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The Writing Life

This is an archived version of the Journal. Links and pictures probably won't work.

12-31-98: Farewell, 1998, and don't let the door hit you in the butt on the way out, or do let it hit you and see if I care

As usual, I'm glad to see this year go. Maybe things just get crazy and depressing around this time of year, but for some reason I'm always glad to see the old year out and to welcome in the new one with a spirit of clueless optimism.

We went to a wedding last Saturday. Weddings aren't my favorite thing, ranking just one step up from funerals, usually because they involve some religious mumbo-jumbo that I don't subscribe to but have to sit through anyway. We played Star Wars music and had a keg at my own wedding, to give you an idea of where my head's at. This wedding was Catholic, which is about as far from my own "religion" as you can get. I am a lapsed Methodist, and let me tell you, it's pretty darned hard to lapse as a Methodist given that the religion is almost invisible to begin with.

This wedding managed to step further into the realm of the obscure by being conducted entirely in Hungarian. Well, not entirely: the guy up front (I have no idea what Hungarian Catholics call him, not knowing the Hungarian word for "priest") did say three words in English: Stand, sit, and kneel. I stood when commanded, sat when commanded, but damn if I was going to kneel for the sucker. No one seemed to notice or care what I did as long as I did it quietly. Julie and I were not the only non-Hungarian, non-Catholics there so at least we had some company while we didn't kneel.

The only Hungarian/Catholic church in L.A. is situated in one of those areas where tourists end up by mistake, low on gas, and get shot when they stop to ask for directions. Ironically, Julie and I got a little lost once we reached the general vicinity and were, of course, running out of gas, but we knew better than to ask directions. We found the church eventually but had to park on the street as church parking lots are apparently against the Hungarian-Catholic creed. After the ceremony we returned to our car happy to see that it was still there and not up on blocks, but hemmed in by double-parking gangbangers. We managed to pry the car loose and make it back to our part of town with the needle on the gas gauge registering "idiot."

The wedding reception was also in Hungarian: Hungarian food and Hungarian music. These were quite good, and no, the food wasn't goolash. I don't know what it was, but I ate it and was glad. The music was fun and we left early, exhausted by all the holiday brouhaha and looking forward to some quiet time alone with Jimmy Stewart and It's a Wonderful Life.

Tonight is a big New Years Eve party and I'm sick with a cold and sore throat. I'll sit home with my cone-head dog (she had surgery and has to wear an Elizabethan collar to keep her from chewing her foot) and watch Altered States and The Fly while my wife is out partying, and I'll reflect on how I wasted 1998 and vow to do better in 1999.

Oh, yeah: work. I'm scripting the last book of my Star Wars series in between nose-blowings and naps. My offhand observation is that fever does not contribute to the creative process.

Happy New Year to one and all. You'll want to go back and bookmark the page before this one, now, as I'll be starting a new Journal next year.

Cheers!

 

12-26-98: Merry Christmas

The good thing about this Christmas was that we didn't leave town. I hate traveling, and I especially hate traveling over Christmas. So I thought I had it made this year. Julie and I were staying home. I pictured a few quiet days of watching old holiday movies, drinking eggnog, cuddling on the sofa, and taking it easy. What do you suppose the chances were?

First, I had this conversation with Cindy Vance. The Vances (Cindy and Steve) were also staying home this holiday. Cindy said, "We should get together on Christmas Eve." I said, "Sure. Stop by for cocktails."

Funny how Julie and I communicate. We are of the same species, the same culture, we share a language, yet the words "Steve and Cindy are stopping by for cocktails on Christmas Eve" mean completely different things to us! To me, the words mean pretty much what they say. To Julie they mean, "Go nuts, invite everybody over on Christmas Eve because we're having a cocktail party! Yee-hah!!!"

A few days before the party, Madge stepped on Toby's foot. Madge is Carol's mother. You remember Carol: She's the one who won't set herself on fire to attract the attention of a cute fireman (see previous Journal entries). Anyway, so Toby (our 13-year-old bearded collie) had been licking her foot and we figured that was why, but when the licking went on for a couple of days and I actually looked at her foot, there was a tumor the size of a marble. So I bandaged it up and, on Christmas Eve, made an impassioned plea to the vet to take a look at her.

Dr. Carlsen looked at the foot and said that we should schedule immediate surgery since the tumor was of the itchy-burning type, which is why Toby had been licking her foot for two days. We also discussed some other problems Toby has been having: her bladder and bowel control have gotten dicey, and she seems to stumble a lot. Dr. Carlsen's face dropped and said that, apparently, Toby has contracted a degenerative nerve disease (degenerative myelopathy), that her muscles are losing their connection to her brain, that the disease only gets worse, never better, and there's nothing to do about it. The hardest part is that the dog remains, in other ways, alert and vibrant, setting us up for the inevitable scene when you walk into the kitchen where the dog is lying, unable to get to her feet, in a puddle of her own filth, and she looks up at you with a smile, her tail wagging feebly, and you have to decide if this is the day you put her to sleep.

We've been through this before, with a dog named Muffy who was virtually deaf, all but blind, crippled, incontinent, riddled with inoperable tumors, on continual pain medication and snarly for a year before we mustered up the courage to take her in to be put down. Outside the vet's office, the damn dog was sniffing the flower beds. We're taking her in to kill her, and she has the gall to stop and smell the roses, just to let us know that, from her perspective, there's still a lot to live for. She always was contrary.

In the Hallmark film, Saint Maybe, there is a scene where the father of the family walks into the kitchen one morning to find the family dog dead. It's very sad, but when Julie and I saw the film, she leaned over to me and whispered, "If only it were that easy." Putting down a dog who is not ready to die is the hardest thing I've ever done, and I do not look forward to it with Toby.

So we're cleaning the house and preparing for a holiday celebration with twenty or so friends, and memories of Muffy and anticipation of bad days to come with Toby are running through our heads, tears are streaming down our faces, and at 6:00 o'clock people start showing up. It was wonderful to see everyone, to share drinks and snacks, to laugh and joke, and all the time, out the corner of my eye I'm looking for a dark corner where I can sit with my dog's head in my lap and get quietly and solidly drunk.

Complicating matters: we had no water. A water main had burst that afternoon and wouldn't be fixed until 3:42 a.m. on Christmas morning, when the toilet would start sputtering and spitting loud enough to wake the house. Steve and Cindy donated a five-gallon jug of water to the cause and we persevered through Christmas Eve without water. The street in front of our house was closed so people had a bit of a trek to reach us, but it was nice and quiet on Christmas morning with no traffic roaring past.

Of course, Julie had made plans for Christmas day to help our friend Loren roast a turkey and host a Christmas lunch. So my quiet day at home alone was foiled once more, until today, Saturday. Oops...forgot. We're going to a wedding today. Maybe we can stay home on Sunday.

Please? Please?

 

12-19-98: 'Twas the week before Christmas

I finished a first draft of the planetarium show for Science City on Tuesday and sent it in. They should have notes for me next week.

Wednesday, Anthony Winn and I met at The Golden Apple, a comics shop (and so much more) on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. It was new comics day, and our first Star Wars comic hit the stands that day. We signed books from 2:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. with a brief break for dinner. Here's a photo of us with Bill Liebowitz, the owner of Golden Apple.
Click on the picture to see the larger version.

And now, here's some inside dope on the issue itself.

Overall, Anthony's art is great (and it gets even better in the subsequent issues!), but there is one panel that drives me nuts because it's just sooo wrong!

Some quick background: Ki-Adi-Mundi is a Jedi Knight from the planet Cerea, where women outnumber men twenty-to-one. Naturally, with those odds a couple of things happen: 1) Even comic book geeks like me can get dates, but more importantly, 2) marriages are polygamous. So Ki has several wives. Only one is the "bond-wife," the number-one wife who attends official functions with him. The others are "honor-wives."

I named Ki's bond-wife "Shea." I named one of his honor-wives "Mawin."

Ki comes home to Shea to find Mawin there. There is a little tension between the two women. While Ki has a heart-to-heart with Mawin, Ki's bond-wife, Shea, listens in while pretending to attend to the plants.

The offending panel is the fourth one on page five. In part, here's what I wrote in the script, describing the scene to Anthony:

"Ki holds Mawin's hand. Shea busies herself by feeling the soil around a hanging plant in a basket, a WATERING CAN in her other hand."

Okay, look at the panel. (You do all have your copies of Star Wars #1, right?) Mawin (not Shea) tends the plant, which is kind of weird since it isn't her house. And Shea is nowhere to be seen!

What happened? Well, simply: Anthony screwed up!

But before we all descend on Anthony's house and submit him to a gauntlet of dope-slaps, let's look at how such a thing happens. Take another look at that paragraph of description. Now suppose that you read the name "Shea" as "She." (You may have done this already, the first time you read it.) Suddenly Shea disappears from the panel and Mawin is tending plants!

This, folks, is clumsy writing. I set Anthony up to fail...all he had to do was overlook one letter for the whole panel to be misinterpreted!

I told Anthony early on that I didn't want to review his thumbnail sketches for the book. I don't care for the committee process, as a rule, and I was afraid that I'd stifle Anthony's storytelling style by critiquing thumbnails. If I had reviewed the thumbnails, I could have caught the error while there was still time to fix it.

Our editor, Peet Janes, didn't catch the mistake. By the time I saw inked pages, the page was already being colored and it was too late to make a correction. So there it is: Clumsy writing, a small goof in reading, and a momentary editorial lapse combine to ruin the whole issue! They might as well not even publish the rest of the series!

Okay, okay...it's just one panel, not that important, and it doesn't ruin the whole book, I'm over-reacting. But when you're kinda anal retentive...okay, a lot anal retentive...this sort of thing bugs you.

In other work, I got much praise and very, very few notes on my Sabrina script. I made a couple of quick changes and emailed the second draft to my editor, Steve Granat and Cydne Clark.

The rest of the time I plotted on "Prelude to Rebellion" book six and went nuts with Christmas shopping, UPSing boxes, and using my mental powers on the Republicans in the House of Representatives to try to make their heads explode on live TV. No heads exploded, unfortunately, unless it happened internally, in which case, who'd know with this bunch of bozos?

 

12-12-98: Who watches the watchmen?

I'd planned to work last weekend but I went with Julie to Ikea, the furniture superstore, instead. You see, whenever Julie goes to Ikea she always spends a lot of money...$50 or more...on what she calls "accessories, " what I call "stuff" or something more scatological. To keep her spending in check, I went along to supervise.

We were going to Ikea to buy a Christmas tree. They had quite a deal: all trees, $20 each. Plus, you bring the tree back to Ikea in January and they mulch it up for you, give you the mulch, give you a $20 gift certificate, donate $1.00 to the American Forests Global Releaf program and plant a tree in your "local region," which I assume does not mean the back yard of Villa Strnadini, but I'll ask.

So we bought our tree, tied it up in the back of the truck to keep it from escaping, and stepped inside Ikea to look for a child-sized table and chair for our grandson.

While we were walking through the showrooms (Ikea is an enormous, multi-storied labyrinth of these things), I spotted a television stand that I liked. This isn't unusual...I like most television stands that I see. My needs are simple: Room for a television on top, and some shelves below for the home theater equipment. The problem is, Julie (being the anti-Jan, the nega-Jan, the Bizarro-Jan, the other-side-of-the-looking-glass-Jan) hates all television stands. She likes what she calls "antiques, " what I call "junk" or worse (see the comment above re: accessories). If it wasn't made in the time of her grandmother, Julie generally doesn't like it.

Strangely, the people who made furniture back in Julie's grandmother's day made very few television stands and no shelf systems for home theater equipment at all! (It was kind of like today's dearth of transflamigration units for space modulators.)

So when I pointed this one shelf out to Julie and she responded with guarded enthusiasm, I pounced like Peter Piper on a pickled pepper. Several hours later we got out of Ikea by following the string I'd been unraveling as we walked, with Julie's standard $50 worth of accessories and my $200 television stand in tow. Who watches the watchmen, indeed.

I spent Saturday evening putting the shelf together, which I did with only one injury, slicing off the end of my thumb just before we had to leave for our friend Peggy's birthday party. I spurted blood like someone in a Monty Python skit throughout the party but was able to mask the pain with Scotch. The next day I tackled tearing the home theater system apart and reassembling it inside the shelf, a daunting task even for those with two good opposable digits. It took all day, but by Sunday evening the project was completed and as a bonus, thanks to the new television stand, we had room for the Christmas tree in the bay window we discovered behind the old desk that had been piled with electronic gear.

I also discovered, in all that unwiring and rewiring, that one channel in my woofer (Ensemble II system from Cambridge SoundWorks) was dead. It usually just sits behind the television and woofs along with the working channel and I hadn't noticed somehow that I was short one woof. So on Monday I called SoundWorks' 800 number and said, "I have a dead woofer, no receipt, and I bought the speaker about six years ago." Their reply: "No problem, it's still under warranty, send it to us and we'll fix it." I swear I am not making this up.

Workwise, I finished a first draft of a Sabrina cartoon script and began scripting the planetarium show.

Interviews with yours truly are appearing now in The Comics Buyer's Guide (Dec. 18, 1998, #1309) and Star Wars Insider. I also will be signing copies of Star Wars #1 at the Golden Apple in Hollywood, on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, on December 16.

And that was my week. How was yours?

 

12-5-98: I go nuts

Now and again I go crazy thinking about all the things that aren't right with my life and how I can't do diddly about most of them. But feeling that it's better to take arms against a sea of troubles than to put your butt in a sling full of arrows, when I get like this I focus my attention on the little stuff that's bugging me and select a target. Often this habit takes me into the realm of plumbing.

This week I decided to do something about the cheap Delta faucet in the bathroom whose occasional drip had turned into a perpetual trickle. Naturally, the ring I had to turn to open it up and replace the washers required me to buy a new pair of pliers specially built for this job. Just as naturally, the new pliers proved to be just the tool I needed to totally crum up the polished surface of the faucet without budging the dang ring a single millimeter. They also proved to be just the tool I needed to bang the crap out of the damn faucet in pure, animal rage, which meant I had to buy a new one.

I selected a Price Pfister faucet with ceramic valves of the type that cost us over $400 to have installed in the non-standard-sized bathtub nook that came with Villa Strnadini at no extra charge, along with the non-standard-sized toilet setback and the non-standard-sized monthly mortgage. The expensive bathtub faucets were necessary so that Julie could turn the taps with her feet, not that there's anything wrong with her hands except that her arms can't reach the taps when she's submerged in a bubble bath. If you are married, you understand the need to spend four hundred bucks on your wife's bubble baths. If not, you have four hundred dollars to invest in satellite TV.

These ceramic doohickeys are great, and in only a few hours and with only minor cuts, abrasions, and a rapidly swelling and bluing-up index finger, I had the new fixture installed. What's even more amazing is, Julie loved it.

I turned in book five of "Prelude to Rebellion," which puts us near the finish line. I'll be especially finished after penning issue #6 since Tim Truman will be writing the next Star Wars story arc. Dark Horse likes to rotate writers on these things, I think to keep any one writer from becoming too powerful, but that's just a theory. What it means to me is that a) I have to hustle for more work really soon, and b) I really, really have to wrap up all the loose threads of the plot since I won't have any more issues to do it in and, this being comics, Tim could decide that my whole story arc was just a rarebit-fiend's nightmare. Then again, maybe he'll pick up on some of the hints I dropped about Ki's history, like the bowling trophy on his mantel and the signed picture of Elvis in his study.

I've been given the go-ahead to reveal that the other Star Wars project I wrote is called "Vow of Justice," illustrated by John Nadeau and Jordi Ensign. It continues to explore the Ki-Adi-Mundi continuity, and will do so in the pages of the Star Wars comic book as a backup feature beginning with issue #4.

My Sabrina outline was approved, I'm working on the script, and I'm working on the planetarium show for Science City. It's a busy time made busier by the so-called "holidays," though for us self-employed types one has to ask, "holidays from what?"

 

11-28-98: Picasso

Monday afternoon, Julie and I went to the Picasso Exhibit at the L.A. County Museum of Art. Here's one of my favorite paintings from the exhibit:

It's titled "Woman Dressing Her Hair." The brochure says that it's a portrait of one of Picasso's lovers, Dora Maar. Looking at Picasso's various portraits of his several lovers, you begin to see why Picasso kept pissing them off. If I ever drew a picture like this and called it "Julie," I'd be sleeping on the sofa, if she let me stay in the house at all.

