Thursday, February 27, 2014

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.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

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.

Monday, February 24, 2014

10 thoughts for a particular Monday morning

Daddy? You awake?
I have been away from the quotidian for a few days. Back this morning in the old familiar place. Things to mention:

The world is still turning.

You still are in charge of your life.

The next Myke Phoenix adventure, Duck Man Walking, is one of my personal favorites. Check it out for yourself next Monday.

Monday morning presents the same choices as Friday afternoon, only packaged differently.

We choose every moment whom we serve. "But you gotta serve somebody."

You've got to get up every morning with a smile on your face and show the world all the love in your heart.

The "why" of what you do should be the first question, and the first answer.

Nice to see the makers of 24 and Heroes doing encore mini-series events, but if you want to revive something worth reviving, gather the cast of Firefly.

Refuse to be afraid. Free yourself. Dream.

And dream big.

Friday, February 21, 2014

53 books on my bedstand

Here's a picture of the 53 books I brought along on my business trip because I wasn't sure what I'd want to read - in case you're still not convinced that a revolution occurred.

My choice, it turned out, was to open The Book Thief. I only got about 2 or 3 percent into the story, which apparently amounts to around 12 pages, but I'm already charmed by the lyrical quality of Marcus Zusak's writing. I suspect this will be a rewarding journey. tells me it's a 578-page book, but it's skinnier than the 124-page Doc Savage adventure that I packed next to it. I have 51 other books available inside the Kindle, and I've barely scratched the surface of its capacity.

The ereader is the iPod of this decade, having done to books what the iPod did to CD and record collections: made them portable. No real revelation here, except to note that people are saying "I still enjoy holding a book in my hands and turning the pages" with the same wistful, nostalgic tone they reserve for talking about listening to records on a turntable or sharing the morning paper with their spouse.

This may be true, but the truth is that Kindles and Nooks and iPads and the like have also sparked a new revolution in independent publishing, even bigger than the print-on-demand services that allowed me to send out books like The Adventures of Myke Phoenix and The Imaginary Bomb, which had made trips to traditional publishers in the early 1990s but then were set aside because I tired of waiting 3-6 months for a form-letter response.

Instead of ordering one of my books and waiting a few days for a mail carrier to deliver it, you can start reading within a minute. And services like Amazon and Kobo make the process of distributing the book ridiculously simple for people like me. It's a revolution not much different from Gutenberg's invention of the printing press, which made literature dramatically more accessible to regular folks. Yes, you could have read ebooks for decades now on your computer screens, but the Kindle and its followers have made it as simple as carrying a book along, and that was the key.

We still need a printing press, I believe - electronic devices can fail, restricting or removing your books in a worst-case scenario (yes, even the almighty cloud could fail or be turned off), and the storage of words on paper is a clunky but so far much more reliable and therefore superior method.

In terms of convenience, though - well, I've never before packed 53 books for a three-day business trip. Slam dunk.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Enjoying the best and brightest while we still think of them that way

 My Door County Advocate column for this week:

Once upon a time, in between when I left the dying field of radio news and when I joined the robust world of newspapers (hey, this was 18 years ago), I invested six months of my life in a quixotic effort to become a member of the Wisconsin Assembly. It was an exciting and eye-opening adventure.

Early on, while sitting in a barber chair, I was presented with an interesting question.

“Why,” asked the barber, “do you want to alienate half your friends?”

I think I muttered something about civility and real friends and honest conversations, and I must say my experience was not what the barber promised. I really only met a handful of partisans so rabid that they couldn’t get past the letter that was pasted after my name.

As I said, hey, this was 18 years ago.

Chatting with a friend the other day, we were struck by the field of a half-dozen candidates who are running for the seat being vacated by state Rep. Garey Bies after next fall. Each of them is a solid, quality individual who would be a great choice to represent this corner of Wisconsin in the Assembly.

And before we get too much farther into the November election season, it would do us well to remember that, so I will write it a second time for emphasis.

Each of them is a solid, quality individual who would be a great choice to represent this corner of Wisconsin in the Assembly. I happen to know at least one more solid, quality individual who is thinking of joining the group, and I suspect there will be others before the nomination papers start circulating later this spring.

Why do I emphasize the quality of these individuals? Because we all know that between now and November, we will be learning unpleasant things about them.

We will hear about how they hate women. We’ll learn that they want to deny people rights and privileges that the rest of us take for granted. We’ll discover that they were happier with the failed policies of the past – you choose which of those policies failed – and they’re running for office because they want to turn back the clock to a more dastardly time, a time when, well, you remember how dastardly those times were.

Perhaps by August, when the primaries occur, and most certainly by Nov. 4, we will be so familiar with how evil these half-dozen rapscallions are that we will be tired of hearing about it. We will roll our eyes and chastise ourselves that we ever could have believed that these were solid, quality individuals we would be proud to have as our representative in the Assembly.

That’s what they’re in for. That’s what you and I are in for. Partisan politics has become a toxic exercise where the most sincere and selfless humanitarian would be tarred and besmirched. Can you imagine the 30-second spots about Mother Theresa’s positions on war and abortion?

Therefore, I applaud the men (no women so far) who have stepped forward to place their names into contention for the job. It takes courage to take a stand in these times when so many people have trouble getting past that “R” or that “D.” It’s terrific that the job can still attract some of our best and brightest. Let’s hold that thought as long as we can before the mud flies.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Darling companions

I don't quite know how they do it, these beasts who give companionship in exchange for a roof over their heads and regular square meals. All I know is when I peer over the side of my chair and see them there, my heart melts.

I have assigned Willow the title of The Best Dog There Is, and although Dejah is a remarkable dog, the title stands. I have bonded in similar fashion with other dogs (hence "There Is," not "Ever"), but this bond is something else. This is the never-wanting-it-to-end bond, the fearing a day that hopefully is 6-7-8 years away bond. Willow will be 5 years old at the end of March, but I don't remember and can't imagine a time when she wasn't there to chase her blue ball or her orange disk, when she wasn't waiting behind the door to jump and say "Welcome home! Where have you been?"

Willow, Day 1
Dejah, just now 6 months old, was a longtime dream of a companion for Willow. We may have waited a year or so too long, until a time came when Willow didn't care so much whether she had a companion at all. After all, she had us. And why would we need another dog when we already had The Best Dog There Is and center of the universe? But she has come to accept the little crazy one.

Dejah, Day 1
And crazy she is. She goes outside with a muzzle now, to discourage her from eating pebbles and gravels and rocks and sharp stick and mulch, as she did when she was 2 months old and headed for surgery. She has eaten a half-dozen holes in the living room carpet while we weren't looking. We were grateful to find a golden retriever breeder who sold her for an affordable price, because we've needed the money to cover the extra expense she has incurred. 

I don't know how they do it. I just know that days when I can sit home and type on my computer as they stand by (well, actually, as they lay by much like in that top photo) are the better days, and my heart aches a bit on days when I leave them behind. As John Sebastian wrote, they'll never be abandoned, love will always light our landing, and I can depend on them.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The free men and women on this train

Sen. Rand Paul is out with a video that asks the question, “Do we no longer have a Fourth Amendment?” Well, no, nor a First or a Second or et cetera. The Ninth and Tenth are rarely even mentioned without a condescending smirk.

We lost the Fourth – in the “NSA is watching us” sense that Paul means – back in the Clinton years and probably much sooner. I remember being alarmed by talk of monitoring of personal emails somewhere around 1998.

During my early days of blogging, I started a series of posts called “The Constitution in Plain English,” intended to show how each amendment in the Bill of Rights has been compromised and ignored. I gave up after the Fourth or Fifth; it was too discouraging.

It was around that time that I began to understand fully that the purpose of a government is not to secure freedoms; it is to restrict them. A “governor” on a bus is a device that keeps the machinery from exceeding a certain speed – that’s the best illustration of the concept of “government” I have ever found.

It was also around that time that I began to understand that freedom is something we are each born with, and it exists between our ears and in our actions. It is not a privilege granted by fiat or law; it is part of our being, endowed at the moment of our creation. Outside influences may be brought to break or destroy that freedom, but only we have the power to surrender it.

There’s a poignant scene in the film Doctor Zhivago when the character Kostoyed Amourski is being tortured and scoffs at his captors, “I am the only free man on this train!” He dies, of course, but he is never beaten. That is why tyranny can triumph only for a while; it is against human nature to accept being tyrannized.

And that’s why instead of writing about the specifics of what’s being done to us, I write things like “Refuse to be Afraid. Free yourself. Dream.” So much of what is happening is out of the individual’s control – but your freedom? Your dreams? No one can take those from you without your permission.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Always worth repeating

"The individual should be free to follow his or her dreams without interference from any government, as long as that pursuit remains peaceful and honest." — Lee Sherman Dreyfus, 1926-2008

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The market has spoken

The idea behind charging $1.29 for my marvelous Myke Phoenix single adventures was to differentiate these tales from the 99-cent crowd. There are several thousand boatloads of 99-cent ebooks out there. In my humble opinion you’ll definitely get an extra 30 cents more excitement out of a Myke Phoenix yarn than from the average 99-cent investment.

Well, the market has spoken. From the results of my experiment, the going rate for a 10,000-word adventure story apparently is 99 cents, the lowest price the builders of the ebook infrastructure will allow. And that does make sense in hindsight; no matter how amazing the quality I try to inject into these tales, the quantity is still a long short story or a very short novella.

Thusly, effective immediately that’s the price of a single Myke Phoenix story, except of course for Our Best Hope: The Origin of Myke Phoenix, which is available for free when you subscribe to the occasional Myke newsletter Astor City Beacon. As for the 99-cents price point, think of it as $1.29 worth of entertainment for 23 percent off!

So here is The Song of the Serial Kisser, the story of an odd maniac who can’t stop sneaking up on women and planting an unwanted warm wet one on their lips – and what happens when a vigilante crowd decides to teach him a lesson. Now a mere 99 cents at the Amazon Kindle Store and Kobo (for Nook, iPad, etc.).

And here is Firespiders, the saga of the fire-spitting giant spiders that interrupt the calm of Astor City as only fire-spitting giant spiders can do. An astonishingly low 99 cents at Amazon and Kobo.

In this corner is Invasion of the Body Borrowers, the eerie tale of zombification and visitors from beyond the stars that has fans of 1950s science fiction screaming for more. Comic books aren’t 10 cents anymore like they were back then, but you can find this thriller at Amazon and Kobo for less than a buck.

And of course there’s the latest installment, Night of the Superstorm. It was supposed to be a three-hour river cruise, but it turned into a tense night in an abandoned mansion haunted not by ghosts but by – well, you’ll see. Again, just 99 cents at Amazon or Kobo.

Coming up March 3 is 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? You’ll find out March 3 for the impossible price of 99 cents.

The folks who have discovered Myke Phoenix tell me they’re having as much fun reading the stories as I have writing them. Want to join that crowd? You look like someone who enjoys smiling and being entertained. Just click on any of the links above to get started.

Friday, February 7, 2014

My favorite 10 Beatles songs (today)

People are irresistibly attracted to lists, from to-do lists to the list of 50 ways to leave your lover. Music lists seem to be most irresistible of all, from the Hot 100 to America’s Top 40.

So it was inevitable, given the musical-historical significance of this week, that more than one person would come up with Beatles lists. Elysa Gardner of USA Today wrote her personal list of the 12 best Beatles songs. There have been several rankings of the 13 Beatles albums listed in order, with Revolver, Sgt. Pepper or Abbey Road generally taking the top spot depending on the list.

So I felt the impulse to join the fray, although I will limit my list to the more familiar Top 10 – I suspect Ms. Gardner was unable to make the final two cuts.

There was an indefinable thrill upon first hearing a Beatles song – first the thrill of discovery: “A new Beatles song!” and then the thrill of listening to what new aural delights the band had injected into the composition this time: “Holy cow, listen to what they’ve done this time!” They were the leading innovators in a very innovative period of modern pop/rock music.

The first time I ever got that thrill was when I first heard “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” on WABC Radio from New York. The last time, amazingly enough, was in the 1990s as I played my new vinyl reissue of Beatles for Sale, having skipped the American version Beatles VI so many years earlier, and I heard the first syncopated beats of “What You’re Doing”: OMG, I thought, a Beatles song I never heard before.

So there is no real scientific or musical-knowledge basis to this list of my favorite Beatles songs (which, after the very top  of the list, probably would vary from day to day) – this is just the general order in which I recall that burst of energy most vividly.

1. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
2. A Day in the Life
3. Eleanor Rigby
4. Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End
5. Yellow Submarine
6. Penny Lane
7. Good Morning Good Morning
8. I Feel Fine
9. She Loves You
10. I Should Have Known Better

To make that list, I needed to overlook “Hey Jude,” “Let It Be,” “Yesterday,” the song “Sgt. Pepper” itself, “In My Life,” and half of the songs that Ms. Gardner put in her top 12. Tomorrow I may remember the first time I heard “Hey Jude” – holy cow, this thing never ends! – and put that one in the top-10 list. Or the memory of my heart melting for “In My Life” or the joyous bounce of “With a Little Help From My Friends” starting without a pause from the new album’s first song – the Beatles gave us so many sweet surprises.

And for most of us in that generation, it started here the night of Feb. 9, 1964:

Thursday, February 6, 2014

30 paragraphs that disappeared from the Declaration of Independence

During the astoundingly long pregame show to Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday – it really did run four and a half hours – the folks at Fox presented what they said was an annual tradition: the reading of the Declaration of Independence.

This could be good, I says to myself, I says, but I doubt they’re really going to read the whole thing out loud. Too many things in there that might be uncomfortable to The Powers That Be.

Sure enough, as you can see if you’d like (or at least the video above was live on Feb. 6, 2014), the entire middle section disappeared, the one that listed all of the abuses that the tyrant George III was inflicting on the colonies. The presentation has a lengthy gap after the words “Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.”

Although the existing federal government’s actions are not an exact match for George’s, there are enough similarities that reading this list out loud may have made too many people thinking, wow, what goes around comes around.

So that you don’t have to look it up, here is what they skipped on Sunday:

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

C.S. Lewis on tyranny

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth. This very kindness stings with intolerable insult. To be 'cured' against one's will and cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on a level of those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals.”

― C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology (Making of Modern Theology)

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

55 images to a sweet spot

The Budwesier commercial titled “Puppy Love” is one of the most amazing pieces of storytelling I have ever seen. I dare you to watch it and not be touched.

The ad, directed by Jake Scott and starring Don Jeanes, Melissa Keller, eight 10-week-old puppies and 17 Clydesdale horses (playing one puppy and five horses, respectively), was prepared to run during Sunday’s big game. But it was released last week on YouTube, and by game time it had been viewed more than 33 million times. I was about a dozen of those views.

Using 55 shots in 58 seconds (not counting the two-second Budweiser slide at the end), the ad tells the story of a puppy and a horse that form a friendship so strong that the Clydesdales prevent her from being adopted.

I was so charmed by the ad that I sat down and catalogued all 55 shots to see how it was that I was turned into teary-eyed mush.

It’s interesting to see how much information was packed into each shot – and how much the viewers retains even though you can’t possibly see everything in every flash. Here it is, shot by shot:

Monday, February 3, 2014

Released: Night of the Superstorm

The storm of the century strikes Astor City, just after Dana Dunsmore embarks on a three-hour riverboat cruise; with her are the boat’s skipper, the first mate, a millionaire and his wife, a stunning blonde who looks like a movie star, and a professor.

“Oh my stars,” Dana said to herself. “I’m Mary Ann.”

The latest Myke Phoenix adventure is here.

Read more.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Catch up with Myke Phoenix

The first Monday of the month is when a new ebook adventure of Myke Phoenix arrives, and this month is no exception. Night of the Superstorm will be available at Amazon and Kobo Monday morning.

It's Gilligan's Island meets Key Largo, only instead of Edward G. Robinson waiting upstairs for the skipper and friends, it's ... well, find out for yourself.

In these final hours before the big reveal, you have time to catch up to this little saga. I've designed Myke Phoenix to be a quick read – at 10,000 words, these are basically graphic novels without the graphics, pulp fiction without the pulp (because, of course, you need paper to have pulp – or, actually, vice versa – and these are ebooks).

So here's your chance to grab the new adventures of Myke Phoenix:

  • The Song of the Serial Kisser for Kindle or other ereaders.
  • Firespiders for Kindle or others.
  • Invasion of the Body Borrowers for Kindle or others.
  • Then, come Monday, there'll be links to Night of the Superstorm for Kindle or others – actually, you can pre-order for non-Kindle today and save a step Monday.

I am spending the weekend finishing up on the fifth chapter in this current series – which means the new adventures will officially have one more full-length story than the originals – Duck Man Walking, which features the return of the legendary villain Quincy Quackenbos, as you've never seen him before. But that's a tale to tell on March 3; this is February.

You've been waiting for the perfect time to check out the proverbial Myke Phoenix revolution. This is a pretty good time right here!