Archive for the ‘Aimless Riffing’ category

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Triskaidekaphobia Edition

November 24, 2016

Welcome to the thirteenth installment in my annual outpouring of gratitude. Each Thanksgiving since 2004, I’ve devoted this space to a reflection on some of the many people, places, and things that have graced my life. Because counting my blessings can become an infinite task once I get started, I’ve developed the device of choosing 26 representative items — one for each letter of the English alphabet — to stand as testament to the overwhelming abundance that I can only begin to address.

Without further ceremony, here are the things I’m thankful for on Thanksgiving 2016.

Antenna International. If you’ve ever toured a museum or other public attraction and used the audio guide, you’ve heard the work of this fine company, which specializes in the production of said audio guides. I recently had the privilege of narrating Antenna’s audio guide to Vikings: Beyond the Legend, an exhibition currently on display at the Cincinnati Museum Center. If you’re in southwest Ohio or the vicinity, go check it out.

Beef Jerky Store. A highlight of my annual trip to Las Vegas is a pilgrimage to this downtown establishment adjacent to the Fremont Street Experience, where I load up my suitcase with tasty snacks. When I was a keiki (that’s “child” to your mainlanders) in Hawaii, we called a place like this a crack seed store — “crack seed” being the Hawaiian term for various kinds of dried fruits, nuts, and other dehydrated edibles. Visiting the Beef Jerky Store takes me back to those long-ago childhood days.

Comixology. This year, I officially transitioned my comic book reading from paper to digital. Comixology is the app for that. (It’s been an adjustment, but I’m resolute.)

DubNation. What a year we’ve had as Golden State Warriors fans! Our team set an NBA record for success with an unprecedented 73-9 record; missed repeating as world champions by an eyelash; then in the offseason added Kevin Durant, one of the greatest players in the game, to a roster that already featured three superstars in two-time MVP Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. After decades of wallowing in mediocrity and worse, it’s a grand time to be a citizen of DubNation.

Evernote. I don’t know where I’d be without this app. Certainly dinners at our house would be far less interesting, because Evernote is where all of my recipes reside.

Family. As always, I’m grateful more than anything for those who love me most — the Pirate Queen, The Daughter, Grandma, Studio Assistant Tazz, and KJ, whose memory lives forever in heart and spirit. My extended ohana also includes numerous friends and connections, both nearby and far away.

Graboids. That’s our household nickname for reach tools. They come in handy for picking up dog toys and other items that middle-aged backs and knees hate bending for.

Hillary Clinton. The election didn’t go her way, but I’m still proud that she earned my vote.

Inkwell Awards. Founded by longtime comic book inker Bob Almond, the Inkwells annually acknowledge some of the most important — but least heralded — artists in the field.

Juice. Because who doesn’t love juice? Make mine cranberry.

Kamala Harris. California’s attorney general will make an outstanding impact as our new junior Senator. I was honored to voice several of Ms. Harris’s campaign ads this season. I don’t think she got elected because of my work, but I’m not saying I didn’t help a little. Maybe.

Luke Cage. Just when you think that Marvel Studios and Netflix couldn’t possibly outdo themselves after the stellar Jessica Jones, they follow up with a series that takes street-level superheroics up yet another notch. Terrific performances by Mahershala Ali, Simone Missick, Alfre Woodard, Rosario Dawson, and Mike Colter as the titular Power Man made this a must-binge.

Mcusta. Two of the most attractive specimens in my folding knife collection come from this Seki City, Japan bladeworks. I could admire my Mcusta Katana and Tactility all day long. Some days, I do.

NewPark 12. The glorious IMAX theater in our new local multiplex even enthused the Pirate Queen — generally not a fan of the cinema experience — about going out to the movies. It’s the first time I ever sat in a theater seat that I wanted to take home to my living room after the film ended.

OtterBox. I dropped and shattered my iPhone this summer. (Thanks, AT&T, for the speedy and relatively hassle-free replacement.) The sturdy case on my new device will, one hopes, prevent future mishaps of a similar nature.

President Barack Obama. Thank you, Mr. President, for eight years of honorable service. I truly believe that history will be far more kind to your legacy than the obstructionist Congress of your second term has been.

Quatermass and the Pit. One of my all-time favorite weird sci-fi classics. You’ve probably seen it here in the U.S. under the title Five Million Years to Earth. Basically, we’re all the descendants of giant grasshoppers from Mars.

Ray’s Crab Shack. A local spot serving up mass quantities of delicious seafood. Don your plastic bib, glove up, and get your crustacean on.

Steely Dan. Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you, my friend, that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen got me through college, and many melancholy hours since. There are 66 songs on the Dan’s seven classic-period albums (beginning with Can’t Buy a Thrill and concluding with Gaucho), and not a single one of them sucks. I don’t know any other musical act about whom I can make that statement. 1977’s Aja ranks as one of the finest albums in the history of recorded music.

Treebeard. In my studio-office stands a gnarled walking stick that I acquired at a Renaissance Faire many, many years ago. It’s outfitted with a wrapped leather hand grip and bears the carved face of a bewhiskered wizard at its head. I call it Treebeard. I believe there may be magic in it.

Universal Studios Hollywood. I spent a week there early this year, as an alternate contestant for a TV quiz show that ended up not requiring my services. But I got to stay in a nice hotel, tour a theme park, preview the then-unopened-to-the-public Harry Potter attraction, see a couple of movies, hang out for two days in the soundstage where The Voice is taped, and make several cool new friends — all at a TV production company’s expense. You could have a worse vacation.

Van Jones. The CNN commentator kept it real in the midst of insanity on Election Night 2016. Thanks for eloquently saying what many of us were thinking, Mr. Jones.

Waimea Canyon. As has been frequently noted in this space, I spent a goodly chunk of my childhood in Hawaii. Until this spring, however, I’d never visited the island of Kauai. If you’ve never stood on the edge of “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” you owe it to yourself to get there at least once before you die. (Going after you die probably won’t have the same effect.)

Xenozoic. Mark Schultz’s sumptuous adventure comic — best known to non-aficionados as the source material for the fondly remembered animated series Cadillacs and Dinosaurs — remains a classic of the medium. The collected omnibus volume is the closest book to my desk on my office-studio bookshelf.

Yoda. “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” Live by these words, should you.

Zuckerberg. Thanks for keeping the Pirate Queen gainfully employed for the past year, Mark.

I am eternally grateful to you, friend reader, for your ongoing support of these random ramblings. May your life overflow with reasons to give thanks.

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Now 100% Punkin Chunkin Free!

November 26, 2015

Here’s something I’m not thankful for this Thanksgiving: Punkin Chunkin, a staple of my Turkey Day TV viewing, was canceled for the second consecutive year. Some silly folderol about liability or some such foolishness cost the annual event, which involves people hurling pumpkins incredible distances using homemade machines straight out of the Rube Goldberg instruction manual, its venue, and organizers haven’t been able to locate another suitable site.

The bottom line is that some lawyers are making a pot of money arguing, and I’m denied my Punkin Chunkin.

Anyway… I still have plenty else to be grateful for on this Thanksgiving Day 2015. Therefore, as has been my tradition in this space since 2004, I’ve made an alphabetical list sampling 26 of the thousands of people, places, and things that make my life worth living.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for:

Adele. The British songstress released her first new album in four years this past week, and it’s as lovely and haunting and emotionally riveting as anything she’s done before.

Bruce Lee. My boyhood hero would be celebrating his 75th birthday tomorrow, had he not been taken from us far too soon way back in 1973. Lee was the only movie star whose poster hung on my bedroom wall amid the Star Trek glossies, comic book cutouts, and Runaways album covers throughout my teenage years. Enter the Dragon remains the one film to which I can turn off the sound and voice every line of dialogue. (At least, I used to be able to do that. I haven’t tested myself in a few years.) Rest in peace, Little Dragon.

Clients. Here’s a shout-out to the folks who buy the skills and pay the bills. I’ve worked with and for some really cool people this past year. I hope they — and many others — will continue to hire me. Please.

Dumbarton Bridge. The least famous, and by far the least sexy, of the San Francisco Bay’s crossings, it’s about to become critically important to us because we’re moving within a stone’s throw of its eastern anchorage. The Pirate Queen starts a new job on December 1, and her daily commute will span the Dumbarton. Although, when she’s on it, it will immediately transform into the Smartbarton.

Education. I’m a firm believer that when you stop learning, your brain dies. And you start voting for Donald Trump.

Ferrett Steinmetz. The Ferrett, as he likes to be known, was one of the first bloggers I followed on a regular basis. This year, I got to meet him in person, as he toured the country promoting his first science fiction novel, Flex. Its sequel, The Flux, came out last month.

Grilled lobster tails. If I were writing the menu for my last meal on Earth, I’d start with a few of these, served with Cajun spiced garlic butter. You know you want some.

Houses. For the second year in a row, the Pirate Queen and I find ourselves (for the moment, at least) with two — one we’re moving out of, and another we’re moving into. The new one closed escrow on the Pirate Queen’s birthday. I’m grateful every day to have a roof over my head when so many people have none.

Idina Menzel. Because someone who knows how to say her name correctly should be thankful for the former Mrs. Taye Diggs. We’re seeing her in person Saturday evening in the road company of If/Then. It would probably be too much to ask for her to just throw in a random chorus of “Defying Gravity,” just because I love that song, and her voice on it.

Jessica Jones. I just finished the final episode of Marvel’s latest Netflix series yesterday. As good as I’d hoped the show would be, it exceeded my expectations by a Hell’s Kitchen block. Krysten Ritter, who’d never really impressed me in anything before, absolutely crushes the role of the downbeat ex-superheroine-turned-private-eye. And her chemistry with Mike Colter as the unbreakable Luke Cage flat-out sizzles. I’m already salivating in anticipation of the Cage series.

KM, for being the greatest Daughter any dad could wish for, and to the memory of her mom, KJ, for all of the shared history.

Lucille, the legendary axe of pioneering blues guitarist B.B. King, lost her master this past May. The thrill indeed is gone.

Masterpiece, the PBS vehicle by which Downton Abbey comes to us Yanks. Downton‘s final season premieres here in the States in January. I’m sure going to miss the Crawley clan.

NBA Championship, won this year for the first time in 40 seasons by my beloved Golden State Warriors. Given that they’ve begun the sequel season on a 16-0 run thus far, I have high hopes that the Dubs might bring a second Larry O’Brien Trophy home to the Bay. To Steph, Klay, Draymond, Bogues, Barnes, Iggy, Mo Buckets, Shawn, Festus, and the rest of the dudes in blue (slate on Saturdays): Thanks for all the thrills. You make DubNation proud.

Oysters. Because delicious.

Panama hats. I have a nice one from Goorin Brothers for sunny East Bay days.

Quizzing. Whether it’s my nightly session of LearnedLeague, or my annual trip to Las Vegas for the Trivia Championships of North America (that’s TCONA to you), or teaming up with a couple of buds at the Project READ Trivia Bee (a hard-fought second place this fall, behind the team we narrowly bested to win last year), quizzing is my jam.

Rush. As Geddy Lee once wailed in his inimitable helium-on-steroids voice: If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

Slippers. Or sleepahs, as we say in Hawaii. Without something on my feet, I might fall down. Nobody wants to see that.

Tsunami Brainz. Did I mention that my improv troupe had a name, at long last? We do, and Tsunami Brainz is it. We’re gearing up for our first show, possibly in January.

Us — the Pirate Queen, the Studio Assistant, and me. I am thankful every day for our little family. I feel the love in the room.

VocalBooth. My gorgeous new-to-me workspace is a Diamond Series Platinum Edition. I’m still getting used to its finer points and tweaking the acoustics, but it’s an amazing place to play.

Waikiki. The Pirate Queen and I spent a week in March in my childhood home, and enjoyed a fantastic time touring, beaching, dining, shopping, and just relaxing. I often forget how much I miss Hawaii until I’m there.

Xi, the Greek letter for which there is no direct equivalent in our Latin alphabet. Not to be confused with the letter chi, which corresponds to our X.

Yukon Outfitters. I own several of their Tactical series carry bags. They make excellent stuff to put your stuff in.

Zillow. When you need to find a new house quickly — as we just experienced such a need — it’s the place to look. I found our new place in a single search session.

As always, friend reader, I am also thankful for you. May you and those you love enjoy a thoughtful and festive Thanksgiving. And stay home tomorrow, for pity’s sake.

Comic Art Friday: The ineffable WHY

May 9, 2014

Saturn Girl, pencils by comics artist Paul Abrams

It’s always the most difficult question to answer…

WHY?

And yet, it’s the question that shapes so many of our thoughts, impulses, and actions. Even when we don’t know the answer.

On my iPad, I use a news aggregator called Zite. (I probably won’t be using it for much longer, because a couple of months ago, Zite was purchased by its competitor Flipboard, which will probably extinguish its new acquisition sometime in the near future.)

Here’s how Zite works: It serves up a smorgasbord of links to articles from around the Internet – articles it believes you will want to read, based on your stated interests. For each article that appears, you have the option of giving a “thumbs up,” meaning “show me more articles like this,” or “thumbs down,” which of course means the opposite. The aggregator internalizes that information, and adjusts its future selections according to what you’ve indicated that you liked or didn’t like.

On the whole, Zite performs this function relatively well – which is, of course, why a competitor bought it. But there’s an inherent weakness in its processing…

Zite never knows WHY.

Let’s take a random article from my current Zite feed: “Apple Reportedly Acquiring Beats for $3.2 Billion.” Now suppose I gave this article a “thumbs up.” Zite, in its uniquely algorithmic way, would think, “Aha! He likes this! Let’s send him more stuff just like it!”

But how does it know what to send? It has no idea why I “liked” this particular article.

Here’s a list of some of the hypothetical reasons I might have given this a “thumbs up,” just off the top of my head:

  •  I’m an Apple stockholder, so I’m materially interested in news about the company.
  • I use Beats headphones, so I want to know whether the events described in this article will impact my ability to keep buying and using this product.
  • I’m a fan of Dr. Dre, the co-founder of Beats, so I like knowing what the good Doctor is up to.
  • I’m a gadgetoholic, and I devour anything tech related.
  • I’m a professional musician, so the future of streaming media directly impacts my livelihood. (One of the reasons it’s thought that Apple wanted to buy Beats is because Apple covets Beats’s new streaming music service.)
  • I like the site The Next Web, where this article is published.
  • Josh Ong, the author of the article, was a college buddy of mine, so I want to read everything he writes.

These are but a few of the possible reasons I might flag this article positively. I could probably come up with a dozen more if I kept pondering the matter. But the point is that Zite has no way of knowing which of these – or which several of them, or perhaps even none of them – is my real reason. (None of the above is true for me, incidentally. Okay, I might be a bit of a gadgetoholic. But not enough to care about Beats.)

Now, based on its interpretation of my feedback, Zite might show me more articles about Apple, about Beats headphones, about technology, about Dr. Dre, about streaming media, published by The Next Web, or written by the author of this article.

Or it might send me articles that meet any or all of these criteria, since it doesn’t really know which answer is correct, and it wants to cover all possible bases.

Which could mean that, instead of me getting more content that I want to read, I could conceivably be overwhelmed by a tsunami of content that doesn’t address my real interests.

All because Zite doesn’t know WHY.

This is the same issue that continually befouls Facebook’s ridiculous attempts to manage what posts – and what advertising – I as a Facebook user see. If I “like” something, Facebook’s algorithms will decide to show me more of what I “like.” But since Facebook hasn’t a clue WHY I “liked” that item, it could be making horrendously incorrect assumptions about my preferences, and therefore choosing to present content that I don’t care to see, while at the same time hiding from me content that would genuinely interest me, had I the opportunity to view it.

Which is, by the way, what almost always happens.

All because Facebook doesn’t know WHY.

This problem isn’t limited to our online apps and tools. We encounter this same roadblock in all manner of human interaction. Every moment we’re around other people – in the real world or in cyberspace – we take note of the words they speak or write, and the actions they manifest, and make judgments based thereon. But because we have such a hard time evaluating WHY people say what they say and do what they do, we often misjudge each other.

Complicating the problem is this…

We don’t always know WHY, even when the subject is ourselves.

I’m reminded of a story a friend once told. When he and his younger brother were preteens, their father severely chastised the younger brother for jumping up and down on his bed – risking his own safety and the structural integrity of the bed. The father made it clear that harsh punishment would ensue if the younger brother got caught jumping on the bed again.

Moments after the father left the room, the younger brother resumed his trampoline act. “Didn’t you hear what Dad just said? He’s gonna tan your hide!” whispered my panicked friend. “Why are you doing what he just told you not to do?”

The brother continued pogoing for a minute. Then, without stopping, he replied in mid-bounce, “I don’t know.”

We’ve all been that younger brother.

Inquiring minds want to know: What does any of this have to do with comic art?

Perhaps not much.

