Saturday, September 24, 2011

A short-short story: Life's Instruction Sheet (Some Assembly Required)

In college, poring through the stacks at the UCLA Undergraduate Research Library, I happened upon a crucial piece of information. (I can’t remember whether it was in a book, a newspaper scrap left on a study carrel, or written on a wall in felt-tip pen.) I found out that somehow in my childhood I had failed to obtain the instruction sheet for life. This was odd, because, I discovered, the instruction sheet had been included as a premium in select boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal.

I found this puzzling. I had faithfully consumed the good Cap’n’s sugar-laden cereal throughout my childhood. I had saved every toy and tchotchke found therein. I had a pile of plastic red spyglasses, a stack of dental bills, and a history of poor childhood nutrition to show for it. Yet somehow the instruction book, released sometime between the tumultous years of the late sixties and the Watergate era, had eluded me.

I was certain that my life, which had never gone quite according to my expectations, had resulted.

I spent the next quarter century tracking down this elusive cereal premium. I was certain that my success in life depended on it. Alas, while people collected and sold cereal premiums, fewer people collected and sold old cereal. (Although I’m certain the preservative packed into Cap’n Crunch would preserve the unique flavor long after mankind had left Earth for the stars.)

At last, through the magic of the Internet, I tracked down the limited run of Cap’n Crunch boxes (sold only in a remote region of New Mexico, it turned out) that contained the instruction sheet for life. I purchased a box at an auction in Beverly Hills. I eagerly hurried home, tore open the box, and extracted from the calcified cereal the waxpaper packet that contained the instruction sheet.

The sheet was folded over many times. The print was extremely fine, and the sheet seemed to be printed in every language known to man (and a few unknown). But at last I found the English section – and found the instructions for a well-lived life:

“Skip breakfast.”

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Memories of Moscon III:The Pre-Digital Convention

Modern-day attendees of science fiction, comics, and anime conventions likely do not appreciate the difference the World-Wide Web has made in documenting and archiving convention memories.

In September 1981, almost exactly 30 years ago, I attended Moscon III in Moscow, Idaho. I attended only one day of the convention. I bummed a ride up from Walla Walla in Southeastern Washington to Moscow, a college town just across the state border from Pullman, Washington, by persuading Conrad and Sharman Boslee, friends I had met in local theater, that it might be fun to attend a smaller version of the comics convention I had attended in San Diego the previous year. (Yes, that was the 1980 San Diego Comic-Con, my first con.) Conrad had already done me a tremendous service the previous summer by loaning me his comics collection, a moving crate that contained comics published from 1964 to 1972 from every comics publisher. The box led to a lot of sleepless nights that summer, and a deep appreciation of the comics of that period.

The artist guest of honor was Tim Kirk. I believe the writer guest of honor was Kate Wilhelm. But I can't tell you for sure, because I cannot find any documentation of this convention online. Nowadays, the smallest one-day local convention is documented in exhaustive detail on a con homepage, and on the blogs, Livejournals, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds of attendees. But in 1981, home computers were TRS-80s from Radio Shack that read and stored data from cassette tape recorders -- computers so basic that even I did a little bit of programming on the one my dad got to track the stock market. Data transmission was over telephones, at glacially slow speeds. The idea of putting multiple photos and videos online quickly was, well, science fiction.

So now, the only references to Moscons you will find online are some mention of the final ones in the late '90's (when they actually had web pages, which are now defunct) and discussion of them in the obituaries of convention founder Jon Gustafson.

Nevertheless, the con lives on in my memory. It was small (about 300 attendees), but it was marked by quality guests. At the 1981 Moscon, I chatted with ElfQuest co-creator Richard Pini (whom I had met at the 1980 Comic-Con) and his then-assistant, Jane Fancher (whom I met earlier that year because I learned she was working at the bookstore at WSU, the same college my older brother was attending; and who went on to a career as an SF and fantasy novelist). I met Alex Schomberg, the science fiction and comics illustrator who had drawn the insanely detailed covers of the Captain America comics of the '40's and whose career continued into the '80's. I met artists Tim Kirk and Rowena Morrill, and SF writer Nina Kiriki Hoffman before she made a name for herself as one of the premiere urban fantasy writers of the past 20 years. I even met fellow fans of a TV series that was a cult favorite on the verge of cancellation then, Hill Street Blues.

And fortunately, although there were no digital cameras to capture moments of the convention in pixel-perfect detail, there were snapshot cameras. Hence, my attempt to remedy the lack of online documentation of this convention:

On top is a photo of a panel (I forget the subject matter) that includes panelists Richard Pini, Kate Wilhelm, and Jane Fancher.

Below that is a photo from later in the convention of Richard Pini and skinny, 16-year-old me.

I wish I had taken a camera to the early conventions I attended. I'm not sure why I didn't; perhaps because photos were such a hassle in that time of flashbulb cubes and photo processing. After all, a photo of a convention doesn't just document the convention; it freezes and preserves a moment of your life.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Towers of Steel, Walls of Granite

Ten years ago today, Amy and I were in the middle of a vacation at Yosemite National Park. Amy had stayed there before. It was my first visit, and I was marveling at the gigantic granite walls that rose above the valley. I grew up in a valley, but the mountains there were neither as close nor as imposing as El Capitan, Halfdome, and the other mountains in the range.

Early one morning, as I was walking from the communal restrooms back to our tent in Curry Village, I noticed some men standing around a TV sticking out of the ranger's station, watching some news coverage intently. When I asked what was going on, one of the men told me that airline jets had been hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center; that one of the towers had collapsed; and that another was about to collapse. We stood in the forest, early morning bird calls filling the air around us, and watched a steel tower on the other side of the continent buckle and give way, filling the streets around it with a cloud of dust. Someone else approached us and asked what was going on. When we told him, he scoffed: "There isn't enough TNT in the world to take down those towers." He did not want to acknowledge that a jet airliner aimed at the center of a tower could generate enough heat and energy to melt the infrastructure and allow gravity to triumph over engineering.

Eventually, I tore myself away from the TV and stumbled back to our tent. Amy woke up, noticed my ashen face, and asked,"Are you all right?"

"No," I said.

For some reason, I could only express myself through statistics. "You know how Pearl Harbor was the most deadly foreign attack on American soil?" I asked. "Well, it isn't anymore."

Later that morning, we joined other folks who had gathered in one of the dining halls in Curry Camp, watching the endless loop of airplanes hitting towers. The first time the news replayed the footage of the airliner hitting a tower, and the ball of fire that spewed forth, people gasped. After a few replays, the shock wore off.

We couldn't help noticing one of the men in the crowd. He wore a windbreaker emblazoned with the FDNY logo. He was speaking frantically into a cell phone.

When we stepped out into the sunlight, I looked at the granite walls surrounding us. Like so many Americans that day, I wondered if we would be the victim of the next attack. I wondered if nature's fortresses of granite would protect us.

Not knowing what else to do, I spent most of that day in my tent, reading. Up to that point, I had read half of one of the novels I had taken on vacation, Will Shetterly's DOGLAND. That afternoon, I read the rest of it, in one gulp. I wanted to be in another time, in another place, and the book took me there.

The event cast its shadow over the rest of our week-long stay at Yosemite. We attended a hastily-organized memorial service at the park chapel for those who had died. I bought a newspaper the next day, and was so horrified by the photos of people captured mid-air as they plummeted from windows toward concrete that I had to look away. And although we had flown to Fresno and driven a rental car to the park, we ended up driving the rental car all the way back to Los Angeles.

We all know what happened afterward. The sense of national unity, which soon splintered. The wacko conspiracy theories. The two wars. People using the horrific event to their advantage as they pursued the things people always pursue.

But for me, the event was about standing between walls of granite while watching the fate of towers of steel, and all the fragile people within.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Echoes of Conventions Past

Back in 2009, I shot footage of the Hellsing cosplay gathering at the Anime Expo that year with a Flip HD video camera . . . but when I tried to edit it together, my computer choked. Fortunately, as progress has marched on, I have acquired a computer that can handle the editing. Hence, the highlights of that video: