The Year Everything Broke

Friday, December 31st, 2021

I come to bury 2021, not to praise it.

2021 is now officially on my list of All-time Top 5 Worst Years. It may even be in my top (bottom?) three—who knows, today is still not over—but it is certainly among my least favorite.

This year everything, it seems, broke. My hand. The refrigerator. Our car (three times, actually). Democracy.

There’s a 100 ft. ponderosa pine in our neighbor’s yard that snapped in two—and is still hanging across our property months later— after being strangled by a wisteria vine so thick it looks like a python. The same snaking plant is entangled in an electrical line and is currently, slowly, pulling down a nearby street light at the top of a utility pole. The power company has sent out a number of people to look at the problem, but nobody has done anything about it. (Feel free to insert your own Trump/Jan.6/Antivaxxer metaphor here.)

While 2020 was a blow to the system, with plenty of jokes about the Before Time, 2021 feels like a hard break with the past.

This summer I broke with a mountain religious retreat my family has been deeply involved with for over 120 years, selling off the last of our shares and interests after I found out they had blatantly ignored public safety during the pandemic (and after assuring everyone they would). Word was a few of its board members still believe covid is a hoax. Yeah, no.

Newspapers — an industry I always wanted to work in, and did so for almost a quarter century— are deliberately being broken by hedge funds and vulture capitalists, whose sole interest is smashing open journalism and sucking out the money until only a desiccated shell remains. That this also allows corruption in politics and business to spread like a cancer, freeing bullshit and big lies to flourish, is seen by them as fringe benefit.

Once it was believed that billionaires could save newsprint, but 2021 made it clear that no one was coming to the rescue.

Even the reputation of the Pulitzers Prize shattered this year, when they refused to name a winner in the category of Editorial Cartooning — after a grueling 2020 when political cartoonists did some of the best work of the last century. Supposedly the gold standard for great journalism, the Pulitzer committee undercut the validity of their own award with the snub, and showed they were just as chummy, self-important, and out of touch as the Grammys.

I could go on. I am sure you have your own list of broken bodies, beliefs and institutions from this year.

2021 also revealed what we suspected all along: that Facebook is clearly broken … wait, come to think of it, that’s actually a good thing. We don’t need no water/let the motherzucker burn!

So it wasn’t all bad.

Also, kittens.

That I am able to test out my hand by slowly writing this post 3 weeks after surgery is a good sign. And I’d be remiss if I did not point out the one mitigating factor that kept 2021 from being a complete disaster:

We would not have been able to make it through this year without the unflinching generosity of friends, family and complete strangers. That is not an exaggeration. We would have lost everything. Everyone who helped us this year made a real difference, one that we eventually hope to pay back or pay forward.

I must even thank —and I can’t believe I’m saying this— several large corporations who stepped up and stepped in to assist us of their own volition, proving that some businesses have finally begun to realize they won’t have customers in the future if they don’t help out people now.

We’re not out of this yet, but thanks to y’all we made it to 2022. You bought us time.

For the first time since I was probably in the crib, I’m not going to celebrate the new year — I don’t want to jinx it — but I will raise a glass …hopefully with my right hand … to everyone who helped us this year.

Insurrection photo credit: Jim Urquhart/Reuters

[50/50] Album #1: Candy-O

Thursday, September 19th, 2019

Album #1: “Candy-O” — The Cars (1979)


I have a confession to make.

When The Cars first arrived in 1978, I hated them. No really. I have no idea why now—maybe they were too janglely, too alien—but I distantly recall mocking my cousin that Christmas as she went on about The Cars and the Ramones and all things punk and new wave. What can I say: teenagers are idiots. Especially this one.

My Road to Damascus moment came when Candy-O, their second album, appeared the next summer, it’s airbrushed Vargas cover calling like a siren song. I recollect a moment with fellow PK Monty Link and his friends as they challenged each other to name the songs in play order on both records without looking at the jacket. Eventually I could do the same. Eventually I embraced all things punk and new wave and so much more, and it started with this band and this album.

The Cars provided the soundtrack to my high school years quite literally, each record indelibly marking the grade in which it dropped.

(Decades later I found myself reading some music critic who snidely dismissed fans that thought of music merely as the soundtrack to their life — as if the power songs had to create memory and color experiences were a trivial thing compared to the importance of music criticism. Whatever, dude.)


The cars covers


The Cars self-titled debut album appeared the summer before 9th grade, just as my friends and I headed off to the halls of Susquehanna Twp. High School; it remained on the charts so long it eventually become familiar, comfortable, necessary. Panorama‘s dour soundscape landed as I hit 11th grade with a thud, and Shake It Up showed up—appropriately enough—in the middle of my senior year as I began a long process of reinventing myself after a long bout of depression and failure. Each record seemed to mirror the dash and turmoil of my adolescence with pop aplomb.



The Cars ubiquitous presence continued throughout college — here’s Moving in Stereo blasting out a dorm window as we roll out to Friday Happy Hour!; there’s Drive topping the charts the semester my college girlfriend and I broke up in ugly, sprawling fashion!; look at us partying around Rusty’s swimming pool the perfect summer night we finally see the band on City Island!

Candy-O came out shortly before 10th grade, and —never left. Not really. I’ve played it so often over the past 40 years it became a benchmark for a dozen adventures, a steady reference point for my brother and close friends that acted as a shorthand for numerous girlfriends over the decades.



Ric Ocasek, with his awkward pose and beat-inspired prose, had somehow tapped into virtually every relationship I had growing up: the longing, the confusion, the waiting—and the eventual growing up.

Wherever you are now — thanks.




Trek movies — the Warp Factor scale

Saturday, July 23rd, 2016


Now that Star Trek Beyond is out, where does fall on the Warp Factor scale?

Warp 10 — Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Warp 9 — Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Warp 8 — Star Trek: First Contact
Warp 7 — Galaxy Quest*
Warp 6 — Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Warp 5 — Star Trek Beyond
Warp 4 — Star Trek: Generations
Warp 3 — Star Trek: Insurrection
Warp 2 — Star Trek (2009)
Warp 1 — Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
Impulse only — Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Warp Core breach
Star Trek Into Darkness
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Star Trek: Nemesis

*Yeah, I know. Don’t care. This love letter to nerds is still more “Trek” — and a better movie— than most of the titles on this list.

[minor spoiler alert] As for Beyond, it too is a love letter to fans. Though the plot is patently ridiculous, and the action sets too frequently stumble, the pitch perfect cast once again saves the movie. It also gets bonus points for blowing up the hideous nuEnterprise with style.

Rollerball turns 40

Thursday, June 25th, 2015


Happy birthday to the bestest dystopian deathsport of the future, which was released on June 25, 1975. Jonathan! Jonathan! JONATHAN!

Also, a more modern take on the trailer:

Mad Men — Once in a Lifetime

Saturday, April 4th, 2015

My superfan mix, set to Talking Heads. Watch it now before it gets pulled! Final episodes start tomorrow!

[50/50] Game #13: “Junta”

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

Tabletop Game #13: “Junta” — West End Games (1985)

juntaDo you hate your friends? Do they hate you? No? Well that will all change after you play Junta, the tongue-in-cheek board game of corruption and revolution. Each of you plays a member of the ruling cabal in a banana republic, vying for the favor of el presidente and the plum posts he hands out. If you don’t like the way he’s distributing aid money from los Americanos, you are of course free to attempt a coup d’etat. Cheating, lying, bribing and assassinations are all fair game — though don’t take it personally: the only thing that matters is how much money you manage to sock away in your Swiss bank account by the end of the game.

Our sessions were particularly brutal, especially after a friend introduced a new rule — “a little something I like to call the Shakedown,” Matt was fond of saying — and participants had to be carefully vetted after one belligerent player in a pickup game at a convention nearly became violent. In fact, my old gaming group has, for all practical purposes, retired Junta due to the strain it put on our friendship

Ahhh, good times.

[50/50] Song #13: “What a Fool Believes”

Monday, September 1st, 2014

Song #13: “What a Fool Believes” — The Doobie Brothers (1978)

Officially the saddest fucking song ever written.

[50/50] Book #14: Watchmen (1986)

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

Favorite Book #14: Watchmen (1986)

1338201233_watchmen-12-of-12Had a strange conversation with an older friend the other day who said he’d finally sat down and read Watchmen recently — and didn’t get what all the fuss was about. This is a guy well-versed in pop culture, history and comic books (heck, his father-in-law apparently created ‘Archie’  wife’s late father was a writer for ‘Archie’ for decades), so it kinda surprised me: 1) that he hadn’t read it in the nearly 3 decades since it came out as a graphic novel, and 2) that he didn’t think it was the brilliant literary work that most readers think it is — including Time magazine, which put it in the top 100 novels of the 20th century.

It is true that much of the tension of the world-on-the-edge-of-Apocalypse that permeates the book was far more palpable when it was released at the pinnacle of the Cold War. It is also true that what made so much of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s dark and gritty deconstruction of the superhero genre so original has since been fully absorbed by the rest of pop culture — to the point where dark and gritty is a cliche to now be avoided.

“Watchmen,” however, is a layered work that rewards careful and multiple readings, that reveals character as much through design and layout as it does text, and, in the end, is a masterwork of stark existentialism. Zack Snyder’s 2009 big screen adaptation of the book, while polished and well executed, comes close but still fails to capture the emotional resonance of the original comic book — something, strangely enough, the second trailer for the movie actually achieves.


A thumbnail of the plot doesn’t do the book justice either, but it is a good selling point. Set in a slightly alternative universe (where Richard Nixon is still in office!), Alan Moore imagines what would happen if costumed crime-fighters a la Batman were real; if superheroes had to deal with getting old, with fame, with PTSD; and if such a group of people could make a difference in a world where the US and the USSR are about to launch a nuclear war. What good is being a hero if you can’t save the world?

2522519-watchman_When I was going to art school in Pittsburgh, Eides was THE place: half punk record store, half comic book shop, and the place where all my discretionary income went. It was where I first saw Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 and first heard Agent Orange, Black Flag and countless other bands. It was also where one of the guys behind the counter told me about “Watchmen” — and he said the store would buy back your copy if you didn’t think it was the best comic book you ever read. As far as I know, it was the only time they ever made this offer … and I suspect no one ever took them up on it.


It. Exists.

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

[As the following contains a potential spoiler for “Guardians of the Galaxy,” I’ll wait a few minutes for you to run out and see the movie. … … … ok, you back? Wasn’t that great? Anyway, spoilers in 3…2…1….]


It’s a goofy, throwaway joke, but the post-credit tag in Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” kicked that summer movie up from very entertaining to A+++++. It also left anyone under 40 scratching their head and asking — “What’s with the duck?”

It was, or course, Howard the Duck. Director James Gunn had slipped in a sly homage to one of his favorite Marvel characters in the final scene. The cocktail-swilling, misanthropic talking duck once had his own best-selling comic book in the ’70s that was equal parts superhero parody, social satire, and existential musings. From the moment he appeared in 1974, Howard the Duck was a huge cult hit — and had a successful 5-year run until Marvel fired his creator Steve Gerber over creative differences, and Disney sued the pants on Howard.

Howard-the-Duck-01-00-FCHoward the Duck was also the spur to the greatest, dumbest quest of my life.

The cover of Howard the Duck #1 is still one of the best known covers of the Marvel era, with its send up of the fantasy illustrations of Conan the Barbarian and his ilk. In the issue, Howard is eventually sent on a fantasy quest dressed a la Conan, with nothing but a loin cloth, viking helmet and oversized sword. It’s ridiculous, but the spoof is so well rendered it works.

The thing is — I loved that cover. It’s so absurd but it plugged straight into all the stuff I liked at the time: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Dungeon & Dragons, wacky cartoon animals. And then one day, some guy at a game store told me that he heard they had made a D&D miniature of Howard the Duck in that exact pose.

htdEven though he didn’t have it and didn’t know who to order it from, he swore it was true. He’d seen it … or someone he knew had told him they’d seen it. And thus began my quest. For the next several years, in every game store I entered, I looked for it. I sought it out at conventions, and asked fellow gamers if they’d ever seen one. Some had heard rumors, some imagined they had seen it, but like the Maltese Falcon, evidence of the tiny figurine eluded me. Finally, I came to the conclusion the whole thing was an urban myth, that the game store owner had simply bullshitted me.

Howard the Duck 01 - 11And then the internet showed up.

I don’t know exactly what triggered it, but slowly the old curiosity came back. I had to discover once and for all if it was real or not. Googling variations of howard, duck, miniature, sword all proved fruitless however. Given the wild, open business environment back in the day, it was highly unlikely — scratch that, no chance in hell — that any company had bothered to license “Howard the Duck”™ for a simple lead miniature.

I did get a few hits: in the intervening decades, like-minded goofs had created modules, figures and entire games around sword-swinging anthropomorphic ducks. Weird, but didn’t count — I wanted the original. It was the holy grail or nothing. And then one day I stumbled across a site archiving old D&D figures and catalogs as if they were on an archeological dig in ancient Sumeria. And there it was —

Barbarian Duck.”

It existed. The urban myth was real.

A few more searches confirmed that Archive Fantasy Miniatures had indeed put out a 25mm Howard the Duck-like figure, complete with cigar, in 1976. Eventually one showed up on eBay. Suffice to say, I was the only bidder.

It is, admittedly, hideous. A small, misshapen lump of lead, it barely resembles the figure in the pages, much less the Howard the Duck of the cover. But it’s real, and it’s mine. And it felt good to scratch that itch.

So, who wants to play some D&D?



[50/50] Movie #14: The Sting

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

Favorite Movie #14: The Sting (1973)

thestingSpeaking of old-timey classics, The Sting continues to hold up exceptionally well. This is all the more surprising when you realize that as much time has passed since The Sting was filmed, as the time it’s set in — the Great Depression.

Spinning a yarn of the two smoothest con men to every grace the screen, The Sting singlehandedly relaunched interest in ragtime composer Scott Joplin, and went on to win 7 Oscars, including Best Picture. The Academy Awards are, even in the best of times, either a self-satisfied mutual admiration society or a cynical marketing ploy (or both), but every so often they get it right.

The Sting is a near-perfect movie: an homage to caper films and the golden age of Hollywood, it is slick and entertaining in its own right. And while Paul Newman and Robert Redford are busily conning gangster Robert Shaw, the movie is delightfully misdirecting filmgoers with what’s happening on the screen. When the inevitable double-cross comes at the end, the audience is happy to be played.

This is the 2nd movie on this list by George Roy Hill, one of only three directors to score twice in the 50/50 countdown. His other — Slap Shot — is arguably the best sports comedy of all time. Both Redford and Newman did some of their best work under Hill, but Paul Newman in particular became a master of sly comedy under the director: