Our Big Hawaii Vacation, Week 2: The Big Island

After our week on Maui, we took an inter-island flight to the big island, returning there for the third time. (You can find a chronicle of our first trip here, and our second here.) Though we enjoyed our week on Maui, we were even more looking forward to this leg of the trip, since we really like the big island.

As we did with Maui, we used the latest edition of Andrew Doughty’s guidebook, Hawaii: The Big Island Revealed, to help us out on this trip.

Unfortunately, this leg didn’t start out very promisingly: Debbi was disappointed in our rental car, which was a Mercury Grand Marquis, or as she put it, a “grandparent car”. It’s a pretty big boat, and not as nice as the cars we had on Maui (its controls suck, and feel like they’re straight out of the 70s), but it served us reasonably well in the end.

The Hotel

We stayed at the Marriott Waikoloa, which is where we’ve stayed before. It’s a pretty good hotel, but it takes a little getting used to because the rooms are pretty small, smaller than those at the Westin Maui. But we’ve been through this before, it just took a little getting used to. And besides, it’s not like we spend a lot of time in the room.

On the other hand, we like the grounds at the Marriott quite a bit: A deeper pool to swim in, a better selection of breakfast food at the cafe, three hot tubs, and they’re open 24 hours a day. It’s a little further to the beach, but the sunsets are brilliant.

We were definitely spoiled on Maui by the short drive from the Westin to Lahaina. From the Mariott, it’s about 15 minutes to a small town to the north, and 30 minutes to the major town of Kona to the south, which means planning ahead for meals and trips unless you want to eat at the hotel or do a lot of extra driving (which we sometimes did). And meals in the Kohala area where the hotel is are expensive, and not always worth it. Still, I’m not sure I’d want to stay in Kona instead – not as pretty, often much hotter, and sometimes rainy.


The biggest disappointment was learning that several of our favorite restaurants were closed. The big blow for me was that Huli Sue’s BBQ was closed for remodeling (nope, no mention at all on their web site). I had been hoping to eat at least a couple of meals there, having loved it the first time. And Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill was also closed for remodeling. Lastly, the Aloha Theatre Cafe has apparently gone out of business (I’m not certain of this, but their phone was disconnected and they had a big “closed” note at their front door), which is a bummer since we loved their breakfast last time we visited. Really disappointing all around.

Well, on the bright side Jackie Rey’s reopened Friday evening, and we went there for dinner, enjoying their terrific cocktails and rich dessert.

We also discovered some new restaurants: In Hilo we really liked the Hilo Bay Cafe, which had terrific onion rings and mixed drinks, and the entrees were pretty tasty too!

South of Kona we loved Annie’s Island Fresh Burgers: Also fantastic onion rings, wonderful burgers, and killer chocolate pudding for dessert. We went twice. This was one restaurant not mentioned in Doughty’s guidebook, but it’s the best restaurant we discovered on this trip. Highly recommended.


We drove down to the Punalu’u black sand beach, a pretty long trip from our hotel, but worth it because, as advertised, it’s loaded with sea turtles: We saw four lying on the beach sunning themselves, and several others swimming in the tide pools dining on seaweed. Really cool.

We also saw a couple of turtles swimming along the shore at the beach by our hotel. One of them I followed down the beach, and he turned, reared up out of the water looking at me, then went back down and swam out to sea. I love sea turtles, even if they’re not exactly the prettiest animals when looking at them face-to-face.

We also walked to Kiholo Bay, which was a disappointment: We saw one sea turtle (okay, that part wasn’t disappointing, but I was expecting more), and the walk there – which I’d expected to be on either dirt or maybe a gravel road, was actually on a difficult mix of gravel-sized rock and sand. I hear this bay can be a terrific place to visit, but on this day it was just a bay.

Coffee and Donkey Balls

We always visit a couple of coffee farms while we’re on the big island, since Kona coffee is pretty much the best in the world (apologies to the rest of the coffee-growing world). We bought several pounds at Greenwell Farms, including their chocolate macadamia nut (I’ve also ordered from them online, so check them our if you want some Kona coffee), and another pound at Bay View Farm.

We also picked up a bunch of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts at the Donkey Ball Factory. We later learned the location in Kainaliu has split from other locations selling Keoki’s Donkey Balls from Surfin’ Ass. A little confusing, but they’re all good.

We also made a return trip to the Place of Refuge, which is one of the most impressive sites on the island.

Saddle Road and Hilo

Some years ago it was against many rental car agreements to drive over Saddle Road, which goes over the center of the island between the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea volcanoes, but no more, so we decided to drive it on the way to the town of Hilo on the other side of the island. Other than a few miles on the Kona side of the island, the road is a well-paved 2-lane road (sometimes wider), and you only get up to about 5000 feet, so it’s a pretty easy drive. (Even the bumpier parts are quite navigable in any standard car.)

There’s not a lot to see up there, but the stark landscape is rather pretty, gradually transforming to the lush greenery of the Hilo side of the island. But it was something new to do.

The only comic book store on either Maui or the big island is Syzygy Comics in Hilo, and I wanted to stop by. It turns out they’re only open 3 days a week for part of the day, and they were closed when we went by. Looking through the window their store is only half-full, with some long boxes of back issues and a few graphic novels and perhaps new comics. My guess is they mainly serve locals who want to buy new comics and that there’s not enough of a market on the big island for the sort of store I’m used to in the bay area. Kind of a bummer, though.

We did stop in a couple of nice bookstores and got some shave ice in Hilo. Then we drove down into Puna to drive along the coast and take in the sights along the ocean, before coming back to Hilo for dinner.

By the time we were done with dinner it was dark out. Usually we drive back from Hilo along the north coast, which is very scenic but has many twists and turns due to the river gulches you have to drive over. And of course it’s not scenic at all in the dark. So we decided to take Saddle Road back. We were worried briefly about visibility as we ascended through the clouds, but it actually went perfectly smoothly (and there was a smattering of other traffic which could have helped if we’d stalled out or something), and I think it cut at least 45 minutes off our return trip. Quite a good idea, I think.

Mo’okini Heiau

We’ve visited many of the historic sites on the big island before, but one of the ones we haven’t been to is the Kohala Historical Sites State Monument on the north side of the island, which comprises Mo’okini Heiau (an ancient place of bloody sacrifice), and the birthplace of Kamehameha the Great, who united the islands in the late 18th century.

Although only a mile and a half from the small Upolu Airport, the road there is a poorly-maintained dirt trail, and at times it can be a tough drive even for a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. My hope was that we could drive a third of the way, to the end of the airport runway, and walk the rest of the way, and that’s exactly what we did. Although the road was in much better condition than that described in this account, I still wouldn’t have wanted to drive it in 2WD. Indeed, we encountered two other cars which turned around and gave up – and no other hikers. (We did see a 4WD vehicle taking in the scenery, though.)

The hike is hot, humid, and windy, but at least it’s mostly right along the coast, so it’s pretty.

The Heiau itself is a very impressive large stone construct on a sloped plain of matted grass-like plants amidst the brown, wind-swept landscape. It’s pretty eerie, although not quite enough to be sppoky. Kamehameha’s birthplace (which I suspect is actually the town near where he was actually born) is a collection of stone walls with not a lot to see. Neither landmark has any real displays describing the site, so you need to read about it elsewhere.

These are not essential viewing, but if you appreciate the stark beauty of the north shore, as I do, and enjoy going for an unusual hike, then it’s worth a look. Allow about 3 hours and bring plenty of water.

We rewarded ourselves with Tropical Dreams ice cream in Hawi after our successful trip.

Other Things

Our rental car agent claimed that “everything is cheaper on the big island”, compared to Maui. In fact gas was 10¢/gallon more expensive on the big island compared to Maui, which is a bummer since one does a lot more driving on the big island. We made a point of gassing up at Costco whenever possible. (Gas is somewhat cheaper in Hilo, but still a bit more expensive than Maui.)

We dropped in at Kona Bay Books, an impressive used bookstore even by mainland standards (and maybe the largest bookstore on the island now that Borders has closed), and Debbi bought a number of things, while I found one book. I always feel a little guilty buying used books in Hawaii, since I’m effectively taking them out of circulation there by bringing them back to the mainland.

We made a point of getting shave ice several times in Kona – great to stave off overheating while shopping there. We each picked up a number of souvenirs and trinkets in Kona, mine mostly turtle-related. Debbi bought a really nice necklace.

We mostly lounged by the pool in the mornings, but the last two mornings we hit the beach instead. We learned that a good chunk of sand at our hotel’s beach had been washed away by the tsunami last spring (the one that devastated northern Japan). I wonder whether it’ll come back any time soon? We only had to go out a few dozen feet to see some small coral clusters with some tropical fish swimming around – and that was just with goggles and no fins. Apparently the sights were much more impressive if you went farther out with snorkeling gear. Neither of us is especially excited to see an eel, though!

All-in-all we had a great vacation to both islands, even if we had a few disappointments along the way. 2 weeks is a really long time to be away from home, though (it’s my longest vacation since I finished school, actually), and we were both happy to head home to our kitties, which took the edge of being sad to leave Hawaii.

I’m sure we’ll go back in the next few years.

(I’ll also post some photos from our trip in further entries over the next couple of weeks.)

Our Big Hawaii Vacation, Week 1: Maui

This year, with Debbi having a sabbatical from work, we planned a two-week vacation to Hawaii, from which we returned earlier this week. It was great.

We left on Monday, September 12, landing in Maui. We’d never been to Maui before, although we’d been to the big island twice, but we’d always heard good things about Maui and figured a 2-week trip was a good chance to try a new island.

As usual for our Hawaii trips, we used Andrew Doughty’s guidebook for the island, in this case Maui Revealed, to key our exploration of the island. It’s excellent and highly recommended, as all his big island books have been.

The Hotel

We stayed at the Westin Maui, a nice hotel right on the beach and only a few miles’ drive from Lahaina, the main town in west Maui. We liked the rooms – nice and spacious, comfortable bed – and our room overlooked the central pool area. The Westin’s pools consisted of five pools and a hot tub, plus an impressive slide. Despite this we weren’t bowled over by their pools: None of them were more than four feet deep, the single hot tub was often filled, and the water was a little too cold for our preference. Still, we spent most morning by and in the pool.

The beach-front location was nice, too, although we didn’t avail ourselves of it except to watch sunsets. Being right next door to Whaler’s Village was nice for some shopping and meals, though. The self-parking lot fills up almost every night, but to their credit the Westin valet parks cars in such circumstances for free, which is pretty convenient.

The biggest downside to the Westin was the lack of good breakfast options: The hotel’s restaurants were even more overpriced than usual for Hawaii, and the coffee stand had a decided lack of variety in the pastries they offered.

While I wouldn’t say I was especially impressed by the Westin, I’d consider staying there again. The conveniences it did offer, and the proximity to Lahaina, were both quite nice.

The Road to Hana

The big “thing to do” on Maui is drive the road to Hana, the small town on the eastern edge of Maui. This is an all-day trip, because the highway is a narrow, twisty road through lush forests, whose bridges are almost entirely one-lane (so you have to yield to oncoming traffic), with frequent stops to view waterfalls, and a few neat detours to the ocean. The journey is the experience: Hana is a pretty small town (which we didn’t even stop in).

We were visiting during the dry season, so the waterfalls were not in their full splendor, but they were still pretty neat. We also stopped at a botanical garden, and drove out a couple of peninsulas to the ocean. Then we went to O’heo Gulch, site of the “Seven Sacred Pools” (a publicity name), with perhaps the most impressive waterfalls of the trip.

