Cutting the cable

We have been watching BBC dramas on Netflix and Amazon Instant Video (Foyle’s War! George Gently! Call the Midwife! Downton Abbey!), we’ve been following the new American Idol season (Harry Connick Jr. has saved the show), we’ve caught Season 3 of Sherlock on the local PBS channel (Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are a stupendous team).

What we haven’t been doing is using our $85 monthly satellite TV service. So I called Monday morning and told an unusually cheerful operator we were canceling. She told me we were eligible to cut the monthly bill to $60, we could have two months of free premium movie channels, and a few other incentives not to cut the chain. I said, “I know you’re obligated to tell me all this, but our minds are made up.” Oddly, after about five minutes we were done.

This is the wave of the future. It’s all migrating to the Internet. Why pay close to a hundred bucks for hundreds of channels offering you content you almost never watch at the times they choose to offer it to you? Oh, of course, you can record it on your DVR (which is how we watch the local shows – now with TiVo for $13 a month), but we have increasing opportunities to tie into the Web and watch what we want when we want it. OK, Netflix and Amazon charge, too, but I was already paying them. With the satellite raising its monthly charge to $90 this month, we have effectively knocked $77 off the monthly budget with no change in our viewing habits.

What would you do with $924 ($77 x 12) more to spend each year?


Duck Man Walking

Is a 10,000-word adventure a long short story or a novella?

I really don’t know for sure, but whatever you’d like to call it, it’s here: For Kindle and for other electronic reading devices.

As I said on Facebook this morning, if you buy only one ebook about a superhero and his half-man-half-duck nemesis who may have developed a secret formula to kill the superhero, let it be this one.

I still like old stuff

I haven’t changed much since September 1993, when I spun off these words for a four-minute radio report about the steam engine Milwaukee Road 261, which had been restored and was carrying an excursion train through Wisconsin’s Fox River Valley.

I like old stuff. I always have. I’d rather watch Charlie Chaplin in the movies, or Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby than tonight’s sitcom. I’m a comic book fan, but I’d rather read Captain Marvel battling Dr. Sivana than the stuff that passes for heroics nowadays.   

I prefer the warm sound of vinyl records with all their clicks and ticks to the cold, precise cleanliness of a CD. I think Emily Bronte and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote rings around contemporary novelists.  

Even on the information superhighway, I like clunking along in the rumble seat of our Commodore 128 when I exchange bytes with other computer buffs, even though we have a perfectly fine version of last year’s Macintosh at home. It’s in the genes, I guess: My father waited to buy his first color TV until the late 1970s.

Twenty years along the line, I still love old stuff. (Oh, the Commodore is packed away somewhere, but I type these words on a seven-year-old iMac.) I didn’t mention it at the time, but by 1993 I had already created a superhero named Myke Phoenix, whose adventures I have finally begun chronicling monthly, just as I’d hoped to do all those years ago. It just took a little time to get him off the ground.

The series, I think, can trace its roots to three influences of the 1930s and ’40s:

  • Captain Marvel, the Big Red Cheese who fought outlandish threats and bad guys with a sense of innocence and whimsy.
  • Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze, and his band of friends who traveled the world righting wrongs. Here I am influenced as much by the creator as the creation: Lester Dent, writing as Kenneth Robeson, astonishingly published 180 short novels, one every month, for more than a decade and a half. I always wanted to try something like that.
  • The Spirit, Will Eisner’s immortal weekly comic book that was inserted into Sunday newspapers for many years. Again, the influence is as much the creator: Will Eisner wrote short stories set to the music of comic-book style art, stories about people, and sometimes The Spirit himself barely makes and appearance except perhaps to help clean up the mess. Search for a link between The Spirit and Myke Phoenix in stories like The Song of the Serial Kisser and Night of the Superstorm, where Myke is more of a supporting character than a centerpiece.

This week I release the fifth ebook in a series of 12, Duck Man Walking. My blurb for this installment is:

How do you trust a guy after he’s tried to kill you a few times? That’s the dilemma facing Myke Phoenix, superhero extraordinaire, in “Duck Man Walking.” 

One of Myke Phoenix’s most impossible foes, the half-man-half-duck Quincy Quackenbos, is released from prison. Rumor has it that after years of trying he cracked the code and has developed the formula that can kill Myke Phoenix.  

Are the rumors true? Or is Quackenbos telling the truth when he claims he’s turned his back on his criminal past? Find the answers mere moments from now in “Duck Man Walking,” just a click away.

I issued about 80 episodes of a podcast called Uncle Warren’s Attic; I have boxes and shelves full of goodies from bygone eras; and now I have a monthly superhero series that is best described as “new pulp” fiction, and it has all happened for a very simple reason:

I like old stuff.

Gojira and the cuddly monster factor, revisited

The suspenseful new trailer for the new movie Godzilla seems to promise the first great movie since 1954 about the big green monster. Folks like me grew up loving Raymond Burr intoning “What has happened here was caused by a force that until a few days ago was beyond the scope of man’s imagination,” but then saw the original Japanese film and realized that the American version had stripped the story of most of its power.

