100 (Questionable) Movies for $15

I love shopping on Amazon, I love bargains, and I love bad movies — so when I recently stumbled across Mill Creek’s latest 100 Movie DVD packs, knowing well and good that they were probably terrible, I bought them anyway (so you wouldn’t have to).

The three packs I purchased were 100 Greatest Cult Classics, 100 Greatest Sci-Fi Classics, and the one that originally hooked me, 100 Awesomely Cheesy Movies. Each pack sells for around $15 on Amazon, give or take a nickel.

Even if you’re not familiar with Mill Creek, you may have seen some of their compilations before. I know I have seen some of their 4-movie packs at Walmart and Dollar General, and maybe some of their 20-movie packs at Sam’s Club. Upon removing the wrapping from each one of these 100-pack collections, two 50-pack movie collections fell out. Apparently Mill Creek is bundling two of their previously-released 50-movie packs and marketing them as a single 100-movie pack. What’s odd is, the 50-movie packs have an MSRP of around $30, so bundling two of them together and selling them as a single $15 package makes about as much sense as, well, most of the included films.

In case you already have some of the 50-movie packs, the 100 Greatest Cult Classics pack consists of 50 B-Movie Blast and 50 Drive-in Movie Classics. 100 Greatest Sci-Fi Classics contains 50 SciFi Classics and 50 Sci-Fi Invasion. Finally, 100 Awesomely Cheesy Movies is actually 50 The Swinging Seventies and 50 The Excellent Eighties.

Each separate 50 pack of movies comes in its own thick clamshell case. There are 13 DVDs in each case; 12 of the DVDs are double-sided and contain two movies per side. Each DVD comes in a black paper sleeve with a clear plastic window. If you have your glasses nearby, you may be able to make out the titles of the films printed around the center hub of each disc. There’s no way to flip through the discs without removing all of the paper sleeves from the plastic case, which means if the movie you want to watch is on the last DVD, you’re going to be removing them all to get to it.

Fortunately, most of these movies are so bad you will likely have poked your own eyeballs out long before you get to the last DVD.

While only a fool would complain about the quality of 100 movies purchased for $15, I do feel compelled to question Mill Creek’s use of the terms “greatest” and “classics.” I can almost guarantee you that your personal list of the 100 greatest science fiction films of all time does not match Mill Creek’s, unless your list contains films such as Bride of the Gorilla, She Gods of Shark Reef, and the perennial sci-fi classic that makes everybody’s list, Eegah.

If you were expecting Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Star Wars, you may have chosen poorly.

Likewise, if you were hoping for any extra features — and I mean any — these are not the packs for you. These discs don’t contain subtitles. They don’t contain commentary tracks. They don’t even contain trailers. You get a menu that allows you to pick one movie, or the other. There are also scene selections — four per film.

Again, I’m not complaining — merely setting expectations. The movies are not remastered, there are no extras… I mean literally, it’s a bunch of movies in paper sleeves stuffed inside a big fat plastic case. So what exactly are you getting here?

Quantity. If you like b-movies, boy, you had better stock up on the popcorn, mister. We’re talking The Kidnapping of the President quality, starring William Shatner. We’re talking Death Machines, and Deathrow Gameshow. We’re talking Women of Devil’s Island, Voodoo Black Exorcist, and My Mom’s a Werewolf.

We’re talkin’ 1974’s Jive Turkey, you jive turkeys.

Some of these movies are available on YouTube. Most of them are terrible. None of them are “the greatest classics” by any standard imaginable. And yet, here they are — 100 movies for $15. Or, if you’re me, 300 movies for $45.

Videophiles, nitpickers, and people who know what wine goes with which dessert can safely pass these by. On the other hand, if you listen to the How Did This Get Made? podcast, enjoy watching films that make you feel like you may have had a stroke, or wish the guys on Mystery Science Theater 3000 would “pipe down” so you could hear the movie, well, buckle up solder, and get ready for hundreds of hours of terrible entertainment.

(For those who are interested, below is the complete list of movies included on each of these packages.)

Continue reading 100 (Questionable) Movies for $15

Vizio/WiFi Struggles

The earliest reference I can find to “PiVo,” the first PC-based DVR I built, is from 2007. Although I had ripped DVDs to my hard drive prior to 2007, after I set up PiVo, I went all in. I decided the future of home entertainment would be streaming movies, both over the internet and locally. I spent years converting my 1,000+ DVD collection into digital files — first as AVI files, and later, as technology improved, to MP4 and MKV format.

In 2011 we moved to our current house, and my little media streaming network hasn’t been the same since. When things work, they work, but sometimes movies buffer, sometimes they stutter, and sometimes the who thing locks up. I’ve changed so many pieces of the system that it’s been difficult to figure out where the problem lies, or really, exactly when it started.

When I started troubleshooting networks more than two decades ago, I learned the best technique was to start at one end and move to the other. I applied that to my own network, upgrading almost component along the way. When my array of four 2TB drives ran low on space, I replaced them with eight faster 3TB drives. I upgraded my external storage container from SATA-2 to the faster SATA-3, and upgraded my drive controller card at the same time. Eventually I bought a new server, and optimized it. It is no exaggeration to say I have spent thousands of dollars in upgrades trying to fix the problem.

The last piece of the puzzle was my wireless router. It was older than I remembered — 7 years, in fact — and so I thought it wouldn’t hurt to upgrade. I replaced my aging Linksys 2000 with a much more modern Linksys 7500. The new router has external antennas, new features, and is faster. It is a 100% improvement over my old router in every possible way.

It fixed my streaming problem. Finally, movies play without buffering or stuttering. My older 802.11n devices have a stronger signal, and my newer devices that use 5GHz are faster, too. After years of messing with my network, finally, everything was fixed.

And then, the living room television began randomly disconnecting from the wireless network.

Just to recap: my two WD Live boxes (the devices I use to stream movies to my televisions) are now working better. All three of our laptops, and the couple of desktops we have that use wireless, are working better. All four iPhones and both of our iPads are working better. My army of wireless Raspberry Pis are working better. Our two printers, which believe it or not are wireless, are working better. Every single goddamn wireless device in this house is working better.

Except for the living room television.

The Western Digital box I use has Netflix and YouTube apps, but so does the television. Susan and the kids like using the apps built into the television, because it’s less complicated and you only have to use one remote. I didn’t need to fix this for me. I needed to fix this for them.

I physically relocated the wireless router closer to the living room. That didn’t help.I changed the channel on the router. That didn’t help. I installed a device that reboots the router every day at 4 a.m. That didn’t help.

At a loss for ideas, I decided to hook the old router back up and connect only the television to it.

That didn’t help.

Literally, how could that not help? I had just returned things to the way they were before I started!

Shortly before putting my fist through the television, I remembered something. The other day when I turned on the television, I received a notification asking me to approve something. The television must have received a firmware upgrade. I checked online, and sure enough, Vizio recently upgraded the firmware of my television. A review of the television’s manual says that you cannot request an upgrade, reinstall an upgrade, prevent an upgrade, or roll back an upgrade. Upgrades are downloaded when your television is off (strange definition of “off”) and applied when you turn it on. No exceptions.

The symptoms, while not repeatable, are consistent. After 15-20 minutes of streaming directly through the Vizio television, the wireless network disappears. The green bars that designate signal strength are replaced with a triangle warning icon, and even in the setup menu, no wireless networks appear. Sometimes turning the television off and on fixes the problem and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve reset the television back to its factory defaults, and even unplugged it for an hour. Nothing helps.

As part of my troubleshooting last year I bought an EnGenius wireless repeater for a dollar at a garage sale. It didn’t help my network at all (in fact it kind of made things worse) but I threw it in a drawer anyway. I pulled the repeater out of the closet, connected the television to it, and tried that. No help. As a last resort, I reconfigured the device to be a wireless bridge, essentially simulating a wireless network cable. I used a network cable to connect the television to the wireless bridge, and gave it a try.

It worked.

It worked!!!

I opened Stranger Things on Netflix and let it run for several hours. It didn’t lock up once! Even though my current configuration is using my wireless network, it’s bypassing the actual television’s wireless network interface. The problem is definitely with the television’s wireless networking, and definitely was introduced with the latest firmware update. If Vizio is bored and looking for a problem to fix, that would be a good place to look.

The Death of a Chair

A common phrase among writers is “butt-in-chair” time. Websites offering writing advice are particularly fond of the phrase. At its simplest, it means to write, you have to be sitting in a chair, in front of a computer. That’s hard to do for hours on end when your chair hurts your butt after only a few minutes.

The chair I’ve been sitting in for the past 30 years is the brown one you see above.

In the late 1980s, the oil business was booming in Oklahoma. Small oil companies and satellite offices for larger ones moved into town and were hiring like crazy. My mom worked for a couple of different ones during that time. When the bottom fell out of the market those offices closed as quickly as they opened, many of them liquidating their office supplies in the process. It was during one of those liquidations that we acquired several of those office chairs — two brown ones, and two olive-colored ones. They were old when we got them in the late 80s, and I’ve had the two brown ones ever since.

That means the chairs went with me to my first apartment in 1992, to Weatherford in 1993, to Spokane in 1996, and all the houses we’ve owned since then. Here’s a picture of Susan sitting in the chair back in 1993 while I was reading from a book and trying to hypnotize her.

The chairs weren’t without their flaws. They were easy to tip over; when they leaned back, they leaned back fast and hard. The top part of the chair wasn’t fastened to the base, which meant any time you picked the chair up off the ground it came apart in two pieces, usually leaking oil (or something) onto the carpet. Worst of all, there wasn’t much padding left in the seat. Still, they worked, and they got me through the late 1980s, the 1990s, the 2000s, and most of the 2010s.

Last year, Mason asked if he could move one of the two chairs into his bedroom. I let him, and a week later it was broken. He never quite confessed as to what torture he put the chair through in order to break it, but whatever it was, it must have been impressive as I’ve literally been abusing these things for thirty years and it never fazed them.

Even though the other chair remained strong, it also remained uncomfortable. My butt-in-chair time was leading to stiffness-in-back and pain-in-tailbone. I must have whined about it one too many times because for my birthday, Susan bought me a really nice leather office chair.

And it feels great on my tailbone.

I’m too sentimental and nostalgic as it is, and I have to draw the line at old furniture that hurts to sit in. As I look back at pictures of my old computer rooms, it’s amazing how many times the brown chair makes appearances. It’s never in the center of the frame or the subject of the picture. Usually it’s pushed off to the side, almost out of frame but not entirely.

When I first sat in that brown chair I was calling BBSes with a 1200 baud modem on my Commodore 64. While sitting in that chair I did my homework for high school (1989-91), Redlands Community College (1991-93), Southwestern Oklahoma State University (1993-94), Oklahoma City Community College (1999-2000), Southern Nazarene University (2004-05), and the University of Oklahoma (2015-17). I played guitar in it, wrote two books while sitting in it, and played lots of computer games from inside it. I’ve moved it to an apartment, to a mobile home, to Washington state and back, and to three different houses in Oklahoma.

Last weekend, after thirty years of loyal service, I moved it to the curb.

Saying Goodbye to the STI

My dad used to say that slot car racing wasn’t any fun unless the cars could go fast enough to fly off the track. If the cars were permanently stuck to the track and there was no chance of them going airborne — no skill involved in keeping them on all four wheels — then what was the point?

In many ways, my 2013 Subaru WRX STi felt the same way. The car’s computerized brain, buried somewhere deep underneath the hood, made sure that no matter how brave I got, it wasn’t more than the car could handle. If I accidentally gave the engine too much throttle, the computer would prevent the engine from revving past the red line. If I popped the clutch when the light turned green, the computer kept the tires from breaking loose from the pavement. If I came to a stop on a hill, the car would automatically hold down the brake for me as I depressed the clutch, ensuring I wouldn’t roll back into the car behind me.

The stereo wasn’t even loud enough to make my ears ring.

I’ve owned fast vehicles before: a ’79 Formula Firebird, a 5.0 Mustang, even a Yamaha R1 motorcycle. When you hit 100 in the Firebird, the whole interior began to rattle. Any faster than that in the Mustang and the rear end started to feel squirrelly. More than once on the R1, I turned the throttle a little too far and felt the front tire begin to lift up off of the pavement. A couple of times, on the interstate.

But the STi had no such limitations, no reminders that you were getting too big for your britches. Any time I wanted to go a little faster, the car complied. There was always a little bit more grip in the tires, a little bit more boost waiting in the turbo. Whatever the threshold of that car was, I never found it.

Except once. I had just exited the turnpike and was in 3rd gear when the left turn arrow at the end of the ramp turned green. I entered the turn too fast, feeling fearless. Halfway through the turn I hit the gas, causing the back tires to break loose from the road. The rear of the car began to slide out from underneath me as all four tires screamed and spun, grasping for grip. I let off the gas until the car straightened out, shifted gears, and punched the gas. My head snapped back and the little blue beast shot off like a rocket. While it was difficult to to push the car past its limits, apparently it wasn’t impossible.

The car was a head turner, that’s for sure. Every teenager with a loud Honda gave me a thumbs up when they saw me. Every kid driving a Hyundai, Nissan, Mitsubishi, or Volkswagen nodded when we locked eyes. And of course, every Subaru I passed flashed their headlights. We knew… we knew.

