Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Way I See Myself


Last night, a buddy of mine sent me some photos from the good old days when we worked together at Movies 9, a.k.a. the Niner, a.k.a. the Shithole, i.e., the multiplex movie theater that looms inordinately large in my memories of my late teens and early twenties. The image above is my favorite of the batch, one I don’t remember ever seeing before. That’s me, of course, sitting behind the wheel of my beloved Cruising Vessel, the 1963 Ford Galaxie that also loomed inordinately large over my youth. The stories I could tell involving that machine… nah, probably better not. Have to protect the innocent, you know. Or the not-so-innocent for whom the statue of limitations still applies.

Anyhow, I have this notion, based on no solid evidence whatsoever, that everyone has a moment in their lives when they are most authentically the person they’re meant to be. For most folks, I imagine, this moment comes when they’re relatively young, before the compromises and disappointments of grown-up life begin to weigh them down too much. What you see in that photo there, taken sometime around 1991 or ’92, was my moment. I knew exactly who I was and who I was going to be, there was still time for everything I wanted to do in life, and I even still had most of my hair! This is the guy I still expect to see when I look in the mirror, and I am always slightly wounded when I don’t…


Wherein I Travel to the Fringe…

In my wandering across the InterWebs this holiday weekend, I encountered something pretty fascinating. It’s a short documentary film about a little-known power-generating technology fueled by a substance called thorium, as well as the enthusiasts who are hoping to make this stuff the energy source of the future. I’ve run across references to thorium reactors before, but it seems like they’ve always been in the context of science fiction — if I recall correctly, that comic book I mentioned last week, The Micronauts, featured thorium-powered spaceships — or else they were coming out of the same dank, yeasty-smelling lairs where people assert that the government is suppressing cars that run on water and there was more to the Philadelphia Experiment than just a 1980s B-movie starring Michael Paré. However, unlike all the other paranoid-fringe, pseudo-scientific technobabble I’ve heard over the years — and for some strange reason, I’ve heard quite a bit of it — thorium reactors apparently are for real. Or at least they could be, given the proper funding and interest. And if the proponents of this technology are correct, thorium could solve just about every energy-related problem this planet has got, from safety to fuel supply to environmental concerns. Thorium itself is plentiful, even ubiquitous, and even though it’s radioactive and produces a form of nuclear energy, it’s not especially dangerous. It’s also difficult to create bombs with it. The promise of thorium is near-limitless power that would carry us far into the future with little in the way of harmful waste material or proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Or so thorium fans claim. It’s hard for me to completely buy into their utopian visions, given that I’ve been hearing cheap and abundant solar power is right around the corner since I was a kid in the ’70s. And of course every Utahn of a certain age remembers the hype surrounding cold fusion, and how quickly it turned into a punchline. You know the cliche: if it seems too good to be true…

And yet it seems to this admittedly ill-informed layperson that thorium power is something the United States ought to at least be investigating. Other countries are pursuing it as we speak, and there was an experimental reactor built on U.S. soil back in the ’60s. (The documentary implies that the test program was killed by the Nixon administration because Tricky Dick had personal problems with Alvin Weinberg, the scientist in charge. Honestly, I think future historians are going to someday trace every single thread of America’s decline back to that paranoid, small-minded, corrupt, twitchy little weasel of a man.) Even if you don’t believe in peak oil and global climate change, I don’t see any good reason not to explore a potentially better form of energy than what we’re using now. Aside from the fact that we don’t fund basic research in this country anymore, not unless there’s a guaranteed return on investment. In more rational times, we would have justified it as a patriotic thing, like the Space Race, in which the goal is to put America back in the forefront of emerging technology and big engineering goals that would benefit all mankind… and wouldn’t that be grand?

Anyhow, here’s the doc. Give it a look. It’s just under 30 minutes, and like I said, I found it to be fascinating and fairly convincing, even if some of the people interviewed seem to have the same social maladjustments I sometimes encounter in a certain class of nerdy sci-fi fandom. But then, I suppose that’s to be expected given the subject matter, isn’t it? Also, watch out for the wild-eyed environmentalist doing the “Fukishima scream” at about 17 minutes in; I think the subject loses a little credibility for including her, but that’s just me…

If you have any trouble with the embedded video, you can watch it at the source. Thorium power… hey, lots of other science fiction seems to be coming true these days, so maybe…


And Now a Special Thanksgiving Day PSA…

…from our old friend, Bill:

(This has been making the rounds for a couple of weeks, but I finally took a minute to watch it just this morning. Pretty funny, I thought, but a legitimate point. These fryer things can be dangerous. So if you’ve got a hankering for deep-fried anything today, be careful. Have a happy — and safe — Thanksgiving, everyone!)


My Next Must-See: The Artist

I spotted the one-sheet for a new film called The Artist a couple weeks ago, but while I thought it was striking and classy — a wonderfully refreshing change from the Photoshopped headshot montages that comprise the vast majority of movie posters these days — it gave me absolutely no idea what the movie was actually about. Now I know… and I love it, at least as a concept. The Artist is a silent movie. Yes, a silent… as in “no audible dialogue” and only occasional intertitles instead of subtitles. Just like the ones made up until 1927 or thereabouts. And it was even shot in black and white. Here’s the trailer:

Looks good, doesn’t it? Beautiful cinematography and mood. The music is anachronistic, of course — Louis Prima didn’t record the first version of “Sing Sing Sing” until 1936, almost ten years after The Jazz Singer effectively ended the silent period — but otherwise this thing looks about as authentic as you can get, short of throwing in a little simulated nitrate decomposition. The dog even resembles Asta, the canine costar of the Thin Man series from the ’30s and ’40s. But it’s not just the retro gimmick that’s grabbed my attention; the story intrigues me as well. The movie is about a silent film star whose career and life is about to dissolve due to that new innovation, talking pictures. Simultaneously, the pretty extra he helped discover is becoming a Big Deal. Yes, it’s the same premise as A Star Is Born, but that’s okay.

Although The Artist was shot in Los Angeles using many locations authentic to the silent age, and using several American actors — you may have noticed John Goodman, James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller in the trailer — this is technically a French movie, the brainchild of a gutsy man named Michel Hazanavicius. And you know, that doesn’t really surprise me, considering how utterly risk-averse Hollywood has become in the last 20 years. No American film studio would take a chance on an insane project like a modern-day silent; they prefer sure-things like remakes and sequels. Ever since my college days, I’ve been defending Hollywood movies to the film-snob, subtitle-loving, popularity-hating people I occasionally run across in my social circles, but just lately… Well, it says something interesting that the coming-soon attractions that have most excited me the past couple years this, The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec, and Space Battleship Yamato — have all been foreign films. But then the movies I really love tend to be made by people who love movies, and, as far as I can tell, Hollywood is run these days by people who love brands


Lament for Bill Mantlo

One of my favorite ways of disposing of my allowance when I was a kid was a comic book called The Micronauts. It was based on a line of imported Japanese toys — Loyal Readers of a certain age may remember them — and, like pretty much everything else around that time, it was heavily influenced by Star Wars, in particular by the Star Wars comics that were being published by the same company, Marvel. Despite its derivative elements, though, Micronauts quickly established its own rich identity. Its pages were filled with all sorts of wild ideas and concepts: another universe nestled within our own at a sub-microscopic level; a brave space explorer whose body spent 1,000 years in suspended animation while his conscious mind, merged with that of his robot co-pilot, traveled to the literal edge of their universe; and the decadent, violent society they returned to, where the rich and powerful prolonged their lives to near-infinity by replacing worn-out body parts with components harvested from the poor. It was all pretty heady stuff for a ten-year-old living in a sleepy little town in parochial old Utah, and it left a big impression.

Micronauts ran for five years, 1979 to 1984, resulting in 59 regular issues and two double-length “annuals.” Remarkably, all of those issues save one were written by the same man, a guy named Bill Mantlo. Even more remarkably, Mantlo was simultaneously scripting all the issues for another toy-based comic, Rom Spaceknight, as well as contributing to other titles such as The Incredible Hulk, Spectacular Spider-Man, Thor, and Iron Man, a simply amazing level of productivity. By the late ’80s, however, Mantlo was pretty well finished with comics; he left the industry, reinvented himself, and shortly became one of the great “where are they now?” mysteries from the pop culture of that era.

Earlier this week, I learned the fate of Bill Mantlo, and it isn’t pretty. In 1992, he was struck by a car while rollerblading. It was a hit-and-run; the driver has never been found. Mantlo survived, but honestly it would’ve been better for him if he hadn’t. He sustained massive brain injuries and was left severely impaired, both mentally and physically. But the accident was only the beginning of the real nightmare for Mantlo and his family. Although he made significant progress in his early rehabilitation, his insurance company soon started balking at the cost of the rehab, pressuring Mantlo’s brother Mike — who has been handling his affairs since the accident — to find cheaper and cheaper facilities. Finally, the insurer decreed — contrary to the opinions of doctors, mind you — that further rehab was “unnecessary.” Mantlo was cut off altogether. Mike was forced to liquidate everything Bill owned to qualify him for Medicare, and today Bill Mantlo, once such a prolific and creative force to be reckoned with, is warehoused in a geriatric nursing home in Queens, the only place his family could afford to send him. He is penniless and helpless. What progress he’d once made toward recovery has entirely dissipated without continuing therapy. His quality of life is essentially nonexistent. He is simply waiting to die.

That’s the executive summary; you can read all the details here. It’s a long article, but it’s well worth your time, and I highly recommend that you read it and ponder it. Consider it a cautionary tale of how thoroughly a human life can be destroyed, short of death itself. And keep in mind that Bill Mantlo was one of the “lucky” ones. He had health insurance.

For me, this sad story constitutes just one more outrageous piece of evidence that the way we handle healthcare in this country is seriously broken. Conservative politicians scared a lot of people silly a couple years ago by claiming that a single-payer health system would lead to rationing of care and so-called “death panels,” but what was Bill Mantlo subjected to if not rationing? And what were the faceless, implacable bureaucrats who decided his fate if not the equivalent of those dread death panels? Actually, they were worse than a “death” panel, because they condemned him not to death itself, but to a lingering, living hell until he finally gets around to dying. And they made that decision entirely on how much he was going to cost them, not whether he was responding to care or was still capable of improvement. If the United States truly is, as I’ve always been told, the richest country on earth, the best country on earth, how can we in good conscience abandon a human life in this way? The dirty truth behind our for-profit insurance industry is that insurers are more concerned with the dividends of their shareholders than the needs of their policy holders. People carry insurance as a hedge against anything really bad ever happening to us, but if anything really bad does happen, the insurance companies fight like hell to not actually help you, and that is just wrong. No… it’s obscene. Our society’s treatment of the long-term ill isn’t quite as perverted as what Bill Mantlo imagined in the pages of The Mirconauts, i.e., Baron Karza’s evil body banks, but in my book, it is just about as cruel and inhumane. I wish more people could see that and agree to change it.


One Reason Why It’s Cool to Live in My Childhood Home

I was just rummaging in the basement as part of the “reclaiming my space” project I mentioned yesterday when I ran across a galvanized tin box, one those things in which you keep recipes and index cards and old photos. I didn’t recognize it, but it was in a deposit of my stuff from around fourth or fifth grade, so it had obviously had some significance to me at some point. From its weight, I could tell there was something inside, so I swung the lid back and found… the weirdest assemblage of random stuff. A small rectangular mirror. A couple of ball bearings. A decorative bolt from the front of my childhood dresser. The slide from my old Cub Scouts neckerchief. A couple of AA batteries, stashed away god-knows how long ago, now rotted out and leaking white acidic powder. A miniature replica coin in a sleeve marked “A little money from Continental Bank.”

And something that made me grin like a damn fool: a ticket stub from — get this — The Dark Crystal.

To be honest, there are times when I feel very awkward about still living in the same house where I grew up. And then there are times when I want to go up to people and say, “hey, when was the last time you found a ticket stub from a movie you saw when you were twelve?”


Pepys for Sale!

Well, it was bound to happen eventually… the fabled Bennion Archive has finally outgrown its physical domain and I’ve had to make the difficult decision to start letting things go for the sake of reclaiming my modest living space. I’ve actually been in the process of that for over a year now, quietly selling off books and other small items on Amazon Marketplace (go here if you’d like to peruse what I’ve currently got in the inventory). I’ve had some degree of success with that, but I’ve also found that Amazon isn’t always the best option, depending on what exactly you’re trying to sell. So I’m exploring some other venues, including the direct approach, i.e., pitching certain items to my Loyal Readers here on Simple Tricks and Nonsense. I hope you’ll forgive me for going commercial on you; I promise the items I mention here will be things I think may be of interest to my audience, and I promise as well not to do it very often.

So, that said, the first item up in the Giant Liquidation Sale is an 11-volume set of books comprising the complete Diary of Samuel Pepys. (That’s pronounced “peeps,” for you non-English majors out there.)

Pepys-set-2_eIf you’re not familiar with Pepys, he’s a pretty fascinating guy. I first discovered him and his famous diary in a college course on the English Restoration, the time period immediately after the British monarchy regained control from the Cromwells. It was an exciting, high-spirited time in Britain following several decades of Puritan repression. Theaters were reopened (the Puritans had had them shuttered), and the immensely popular, extremely bawdy plays they hosted would later be recognized as a distinct genre, the Restoration comedy. Women were allowed to perform onstage for the first time, social restrictions of all kinds were loosened, and there must’ve been a sense in the air that history was sweeping Britain along at immense speed toward the destiny of Empire.

As a dashing young man-about-town working for the Admiralty, Samuel Pepys was in the ideal position to witness history firsthand, and his diary is today considered a prime historical source on many notable events, particularly the Great Plague that killed 20% of London’s population in 1665-66 and the Great Fire that destroyed much of the city in 1666. But Pepys wrote about far more than the news of the day. He wrote about pretty much everything: gossip about the high-ranking people he crossed paths with, affairs of state, his own wenching and carousing, his health complaints, his marriage, the plays he saw, the coffeehouses and taverns he frequented, the whole tapestry of 17th century London. It’s fascinating, invaluable material if you’re at all interested in the period.

So, you may be wondering, if  this diary is so endlessly fascinating, then why am I selling my copy of it? It all comes down to my number-one complaint: a lack of time. When I bought this set several years back, I had a lot of grandiose ideas. I had it in my head that I was a Literary Fellow not too different from Pepys himself, that I would someday own a vast library lined with built-in oak bookshelves that would be stuffed with thousands of volumes on all sorts of arcane subjects, which I would then read while sitting in a wine-colored wingback chair, wearing a favorite cardigan and smoking a pipe. You know, something like this. I imagined also that I would have time to take advantage of such a library. Well… you all can guess how that’s turned out. I haven’t smoked my pipe in years and my library is all in banker’s boxes that are kept in a cold, dark basement. I don’t own a wingback chair, and I don’t think I’m even all that literary anymore, to be honest. If I ever was. As interesting as I found that class on the Restoration, I’ve always preferred convenience-store pulp novels to the books my high-school teacher Mr. Bridge used to call “literature with a capital L.” And then there’s the matter of how much time I have at my disposal these days…

Basically, I’ve just realized that I’m not likely to ever read these books, so I’m hoping to get them into the hands of somebody who will. And who has the space to store books that I increasingly do not.

As I said, this is an 11-volume set of trade paperbacks that includes the complete text of Pepys’ diary, spanning the ten-year period 1660 to 1669, as well as a book-length index and a companion. They were published by the University of California Press in 2000, and are brand-new, still in their factory shrinkwrap, just as you see them in the picture above. I’d like to sell them as a complete set, and I’m asking $50 for the lot, a real bargain considering each volume lists for $28.95 on Amazon. If anyone reading this is interested, just shoot me a message at (you know, of course, to replace “-at-” with “@”, right?). If you live in the Salt Lake area, we can arrange a face-to-face exchange; if you’re someplace else, let’s talk about shipping…

FYI, I’ve also got these listed for sale on craigslist,, and eBay, so if you are interested, don’t dawdle in letting me know, because you never know when one of these other venues might produce a bite…

So Who Actually Won the War?

