Monday, September 29, 2014

Comics Capsule Reviews



Dawn/Vampirella #1
Dawn/Vampirella #1: Joseph Michael Linsner is one of the finest artists working in modern comics. Unfortunately, as a writer he makes an excellent artist. Linsner created the Dawn character, and here she crosses over for the first time with the long-running blood-sucker Vampirella. I don’t demand much from a story about two sexy women with big boobs (both incidentally created to be comic anthology hosts, not main characters). But making sense would be nice. Both ladies are captured by a well-dressed demon who wants them to catfight. The winner will have the honor of bearing his heir. Given no choice but to battle for their lives, Vampirella prepares to throw down. But wait! Dawn suggest they have a storytelling contest instead. Huh? Because the plot says he has to, the demon agrees. Dawn starts to tell a really boring story until the demon goes to sleep (with the reader) and they try to escape.

I’m not sure what was worse, the inscrutable maze of a plot or the awful, awful dialog. The art was fantastic.

Rating: *** out of 5 stars (for the art)


The Names #1
The Names #1: Writer Peter Milligan never seems to run out of tricks. For his newest project, he turns to the streets of New York City. When Walker commits suicide, his wife Katya doesn’t buy it for a minute. The more she digs into what happened, the more opaque things get. She discovers shady dealings, planted evidence, and a cryptic video Walker left for her that leads to more questions than answers. Tearing her way through Walker’s associates, all Katya wants is the name of the person responsible. She discovers not just a name, but that there may be more Names than she can handle.

Milligan sets up a wonderful mystery and another iconic character. Katya is a smart, kickboxing phenomenon who won’t stop until she gets the truth. And if she has to break a few eggs (or bones) to make the omelet, so be it. The art by Leandro Fernandez is a bit cartoony for my taste, but certainly not bad and fits the material well. A great start for what I hope to be a delicious mystery series.

Rating: **** out of 5 stars


Velvet #7
Velvet #7: This book gets better every issue. Agents Colt and Roberts have been dispatched to find Velvet and kill her. As they follow her from two different ends of the world, the evidence starts to indicate that she may be a pawn in the game, not the guilty party. It becomes clear that she was framed for murder, and she is backtracking events to discover the real culprit. And not in an OJ kind of way. One step ahead of her pursuers, she leads them straight back to London—all part of her plan. When they get there, they find Velvet has kidnapped the one person who can call off the witch hunt and find the actual killers. But will they? Velvet is running out of patience ...

From Steve Epting’s epic artwork to the 1970s setting to the behind-the-scenes letters pages, everything about Velvet works. This book gets Humble Opinions’ Highest Recommendation.

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars


The Bionic Woman Season Four #1
The Bionic Woman Season Four #1: Ohhh, I had such a crush on Lindsay Wagner when I was a kid. Of course I loved the Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman television shows. I was so disappointed Steve Austin and Jamie Sommers didn’t stay together and have robot babies. I was even more disappointed when the Bionic Woman was cancelled after only three seasons. Now Dynamite tries to fill that childhood hole by continuing Jamie’s story with Season Four.  

Dynamite has a good track record with media adaptations—with the exception of Highlander, they have mostly been decent quality. Bionic Woman continues that trend. Leaving behind her former professions as a tennis pro and teacher, Jamie is now performing covert missions full time for the O.S.I. Oscar Goldman is still her boss. While on a mission to retrieve a downed satellite in Mexico, she runs into a covert U.S. military team who have decidedly unfriendly intentions toward her. The story is adventurous and fun, and ends on a cliffhanger that will bring me back next issue. Twelve year-old Jerry would have loved this.

Rating: ***½ out of 5 stars


Justice, Inc. #2
Justice, Inc. #2: Justice, Inc. teams three popular pulp heroes: The Shadow, Doc Savage and The Avenger. Movie producer Michael Uslan (producer of every Batman movie since 1989) is a bona fide comic book fan, but his writing leaves much to be desired. Taking place in the 1930s, Doc Savage from the present goes back in time to warn himself of something. The 1930s Doc takes off for Nepal, meeting an antagonistic Shadow there on a snowy mountaintop. An enraged Avenger joins them while searching for his missing family.

Uslan is no stranger to storytelling and pacing, he just doesn’t do them very well. His books may benefit from him plotting and turning the scripting chores over to a more experienced writer. I do like his penchant for putting historical footnotes regarding the stories in the back of his comics. Those are more interesting than the story itself. The art doesn’t help or hurt the story, as artist Giovanni Timpano gets the job done as an illustrator but is nothing special. I don’t mean to disparage it, everyone is obviously trying hard. It’s just good, not great. Any comic at a price point of $3.99 should be great. Love that Alex Ross cover, though.

Rating: *** out of 5 stars

 
Legenderry #7
Legenderry #7: This steampunk, kitchen-sink miniseries wraps up its first storyline. This massive crossover features steampunk versions of Zorro, Red Sonja, the Six Million (here Thousand) Dollar Man, Vampirella, the Green Hornet and Kato, the Phantom and others. This is the climax of the story, where our heroes track the army of the villains to their secret city and start a major war. Everyone has their moment to shine, especially Red Sonja, who turns out to be quite murderous when poked with a stick. As the good guys wrap things up, the villain Board of Directors escape without a scratch, and figure they are delayed but not stopped. They live to connive again.

Thus ends the first phase of Legenderry, a mash-up I quite enjoyed. Writer Bill Willingham leaves the door open for many more adventures—I hope to see Volume 2 soon.

Rating: **** out of 5 stars

 
Weird Love #3
BOOK OF THE WEEK! Weird Love #3: My love for Weird Love knows no bounds. Stories are reprinted directly from classic romance comics without irony or comment. Why didn’t someone do this years ago? Creators Craig Yoe and Clizia Gussoni are forgiven, because they continue to provide humorous and high-quality entertainment. Let’s look at some of their latest gems:

- There’s No Romance in Rock and Roll (True Life Romance #3, 1956). Teenager Shirley loves that new Rock and Roll music, but it’s obviously turning her into a disobedient shrew. Her parents just can’t talk any sense into her! Anyone can see how evil it is! Enter the squarest joe who ever lived, Tom Simmons. Tom cares about hard work, sacrifice and getting to bed on time. I think Tom was Amish at some point. Tom convinces Shirley all that Rock and Roll stuff is just noise and she deserts her awful Elvis-loving friends. As it should be! Shirley later hung briefly with Charles Manson and helped L. Ron Hubbard create Scientology. Hey, she’s just trying to find herself and is very suggestible.

- Weep, Clown, Weep! (Romantic Secrets #27, 1952). Janie just started her new job as a secretary at the circus. Soon she is dating handsome co-worker Ben, but can’t figure out where he fits in at work. Then she makes a hideous discovery—Ben is a disgusting, repulsive, revolting CLOWN! The nerve! She immediately makes him promise to stop his degenerate activities if he wants to continue molesting her under the main tent. Torn, but horny, he agrees to give up his nauseating life’s dream. Later, at an office dinner party, Ben’s boss asks him to put on the greasepaint and floppy shoes and entertain guests. Seeing Janie isn’t around, he reluctantly does so. Guess who walks in? Hilarity ensues! If by hilarity you mean Ben’s heart gets broken! This leaves Ben free for the attentions of Jamie’s boss, Miss Howell. When Janie finds out, all the sudden Ben isn’t so disgusting. Well, maybe a little. But better some mild disgust than someone else having him! That a girl, Janie!

- Love, Honor and Swing, Baby! (Just Married #67, 1969). Dig those late ‘60s, man! This story opens with a dude and chick being married by a mad, mod Justice of the Peace. “And you take this chick to swing with, Daddy?” he asks. “She turns me on, man!” answers Buckie, which we’ll take as an “I do.” “I dig him the most,” says a strung-out Ruth, also passing for “I do.”  Through a fog of marijuana and LSD, they swing until Buckie gets bored. When he hooks up with Lyla, Ruth is put off by the violation of their sacred marriage vows. She asks Buckie not to swing, as they vowed to forsake all others. I think. Buckie rejects her request, saying, “Cool it, cutie! You married me, but you don’t own me!” A true encapsulation of the hippie manifesto. When Ruth further protests, Buckie loses his temper. “No one tells this cat when to swing, chick! Now split ... you’re buggin’ me, baby!” Way to keep it frosty, Buckie.

Crestfallen, Ruth returns to her parents (calling collect, of course) and they browbeat her into being a sober, productive member of society. Face it; it’s probably their fault she was messed up in the first place. Days later, an unhip, crewcut square in a suit knocks on the door. It’s Buckie! Probably looking for drug money. He has tickets to the honeymoon Ruth has always wanted in Bermuda. Now they can start their new careers as drug mules! And they lived ever after! Not a typo!

And finally, the fantastic Gangster’s Girl (First Love Illustrated #37, 1954). You have to read this to believe it—a nihilistic, cold and empty story. Annie is dating rich gangster Joe, but Phil is an up and coming honest politician for whom she falls hard. When he loses his election (I said honest, remember), Annie is forced to choose between an honest poor man and a life of jewels and furs. She looks at Phil, then at the fur coat, then back at Phil, then at the coat ... and makes her choice. Weird Love, how I love thee!

Rating: ***** out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Link - Psychic Powers Article



By way of Mark Evanier's excellent website, a skeptical report from Molly Fitzpatrick entitled "What I Learned From Five Manhattan Palm Readers." Like Mark (and me), Molly doesn't believe in psychic powers and looks at some of what they call "Barnum Techniques," after P.T. Barnum. These are statements meant to apply to almost everyone, but still personal enough to make patrons think there may be something to these palm reading phonies. And I love how she calls out the odious John Edward as a charlatan, which he totally is. Go read it!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Convention Report – Cincinnati Comic Expo


Over the weekend I attended the fifth annual Cincinnati Comic Expo at the Duke Energy Convention Center in downtown Cincinnati. The con gets bigger every year—longer lines, bigger guests and lots and lots of people dressed like Stormtroopers. As I was pulling into the parking garage I passed two Deadpools, a Thor and a guy with a mask and raccoon tail. It’s like stepping into another dimension for the weekend where you can just let your freak flag fly. It’s kind of freeing, actually, even if I’m not personally the cosplay type. Every one of those folks is accepted, even celebrated, for their deviation from the societal norm.
 
The convention floor on Saturday morning
First I thought I would hit the lines of the celebrity guests from whom I would like to get an autograph. I have a large autograph collection from actors I enjoy, and it’s always a pleasure to meet them and discuss their work if time allows. Some folks are so famous and have so many people who want to meet them there isn’t time to engage in a lot of back and forth. I’m not overwhelmed with celebrities, they’re just people with cool jobs, so I find it fairly easy to chat with them and find common ground.
 
The first person I met was Julie Newmar. I grew up lusting after that is, enjoying her fine acting work as Catwoman on the original Batman TV show. She was the most gracious and friendly celebrity I’ve met at a con (and looks fantastic). I told her I loved her as Catwoman and we discussed the upcoming Batman show on Blu-ray. She said it looked wonderful, much better than it did originally in the ‘60s. I asked her if I could snap a photo. She asked me if I would like to step around and be in it with her.
 
I glanced back at her line and said, “Well, I didn’t want to be rude and ask ...”
 
“Nonsense!” She insisted. “Go ahead and be rude!”
 
I stepped around the table and a con volunteer snapped our photo.

Me and the only Catwoman, Julie Newmar
I thanked her genuinely, got my autographed photo and left (I’ll post all autographs later). Julie Newmar is a sweet lady.
 
Right beside her was the line for Henry Winkler, whom I also wanted to meet. Most celebrities do panels at these shows, where they host an audience, tell stories from their career and answer questions. Henry’s panel was titled, “Jumping the Shark with Henry Winkler.” That told me the man had a sense of humor. During lulls in the line, when people were gathering their money to pay, Henry would walk briefly through the line, telling jokes and doing magic tricks for children. He was a personable, funny guy, always the performer. I picked out a Fonzie photo for him to sign. He had a table full of photos from his long career, but people were only choosing the Fonzie picture for autographs. Why bring anything else? We chatted amiably while Henry signed my photo (I told him I enjoyed his recent interview on Kevin Pollock’s excellent podcast, he said he had a blast doing it). We snapped a photo then he was off to the next person.

Hangin' with the Fonz, Henry Winkler
I’ve loved John Rhys Davies since Raiders of the Lost Ark—he played Indy’s sidekick Sallah. Since then he’s played Gimli the dwarf in the Lord of the Rings movies and lots of other juicy roles. Davies did not do photos with folks in line—attendees had to pay an extra fee and go to a separate photo session to get one. That’s fine, but too rich for my blood. However, when a woman in a wheelchair in front of me bought an autograph, Davies asked her if she would like a photo with him. She said she didn’t want to delay the line. Davies, in that deep baritone voice, looked at the line crowd and said, “Oh, I don’t think anyone would mind, right folks?” Of course no one did. He got up from behind his table, came around by the woman and posed next to her. Her daughter snapped a photo and now she has a lifetime memory about what a class act John Rhys Davies is.
 
When I got up to him, I chose a photo of Davies as Gimli from LOTR for him to sign. He smiled and asked me what I did for a living. He was asking everyone, I suppose as something familiar and easy to talk about to break the ice. “I’m in sales,” I told him. “Oh, one of those fast-talking sales types, eh?” He asked facetiously. I told him I first became aware of his work in PBS’ I, Claudius (which is fantastic, if you’ve never seen it). He played a very mean Roman soldier.
 
“I’m afraid you’re dating yourself,” he quipped. I laughed and told him I saw it on tape, not on the air originally in the ‘70s. Thirteen year-old Jerry would not have known what to make of I, Claudius in 1977.
 
John Rhys Davies Signing Away
The celebrity stuff done, I turned to the real reason I was there, comics. There were some great deals to be had and some rare books to find. Unfortunately, those two things did not necessarily go together. I definitely filled some holes in my collection and found the one book I needed to finish a title (Marvel Two-In-One from the ‘70s). I also found some cheap Giant-Size Marvel books and found affordable copies of Marvel’s Avengers #54 and #55. That is tough to do, since those books are the first appearance of the villain Ultron, who will be the antagonist in the next Avengers movie.
  
Avengers #55
Not that I care, but the value on those books should shoot ever higher when the movie comes out next year. I don’t collect comics for their worth as investment, but it’s a happy coincidence when they appreciate in value.
 
George Perez sketching his fingers to the bone
I did take some comics for the guest comic artists to sign. Marv Wolfman (real name, by the way), writer of so many great comic book stories (Tomb of Dracula, Spider-Man, Teen Titans) was there and signed several books for me. I also wanted to get the same books signed by the master artist George Perez. After standing in Perez’s line for an hour, it turned out he was doing (and charging for, of course) sketches for individuals in his line. No big deal, but artists sometimes separate their time at cons to do sketches and to sign books and meet fans. Sketches could take up to 20 to 30 minutes and he had around 40 people in his line. Do the math. It would have taken hours to get to the front of the line, so I just skipped it and planned to come back later. However, Perez’s line never went down and he was always sketching away. Maybe next time.

Neal Adams, the World's Greatest Comic Book Artist
Neal Adams is the greatest comic book artist of all time. Just ask him. Neal laughs about his arrogance, but really, he is the greatest comic book artist of all time. He draws the definitive Batman, the definitive Green Lantern, the definitive Green Arrow, Superman, Tarzan, Conan; the list goes on. I had Neal sign a Batman print for me while I gushed about his artwork and he agreed. I don’t think it’s wrong to think and say you’re the best if you can back it up. Adams can.
 
The cosplay this year was better than ever. I’m not sure how people create their costumes from scratch, with authentic helmets, weapons, armor and other accessories. But it sure is fun to look at.
 
The Hulk and Thor. Those are real muscles on the Hulk. And Thor.
 
It's Federal law now that all cons have to have at least one Slave Leia. Here's ours.
 
Stormtrooper on an ... animal ... thingee. I'm losing my Geek cred here ...
 
Ashley Smallwood in a fantastic Hawkgirl costume
 
Samuel Brooker as Agent Venom
 
A comic-accurate Black Widow with attitude
 
"I'm Batgirl"
 
A majestic Magneto
 
Catwoman, in a nice homage to Julie Newmar
To wrap up, the con was better than ever this year. But the long lines and crowded hall made it a bit tough to navigate down some parts of the convention floor. I heard they had a capacity crowd and for around 40 minutes the Fire Marshal wouldn’t let new attendees in—not sure if that is true but I would certainly believe it. I was so busy on the floor I didn’t make it to any panels this year, and I would have loved to see Julie Newmar’s and Henry Winkler’s. Overall, a successful, well-run con.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Recent Movies

 
The Perfect Host - Dr. Niles Crane himself, David Hyde-Pierce, returns to the big screen as Warwick Wilson, a mild professional preparing a dinner party for some friends. On the run from a botched bank robbery, John Taylor (Clayne Crawford, an actor who specializes in smarmy Southern grifters, and does it well), cleverly talks his way into Warwick’s house to rest and plan his next move. He soon finds that this is probably a bad idea. This film takes an abundance of twists and turns and no one and nothing are what they appear. I’d love to talk more about the plot, but it’s better if you go in knowing nothing about what happens. Let’s just say the evening doesn’t turn out as expected for anyone involved. There is also a surprise appearance from ‘70s folk/pop singer Helen Reddy as a nosy neighbor. Doesn’t look like she’s roaring much these days. This is a deliciously fun and twisty little thriller.
 
Rating: **** out of 5 stars
 
 
 
Escape Plan - I suppose Stallone and Schwarzenegger liked working together so much on the Expendables, they chose to team up on this prison escape movie. Their chemistry works, as Escape Plan was quite an enjoyable ride. Stallone is Ray Breslin, an engineer who designs (and escapes from) prisons for a living. When the government hires him to escape a top-secret, futuristic prison and pays Ray and this team top dollar to do so, things take a wrong turn the instant he arrives. The evil warden (Jim Caviezel) isn’t having anyone escape on his watch—regardless of how many beatings he has to apply to make the point. Schwarzenegger plays Rottmayer, an international crime lord who may have the connections to get them out—if they can stay alive long enough to find a way. Meanwhile on the outside, Ray’s team is desperately searching for the prison’s secret location to rescue him.
 
In addition to seeing two aging tough guys have fun, Escape Plan does offer a good story and some solid excitement, as Stallone, investigating escape routes, regularly comes close to discovery and torture by the sadistic warden. No Oscar buzz here, just an enjoyable adventure with two classic action actors.
 
Rating: ***½ out of 5 stars

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Infographic - Star Trek Fan Percentages by State


Surprisingly, according to this chart, Oregon has the most Star Trek fans, Mississippi the fewest. Obviously, Mississippians also hate apple pie and puppies. Joking! Kentucky came in at No. 24, probably because of that stupid Next Generation.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Comics Capsule Reviews

Grendel vs. The Shadow #1
- BOOK OF THE WEEK: Grendel vs. The Shadow #1: Matt Wagner is doing some masterful work in recent comics. This book is a legendary meeting between Wagner’s own creation Hunter Rose, the novelist/businessman/ anti-hero/criminal known as Grendel, and one of my favorite pulp heroes, the Shadow. Hunter Rose terrorized major cities in the 1980s, the Shadow operates in the pulpy noir days of the 1930s. Wagner navigates around this conundrum without too much hoopla; Rose reads an antique scroll out loud and is unexpectedly transferred back in time. Isn’t that always the way? Other characters might find this disorienting or have a panic attack. Not Grendel. He sees it as an opportunity. He immediately begins an operation to murder and terrorize local organized crime gangs in order to take over as the head crime boss. This of course brings him to the attention of the Shadow, who finds a new challenge in this unique and brilliant tactician. The book ends as the Shadow, .45s blazing, confronts Grendel in person for the first time high atop a skyscraper.
 
It’s fun to see an irresistible force meet an immovable object. Grendel exists to seize power and affluence, mostly via murder and intimidation. The Shadow exists to shoot people like that in the head. Their confrontation next issue will be the stuff of legends.
 
Rating: ****½ out of 5 stars
 

Original Sin #8
- Original Sin #8: [SPOILERS] Marvel’s latest big event maxiseries wraps up with a whimper. This is not their greatest work. The Watcher is dead, killed by Nick Fury. Fury is the new Watcher (I think), Tim (Dum Dum) Dugan is dead. Marvel is a bit weak on creating things, but they love to tear things down and kill classic characters. Bucky is now some kind of cosmic protector whose job is to stand on meteors and shoot bad guys on other planets (or something). During the series, deep, dark secrets were supposed to be revealed about Marvel heroes. This is just another way Marvel can say their heroes are bad guys at heart. I think that’s how they think they can relate to younger readers today. “Hey, everyone is evil, am I right? People are animals who respond to their base urges, why should Marvel heroes strive for anything better?” Original Sin leaves a new status quo in the Marvel Universe that Marvel has been working toward for about a decade. Their heroes are not heroes, they’re no better than the villains they fight. And Axel Foley (the guy who runs Marvel, whatever his name is) is proud of that fact. Perhaps I’m being unfair—after all, I am not the audience for these books. The art was good.
 
Rating:  * out of 5 stars
 
Southern Bastards #4
- Southern Bastards #4: The first storyline of this intense crime book wraps up with some surprising twists that turn the storyline on its head. After more than 40 years, Earl Tubb has returned home to Alabama. Being a hardhead with more guts than sense, he challenges Coach Boss, the local crime lord. After Coach Boss puts the kid next door to Earl in the hospital to teach Earl a lesson, Earl goes down to the diner to settle things once and for all. The results are a bit unexpected and lead to an enormous cliffhanger. Apparently Earl’s soldier daughter will be joining the cast next issue. She has her work cut out for her.
 
The creative team of writer Jason Aaron and artist Jason Latour (both southern bastards themselves) are doing some stellar work here. The book is violent, real and is sometimes tough to read. Whether the work will ultimately be rewarding remains to be determined, but so far so good.
 
Rating: **** out of 5 stars
 

Ex-Con #1
- Ex-Con #1: Crime writer Duane Swierczynski opens the story of Cody Pomeray, a California grifter at the end of his string of good luck. Cody has what one of his doctors called “color synesthesia”—his perception of others is linked to colors. He sees greed as a green halo around someone’s head, jealously as pink, weakness as orange, lust as red. This allows him to read people pretty well, until it doesn’t. Arrested during his latest scam, Cody does his first state prison stay. Saved from a beating by one of the prison leaders named Pope, Cody is asked to do him a favor when he is released. Four years later, soon after his release, Pope’s representative comes around to collect. And this favor looks to be more dangerous than anything he faced in prison.
 
An intriguing first issue. Cody’s color perceptions seemed to stop in prison; will they return now that he is out? What is the full extent of Pope’s requested favor? Does Cody have any redeeming qualities? I look forward to finding out.
 
Rating: ***½ out of 5 stars
 
All New X-Men #31
- All New X-Men #31: The X-Men’s mutant hunting device Cerebro finds another powerful mutant. After some typical but not unpleasant bickering, the X-Men fly out to investigate. They find Carmen, a new mutant who can zap things to different dimensions. When confronted by said X-Men, Carmen, frightened out of her wits, zaps most of them all over several universes.
 
Bendis tells a fun story, I generally like what he is doing with the X-Men. However, this will be my last issue of All New X-Men. The splash page cliffhanger at the end of the book features Ultimate Spider-Man, a character I find to be a politically correct bore. Bendis falls in love with his own ideas sometimes, and that Ultimate nonsense doesn’t belong anywhere really, much less in the original Marvel Universe. The Ultimate books, characters, costumes, concepts and stories are unequivocally awful. Former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada said it best himself; when asked if the Ultimate and regular universes would ever officially cross over, he said “[he'd] rather close down one universe than have them cross over because it meant they were officially out of ideas.”
 
I agree. Quesada said it himself: Marvel is now officially out of ideas. I wouldn’t read an Ultimate book (even the name of the line is presumptuous and grating) if someone gave me one. I’m certainly not paying $3.99 for the privilege. Bye, All New X-Men!
 
Rating: Book: *** out of 5 stars.
Last Page: 0 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Prison Tales – My Friend Sam, Part Three


This is part three of a continuing series looking at my friend Sam’s prison stay for selling overloaded fireworks. A monetary fine would have been sufficient punishment; Sam is a good person and hardly a licentious reprobate. But I suppose the Federal government goons think there aren’t enough decent, hard working businessmen in prison.
 
Part One is here.
 
Part Two is here.
 
I’ve been to visit Sam in prison three times now. He’s been there since May of this year. I am trying to go every month or six weeks in a rotation with other friends and family so he has constantly revolving company. Visiting hours are 8am-3pm on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and holidays. There is an extremely and intentionally confusing point system applied to each convict regarding visitors. They are allowed either 9 or 12 points per month, the specifics are unclear. Each visitor represents a point. Except on the days they get two points. Holidays are no points. It makes no sense ... brought to you by the Federal government, ladies and gentlemen! Sam has a friend who lives in Viet Nam who keeps threatening to visit—I’d hate for him to come halfway around the world, only to be turned away at the prison doors because Sam has too many points for the month because no one can understand or calculate the system. But then, I’m not even sure the authorities understand the point system, so it may not matter.
 
Anyway, I’ve learned the visitor registration system well, so I smoothly engaged the guards and entered the visiting area. No watch, no wallet, no shorts, no hand grenades. Just driver’s license and a car key. And pants. Sam came out looking fit and happy to see someone not dressed in gray. He’d had a recent haircut (done by another convict for a cost of seven stamps) and looked good enough. I couldn’t help but notice how white his hair is getting. Middle age affects us all, but I’m sure the stress of the last few years had something to do with there being more salt than pepper on top. It’s thick as ever, though.
 
We hugged hello, then sat down in a crowded room of visitors. The visiting area is full of square rows of uncomfortable airport-style seating (well, it is a prison). We shared a square with a busy Hispanic family with some entertaining and energetic children. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear it was a typical family with young kids and grandma in tow at the mall, instead of visiting day at the Federal prison.  Sam asked for news and gossip and I did my best to supply. He filled me in on how life was going behind the walls in the “work camp.”
 
The worst thing about minimum-security prison (which tends not to have the violence and abuse of maximum security) is the tedium. The sameness. Every day report for head count. Breakfast. Activities, reading, lunch. Work or job activities. Dinner. Head count. Sports or free time. Bed. Next day, rinse and repeat, until your time is served. Sam said he made out a schedule so he would know what he had to look forward to. He was going to utilize his teaching experience to teach a speech class, but only two folks signed up and it was canceled for now. As a devout Catholic, he goes to Mass on Tuesdays and helps with the Communion service on Sunday mornings. He attends a few classes and tends to have plenty to read. He does have a job cleaning rooms and makes a little over $10.00 per month for his efforts. He said the mind-numbing monotony can make the prisoners a little stir crazy, and asked me to encourage folks to write and visit him as much as possible to take his mind off things, at least for a few minutes at a time. He said a 50 year-old prisoner had recently committed suicide, and that had cast a pallor over the entire prison. Sam didn’t know the man, but we both felt sorrow for the devastating effect on his loved ones. A work camp, minimum security or not, is still a prison.
 
Our talk turned to some of the other folks inside. I asked about some of the things his fellow convicts had done to be sentenced to the camp. Here are some of them:
 
- Wire fraud
- Stole an identity, then bought an Escalade. Did not make any payments, somehow discovered and caught by the police.
- Rigged an ATM scam to get cash regularly from ATMs all over the city.
- Doctor who wrote drug prescriptions for cash and sex. Caught in an FBI sting and took a plea for seven years.
- Lawyer convicted for ethics charges
- Pharmacist convicted on drug charges
 
95% of prisoners were there for some type of drug-related crime. I’ve never taken an illegal drug, never even tried a joint. But this statistic did make me want to rethink, or at least examine, our nation’s drug laws. That’s an awful lot of prison real estate taken up and families ripped apart by non-violent felons. Do they really need to be behind bars for years at a time? What lesson do these folks learn? How to go broke? How to lose their family? In my mind, this would not apply to anyone caught selling drugs to children. That should be swiftly punished by the death penalty.
 
Sam usually destroys the visiting room vending machines on visits, since on the whole prisoners are denied sweets and soft drinks. However, he had just had lunch, so he only went through a honey bun, a Yoo-Hoo, a Pepsi and a cup of coffee. He also had a hamburger from the sandwich machine that looked a little ... dubious. But, it’s amazing what they’re doing with weasel meat today.
 
I asked him if his release date was more definitive. He said he thinks he can get out sometime in June of next year, with home incarceration until August. Then parole for three years and he’ll be a free citizen again. Unable to vote or carry a handgun due to his felony, but free nonetheless.
 
Promptly at 3:00pm (the three hours I was there flew by), a guard announced visiting hours were over. We embraced goodbye. I promised to take care of a few things for him on the outside and return soon. Walking out those doors, leaving my best friend inside for several hundred more rounds of card playing and floor mopping, had the same effect on both of us; sadness and despair. Only 234 days to go until I get my friend back.