Thursday, December 29, 2011

Forget the Mayan calendar, my calendar ends on Saturday!

PANAMA CITY — I don’t want to alarm anyone, but the end of the world may be closer than you think.
I mean, I’m pretty sure everyone on the planet is familiar by now with the ancient Mayan calendar or has at least heard of it. I don’t use it every day, or ever, but apparently the ancient Mayans were really good calendarians, or whatever, and they ended their desk calendars on Dec. 21, 2012.

The word on the street is that the ancient Mayans believed that date marked the end of one cycle of the world. I Googled that to be sure. I saw it on the Internet, so I’m certain it’s accurate.

Here’s the thing: The ancient Mayan calendar may end on Dec. 21, 2012, but the calendar on my desk ends Dec. 31, 2011 — which is only a couple more days away! I’m afraid that MVW Consumer & Office Products Inc. of Sydney, N.Y., might know something the ancient Mayans didn’t know.

I haven’t called them to ask, or anything. I just jumped straight to the panic.

I suppose the ancient Mayans were way smart, but they still ate each other’s hearts, so it’s not like you could really trust them. And as far as I know, no one at MVW Consumer & Office Products Inc. ever ate anyone’s heart. I think that’s even illegal in New York.

I haven’t called to ask them about that either. I’m afraid to. When I Googled “Is eating human hearts from live sacrifices illegal in New York?” the Internet showed me entries on cannibalism, infanticide and the “most common questions asked by non-Muslims.” (I am not even kidding about that part.)


What? What’s that?


Excuse me. I have just been informed that we have additional desk calendars for 2012. They even go to Dec. 31 of that year. Apparently, MVW Consumer & Office Products Inc. printed more and the world is NOT, in fact, coming to an end on Saturday. The nice people in the white suits tell me that more calendars are EVEN NOW being made for 2013.

Imagine my relief.

You’ll notice the ancient Mayans aren’t making new calendars. (You may have noticed by now that I use the term “ancient” when referring to the Mayans so as not to offend so-called “modern” Mayans, about 10 million of them, who are looking to cash in on end-of-the-world tourism next year.)

I suspect the ancient Mayans were just being lazy and didn’t want to have to chisel a whole new calendar in another stone. That stuff isn’t easy to do. You can get bad finger cramps.

Or maybe all that eating each other’s hearts made them lazy, and it was just coincidence that they designed their calendars to be recyclable every eon or so.

Smarty pants ancient Mayans with your calendars that end on Dec. 21. Eat your heart out: My new calendar goes 10 days longer.

So, you know, never mind what I was saying before. Carry on with whatever you were doing. I’m sure 2012 will be fine.

Happy New Year


(Link to a NASA FAQ about 2012 rumors and myths.)
BTW, That image above? That's an Aztec calendar. It's not even Mayan. That's how little I care about the end of the world.

(This is my 'Undercurrents' column for Dec. 28, 2011. Check it out here too.) 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Reading List for the New Year

The death of Borders contributed to a gigantic haul of reading materials for the family's Christmas presents. Additional books came from Books-a-Million's discount racks. This is a list of the books I received and will be reading in the next several weeks:

Hardback Graphic Novels/Illustrated books:
Instructions by Neil Gaiman & Charles Vess (I love the children's books by Gaiman, and Vess' illustrations are wonderful; if there's a special girl in your family, you should get her "The Blueberry Girl" by these two. "Instructions" is a good one for the adventurous little boy.)
DC Comics Year By Year: A Visual Chronicle
Jim Butcher's Dresden Files: Storm Front
Angel: The Crown Prince Syndrome
Seven Soldiers of Victory (Grant Morrison)
The Green Woman (Peter Straub)
Black Kiss (Howard Chaykin)
SHIELD: Architects of Forever
Deathlok the Demolisher
Spider-Woman: Agent of SWORD
Captain America: The New Deal
Annihilation: conquest
Doorways (George R.R. Martin) - based on a TV series proposal he wrote in the 1990s.

Devil Dog
Shadow Knights
It's a Wonderful Life

Paperback graphic novels/illustrated books:
Fantastic Four: The End
Exiles Ultimate Collection
Exiles: Starting Over
Exiles: Down the Rabbit Hole
Incorruptible Vol. 2
Human Target
Wonder Woman: Rise of the Olympians
Wonder Woman: Contagion
Wonder Woman: Ends of the Earth
Ultimate Elektra: Devil's Due
Squadron Supreme: Hyperion vs. Nighthawk
Spiderman: Fever
Criminal: The Sinners (Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips)
Zatanna: Mistress of Magic

Hardback Novels:
Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles (by Michael Moorcock)
Manhood for Amateurs (Michael Chabon)
From Hell with Love (Simon Green)
Fatal Error (F.Paul Wilson)
Hunting for Hemingway

Paperback novels:
Ghosts of War
The Bloodstained Man
Final Crisis
Torchwood: Risk Management
By the Sword (F.Paul Wilson)
Managing Death
Morlock Night
Conspiracies (F.Paul Wilson)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Memories of Jolly Old St. Nick

(Note: This column initially posted as a repeat of this column. Sorry about the mix-up.) 

Tom Needham gets a new suit in 2001.
Once upon a time, long ago and far away …

My father worked for Monsanto when I was a kid, and each Christmas we would visit the plant north of Pensacola for the annual Christmas party. I was amazed by all the lights and decorations arranged outside, and entering the plant was like walking into a science fiction installation full of strange machines.

These memories are dimmed by time, but I still recall the employee’s band playing jazzy versions of holiday songs on some kind of organ, guitar and drums. A woman dressed as an elf thumped a tambourine. Christmas cartoons — Woody Woodpecker and early Chip’n’Dale — projected on a screen in a darkened conference room full of metal folding chairs. The sound of a movie projector whirring.

Waiting in line to see Santa Claus in the big cafeteria, then receiving a toy. I don’t member a specific toy, or even what we ate in the cafeteria, but I seem to recall being afraid of the Santa fellow.

You never knew where he would show up. There he was, on a frigid Saturday afternoon, riding atop the Century Volunteer Fire Department’s big red truck at the end of the annual Christmas parade. Ringing a bell outside the Kmart store. Riding a Norelco shaver on TV (I was pretty sure that animated Santa was the same version you saw on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”).

We even came across Santa one summer on a family road trip. Somewhere in Georgia, I think, a Christmas village where you could feed reindeer and have your picture made on Santa’s sleigh.

I’ve met quite a few Santas in the intervening years, covering Christmas events at the Navy base, schools, day programs and so forth. One of them was a talented and big-hearted photographer in the off-season, and I miss him especially when the days grow short and cold.

Writing notes to Santa was part of the childhood holiday routine. (I even tried sending him a note one summer, just to see what happened. For the record: Nothing happened.)

We had lots of traditions: Circling toys in the Sears & Roebuck catalog (Mego heroes were particularly important); baking and decorating cookies with Mom; visiting my great-grandparents along with all of the extended family; reading the Nativity story on Christmas Eve.

About a week before Christmas, we’d go to the tree farm somewhere outside of town to kill a tree in honor of Jesus. Sometimes I helped Dad bring it into the house after he trimmed the base. We always used silvery “icicle” decorations, which would sometimes melt in contact with the glass bulbs. The ornaments, also glass, were extremely fragile and shattered into a million sharp shards if dropped. You spent the last week of December picking glass or pine needles out of your socks.

Santa always seemed to come through, no matter my reluctance to speak with him directly. Something I had circled in the catalog would arrive — a Batcave playset, say, or a Major Matt Mason mooncrawler — along with other things I hadn’t thought to ask for. Often, this included a cowboy outfit with fresh rolls of caps; I loved the smell of gunpowder on Christmas morning.

Smelled like victory.


(Note: This was my column for today's News Herald. You can see it here also.)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Library event was fun

Sold a few books at the library's "Last Minute Christmas Gifts" event today.
Slim Fatz, a local bluesman, stopped by to drop off his newest CD, and I caught a photo of him while he was talking with flute maker and player Paul McAuliffe.

I met lots of new people and hopefully created some new readers. It was interesting to see that I sold as many of my older books as the new one. Two copies of "Welcome to the Dawning of a New Century," one each of the "City Limits" anthologies, and another "The Best of Days." Most people talkative and in a good mood, which makes those events worthwhile.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Every ornament tells a Christmas tale

PANAMA CITY — I don’t know about your Christmas tree, but ours is full of holiday stories. It has been described as looking like a toy shop exploded all over it, and that’s not far from true. It definitely is a reflection of the things we enjoy and the memories we hold dear.

There are heroes and spacecraft from “Star Trek” and “Star Wars,” superheroes and heroines, TV and movie icons from Humphrey Bogart to Jimmy Stewart to “The Lone Ranger” and “I Dream of Jeanie.” There are memorial ornaments for those loved ones we have lost, as well as ornaments celebrating our first Christmas as a couple and the first Christmases for our babies.

Some of them light up. Some of them make sounds. Some of them just hang there looking pretty. The one for “It’s a Wonderful Life” has a bell that rings each time an angel gets his wings.

The oldest item on the tree is a small plastic reindeer, once white but now faded to yellow. I last wrote about this artifact of Christmas Past almost a decade ago, but I retell its history every year as someone new sees our tree for the first time — or just to make my kids sigh, “Yes, Dad, we know.”

Back in the days of black-and-white television, Grandma Simmons had an arrangement of four of these little coursers attached by thin red ribbon to a white plastic sleigh. They generally occupied a windowsill or a tabletop through the holidays. And when I was just a tadpole, I would sometimes use the sleigh and reindeer to transport my Major Matt Mason dolls around the living room.

At some point during my elementary school years, Grandma passed the sleigh and two of the surviving deer to me. I don’t know what happened to the rest of the set, but only this single deer remains — fragile, yellowed, with a broken antler and chipped snout, and stains of dried invisible tape around its torso.

Each year, I perch it in a place of honor close to the top of my family’s Christmas tree. It catches the lights and seems to glow.

Other ornaments on our tree have stories, too. The silvery “Joy” that hangs near the deer, for instance. The Scarlet O’Hara figurines that passed to us from my other Grandma. The “Enterprise,” and the Snoopies, and the Harry Potter. My kids have their favorites, and my wife has hers.

The reindeer is mine. I place it on a limb and fall through a doorway to childhood Christmastimes, and not in a melancholy way like you might get from that old “Toyland” song. I miss Grandma, yes, but the memories are warm and filled with smiles.

These stories are important. They connect us with our past. They put the future in perspective. Someday, I figure, some item I gave someone will be a story told to a great-grandchild, a smile recalled, a gift cherished. I might be a faceless memory by then, but I will remain part of that story so long as it is told.

What story will you be a part of? How will you be remembered? What yellowed artifacts will carry your story into unknown days and plant themselves in the memories of generations yet unborn?

Peace (on earth).

(This is my Undercurrents column for Dec. 15, 2011.)

EDIT: After this column initially ran, my father sent me these photos from Christmas 1952, showing him as an 11-year-old and the complete Santa's sleigh and eight reindeer as they originally appeared.)

Friday, December 09, 2011

Christmas Song of the Day: Fairytale of New York

On Twitter, I've been posting a "Christmas Song of the Day" for the past few days. Today, I put up the Pogues' "Fairytale of the New York." Tells you what kind of end-of-week mood I'm in.

Yesterday, the 31st anniversary of the death of John Lennon, the song was, of course, "Happy Xmas (War is Over)." I'm morally obligated to warn you that the video at that link has some gruesome imagery.

The day before, I chose the 21-minute long Francis Ford Coppola filmed "Junky's Christmas" written and narrated by William S. Burroughs. (So, the mood has been off all week, looks like.)

The day I started all this, I began with Bing Crosby and David Bowie's "Little Drummer Boy (Peace on Earth)." (Along with a bonus song, the scarily accurate Funny or Die recreation of the performance starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly.)

I'll bring you some more songs as the month progresses.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Ghosts of Christmas haunt ‘Batman Noel’

As the new original graphic novel “Batman Noel” opens, Gotham City’s dark knight is tracking a petty criminal named Bob through the snowy streets on Christmas Eve.

Bob is just trying to scrape by, running errands for the Joker so he can provide for his sick son. But while Joker seems the obvious “Scrooge” in this retelling of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” it is Batman who ends up being visited by specters. Indeed, in Bob’s world, Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne is the penny-pincher who begrudgingly gives him Christmas day off.

This version of the Batman is a weary veteran, emotionally scarred by his war on crime. He has lost his compassion for the victims he once swore to protect, focusing instead on winning the war at any cost. He has isolated himself from his friends and distanced himself from the common people of his city. All he cares about is the bottom line, and he will sacrifice anyone to achieve his ends — even the safety of a sickly child.

The story of “Batman Noel” (hardcover, 112 pages, $22.99) uses “A Christmas Carol” as the bones for a desperate adventure tale exploring what it means to be a hero. Batman must come to terms with his past, present and future as he battles villains from the campy 1960s to the dark and brooding menaces of today.

Download a preview of the book here.

It’s a familiar trope to longtime comic book readers to see their heroes involved in holiday-themed adventures, but this goes one better. “Batman Noel” gives readers a realistic variation on the Dark Knight (the designs are very similar to the current movie incarnation), as well as his enemies and allies from different eras of his career. Robin, Catwoman, Superman and Joker make appearances, filling roles similar to characters in Dickens’ tale.

This fast-paced and beautifully illustrated book was written and drawn by Lee Bermejo, who also illustrated the best-selling “Joker” graphic novel with writer Brian Azzarello in 2008. His Superman story in “Wednesday Comics” was serialized in USA Today.

The story doesn’t require an encyclopedic knowledge of the characters, and it doesn’t get bogged down by their negative aspects. There’s more gravy than grave about it, Dickens might say. Rather, it’s a good introduction to one man’s interpretation of the icons, a story anyone with passing interest in comics will enjoy, and a real gift for a true fan.