Friday, January 31, 2014

Lord Dunsany’s Old Brown Coat

When reading about Lord Dunsany I visualized Downton Abbey, because that was the life he lived as a lord of a manor in Ireland. Beyond being titled, he was also a prolific author. He mostly wrote fantasy, and among his many other interests (like hunting) he kept quite busy writing.

Lord Dunsany’s full name was the jaw-cracking Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett. No wonder he wrote under his title and not his birth name.

“The Old Brown Coat” is a short-short story, originally published in 1919, and reprinted by editor Damon Knight in the 1951 science fiction digest, Worlds Beyond. It is the type of story that begins with an odd situation, in this case an old brown coat going for a fabulous price at an auction, and then an ending that comes right out of left field.

Lord Dunsany, born in 1878, died in 1957.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Mort Drucker, Mad genius of caricature

As described in a Wikipedia biography, cartoonist Mort Drucker is considered “Number one in a field of one” by Nick Meglin, Mad editor. Drucker went to work for Mad in 1956, and is the artist with the longest term of employment at the magazine. Drucker’s forte is caricature, the likenesses of movie and televison stars, among others. He draws satires that not only point out the essence of absurdity in most entertainment, but with drawings that capture the stars in an instantly recognizable form. In a quote from the Wikipedia article Drucker says:
I've always considered a caricature to be the complete person, not just a likeness. Hands in particular have always been a prime focus for me as they can be as expressive of character as the exaggerations and distortions a caricaturist searches for. I try to capture the essence of the person, not just facial features... I've discovered through years of working at capturing a humorous likeness that it's not about the features themselves as much as the space between the features. We all have two eyes, a nose, a mouth, hair and jaw lines, but yet we all look different. What makes that so is the space between them.
Good advice for any caricaturist from the all-time master.

Here are two examples from the Golden Age of Mad. “Why Spy?” is from Mad #111 and is a take-off on a television show popular between 1965-68. It was one of the first TV shows with a lead African-American actor, Bill Cosby, co-starring with Robert Culp, and since it was produced during the Civil Rights struggle in America some TV stations in the South refused to carry it. In the show itself race was not a factor, and that carries over into the satire. In the real world outside of the show it was a big deal.

“Mighty Joe Kong” is from Mad #94, and isn’t a direct satire, but an example of a type of satire done effectively in Mad, setting different stars in a pastiche or version of a movie story or type of story. In this case Drucker absolutely nailed Dick Van Dyke, James Garner and Doris Day, not to mention Kong!

Both stories are Copyright © 2014 E.C. Publications, Inc.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The saddest story

On January 16, 2014, Lindon, Utah police officer Joshua Boren, 34, shot and killed his wife, Kelly, 32, his mother-in-law Marie King, 55, and his 7-year-old son, Joshua “Jaden”, and 5-year-old daughter Haley Boren.

Boren, whom his police chief described as “the top candidate out of 70 who applied for the job,” was a well-liked police officer. According to initial reports no one saw the violence coming,

A few days later a friend of Kelly Boren said that just before she was killed Kelly had texted she was getting a divorce from Josh, that she couldn’t deal with his “rage” any more. The friend texted back, “rage?” She knew the pair were separated, but didn’t know there was any rage or violence involved in the situation.

So it ended up with five people dead.

Murder-suicide, the common name for homicide-suicide, is not unknown, but it’s usually uncommon enough that stories of it make splashy headlines like that on the front page of the January 18, 2014 Salt Lake Tribune: Police: Cop apparently killed his family, self.

A few days earlier another local woman, whose fiancé had just moved out of her house, shot and killed her two daughters and then herself.

In Joan Landino’s article, “The Psychology Behind Murder-Suicide” for the website, Joan Landino Says, she wrote:
“The perpetrators of murder-suicides also show recent damage to an interpersonal relationship or loss, in a way that is not demonstrated in suicide-only victims, who are more likely to be suffering from physical illness at the time of death. Suicide victims in their final days tend to be withdrawn, quiet, and socially isolated while murder-suicide perpetrators are more likely to exhibit escalating conflict, anger, and violent behavior culminating in the murder-suicide.”
There is also some evidence that one crime can lead to another; in this case it is possible that the story of the woman killing her children may have had something to do with Joshua Boren’s decision to commit his own crime against his family.

