Friday, January 27, 2012

Setting Sale

I hate solicitors. I really do. I'm not a big fan of the sales field in general, because there are a lot of slick, scheming scam artists out there who will try to convince people to buy a moldy turd in exchange for your last dollar. The worst are the telemarketers.

But in my latest string of odd jobs through the temp agency, I've come upon a phone sales gig that, surprisingly, I've enjoyed. When I first heard it was a call center job, I cringed, but I bit the bullet and decided to give it a shot anyway. My agent decided my voice and personality would make me a good fit for it, and since they've rarely steered me wrong, nor I them, I figured I owed 'em one.

As I approached the building on a chilly Thursday morning I was wary already...observing this big, glass and metal castle that looked like something out of the Jetsons. But I soon discovered that it housed the call center for a company that's working to fix the housing crisis...and making a hefty chunk of change for themselves in the process.

I don't know all the details, as I know almost as much about real estate as I know about advanced mathematics (less than zilch.) But In the last two days I've learned more than I did before. Basically, this company is both making a killing AND doing a service: helping to clean up the mess of housing foreclosures. Oh sure, they're selling something...but it's a certification course for real estate agents that teaches them how to help customers and banks alike without being crooks or predators. It's called "short selling" houses facing foreclosure.

Anyway, given a script, some basic facts and talking points, and some pricing info, I've been able to improvise and engage people, and even make a sale. If I'm gonna spend 8 hours on the phone selling something, it's nice to know I'm doing so to people who already inquired about it and want it, as opposed to bugging someone during dinner to sell Grandma a funeral plot or save them money on rain gutter insurance or something.

It's not something I want to do for the rest of my life, but I do have to tip a hat to the various business, communications and radio classes I took in college for making me adaptable to a work experience I'm so new to.

I'll see how it goes, it's supposed to last at least through next week.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Keeping it Simple With Batman

I went to a comic book store that was having a clearance sale today, and they had a ton of Batman stuff. I picked up a compilation book of classic comic stories entitled “The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told” (compiling highlights of Batman’s nemesis). I also snagged a couple of random Batman comics for a buck a pop. Honestly, even though I’m a huge cartoon fan, I’ve never been a huge fan of superhero stuff. But I love Batman. Batman has no “super powers” at all, other than a brilliant mind. He’s just a regular ol’ human with a tortured past and a lot of money.

He was created as a comic book hero in the 1940’s by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, and those early comics were as film-noir as you can get. But what made them so good is that they were SIMPLE. There was a hero, a mystery, and a villain. The stories weren’t intertwined and scattered across multiple issues of multiple comic book series. You could just buy a Batman comic book for a dime and get one or two really good stories. Batman and Robin, in the 40’s and 50’s, weren’t TOO dark or TOO campy, but a nice balance. They were really more like Holmes and Watson than anything else, with Bruce Wayne even using chemistry and smoking a pipe. Various artists and writers eventually added to the Batman legacy and created new villains, and they’re still making Batman comics today. And cartoons, and movies, and merchandise.

But looking at the comic books themselves, I think this is really a case of “the original is always the best”. Take, for instance, this page from a 1952 story drawn by artist Dick Sprang. Look at how well drawn and staged it is, and how expressive the characters are, yet simply drawn. Sprang’s not trying to be photo-real, he knows this is a comic book. Sure, you could do something like this in a photo-realistic style, but why?

This page from a “Batman: Gotham Adventures” book from 1998 by artist Ty Templeton draws its inspiration from the early stuff. Actually, it’s based on the 90’s Batman Animated Series that was running at the time, but because that series was based on the classic material, it was, in my opinion, the best interpretation of Batman ever done. Simple, linear designs once again…but it looks awesome.

Then, well, there’s this. Kevin Smith, who directed the Jay and Silent Bob movies among many other films, is a huge comic fan and wrote a Batman comic series in 2009 called “The Widening Gyre”. The artist here is Walter Flanagan. BEAUTIFUL drawings, but it’s almost TOO realistic. The coloring is also trying so hard to be epic that it just doesn’t read as well as the simpler stuff. I bet the original sketches for this were awesome, before some overzealous inker and digital colorist got a hold of it.

My point: keep it simple. Batman's greatest enemy is not the Joker, but the artist who forgets he's drawing a comic book.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Animal Antics: Part 1 of Many

Ah yes, the age-old question: are you a dog person, or a cat person?

Everybody loves their pets. They serve as companions to the single person, and members of the family for those with children. In some cases, they are the glue that bonds a family. Occasionally they act up and cause some form of drama, but it’s usually something you can look back on and laugh at.

Dogs and cats don’t speak like humans do. They don’t understand a word we say. But they probably know more about us than we do, because they OBSERVE. If you’re having a bad day, your dog knows it, because he can read your body language. So can your cat. If you’re sick, a dog will stay by your bedside, when he normally sleeps in the kitchen. Your cat will come up to you as if to say: “pet me. It’ll make you feel better”.

I grew up with both cats and dogs, so I really can’t choose a side in the “which species is better” debate. All I know is that every individual animal is a unique personality, regardless of species. Also, the people who claim that animals don’t have souls are the ones who’ve never spent time with one.

One of the dogs I grew up with, Lucy the Brittany spaniel, was the most headstrong, self-centered dog you’d ever meet. She was, quite literally, a bitch. She was hyper and stubborn as a mule, but she loved her human family. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a World War II veteran who, in his later days, used a walker due to a still-unidentified neuromuscular ailment he acquired in Japan. Lucy would be running around willy-nilly, but whenever my granddad walked in the door for a holiday visit, she stopped dead in her tracks. She would calmly walk up to him and lick his hand. She innately knew to be quiet and gentle. But if the mailman, electric meter reader, or plumber showed up, watch out! The electric company had a file on her claiming she was a “vicious dog”. She wasn’t vicious at all…until a stranger entered her yard! Opossums were also a problem for Lucy…God help us all if a possum (or raccoon) entered our yard at night. Lucy would quickly tree it (or scare it to the top of the fence) and bark LOUDLY until something was done about the intruder.

We also had several cats over the years. Most of my memories of the first one, Tigger, are that she was ugly, very old, and would tolerate anything. I remember chasing her around and messing with her when I was a little kid, and she never once scratched or bit me…no matter how many times I pulled her tail or messed with her. My dad’s description was far less kind. She had long hair and shedded a lot, and he once said “She looks like the inside of a vacuum cleaner bag. But how would we know, because all of our vacuum cleaner bags are filled with HER!” She lived to be about 19 years old, and unlike most pets, died peacefully in my parents’ bed (rather than alone).

Then, along came Ranger and Bugsy, the ultimate odd couple. They were George and Lennie from John Steinbeck’s novel “Of Mice and Men”. They even killed a mouse or two. Those cats were the ultimate comedy team. Bugsy, named for the gangster, was one of the smartest animals I’ve ever seen…he could climb anything, he could open doorknobs, and he had creative methods of waking my parents at 5AM to feed him…including turning on lights. My mom cooked a rum-raisin cake once, soaking the raisins in rum on the kitchen counter. Bugsy got into it and got drunk. He also climbed Christmas trees and nearly set our house on fire by playing with the toaster. I personally rescued him as a kitten from the innards of a neighbor’s pickup truck, and he lived in a tree in our front yard until my mother managed to tame him. He was fluffy, orange and the ultimate badass.

Ranger, on the other hand, was dumb as an ox. “Retarded” is a generous description. He came to us after my dad and I walked the aforementioned Lucy through a little league baseball park in the neighborhood. Usually Lucy wanted to kill and eat cats, but she seemed to tolerate this one…a scrawny stray thing with markings of white and bright red. Usually dogs follow people home, not cats. Ranger didn’t get that memo. He followed us, and we gave him his name due to his coloring (the Texas Rangers baseball team’s colors in the 90’s) and the fact that we found him at a ballpark. Ranger was sweet, but he was a moron. He would attack green beans, and stare at a white wall for hours and then literally pass out. He drooled like a dog. He was also a sore-head…he was smart enough to know that if any of us ever pissed him off, he’d piss on our things. He didn’t groom himself like normal cats, and he didn’t walk right either…so we’d hear limp, overgrown claws clicking against the hardwood floors in a galumphing fashion late at night. He howled randomly, too. Like a wolf.

But they all provided wonderful companionship and memories for my family. We also had other dogs, my parents still have dogs, and I currently have a cat. But I’ll tell their stories in other entries…because they deserve stories of their own. Which species is better? Neither…because they both provide hours of entertainment, companionship, and crazy stories.

Music and Memory

There’s just something about music. I am always amazed at the way a song can permanently attach itself to certain memory. I may not be thinking about a certain place, or time, or person…but I’ll hear a song, and suddenly it all comes back. The song plays, and I’m in that time, in that place, with those people...almost physically, it can be so vivid.

For example, any time I hear Gordon Lightfoot, I am transported back to Childhood Thanksgivings at my grandparents’ house in Midland, sitting by the fireplace while the adults talked, drank and laughed. When I hear “All I Wanna Do” by Sheryl Crow, I remember my mother embarrassing my 10-year-old self by dancing in the car in front of my classmates from school. I still hate that song. Kanye West’s “Golddigger” always brings back memories of the guy I knew in college who used to blast it (subwoofer rattling the walls) during his impromptu, Jack Daniels-infused “room parties”. Don McLean’s “American Pie” brings back memories of college and my fraternity, raising our glasses and singing along while dancing like idiots at the end of ANY major party.

I had a job one summer building houses, and nearly blew out the speakers in my mom’s car to and from work…because that’s when I bought the White Stripes’ “7 Nation Army”. Then there are songs that remind me of people I’ve hung by the pool with these last two sweltering Austin summers. You’d better run, better run, faster than my bullet. I WANT my MTV. Isn’t it good, Norwegian Wood.

The list goes on forever, like the road in the Robert Earl Keen song. The artist, or age, or genre of the song isn't important. It's what I was doing when I heard it.

I stopped by the record store on the way home yesterday, and browsed the “used” section in search of a bargain, or something cool. That’s when I found a little 4-song EP by the Shins. It has a version of their song “New Slang” on it, a duet with Austin singer-songwriter Sam Beam (aka Iron & Wine.) I popped it in the car, and suddenly I wasn’t stuck in traffic in Austin on an unseasonably warm, sunny January day in 2012. I was on a road trip on a chilly Super Bowl weekend, somewhere between Missouri and Kansas in 2006. That song got played to DEATH on that particular excursion, either on CD in the car or on my friend’s guitar in his brother’s dilapidated apartment.

It’s a beautiful, melancholy song with poetic lyrics, and it’s one you have to listen to multiple times in order to put together its meaning. That’s just what a bunch of crazy college kids did 6 years ago, and they did it again yesterday. Memories are never lost…they just go dormant for a while, until they’re found in a bargain bin many years and miles away.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Cartoon Diamond in the Rough...or Sand Trap

Hanna-Barbera was the king of TV cartoons for three decades, 1960s-1980’s. After winning 7 Academy Awards for the “Tom and Jerry” theatrical cartoons at MGM from 1940-1958, the duo of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera saw the writing on the wall. MGM was going to close its cartoon studio, and Hanna and Barbera quickly rallied their troops and went into the wild frontier of TV animation.

Despite the cheap, stiff animation, H-B’s early stuff was great. They had great writing, great graphic design, and great voice acting in their arsenal. To learn more about that stuff, check out the blog “Yowp”.

Anyway, H-B started to lose its creativity and artistry by the late 1960’s, churning out Saturday morning crap that repeated itself over and over again and got lousier with each “new” series. Bill and Joe sat back and watched the assembly line make garbage on a shoestring budget and for meager pay, while they counted their money. If you want to see how bad their cartoons were by the 1970’s, watch Boomerang at 2AM.

Anyway, There is a show Hanna-Barbera made in 1969 entitled “The Catanooga Cats”. How’s this for a concept: a group of hillbilly hippie cats form a band and go on crazy adventures and do trippy musical numbers, with backup segments involving a sheep-hungry wolf voiced by Paul Lynde and a cat and mouse who ride motorcycles. Yep, it was 1969. And the show was terrible.

BUT…there is a segment from it that I think is a masterpiece of modern art. It’s a musical segment featuring a song called “Merry Go Round”. I don’t know anything about the artists involved, musicians or animators. But it’s perfect. It’s a diamond in the rough…no…a diamond in the sand trap. It’s as if the folks at H-B said “Let’s take a break from sucking ass and make a work of art.”

As you view it below, look at the design of it, and listen to the lyrics of a seemingly bubblegum song. As the female singer warbles about a merry-go-round, it seems happy at first…but it becomes a metaphor for loss of innocence. In a way, if you read your history books, that’s what 1969 was all about. That year changed America forever in many ways. Taking a cue from artist Peter Max, who inspired the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”, and playing like a limited-animation music video, here’s Hanna-Barbera’s Catanooga Cats gem, “Merry-Go Round”.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

There seems to be a “New Year” trend among blog writers of listing the celebrities they consider “douchebags” from the previous year. So I figured I’d weigh in, too, considering one of my New Years resolutions is to write more. I decided to pick five celebrities (or at least news-makers) from 2011 who I think are douchebags. As a bonus, I picked two people whom others have called douchebags and spoken in their defense.

, (in no particular order):

1. Rick Perry

Hey, I’m a Texan. I’m proud of Texas. For a while, I was proud of my Governor. Rick Perry took a strong stance on important issues like violence on the Mexican border, overreaching Government regulations on energy, and abortion. He governed us for 8 years. But then he opened his mouth on the National stage and tried to run for President. Immediately, he started flip-flopping, spouting off inchoherent (possibly drunk) rants, and completely forgot his talking points in debates. Hey, Governer Goodhair, you wanna embarrass us some more? Oh, please do. Cut some more school funding, perhaps the public speaking classes, so more kids can grow up to be like you. (Insert Aggie joke here.)

2. Albert Pujols

Ah, Pujols…beloved first baseman of the Saint Louis Cardinals. He was everyone’s hero, he lead his team on a winning World Series journey that gave everyone (even Rangers fans) a whole new level of respect for the Cards. He had his own statue erected in Saint Louis. He said he’d always be a Cardinal. So once he got that World Series Ring, what did he do? Did he: (A.): Remain true to his team and his fans by sticking around, or (B.) Sell himself to the highest bidder? If you answered “B”, DINGDINGDING! That is CORRECT! As if you didn’t know, the highest bidder was a team nobody, not even Californians, likes…the LA Angels. At least he’ll have something in common with fellow douchebag, 90’s singer Mark Mcgrath. Every morning when he wakes up, there’s a Halo hanging from the corner of his 4-post bed.

3. Justin Bieber

This one’s too easy. I understand self-marketing. We all do it, it’s the way of the world. But then there’s whoring yourself out, and getting a free pass to fame with limited talent. Look at this little dork! Listen to his songs! How can anyone who appreciates the art of music pay any attention to him? He looks like that kid the jocks beat up in school and took his lunch money. I’d like to see him last 5 minutes at one of the punk or metal concerts some of my friends go to on East 6th Street. For that matter, I’d like him to look a few of my friends who have true musical talent in the face, and honestly claim that although he can’t play, can’t write and can’t really sing, he deserved to be a rich celebrity while their brilliant, self-created masterpieces go forever unheard by the masses. At least he’s notable for one thing, he made a Christmas song worse than all of the cheesiest, most godawful yuletide staples COMBINED. I know how he can win a Grammy, too. Just do a duet album with Rebecca Black, and it’ll be a shoo-in for Best Comedy Album.

4. Casey Anthony

She did it. We know she did it. Now, banish her to oblivion and cease discussion.

5. Occupiers in Texas

I know a lot’s been said about these “Occupy Movement” guys. In many respects, I agree with them, and admire what they’re trying to accomplish. Our country’s a mess, our Government is stepping on our personal freedoms, and our big corporations are unethical. But they need organization. There are better ways to spark change than standing in a park or sitting on the steps of your local City Hall looking like something the cat dragged in and yelling “F*** you, MAAAAN!” Especially in Austin, Fort Worth or San Antonio, where nobody’s gonna listen anyway. Here’s what you do, protestors: pick an issue. Pick ONE issue that is really important to you, and start with that. Be specific. Then, find out specifically who your opponents are. Are they a particular corporation or industry? Are they a politician or political party? Are they an individual? Ok. Find out who that is, and then move forward. Organize a group. Take a shower, groom yourself and dress up like you mean business. Prepare a clear, well-written mission statement. Then go talk to your opponent, individually and en masse. Be firm, but be respectful, intelligent and polite. Get the media involved, but don’t give them the opportunity to pick on you. (That means leave the Halloween masks and bongo drums at home.) You’d be surprised how much further you’ll get.

People Accused of Being Douchebags, but are Not Really:

1. Tim Tebow

Face it, we’ve all made fun of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow a little bit. He does get a little intense about his Christian faith. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Even though He’s the Savior of mankind and the God above all gods, Jesus can still use a little positive advertising now and again. Tebow’s talent is like that awesome thing you buy somewhere, and everyone asks where you got it. In his case, he didn’t buy it, so he figures God gave it to him, and he’s willing to say so. Yeah, the down-on-one-knee praying can be perceived as silly, but it doesn’t seem to be hurting his game any. Good for him!

2. Taylor Swift

There’s a reason this skinny young blonde girl from Pennsylvania is one of the most popular crossover country artists ever and keeps winning all the awards. She’s not one of the great female country vocalists like Patsy Cline, June Cash, Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss or Reba McEntire. But when she shoves her computer and auto-tuning producers aside once in a while, she has a really unique, earnest voice. It helps that she writes or co-writes the majority of her songs. Revoke my man-card for saying it if you must, but I like a lot of her stuff. And John Mayer sucks for doing a duet with her and only giving her one line in it. But John Mayer sucks anyway, because he wastes his badass guitar talent and keeps making cheesy pop songs.