Lightsabers and Surfboards

Stefan A. Slater's blog about whatever's on Stefan A. Slater's mind (e.g., Ewoks, Pipeline and speaking in the third person).

I Use My Phone as a Phone

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My first cell phone had pre-programmed texts.

There. You were just privy to my first “I’m getting old so here’s some trivial info about my half-forgotten youth” fact. I’m starting down the path to my inevitable meet-up with the Reaper. The years are flying by. I found a grey hair. Death, darkness and something about turning to dust.

Anyway. I digress.

Yes, the cell was pre-programmed with simple things, like “Where R U?” or “OK” or “Hi.” I distinctly remember having a text-based conversation for the first time when I was 14, and the novelty of typing out “How r u?” was thrilling. My teenage brain could hardly comprehend the futuristic possibilities that texting promised. But then I promptly grew tired of tediously typing out all those simple words and I watched four Roger Moore-era Bond flicks back-to-back, discovered Playstation 2 and then high school ended. The years do go by quickly.

During college I used a Motorola Razr, which to me, seemed very trendy. But then college ended quickly too (my flashbacks never seem to last very long), and I found myself immersed in the smart phone era–a time period that’s defined by minimal interpersonal contact.

Because of my preference for never keeping up with trends, I had a tendency to call people instead of texting them all throughout high school and college. Ultimately, it seemed easier when I wanted to say something more than a simple “Hello.” I also had the texting speed of a NyQuil-addled chimpanzee, so that complicated things too.

Regardless, I now find myself in a bit of a predicament: I like to use my phone as a phone, but it seems like most people use their phones only for texting.

According to Time magazine, Americans between the ages of 18 to 29 type out and receive roughly 88 text messages a day. Guess how many calls they make daily? 17. That’s it.

When I communicate with my friends, I keep it simple, and I try to text only brief items. But if they want to talk-talk via text, I just can’t do it. I get frustrated. It feels like I’m wasting my time typing something out that can be said in five seconds flat. It gets worse too: I’ve had business associates that wouldn’t respond to my calls or voicemails over the course of several days, but I text them once, and they get back to me instantly.

Those sorts of incidences only encourage me to make loud, angry noises. I don’t like doing that.

I get that texting is convenient, and yes, sometimes phone calls are a little intrusive and bothersome. But I’ve done hundreds of phone interviews since I started freelancing back in 2010 and because of that I’ve learned one very important thing: You learn a lot about a person when you can actually hear them speak.

Their intonations. A love, or even a hatred for silences. Plus, vocal conversations thrive on elaboration–misunderstandings occur less when you take the time to actually converse with someone. Honestly.

Talking, hearing a person’s voice, is more sincere than simply reading quick snippets of thoughts punctuated with emoticons. If I’m taking the time to talk with you on the phone, I want to get to know you. I’ve taken the time to communicate with you. So, let’s make sure we do it properly. No LOL shenanigans, please.

One day, I’ll get a fancy phone that will convert my thoughts into texts, and I’ll completely change my stance on this matter. But until then, I’m going to use my cell for its original intended purpose: to make phone calls while I’m on the move.

Except when I’m driving. I still need to get a bluetooth.

Waiting… The Cold Email Game

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The plan for today’s blog post was to share my most recent article on… well, it’s surf-related, that’s all I can say. But said article is not here yet.

Damn.

It should be fine; I think they’re just waiting to pull together some images for the piece, but I have to say that the waiting game is a brutal one. I’ve checked the pub’s website quite a few times over the course of the past week or two, and there’s still nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. So, the name of the game now is: patience.

Easy enough.

Sort of.

This particular publishing situation is no big deal, but sometimes it does seem like these little “challenges” seem to add up. Sometimes, it almost feels like there’s some sort of sadistic office manager standing over me while I’m tip-tap-tapping away on my computer and right when I get into my groove my merciless hypothetical boss starts to sprinkle the stress on my head. It’s light at first, no big deal. I just brush it off. But then, like an aspiring Sumo wrestler trying to pile up the calories at his local IHOP, my boss starts to pour it on.

And I freak out a little.

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Yeah. So, said freak outs seems to happen the most when I’m during one of those instances of “uncertainty”: Usually, I’m between big assignments, and I’m sending cold pitches every single day and I’m waiting for responses and, well, things get a little slow. Sure, the responses do start to roll in, but I’m a little impatient sometimes, so I think I need to remind myself that good things take time. (I know it’s a tired platitude, but lay off, it’s all I could come up with and the Bourbon isn’t helping.)

Keeping that in mind, I also need to stay positive in general because, well, I have it pretty good. Great family. Great girl. Working towards my big career goal and, oh, I also live in a state that isn’t frozen.

Case in point: My poor sister went back to school in Ohio today. Last time I checked, it was around 22 degrees, give or take an icicle.

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Yeah, that’s my sister’s rental car (she’s in between cars at the moment and she had to pick up a rental for her first month back at school), and she had to practically dig her car out just to go to class.

So, I don’t really think I have anything to complain about. The waiting game bites, but it’ll be over soon enough.

On a final, albeit separate, note, my sister is currently driving a Chevy Impala. I told her to make sure the cops don’t catch her riding dirty. She asked if that “dirty” was spelled with three “r’s.” I told her it couldn’t hurt.

She agreed. And I like her for that.

Why I Suck At Coming Up With Titles

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It’s an issue that’s plagued me since my days at the college paper–coming up with headlines and titles that don’t suck.

The opener is so very important–I mean, it’s the first thing people see when they check out your writing. The headline and that first sentence are like the initial punches in a boxing match; you can’t start off tip-tap-tapping away at your opponent, you really have to knock them flat right from the get go.

Nonfiction is a little easier–all you really have to do is convey the most important info (a why-does-this-even-matter sort of thing, e.g. Dog Takes To The Sky After Accidentally Turning On Jet Pack). Once that’s done, I usually just try tweaking things accordingly until I have something that sounds halfway decent, e.g. “See Spot Fly” or “Jet Packs and Dogs Don’t Mix” or “Ground Control To Major Fido”. Ok, that’s the best I could do on such short notice, please don’t judge.

But it’s completely different with fiction. If I don’t have something set aside right from the beginning (and, come on, when does that ever happen?), then I usually flounder, or I wait until I have the whole thing done before settling on a title (i.e. stick with a “working title” and then come up with something better).

Oftentimes, I like the “noun and noun” title, as in “The Dog and the Jetpack.” Or, I like to go with the title-in-the-text approach, where I say a certain phrase in the text that ends up being the title, like, for instance, in Game of Thrones–I remember the first time that I heard a character say, “play the Game of Thrones,” I practically giggled like an eight-year-old hyped up on pixy sticks.

Any way, do you have any tips for crafting awesome headlines or story titles? Bonus if you somehow tie it back to jet packs and dogs… that seems to be somewhat of a running theme today. And with that said:

Enjoy.

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Happy New Year Post: A 2013 Recap

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I know. I know. I’m a little late. Like… a couple of weeks late. But forgive me, please? I was sick–struck down by a vicious, merciless cold two days before New Year’s Eve. No worries though, as I spent the night watching Orange is The New Black with my GF, which is never a bad thing (I did wear a bandana to make sure I didn’t spread a plague with all my coughing–it’s all about being considerate). I was also on deadline, and I have two new articles that just went to print that I’ll be sharing here shortly. But, since it’s a new year and all, I thought I’d go ahead and do two very important things:

List my writing goals, which are as follows–

1) Sell a short story.
2) Write for one of my big goal publications (Men’s Journal, Tor.com, etc.)
3) Go on an epic trip and write about it for one of my big goal publications.
4) Write every single day. Even when I’m sick.🙂
5) Continue to develop my freelance career.
6) Keep up my surfing. (Work’s been cutting into that, and boy, do I need my surfing to keep me sane.)

OK, that was fun and uplifting. Now, let’s switch over to the fun stuff (i.e., the second important thing I had to discuss with you all).

My favorite books of 2013–

Fiction: This one was tough. And when I say tough, I mean chewing-through-mummified-200-year-old-leather tough. I started reading more in 2013, and it was the first year of my full-time freelance career, which meant that I went through A TON of books. And I’m not saying that to brag–there were still plenty of books that I didn’t get to. So, not counting graphic novels or audiobooks, I went through roughly thirty books. Most I liked. Some, like The Yellow Birds or A Sound of Thunder and Other Stories (Ray Bradbury), were truly moving. Others, like Mockingbird and NOS4A2, were a rolling-bucket-of-monkeys-on-LSD fun (and yeah, that’s a good thing). But if there was one book that affected me the most, it had to be Horns, by Joe Hill. It was both simultaneously torturous and pleasurable, and it hit home in a way that was uncomfortable–the way it dealt with adolescent relationships and perceived wrongs was so very raw and relatable. I lost sleep stressing over Ig’s dilemma–and that rarely happens to me. Have you picked it up yet? Do so. Come on, go on, get up and grab a copy.

You back?

Cool.

And now on to my favorite graphic novel/comic book of 2013: Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples. It’s brilliant. I could go on and on, so just do yourself a favor and pick up a copy. In second place, East of West by Jonathan Hickman. I’m a sucker for revisionist westerns, and this one was particularly inventive and original. Who knew that Death could ever pull off a Stetson so well?

Nonfiction: I didn’t read much nonfiction last year, and that’s something that needs to change this year. But the top two have to be The Devil in The White City by Erik Larson and Sweetness and Blood by Michael Scott Moore. Both understand their subject matters well (World’s Columbian Exposition/H. H. Holmes and surfing history, respectively). Check ’em out.

Ok, thanks for reading, everybody. I’ll be checking in a little more regularly in 2014 with updates on my writing and stuff. Take care, and happy belated new year. Stay stoked and keep writing.

My Article for LA Weekly: The Problem With Owning L.A.’s Closest Ski Resort? Yeah, You Guessed it

Mount Waterman, Courtesy of Beth Metcalf

Mount Waterman, Courtesy of Beth Metcalf

My Dad loves the snow, and he’s been skiing… when did Sputnik 1 go up? No, scratch that. When did WWI start? No, no, that’s wrong. Ok, when did the first scaly, slimy fish-thing crawl forth from the primordial ooze? Yeah… I think he started skiing sometime around then. Anyway, one of the first places that my Dad took me to ski was Mount Waterman. It’s a beautiful–albeit tiny–ski resort that rarely has snow, mainly because it’s only a couple of hours from sunny and smoggy downtown L.A. I wrote an article about this unique little resort, and all the trying challenges that its owners face every year, for LA Weekly. This was a fun one for me, and I hope you like it. I posted part of the article below, but to read the whole thing, you’ll have to head on over to their site (you’ll find the link at the end). Thanks and let me know what you think!

It’s been more than two years since Mount Waterman was last open.

The small, three-chair ski resort in the San Gabriel Mountains, roughly an hour from La Cañada Flintridge, hasn’t had enough snow coverage for two winters in a row. Other SoCal resorts, like Mountain High or Bear Mountain, fire up snowmaking machines to offset their lack of the natural stuff, but Mount Waterman’s co-owners, brothers Rick and Brien Metcalf, are still working on acquiring snowmakers. That leaves their family business wholly dependent on the often fickle Southern California winter.

Yet every December since 2006, the Metcalfs make weekend treks from San Diego to Los Angeles to prepare their resort for a ski season that may never come.

On a recent Friday evening, the owners’ sister, Beth Metcalf, 45, works alone at the Mount Waterman booth at Ski Dazzle, an annual ski and snowboard consumer event at the Los Angeles Convention Center. She passes out lift maps, fliers and assurances to more than a few people that the mountain will finally be open this year.