Nearly 30 other movies have been made featuring the creature in Gojira, but, well, here are my thoughts on the matter that I wrote about five years ago and included in my book Refuse to be Afraid. The new film looks different, and by that I mean it appeals to the spark in me that was inspired by the original film. We’ll find out in May if the promise is kept.

Gojira and the cuddly monster factor

From time to time I wonder about the process that converted Godzilla into a series of movies that appeal mostly to children.

The 1954 Japanese film Gojira is a remarkable drama. Nine years after the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a creature emerges from the depths of the seas, shaken loose by the vibrations of nuclear bomb testing and mutated to unnatural proportions by the bombs’ radiation.

A scientist has created a weapon even more terrible than an atomic bomb, one so horrible that he refuses to share the process he used to discover the technology and resists efforts to use the weapon against the giant creature, even as Japan’s largest city comes under siege.

It’s a movie about war, peace, violence and nonviolence, technology and the simple ongoing question: Just because something can be done, is it right and just to do it? A very thoughtful and important movie with fantasy and science fiction elements.

Gojira was repackaged as Godzilla, King of the Monsters, for distribution in America, and each and every one of its more than 20 sequels has been mindless child’s play. One almost has to wonder: What was so dangerous about the ideas in Gojira that it had to be so trivialized?

But then — scary monsters are often transformed into cuddly children’s toys. Look at the stark and poignant story of the man built from parts of other men by Dr. Frankenstein. The iconic image of Boris Karloff in his monster makeup eventually became Herman Munster.

Perhaps it’s simply a natural reaction to looking into the depths of the soul and finding darkness. We step away, we dress up the darkness with childlike innocence, and we look the other way. A person can only spend so much in the dark before needing a little sunshine.

Conspiracy to suppress dangerous ideas didn’t turn Gojira into Godzilla. We just need to be reassured that things that go bump in the night are just bumps.

2 possible explanations, 2 grateful people and a pup

Obedience class? It’s not enough that I’m adorable?

I’ll just tell you what happened and let you decide what happened. I think I know, but we may look at these things differently.

Red took Dejah to her first obedience class Monday evening. Dejah is a remarkable puppy, but like all puppies the concept of what we call “minding” needs to be instilled. From all accounts it went swimmingly for a first time.

On the way home they stopped for gas. Here is where things began to happen.

First, the darn dog took advantage of the brief interlude where the door was open to allow the driver to get out. Whee! Puppy all over the parking lot with the opportunity for vehicles to attack from multiple directions.

A young man at another pump heard Red’s desperate entreaties and nabbed the fugitive when she got near enough. He received grateful thanks from Red and a chorus of “Way to goes” from the tribe of young men inside his car.

A somewhat flustered Red packed the puppy back in the car, filled the gas tank and got behind the wheel of her old car.

Several times this winter, the starter on the car has reacted badly to the cold. In the deepest, darkest 10-below moments of the season, she actually took to warming her key with matches before starting the car. But the car had been performing so well recently, she nearly forgot about the problem.

Certainly she never expected the key not to work after the vehicle had been running fine all evening.

She tried the match trick. This time, utter failure. She called the wrecker. Then she called me.

I had just finished making the spaghetti and had the bottle opener poised over a 12-ounce brew when the phone rang. I put a lid on the warm spaghetti, tucked the unopened bottle back in the fridge, and disappeared into the night.

The car still was parked next to a pump, it still wasn’t working, the puppy was still jumpy, and Red was extremely frazzled when I arrived. “You have to take the puppy home, the tow truck has two more stops before me, and I don’t trust her outside with all of this stimulation.” In time like this, someone has to be the happy and helpful one, so I packed the pup and hit the road.

It would take about an hour for me to get home, let the dogs out, and drive back. I tried one forkful of spaghetti; it was still warm, but I had to get back.

The tow truck still hadn’t arrived when I returned. Desperate, Red had sprayed some sort of de-icer product into the ignition, but that had seemingly no effect and now she couldn’t try the matches again because the product was flammable. So she sat forlornly with a cup of coffee staring out at the car that has faithfully taken her well over a quarter-million miles.

“Why don’t you give it a try?” She handed me the keys skeptically. Why not?

I settled in behind the wheel, looked across the parking lot at Red with her cup of coffee behind the glass, said cheerfully, “Thank you, Lord, for this most wonderful day,” and turned the key.

The engine jumped into action as if it was still on the lot with 14 miles on the odometer.

The look on Red’s face was worth the night of frustration. She literally jumped up and raised her hands in surprise and relief when I pulled away from the pump and drove the car into the parking stall next to my car.

She ran out to make sure I wasn’t silly enough to turn the car off before we got it home, then went back to call the tow truck off. I saw her waving to the driver over my shoulder; he had arrived a minute later and was pleased that his day was finished.

Your choices are to believe that the de-icer just needed to sit in the keyhole for a while before the car would turn over, or to believe that all the situation needed was a pile of faith and a grateful attitude.

I know what I believe.