But then, there’s this.

When I post a piece of art from my collection here, or when you peruse my online galleries if you’re so inclined, you might make any number of assumptions based on that piece or group of pieces. You might theorize several reasons why I commissioned or purchased that artwork – could be the subject; could be the artist; could be that the scenario depicted holds some personal meaning for me; could be all of the above; could be any number of things.

Unless I tell you, you’ll never know for sure WHY.

Sometimes, I might not know WHY myself.

As for today’s featured artwork: That’s Saturn Girl, from the Legion of Super-Heroes, as drawn by the talented Paul Abrams.

No big WHY here… I just kind of like it.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

TCONA 3: Most of my pursuits are trivial

August 16, 2013

I just flew in from Las Vegas, and boy, is my brain tired.

Actually, the Pirate Queen and I flew back from Bright Light City two days ago, and I’m mostly not tired any more. I’d headed to Vegas last weekend for the third annual Trivia Championships of North America — henceforth, TCONA, or I’ll be typing all day. The Pirate Queen joined me on Sunday following the festivities, and we spent a blissful three days checking out the sights and sounds of one of my favorite vacation destinations.

But let’s talk TCONA.

What began two summers ago as a largely informal gathering of game show champions, Quiz Bowl veterans, and pub quiz mavens has ballooned in this third installment into a real live media event. Not only were crews from two nationally televised game shows — NBC’s Million Second Quiz, and The Chase, GSN’s new Stateside version of the UK hit — on site to conduct in-person auditions, but the stars of both the US and UK editions of The Chase also participated in several of the weekend’s competitions. The Experts, easily the best weekly quiz program on YouTube, taped four episodes before a live audience. And of course, there was in attendance the usual assortment of trivia geeks from all over the continent, and beyond. (I met at least one fellow who’d come all the way from Sweden. Or maybe Norway. Somewhere in Scandinavia, anyway.)

A summary of one attendee’s highlights follows.

The weekend commenced on Friday morning with a multi-part written quiz. This opening salvo serves not only to start the neurons firing, but also to provide an initial gauge of one’s level among the competitors. My first thought after completing the test was that I should have ingested more coffee before we began. I was relatively pleased, once the scores were published later that day, to discover that I hadn’t fared as poorly as I feared, and in fact, I’d outpointed several folks whose names are far better known in the trivia world than my own. With another triple latte in my system, I might have performed even better.

One of TCONA’s primary individual events is 5×5, a buzzer battle whose gameplay bears distant similarity to a certain television quiz program with which I am intimately acquainted. Despite the aforementioned acquaintance, I never seem to do very well at 5×5, and this year’s contest was no exception. I lost my first match thanks to a foolishly aggressive final wager — I was leading up to that point — on a question about Celebrity Apprentice, a program with which I am clearly not as intimately acquainted as I thought. I was never a factor in my second game, and thus lost any hope of advancing to further rounds.

I had high expectations for myself in another individual event, LearnedLeague Live. At TCONA 1, I won my first round against seven other competitors, despite never having played the game before. Last year, I held my own at an eight-player table that included several seasoned LearnedLeague veterans; I didn’t win the table, but I felt that I acquitted myself decently. This year, I made the critical error of playing at a table featuring two of the greatest (and two of my favorite) players in Jeopardy! history, Jerome Vered and Dan Melia. Note to self: Next year, instead of sitting with people you like, sit with people you might stand a chance of beating. Assuming there are any.

For the main team event, Quiz Bowl, I reconnected with two other members of last TCONA’s silver-medal-winning squad for a run at fresh hardware. Our team captain, Dave Legler, who once bagged $1.7 million on the game show Twenty-One, recruited as our fourth player a trivia host from Chicago, Jeremy Cahnmann. Combine that with our not-so-secret weapon, Jonathan Hess, a soft-spoken grad student from South Carolina who knows more arcane information than I’ve forgotten — and I’ve forgotten a lot over the years — and little old me (you remember that I’ve won eight games on that TV quiz show with the Canadian ex-pat, right?), and we liked our chances going in. We galloped off to a tremendous start, going undefeated in our first three games and winning our four-team bracket. Then, in our first elimination match, we ran into a tough crew led by Anne Hegerty, one of the “chasers” on the original British version of The Chase. As coincidence would have it, the game commenced with a battery of Anglocentric material that Anne leaped all over like a wolf attacking a Porterhouse. Our side rallied, though, making up ground furiously as the game progressed, only to lose in the end by the value of a single question. It was a hard loss to stomach… but there’s always next year.

Luckily for me, redemption came in the other team event, the Pub Quiz Mashup. Another Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions veteran, Dr. Shane Whitlock, invited me to team up with him and his charming bride. We added three other players to fill our roster, which Shane dubbed (in the time-honored pub quiz tradition of quirky team names) “Natalie Portmanteau.” After seven often-hilarious rounds of play, we walked away with the silver medal. Except… well… we didn’t exactly. An apparent scoring error, uncovered between the end of the event and the medal presentation the following day, resulted in our being bumped from second place to third. So we got the bronze medal instead of the silver. I don’t care — it started out silver, and I’m sticking to that. It’ll always be silver to me.

Having the two hottest new game shows in television making their first TCONA appearances generated considerable buzz. Both Mark “The Beast” Labbett, the “chaser” on the US version of The Chase, and the show’s producer came in for Q&A sessions. (Not only is Mark a smart fellow, he’s also ginormous. They don’t call him The Beast for nothing.) Quite a few folks auditioned for Million Second Quiz; it’ll be interesting to watch the show and see how many people I know who made the final cut.

Speaking of game shows, if you aren’t already watching The Experts every Monday (or whenever you choose — it’s on YouTube, so tune in when it suits you, but the new eps post on Mondays), you should be, doggone it. Produced by my Jeopardy! colleague Alan Bailey, it’s consistently as entertaining a 20 minutes as you’ll spend. Alan and his crew shot four new games on Saturday night, including an all-star slugfest between The Chase‘s Anne Hegerty (whose subject specialty was Terry Pratchett’s Discworld) and Jeopardy! superstars Brad Rutter and Roger Craig (experts on Mad Men and Prince, respectively). All four games offered action, suspense, brain-shredding trivia superiority by the contestants, and abundant joviality for all. I won’t spoil the outcomes for you — you’ll just have to hie yourself over to YouTube when the new shows post, and check them out for yourself.

There were, as usual, plenty of ancillary events in and around all of the above. Quiz hosts and trivia producers from all over North America bring their favorite material and stage impromptu games throughout the weekend, which anyone can drop into and play. TCONA is also the home of the World Championship of Kno’dgeball, an amusing yet bizarre hybrid of trivia and dodgeball. (Your Uncle Swan declines participation in the latter, preferring not to combine mental challenge with risk of bodily injury. But the Kno’dgeballers do seem to enjoy themselves.)

Of course, TCONA’s most memorable highlights are always the connections and reconnections with my fellow trivia mavens. TCONA is the one place each year where I run into some of the many amazing people I’ve met via Jeopardy! — Bob Harris, Roger Craig, Brad Rutter, Steve Chernicoff, Dan Melia, Shane Whitlock, Alan Bailey, Jerome Vered, and I’m probably forgetting others, for which I’ll apologize in advance. (Yes, all of those people are as intelligent as they appear on TV. More, even.) It’s also a chance to meet up again with my Quiz Bowl teammates Dave and Jonathan, as well as many other new acquaintances I’ve made over these past three events, including such quiz show stars as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire winners Ed Toutant and Joe Trela, whose exploits I’ve admired from the other side of the tube. It was fun to put faces to many of the names with whom I compete in LearnedLeague — I think at least half of Rundle A West, my current LL bracket, was in attendance this year, several of whom I met for the first time.

Kudos to the TCONA team for lining up an infinitely superior venue this time out. The Tropicana met the event’s needs as well as anyone could have hoped after the horrors of Circus Circus last year. The Trop’s not perfect — in particular, its dining options are limited, especially in the budget-friendly/quick-service areas (there’s neither a buffet nor a true food court). Still, it’s an easy stroll across the street to the MGM Grand, New York New York, or the tram-connected Excalibur/Luxor/Mandalay Bay trio, so ample eating choices are right nearby. On the positive side, the conference center is easily accessible, and eminently convenient if you’re staying in the Trop’s Club Tower — basically, step off the elevator and you’re there. I couldn’t have been more satisfied with my room, which was large, well-appointed, clean, and comfortable. The in-room high-speed wifi worked splendidly. (Don’t get me started about the execrable Internet access situation I encountered when I moved over to Excalibur after the convention ended.) And, if you like to while away your free time and dollars in the casino, I found the Trop’s blackjack dealers as friendly and helpful as any I’ve encountered anywhere in Vegas.

Speaking of the Trop, TCONA shared the hotel’s weekend hospitality with another niche convention: the National Pole Dancing Championships. (Yes, that’s a thing. I kid you not.) I can assure you that, for the most part, you’d have had scant difficulty determining which guests were there for the trivia, and which for the pole dancing. Let’s just say that, were you to draw a Venn diagram depicting quiz nerds and pole dancers, there would be precious little overlap between the two sets. Maybe none.

Before I departed, I registered in advance for TCONA 4. You could join me in Vegas (probably at the Trop, but that’s yet to be negotiated) next August 8-10. But I’ll warn you: You’d better bring your A game.

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Part 9 — Defying the Mayans

November 22, 2012

Every Thanksgiving Day since 2004, I’ve posted in this space a 26-point alphabetical sampling of people, places, and things for which I’m grateful. I consider myself to have been truly blessed in life, despite having endured many of the dark times that inevitably arise when one lives as long as I have. I’ve been touched by so many great human beings and wonderful experiences that it’s impossible to list them all when I express my annual thanks. So, nine years ago, I hit on this structured overview method. I’ve returned to it each Turkey Day since.

This year has been a unique one. I got married for the second time, to the incredible force of nature I refer to in these posts as the Pirate Queen. We did some traveling, shared many fun times, and went about the business of being newlyweds, with all of the changes, reconfigurations, and negotiations that newlywedness entails. Quite a few of my appreciations this year derive from our freshly married life and our newly shared home in San Francisco, the world’s most spectacular city.

And on we go.

On this Thanksgiving Day 2012, I’m grateful for…

Acting and actors. It took me the better part of a half-century to figure out what I want to be if and when I grow up. Since embarking on a career as a voice actor, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for the craft of acting, and for the people who do it skillfully. (Which is pretty much every voice actor I’ve worked with to this point. But I’m getting better.) I’m fortunate here in the Bay Area to be part of a thriving community of voice acting professionals. My actor friends and colleagues amaze me continually with their talents, with their determination to succeed in a difficult field, and most of all, with their giving, encouraging spirits. You wouldn’t suppose that folks who compete daily with each other for paying work would be so supportive of, and generous toward, those against whom they compete, but I see it happen all the time. Not all creative people are good people — no more than all of the people in any category are good people — but most of the actors with whom I study and work are genuine and decent.

The Big Island of Hawaii, where the Pirate Queen and I spent a blissful chunk of our honeymoon. (And yes, I’ll get around to posting about that portion of the trip.) From the eerie moon-like desolation of the Kona Coast, to the lush tropical beauty of the island’s eastern shores, to the awe-inspiring power of Kilauea, the Big Island is a source of endless fascination. With luck, I’ll manage to get back more quickly than the 20-plus years than separated each of my first three visits.

My Clipper Card, my little plastic passport to public transportation. For the benefit of the foreigners in the room — that is to say, those of you not from the Bay Area — San Francisco is served by two separate transit systems. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is the sleek electric railway that connects San Francisco with the East Bay, and with its own airport to the south. (They’re working on an extension that will run all the way to San Jose.) MUNI is The City’s own conglomeration of buses, cable cars, trolleys, and an integrated streetcar-subway network known as MUNI Metro. The Clipper Card, introduced just a couple of years ago, enables passengers to utilize both systems with a single payment mechanism. With parking in The City at a legendary dearth, we use BART and the Metro as often as possible to get from our neighborhood to downtown.

Dim sum, exquisite bites of savory or sweet ambrosia. We’re going for some with visiting friends this very weekend.

I loves me some European paintings. A long-ago course in college first opened my eyes to the works of the classical masters. This year, we had several amazing opportunities to view some of my favorites up close and personal. In February, we saw the exhibition “Masters of Venice” at the DeYoung Museum. Among the attractions in this show were several creations by my favorite Renaissance artist, Titian, including “Danae” and “Mars, Venus, and Cupid.” In September, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection offered some of the most memorable moments of our junket to New York City. I stood for several minutes in slack-jawed bedazzlement at an original poster by Alphonse Mucha, the Czech genius who pioneered the Art Nouveau style. As the old saying goes, I might not know much about art, but I know what I like.

Festus Ezeli, the Nigerian center out of Vanderbilt chosen by the Golden State Warriors with the 30th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. The kid plays hard, and gives a great interview. More than that, just saying his name makes me smile. Go ahead — try it.

Gray squirrels (specifically the Western gray squirrel, Sciurus griseus). Several of them visit our back yard on a daily basis. I get a kick out of watching them cavort and forage and play hide-and-seek with the neighborhood cats. It’s funny — after living for many years in a suburb surrounded by semi-rural agricultural land, I figured that I’d never see a wild animal again once I moved into the big city. I see more squirrel action outside our kitchen window in a week than I saw in three decades in Sonoma County.

My favorite Horsewoman, also known as my beloved Daughter. I could fill volumes with tales of how bright and witty and talented The Daughter is, but for this particular line item, I’ll confine myself to her equestrian hobby. After 10 years of riding, she fulfilled her dream this summer by acquiring her own horse — a tall, handsome, four-year-old chestnut Thoroughbred she named Gryffin. A half-brother to 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, Gryffin didn’t enjoy his sibling’s career at the track, but he’s made The Daughter deliriously joyful as her stable companion. Having endured so much tragedy over the past few years, including the passings of her mother, her grandfather, and our family dog, she deserved something special. I’m delighted for her that Gryffin came along.

Itoya Profolios, in which I store my comic art collection. They’re archival-safe, elegantly simple in design, and the perfect vehicle for original art on paper. One of my greatest thrills is sitting down with an Itoya on the table before me, and marvel at some of the treasures I’ve managed to pick up over the years.

Johnny Foley’s Irish House, home of the most entertaining dueling pianists you’ll ever come across. The Pirate Queen and I dropped into Foley’s on our fourth date, and we’ve made frequent weekend pilgrimages ever since. She even had her bachelorette party there. Stop by on a night when Nathan, Jason, or Lee are tickling the ivories and belting out requests. The rest of the crew is talented as well, but those three guys consistently put on the best show.

KJ. Life goes on, but I never forget. I would not be the person I am today without her nearly 30 years of influence on my life.

Lady Liberty. I didn’t expect to be as impressed or moved as I was by seeing the Statue of Liberty in person during our New York City trip — even despite the drenching downpour that struck during our visit. It was powerful to be reminded what a privilege it is to be an American citizen… and to be reminded that almost all of us are the descendants of immigrants, whether willing or unwilling. We get a bit stuffy sometimes about “those people” crossing our borders in search of a better life for themselves and their families. Unless you’re 100% Indigenous North American, “your people” came from someplace else, too. Let’s not forget that the Statue of Liberty lifts her lamp beside the golden door as a sign of welcome, not to slam the door shut.

Mount Davidson, the tallest of San Francisco’s 47 named hills. We live about a third of the way up.

Nineteenth Avenue, the busiest north-south thoroughfare on the western side of The City. For my final two years of college, I commuted along it several days each week to and from San Francisco State University. These days, it’s the path I travel when I head toward the Golden Gate Bridge to visit The Daughter, or other points northward. Man, there’s a lot of traffic on that street some days. But without it, it would be tough to get out of town in that direction.

Orange October. For the second time in three years, my San Francisco Giants won the World Series championship. This season, the Giants battled back from potential elimination six times during the Division and League Championship Series, on their way to a sweep of the Detroit Tigers in the main event. (Ironically, I was a Tigers fan as a youngster, before switching allegiance to the Giants when my family moved to the Bay Area in the mid-1970s.) Behind stellar play by World Series MVP Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval, National League MVP Buster Posey, and a fortuitous late-season acquisition, second baseman Marco Scutaro, and with lights-out pitching by the best collection of arms in baseball, the Giants took a determined step toward establishing themselves as the Team of the Decade.

The Porthole Palace, as I nicknamed the Pirate Queen’s house the first time I came to pick her up for a date. Little did I know I’d live here someday. It’s quirky and cozy, and it’s home.

Quentin Tarantino. Because someone ought to be thankful for the director of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and Kill Bill. Someone other than QT himself, that is.

My Rode NT1A, the microphone that is my constant companion during my work day as a voice actor. It always makes me sound good. The performance is up to me. I took it on the road with me when we went to New York, and recorded an actual job on it in our hotel room. (My second microphone, which I also love, is a Studio Projects C1. But that doesn’t start with R.)

Subaru — specifically, the green Forester I inherited from KJ. It’s a sturdy, solid, dependable car. I was unaware until very recently that Subaru has a reputation as the unofficial vehicle of the lesbian community. (Seriously. It’s a thing.) I’m totally cool with that. I’d make a terrific lesbian. I like women, and I drive a Subaru.

The Trivia Championships of North America, which we’ll call TCONA to save me typing. Held in Las Vegas each summer, it’s a merry assemblage of trivia-obsessed folks from all over the continent. This year, I came home with a gold and a silver medal in team competition. More importantly, I spent a rollicking weekend at Circus Circus renewing old Jeopardy! acquaintances and making several new friends. Next year, TCONA will invade the Tropicana. You’ve been warned.

Union Square, the heart of San Francisco. Every now and again, it’s cool to just stand in the middle of all the commotion and watch the tourists hustle past. Wander through the ginormous Macy’s. Stroll into Neiman Marcus and pretend you can afford the stuff they sell there. Have a plate of silver dollar pancakes at Sears Fine Foods. Bask in the glow of the big Christmas tree if it’s the season. Wonder how so many panhandlers convened in one location. Drink in the atmosphere that is Baghdad by the Bay.

Video games, my favorite projects as a voice actor. (Okay, let’s be honest — my favorite project is any one that pays.) Among the characters I got to play in games this year were a Pied Piper, a snake monster, a Russian jeweler, a beatnik priest, a street thug, and a mysterious narrator. Yes, I love my job.

Our wedding, during which the Pirate Queen became my wife. (That’s a double W, if you’re keeping score.) On a beautiful, breezy Saturday afternoon in May, we exchanged vows in front of about 50 friends and family members outside the Argonaut Hotel on Fisherman’s Wharf. The Pirate Queen was a radiant vision in white, as lovely a bride as any man could hope for. The Daughter stood in as my Best Person, and carried out her assigned duties with aplomb. The accomplished a cappella quartet PDQ sang two soaring numbers. I managed not to drop the ring or trip over my own feet. It was the perfect start to our new life together.

XD. I don’t know exactly what Extreme Digital Cinema is, but they have it (and huge signs boasting about it) at the Cinemark cineplex where we occasionally catch a flick. I think it’s something like IMAX, only all digital. Aren’t you glad someone invented that?

Yirgacheffe, a delicious coffee from Ethiopia. As you probably know if you’ve been a regular here over the years, I love a good cup of coffee. I’m especially partial to the brightly tangy, citrusy varietals grown in East Africa, of which Yirgacheffe is one. A mug or two, and I’m ready to face the day.

Zaftig women. Rubens, Titian, and Botticelli knew what they were doing when they selected those voluptuous models for their masterpieces. I salute my female friends who refuse to succumb to the cultural propaganda that a woman can’t be attractive if she wears a dress size in double digits. Ladies, be boldly unafraid to rock the beauty in yourselves, curves and all. The legendary philosopher Sir Mix-A-Lot said it best: “To the beanpole dames in the magazines: You ain’t it, Miss Thing.” Word.

And of course, I’m thankful for you, friend reader. I’m sorry I’ve been AWOL these past several months — I’ll try to post more consistently in the coming year. (Yes, there will be a coming year. Those Mayans just ran out of tablets to write their calendar on.) I still have plenty to say… some of which may actually be worth your perusal.

I hope you and those you love have a magnificent Thanksgiving. Take a moment to count your own blessings, and let the people for whom you’re grateful know that you appreciate them. Now go have some turkey, already.

My funny Valentine

February 9, 2012

For those of you who’ve expressed an interest in my burgeoning voice acting career, here’s a little something I voiced recently.

It’s a promotional video for a Bay Area men’s chorus that delivers Singing Valentines. NIA Creative, an awesome marketing and production company, produced the project.

Fun stuff…

…and if you decide to purchase a Singing Valentine for your beloved, please tell ’em your Uncle Swan sent you.

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Eight Is Never Enough

November 24, 2011

Welcome to the eighth (count ’em, eight!) edition of my annual A-to-Z Thanksgiving post. After the darkness and loss that characterized much of 2010 — as most of the regulars here know, my wife KJ lost her decade-long battle with breast cancer in July of that year — 2011 has been another year of sweeping change. A brighter one in several ways, but again with more than its share of tragedy and challenge.

We lost my father-in-law, who had been in ill health for many years, in February. Shortly thereafter, we bid our last goodbyes to my dutiful personal assistant Abby. Add in a new life partnership, a career redirection, a new residence for the first time in nearly 20 years… well, you get the idea.

Enough recap, already. Let’s get on with the gratitude. On this fourth Thursday in November, I’m thankful for…

Audacity, the free audio recording and editing tool I use every day. One of these days, I’ll invest in some pricey software that does everything Audacity does, only for hundreds of dollars more. Yeah… in your dreams. Remember Uncle Swan’s motto: If it’s free, it’s for me.

Bravo, because who doesn’t love Top Chef? And Millionaire Matchmaker? And yes, even Project Runway? Okay, sure, they put on all that dreadful Real Housewives crap. That’s what the channel button on your remote is for. Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.

The City by the Bay — always my favorite city, once my alma mater, now my home. I’ve enjoyed a love affair with San Francisco for the better part of four decades, but I would never have envisioned living here. Where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars. Where Mark Twain spent his coldest winter one summer. Home of the 2010 World Series Champion Giants; the Team of the ’80s, the 49ers; and naked dudes wandering the streets of the Castro. Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.

The Daughter, whom I love more than life itself. Smart, funny, perceptive, and the world’s greatest horsewoman. You should have a daughter so awesome. But you can’t. She’s the only one.

Eggs Benedict. How can you go wrong with eggs, pork, and hollandaise? Don’t believe the people at Denny’s when they tell you they can do it with melted Velveeta. They lie.

Facebook, which keeps me in constant touch with my voice actor colleagues, my chorus buddies, people I knew in high school, and friends, comrades, and associates of every stripe. If that brat Zuckerberg hadn’t stolen this gem from the Winklevii, Facebook would be the exclusive province of snooty preppies in cardigans and Top-Siders, and you and I would never know what the other is eating for breakfast.

Goorin Brothers, makers of stylish hats. I’m wearing my black Cash Canyon right now.

Hope, because if you don’t have that, you have nothing. Keep it alive, as Jesse used to say, back when people actually cared what Jesse said.

iTunes — without it, we’d still be stockpiling eight-tracks. Isn’t it wicked cool that I can punch up Meat Loaf, or the House Jacks, or Sir Mix-A-Lot, or Journey, anytime I want, with just a keystroke or two? Why, yes, it is.

Jim Harbaugh, the man who turned Alex “Sow’s Ear” Smith into a rayon purse overnight, thereby restoring the 49ers not merely to respectability, but to darn near invincibility. If you’d told me in August that the Niners would be 9-1 going into Thanksgiving, I’d have laughed in your face, and recommended a good therapist.

KJ… gone home, but never forgotten.

The Legion of Super-Heroes, or as we used to call them in my comics-reading youth, the Legion of Stupid Heroes. Where else could characters like Bouncing Boy and Matter-Eater Lad find stardom? It’s no surprise that many of the Legion’s best adventures sprang from the typewriter (go on, look it up… I’ll wait) of a brash kid named Jim Shooter, who began writing Legion stories when he was a mere stripling of 13. Nevertheless, the Legion always had the cutest girls in comics. Imra Ardeen… call me.

Maddie the German shorthaired pointer mix, who replaced our dear departed corgi Abby at The Daughter’s side, if not entirely in her heart. Maddie is in many ways the anti-Abby — long-legged, frenetic, and eager for affection to the point of clinginess, in contrast to her squat, chill, laissez-faire predecessor — but no less a character. I’m glad The Daughter found a new friend.

The house of the Naked Fish-Tailed Lady, home of hot, caffeinated, life-sustaining squeezings of the noble bean. Get yourself an eggnog latte this holiday season. You know you want one.

My fellow comic art collector Damon Owens, with whom I’ve shared countless e-mail conversations about comics, art, and life over these many years. Damon’s theme galleries — The Brotherhood, an all-star team of black superheroes; Dead Universes Project, featuring heroes from publishers who’ve vanished into the ether; and Cage Matches, recalling the greatest adventures of Luke Cage, Power Man — are the envy of every other commission collector, yours truly included. Beyond that, Damon’s just a really cool guy. You rock, amigo.

The Pirate Queen, who restored light to a world that had become horrifyingly bleak. All it took was a visit to Starbucks and a midnight at the asylum. Thank you for making me First Mate, Captain. I love you… and happy birthday.

Quotations. Gifted wordsmith though I am, I can’t be expected to pump out all the pithy sayings all by my lonesome. “Because remember, no matter where you go… there you are.” Buckaroo Banzai said that. See what I mean?

Rocketfish, my new favorite sushi joint. Have a Rocketfish Roll, brother. They’re fresh.

Stars, The Agency, simply the best talent agents in the whole wide world. Thanks for believing in me, Nate and Kristin. One of these first days, I’m going to make you guys a fortune. Not that you need it, or anything.

Trader Joe’s. Okay, so it’s owned by this mysterious, creepy, reclusive German family who probably have Anne Frank locked up in their attic or something. But I get a giddy thrill every time their Fearless Flyer lands in my mailbox. How TJ’s crams so much exotic yet tasty stuff into one little grocery store is beyond me. Must be the Hawaiian shirts.

The United States of America. Yes, we’ve had our problems. Yes, we have more than our share of lunatics, lowlifes, miscreants, and Tea Partiers… but then, I repeat myself. Still, we’re the place everyone else wants to be. The big dog on the block. The coolest kid in class. The land of milk, honey, Barack Obama, and Filet-O-Fish. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. And I have, so I’d know.

Virgin America. We flew to Vegas with these folks in July, and I have to give them credit, they make flying about as much fun as an airline can in these post-9/11 times. Nice to see a company doing a serious business not taking itself entirely too seriously. Besides, you have to admire the chutzpah in the name alone. I’m not sure what they call it the second time you fly, though.

West Portal, our little neighborhood downtown. Feel like Mexican tonight? Check out El Toreador. Indian? Try Roti. Peruvian? Fresca will hook you up. Breakfast? There’s a branch of Squat and Gobble on the corner. Want to catch a movie? The CineArts at the Empire shows the latest blockbusters. Need hardware? Legal pharmaceuticals? A glass of fine wine? A crab melt? An ATM? It’s all here for you, in the space of three short blocks. And of course, there’s a Starbucks. Where isn’t there a Starbucks?

Xfinity from Comcast. A bazillion cable TV channels, lightning-fast Internet access, even land-line telephone service if you’re all old school like that.

Yin and yang. Because there are two sides to everything. Male and female. Light and dark. Bitter and sweet. Ebony and ivory, together in perfect harmony. Just like life.

Zazzle. You can create T-shirts, mugs, and every conceivable other kind of novelty item and sell them to people. Or buy the stuff other people came up with. I picked up a nifty pair of Bettie Page mugs there just recently.

Did I mention that I’m thankful for you, friend reader? I am. I’m glad you’re here, and I’m glad you’re you. Have a happy, thoughtful, and reflective Thanksgiving.