For that matter, how do they know it's Dora Maar? Unless she was rather horribly configured, this could just as well be Dora Maar's goat, or a visitor from Antares IV.

So now you know what a pleb I am. Actually, I can appreciate Picasso on an intellectual level. Would I hang any of his stuff in my living room? Not unless I had a cat that needed scaring.

Thanksgiving wrecked my work schedule this week, but I did turn in the revision of my Sabrina cartoon outline and did some more outlining on Star Wars book #5. As I'm closing in on the end of the story arc, I'm trying to outline #6 at the same time. I'm also reviewing the demo tape I received from Sky-Skan for the planetarium show and getting a better idea of what the visuals might be.

Other than that, it was the usual glut of turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie and sweet potato casserole and laying around with a bloated belly. Excuse me, now. I feel a nap coming on.

 

11-21-98: Peet lives!

Last week I erroneously reported that Peet Janes, my Star Wars editor, had died. I came to this conclusion from the fact that he didn't return my phone call. As it turns out, Peet was just out of the office for a couple of days and is still very much alive. However, I didn't answer when he called back and haven't returned his call, so I assume that I am dead. My replacement on the Star Wars series has not been announced.

If I am not dead, it isn't for want of trying. My lovely, dear, sweet and totally sadistic wife Julie heard about the Leonid Meteor Storm, a once-every-thirty-three-years stellar extravaganza that promised to light up the sky like a host of drunken angels lighting farts. Three catches: We had to camp out to see it, stay up until 3:00 a.m., and it's November.

To make a long story short, I froze my butt off and saw only the few meteors spectacular enough to penetrate the cloud cover that blew in at 2:00 a.m. specifically to tip the excursion into total existential pointlessness. (Julie, whose fault this whole adventure was, was asleep in the tent by then.)

Let me tell you about how we camp. This is what was inside the tent, layered in this order to make camping in November compatible with a Southern California metabolism: A four-inch thick foam mattress (standard bed size), a green blanket, fitted flannel sheet, Julie and me, flannel top sheet, a quilt, another quilt, a pink cotton blanket, a wool blanket, another wool blanket, still another wool blanket, and a large dog. Wrapped around my body was the following: long underwear, jeans, wool socks, cotton socks, long-sleeved knit shirt, turtleneck knit shirt, flannel shirt, a down vest, and leather gloves.

Once I got to bed, I felt snug and cozy and fell instantly into a caterpillar-like slumber, which is what I felt like, wrapped up in my cocoon of clothes and bedding. Besides, I'd stayed up until 3:30 a.m. and usually I'm in bed before E.R. I'd kept myself awake by freezing my testes off. I'm sorry, but there's no polite way to put it. Okay, okay...I'm sure there is a polite way to put it but you weren't the one freezing his testes off out there in the middle of damned desert waiting for a light show that could have been duplicated by an adolescent boy tossing lighted matches off the roof. And I'm sleep-deprived, okay?

Anyway, I did see the very best meteors I've ever seen in my life. Not a lot of them, but they were big and some actually seemed to drip fire. They were so close, I had hopes that one might take out an airliner full of Republicans on their way back to Orange County, but that didn't happen, or if it did I didn't get to see it.

I did reap a couple of side benefits. One was that I was reminded that there are more stars than the six you can see from Los Angeles. (Oh, wait...that one's an airplane, make it five.) Also, we discovered a great campsite for the next time I go camping, currently scheduled right after my lobotomy.

Mike Stackpole interviewed me for the Comics Buyer's Guide about the new Star Wars comics series. This was a little odd since I worked on X-Wing Rogue Squadron, scripting over Mike's outlines, then Mike took over the scripting himself and put me out of a job. Since Mike gave me the option of adding my own questions to the interview, the first one I added was "Do you hate me?" For the answer, see the CBG.

The big Star Wars news was the release of the trailer to The Phantom Menace. People were rushing to the theaters to see it and finding themselves having to pay to see either Meet Joe Black or The Waterboy. According to one person who made this effort at Meet Joe Black, half the theater stood up and walked out after the Star Wars trailer. Me, I settled for the televised version broadcast the next day.

Now the big question (if you're comparing it to a lot of extremely tiny questions, like "Is there any coffee left, dear?") is: Is that Ki-Adi-Mundi we glimpse sitting with the Jedi Council on Coruscant? LFL has me so paranoid about revealing any information whatsoever that I'm not going to be the one to confirm or deny that the bearded, tall-headed alien in the trailer is the same bearded, tall-headed alien I'm writing about. No sir! Could be some guy from France for all I'm tellin'.

While I successfully avoided both Meet Joe Black and The Waterboy, Julie and I did hie ourselves out to the Writer's Guild Theater for a screening of an upcoming Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, Saint Maybe, based on the Anne Tyler book of the same title. It was okay, but Tyler has a really wonderful wicked edge in her books that was almost totally missing from the film. We glimpse it once in the film, but I'm looking forward to reading the free book of Saint Maybe they handed out to see if the original isn't a bit quirkier.

 

11-14-98: To live and die in L.A.

The best piece of news this week came from my literary agent, Stuart Bernstein. He says that the horror editor at Leisure Books has placed my novel, Many Happy Returns, on the "books to buy" stack. Of course, it's been on the "books to buy" stack at various editors only to be put in the "not by Stephen King so bury it" stack in the marketing department, but loyal Mass Distraction readers will recall the massive email campaign that deluged the Leisure Books marketing department with calls to publish. So maybe it'll happen this time!

I woke up at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday to a ringing telephone and the angelic voice of Andrea Ellis of Science City asking me if I was going to fax them the revised synopsis to the planetarium show like I'd promised to do in time for their 10:00 meeting. There is a two-hour time difference between us, meaning that I...who had forgotten completely about this promise because I hadn't written it on my calendar...had exactly four seconds to create the rewrite and fax it in. I'm fast, but not that fast.

I orated upon the subject and clearly delineated the reason I hadn't yet faxed the synopsis. Verbatim and in toto (which is not a good place to be unless you're looking for a cheap fare from Oz to Kansas), my reply was, "Oh, yeah. I forgot." Okay, I could have done better, but I'd just stumbled out of bed blind as a kitten and possessing roughly the same brain power as one. My brain starts about as hard as Jack Benny's Maxwell and, come to think of it, sounds just the same when it's running. Anyway, I promised to have the synopsis for them by noon their time, which gave me two California hours, or about seventeen minutes if you're a dog.

I'd given the show some thought and had, in fact, pored over a bunch of reference material and made some notes a couple of days earlier, but I didn't have anything coherent down on paper. Sometimes I reach the final draft of a project without getting anything coherent down on paper and that can be worrisome, but I wasn't worried yet. I hit the keyboard running, so to speak, not to imply that I actually struck the keyboard in anger or was typing on my feet, like Hemingway who typed standing up because "you don't box sitting down," which makes less sense the more you think about it. What I mean to say is, I worked real hard for two hours and faxed the synopsis to Science City and they called me back on Friday to tell me how much they loved it and that I was "good to go" on the script but, basically, throw it out and do something else.

This week I also wrote an outline for a Sabrina cartoon. I think it's pretty funny but then, I liked the Science City synopsis too, so what do I know?

I had a phone chat with Dark Horse editor Peet Janes about the big finish of the six-issue Star Wars mini-series I'm writing. Lucasfilm (abbreviated LFL by cognoscenti, the inhabitants of the planet Cognos) gave me a specific end-point for the story and I needed some guidance from Peet to reach that end-point. My story, Prelude to Rebellion, is a separate continuity from the upcoming movie, an issue that Lucasfilm (abbreviated FLF by the dyslexic) was quite clear about. There was one teeny-weeny, itsy-bitsy, screeny-deeny, piddly-poopy, don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it aspect from The Phantom Menace that I wanted to almost come close to nearly hinting at barely referring to in passing, and he said he'd check with Lucasfilm (abbreviated UCX by people who have no idea how to abbreviate things) and get back to me one way or the other. He hasn't gotten back to me about it this week, so I can only assume that he's dead. So, all those unofficial Star Wars website hosts, take it from me: Peet Janes is dead. We do not know who will be replacing him, but it's sure to be someone of great intellect and high moral character. In other words, not me.

My wife, who works for a couple of Beverly Hills C.P.A.s in the "sucking up" department, wrangled us an on-the-house invitation to DC3, a fancy restaurant at the Santa Monica airport, Friday evening. We pigged our way through wine and cocktails, Caesar salad, some kind of stuffed chicken and ravioli dish, a filet mignon that melted in the mouth, chocolate souffle, apple tart, and a latte and a cappucino, then came home and watched Picnic At Hanging Rock on DVD which I rented for free from NetFlix. I may be a bum, but I'm a bum with taste.

Finally, I received an email from a friend telling me about the latest way to die in L.A. Ever drive at night and spot somebody who forgot to turn on his headlights, so you flash your lights at him to avoid a wreck and maybe save the lives of a busload of children? Turns out that's not such a good thing to do out here. According to police, that driver with no headlights could be a gang member on his Initiation. The first car to flash him becomes the target, and he has to pump a few bullets into that car to be initiated.

I'm reminded of hearing about serial killer Ted Bundy who used to pretend to have a broken arm and get some young woman to help him, then he'd knock her on the head and later kill her. I think of robbers who pretend to have broken down on the highway who kill the first Good Samaritan who comes along. Do a good deed, get killed for it. Is that any way to run a society?

On the other hand, I'm also told that this is a classic "urban legend." Its source...a friend who got an email from a friend, with the facts attributed to an anonymous police officer...lends credence to the "urban myth" status, so maybe there's hope for us yet.

 

11-7-98: Check your brain

We survived Halloween disguised as Mr. and Mrs. Death. Trick-or-treating was way down this year due to a gang war in our area that prompted the police to recommend that everyone stay home and party in the bathtub. (We have had six homocides in Santa Monica this month.) Julie and I went to a Halloween party but we didn't wear our costumes in public in case we met up with some gangbanger with a gun and an ironic sense of humor.

Since we weren't home, I left a bag of candy on the front door with a sign saying, "Help yourself to some 'candy,' if you dare!" Inside was candy and fake spiders, along with fake spiders climbing the outside of the sack and a big spider web and yet another fake spider by the door. I hung the bag from a glow-in-the-dark hand that fit over the door knob. My cynical nature told me that the hand would be stolen as would the big web and spider, and somebody would take all the candy for himself. My cynical nature was wrong. Some of the candy was gone, so we'd apparently had a few visitors, but everything else was intact.

I've been working for the past couple of weeks on a special Star Wars project that John Nadeau and Jordi Ensign will be illustrating. I worked with John and Jordi on Battleground Tatooine and look forward to seeing what they do with this new material. On Tuesday I received some notes from Lucasfilm for revisions which I've promised to editor Peet Janes by Wednesday. Then I'll begin work on Prelude to Rebellion, book five.

Discussion was spirited at Acapulco Restaurant on Monday night as nine of us went over the many propositions and candidates offered for our consideration this election. We're thinking about buying some public access time next year so that the entire community can benefit from our thorough research ("They paid David Horowitz $100,000 to come out against Prop. Nine"), tough questions ("If cow meat is 'beef,' what's horse meat?") and daring position statements ("I'm definitely for fixing the sidewalks").

The Sheriff's race is a tough call. The young challenger is unpopular with those who know anything about him, but the popular incumbent is dead (though still on the ballot). If the dead man wins, the County Board of Supervisors will appoint a Sheriff. After our discussion last night, in which one woman said that all the cops she dates say that the live challenger is a crook, I've decided to vote for the dead guy. You don't often get to vote for stiffs, though if Al Gore runs for President....ba-da-bing.

Tuesday we pitched Nuclear Family to Kelly Edwards, V.P. of Comedy Development at UPN. One might say that it did not go well, but only if one were given to painting happy faces on blazing dirigibles. The response to the material was approximately that of a vegetarian presented with a bucket of calf heads. The pitch on Thursday to Lance Robbins and Abbie Charette at Fox Family went much better. I'm not sure about Nuclear Family being a kids' show, though, and I was happy to hear that they've sent the mini-bible and pilot script to the Sci-Fi Channel.

The new Sabrina the Pre-pubescent Witch cartoon series is underway. I don't know the real title. Oh, wait...it's Sabrina, the Animated Series. The Writer's Guide somehow got wedged under that wobbly table leg or I'd have known that. Anyway, I wrote a beat outline for editors Steve Granat and Cydne Clark. The story centers on Salem the cat and could actually be pretty funny. Salem's wry and sarcastic, i.e. the perfect character for me to write.

Meanwhile, a new rant has taken its place in the pantheon. The target this time: Godzilla and the phrase "check your brain at the door," which seems to me to mean, "you have to be a moron to enjoy this movie."

 

10-31-98: A bunch of stuff

I don't know where this week went. I did some Star Wars writing and worked a little more on my next novel. Contracts flew back and forth between me and Science City in Kansas City, concerning the planetarium show I'll be writing. My former Disney editors, Steve Granat and Cydne Clark, sent me some Sabrina scripts and say they're ready to go, so I need to clear a space in my schedule for some cartoon work. My poker buddy, Mike Valerio, who's turned into a movie director, asked me to send him a script, I did, and he rejected it. (Okay, "buddy," just see if you ever get your videotape of Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman back....) Then before I knew it, it was Friday and I was working on this week's Journal entry.

I've hopped onto the DVD bandwagon. I had a laserdisc player and about a hundred discs, so I didn't exactly welcome a new, competing format with open arms. But there's no holding back the tide unless you're a little Dutch boy, so I succumbed, bought a Panasonic A110 DVD player, and have been enjoying it enormously. The picture and sound on good discs is terrific, the smaller size is easier to shelve (though I miss the jacket art made possible by 12" discs), and the studios have the potential to issue DVDs at lower prices than laserdiscs.

Greed, of course, is always lurking under a nearby rock. Disney is charging $35 for a DVD, and so is Fox. For now. These two studios are big supporters of Circuit City's "Divx" pay-and-pay-and-pay plan, so their support of "open-DVD" is rather half-hearted. Once Divx dies, their prices may come down out of competition. Other studios are supporting the $20-25 list price for gorgeous, widescreen transfers. I'm not buying the "laserdisc-priced" DVDs and urge others to do the same. This is the stage where studios are testing the waters, seeing just how high a price the traffic will bear, and we have to dig in our heels and just let over-priced DVDs sit on the shelf no matter how badly we want them.

After a hurricane or other natural disaster, people are price-gouged on essentials such as food, water, and repair work. They often have no choice but to pay. But let's face it, people: These are DVDs, not water! You can do without if you don't like the price. Vote with your wallet!

There's just an endless list of stuff to be concerned about! Right now, here in California, we're voting next week on Indian casinos, animal traps, killing horses for food, open Presidential primaries, air quality, classroom sizes, electric utilities, and tobacco taxes as well as voting on various candidates for public office. My brain's spinning!

To deal with this plethora of political proceedings, friends and I are holding a special pre-election meeting at the local Acapulco Restaurant the evening before Election Day. This event coincides with Acapulco's "$1.25 Margarita Night." I'm anticipating spirited discussion followed by fistfights.

One of the more interesting campaigns is the race for Sheriff, which is being run between a spirited challenger and a dead incumbent. Sheriff Sherman Block, age 74, has run the department for a hundred years, meaning he first took office twenty-six years before he was born. He suffered a blot clot in his brain and died less than a week before Election Day, but being a real trooper and the odds-on favorite, he refused to pull out of the race. His campaign manager continues to urge people to vote for the late Sheriff. If he wins, the County Board of Supervisors will appoint an "interim Sheriff" who'll still serve a full term, and it won't be Lee Baca, Block's opponent. Baca seems qualified for the office, but he did something to piss everybody off...which means I'll probably vote for him.

Speaking of clotting your arteries: I try to eat fairly healthily, and I generally fail. Where I fail big time is when I get within whiffing distance of a good barbecue joint. Julie and I found a great one not far from Villa Strnadini...Western Smoke House.

I was put off at first by the Health Department's "B" rating on the front of the place. No good barbecue joint rates better than a "C." But the smell was enticing and the place came highly recommended by our friend Peggy Davis, so we went in, sat down, and pigged out. It's a tiny place in a tiny mall, the decor consists of horseshoe wallpaper and armadillos, and you'll dine in the glow of a neon sign of a Western beauty smiling at you while bouncing one seductive electric leg. Western Smoke House assaults you visually but your nose and taste buds plead an eloquent case for forgiveness--the private label barbecue sauce is flawless, hitting just the right note between sweet and spicy, and the brisket is tender and juicy.

Okay, we're down to restaurant reviews. Time to quit writing.

 

10-24-98: Airplanes and ants

Monday I spent sitting on an airplane, and Wednesday I sat on an airplane, and on Tuesday I was in Orlando, Florida, to look at lasers and talk with the folks from Science City about the planetarium show I'm writing. The meeting was fine and the chicken at Bongo's was excellent. But those flights before and after...yeesh.

I am not a large person, but even I felt cramped in the airline seats, which are wide enough only if you're the sort of person who can slip under a door without opening it or vanish completely by turning sideways. You have to sit without moving because there's nowhere to move to, nowhere to put your feet but flat on the floor in front of you which is available only if the stuff that the person ahead of you stuck under his seat hasn't slid into your space turning takeoff. If his stuff has slid under your feet you have to get his attention, which is apparently done by repeatedly opening up and slamming shut the dining tray on the back of his seat like the kid behind you is doing.

People, stand-up comedians mostly, complain about airline food. I liked mine on both flights, even though I wasn't sure quite what it was. I thought it tasted good. Then again, when my wife Julie is out of town I'll make dinner out of Doritos and Velveeta Cheese Dip, so what do I know?

The Airbus I rode on features little, flat fold-down television screens that lower automatically whenever they want to show you something important, like Godzilla. The screen just ahead of me had lost its red pixels in a bumpy flight over the Rockies, I guess, because it was all blues and greens, so I watched the screen about four rows ahead. You have never seen Godzilla unless you've seen it on a nine-inch screen four rows ahead of you on an airliner. I did not pay $5 for the headphones, investing the money instead in a Bloody Mary.

Because I know you'll find this information fascinating, when I travel, my bowels shut down. I can be surrounded by toilets at every turn, nice ones, private ones in my own hotel suite, but my intestines insist on behaving as if I'm on a cross-Saharan trek in the company of nuns. They simply hang up the "closed until further notice" sign and take their own little vacation. I actually appreciate this behavior on long flights and wish my bladder followed their example. It does not. Instead, I'll plunk my non-functioning butt down in a tiny seat by the window, get wedged in by a Sumo wrestler traveling with his mother, the Captain will turn on the "fasten seat belts" light and then my bladder will decide it has to void itself. "Void this" I tell it, shaking my fist at my abdomen, and I sit right there until the plane lands while the people around me give me odd looks, I don't know why.

Upon my return I wrote up a synopsis of the planetarium show for the people in Kansas City to discuss, and I wrote a synopsis of a six-issue comic book series Anthony Winn is presenting to Dark Horse next week. Anthony is the artist on my Star Wars comic book, Prelude to Rebellion, and he had some pretty cool ideas for an original series. Writing this proposal is "spec work," meaning I don't get paid unless the series sells.

I also continued making notes regarding my next novel, and even wrote a sketchy opening chapter. I don't know if it's the chapter I'll actually use, but I'm working on the tone of the writing and the only way to do that is to write until I seem to hit the right notes.

I read two books during my trip, both of which are now listed on my "Bookshelf" page. Science fiction fans will probably get mad at me for not liking an Isaac Asimov novel, but I have to live with my own conscience, so I wrote what I honestly felt about it. There's a link to other, much more favorable, reviews to balance things out a little. The real winner was Empire of the Ants, though, if you aren't Antzed out by now.

 

10-17-98: With a start like this, the week had to get better

I had big plans for this past weekend. I was going to finish the fourth issue of my Star Wars series, enter two months' worth of checks into Quicken and balance the outstanding statements, and work on a speculative comics project that Anthony Winn has proposed.

Instead, I spent three hours on Saturday in the crawlspace under the house looking for the source of the ant invasions in our bedroom and bathroom, spraying noxious substances and banging my head on floor joists, and I spent longer than that on Sunday under the kitchen sink where the pipes had gotten stopped up.

Besides that, the garage door opener in the truck stopped working, the back gate went mysteriously out of alignment and wouldn't latch, and the floppy drive on my Macintosh died.

Ants were placed on this planet for one reason: to bedevil Man. When you place yourself in opposition to them, you are opposing the gods themselves. You must descend into Hell, which is pretty much what a crawlspace is. Dirty, cobwebby, spidery, and close. I live in Southern California. We have earthquakes. If I happen to be under my house when an earthquake hits, my body will only be discovered two thousand years later by a graduate student in paleontology. Such are my thoughts as I crawl around on my belly like a soldier behind enemy lines, dragging my heavy-duty flashlight and my gallon container of bug spray, testing my forehead against the floor joists. For three hours.

Do you know what your body feels like the next day after dragging yourself around on your belly for three hours? Like you were run over by a Mack truck in your sleep. Then, since you feel like a sack of pummeled eels anyway, you might as well bang around under the sink with a pipe wrench the next day, especially if you have a stye on your right eye (basically, a zit inside the eyelid, and yes, it hurts) and an ear infection and you're on antibiotics and can't drink--did I mention that?

If there is a greater boon to modern life than plumbing, I don't know what it is. If there's a greater pain in the ass than plumbing that doesn't work, I don't know what it is.

Here's a tip: If your kitchen sink stops up, call a plumber. That's it. Forget liquid drain openers, which have never in the history of Western Civilization ever been known to unclog any drain. Forget that little U-shaped pipe where clogs are supposed to form, which is probably the last place on earth a clog will ever form and which, by the way, is called a "trap" because that's what you'll be in if you mess with it--trapped in a plumbing project that will last a lifetime, punctuated with busted knuckles, water everywhere, and curse words welling up from the most primitive and profane corners of your mind.

Just call a plumber.

I'm moving to a nudist colony in the Caribbean where I can live in a grass hut and pick my food off trees and pee in the ocean and worship the Ant Gods and not have to worry about plumbing or crawlspaces.

I got some good news on Tuesday: Ellen Cockrill called from Universal Studios to announce that Fox had not passed on Nuclear Family. In other words, they haven't rejected it yet. Okay, as good news goes this is pretty tepid stuff, kind of like hearing from your doctor that you don't have a brain tumor yet. But right now, I'm taking what I can get.

Since writing Many Happy Returns I've learned what a joy it is to throw yourself into a long work of your own devising. So I'm starting another novel. This time I'm setting my sights higher. I've proven to myself that I can craft a long story that works. Now I'm going to write something that will change people's lives.

That may seem like a tall order, but I'm not looking to, say, turn heroin addicts into captains of industry. I'll settle for a small change. A heightening of awareness, a way of looking at the world that readers might not have considered before, a keener appreciation of what we've got, a reordering of Man's pereceived Place in the Cosmos. (Okay, that last one's a pretty big deal, as evidenced by all the capital letters.)

While I enjoy the process of writing, I have to get published. Have to. I am not Emily Dickinson nor was meant to be. I'm not content to write a bunch of stuff that just sits in a drawer to be discovered by the executor of my estate. I'm writing a book, dammit, not a manuscript. Don't try to cheer me up by telling me that Van Gogh only sold one painting in his entire lifetime (and that one to his brother). Van Gogh died miserable and insane. A few gallery sales would've done wonders for his mood.

Anyway, I'm once again making the effort to get up early to see if I can't hammer some enticing ideas into coherence.

I finished Star Wars #4 and also wrote a quick synopsis of a sky show for Science City. Dustin Sparks of Science City called requesting the latter. I'm flying down to Orlando, Florida next week to visit AVI, a laser facility of some sort that's providing a slew of new equipment to Science City for their "dome theater," aka planetarium. The new show will inform kids and adults about the stars using state-of-the-art equipment, humor, music, and pizzazz. Ought to be great fun.

 

10-10-98: Something you don't see every day (but used to)

Once upon a time, George Eastman of the Eastman-Kodak Company owned a movie theater in Rochester, New York. This was back in the silent era, in the days when movie theaters came as "palaces" instead of "multiplexes." The Eastman Theater was one such palatial showplace.

Out front were seven display cases made of polished brass. George Eastman wanted something special to fill those cases, so he hired his own poster artist, one Batiste Madalena to paint original posters advertising each week's motion picture--as many as seven paintings a week, seven original posters based on the studio's press stills. Eastman gave Madalena only one directive: The posters had to catch the eye of the passengers on the passing trolley.

From 1923 to 1928, Batiste Madalena cranked out nearly 1400 original posters. Painted in tempura on poster board, they remain some of the finest examples of movie poster art ever created.

These scans from the program brochure don't do the paintings justice, but give them a click anyway...for old times' sake!

Bold, hand-lettered, evocative, Madalena's poster paintings exceeded George Eastman's single criterion. I'm sure the posters sparked a lot of talk among the trolley people. And yet, knowing how people are, they probably took the paintings for granted the same way Sunday newspaper readers used to take gorgeous, full-page renditions of Hal Foster's Prince Valiant for granted, the same way Los Angelinos used to take cheap real estate for granted, the same way we take owning our own copies of movies for granted today. (If that last reference baffles you, you haven't read this.)

If the trolley riders didn't especially value Madalena's paintings, they weren't alone--neither did the Paramount Publix movie chain when they purchased the Eastman Theater in 1928. They discovered all these old posters they couldn't use and promptly dumped them in a trash receptacle out back. Madalena rescued them. For the next fifty years he kept them to himself.

A selection of Madalena's original posters was on display for free at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles from July 24 through October 4, 1998. On Sunday, the last day of the exhibit, my friends Steve and Cindy Vance invited me to catch the exhibit before it disappeared. We wandered through the gallery pausing only to pick up our eyeballs when they popped out of their sockets. It was an exhilarating experience, and yet a sad one as well, realizing how much has been lost in today's mass-produced, cranked-out, amped-up world.

Sometimes people ask me why I live in Los Angeles. All the smog. The crime. The earthquakes. The high cost of living.

Exhibits like this one, that's why.


I received an unexpected phone call on Tuesday and (two days later) a check from artist/writer Colleen Doran. She'll be publishing and illustrating a prose story of mine this summer in her ongoing epic, A Distant Soil. My story's called "A World For Dreaming." I'd been expecting payment in free copies but Colleen insisted on using money. Being an accomodating sort of guy, I accepted.

"A World For Dreaming" has its origins in a Star Wars comic story I wrote for Dark Horse. That project fell through but I still liked the basic idea. So, I took it out of the Star Wars universe and wrote it up in prose form. Now that I didn't need to conform to any continuity parameters, I was free to push the characters a little further and change the story around to suit my fancy. I'm kinda proud of the finished product! Naturally I'm looking forward to its publication and especially to Colleen's illustrations.

Speaking of Star Wars, the first sixteen pages of Prelude to Rebellion book four went out to Peet Janes at Dark Horse on Thursday. There's a natural break there so we're getting Lucasfilm's notes while I proceed on the next six pages, so that the script can be sent to artist Anthony Winn without delay as soon as he's ready for it.

The theme of this issue and the next is "choices." Tough ones need to be made by various characters, including Jedi Knight Ki-Adi-Mundi. We write the story of our own lives the same way a fiction writer determines the events of a story, by making choices. Go here, go there, or stay where you're at. Door number one or door number three. Only in real life, it can take years or decades to figure out where you went right and where you went wrong, and there's no going back for a rewrite!

Somebody on one of the unofficial Star Wars sites is already griping about the title, Prelude to Rebellion. This same person also didn't like the name of the planet, Cerea, or the title of the-movie-formerly-known-as-Episode-One, The Phantom Menace. My advice to this person: Eat more bran!

Personally, "Cerea" was my second choice, but Lucasfilm rejected my first suggestion, which was "France." They also rejected my suggested title, Ki-Adi-Mundi and the Slave Girls of the Planet of Naked Celebrities even after I showed them how well it tested on the Internet. Are these people unreasonable or what? Something tells me they're not going to let me call the book Jan Strnad's Star Wars, either.

(Of course that last paragraph was a joke. I told you somewhere else that I was an unreliable source!)

 

10-3-98: Where's the helicopter?

Something I neglected to mention last week: I noted that the Universal Studios folks and I pitched Nuclear Family to Fox, but I left out some embarrassing details.

I decided to wear jeans but all my jeans were dirty, so I threw them in the laundry in the morning and promptly forgot about them...until about thirty minutes before I had to leave for the meeting. I dried them for thirty minutes then found myself in the bathroom with the hair dryer blowdrying the crotch. Eventually time ran out and I pulled on my nearly-dry jeans, jumped into the car, and arrived at the Fox studios exactly at 5:00, the time of the scheduled meeting. Unfortunately I still had to pass Security, park, and walk to the new Executive Building which is still under construction. Finding a useable entrance took a few extra minutes, then I followed the directions of a construction guy and the taped-up office numbers to the proper office. After all the worry and the lateness, of course, I still had to wait for thirty minutes before I got to pitch.

No writer that I know enjoys pitching. We tend to be quiet types, introverts who are content to sit in a small room and type all day. Pitching is performing. If we were performers, we'd be actors, not writers. Ever wonder why so much that comes out of Hollywood is awful? One reason (among many) is that the projects that are bought tend to be those that a) pitch well, meaning that they're high-concept enough to be described in five to ten minutes to a busy executive, and b) the writer is enough of an actor to be able to wax enthusiastic about his project even though he's been sitting in the waiting room for thirty minutes in wet jeans.

What can I say? I did my best.

Dark Horse Comics' feature on the new Star Wars series was posted to their website this week. You can find it here. At last they've revealed the title of the story arc, which is Prelude to Rebellion, and they even posted the first four pages of the first issue!

Diamond Distributors, who distribute comic books, reported the home planet of the main character, Jedi Knight Ki-Adi-Mundi, as "Filasculm." This anagram of "Lucasfilm" was indeed the name of the planet for a time but when editor Peet Janes gave me the assignment of changing it, I was happy to oblige. The anagram, to me, removed the sense of reality and said too plainly to the reader, "We're just making this stuff up." The new planet name, chosen among several submitted, is "Cerea."

As stated in the Dark Horse synopsis, Cerea is a planet that has resisted technology as much as possible. The young people are the target of a campaign to sell them on advanced goodies like swoops. The hidden agenda of the "pro-tech movement" is to encourage the overthrow of the stodgy Elders who oppose Cerea's joining the Republic. Ki-Adi-Mundi finds himself defending the status quo against his own daughter, the rebellious Sylvn.

The story mirrors my own ambivalent feelings about technology. In ways, our industrialization is literally destroying the planet. But I drive a car. Television has become the new opiate of the masses. But I bought a DVD player. We're putting too many resources into artificially maintaining life, both at the newborn and the elderly stages of life. But if it were my baby or my mother....

I hope that Prelude to Rebellion is able to make people think about the tradeoffs involved in embracing new technology, even though it seems impossible to hold back the tide. Hey...even the Amish are tooling around on inline skates these days.

My literary agent broke the news to me that we're pretty much down to one last possible publisher for my horror novel, Many Happy Returns. If Leisure Books turns thumbs-down, then I'm back to the self-publishing gig if I want to see it on paper. He repeated that he keeps getting favorable reads from editors, but then they say that the market for horror is just too soft to "take a chance" on an unproven writer. One editor said, "You must think we're all pretty spineless, huh?" You could say that.

This news, arriving the day before my 608th birthday, sent me into an indigo funk that I'm still trying to climb out of. As I told my pal Steve, I feel as if I'm standing on a mesa (writing comic books) that's rapidly eroding away under my feet, waiting for a helicopter (writing something else) to whisk me to safety, and it's dawning on me that the helicopter ain't coming.

I added a couple new items to NetWit this week, and sneaked a new article into the My Two Cents section, "The Atom Brain Guide to Home Theater."

Speaking of home theater, this month marks the national rollout of Divx by Circuit City. Divx is a cockamamy scheme dreamed up by a bunch of Hollywood lawyers and Circuit City CEO Richard Sharp to sell you a DVD disc at a discount, let you watch it for 48 hours, then charge you $3.25 every time thereafter that you put it in your player. Dubbed Digital Video Express, or Divx, this ploy is the first step toward stripping the consumer of personal ownership of media. Imagine getting charged a buck each time you played a favorite music CD...that's the future a la Divx.

Naturally, I had to visit Circuit City as a potential customer to see how they were promoting Divx. The short answer: with high-pressure sales tactics and outright lies. You can read more about it here if you're considering buying a DVD player.

 

9-26-98: Return to Oz

Got back Monday evening from a week in Kansas, my home state, and Wichita, my home town. No point in writing in much detail about the family and friend visits because the only people who'd be interested are my family and friends, and they were there.

Julie and I went to the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas, on Friday. This was the 27th annual Festival, we hadn't attended for about fifteen years, back when it was known as the Winfield Bluegrass Festival (or maybe it never was, and we just called it that). Back then it was pretty much bluegrass music, which some people consider a contradiction in terms, and it seemed like every other musician was a nasal-voiced banjo player wheezing out a song about meeting his mother up yonder. I happen to like bluegrass music and enjoyed the heck out of the festival back then, but we moved to California and sorta lost touch with our musical roots.

The Walnut Valley Festival of today made three major impressions on me. They were: a) It's gotten huge; b) the music has gotten much better and more varied; and c) it is the whitest damn event this side of a KKK Founder's Day Picnic. Not that the people who go there are fascistic rascist bastards, but dang, they are white. Being there is like looking at a negative of the Million Man March. I didn't see a black or brown face in the crowd of thousands. I asked my brother-in-law if there'd ever been a non-Caucasian at the festival. He thought about it for a minute and said, "I saw a black guy here once about three years ago."

Our niece Claire took us over to the campsite of the band Split Lip Rayfield, some young players with enough energy to power L.A. for a week. The bass player, Jeff Eaton, plays the "gas tank bass," an old Ford gas tank he's attached a neck to and strung with a single piece of WeedEater cord. He gets a lot of mileage out of that one string, lemme tell you. We stayed at the Festival until about two a.m. for some campfire singing and then made the hour drive back to Wichita. (Split Lip Rayfield's CDs are available from Bloodshot Records, 912 W. Addison, Chicago IL 60613-4339.)

This year I discovered guitarist Beppe Gambetta who was accompanied by his son Filippo on the diatonic accordion. This is where a festival really pays off, when you stumble on a terrific talent that's been out there for years, moving in different circles, and then suddenly your personal Venn circle overlaps his/hers and it's like somebody's turned on a light in a dark corner of a familiar room, revealing treasure. I bought two Gambetta CDs that don't receive wide circulation in the USA but which are available from Acoustic Music Records, Postfach 1945, 49009 Osnabruck, Germany (phone 05 41 - 71 00 20) and Alcazar Productions, P.O. Box 249, Waterbury Vermont 05676.

If you're a performer and you're booked to the Walnut Valley Festival, I can give you a tip. There are three ways to guarantee an enthusiastic response from the audience: play really fast, dance really fast, or make your harmonica sound like a train.

Here's a tip if you ever go to Wichita: be prepared for the Midwestern Stare. This phenomenon occurs whenever an out-of-towner walks into a restaurant. People's eyes scrutinize you, your clothes, you company, and follow you to your table as if you'd walked in wearing clown shoes and a big rubber nose. Kinda spooky. You've been warned. Tip big.

I'd also forgotten was it was like to eat where people smoke. The "non-smoking" section is generally the table next to the "smoking" section, and people puff away like there was no tomorrow, which for some of them, there won't be. Here in L.A., say what you will about the smog, you can at least dine in a smoke-free environment since the ban went into effect earlier this year. (And as far as I can tell, the bars are still doing a booming business.)

We had some great food, though. Julie put on nine pounds the first week. Besides the family's burgers and potato salad and homemade ice cream, etc. etc., we had more home cooking at the Gorham Cafe in Gorham, Kansas (population 254, according to the map) where our friends Eddie and Coralee moved when her father got sick. We visited them on "roll day," which is Saturday, when Betty the manager bakes rolls in the morning. Add some barbecued ribs, chicken cordon bleu, mashed potatoes with cream gravy, and more homemade ice cream and you've got, oh, about another two inches around the waist, easy.

My luggage was scanned and wiped twice for traces of explosive, once in Denver and once in Wichita. Julie's bags were not touched. I guess that black vinyl bag of mine just looks sinister. It is, of course, a magic bag: upon returning home, this one little flight bag that stores conveniently in the overhead compartment managed to yield three washer-loads of dirty laundry.

Incidentally, flying into Wichita has gotten better in the past two years. It used to be that you had a layover in Denver (and you still do) where you boarded a propeller-driven plane that held about six passengers and dusted crops along the way. The plane has been upgraded to a Boeing 727 jet and chickens are no longer allowed in the passenger compartment. You can also get an alcoholic drink, which was endangered for a time--Kansas tried to ban all alcohol on flights flying over Kansas air space, but failed. Now why would I want to move out of a state like that?

So I'm back in Oz now, where I belong, doing laundry and getting back into the swing of things. I had lots of phone messages from my Dark Horse editor, Peet Janes, about the third Star Wars script, and from Anthony Winn, the series' artist, wondering if the script had been approved.

I also received a tape of X, the Man with the X-Ray Eyes from Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee, so our account is finally evened and I have some entertainment while Julie's away, taking one more week in Kansas than me. The cover box is a little worn so it's obviously not brand spankin' new, but the tape's still in excellent shape and it's a new digital transfer. I've taken Eddie Brandt's off the "not recommended" list since they are indeed a good source for hard-to-find videos, but I'm adding a caveat that the service is marginal at best.

Ellen Cockrill of Universal Studios called a number of times. Comedy Central has passed on Nuclear Family but we pitched it to the VP of Alternative Programming (the Mad TV folks) at Fox on Friday. The pitch went well, people laughed at the promo tape, now we wait and see.

 

9-19-98: I get a deal

I'm out of town this week, visiting my family back in Kansas, so I'm posting this week's Journal entry early.

Saturday I saw the new release of Touch of Evil, re-edited in accordance with a 58-page memo the director, Orson Welles, gave to Universal Studios after viewing the original edit. The biggest change I noticed was the classic opening sequence, which now sports a more naturalistic soundtrack and is devoid of the superimposed credits that distract from the storytelling that goes on during that incredible, extended shot. I'll also point out that the NuArt Theater filled its 500 seats for at least two shows in a row on a Saturday afternoon at a full $8 each with a black-and-white movie made in 1958.

After the show, we all reconvened at Villa Strnadini for burgers. "We" is my pals John Behnke, Rob Humphrey (two-thirds of the cartoon-writing trio whom you'll see billed by Warner Bros. as "The Trio," the third member of which is Jim Peterson), Rob's cabaret-singing fiancee Cindy Warden, writer Michael Medlock, and movie exec Fred Shaeffer. Julie had a delightful candlelit back yard ready for us, the fridge was well stocked with beer, and we chatted into the wee hours.

Sunday morning I had a late breakfast at Panini's with our friend Carol, recently returned from vacation in Portugal, Julie, and our friend Cindy Vance whose name you may have seen in various Simpsons comics and books. We were sitting outside, talking about traveling to Europe, etc., when Luis politely interrupted.

Luis is in his forties, I'd guess. He had a hospital splint on one wrist and was wearing a pair of hospital sandals such as you'd wear if you'd injured your foot, though he seemed to be walking okay. Luis apologized for the intrusion, said that he'd been robbed the night before, had just gotten out of the hospital, and asked for a little bit of money for the bus. I shook my head and said, "No," and Luis thanked me (for what?) and moved on to the next table. We resumed our conversation about how great it would be to rent some place in Italy or Greece for a week or two some summer. This is pretty much a pipe dream for us, but it might be doable if we scrimped and saved for a year or two in preparation.

Yes, we are Yuppies. Not rich, but we live as if we were.

Now, you have to understand something about the area in which we live: We get asked for spare change a lot. The climate here is a magnet for homeless people--if you have to live without a roof, temperate L.A. beats the heck out of New York City. Live here long enough and you'll hear every story in the book. "Will Work for Food" is generally a lie, the most honest guy on the beach is the one whose sign says, "Why Lie? I Need A Drink!" Needing bus fare to "get home" is a common ploy. Frankly, you get tired of it and more than a bit cynical. You also learn better than to show anyone how much money you have in your wallet, and you'll soon see why.

Some minutes passed and I saw Luis sitting at a table not far away, having struck out with everyone in sight. Maybe it was the contrast between Luis's apparent need and our conversation about vacationing in the Mediterranean, or maybe it was his seeming sincerity (those words "apparent" and "seeming" are clues to my cynicism), but I decided to investigate Luis's story a little further. I excused myself and went over to talk to him.

"So, you were robbed," I said, taking a seat at his table. He told me how he was down at Venice Beach the night before when six guys ("winos" he called them) asked him for a dollar. He took out his wallet, which he said had $300 in it, and gave them a buck. Mistake. Now they knew he had money. They followed him, and once he was on a street with no one around, they surrounded him, beat him up, and stole his wallet and his shoes.

He might have been killed, but four big guys ("studs" he said, searching for the English word and indicating their bulk) driving by saw his situation, turned around, and chased the six thugs away and called the police. They took him to the hospital where they bandaged his sprained wrist and sold him the sandals ($6). So now he didn't have the bus fare he needed and was having to beg for money.

Part of Luis's story didn't quite jibe with me. If he was on his way somewhere, why was he hanging around Venice Beach at night? And if the thugs stole his money, how'd he buy the sandals? But part of the problem may have been the language barrier, and the cuts and bruises and hospital-issue splint and sandals--obviously new and not salvaged from somebody's trash--lent credence to the gist of it.

But mostly...well, I've known a lot of bullshitters. I've been panhandled a lot, and somehow or another I've happened to know people who are simply liars by nature. (I do work in Hollywood, after all.) I can spot 'em pretty good. But Luis seemed to be telling the truth, mostly, and I felt sorry for him. He struck me as a nice guy who sort of barely scraped by in a society that can be pretty callous to people who don't have anything society wants.

So I gave him $5 which he now seemed embarrassed to accept, but I insisted that I wanted to help him, wished him luck, and I shook his finger. Yeah, finger. He was missing three fingers on his right hand, but he stuck that one finger out and I shook what was left of his hand, wished him luck again, and returned to my spouse and friends.

A few minutes passed and then Luis walked over to us again. I--still cynical--thought, "Now what's he going to hit me up for?" He thanked me again (as he would do several more times, much to my discomfort) and said that I'd restored his faith in people. "Some people," he said, "they give me a dime, but you care about people. You talked to me, you made a difference. I have enough money now." He handed me a pair of sunglasses. "I want to give you a present," he said, "a gift. They're new."

They were cheap sunglasses, like you can buy at Venice Beach for a couple of bucks. I tried to decline, but I could tell that he genuinely wanted to give me something, so I took them, tried them on, got some approving comments from my friends, Luis thanked me a few more times, and then he left.

I don't really know Luis's story, but I do know this: Panhandlers do not ever, ever give you anything back once the money has changed hands. Whatever Luis was doing wandering around Venice Beach after dark, wherever he was going (if anywhere), he needed a break, and I was the guy who happened to give it to him. I did it cynically, distrustfully, with only a fraction of the charity in my heart that he ascribed to me, but that didn't matter. The act worked its magic regardless.

Thinking about it later, I thought that maybe I was the one who needed his faith in humanity restored, and Luis did that, a little bit, which in my case amounts to a lot.

I definitely got my five bucks' worth.

 

9-12-98: I don't believe it...

...Someone is actually reading my Journal instead of pouring over the lurid details of Ken Starr's report on the Clinton/Lewinsky trysts.

Has anyone pointed out that Clinton was doing a fine job of being President during the Lewinsky relationship, but that shortly after being deprived of her services, he bombed Afghanistan and the Sudan? This guy has his finger on the nuclear trigger, folks! Do you really want him suffering from sexual tension?

The whole thing just makes me sick...of the public. What a blend of self-righteous Puritanism and prurient interest it's brought out! It isn't about perjury, it's about sex, and in matters of sex, Americans are practically sociopathic.

Anyway....

Julie and I were determined that last Saturday we'd finish whipping the bedroom into shape and we'd be moving back in that night. Didn't happen, but we resolved that Sunday would be the day we moved back in. Didn't happen. But Monday we finally finished the renovations, pretty much, and moved the bed back into the newly restored bedroom.

After all the distractions of remodeling, I was happy to return to scripting my third Star Wars comic book. I finished the script on Thursday and emailed it to Dark Horse. On Thursday afternoon and Friday morning I worked on an interview for Dark Horse's Internet site that'll be published in early October, and then Friday afternoon prepared for a party that's sprung up at our house around a viewing of the newly re-edited Touch of Evil, one of Orson Welles' finest films. About six of us are converging on the NuArt Theater on Saturday afternoon for the film, then returning to Villa Strnadini for discussion and the three B's...burgers, beans and beer.

Star sighting this week: Bob Saget at the William Turner Gallery where we viewed the photographic works of Gary Walkow, film writer and director. Gary has a real talent for finding art in unexpected places, but I must say, the food was disappointing: tortilla chips and salsa. I was expecting to make a meal of cheese and crackers at the least.

As faithful readers will know, this is the second function I've been to recently where the food was either terribly disappointing or non-existent. Much more of this and I'm just gonna stay home where, come what may, I can find a decent snack.

 

9-5-98: Chik, chik, chik

In fiction, we call it the "inciting incident." It's the event that upsets the balance of the characters' lives and begins a domino effect of ramifications, chik chik chik, until it's all worked out and balance is restored.

In my life, the "inciting incident" was my whining that the living room couldn't be darkened even slightly. Julie had put in half-curtains that I liked but which provided no sun blocking on the top half of the windows. This arrangement interfered with my television watching, hence the whining.

Always sensitive to my needs, Julie took the curtains off the bedroom closet--our temporary solution to the problem of having no closet doors--and hung them in the living room. Now the living room was good, but the closet was wide open and extremely ugly to look at.

One of Julie's fondest dreams has been to have the closet "done." In other words, to have a closet designer come out and design a system of racks and shelves that'll hold all the clothes and crap we keep in there. It was time to make that dream come true. The designer came out, we ordered the custom closet, and then Julie turned her critical gaze on the carpeting in the closet.

"You know, since we want to eventually remove the carpet and refinish the floors," she said, "we really don't want them to install the new closet insert on top of the carpet. We should rip the carpet out of the bedroom."

Chik....

So we moved 'most everything out of the bedroom and ripped out the carpet. And the pad. And I used a pry bar to take up the tack strips and pull out the loose nails. And when I was done, I'd revealed a hardwood floor ugly enough to curl a wicked stepmother's hair. It absolutely had to be refinished.

Plus, with all the furniture out of the room, we could see how bad the walls looked. Chik, chik Basically, they looked like they'd been rubbed with fried chicken. Needed paint. Of course, if you're going to paint the walls, you'd best do it before the floor is refinished so you don't drip paint on the new floor. So I sent Julie to the store for paint while I worked on patching the walls. And I thought, which is usually a mistake.

"You know," I thought, "no matter what we do with this room, I still won't like it until we get that 'cottage cheese' off the ceiling."

Chik, chik, chik....

I started scraping the texture coating off the ceiling, guaranteeing my death of lung cancer a few years from now. Once that was done, it became necessary to sand, fill, and paint the ceiling as well as the walls.

Chik, chik, chik....

I spent two days with my hands over my head. Hands over my head sanding. Hands over my head patching. Hands over my head painting. Hands over my head in abject surrender to the gods of remodeling (who, I daresay, are petty and sadistic).

On Wednesday the floor guys showed up. We emptied the closet and put the bed in the middle of the living room. By 2:00 p.m. the floor looked great and the house was filled with varnish fumes (first of two coats) and the dog was hiding under a bush from all the noise.

On Thursday some other guys installed the closet insert.

On Friday the floor guys came back to apply the final coat of finish. That was also the day it was supposed to rain, so I climbed up on the roof and cleaned out the rain gutters, a job I'll always associate with Goofy and ladders that split down the middle and you walk around on the halves like stilts.

Saturday is for more painting, replacing wood trim, and maybe moving everything back into the bedroom. Maybe.

With all this going on, I did manage to work on the third book of the new Star Wars series and to talk with editors Steve and Cydne Granat about writing on a new cartoon show.

I also realized (after hearing another horror story about him) that I'm still pissed at Rob Tapert, executive producer of Young Hercules, who, the more I hear about him, the bigger an asshole I think he is. I just hope that Rob treats his new wife, Xena the Warrior Princess, with the same callous disregard as he treats writers, 'cause she'll beat the crap out of him.

(I obviously have some issues to work out here.)