No car is perfect. Part of the STi’s performance comes from it’s light weight, which also means thin metal, a plastic interior, and no sound deadening. The car’s stiff racing suspension put you in touch with the road below, sometimes a little too much. And its low stance meant you were never far from the pavement, something my knees reminded me of each time I climbed in and out of the beast.

The WRX STi hatchback in Need For Speed: World

The WRX STi appears on lots of lists, including “the fastest cars under $50,000” and “the 10 cheapest cars with 300 horsepower.” But even more than being fast, the STi was simply fun, fun, fun to drive. It was also occasionally fun, fun, fun to teach kids a lesson on the streets. God only knows how I didn’t get a ticket in this thing.

I remember getting super sad as a kid each time my parents sold one of their cars. My dad’s Blazer, my mom’s Cadillac, the MGB we owned… I loved each one. But what I didn’t understand as a kid was that cars aren’t forever. Wants and needs change. Cars are fun to buy and drive and when the money makes sense you can sell them and buy something else. I loved my Subaru WRX STi, but with two growing kids and a car with metal so thin I was afraid to park it anywhere near another vehicle, the timing (and money) was right to part with it and get something else.

Friday night, Susan and I drove to Ardmore and swapped the STi for a big fat cashier’s check. I don’t know what I’ll buy next, but I’m almost positive it won’t be as fast as the STi was. I hope it’s as fun.

Retiring from Podcasting

I have decided, after nine-and-a-half years, to take a semi-permanent break from podcasting.

I realize that in the big scheme of things, I am nobody. For me to publicly declare my podcasting retirement is the equivalent of your drunken neighbor shouting from his window at three in the morning that he will never eat at IHOP again. It really means nothing to anybody except for him, and in that same way, maybe this means nothing to anybody except for me.

The decision was both easy and hard. It was easy because right now I don’t have enough spare time to put together quality shows. Depending on the podcast, I was spending anywhere from 4-8 hours researching, writing, recording, and editing each episode. Right now, between school, work, and family, I don’t have 4-8 spare hours each week to give.

What makes the decision hard is that I love podcasting. I love putting the shows together. Everything from picking the topics to crafting the segments was fun. As a kid I spent a lot of time in my bedroom playing songs on my record player and telling stories to stuffed animals while pretending to be a radio disk jockey. Almost a decade ago I started doing it again, this time on the internet. It was just as much fun.

And unlike those stuffed animals, you guys wrote me back. I loved receiving emails and Facebook messages and tweets from listeners. Over the past decade I have formed some real friendships both with listeners and fellow podcasters.

I have tried in the past, when life got busy, to put my shows on hold — to slow down production cycles or pause certain projects. I’ve even tried giving up on schedules and releasing shows “when they were ready.” By and large, this hasn’t worked, mostly because of me. No matter how much I promise myself that I’ll only release, say, one show a month, the minute one show goes out the door, mentally, I’m already preparing for the next one. 95% of my listeners were understanding when I was forced to cut back release schedules; 5% — oh, that entitled 5% — let’s just say, “not so much.” Nothing took the wind out of my sails faster than having the first response to a new episode be, “Blah. When’s the next one?” Occasionally, podcasting is soul-crushing.

Most of time though, it’s not. Most of the time it’s great fun, and to pretend like it’s not is stupid. For 9 1/2 years I recorded pretend shows where I told childhood stories and talked about computer games and arcade games and bad movies and got thousands of people to listen to them. I had a lot of fun, made a lot of friends, and even had a couple dozen people pay me for my shows. Yes, it was work, but it was fun work, and I loved it. I don’t want the takeaway from this post to be that this hobby is miserable, because it’s not.

For anyone worried about my library of shows, they’re not going anywhere. I have no plans, short or long term, to take Podcast.RobOHara.com offline. I plan on retaining this domain for the rest of my life. I don’t know how long the iTunes feeds will remain, but I have no plans to remove any of the shows I have created from the internet. Where things are now, as far as I am concerned, they will remain.

This semester I’ll be all but finishing up my master degree in professional writing. In addition to two other classes, I’m writing a science fiction novel that, if things go well, I’ll be editing (and then shopping to agents) in the spring. It’s an important project and an important time in my life, that moment where after being asked “what do you want to be when you grow up” for four decades, you finally know. Sometimes to make time for one dream, another one has to get put back in the closet.

And so, quite literally, the podcart (a cart with wheels that holds my laptop, microphone, and recording gear) has been shut down and wheeled into the closet. I didn’t go as far as to disassemble everything — who knows what the future holds, right? — but for the time being, the recording light has been turned off.

iPad 3: The Light is Fading…

My wife once told me we shouldn’t have a television in our bedroom because Oprah said so.

That’s not the real reason. The real reason is because Susan can’t sleep with the television on, and it doesn’t bother me at all. If it were up to me, I’d start a movie every night before bed and fall asleep during the murky middle. If it was a good movie, I’d watch the end the next night. If it wasn’t, I’d start another one.

But Oprah didn’t say anything about iPads, so I put one on my nightstand. Except for road trips, that’s where it lives 100% of the time. Sometimes I watch movies on it, sometimes I check email and social media sites from it, but most of all, I just read the news on it. Every night as I’m falling asleep, I turn on the iPad and click through each one of my installed news apps: CNN, Fox News, TMZ, the local news, and lastly, the AP News. The AP News one is my favorite because it has three or four categories I enjoy (top news, entertainment, technology, and oddities).

Last night as I was in bed scrolling through news headlines, a notification popped up my AP News app. A small window informed me that the application would require an update after Apple’s newest operating system (iOS 11) was released. I wasn’t sure when that was, so I looked it up. It’s coming next week, and it won’t run on my iPad.

I bought my third-generation iPad (let’s call it the iPad 3) the week they were first released in 2012. It has a quad-core processor, 64GB of storage, and cost $699. Next month’s iOS 11 will render it unusable.

Not overnight, of course. But over the next a few months, a growing number of apps will begin to require the newer OS, and older hardware is shown the door sooner rather than later.

If your plan is to stick your head in the sand and ignore the update, that won’t work. It’s easy to forget that very few apps store all of their data on your device. My AP News app, for example, connects to a server somewhere to pull down its headlines. While the developer cannot remove the app from my iPad, what they can do it deny connections from older versions, which is what they will eventually do. Once the old version of the app no longer receives updates it’s essentially dead, and if the new version requires an iOS update that my iPad won’t run, then it’s game over. Before long it won’t just be the AP News app. It’ll be all of them.

Imagine if the people who built cars also controlled gasoline, and every few years they changed their gasoline so that it no longer ran your car. Nobody’s forcing you to upgrade to a new car, but eventually the gas in your tank would run out and then it would become quite worthless. If you still want to drive, you’ll have to buy a new car that works with the new gasoline. Maybe you’ll even park it next to the old car, which still looks great, but no longer runs.

The reason I know how this story ends is because in another room, mounted to the wall above our treadmill, is my old iPad 1. I paid $500 for that one back in 2010. Its multiple pages of icons serve as a sort of digital graveyard — a catalog of things that used to work. There are still icons for Netflix and Spotify and all my old news applications on it, but none of them work anymore. When you try to open one, a little wheel appears and spins and spins until the app times out and informs my that today’s gasoline won’t work on my antiquated seven-year-old iPad.

I really hate forced obsolescence.

It frustrates me that a magical screen with a quadcore processor requires any sort of update at all to receive news stories (text) from a remote server. This is, without a doubt, the absolutely lowest task any internet-enabled device could possibly perform. A $35 Raspberry Pi machine possesses 1,000x the amount of processing required to do this. Can you believe my 35-year-old Commodore 64, with its 1MHz processor and 64k of RAM, can (thanks to a bit of modern hardware magic) connect to the internet and pull down news updates? My Commodore 64 was built almost fifteen years before the first time I even heard of the internet! The general idea that an iPad 3 is outdated or requires any sort of update to perform the same task is preposterous. It could run forever and never need an update to keep doing what it’s doing.

Which of course is the point; that business model doesn’t sell new iPads.

Ray Harryhausen’s Mythical Menagerie

When Ray Harryhausen passed away in 2013 at the age of 92, I wrote a tribute to the man, his work, and what it meant to me. Ray Harryhausen was a pioneer in the world of stop-motion animation, and I discovered his work at an early age through books and television shows about special effects. If you grew up watching films with stop-motion dinosaurs, giant gorillas, or mythological beasts, chances are you’re already familiar with Harryhausen’s work. If not, here’s a short YouTube clip containing many of the monsters Ray Harryhausen brought to life.

For my birthday, my mom and her husband took my family to visit Mythical Menagerie, a new exhibit of Harryhausen’s work currently on display at Science Museum Oklahoma.

One of the first exhibits that grabbed my attention was the Hydra, the seven-headed serpent from 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts. You can see the Hydra in action in the video clip above, starting around the 1:40 mark. It’s a wickedly complex model, and perhaps a good way to explain the complexity and detail of Harryhausen’s work. The illusion of motion is created by photographing these models, moving them a fraction of an inch, photographing them again, and repeating the process until the sequence is complete. Because film is (or traditionally was) projected at 24 frames per second, it took 24 individual photographs to complete one second of motion. With a creature like the Hydra, that meant moving each of the seven heads a fraction of an inch between each picture. According to Harryhausen, keeping track of which direction each neck was going and whether each mouth was opening or closing was a nightmare. For every eight hours of work, Harryhausen completed roughly 1/2 second of screen footage.

Accompanying the Hydra and many of the artifacts on display were Harryhausen’s original drawings that he used to pitch scenes and demonstrate his ideas to film directors. I once read that Harryhausen said he learned early in his career not to draw things he wasn’t willing or able to animate.

Ray Harryhausen’s signature was his fighting skeletons, which culminated in the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts. If animating the Hydra seemed like a nightmare, remember that each of these skeletons had multiple points of articulation — arms, legs, heads — each of which had to be moved a fraction of an inch between each photograph. All of them, 24 times a second. This may have been one of those things Harryhausen regretted drawing.

The museum had lots of models and pictures on display from not just Jason and the Argonauts but also The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. It wasn’t until I entered the back of the exhibit that I came face to face with a woman who terrified me as a child.

1981’s Clash of the Titans was a hallmark film in many ways. For fans of stop-motion animation, the film was a goldmine as Harryhausen brought to life not only Medusa, but Pegasus, Bubo the Owl, the evil Calibos, and the mighty Kraken.

Keep in mind that these models were not only animated, but had to be blended to match the live action footage. That meant matching lighting conditions, making sure the creatures’ movements were choreographed to match the actors’, and ensuring that everything scaled properly. The actors on screen were often reacting to things that wouldn’t be completed for several months. There’s a reason they used to call it “movie magic.”

I spent several minutes in the exhibit going over the details of Harryhausen’s models. There were aliens and bees, minotaurs and mini-monsters. Despite the fact that most of them were less than a foot tall, when projected up onto a a movie screen, with a little help from Ray, they became literally larger than life.

While I remember watching one of the Sinbad films at the dollar show as a kid, it was Clash of the Titans that made the biggest impression on me. Never in a million years would I have imagined someday I would be looking at the original models that scared an eight-year-old me and made me wonder about special effects. If you were a kid who wondered whose hand was inside Yoda, how they made Superman fly, or how five guys in tunics could do battle with a bunch of evil skeletons, you owe it to yourself to visit Mythical Menagerie, on display through December at Science Museum Oklahoma.

My Thoughts on Twin Peaks: The Return

David Lynch and Mark Frost spent the past five months taking viewers back to Twin Peaks, a place that cannot be returned to. After sitting through all 18 episodes of 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return, I feel like I know so much more, and so much less, about Twin Peaks. Everything was the same, and everything was different. A dozen questions were answered, and a hundred new ones were posed. Twenty five years ago when Twin Peaks first aired, the question on everybody’s lips was, “Who killed Laura Palmer?” By the end of Twin Peaks: The Return, I was asking not only where was Laura Palmer, but when was Laura Palmer, and maybe even why was Laura Palmer.

A quarter of a century ago, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper arrived in the sleepy town of Twin Peaks to solve Laura Palmer’s murder. Cooper’s investigation was the backbone on which the bizarre, confusing, supernatural, sometimes entertaining and sometimes maddening world of Twin Peaks was introduced to viewers. It was through Coop’s eyes that we met the employees of the Twin Peaks sheriff’s department, Laura Palmer’s friends and family, and other citizens of Twin Peaks. By the time Twin Peaks went off the air in 1991, we knew who had killed Laura — an evil spirit named Bob, who had possessed the body of Laura’s father, Leland. At the end of the second season, Bob had possessed the body of Dale Cooper and was loose in Twin Peaks, while the real Dale Cooper was stuck in the Red Room, the lobby that leads to the Black and White Lodges which are located in another dimension.

In Twin Peaks: The Return we find Dale Cooper still lost in limbo while his doppelganger, Mr. C., continues to roam the earth, doing evil. All we want is for the real Agent Cooper to escape the Red Room, return to earth (or at least a plane of existence we recognize), and defeat the evil Mr. C. Of course for David Lynch to deliver that story gift-wrapped in a linear fashion would be downright Un-Lynchian. Instead we get murders, unidentified bodies, time portals, a talking tree, members of the mob, a little person with a propensity for stabbing people with ice picks, and a big person who makes Yoda sound like Shakespeare. Caught up in the middle of all of this is Agent Cooper who, through some weird inter-dimensional travel, is zapped into the body of “Dougie,” where he spends more than a dozen of the season’s eighteen episodes shuffling around in a near-comatose state.

Twin Peaks: The Return feels like swimming through a waking dream, and sometimes a nightmare. New faces are presented as old friends, and old friends don’t act the way we remember. Characters and plot lines appear and disappear at will. Information is presented out of context, making it impossible to process. Each episode is like a movie presented slightly out of order, with the beginning and the ending cut off. The more episode I watched, the more curiosity turned to frustration. Scenes that should (or at least could) have lasted a few seconds dragged on for minutes. As the weeks passed it became impossible to separate the valid signals from the static.

Twenty five years ago, David Lynch fought with network executives over the fact that he never wanted to reveal Laura Palmer’s killer; ABC executives balked and Lynch compromised, a decision he feels ultimately ruined the show. Originally considered to be a confusing and ridiculous show, today, the original Twin Peaks frequently listed as one of the greatest television dramas of all time. Twin Peaks: The Return suffered from no such network interference. It seems Showtime handed Lynch and co-conspirator Frost a huge budget and absolute control, the result being undeniably Lynchian. Viewers hoping to have much of anything explained to or for them are as innocent as the eternally dazed Dougie, shuffling around and waiting for someone to show them the way.

Like the original, I expect Twin Peaks: The Return to be torn apart, analyzed, discussed, and critiqued for years to come. Almost every character this season has complained about not understanding what’s going on. Every viewer this season has complained about the same thing. In the end, the show landed somewhere between the slice of cherry pie we wanted and the gold-painted shovel we deserved. Everything came together for a brief second before it all imploded, worse than ever before.

I can’t wait for another season. If they make one, I won’t watch it. I loved it. I hated it. It was Twin Peaks.

Saying Hello and Goodbye to The Amazing Johnathan

A man in the front row who has never seen The Amazing Johnathan perform just climbed on stage and handed the magician a twenty dollar bill. I assume the man has never seen The Amazing Johnathan perform before because (a) he was sitting in the front row, and (b) he just handed The Amazing Johnathan a twenty dollar bill.

Those of us familiar with The Amazing Johnathan’s act know what’s coming. Over the next 30-45 minutes, our friend from the audience will get run through the wringer by Johnathan’s quick wit and steady stream of one-liners. If he’s lucky, he’ll leave the stage with most of his twenty wrapped in Johnathan’s patented “easy carrying case” (a wad of masking tape); if he’s smart, he won’t hand the magician another bill when he invariably asks for it on stage.

I discovered The Amazing Johnathan in the mid-1980s, when stand-up comedy was making a resurgence both in clubs and on cable television. Johnathan’s frantic mixture of magical props, dark humor and fake blood struck a nerve with me and my friends, and earned him the nickname “the Freddy Kruger of Comedy.” The nickname fit — the Amazing Johnathan’s jokes and delivery were as fast, sharp, and lethal as the blades attached the Freddy’s glove.

With his volunteer from the audience still on stage, Johnathan removes a deck of cards from his pocket and fans them out. “Would you agree this is a normal deck of cards?” the magician asks. When the volunteer agrees, Johnathan asks him, “then how do you explain this?” With that, he swings the deck around and around overhead, showing that all the cards are connected with a single string. “You can’t do that with a normal deck of cards,” he says. It’s going to be a long night for the volunteer, and a laugh riot for the rest of us.

In 1998, Susan, my friend Andy, and I drove to Tunica, Mississippi to see The Amazing Johnathan perform live. He did not disappoint. After the show, I purchased a paperback copy of Johnathon’s Every Trick in the Book and met him after the show to have it signed. I told Johnathan we had come all the way from Oklahoma to see him perform and he told me he was going to be there the following week. When I asked him if he was serious, he said no, and laughed.

Three years ago, The Amazing Johnathan announced he was dying.

I didn’t believe it at first; after all, this is the same guy who sticks a drill bit into his eye, drinks Drain-o, and pulls his eyeball out on stage every night. Sadly, the news was true. The Amazing Johnathan was diagnosed both with cardiomyopathy (a weakening of the heart muscle) and type 2 diabetes, neither of which were helped by years of abusing cocaine and speed. News reports and interviews painted a grim picture. His doctor gave him a year to live. Johnathan did a few final interviews and podcast appearances before giving away most of his possessions, climbing into bed, and preparing to die.

Except, he didn’t.

It’s been three years since The Amazing Johnathan was told he had a year to live. Tired of waiting around to die and after regaining some of his strength (and feeling in his extremities) back, the amazing one booked a few comedy clubs across the country and decided to give it one last hurrah. When I heard the news and learned that he would be performing in Dallas, I asked Susan for a pair of tickets for my birthday. The VIP tickets Susan purchased put us at a table ten feet away from the stage — close enough for eye contact, far enough not to get dragged on stage. (I brought a twenty dollar bill, just in case.)

The Amazing Johnathan moves more slowly than he used to, and the crowds aren’t as big as they were when he was selling out shows in Las Vegas. “Must be because of the hurricane,” said Johnathan, addressing the lack of elephants in the room. “That’s what they told me last week in Columbus, too.” The magician was also quick to address his health issues. When the grim reaper attempted to climb on stage, Johnathan picked up a baby doll with a straw stuck in its head and begin slurping loudly. “Stem cells, man!” he said.

While Johnathan’s physical pace has slowed down (he performs much of the show while sitting or leaning against a stool), the jokes, comedy, laughter, and magic — both his tricks and in the air — were all still present. The first half of the show consisted of classic Amazing Johnathan schtick, while the second half of the show was mostly new material. His new paintings (like the Inception-esque “Picture of a pitcher holding a picture of a pitcher”) along with the introduction of a new art form known as “foam magic” (“I don’t think that’s a cat at all…”) had the audience roaring with laughter. And we were all surprised to learn that Johnathan now has an artificial arm. (“The hand is real; just the arm is artificial.”) If you don’t think The Amazing Johnathan leaves everything he has in him on stage, the sight of his wife helping him down the steps as the guy literally collapses will convince you.

After the show, I purchased a DVD of Johnathan’s and asked him sign it. He asked me if I wanted to take a picture and I quickly handed Susan my phone as Johnathan’s wife leaned in. I put my arm around Johnathan and wanted to tell him a million things, but I began to tear up and my throat swelled. I wanted to tell him how much joy my friends and I have got from watching him perform over the past thirty years, and how many times we’ve quoted things from his act. Instead, all I squeaked out was, “Thank you for everything. I’m glad you’re still with us.”

Then he touched my hand, looked up at me, and said, “barely.”

That’s where he’s wrong. The Amazing Johnathan is going to be with us forever. He was one of the best.

He is one of the best.

Satisfied at 44

The week before I began my 44th trip around the sun I was in a bit of a funk. In July my doctor told me it’s time to lose weight “or else.” I didn’t read nearly as much as I hoped to over the summer, nor did I finish writing either of the books I started. It seems like all of my projects gained more cobwebs than traction. In regards to my personal goals, I was feeling pretty unsatisfied.

Last weekend Susan signed up to volunteer at the TED conference in Kansas City, Missouri, and talked me into riding along. We stayed at a nice, new hotel and ate dinner at a local casino. Even though we were gone less than 24 hours, it was a nice way to end the summer.

After we returned home, Susan gave me my first (of what turned out to be several) birthday gifts: a new leather chair for my office. I must have forgot how many times I’ve complained about my thirty-year-old computer chair (which was a hand-me-down when I got it). The chair hasn’t had any padding in at least a decade, and I dread sitting it for any length of time. “I hope you write a great book in your new chair,” she said.

Over the past few days, Susan and the kids have presented me with a steady stream of small gifts. A few months ago I mentioned to Susan that while I loved our new coffee mug tree, it was a shame we never saw (or used) the mugs stored on the back side. Monday, she bought me a lazy Susan to put underneath the tree. Now, it spins freely! My doctor told me I need to be drinking more water; Morgan bought me a new water bottle that’s the perfect size. Mason came home after school on my birthday with a gift bag filled with my favorite drinks and snacks from the convenient store.

On Sunday, I visited Science Museum Oklahoma with my mom and her husband and saw the Ray Harryhausen exhibit (I’ll be writing more about that shortly). On Tuesday (my birthday), I had breakfast with two of my great friends (Scott and Andy), ate steak for lunch with Susan and my dad, and sushi for dinner with Susan and the kids.

I went to bed very satisfied.