliances in my home, but it was also a troubled child from the start, so maybe my hopes were too high. I also wasn't very happy about having to buy a new one, as opposed to paying about 80% of that amount to a repairman to fix the troublemaker. There was a considerable amount of pressure on me to get it replaced though; you see, my wife doesn't like to wash the dishes by hand. Neither do I, come to think of it. But the dishwasher had spoiled us - we hadn't always had one. When we (I) finally broke down and bought one about 5 years ago, there was great joy and glee in the house. Look at all our extra free time now! Look at my (her) non-dishpan hands!

Fast forward to present day, and the few days we were without a dishwasher were very tense. I became exceedingly concerned that I (my wife) might have to wash a sink full of dishes BY HAND. This great revelation came to me as I was laying on an inflatable raft, drifting around in the pool in my backyard on a beautful sunny weekend day, listening to my daughter splash and play in the water. There I was, relaxed, content, happy. It was then that it occurred to me that there are people out there not as fortunate as I am: they don't have dishwashers. Heck, they probably don't even have pools, although mine is the $300 above ground variety and nothing to drive up the price of my tiny 1,000 sq ft home.

But it sure makes my life more enjoyable.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

I (almost) Wish I'd Never Read a Comic Book


Having just seen "Iron Man 3" this past weekend, something has been weighing heavily on my mind: how little I am enjoying modern "geek" culture. If you knew me well, you'd think this time would be the highlight of my life; I have always lived the kind of life that is celebrated on shows like "The Big Bang Theory"; I have dreamed of the days when comic book characters like Spider-Man and The Avengers would have movies in theaters that you actually enjoyed seeing. But sometimes I wonder: if I had never read a comic book, would I enjoy these movies more?

Iron Man 3 has, potentially, the largest and also the worst plot twist of any of the comic book based movies I've seen. The Mandarin, a longtime nemesis of Iron Man in the books, is reduced to a pathetic joke, and those of us who grew up reading comics became the "butt" of this joke about 2/3 through the movie. Worse, the advertisements for the movie play up both the Mandarin's role in the movie and Ben Kingsley's performance, knowing fanboys like myself would salivate at the possible scenarios that would play out. In hindsight, I don't recall seeing any Mandarin-related action in the commercials; however, one could argue that the concept was to tease and not to show. Now, I realize that they had nothing to show.

This single reveal in the movie cheapened the entire film for me; my interest in the film waned and I began to nitpick every event in the film from then on. Before that, I was enjoying myself and interested in where the story was going. (I won't spend too much more time nitpicking the film here) After talking to some friends who saw the movie, who are NOT comic book readers, they had an entirely different and positive response to the movie. Which has brought me to that question: if I had never read an Iron Man comic, would I also have enjoyed the movie?

Don't get me wrong. To this point, Marvel could almost do no wrong with their films. Despite making some significant changes (Sam Jackson as Nick Fury leaps to mind) from the source material I grew up with, these films have been tons of fun and really a joy for me to see. I'll always remember fighting back the urge to jump up and shout during the big finale of "The Avengers" as I realized the movie was everything I had dreamt of and hoped for.

I'll admit it: I'm jealous of the folks who can go to the movies and not dwell on whether or not it's "true to the source material." I am a massive Spider-Man fan who couldn't stomach seeing the most recent movie in theaters because the costume had been altered too much to suit me. After finally seeing it on DVD, I'm glad I didn't waste money on it. I called every event and twist that was about to happen, and groused about every incorrect moment. If I had never read a Spider-Man comic, would I have cared?

Perhaps I wouldn't have bothered to see the movie at all then...

...which begs another question: just who are they making these movies for, if not for people like me?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Rat Race

The "Rat Race" - society's term for the chase of the almighty dollar. From childhood, we (as people, as a culture) are encouraged to do whatever it takes to make the most money we can. Usually this is at the detriment of our personal needs and desires, as well as that of our families and friends. We're taught that work comes first, above all else, because money is the most important thing and you can't have enough of it. Those who have alot of "it" want more of "it." Those who have none of "it" want to get some of "it." Somewhere in the middle are the ones who get a little of "it" and wish they had more of "it".

My brother once brought up a question, in a discussion about working alot versus spending time with your family, that made me stop and think. The question: "In 10 years, will you look back and think, "I'm so glad I worked harder and longer to make an extra $5,000.00 a year. It doesn't bother me that I missed all these important events in my child's life." His point was felt clearly: my daughter, and being there for her through all her first experiences, is more important than an extra $100 a week. Don't get me wrong, if you can't make 2 ends meet, then you probably need to work some extra hours. Maybe you need to cut back on all your unnecessary expenses. I've been there, I know there are ways to work through anything.

At a job I had when I was just 20, I worked with an elderly woman who was nearing retirement. She relayed a particularly telling story to me about her life: she and her husband had spent their entire working lives taking every overtime shift they could get. She figured she had worked six days a week most of her life. Her husband had done the same, taking on side jobs, odd jobs, etc., whenever he could. They did this, and scrimped and saved every penny they could with their eyes on retirement. At the age of 60, at the time just a few short years from retirement, her husband had a heart attack and died. My coworker was distraught; all the years of hard work and planning was destroyed in a matter of moments. As she told me this story, with tears in her eyes, she said to me: "what I wouldn't give to be able to go back in time - instead of working all those extra hours, I would spend that time with my husband."

There are a fair amount of people who could read this and think that I simply don't like to work, and I'm trying to make a case against overtime. That's not true; I enjoy my job, and I do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. I also enjoy making extra money; there are plenty of things I like to have and activities that I like to do that, of course, require money. But I have found that often overtime is just an excuse to pad a paycheck, and not always necessary; and also the best memories usually do not require an extravagant expense. I doubt my daughter will look back on her childhood and think, "wow, I'm so happy that my dad made extra money so that I could have a TV in my bedroom." She will probably remember the times we played with chalk on the front porch or how every night I read a book to her, making up voices for each character and acting out the stories.

As I write this, I'm spending the night out of town in a condo, having a fun weekend. It wasn't very long ago that I wasn't in a financial position to do this, so I do appreciate making some money. But it also wasn't long ago that I could have afforded to do this, but was working so much that I couldn't have made the time to do this. When I started looking for another job, the number one goal I had was a "better work / life balance." I feared that this would prevent me from finding another job; most employers want you to make your job the center of your universe, forsaking all others. To blatantly tell them that I was intending to NOT do this was career suicide. I was very fortunate to find a job that I enjoy and did not expect me to give up a family life.

I realize that not everyone can do this, but I encourage everyone to try. I know that my life has changed completely for the better because of my family. I believe that this is the true meaning of life; never have I felt more complete than now. I wish this for all of you.

Thursday, April 18, 2013


OK, cancer has plagued us as a society for quite a while now. Endless articles, studies, movies, etc., have been created to tell you the story of cancer. The one thing that all of those sources can't do for you: make it REAL for you. Until you've experienced the touch of cancer firsthand, you can't possibly understand that the disease not only destroys the body its infesting, but the emotional and psychological warfare it wages on the family leaves scars that never really fade.

Two years ago my mother in law died from liver & pancreatic cancer. She was in a tremendous amount of pain, but watching her slowly decay into a pale wisp of a person and eventually lose the ability to function in basically any way was far worse. Although I can still place myself in that room, on the day she died, of course I can only imagine the struggle she faced at a point of no return, when all hope finally was lost. My wife still struggles with unresolved issues about it. My father in law has faced the most tremendous sea change of his life; the rest of the family has splintered, my mother in law being the glue that held everyone together.

I write this not to rehash an old, painful memory; on the contrary, two people very close to me have been diagnosed with cancer and my heart is heavy for them and their families tonight. As a selfish human, I wonder if I would be courageous were I on the receiving end of the bad news... they seem to put on the brave face, say all the right things like, "we're going to beat this," and "I'll try every treatment and devote myself to getting healthy," but I know that inside they must be terrified. I know I would be.

I'll close my eyes and think of you both every night.

UPDATE 11/21/14

Both of the people I mentioned above have now passed away. The devastation was no better this time than the last, or the one before that.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Nobody wants regulation, but...

OK, so I'm not interested in a "nanny state" - you know, like Bloomberg's NYC regulating the size of your soft drinks and where you can place cigarettes in the store - but some regulation is necessary. Conservatives and Libertarians will cry about regulation hampering growth in business, stifling innovation, etc., blah, blah. Without regulation though, chemical companies would just dump their waste in the local streams, pay their employees $2 / hr and work you 70 hours without paying overtime. So some regulation is good.

My mind is on a situation wherein a prominent website that sells cheap junk - if you're curious - has been selling counterfeit Lifeproof cases for iPhones. I have seen countless news stories about flea market sellers getting busted for selling counterfeit DVDs, Louis Vitton purses and the like, so why isn't anything done about this? There are a significant number of complaints to prove this claim's legitimacy, and the company has angered the consumers by being slow or hesitant to respond to refund requests. So who steps in on the side of the consumer in this situation?

Having been caught up in this myself, I wonder if I will find a letter in my mailbox one day, advising me of my inclusion in a class-action lawsuit. Maybe I'll even get a .14 check once it's settled. Once upon a time, I owned and operated a business, and was the victim of a customer using a stolen credit card. Once the actual card holder discovered the charge and filed a complaint with his card, I was immediately treated like a criminal. My account was garnished, my credit card processing was suspended, and there were threats of lawsuits. This was 1 transaction... I can only imagine if I had sold thousands of fake Iphone cases and faced as many irate customers reversing charges. At some point, VISA and Mastercard would be refusing to process my sales - wouldn't they?

Still, appears to still be humming along, selling their wares and advertising their deals. I wonder if anyone cares anymore.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The movies, childhood, flashbacks

Lately I've talked a bit about growing up, being bored, and general nonsense that makes this blog more like an online diary than anything worth the 5 minutes it takes to read. Today, I'd like to talk about one of my favorite things to do: go to the movies.

I love movies. The format of a complete story in a 2 hour (usually less) bite just sits well with me. I'd rather watch a movie every night than regular serialized television shows, which require a weekly commitment. (Tivo has helped with that quite a bit) In fact, I'd rather go to the movies every night. I've often said that, were I to become independently wealthy, I'd probably go to a movie every day. I would see everything that was out. I love the experience of the theater, from the posters to the smell of popcorn and sitting in a room with 100 complete strangers gazing at a larger-than-life screen and being totally shut out from the world for a brief period of time. The theater is like a hyperbolic chamber of sorts; no external distractions.

Today a friend and I went to see GI Joe: Retaliation, which was better than its predecessor in a "the second piece of crappy pizza isn't hot enough to burn your mouth like the first one did" way. There were still numerous issues with plot, acting, and direction of the film, but it was a distraction from the norm and a welcome change in my routine. While watching the movie, I was reminded of my youth, wherein I played with GI Joe toys, watched the cartoons, and read the comic book. (I just stopped reading the comic book, BTW, so it hasn't all been in my childhood!) When I was a kid, the closest thing to a movie adaptation of something I loved would be a long-form commercial for more toys (GI Joe: The Movie, Transformers: The Movie) or a poorly put together attempt to cash in because the toys were already so popular (Masters of the Universe).

The kids today have it so good. I would have probably committed any crime or performed any service without complaint if I could have had "The Avengers" happen when I was 10. A live GI Joe movie? It would never happen 25 years ago. Transformers in CGI, interacting with real humans in a real setting? You must be crazy to think it would ever come to fruition. Now, it's a reality.

The same thing happens when I peruse the toy aisles of Wal-Mart... today's toys look so good compared to what I had. And the makers don't mind putting out all these obscure variations or third-tier characters because collectors have driven the demand for these things. So when I see a Marvel Captain Britain 3.75" figure, I nearly pass out. Because when I was a kid, I had to buy one of the 7 figures they offered and re-paint it to get a Captain Britain. Today I can get a toy figure of basically any variation of Iron Man ever drawn on paper, less-than-popular characters like Sentry, and one-off specials like Yellow Lantern Batman. What I wouldn't have given to get stuff like that when I was 10 years old. I took a red & blue Spider-Man and painted it black to make "alien costume" Spider-Man. I took another one and made it into Venom.

I'll continue to see movies based on things from my childhood as long as they make them, and they're not too terrible. And I'll love every second of it, and smile knowing that the kid in me has finally seen his dreams come true, even if the adult in me knows it's all bull.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Because I'm Bored

There have been times in my life when I've been incredibly excited about one thing or another. When I was in high school, I desperately wanted to be a comic book artist. I was very devoted to this path, and all my extra energy was channeled in this direction. At some point, my interest faded, and I turned to music. I became consumed with all things musical; eventually, I even owned and operated a musical instrument store. In time, and after the bitter realities of failure, I lost interest in this path as well.

So tonight I ponder: do I lose interest just because I'm bored? Or is it when the going gets tough, I get lost? In both of the scenarios I mentioned above, I reached a point where the next step was inevitably success or failure. After the music store, I worked for a major retailer, and absorbed myself in that until I became manager of one of their stores; the pay was good, the hours were terrible, but within the store I was fairly autonomous, it was near my home, and I could have easily worked there for the next 30 years and made a decent living. I'm not there anymore either... retail quickly lost my interest as well. So with a small taste of success, I still opted for a change.

Is it because I'm bored?

I'm always maintained a fair level of interest in creative ventures, but once I began working full time I lacked the free time to pursue them, or I chose to spend what free time I had doing other things. As a result, I haven't really written or drawn anything in years, (one of the reasons I started this blog) and I still struggle with my own harsh criticism in these areas. I don't play music anymore for this reason: over 18 years of playing I couldn't attain what I felt was a level of proficiency I should have. How I envy the person who can just draw, write or play and enjoy it without critiquing every detail of their work to the point of paralysis.

So am I my own worst enemy? I am already reading this blog entry and thinking about how it should be more focused, etc., and considering re-writing it, or not even publishing it. I made myself a promise that I would just do it, and push through it, and damn the torpedoes, take it warts and all.

I just wish I could get to some answers... :)

Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Easter Bunny vs Santa Claus

When I was a child, Easter wasn't the kind of holiday you got really excited about. (this post is not going to look at the religious aspects) Of course, all the holidays were fun in their own way; Easter meant getting out of school on Good Friday, mom's potato salad, deviled eggs and ham, and the Easter Bunny leaving me lots of chocolate treats.

I would always get a basket for Easter, with a chocolate bunny, jelly beans and other small candies. Occasionally a small toy like a Matchbox car or GI Joe figure. In the years that have passed, somehow Easter turned into Christmas in Spring - my wife and I just bought my daughter the $20 My Little Pony Castle (which was the only way to get her the "Prince Shining Armor" toy), another $4 MLP toy, in addition to candy. So it was basically like a birthday, or Christmas, in March.

I spent a considerable amount of my working life in retail, and I noticed the trend at that time as well. Not having a child however, I didn't reflect too much on it. Not having to foot the bill tends to make one complacent in regards to certain bits of knowledge, you know. And like most of my recent life, things look so very different viewed through the lens of fatherhood. Anyway, over the years, Easter has become another day in which parents invest time trudging through stores looking for a certain toy or video game, etc., to satisfy their child's expectations. That's right, I said "expectations." My daughter, all of 4 years on this earth, told me several times exactly what the Easter Bunny was bringing her. And she was right.

Another time I'll discuss why we caved into the expectation. But that is not for today's post.

What's changed? What did I miss? Has the Easter Bunny launched some grand plan to horn in on Santa's business model?

Let me know how your Easter Sunday went with your children.

Monday, March 25, 2013

If I Only Had a Name

If I only had a name... this blog would be more interesting. If my name were Brad Pitt or Justin Bieber, then whatever mundane topic I decided to write about would suddenly be all the more interesting, wouldn't it? I've certainly fallen into that trap - it's easy. I adore Pete Townshend from The Who and if he said "I really enjoy listening to Justin Bieber" then I would run out and get everything I could. Why? Because Pete speaks to me in a way that few people have - and I would certainly be interested in who speaks to him.

This topic came into my head earlier as I was listening to Songza while doing guitar repairs (a side business for me). I chose "bedtime - acoustic relaxation" as my concierge choice and let the Calgon-like tones take me away. It is 11:00 pm, you know, so I have to go to sleep sometime. In the midst of acoustic music I've never heard before (and one song from the under-appreciated John Denver) came the familiar intro to "Landslide" by Stevie Nicks / Fleetwood Mac. I instantly became excited, thinking I was going to hear a live version or some rare demo track of the song. But no - it was Landslide, alright, but it sure wasn't Stevie Nicks singing it. In fact, I couldn't bear to turn away from the repair bench to see the performer's name.

See, Stevie Nicks is another special musician to me. I love her voice. I love the songs she writes. She's permanently engrained in my life: when my daughter was born, we were struggling to pick out a middle name for her. We knew her first name was going to be Bindi, (yes, after Steve Irwin's daughter) and we had basically settled on Zuzu as her middle name. Zuzu is the name of the smallest daughter of Jimmy Stewart's character George Bailey in "It's A Wonderful Life," which is my all-time favorite film. (coincidentally, Stewart is my all-time favorite actor) I always loved that little girl in the film, and my need to be slightly different demanded that I name my daughter something that was fairly certain not to be common among her peers. Of course, our families argued that "Bindi" was unique enough, and we didn't need to saddle our daughter with two "weird" names.

Which brings me to Stevie Nicks. On the way to the hospital, or on one of my trips back home to feed the dog, I heard "Rhiannon" on the radio. So we compromised and named her Bindi Rhiannon. We have, at times, had to correct people that the name is not "Rhianna" which is becoming more and more common, and I always bring up Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac as proof of the name's origins.

Where is this story going? Well, here's the point: I only hope that someday I can be the influence over my child instead of whatever pop star or actress is all the rage at the time. I know that's probably wishful thinking, but my own parents were very influential on me, and I hope I can hold that same influence with Bindi - and that I use it for good.

That's why we don't listen to Justin Bieber around the house.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Growing up, after all these years... Maybe

One of the hallmarks of my life, as I compare it to other people my age, is that I haven't "grown up" yet. Oh, I have held a job consistently since I left school. I have a mortgage, 2 car payments, a family. Still, I have held on to some tenets of youth that I have refused to give up... until now. (or have I? You can see I'm still struggling)

For those of you who know me well, you'll know that a passion of mine throughout my life has been comic books. There's just something about the comic format that draws me to it. I love the way a story is told with static images and a few word balloons. I've read at least 1 comic title monthly for as long as I can remember; mostly, it was Amazing Spider-Man, and at times, (and when financially feasible) I have picked up as many as 20 different books a month. That's not counting trade paperbacks, graphic novels, or whatever you want to call the book format that is becoming increasingly popular. Most of my reading has been Marvel Comics, although I have flirted with Batman and Superman books from time to time. Over the last few years I've tried to keep my monthly pulls (that's a comic geek term for "pull list," books which your local comic shop - mine is Dewayne's World in Kingsport - "pulls" your favorite books off the rack and keeps them in the back for you, so that when you come in to pick them up there's no chance of it being sold out) around 5 or so. Almost 2 years ago, and with a lot of soul-searching, I dropped Amazing Spider-Man after basically 30 years of reading it.

Today, I read a couple of titles that are reminiscent of my youth: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers. I also read The Rocketeer, although that is not currently an ongoing monthly book. These are good books, and enjoyable to read - shouldn't comics be enjoyable? Let me introduce you to the real problem: the comics I grew up reading and loving aren't fun and enjoyable anymore. They have to be "dark" and the characters are basically altered to fit whatever mood the publisher is currently promoting. When I was a child, how I dreamed of one day seeing Spider-Man in a movie, actually swinging between buildings in the New York skyline and climbing walls. The concept of a movie like The Avengers, wherein I would actually see more than one hero on screen, was so abstract that I just assumed I would never live to see it.

Now that I have seen those things, I feel less connected to the comics those ideas sprang from than ever; not that they were bad films (the last 2 Spider-Man movies not withstanding). On the contrary, Spider-Man 2 made me so happy and warm inside that I saw it 5 times in the theater. I enjoyed all the Marvel films leading up to last summer's Avengers; during The Avengers, I literally had to hold back screams of delight as the 10 year old in my heart cried with joy at the realization of his fantasies. So why, in a time when super heroes, Marvel comic books and "geek culture" are at their zenith, am I unhappy?

I wish I could tell you. I have examined multiple reasons:

  • I'm jumping off to avoid the band-wagoners that have jumped on
  • I'm growing up, and as an adult I'm just not that interested anymore
  • I'm the kind of person who jumps from one interest to another, and this is just a "down phase" for me with comics
  • the industry doesn't want me to keep reading because I, as a demographic, worry too much about silly things like "continuity" and "character consistency" so they have directed the books away from my likes and interests.
I could write (and probably will sometime) an entire post just on the problems I see within the comic business now, but this post is not for that. I'd really like to know what's behind my gradual change in attitude toward what has been my only hobby all these years. One of the reasons I started this blog was to help myself talk through these things, like journaling; hopefully, I will get some feedback that makes me think, examine, and work through some of the junk floating in my head.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, March 16, 2013


You'd think that in today's modern world, connecting something like this blog to Facebook, Twitter, etc., would be exceedingly easy. Apple integrated Facebook into IOS6 for crying out loud... (although I'm certain not without financial incentive to do so) so why make it so difficult to integrate Blogger with Facebook? I understand that Google considers itself a competitor of Facebook, but seriously, how many people are using G+?

In this case, it would be much appreciated and a matter of customer service to make this process painless. Instead, I've had to resort to a third party software to do this operation for me (short of my own ability to simply post the link in my status on FB after every post, but this is so much simpler) and in the process I've built up yet another layer of resentment towards Google. A shame too, as I love Gmail, Calendar, Picasa, and so many other Google features; however, don't think I wouldn't jump ship if something better came along now. Google has done nothing to earn my loyalty.

Especially after Android. But that's another story for another day...