“This is all professional, corporate money,” she says with a wry smile, gesturing at the other resort booths around hers. Snow Summit’s booth is modeled to look like the interior of a cabin — complete with a fireplace and a flat-screen TV. The massive Mammoth Lakes Pavilion (nope, not a booth — it’s a “pavilion” of booths) boasts stubby pine trees sprinkled with fake snow, and a lone chairlift with a mountain backdrop set up for photos — “#MammothStories” is printed on the backdrop in a large, snowy font.

In contrast, “This is family-run and oh-my-God-how-fun-is-this,” she says, pointing to the compact Waterman booth. Its backdrop proclaims that Waterman is “L.A.’s Closest Ski Area.” This year the Metcalfs brought in a strip of artificial grass for mini-golf; they’re also holding a raffle. The winners receive lift tickets, cups and pens featuring the Waterman logo — a cartoon skier, which Beth calls “cocktail napkin art,” doodled years ago by one of the Newcombs, the family that originally opened Mount Waterman to the public back in the late 1930s.

Beth works the ticket booth at Waterman and helps manage the employees when it’s open. “The last two years we’ve heard, ‘It’s not going to be a good year,’ but this year we’ll be good to go,” she says confidently.

The Metcalf siblings all live in San Diego (all three work in real estate), but they grew up in La Cañada Flintridge, and often went to Waterman on junior high school field trips — though Rick Metcalf was the only dedicated skier of the three.

Even at that point, the mountain was already a long-standing La Cañada winter hangout. Lynn Newcomb Sr. opened the first rope tow on Waterman in 1939. His son, Lynn Newcomb Jr., helped build the first chairlift, which some believe is the first in California, in 1942. On opening day, the lift broke, and skiers had to jump from their chairs.

Craig Stewart, an investor and longtime Waterman skier, shows up to help Beth with the booth. He says, “The story is that Lynn was working on the chair when they bombed Pearl Harbor.” Newcomb Jr. went on to join the Army Air Forces during World War II. “That man did not have soft hands,” Stewart says.

Rick Metcalf, 50, arrives fashionably late, a boulder of a man with thinning gray hair, sporting a dark black Mount Waterman shirt. He says he’d been playing golf with people from Caltrans, trying to woo them into ensuring that Waterman’s lifeline, the winding Angeles Crest Highway, stays open for the winter.

Check out the rest of the article over on LAWeekly.com. Hope you like it!

Why Audiobooks Aren’t The Devil

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When it comes to ongoing debates with my girlfriend, there are only two hotly contested issues that come to mind:

1) I’ve told her that Godzilla is a hermaphrodite, but she doesn’t believe me. Even though Matthew Broderick said so. And the Chicago Tribune did too. But still she doesn’t believe me (or Bueller). I don’t feel strongly enough about it to make her watch all those Godzilla movies, so I have a feeling this issue isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon. Alas, on to the next one…

2) She doesn’t care for audiobooks. Every time I play one in the car, she cringes. She tells me to change the radio. Play anything, she says, even country.

I must, I must, change her thoughts on this.

Let’s clear something up before I find myself strung up from my ceiling fan with piano wire: My girlfriend is extremely well-read. She read Lord of the Rings in middle school. And I still haven’t gotten around to it (I know, I know). Out of the two of us, she’s the one who picks up on the latest and greatest comics books. And she reads. A lot. And we read most of the same books too. So there.

But there’s one thing that we disagree on vehemently: the true value of audiobooks.

For me, I’m a fervent believer in taking in your literature via headphones and/or car speakers. It adds a different dimension to the experience, for one, and if a story is really good (and I mean really good), there’s nothing better than cruising along the freeway at a good 65 mph and just fading out and falling into the words. You catch small, hard to miss details when a narrator drags it forth to your attention, thus giving you a different reading experience than whatever you might’ve had on your own. In short, you could read a book, and then listen to it on tape, and have two completely different reading experiences. Isn’t that honestly worth something?

(Hell, Stephen King is on the same page, so that’s got to mean something too.)

But my girlfriend looks at literature as a private experience. The narrator’s voice is her own—or at least one that she’s created herself—and she also creates a distinct voice for each character. She values that tremendously, and unfortunately, that’s something that’s taken away when you listen to a story on tape.

And sure, maybe this is all my doing: Her first introduction to audiobooks was the first Game of Thrones novel during our drive up to Big Sur. She’s already read the first four books, and hearing Roy Dotrice voice every single damn character (I think he held a Guinness World Record for that in 2004) threw her off a bit.

But reading is reading. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter how you digest the story, you’re still reading and that’s all that matters. So, with that said, I’m going to push her on this. I think the next book I’m going to try with her will be World War Z—she hasn’t read it, and voice-acting cast is brilliant (Mark Hamill is on there. The Joker and Luke rolled up into one gravelly voice!)

There’s no way she can resist that one.

A Little Art Goes a Long Way: Paintings That Push My Buttons (in a Good Way)

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Sometimes, I need a little extra “umph” to get my creative juices flowing. I could be working on a new nonfiction assignment, or could I be working on an ongoing fiction piece–either way, I need a little “fun” injected into my work, and music or candy-binging or Xbox-marathons just aren’t cutting the proverbial honey mustard. So what do I do?

Well, I look at art.

Confession time: I’m not some closet art historian. I like art. But I’m not a snob: If you and I were to take a little afternoon trip to the local art museum (and maybe share a cheese plate and a bottle of wine afterwards if you play your cards right), I wouldn’t lecture you on whatever we were seeing. I’d stop and read all of the info cards. I’d ask questions. I’d bother the security guards and ask them for their opinions (despite the annoyed glares they’d probably give me–security guards are paid to protect art, not learn about it). Then I’d buy one of those guide books in the museum store on our way out so I could learn all of the facts and on the drive home–and only on the drive home–would I chew your ear off as I talked about everything we saw. But just because I don’t know much about art, doesn’t mean I don’t respect everything that goes into it. And so, oftentimes, when I’ve hit a creative road block, I find myself cruising Google Images for classic pieces of art to admire and learn about.

Most of the time I come up empty-handed (or some how end up on Imgur). But other times I hit a total jackpot, and I discover some piece (well, they’re new to me at least) that really poke all of my creative buttons. For instance, the piece above is one that I stumbled upon a while back: It’s by Francisco Goya, and it’s titled, The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. Wikipedia says that the piece represents Goya’s opinion on the corrupt nature of Spanish society during the 18th century. (And now you’ve learned something today, huh? Unless you’re an art history major… and if that’s the case, good for you, your major finally came in handy for once.)

And with that said, here are few art pieces that I really enjoy. They’re a total mix too: Some famous and dark, some obscure, and some are just totally fun:

3039935-batman_villains_022 I thought I’d start this off with a light-hearted tone: This panel is from The Long Halloween, which is a Batman comic written by Jim Loeb. The art’s courtesy of Tim Sale, and while most comic book art doesn’t really hit me too hard, the work on display in The Long Halloween is an exception: Seeing every Batman villain in a single room, each one more menacing than the last (with a partially obscured villain in the background–guess who?), brings on a rush of anxious adolescent fear that I rarely experience anymore.

Trench Warfare

This is called The Trench Warfare, by Otto Dix (1932). Dix was a veteran of the German Army, and he served during World War I. This piece, in my opinion, is only comparable to All Quiet on The Western Front in terms of properly capturing the horrors of static warfare.

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Howard Pyle’s Marooned doesn’t need much explaining. This particular pirate is lost and completely alone, and there are few other paintings that have ever pushed me to feel so very lonely.

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Dean Ellis did this painting for Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. I don’t know much about it, but I love its seriousness.

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This painting, another one by Francisco Goya, is titled The Dog. From what I dug up on the Web, Goya never meant for it to be shown publicly (it was painted on one of the walls in his home). To say it’s depressing is an understatement–from the viewer’s perspective, the dog is  in the midst of being swallowed up by a dark mass of sorts, and there’s little hope that the animal will live. But I included this piece because it stirs something in me (I don’t really know what, honestly, but it’s dark in its origins) and I hope it does the same for you.

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Goya’s a little bit of a downer, so I thought I’d send some Degas your way to end on a good note: The above piece is titled The Star (Dancer on Stage). I know very little about it, but I appreciate Degas’ sense of movement, and his ability capture the dancer’s grace, as well as the innate sense of light that she brings to the stage. And there you have it. Those are just a few paintings that I enjoy checking out when I feel like I need a little creative boost. Are there any pieces that you enjoy in particular? Post some suggestions in the comments section below! Also, and just for a little added fun, here’s a painting of a T-Rex with a lightsaber by Sam Nielson. Why? Because why not?

SNielson_DarthRex

Happy Thanksgiving from Lightsabers and Surfboards (and me)

Happy Turkey Day, everybody! I have a lot to be thankful for this year, but instead of berating you with every item on my list (I’m going to do that later at the dinner table in front of all my family; moreover, I will be slightly shammered and yelling in my happiest, most Thanksgiving-iest tone of voice too) I thought I would post two treasures that I found on Imgur this morning.

Once again, Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

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My Essay for LMU Magazine: Why Word Balloons Matter Today

When Joe Wakelee-Lynch, the editor of LMU Magazine (the utterly awesome mag of my alma mater, Loyola Marymount University), asked me to write a piece on why comic books matter as an art, I said, “Abso-fricken-lutely!” or something equally professional like that. The average reader, in my opinion, should look upon comics not only as a vital visual medium, but also as an important literary medium, as well. So whenever I’m asked to defend them, I’m always eager to accept the challenge and toss out a few words. Check out my essay below:

I’m a writer, so I read. And I read quite a bit.

I guess that’s kind of a given for a writer. But I also read because, honestly, I like to, and because reading helps me become a better writer. The key is reading: exciting tales, engrossing yarns, great stories — the kinds that keep you up at night. And when it comes to fresh, original and moving stories, comic books and graphic novels have them in spades.

Artwork by Ward Sutton

Artwork by Ward Sutton

For most people — including writers — if a story is told via cartoon panels and speech bubbles, it’s branded as childish, immature. If an author wants to tell a serious story of the literary variety, it’s best to keep the print tiny, the paragraphs long and the setting mundane. Admittedly, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s important to remember that the medium used to tell a story doesn’t denote the quality of a story.

Take “Maus,” for example, by Art Spiegelman. In his graphic novel, Spiegelman interviews his father, a Polish Jew, about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. But the twist is that all of the people are depicted as cartoonish animals: Jews are mice and Germans are cats. It’s serious subject matter, but by juxtaposing grim events and illustrations associated with children, the content becomes all the more unsettling and visceral.

Graphic novels — and their smaller-page-count brethren, comic books — deal with weighty, but ultimately human, stories.

“Saga,” by Brian K. Vaughan, tells the story of two soldiers, each from different warring factions in an interstellar conflict, who marry, have a child and spend the entire series trying to outrun the war. The sci-fi setting serves as framework for a story about a couple raising their first child and dealing with the frustrations, arguments, scares and wonders that newlyweds and new parents experience day in and day out.

Then there’s “DMZ” by Brian Wood: A young photojournalist documents the Second American Civil War from New York City, which has been declared a demilitarized zone and where suicide bombings, civilian massacres and shoddy journalism run rampant. Wood takes our nation’s post-9/11 fears and the conflict in Iraq, mixes everything together, and drops the concoction right in a battle-scarred Times Square.

“Sandman,” by Neil Gaiman, revolves around an immortal character named Dream, who rules his realm, the world of dreams, nightmares and waking fantasies, and thereby shapes reality. “Fables,” by Bill Willingham, depicts classic fable characters as living in a New York City apartment complex, trying to blend in with us “mundys.” Each character is modernly human: Snow White and Prince Charming are divorced (infidelity on Charming’s part), Cinderella runs a failing small business (a shoe store), and Pinocchio copes (poorly) with never actually hitting puberty.

Classic comic book heroes are human, too. In Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” a retired Batman is forced to confront aging and an addiction to vigilantism. In the recent renditions of two DC Comics’ standbys, main characters are gay: Alan Scott, whose alter ego is the Green Lantern, and Kate Kane, Batwoman. Comic book heroes are strong and independent, and represent all walks of life — these are characters that we can not only relate to, but look up to as well.

Great comics and graphic novels deal with approachable stories. Simply because
a story is told using illustrated panels doesn’t mean the subject is any less serious or relatable. From “The Dark Knight” to “Maus,” these are moving, emotional stories that help explain who we are as people. And isn’t that the point of literature to begin with?

If you missed his link above, check out Ward Sutton’s site to see more of his stellar artwork.

Off to Mexico and My Spanish is Subpar

And once again, I’m back on the road.

But this time, instead of driving 200-something miles north, I’m flying some 1,500 miles south to my cousin’s wedding in Puerta Vallarta. It’ll be fun too: It’s a genuine Mexican wedding, which means there will be music, food and a steady supply of booze made readily available until the wee hours of the morning—even my aunt (who’s in her early 80s) still drinks. Last time I saw her, we shared a bottle of Baileys together, and somehow I was the one who ended up a little sloshed. Which means one of two things: My 80-something aunt can still drink like a sailor on shore leave or I have the alcohol tolerance of a field mouse that doesn’t like confrontation. I feel a little torn here.

On a separate point, I also feel like I should clarify my previous paragraph a bit… no, no, not the part about my aunt… I’m talking about the “Mexican” nature of the wedding. You see: it’s a bona-fide Mexican wedding because everyone in the wedding is, in fact, Mexican—the whole venue will be chock-full with mi familia, and there will be more tias, and tios, and primos than I can count.

Which also means, that yes, I’m also Mexican.

Well, only half, actually: My father is from Cleveland, Ohio. (Diversity’s always a good thing.)

Anyway, for reasons that are beyond my control, I will be traveling alone to this wedding, which isn’t a bad thing. My family down there is very friendly—and they drink, too, so the friendly factor always goes up a notch at these kinds of events.

However, and this brings me to the heart of the matter, this particular wedding presents a unique linguistic challenge for me. Despite being a writer that… uh, deals in words of the English variety all day long, my ability to speak other languages is rather minimal.

In short, my Spanish is terrible.

It’s something that’s embarrassed me in the past, actually. I’d like to be better at it (my mother is from Mexico, after all), but I’ve never really practiced. My mom isn’t exactly the most easy-going of Spanish teachers—it’s not her fault; she has that Spinal Tap “it goes up to eleven” sort of energy level and she has some difficulty being patient—and my extended family doesn’t believe in the phrase, “mas despacio, por favor.” And, yes, I did take Spanish in high school and college, but it didn’t really stick: Star Wars trivia and comic book info replaced most of it, unfortunately.

So, here I am, on the day before I leave for Mexico, and I’m faced with the issue of not having the best grasp on the local language.

I ask you, Denizens of the Internet, what sort of advice do you have for me on being more confident with my Spanish? I have some basic knowledge, but when it comes to the nitty-gritty everyday stuff, I’m a little lost.

I’ve made a promise to myself to try to speak with my aunts, uncles and cousins in Spanish a bit more (no one really speaks English and I need to be social on an occasion like this), but does anyone have any advice on carrying that out? Should I listen to Spanish music on the way down there? Should I watch Sábado Gigante on YouTube? Does anyone know what to do? Anyone? Bueller?

I’d appreciate any and all help that you can offer. I’m looking forward to the trip, and I’m eager to learn a little more Spanish. Wish me luck!