I’ll be honest, I haven’t been following the deepening economic crisis in Europe very closely… I’m dimly aware that Greece is falling apart and threatening to drag the rest of EU down with it, but that’s about all. I don’t really understand the issues involved, and I have no idea what has to be done to fix things… or at least prevent catastrophe. Which means I have no clue if Andrew Sullivan’s prediction today has any validity at all… but I thought it was some interesting food for thought, nonetheless:

My view is that at some point, Germany is going to rescue the euro,
and provide the funds necessary for it. [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel will not let the European
project die on her watch. Her country’s entire postwar identity is
rooted in it. And so a project designed to put a line against any new
wars, after Germany’s serial aggression, will end up making Europe a
German-based, German-run and German-funded country
. [Emphasis mine.]

History has its ironies, does it not? But Britain, alone of the major countries, stands apart. Plus ca change.


Beware! Cuteness Ahead!

My friend Karen asked me recently for an update on the kitty boys, since I haven’t mentioned them in quite a while. They seem to be reasonably contented with their lives at the moment. Here’s a photo of two of them, Evinrude and Jack-Cat, cuddling with one another on my desk the other night:


Not the greatest shot from a technical standpoint, but I thought it would be enough to make folks go “awwwwwww!”


20 Songs

I missed out on the heyday of the “let’s see what’s on your iPod” meme by about six years — what can I say, I’m a late adopter, part of that whole “analog kind of guy” thing — but I’ve actually got an iPod now, so when I ran across a variant of this old blogging chestnut on Tumblr last night, I couldn’t resist playing along.

If this is too passe for your tastes, feel free to surf on, but I feel like I’m finally filling a hole in my soul by participating in one of these.

Okay, maybe this experience wasn’t that profound, but it was kind of fun to see what a random sampling of my musical tastes might turn up. Fun for me, at least. Maybe not so much for you. But who’s writing this blog, anyhow?

Right, so, moving on, here’s the intro/instructions:

You can learn a lot about someone by the music they listen to. Hit “shuffle” on your iPod or MP3 player and write down the first 20 songs. No cheating or skipping songs that are shameful. That is the fun!

My list:

  1. Calling All Girls — Rick Springfield
  2. Windy — The Association
  3. The Harder They Come — Jimmy Cliff
  4. Shake Your Groove Thing — Peaches & Herb
  5. Fall from Grace — Stevie Nicks
  6. Heaven Knows — Robert Plant
  7. Ask the Lonely — Journey
  8. Sweet Talkin’ Guy — The Chiffons
  9. Listen to Your Heart — Roxette
  10. Mule Skinner Blues — The Fendermen
  11. The Road Home — Heart
  12. Nothin’ at All — Heart
  13. Some Gothic Ranch Action (instrumental from the soundtrack of Rancho Deluxe) — Jimmy Buffett
  14. Hot Girls in Love — Loverboy
  15. I Can’t Stand It No More — Peter Frampton
  16. Real Man — Bruce Springsteen
  17. Dance Hall Days — Wang Chung
  18. Don’t Look Now — Creedence Clearwater Revival
  19. La Bamba — Los Lobos
  20. Son of a Preacher Man — Dusty Springfield

Okay. Interesting that the first selection was my main man. I swear I did not set that up. I do wonder, though, exactly how that Shuffle algorithm works. You see, I can go for weeks without hearing anything from a particular genre — oldies, say — and then all of a sudden the machine is kicking out “Sweet Talkin’ Guy” and “Windy” and “Mule Skinner Blues.” Not to mention two songs by the same artist coming back to back… that doesn’t seem terribly random to me. In any event, I suppose this is a reasonably good cross section of my likes: mostly ’70s and ’80s pop-rock, some older stuff, nothing newer than ’89 or ’90, and some Jimmy Buffett thrown in for good measure. Probably nothing my Loyal Readers didn’t expect, right?