No one will know because of the suicide. We can’t know exactly what Joshua Boren was thinking, or why he took such an extreme step in resolving a personal problem.

Whenever I read about such a situation I think of something that happened when I was in high school in 1964. Two brothers, Wayne and Barry, were classmates of mine. They were a year apart, and I had one or the other in a couple of classes. They were both quiet and withdrawn. I never spoke with them, nor did I ever see them speaking with friends, or speaking up in class. If I thought about it at all, I probably thought they were just shy.

One day I read a story in the newspaper that said both brothers were on the front lawn of their house in an affluent section of town when the door burst open and their mother ran out of the house screaming, their father right behind her. Their dad had a gun which he used to shoot his wife, and then used to kill himself.

Wayne and Barry never came back to school. In a subsequent article following up on the murder-suicide it said they had gone to live with family in another state.

I sometimes think of those brothers and what their lives were like after that life-altering moment of violence. Lots of people have violent episodes in their lives and there can be varying degrees of depression or mental problems for the survivors. Fifty years ago getting counseling or psychiatric help for victims wasn’t common like it is today. I wondered how much violence Wayne and Barry were exposed to in the years leading up to that ultimate act, and how much anyone else knew about what was going on. In those days we just didn’t talk about it. I wouldn’t doubt the philosophy in their household was like the philosophy my parents taught to me. If something bad happened to you then you were to pull yourself back up, get over it and move on with your life. We know now that is often just not possible, no matter how much we’d like it to be that easy.

I have no way of knowing how Wayne and Barry survived the incident, or what it meant to either of them. But like all of these murder-suicides, like the murder of the Boren family, it is a morbidly tragic story, and as bad as any violence perpetrated against another person is, to me this type of crime is the saddest of them all.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Out of this world

 An ad for a book in the December 2013 Edward Hamilton catalog caught my eye.

Wow! A true story of a a secret visit to an alien planet by 12 American astronauts? In 1965? That just was too much to resist. I got the book.

Note to those who have not read my blog before: I am not a believer in UFOs or alien abductions or the usual paranormal business. But I am interested in stories about them, and especially when people claim they are true.

In this case, Secret Journey to Planet Serpo, touted on the cover as “A True Story of Interplanetary Travel” by Len Kasten definitely piqued my interest. What the book tells us, in a nutshell, is that Americans were in contact with aliens we called Ebens, and arranged to have them pick up some Americans and take them to their home planet, Serpo, in the Zeta Reticuli system. The book is the story of that journey and that visit — originally intended for 10 years but actually lasting 13 — what they saw, and what they said about what they saw.

And in one chapter, what Steven Spielberg may or may not have known about the expedition.

Whatever else might be said about the book and accepting or rejecting its incredible claims, I see it as a book by a true believer who isn’t trying to convince a skeptic like me. The writer assumes his readers believe the story, aiming at those fellow true believers who are convinced aliens from other planets visit Earth.

However, all books, even those for believers, have to have some form of credibility, and in the case of Secret Journey it is supposedly in a series of e-mails from someone called Anonymous (weakening the case, but it also fits in with an unspoken view of conspiracy and fear of retaliation) to a website called On the masthead of the website’s home page it says, “This site is intended to facilitate the gradual release of confidential documents pertaining to a top secret exchange program of twelve US military personnel to Serpo, a planet of Zeta Reticuli, between the years 1965-78.” According to author Kasten and the website author Bill Ryan, the information is slowly being released to “acclimate” the public for the eventual revelation that yes, we have been visited by and have done business with aliens for over a half century.

But website author Ryan issues a qualifier, giving us a choice of what to believe: the e-mails could be a hoax, the work of a prankster, or they could be disinformation, slightly disguised truth, or the plain truth as far as it is known. I was struck by the “prankster” label, because it would be my assessment.

As of this date, the website hasn’t been updated since July 2012. The book was published in 2013.

The book builds from the history of the UFO mythology/history, from the Nazi secret weapons program to Nazis building a postwar Fourth Reich in Antarctica, to the Roswell crash(es) in 1947, to the super-secret government group calling itself MJ-12, to the living alien visitor (a “guest” of the United States government) and the storage of the dead aliens, to President Kennedy and his request for the aliens to return to Earth and take some Americans to their planet for scientific purposes. It’s a lot to swallow.

After the story of how the Americans got to Serpo via a worm hole in space(1) they are greeted as visitors. Our astronauts(2) were allowed to walk free on Planet Serpo, with some exceptions. The Ebens live in a police state; they are under the control of a military government. They follow very strict protocols, including religious services(3) at a certain time of the day. The military carry no weapons, but are obeyed without question, and apparently the Ebens have a lot of rules to live by. Even the Americans were occasionally accosted and upbraided by members of the military for some infractions or breaches of protocol.

The Americans were allowed to bring 45,000 tons of supplies with them, which were easily handled by the Ebens when put aboard their giant craft (they use anti-gravity, you see; we also have anti-gravity given to us by the aliens, but for whatever reason it isn’t available for the use of our society). Among the items listed, besides food, clothing and medical supplies are weapons, including thousands of rounds of ammunition. Why would a peaceful mission need weaponry, and why would the hosts allow them to bring such an armory to their home planet? Especially since, as claimed, the Ebens had been visiting Earth for 20,000 years or so, and would know that human beings are often warlike, xenophobic, suspicious of strangers and quick on the trigger.

The astronauts were also allowed to bring 10 military combat motorcycles, three M151 jeeps, and even a lawn mower. An asterisk beside that last item said the lawn mower motor could be used for something else…so I ask, why bring the whole lawnmower? The most extraordinary thing is that with all those motorized vehicles they only brought 1,500 gallons of fuel. Ten motorcycles, three jeeps and a lawn mower, to be run for 10 years…and 1,500 gallons of fuel for all of them..? Hmmm. Did someone drop a zero off the number of gallons?

They also brought radios which depended on batteries, and according to the story they ran out of batteries after five years. Eben food was totally tasteless to the Earth people, and needed lots of salt and pepper, so the salt and pepper didn’t last, nor did the C-rations they brought along, which ran out in time. Some of the planning of needed supplies seems to have been guesswork rather than calculation.

The main reason the mission lasted 13 years and not the planned 10, according to the book, is that the Americans couldn’t figure out how to compare Serpo’s day compared to Earth’s day of 24 hours, and they lost track of time. That is especially hard to believe.

If I commented on everything in the book I had a problem with this post would be as long as the book. I thought I’d highlight just a couple more. There are pictures included. I thought the pictures of the “hybrid” alien girl(4) and the alien are suspect. In an era of Photoshop how can anyone believe any photograph? The girl isn’t identified by name, where she lives, how old she is, or anything about her. And the tagline, “by Andy Social” (anti-social) is a tip we’re being ribbed. The alien looks like something sculpted or even created on a computer.

According to the book, the Americans took a lot of photos during their time on Serpo, but only one picture has been released, that of the double suns of that system. Again, I’m thinking Photoshop.

We’re told that after the Americans arrived they recorded temperatures of 140º F. After a while they moved to the Northern part of the planet where it was cooler. How much cooler? I don’t know, but at least it was claimed to be livable.

I want to mention that by now all the Serpo astronauts are supposed to be dead; the last died in 2002. They returned to Earth in 1978(5) and were kept in seclusion for several years while being debriefed. Because of the high radiation levels on Serpo they all died of radiation poisoning. That is really convenient for the sake of those telling the story. They can say all the witnesses have died, so there is no one who can claim to have been there as an eyewitness to such a momentous achievement. No witnesses, no questions.

If this journey really happened then it is the greatest event in the history of the human race. But even though I thought I’d heard all the stories about contactees and major UFO sightings, I had never heard of this story before seeing the book advertised in the catalog. Is it because no one believes it except for this coterie of true believers who believe stories like this without hard evidence? I don’t have to prove it didn’t happen, the author and the evidence have to demonstrate to me that it did by giving me something besides the word of someone called Anonymous and “confirmations” by people who supposedly know the truth.

Finally, there is the story about Steven Spielberg, that he had to have been told the story about the astronauts because in the climactic scenes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind there are twelve astronauts seen entering the alien craft. There is a chapter devoted to this story, and yet nowhere in the chapter do I read that anyone asked Spielberg directly. It could be that the whole idea of the story of a journey to Planet Serpo was dreamed up by a fantasist who got the idea from Spielberg’s movie.

It’s an entertaining book and interesting subject. To a skeptic like me, though, it’s fiction.


(1)When going through certain stages of the journey the Earthmen are kept in bubbles, which reminded me of the scenes in the 1956 movie, This Island Earth, where the kidnapped Earth people are in see-through tubes.

(2)The astronauts are not identified by names, but by three digit numbers. The commander, whose diary is quoted, is “102” and all astronauts are referred to by their three-digit numbers throughout the story.

(3)According to the book the Ebens worship a supreme being, and that even the Vatican (!) believes it is “our” (Christian) god. No Muslims or Hindus on Planet Serpo.

(4)I’m one who believes former NBA star Sam Cassell looks like a hybrid alien:

(5)Three died, one en route, two on the planet, two elected to stay on Serpo, which means there were seven who returned.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Tossing the gay marriage football around

It is playoff time for pro football teams, yet even before the post-season began, the football game between gay activists and the State of Utah was underway. Gay activists got a touchdown, then the State threw a pass that was intercepted, but they got it back and scored a touchdown on the very next play.

All right, I know it’s a ridiculous metaphor. Human rights and dignity are not a game. The LGBT community won a lawsuit in Federal Court by having Utah’s discriminatory marriage law declared unconstitutional by Judge Robert Shelby. The State countered with a request for a stay, which was denied, then denied again by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. So the State presented the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Justice Sotomayor, who is over the 10th Circuit Court, agreed to a stay.

That left hundreds of same-sex couples — who had gotten marriage licenses and been married legally in Utah during the giddy time following Judge Shelby’s decision — in a legal limbo. Attorney Mark Lawrence, who filed the lawsuit by enlisting two gay couples being denied their right to marry, said he had expected just what happened with the stay. He also said that it didn’t shake his belief that eventually Judge Shelby’s decision will be upheld and same-sex marriage will finally be the law in the State of Utah.

This, of course, drives the religious and conservative community here crazy. Just after the first of the year Utah governor Gary Herbert chose a new Attorney General (the former AG resigned after a scandal), and that AG, Sean Reyes, promised to spend however much money it would take to fight same-sex marriage.

Jackie Biskupsie (center) marries Joyce Lewallen and Lecie Johnson on December 23, at the Salt Lake County offices during a crush of marriage licenses issued and hallway marriage ceremonies performed after Judge Shelby’s ruling was announced. 

Photo by Francisco Kjolseth. Copyright © 2013 The Salt Lake Tribune.

That there are those of us who believe that same-sex marriage will eventually happen anyway is of no concern to those who oppose it. They will even vow to spend our taxpayer money generously to fight it!

State officials also decided that rights will not be extended to those who were married during that short period when Judge Shelby’s decision was announced until the stay was in place. A couple of days ago United States Attorney General Eric Holder announced that married same-sex couples in Utah will receive the benefits of federal law. So now the ball (there’s that football metaphor again) is in Utah’s hands. The question is, for instance, if same-sex married couples are allowed a federal tax status, what about a state tax status? The legal questions seem unending.

While all of the legal stuff goes on, the Mormon church issued this letter to be read to its members in their meetings (presumably today, Sunday, January 12, 2014), part of which states: “. . . changes in the civil law do not, indeed cannot, change the moral law that God has established. God expects us to uphold and keep his commandments regardless of divergent opinions or trends in society.”  In an article by Brooke Adams about the church letter published January 10, 2014 in the Salt Lake Tribune, the church “called for civility on both sides of the debate while the lawsuit proceeds through courts.” This from a church which recently admitted that their long-held teachings about black people were not doctrinal, but prejudice on the part of their second “prophet,” Brigham Young (who also had 27 wives), and the same church that backed and helped fund the fight for Proposition 8 in California, which was hardly civil. Lawsuits filed against that law led to the same ruling (this time by the Supreme Court in a 5-to-4 decision) that Judge Robert Shelby came to in December. In short, discrimination against a people because of their color, religion or sexual orientation cannot be written into the law. The state cannot tell someone who to love or who they can — or cannot — marry.

In the meantime, and forgive me for extending that silly football metaphor, the LGBT community has had to punt, and the ball is now in someone else’s hands.

Monday, January 06, 2014

I dream of Mitt Romney

I woke up this morning after having an extraordinary dream about none other than last year’s losing presidential candidate. I got up and wrote it down in my insomnia notebook before I had a chance to forget. This is what I wrote:
       I am watching a TV movie featuring Mitt Romney. He has stolen a vintage Schwinn boy’s bicycle. The youngster who is the owner of the bike has disappeared. Mitt believes he will be suspected of having done something to the boy, so he pedals off. He ends up at my former coworker Jerry's house. Jerry tells Mitt he can stay overnight at his house. He even comes out in some yellow flannel pajamas with pictures of little pink bunnies on them. “I have more just like these you can wear,” says Jerry. Mitt tells him, “Gee, those are great jammies but I can't stay here. Let's go to my house.”
     Mitt looks out the window. The bike is lying on the grass where he dropped it. Mitt sees two neighbor boys looking at the bike with suspicion. The kids know it is the missing boy’s stolen bike. Mitt realizes he must keep running.

 Mitt could have afforded to buy this bike, but he chose to steal it. He didn’t get rich spending his money on things he can steal.
     Mitt and Jerry go to leave but Mitt sees the bike has two flat tires. They walk it across the street to a service station where Mitt puts his lips on the valve and tries to blow up the tire like a balloon. Jerry says, “No, Mitt! That's not how you do it!” Mitt admits he’s never had to do anything like fix a bike tire before. A lady who runs the service station comes out and shows Mitt how to use the air pressure hose.
       Because he knows Mitt is a fugitive Jerry changes his mind about going with him. Mitt takes off alone on the stolen bike. He pedals to a café where he is having lunch when he sees several police cars converging on the restaurant. Mitt says, “Oh, no! I'm busted!” The cops come in and tell Mitt the little boy has been found alive and well. He had just wandered off. “What a relief,” says Mitt. The police take the bike and leave Mitt eating his lunch. Happy ending.
The dream ends with me yelling at the television. "That son of a bitch got away with stealing the bike because he's rich!"

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Rob Rogers loves Republicans

Rob Rogers, who has been drawing editorial cartoons since 1984, and a member of the staff of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette since 1993, is an award-winning cartoonist. He also loves Republicans. You can tell because of his portrayals of members of the Grand Old Party. He will never run out of subject matter as long as the Republicans keep feeding him straight lines he can turn into punchlines.

I am a great admirer of Rogers' work, and here are some of my recent favorites by this gifted artist. In Rogers I see influences from the underground comix of the '60s, but in their era those influences were often political. What Rogers is doing is legitimizing what was in its beginnings an outsider art.

In the days of shrinking and disappearing newspapers, and digital presentations taking away from the printed medium, Rogers, like most successful cartoonists, uses both the Internet and print to best advantage to show off his appealing style. The color cartoon on top is from Rogers' website,, and you can read more about Rogers at the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists website here.

Copyright © 2013 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette