By samrambles | November 30, 2013 at 12:08 AM EST | No Comments
The Kindle version of my book Suburban Legends: True Tales of Murder, Mayhem and Minivans is now available here. It's a collection of around 60 mostly true-ish stories about awful, and awfully funny, things that happened in the 'burbs. There's the story of a cursed windbreaker; homeowners run out of their abodes by everything from poltergeists to garter snakes to slime mold; and "typical" sagas of suburban terror, including homes built on old graveyards and people who murdered their spouses/friends/parent(s) and then stuffed him/her/them into a freezer/suitcase/tree chipper. You know ... the usual.
Here's one of the entries:
The Devil’s Lawn Ornament
The inappropriate or excessive use of lawn statuary has caused many a neighborhood snit. That’s because one man’s cute little garden gnome, homey-looking concrete porch goose, or lifelike ten-point buck can be another’s kitschy, property-value-destroying nightmare.
Given the discord that any one of those objects could cause if it appeared suddenly in a flower bed, it’s not hard to imagine the havoc wreaked when Danny Van Istendal parked his own unique bit of statuary on the lawn of his Lumberton, New Jersey, home. According to reports, his neighbors called it demonic and despicable (among a great many other things), and accused it of frightening everything from neighborhood children to the horses at a nearby stable.
One can see their point. Van Istendal’s lawn ornament isn’t the usual bit of crudely made, side-of-the-road goofiness. It’s an eleven-foot-tall, three-thousand-pound statue of a Sumerian fertility god. A really angry one, judging from the look of seething rage on its four-horned, red-eyed, skull-like head.
The statue came to Van Istendal by way of Hollywood. It was originally built as a prop for the 1955 Lana Turner movie The Prodigal, for which it was painted gold and equipped with light-up red eyes. There was a picture of it on the flick’s poster. After its acting career (which included a couple of cameos in Tarzan movies) dried up, the piece languished for years in front of a Newark lawn service company. Then, in 1984, it was repositioned on a highway north of the Delaware town of Smyrna. First it welcomed visitors to a travel agency, then to a gallery. The piece was nicknamed the “Buddha,” even though there’s absolutely nothing Buddha-esque about its glowering visage.
When its former owner decided she’d had enough of the thing, Van Istendal offered $4,000 for it. Ironically, he didn’t have a clue about it’s Hollywood origins -- he just liked its looks. He hauled it to his property and carefully positioned it on a five-foot mound of dirt with the setting sun at its back so that his own personal pagan god could cast an intimidating shadow across the road out front. “I think this thing overlooking my yard is kind of cool,” he told theBurlington County Times. “If it offends you, don’t look at it.”
The neighborhood was offended and decided that no one should look at it. City officials, using an extremely free interpretation of local zoning ordinances, told Van Istendal that he had to banish his god to a spot where it couldn’t be seen from the road. Van Istendal fought the ruling, stating that the statue was already concealed behind a six-foot fence. Actually, “concealed” probably wasn’t the right word. The “Buddha” towered over the fencing, allowing it to leer at startled motorists.
These days the statue leers at no one, save for Van Istendal and invited guests.
By samrambles | June 28, 2013 at 03:20 PM EDT | No Comments
Recently my occasional writing partner Lou Harry and I went to see World War Z. I knew the plot was radically different from the (awesome) book, but I had no idea they chucked everything. Lou and I discussed the film in an Indianapolis Business Journal piece, which you can read here. The part that bothered me most was that Brad Pitt suffered a very serious injury about halfway through the movie, but within 10 minutes was back on his feet, punching zombies. It only works that way on the silver screen, folks. I call it the Prometheus Effect. All you sci-fi fans know exactly what I'm talking about.
By samrambles | May 18, 2013 at 10:05 PM EDT | No Comments
I recently did a radio appearance with my Night of the Living Trekkies co-author Kevin David Anderson on The Week In Geek, broadcast from WGSO AM in New Orleans. If you'd like to experience our ruminations about proper zombie apocalypse etiquette, listen here.
By samrambles | April 22, 2013 at 09:32 AM EDT | No Comments
Yours truly was just written up on Coffee With A Canine, a website devoted to writers and their pets. It's of course in conjunction with the recent release of Wedding Dogs: A Celebration of Holy Muttrimony. Check it out here if you'd like to see pictures of me, my son, and (mostly) my dog, Trudy.
By samrambles | April 11, 2013 at 10:00 PM EDT | No Comments
Cosmopolitan devoted quite a bit of cyberspace to Wedding Dogs: A Celebration of Holy Muttrimony, which debuts April 16. You can find the images here. If you'd like your own copy of the book, pre-order here.
By samrambles | April 11, 2013 at 09:54 PM EDT | No Comments
Barnes & Noble blogger Paul Goat Allen just listed his 20 favorite zombie novels of the last decade, and Night of the Living Trekkies landed at No. 5! Read all about it here. And get your own copy of the greatest Star Trek/zombie mash-up of all time here.
By samrambles | February 28, 2013 at 10:19 PM EST | No Comments
If you enjoy watching cats misbehave (especially ones that aren't yours), then take a look at Get Out of There, Cat! from Running Press. Taken from the pages of Kristina Knapp's popular getoutoftherecat.tumblr.com blog, it features dozens of images of felines sticking their noses where they don't belong. Everyplace from toilets to wine racks to rabbit cages. And of course grocery bags. Cats love grocery bags. The photo captions were provided by me. Give it a look and get ready to laugh.
The domestic canine has evolved from nuisance to helper to man’s best friend to family member. And it turns out that’s just what we need to become more human.
The other day, as I ladled out $30-a-bag organic dog food to my two mutts, I started feeling guilty about Snoopy.
Not the Peanuts character, but my childhood companion of the same name. Un-neutered, untrained and pretty much uncontrollable (except by me), he was a surly German shepherd-beagle mix who roamed the countryside by day and snoozed in his doghouse by night. He never sat a paw indoors, because to my folks, inviting a big canine into the house was as unthinkable as stabling a horse in the living room. Snoopy and I were forced to part when my family moved to a brand-new house in a brand-new subdivision. It was no place for a semi-wild farm dog, so my parents got rid of him. Just like that. Needless to day, I wasn’t consulted. After all, it was 1971 and I was just a kid. And Snoopy, of course, was just a dog.
Fast forward to 2008. My wife and I have a terrier mix named Gracie and a bigger (lots bigger) pit bull-German shepherd named Trudy. They live indoors. They sleep pretty much wherever they please. They enjoy state-of-the-art vet care. And then there’s the organic dog food -- supplemented, I’ll admit, with fresh slices of deli turkey and ham. Truly, some days they eat better than me.
Though I love them a lot, neither dog is any more special than Snoopy was. Yet each enjoys a life that Snoopy could not even have dreamed of. He was born too soon -- just before the relationship between canines and humans (at least here in America) underwent a revolution. Instead of getting a used doghouse and A&P kibble like he did, today’s pampered pooches have designer daycare centers, couture coats and accessories, and special “bark parks” where they can consort with their own kind. More important, they’ve become full-fledged family members. That’s certainly true for mine. Through the years I’ve grieved over the deaths of beloved dogs far more than I have for some of my deceased human relations. And according to national statistics, I’m not alone in this.
How did it happen?
To put it simply (perhaps too simply), the dog is just now completing a journey it began tens of thousands of years ago, when its wolf ancestors started bumming around human settlements looking for scraps. This was the moment when the wild wolf began to morph into the domestic dog, and the domestic dog began its quest to conquer the human heart.
According to Pat Goodmann, research associate and a curator of Wolf Park, a research facility located in Battlergound, Indiana, the changes that turned wolves into dogs happened gradually and by accident. For instance, those original scavengers probably fared better if they were less aggressive. Any wolf that showed too much piss and vinegar -- say, by stealing food or attacking a child -- would quickly find him- or herself “selected against.” In evolutionary biology this is a technical term for “getting killed.”
So the more docile, adaptable animals lived while their aggressive packmates died. Eventually the survivors became extremely good at ingratiating themselves to humans. These changes became the norm, and the dog was born. Think of them as a more user-friendly version of the wolf. Or Wolf 2.0. For example, dogs can be house-trained, while wolves generally can’t. Indeed, it probably isn’t smart to even try. “I don’t think it would be wise to try rubbing their noses in poop,” Goodmann says.
But there’s an even more vital difference. Acclimating a wolf cub to humans can be a long, tricky, not-always-successful proposition, but dog puppies are a comparative breeze. This one incredibly helpful trait probably sealed the human-canine bond. “Our species,” Goodmann says, “is notorious for going for the least labor-intensive solution.”
Still, though -- when and why did we go from tolerating dogs to working with them to dressing them up in little outfits and letting them sleep with us?
The pat answer is that more people live alone these days and see pets as surrogate spouses and/or children. Dr. Alan Beck, director of Purdue University’s Center for the Human-Animal Bond, has heard this line for years. And it ticks him off. He says research proves that the typical canine fan isn’t a sad loner starved for companionship. “There’s four times as much dog ownership in families that have at least one child over six years old,” he says. “So they’re really an extension of the family or a part of the family, rather than a substitute for one. We all know people whose dog or cat is their family, but they’re not a major part of the pattern.”
Secondly, though each year we spend billions on our pets, it’s not as much a we splurge on other hobbies. To put it in perspective, the typical dog owner drops roughly $500 to $800 annually on his pet. That’s a pittance compared to what a moderately committed golfer might spend on gear and trips and a club membership. And when you consider what the average dog owner gets back, this investment looks like a bargain. Studies show that pet fans have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, feel less lonely, and are generally less stressed.
So perhaps, even though a typical dog doesn’t help us hunt or herd anymore, it still pulls its weight. Especially when it comes to teaching kids lessons about empathy that would be nearly impossible to achieve anywhere else. “It’s probably very important to child development,” Beck says. “It’s one of the very few times children learn to be nurturing. Basically, our pets are our children’s children.”
Scientists are discovering just how indelible those lessons can be. Beck cites studies showing that, long after Alzheimer’s patients forget the names of their spouses and children, they can still recall long-gone pets. Scientists believe it’s because while we remember people in the “higher” portions of the mind (where we also keep phone numbers and such), our pets reside in a deeper zone of consciousness that no illness, however grave, can touch. “A person is only a name, but a dog is a feeling,” Beck says. “You may forget me, but you’ll remember the dog because it was so much more to you than just a name.”
In exchange for her pricey vet care and food, Trudy has helped my 13-month-old son take the first steps toward becoming fully human. During their daily play sessions she has taught him the importance of sharing toys and being gentle to another creature. All this before he can read, write, or speak.
Which brings me back to Snoopy. He gave me all those things, and in exchange we jettisoned him like a piece of old furniture. I still think about that, even though he’s nearly 40 years gone. According to Beck, I’ll probably still think about him when I’m old and drooling in my oatmeal. Well, fine. Perhaps that’s the only thing I can do for him now -- the only way to atone for the injustice against him. Even though we wouldn’t let him in the house, he’ll always have a place in my heart. And he can stay there as long as he likes.
By samrambles | February 08, 2013 at 10:55 PM EST | No Comments
I wasn't going to write about this for a while yet, but a story in the current People Magazine forced my hand. April 15 will see the release of Wedding Dogs: A Celebration of Holy Muttrimony. As you might guess by the title, it's a photo album of weddings in which dogs -- from Doberman Pinschers to Chihuahuas (actually, quite a few Chihuahuas) -- served as everything from ring bearers to maids of honor to reception crashers. The concept was dreamed up by Sydney, Australia-based photographer and writer Katie Preston Toepfer. Yours truly contributed the text that accompanies the shots. One of my favorites was a bulldog puppy named Romeo who sat for some pictures with his owner, the bride. But instead of behaving, he instantly grabbed the hem of her wedding dress and started tugging.
The book won't officially "drop" until April, but of course there's no law against ordering one in advance. You can also take a look at the Feb. 18 issue of People, which features several Wedding Dogs photos. If you can't find it, visit Katie Preston's Wedding DogsFacebook page to take a look.
By samrambles | January 31, 2013 at 12:39 PM EST | No Comments
In my never-ending quest to write about every single subject in the known universe, I've produced a fun little volume for Running Press called Dancing With Jesus. The book features twelve dance steps as they would have been performed by Jesus and his disciples, had Jesus and his disciples ever had time to throw a dance party. Which leading Biblical experts say they almost certainly didn't. Anyway, each dance is illustrated with what could be interpreted as either fun (if you're open-minded) or blasphemous (if you're not) images of Jesus and other New Testament biggies performing steps such as the Temptation Tango, the Apostolic Conga, the Lazarus Lurch and the Judas Hustle. Oh, and the cover and final spread feature animated "lenticular" images in which Jesus & Friends actually move around. Truly miraculous.
By samrambles | September 05, 2012 at 09:30 PM EDT | No Comments
Quirk Books has served up yet another mind-bending genre buster. Only this time, instead of mixing zombies with Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) or Star Trek fans with, well, more zombies (Night of the Living Trekkies), they've offered their own twisted take on the police procedural. The Last Policeman tells the story of detective Hank Palace, who's obsessed with a suicide that, to him at least, looks a lot like murder. But no one else cares about his investigation, because they've got something bigger on their minds -- namely a massive asteroid that's going to plow into the earth in six months, obliterating the human race.
The book, the first volume in a projected trilogy, is authored by Ben Winters, proud papa of Android Karenina (a Tolstoy/steam punk mashup) and Bedbugs, a multi-generational story about three women who learn to love, live and grow while running a small diner just outside of LaSalle, Illinois. Just kidding! It's totally about bedbugs. Reading it makes you itch.
If you think that a novel about a cop spending his last days investigating a suicide sounds a bit depressing ... well, you're right. Just check out the following video trailer from Quirk. It made me want to curl up in a corner and suck my thumb -- a compulsion I thought I'd licked in college.
By samrambles | July 16, 2012 at 10:56 PM EDT | No Comments
To mark the release of The Dark Knight Rises, I've decided to reprint an essay I wrote a few years ago for the debut of Batman Begins. The sentiments are -- in my opinion -- still right on the money. Enjoy.
Why Batman Matters
He Can’t Fly, See Through Walls Or Bend Steel Bars. But In Spite (Or Maybe Because) Of That, The Caped Crusader Still Packs A Ka-Blam.
When I was a kid, my friends and I would play at being superheroes. Inevitably, at least three of us would tie towels around our necks and claim to be Superman. If we didn’t like one of the kids or wanted to piss him off, we’d say he was Bizarro Superman. Any token female became Wonder Woman. The fastest runner would be Flash. Occasionally, we’d even get some douche bag who wanted to be Aquaman.
But no one wanted to be Batman.
There were two reasons. First, it was 1970, and our only cultural reference was that cornball TV show starring Adam West. Who wanted to pretend to be a middle-age, out-of-shape loser who wore black jockey shorts over satin tights?
Secondly, Batman couldn’t do anything. He couldn’t fly. He wasn’t super strong. Heat rays didn’t shoot out of his eyes. Okay, he had a hot car. But my sister’s boyfriend, Dwayne, had a hot car too, and we kids didn’t feel the need to zoom around the yard pretending to be Camaro Man. As far as we were concerned, Batman was just a guy in a suit -- a guy who could get taken out by a blow to the head, a lucky bullet or a slippery window ledge, for that matter. What was so super about that?
Absolutely nothing, of course. Which is why Batman, the only costumed hero I wouldn’t deign to impersonate as a child, is now the only one who interests me as an adult. Batman seems to interest a lot of adults -- and not just the giant nerds who haunt comic book stores. I’m not one of them, by the way. I am a giant nerd, just not the comic-book-store-haunting kind. But over the years, a lot of people with the money and the talent to do other things have decided to focus their skills on a character who’s been hanging around since 1939, when he debuted in Detective Comics #27. (Which is currently worth about $350,000 in mint condition.) Director Tim Burton turned him into a movie franchise. Graphic novelist Frank Miller built his own reputation by creating Batman stories so gritty and bloody that they drew praise from both Stephen King and Mickey Spillane.
And of course, starting in 1966, he was the subject of the campy TV series Batman.
Burton and Miller and many others turned their attention to the Caped Crusader in part because they wanted to undo the damage that show did to his reputation. This month’s new theatrical release, Batman Begins, is yet another multimillion-dollar step in that process.
But why would they bother?
Probably because they, too, think he’s the only costumed character “realistic” enough for grown-ups. Fact is, any story featuring a protagonist with super powers, be it Spider-man or Peter Pan or Harry Potter, is just rank escapism. The “hero” can get out of pretty much any scrape by calling on some bizarre ability that his opponents lack. It’s somewhat interesting, but it’s also cheating. Batman, on the other hand, is a character for the average Joe. And by “average Joe,” I mean “people who can’t use heat vision/invisibility/mind control to triumph in tough situations.” He must handle his adversaries the old-fashioned way. The American way. By beating the crap out of them.
Granted, the Caped Crusader’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, is a billionaire. Nothing very proletarian about that. But everything else about him is perfectly human -- and perfectly understandable. Take, for instance, his reason for becoming a crime fighter. Ask Superman why he got into the biz, and it’s hard to imagine him giving an answer that makes any sense. He can bend steel with his bare hands. He can fly. He can see through walls. And he uses all those fantastic skills to foil bank robbers. It’s totally unbelievable. Just consult the 19th-century philosopher Frederic Nietzsche, who actually invented the word superman (ubermensch in his native German). He states, rightly, that anyone possessing truly superhuman power probably wouldn’t give a damn about things like truth, justice and the American way. In a very real sense, he wouldn’t even be human.
On the other hand, Batman’s motivation is easy for the average Joe to grasp: He’s nuts.
Not as crazy a his arch-enemy, the Joker, but definitely a few pouches shy of a full utility belt. When he was 8 years old, he saw his parents gunned down by a mugger. By the way, they’d gone to the movies to see Zorro -- an homage of sorts, because Batman’s creator, Bob Kane, based his creation partly on him. Seeing his parents murdered made a big impression on Bruce Wayne, to put it mildly. He spent his adolescence learning every combat technique under the sun, so he could become a vigilante crime fighter. But not before spotting his enemies a tremendous advantage: Because his parents were killed with a gun, he refused to use one.
Which is plausible, given the circumstances. Not too bright, but plausible.
There was even a well-thought-out, very human rationale for his costume. When Bruce Wayne first started fighting crime, he wore street clothes and a mask to hide his identity. And he got his butt kicked. Repeatedly. Then, while sitting around stately Wayne Manner one night nursing a scotch and a couple of broken ribs, he saw a bat fly by. Inspired, he decided to work up a scary “bat man” outfit that would strike fear into his enemies. The only bit of color in his black-and-grey ensemble is the yellow bat logo on his chest, and even that serves a purpose: It’s a target. In theory, bad guys would instinctively shoot at the yellow bat (which is backed by a piece of body armor) rather than aim at the Dark Knight’s decidedly non-bulletproof cranium.
And so he became Batman. It wasn’t because Bruce Wayne was bitten by a radioactive bat that gave him the ability to find his enemies in the dark by making high-pitched squeaking sounds. He just wanted bad guys to wet themselves when they saw him.
It’s hard to think of another costumed character who goes out of his way to freak people out. Usually they don’t need to. Superman can afford to smile all the time, pluck kittens out of trees and tell 14-year-olds to eat their vegetables. Because even though he looks and acts like the biggest dork who ever lived (his costume, sewn by his mother, certainly doesn’t help), no one’s going to call him on it. Batman, on the other hand, wouldn’t last a week if he went around dressed like a rodeo clown.
Batman, just trying to blend in.
So he has to be the mean superhero. If there’s one superpower he can claim to possess, it’s the ability to instill fear. And again, it’s understandable. Only someone like Superman or Wonder Woman, both of whom enjoy every advantage under the sun, could talk seriously about fair play and fighting by the rules. Not Batman. Always outnumbered and outgunned, he evens the odds by packing the knuckles of his gloves with lead shot, and by going for the crotch kick and the head butt whenever the opportunity arises.
There’s just one problem. While the Caped Crusader’s motivations are easy to understand, it’s harder to believe that a mere mortal could make a good crime fighter. First and foremost, he lacks support personnel. If he comes home one night with six broken ribs and internal injuries, who patches him up? Last time I checked, neither Alfred nor Robin had a medical degree. Even more telling, how can he get anywhere fast enough to accomplish anything? It’s fun to imagine the Batmobile stuck in traffic somewhere, going whubbadawhubbadawhubbada while Batman, sweating under his cowl, tries to avoid making eye contact with the guy in the UPS truck beside him.
Finally, how many times is Batman going to hand the Joker over to the cops, watch him escape, then round him up again? One gets the impression that a real vigilante would get fed up and “accidentally” drop him off a bridge.
But hey, everyone’s got failings. Even with his long list of believability issues, Batman still seems more plausible than any other superhero--or any Vin Diesel movie, for that matter. The sad fact is, the typical superhero is what we wish we were: indestructible, fair, and moral. But Batman -- painfully mortal, sometimes mean, and consumed by personal demons -- is what we really are.
It doesn’t make him a very nice guy, but it does make him interesting. So I guess you could say my opinion of Batman has changed since I was a kid. But one thing hasn’t: I still wouldn’t want to be him.
By samrambles | July 10, 2012 at 12:22 PM EDT | 1 comment
I spent this past weekend as a guest at InConJunction XXXII, a sci-fi/fantasy convention held in Indianapolis. I sat on a number of panels, the most eye-opening of which was called Zombie Apocalypse Survival Planning & Preparedness. Like any careful, prudent person, I've thought a lot about what I'll do in case of an undead uprising. Well maybe not "a lot," but "more than a little." Figuring you folks have done pretty much the same thing, I decided to pass along some of the "out of the box" zombie disposal tips uncorked by the InConJunction experts.
Shoot their legs. I know this is sounds like sacrilege to the "pop 'em in the head, make sure they're dead" crowd, but consider this. Plunking someone in the melon is hard. Trained marksmen can't do it consistently. And in a zombie melee you might have to do it dozens of times, without a single miss. Which is impossible for anyone whose nickname isn't Hawkeye or Deadshot. Better to go for the kneecaps or thighs. It won't kill your undead assailant, but it will immobilize him and expedite your escape.
Just switch your boom stick to full auto, spray the first wave at slightly below crotch level and haul ass.
I'm well aware that a certain percentage of you are now shaking your heads and saying, "But Sam, all I've done is create a dangerous 'crawler' that's going to bite someone else in the ankles. How can we ever stem the tide with such a half-assed strategy?" My answer is that while there will certainly have to be an armed, organized response to the zombie apocalypse, you aren't it. You're just a civilian trying to stay alive until the Marines show up. So swallow your pride and go for the knees as you (A) fight your way across a burning purgatory to rescue your love interest, (B) hole up with a group of desperate strangers in a hastily fortified farmhouse, or (C) amuse yourself with some other foolhardy project while civilization crumbles. Which leads to the next rule ...
Your Memaw is dead. You don't need to go check on her. The Aunt Ellies and Uncle Bens and Cousin Rolands of the world will be first on the buffet line. Plus -- to be extremely hardhearted -- what would you do if your octogenarian relative was still kicking? Pack up his/her prescriptions, shove his/her walker into the back of your tricked out Armageddon Wagon and then ... what? Listen to him/her kvetch that all this devastation was caused by Obama? Complain that he/she is missing Matlock? Bitch that you're driving too fast? Better to let nature take its course and use your energy to save yourself.
Your grandma during the zombie apocalypse, asking one of the cannibal undead if he'd like a tissue for his nosebleed.
Zombie time is hammer time! Looking for the ultimate melee weapon? One that won't jam up with blood and guts or, even worse, get stuck in some ghoul's rotten melon? Then ditch your sword/machete/chainsaw and try a war hammer. Developed during the middle ages to perforate the helmets of mounted knights, this classic design is basically a three-foot-long hardwood shaft with an iron hammerhead attached. Great for crushing skulls instead of splitting them open, which cuts down on unwelcome, unhygienic zombie blood spray. You can get your war hammer online, in a wide range of styles and colors. Of course.
This Hammer, however, will be useless.
Run away. As mentioned earlier, you're not going to stop the zombie apocalypse on your own. The best you can do is stay alive long enough to locate other survivors and formulate a plan. So instead of spending an inordinate amount of time worrying about how you'll combat the undead, do yourself a favor and just avoid them. Which means, if you see zombies, don't stand and fight. Ever. Just walk away. Or run.
Get a bicycle. Why doesn't anyone in zombie movies grab a bike? It's the ultimate form of post-apocalypse transport. They're simple, they don't require fuel, they're silent, and they're everywhere. So quit trying to hotwire that sweet-looking Land Rover and raid the nearest bike rack. You won't look as cool, but all the idiots who might be tempted to point that out are already dead. So screw them.
Post-apocalypse bikers won't have to constantly glance over their shoulders to see if some unobservant douche in an SUV is about to run them down.
By samrambles | July 02, 2012 at 10:29 AM EDT | No Comments
I'll be spending my Fourth of July weekend at InConJunction XXXII, a science fiction and fantasy convention taking place July 6-8 at the Indianapolis Marriot East in (you guessed it) Indianapolis. On Saturday I'm scheduled to appear on five panels, including Teens vs. the Zombie Apocalypse; Zombie Apocalypse Survival Planning & Preparedness; and Mistakes Beginning Writers Make. It should be quite informative -- especially that last one about mistakes beginning writers make. Because I've pretty much made them all. And I'm no beginner. Anyway, if you're in the Indy area, stop by and say hi. I'll sign your copy of Night of the Living Trekkies or Dracula's Heir, or even sell you one -- provided you get there early. For some reason my supply of books is severely depleted right now.
By samrambles | June 28, 2012 at 11:51 PM EDT | No Comments
Thinking about enjoying a refreshing glass of Big Red or Boone's Farm? You'll think again after reading the incredible origins -- and ingredients -- of those drinks and others. All of the following descriptions are ripped from the pages of The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures, authored by Lou Harry, Julia Spalding and me.
Big Red -- What, exactly, is the attraction of a beverage that seems to consist of nothing but a toe-curling blast of sugar, a not-to-be-trifled-with 38 milligrams of caffeine, and enough FD&C red 40 food color to turn it as crimson as the sun on Judgment Day? Perhaps it's the mystery. Big Red, invented in 1957 in Waco, Texas (and originally called Sun Tang Red Cream Soda), doesn't claim to have a particular flavor. It's just a color. Some describe it as tasting like liquid bubble gum, while others compare its cloying bouquet to cotton candy. Way too much cotton candy. None of which has stopped it from becoming a pop culture icon in its Texas homeland, as well as a key ingredient in recipes ranging from barbecue sauce to cake.
Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill -- The motto of this, the official high school party beverage of the '70s, should have been, "Fly now, pay later." Strawberry Hill, not unlike its bastard redneck cousin, Country Kwencher, was sweeter than a stack of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen movies and cheap as a six-pack of domestic beer. But inexperienced drinkers ( and almost everyone who touched this stuff was inexperienced, because grownups had the cash and the smarts to get something better) often found themselves weathering morning-after headaches and retching bouts that they would remember for the rest of their lives. And it's no wonder. These "wines" came from the darkest, most low-rent corner of the vineyards of Ernest and Julio Gallo, the same folks who proudly market such illustrious brands as Ripple and Thunderbird.
Warning: Overconsumption of any of these beverages leads to acute gastrointestinal distress.
Mountain Dew -- The folks who sell this antifreeze-colored beverage work hard to make it seem "radical" and "extreme." But to anyone over the age of 30, it's still the drink of choice for rednecks. In fact, from its birth in the 1940s up to the 1960s, that was its primary market. Created by a Knoxville, Tennessee, bottler, its containers originally featured a picture of a hillbilly shooting at a "revenuer," along with the motto, "It'll tickle yore innards!" In 1973 the company finally switched its focus from the moonshine-and-inbreeding crowd to "young, active outdoor types." This trend accelerated during the '90s. The tagline, "Do the Dew" was introduced, and Pepsi-Cola (Dew's corporate owner) did everything possible to associate their product not with toothless mountain folk, but with snowboarders, skateboarders, and anyone else who might enjoy a beverage with a "daring, high-energy, high-intensity, active, extreme citrus taste."
Actually the only truly extreme thing about Mountain Dew is the extremely large dose of caffeine in each 12-ounce serving (55 milligrams compared to only 38 in a can of regular Pepsi). Maybe that's why it's of such interest to active, outdoor types -- as well as to rednecks and to video gamers binging on World of Warcraft.
Yoo-hoo -- Adults will blithely chug sports drinks the color of windshield wiper fluid, but they won't touch Yoo-hoo. At least, not while anyone's looking. Something about this first-ever chocolate-flavored soft drink seems to infantile. Well, take all the time you need to screw up your courage, because this concoction isn't going anywhere. Created using a super-secret heating and agitating process, Yoo-hoo in properly sealed containers will never go bad. The manufacturer is so confident of this that its bottles and cans don't carry expiration dates.
By samrambles | May 30, 2012 at 11:22 PM EDT | No Comments
1. Flint, Michigan, Wal-Mart cashier David Noordewier made the mistake of posting a quip on his MySpace page about how the nation’s average IQ would probably increase if bombs were dropped on all of his employer’s stores. Management got wind of the remark and instantly fired him. The company said he’d made a threat -- even though, as Noordewier pointed out, it wasn’t like he had a jet bomber in his backyard with which to carry it out.
And even if he did, I'm sure it wouldn't be as awesome as mine ...
2. Conway, New Hampshire, resident Joha Turner, 18, thought that roaming around in his local Wal-Mart in an orange prison jumpsuit and handcuffs, furtively asking passersby where the hacksaws were sold, would be a hoot. And it probably was, right up until employees called the cops, who promptly placed Turner under arrest for disorderly conduct.
3. Two Oklahoma men, Cody Allen Sexton and Kenny Dean Andrews, thought it would be funny to drop a pornographic DVD into a player wired to six demo televisions in the electronics department of the Fort Smith, Arkansas, Wal-Mart. A horrified customer notified the store manager, who notified the cops, who carted Sexton and Andrews off to jail. The two were charged with a felony obscenity complaint.
By samrambles | May 18, 2012 at 11:21 PM EDT | No Comments
In case you hadn't heard, the aerospace company SpaceX is poised to launch a private resupply ship to the International Space Station. Their rocket is called the Falcon 9 (yes, after the Millennium Falcon) and the space capsule it carries is named Dragon. If all goes according to plan, Dragon will dock with the space station, drop off supplies, pick up some old equipment, then reenter the atmosphere and splash down in the Pacific Ocean. That's a pretty tall order, considering that only the United States, Russia and China have so far succeeded in launching a spacecraft into orbit and then bringing it back.
Which makes this mission pretty cool. Not just because it's a Giant Leap for private enterprise, but because it gives me the perfect excuse to offer the following bizarro list.
Three Cancelled U.S. Space Missions That Sound About As Plausible As the Plot of Armageddon
Both Hollywood and NASA love big-budget outer space spectacles. But when one of Tinseltown's laughably farfetched, poorly constructed star vehicles goes down in flames, the only thing it kills is careers. Which is definitely not the case for actual rocket launches. That's why we should all be happy (astronauts and test pilots particularly so) that the following all-too-real space mission concepts died on the drawing boards -- without taking anyone with them.
1. Voyage to Venus Inside a Fuel Tank!
In space no one can hear you die a slow, agonizing death from long-term radiation exposure. Hey, does it smell like diesel in here?
After the Apollo program landed astronauts on the Moon, NASA looked for new uses for its snazzy lunar hardware. One of the wackier (and by "wackier" we mean "poorly thought-out") schemes was to send a three-person crew on a one-year Venus "fly-around." Fly-around means that the crew wouldn't land. They'd just look out the windows, shout "U-S-A!" a couple of times, then head home.
Sorry we can't hang around ...
The Apollo command module lacked the knee room and luggage space for such a long trip, but planners developed a novel (and by "novel" we mean "poorly thought-out") workaround. Bear with us here. A gigantic Saturn V rocket would launch the mission on its way to Venus, but its upper stage would remain attached to the command module. Once this school bus-sized gas tank burned up all its fuel, the crew would move in. And live there. In the fuel tank. For a year. In the fuel tank.
The inmates of this enormous spaceship/tomb would face the danger of lethal cosmic rays and solar radiation, all for the glory of going to Venus and then not landing. Which is like driving all the way to Disneyland, then turning around in the parking lot and going home. Only that would be a lot less dangerous, because you wouldn't have to go home inside the fuel tank.
After the Apollo program no one (particularly president Richard Nixon, who loathed the Kennedy-inspired moon shots) wanted to cut massive checks for more space adventures. Oh, and there was also the fuel tank thing-y. No one was wild about that.
2. Manned Orbital Laboratory
That's no moon. It's a space station! An expensive, unnecessary space station!
Back in the 1960s the U.S. Air Force worried that newfangled spy satellites couldn't be trusted to keep tabs on the Russians. What could? Maybe a couple of flyboys stuck on a cramped military space station for weeks on end, sucking their meals out of tubes, pooping in plastic bags and gazing down at the Soviet Union through telescopes. Thus was born the Manned Orbital Laboratory (or MOL) program. The name sounds badass, but the brass screwed it up by going with a bargain basement design. Instead of commissioning a spinning, roulette wheel-shaped masterpiece of mid-century kitsch, their orbital battle station would have been a cramped hovel consisting of a two-person Gemini spacecraft latched onto the specially outfitted upper stage of a missile. The crew would enter this trailer park in the sky through a hole in the Gemini's heat shield.
Not exactly 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Before the first MOL could be launched it had already become obvious that spy satellites worked great, and that the services of actual human spies weren't required. Also, someone probably pointed out that pretty much the last thing you want to do to a spacecraft's heat shield is cut a hole in it.
3. Launch the X-15 into Orbit
The high-flying, pitch black, knife-shaped X-15 rocket plane was the most awesome experimental aircraft of all time: insanely powerful, futuristic-looking and capable of killing a careless pilot in dozens of highly creative ways.
Hottest. Ride. Ever.
Incredibly, the Air Force decided this sleek widow maker wasn't hardcore enough, and considered building a souped-up X-15B that could actually reach orbit. But getting home would have been the real pisser. The pilot was supposed to guide his ship through a flaming reentry and then -- in a move that makes us wonder if the "B" in X-15B stood for "balls" -- eject and descend the rest of the way via parachute while his riderless ride crashed into the Gulf of Mexico. Which would have been AWESOME.
Even the Air Force, never famous for its fiscal restraint, couldn't stomach the X-15B's projected $120 million-per-shot price tag. That's pretty steep for a program with few clear objectives, beyond making Evel Knievel look like a wuss.
By samrambles | May 02, 2012 at 12:08 AM EDT | No Comments
I recently introduced my 5-year-old son to Godzilla movies, which was a revelation for both of us. For him it was love at first sight, because they're packed with giant monsters, tanks, fighter planes and wanton destruction. Or at least he thinks they are. I always fast-forward through the boring buildup and jump to the last half hour, when Godzilla finally throws down with Rodan or Mothra or Gonorrhea or whatever rubber-suited freak Toho Studios tossed in the ring with him.
I have to say that these movies are far less entertaining than I remember. And it's not just because I'm old now and my standards are higher. I am old, but my standards are as low as ever. The problem -- as I discovered when I forced myself to watch Godzilla Raids Again without fast forwarding -- is that for every minute of two-fisted dino action, there's maybe 10 minutes of meetings. No kidding. There's usually a brief (crazy brief) opening action sequence, after which the human characters gather around conference tables, trying to decide how they'll confront Godzilla for the umpteenth time. Books are brought out and consulted. Geriatric scientists with crazy hair hold forth. Instructional films are shown. Coffee is sent for. It's about as exciting as CSPAN3.
The typical G'zilla movie contains a little bit
of this ...
... and a whole big bunch of this.
Maybe it's a cultural thing. I know Japan is big on slow, careful consensus-building, but watching this process in action makes terrible cinema. Plus, when a gigantic monster is trampling Tokyo, who's got the time? And since this sort of thing happens constantly in Godzilla Land, wouldn't a plan already be in place? Something to the effect of: Step One: Point all tanks, missile launchers, fighter planes, bombers and naval units at target. Step Two: Fire. Step Three: Repeat as necessary, or until all forces are melted into a heap of white-hot slag by target's atomic breath.
Most of the Godzilla films my son enjoys are from the '50s and '60s. I know there's stuff from the '80s and '90s and even the 21st century, but I can't bear to look at it. Especially the most recent films. I'm afraid someone will break out a laptop and give a PowerPoint presentation.
By samrambles | April 18, 2012 at 11:51 PM EDT | No Comments
Ed Wenck and my co-author on several projects, Lou Harry, recently teamed up to produce Know Your Zombies, a compendium of facts, puzzles and trivia relating to fairy princesses. Just kidding. It's all about the living dead, and how they morphed from horror movie also-rans into unstoppable print and cinema icons. The book includes an excellent compendium of well-known and lesser-known zed-intensive films, from Dance of the Dead (which is on Thriller roughly six times a week) to Return of the Living Dead, which is the funniest zombie movie ever made that doesn't have Bruce Campbell in the cast or the word "Shaun" in its title.
By samrambles | April 16, 2012 at 10:26 AM EDT | No Comments
Ithought I'd use the premier of the new Three Stooges movie to plug my own contribution to their legacy -- The Three Stooges Career Guide: Advice for Climbing the Ladder (Running Press). Ever wonder how Larry, Moe and Curly wouldhave handled today's dog-eat-dog corporate world? I guess we'll never know, because they've all been dead for quite some time. However this book offers a humorous look at how they might have dealt with everything from casual Fridays to battles for pay raises. It's not exactly a fount of business wisdom, but it is pretty funny. And there are lots of pictures. Just the way Curly would have wanted it.
By samrambles | April 12, 2012 at 11:12 PM EDT | No Comments
It's April, and everyone wants to get outside and enjoy the weather. If you're human, that is. If you're an animal, chances are you've just finished migrating or hibernating or doing whatever grueling, boring thing your species does to cope with the cold months. Which means you're probably cranky, tired, hungry -- and ready to take it out on the first unsuspecting biped that blunders into your territory.
Think it can't happen to you? Then consider the following ...
Seven Golf Course Animal Attacks
1. During the late 1990s and early 2000s dozens of golfers were harassed and/or injured by an overprotective red-tailed hawk that nested near the Village Greens Golf Course in Woodridge, Illinois. Attacks, not surprisingly, were most frequent and ferocious during the spring nesting season.
2. Groundskeeper George Petta was working near the 17th hole of the Crystal Springs Resort golf course in New Jersey when he suddenly realized he'd been joined on the links by a large black bear, which cuffed him across the face and then wandered off. Remarkably Petta not only survived the 2006 encounter, he went back to work the same day. "Don't go looking for your ball in the woods if you don't have to," the club superintendent advised members.
Just take a penalty stroke or a mulligan or whatever it is golfers do when they can't locate their ball. No one will think less of you. 'Cause it's a BEAR, dammit!
3. Plenty of golfers have regular run-ins with geese, but none quite as spectacular as that of Swedish pro Joakim Haeggman. While holding a one-shot lead at Spain's Andalucia Open in 2007, he was set upon by an irate goose at the 18th hole (his ninth). "The goose came over to me and at first I laughed about it," he said, post-brawl. "But when I put my head down it wanted to have a go at it and I had to give it a slap across the face, I had no choice." Haeggmann, understandably rattled, lost the tournament.
4. In October of 2009 a 77-year-old man lost an arm to an alligator at South Carolina's Ocean Creek Golf Course. The 10-foot saurian lunged out of a nearby pond when the unlucky duffer leaned down at the 11th hole to pick up his ball. His golf partners fought it off and called 911. A similar encounter happened in 2007 at the Lake Venice Golf Club in Venice, Florida, when the unfortunately named Bruce Burger was set upon by an 11-foot gator as he tried to retrieve his ball from a pond boasting a very conspicuous "Beware of Alligator" sign. Burger survived, and managed to keep all of his appendages.
5. In May of 2011 a thief wearing a black mask terrorized the Sandridge Golf Club in Vero Beach, Florida, stealing purses and other valuables from golfers. An investigation by groundskeepers revealed the crook to be a kleptomaniac raccoon. Two purses, some golf balls and empty food containers were discovered in its den.
6. Golfer David Bailey was playing a round at Ireland's Craddoskstown Golf Club in County Kildare when a rat ran up his trouser leg and peed on him. The rodent's urine was infected with deadly Weil's disease, which killed Bailey a few weeks later.
7. A woman named Annetjie Mienie was shooting home movies at South Africa's legendary Skukuza Golf Course when a female hippo residing in an on-course pond lunged out of the water and killed her. The hippo, nicknamed Mercy by the course staff, was allowed to live.
... Plus One Stuffed Animal Attack
In May of 2011 someone spotted what looked like a large tiger crouching near the Country Golf Club in Hampshire, England. A capture team from the local zoo was quickly dispatched, along with a police helicopter. However, when the chopper's downdraft knocked the "cat" over, it was soon realized that the fierce jungle predator was, in fact, a large stuffed toy.
And if you think the furry little killing machines won't follow you indoors then I respectfully submit the following:
When Animals Attack Wal-Mart Shoppers
A Louisiana woman named Rebecca White sued the retailer after encountering a large South American rodent called a nutria while shopping in an Abbeville, Louisiana, Wal-Mart. Apparently the animal, which has beaver-like buckteeth and can grow as large as 18 pounds, was called Norman and served as the store’s unofficial mascot. The woman claimed that Norman darted from behind a rack, startling her and causing her to hurt her back and foot.
This is a nutria. The teeth are really that color. Seriously.
Twelve-year-old Megan Templeton was stung by a scorpion while rummaging through the seedless watermelons at a Barboursville, West Virginia, Wal-Mart. The one-inch-long creature had hitched a ride in the shipment of Mexican produce. Fortunately this particular type of scorpion didn’t have highly toxic venom. The girl, who sustained an injury similar to a bee sting, was treated at a local hospital and released.
Things got a bit more dicey for Jeriel Joiner. While shopping at a St. Augustine, Florida, Wal-Mart, he reached in among some potted plants in the garden center to grab a baby bottle dropped by his infant son. What he got instead was a bite on the finger from apygmy rattlesnake. Joiner survived, but doctors had to amputate the finger.
Finally, when an emu (a flightless bird that can weigh as much as 100 pounds and stand six feet tall) showed up in the parking lot of a West Bend, Wisconsin, Wal-Mart, the quick-thinking staff corralled it with shopping carts and called authorities. A manager fed it grapes and apples to keep it calm until help arrived. Turns out it escaped from an emu ranch (there are such things) two miles away.
By samrambles | April 12, 2012 at 05:12 PM EDT | No Comments
The other day I had a nightmare that seems to recur whenever the writing process isn't going all that well for me. I dreamed that I was on deadline to finish a manuscript, but had no idea what it was supposed to be about. Even worse, for some reason I was writing the entire thing on yellow legal pads, using a dull No. 2 pencil. In the dream I kept asking people what I was supposed to be working on, but no one could tell me.
Pretty creepy, but far preferable to my other writing nightmare. The one in which I wake up in the woods surrounded by the angry spirits of all the trees that have been chopped down and ground to pulp to create my previous works.
Towering, judgmental trees like these. Brrr...
It makes me wonder if there were any other writers out there who have recurring "deadline nightmares." If you'd like to share yours, I'd love to hear it.