The drive back through the southern end of the island is considerably trickier than the drive out, because there’s a 10-mile stretch of road which is either very roughly paved, or completely unpaved. So progress is maybe 10-20 miles per hour, depending on how bad a particular stretch of road is. We were very glad we managed to make it through this stretch before sunset. The southern side of the island is dry and stark, but pretty in its own ways, and I’m not sorry we did it. It’s perfectly drivable in a 2-wheel-drive car, though, and it’s not full of potholes; it’s just very rough. Any modern car should be able to do the drive safely.


By far the best restaurant we went to on the island was Flatbread in the little town of Pa’ia, an awesome pizza restaurant which Doughty raved about in his book, and the raves were well deserved. We visited it on the way back from Hana, and then again later in the week, and it was delicious both times. Their drinks are great, too! I see now they have other locations, in the northeastern US, which I’ll have to check out next time I’m there.

Our other favorite place was Anthony’s Coffee, also in Pa’ia, where we had a yummy breakfast before driving to Hana. They also have tasty frappuccino-type drinks, and we got a delicious banana chocolate chip muffin there one day.

The other restaurant we visited twice was Leilani’s on the Beach, in the Whaler’s Village next to our hotel. You couldn’t beat the location, but their food was quite good, and their drinks pretty deadly.

Java Jazz & Soup Nutz is a very quirky restaurant with eclectic decor and yummy burgers and fries, one of the less expensive places to eat in west Maui, but worth a visit just for the food. The decor reminded me of a few of the odder places I patronized when I lived in New Orleans.


Warren and Annabelle’s came highly recommended by Doughty: It’s dinner (yummy drinks and a collection of tasty appetizers) in a fancy parlor lounge with tunes performed on piano by the resident ghost (Annabelle), followed by a magic show. Warren’s show is supposed to be amazing, but he doesn’t perform there all the time, and we saw a couple of other magicians. The show was good, but it did leave me wondering what about Warren’s show was so amazing. Still, a nice evening out.

Nakalele Blowhole

I think we agreed that our favorite adventure on Maui was to the Nakalele blowhole, a few miles off the highway, but we took the alternate route through what Doughty calls the “acid war zone”: The water had been eating away at the rocks along the way, making it look like a war zone between armies fighting with acid. The route is a little tricky to figure out, and the climb down the hill to the war zone takes some patience, but the landscape is eerie – someone needs to film some scenes in a movie or TV show here – and the blowhole itself – water shooting up through a hole in the shoreline rock when a big wave crashes under it – is also nifty. It’s enough of a hike that you feel like you’ve really accomplished something, and the scenery is worth the effort.

Sunset from Haleakala

One afternoon we drove up to the top of the Haleakala volcano to watch the sunset (several people had recommended sunset as less crowded than sunrise, which made sense to us, not really wanting to get up at 3 am to go see a sunrise 3 hours later). The drive is not too tough – the switchbacks are pretty gradual (it’s easier than it looks when you look at the road on a map) – and we stopped at two of the overlooks to see the lovely red erosion valley in the volcano along the way.

Sunset from 10,000 feet is indeed quite pretty, the red sun sinking below the clouds. And then it gets quite cold very quickly, dropping from about 63°F to 52° in less than half an hour. Brr! We didn’t linger, though, and made it back to the bottom only a little after total darkness. It was worth the trip.

Other Stuff

We always pack a lot into our Hawaii trips: We enjoy sitting by the pool in the morning, but then we like to get out and see things. Some other things we did:

  • Went to I’ao Valley to see the I’ao Needle. A pretty place with some nice views.
  • Walked to Dragon’s Teeth, which were not as impressive as I’d expected, although the odd maze left there by (I presume) the ancient Hawaiians was pretty neat.
  • Visited some historic sites in Lahaina. Some of the old pictures on display are worth the visit.
  • Drove to the upcountry and visited a couple of small towns, just to check them out and fill time before going to sunset on the volcano.
  • Drove to south Maui. Not really necessary unless you’re going to a beach to swim or snorkel, as it’s almost entirely hotels. But the lava field at the very end of the road is pretty impressive; if you’ve never been to the big island, go here, and then realize that vast swaths of the big island look much like this: Rolling fields of blackened, rippled rock laid down in just the last few hundred years.

I was a little disappointed that Maui doesn’t have a used book store (the one in Lahaina apparently closed earlier this year), nor any comic book stores, as I always make a point of visiting such stores to see if I can find anything unusual (or valuable-yet-underpriced). Indeed, I think the only bookstore on the island of any significant size is the Barnes & Noble in Lahaina (now that Borders has gone out of business). But shopping at these places wasn’t a big part of my plans; it was just a little weird.

We also had a mishap with the car: When we came out from Warren & Annabelle’s, the car – a Pontiac G6 – told us one tire was close to flat (only 11 PSI), despite having been sitting in a parking lot for over 4 hours. We stopped at a gas station and inflated it, but the car still complained. So we exchanged it the next morning, which turned out to be easy. The fellow behind the counter said, “Wow, I didn’t think we still had any of these.” Apparently Avis picked up a bunch of G6s cheap a few years ago, so they’re being rotated out, and we had one of the last ones. We got a Chevy Impala as a replacement, which was practically the same car in its feel and features, and we were happy and impressed with how easy the exchange was.

In sum, we had a good time on Maui, although overall we didn’t like it as much as our previous trips to the big island, and were looking forward to the second half of the trip, on that island. Maui’s a lot smaller, and there’s not as much to do there, at least not the sorts of things we enjoy doing. I feel like we did nearly everything there is to do on Maui in a week, whereas we still had things we hadn’t done on the big island after two trips there. We’ll probably go back sometime, but likely not for a whole week.

I’ll chronicle the big island half of our trip in my next entry.

Some photos from our trip, posted in separate entries:

  1. Views from our hotel at the Westin Maui
  2. Dragon’s Teeth
  3. The Road to Hana
  4. The Nakalele blowhole
  5. Banyan Tree Park in Lahaina

Legion of Super-Heroes: What Went Wrong

Legion of Super-Heroes #1-16, Annual #1, Legion of Super-Villains Special, by Paul Levitz, Yildiray Cinar, Francis Portela, Wayne Faucher, et. al., DC, 2010-2011

Following the reintroduction of the “classic” (and now adult) Legion of Super-Heroes in Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes and Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds, Paul Levitz – who wrote the series briefly in the 1970s and then for most of the 1980s – returned to write a new series with the classic team, picking up from where those stories left off. Now, I wasn’t a fan of Levitz’ second, more celebrated run (he screwed up and killed off many of my favorite characters, which made the book a whole lot of Not Fun for me), but having enjoyed those two recent series, I was curious to see what he’d do here. I was impressed with the practical way he wrote off chunks of earlier continuity and started with the new status quo established by Geoff Johns, and the book was being illustrated by Yildiray Cinar, who I wasn’t familiar with but who has a clean, futuristic look to his art.

Unfortunately, the book never really gelled for me, and it’s been cancelled with #16, to be relaunched as two titles in the DC relaunch next month. What went wrong?

Fundamentally, what went wrong is that – as happened his last time around – Levitz gets too caught up trying to write the book like a soap opera, with lots of little plots running, each getting a small amount of attention in each issue, so it becomes hard to follow what’s going on, and the ultimate pay-off of each plot thread is too diffused to be satisfying. It’s as if the book is being written to minimize the dramatic impact.

Here are the stories Levitz crammed into the 18 issues of the series:

  1. Earth-Man joins the team (#1-7, 16): The villain of Superman and the Legion, Earth-Man is a Legion reject who became a xenophobic tyrant, and Earthgov forces him on the team for decidedly implausible reasons. His story is I guess supposed to be one of redemption, and he does make the ultimate sacrifice in the end, but sleeping with Shadow Lass and his overall attitude still point him as a bastard, and you never really root for him. This thread was ill-conceived and comes to a pointless resolution.
  2. The destruction of Titan (#1-5, 7): Saturn Girl’s homeworld is destroyed and her people are scattered across the cosmos. This is the genesis of the main story at the beginning of the series.
  3. Saturn Girl’s children and kidnapped (#1-4): And she steals a time sphere to pursue them, and ends up finding a cult devoted to Darkseid. (Darkseid is intimated connected to the kids, which would be intriguing if Darkseid were even remotely interesting as a villain. In fact his sell-by date passed over 30 years ago.)
  4. The mysterious Professor Li (#1-2, 4-5, 7, 11-16): A scientist at the Time Institute, who seems to know something about why Titan was destroyed. We eventually learn where she comes from, but honestly I couldn’t care less. She’s a pointless character with uninteresting mystery behind her.
  5. The next last Green Lantern (#1-7, 10-16): An entity named Dyogene decides someone other than Sodam Yat needs to become a Green Lantern to carry on the tradition. First it chooses Earth-Man, who rejects it, and then it chooses Mon-El, who accepts it for a while, and then steps down. There was never really any point to all of this, so I don’t see why Levitz bothered.
  6. The assassins from Durla (#2, 5, 7-10): Some shape-shifting assassins from Chameleon Boy’s homeworld come to Earth to punish the United Planets council for letting R.J. Brande die. This story suffers badly from being chopped up among multiple issues, and the capturing of the assassins and revelation of their identities is sapped of any dramatic impact.
  7. Saturn Queen and the Legion of Super-Villains (#2-3, LSV special, 11-16): Spurred by the destruction of Titan, Saturn Queen assembles a new Legion of Super-Villains, which dominates the last third of the series. Yes, another LSV arc, yawn. There’s a hint that she’s been used by a greater power to accomplish some mysterious goal, but the revelation of what’s going on is not really interesting. The best part of this arc is Saturn Queen’s imperious behavior, and her ally Lightning Lord chafing at taking orders from her.
  8. Lightning Lass and Shrinking Violet go on holiday (#6, Annual #1): I guess some fans enjoy seeing the Legion’s lesbian couple, but since their heterosexual relationships of years past were the subjects of two of my favorite Legion stories, I’m not one of them. Still, the Annual, with the return of the Emerald Empress, and a check-in with Sensor Girl’s medieval homeworld, was one of the most entertaining issues of the series.
  9. Mon-El becomes Legion leader (#8, 10-16): Potentially an interesting story, especially since he and Shadow Lass have broken up and he seems adrift in his life, but it gets subsumed by the LSV storyline, and he becomes a Green Lantern too which additionally dilutes the story. Really a lost opportunity to work with the character, much as the Durlan assassins story was a lost opportunity to work with Chameleon Boy’s character.
  10. Star Boy returns (#11-16): Having been in a pointless exile in the 20th century for the last few years, Star Boy returns and somehow is a component in revealing the secret of Professor Li. Pretty much everything involving Star Boy and Legionnaires in the 20th century has been a storytelling disaster, and even thought this is a small piece of the series, I’m still scratching my head over why Levitz wasted pages on this. (And why is he wearing the stupid half-mask for much of the story, when he’s back with his friends in the 30th century, who all know who he is?)

So the stories didn’t work in two ways: Some of them were too diffuse, so it was difficult to keep track of what was happening in them, and some of them were too long, like the seemingly-endless throwdown with the Legion of Super-Villains (let’s fight this guy, now let’s fight this guy, now these guys, now these guys, and now let’s have a couple of big battles with everyone). I was not a fan of the Great Darkness Saga which was the keynote story of Levitz’ previous run, but at least it was a focused story in 5 issues, steadily building to its climax. But this series just thrashes around without seemingly knowing what it’s trying to accomplish or where it’s going. It was less than the sum of its parts.

The series also had the annoying gimmick of introducing every single character, every single issue, with their name, homeworld, and powers. It’s a crutch which quickly gets distracting. The Legion has decades of stories without this schtick, and it’s not like characters with names like “Sun Boy” and “Lightning Lass” really need this crutch.

To be sure, the art by the two main pencillers, Cinar and Francis Portela, is terrific, and almost makes the series worth reading by itself. (Cinar is pencilling the upcoming Firestorm series, and I’m going to pick it up mainly because of him.) But the stories, despite having promise, were just very poorly executed. Juggling the Legion’s large cast has chewed up plenty of writers, but keeping it simple and making the stories manageable, or focusing on just a few characters at a time, is usually the key. Levitz seems to have completely lost his touch in this regard, and the end of this series is a good time for me to stop buying the book until a writer whose work I’m more interested in comes on board.

My One Little Steve Jobs Anecdote

So Steve Jobs stepped down as Apple CEO yesterday, and people far and wide are sharing their stories of the man. Mine might be the smallest of any you’ll read, but I hope you’ll enjoy it anyway.

The reason I tell it is that once I started working at Apple (in 1999, a couple of years after Steve returns to the company), people started asking me if I’d met him. Something about the way they asked, or a look in their eye, made me realize what they really wanted was a “blood in the water” story about the CEO with the famous temper, or temperament, or something. I’d heard stories myself (one is that he’d sometimes ask people he encountered in the elevator what they worked on, and basically make them justify their job right there and then), but they were just stories to me. Oh, I had no doubt that he was emphatic in arguing about things, but I didn’t know any credible stories of him really laying into an employee he’d met at random.

Still, after just a few years it had become kind of ridiculous how many people asked me if I’d met Steve, who seemed to have an expectation of a good, juicy Steve story. I think at least a few of them asked if he’d yelled at me.

Indeed, I did pass Steve from time to time on the Apple campus. At least twice we simply made eye contact, smiled, and said “Hello” to each other, and continued on our ways. Once I saw him approaching with a look on his face that said “I’m on a mission and no one is going to get in my way.” I got out of his way and he walked on by.

But here’s the real story I have to tell:

In 2003 I started biking to work regularly. For a number of years I worked in Infinite Loop 1 – 2 floors below the CEO’s office. Despite being only on the second floor, I always took the elevator to bring my bike to and from my office: My office was big enough to hold my bike comfortably (so I didn’t have to lock it up outside), and it was awkward to carry it up and down the stairs; I was always afraid I’d damage the wall or the bike. I would wait for an empty elevator if someone else was waiting so I didn’t inconvenience them.

So one warm summer day (2004, maybe?) I’m leaving work, in full “biking dork” regalia (biking shorts, helmet, gloves, clip-on shoes), and I go to the elevator and hit the “down” button. The elevator arrives and (of course) there stands Steve. I think, “Great, he’s wondering why I can’t just walk my bike down one flight of stairs rather than stopping his elevator.” But since it would be truly stupid to let him go on without me (“I’m going to inconvenience you and do so for no reason whatsoever because I’m an idiot!”), I get in the elevator. The doors close.

Steve looks at the bike, looks at me, and says, “Beautiful day for a bike ride.”

I’m not very comfortable talking to famous or powerful people (you should see me stammer when I meet a science fiction author whose work I admire). Thinking quickly but not clearly (in other words, being something of an idiot), I say something like, “It’s nice. A little warm, though.” Steve is having none of this and responds along the lines that I’m picking nits. I allow that he may be right. By this time we’ve left the elevator and walked out the front doors of the building.

I remember thinking as we went outside that it was a little warm, but in the grand scheme of things, here we were in Silicon Valley where it’s almost always a beautiful day for a bike ride. So what did I really have to complain about?

I bet there are lots of employees with stories like this. The “blood in the water” stories seem more like legends (or, more likely, the stuff of high-level meetings among people whose job descriptions include going at it tooth-and-nail with the CEO, meeting a line worker like me would never hear about). Maybe he was different his first go-round at Apple, but if so, he’d grown a lot by the time he returned.

Oh, and no one I’ve told this story to has seemed disappointed by it. So maybe they didn’t really want the blood after all.

Bad Vacation Day

I took a couple of days off this week, today and tomorrow, to catch up on some stuff and run some errands that Debbi wouldn’t be so interested in, while she’s away.

Today started off pretty good: I got up and mowed the lawn, which now takes about an hour when I factor in edging the lawn. Then I puttered around for most of the morning until I headed down to pick up this week’s comic books. The fateful decision I made was to take Debbi’s car. I gassed up her car, wiped the windows, picked up my comics, and grabbed lunch. Then, on a whim, I decided to make one more stop at another comic book store that I don’t often go to.

When we came back from our Boston trip last year, we had a problem where we ran some errands, and then Debbi’s car wouldn’t start when we were at the grocery store. We walked home, got my car, and drove over to jump-start it. We took it to the dealer, who said the battery looked fine, but needed to be charged, perhaps having drained while we were away. I was skeptical, but it seemed to do the trick and Debbi hasn’t had any problems since.

Until today, when the car wouldn’t start after I came out of the store.

I was too far to walk home, but I wasn’t too far from the dealer, who I called, and they said if I could get there by 3:15 then they could look at it. It was 2:30 at this point, and I worried that if I called AAA they might not show up for a while and it would be too late. So I called my friend Subrata, who came over and helped me get jumped. (He has a Prius, and had to figure out where the battery was. Meanwhile another guy noticed us messing around and offered us the use of his SUV, though we used Subrata’s cables.) I drove to the dealer, and sure enough, the battery was dead. So I got it replaced (the price seemed reasonable, too). One advantage to the down economy has been that getting convenient appointments at the car dealership’s service deprtment has been pretty easy, and it paid off today.

So I was pretty frazzled about that by the time I got back, and I come home to the news bombshell that Steve Jobs has stepped down as Apple’s CEO. I think this is less of an issue in practice than Wall Street does (AAPL was down 5% after hours), as I agree with the savvier analysts that Apple still has a great management team in place and the company is in great shape going forward. But it’s still something of a world-changing event for those of us who work there.

I also had some more stuff to deal with in prepping the townhouse to sell. That’s been taking a lot longer than I’d expected, and it’s getting to be a drag.

So it ended up being a downer of a day.

I did bake cookies this afternoon though and drove them over to Subrata’s at just the right time between dinner time and his son’s bed time, so I got to say hi to everyone and thank him again for coming to bail me out. So that was a nice point. But otherwise: Guh.

Hopefully tomorrow will be a much better day. Because it’d suck to take two days off and go back to work more stressed out than I left it.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger might be the perfect superhero movie (so far, anyway): It’s exciting, fun, has a hero who’s heroic but not perfect, and makes you feel for the characters. And it honors its source material rather than belittling it as many superhero films these days seem to (taking the source material seriously is a big reason why Christopher Nolan’s Batman films are the best superhero films of the new century so far).

I get tired of movies always showing the character’s origin (previews in the theater showed the trailer for the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man, which looks like it will show Spidey’s origin again; really?), but Cap’s story is very well done here, and showing Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) – the prototypical 90-pound comic book weakling – and his determination to join the army to fight in World War II, his friendship with the much more physically-able James “Bucky” Barnes Sebastian Stan), and his recruitment by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) to be the test subject for the super-soldier program are an essential part of humanizing Cap. Despite his frail physique, Steve never backs down from a fight, but when Erskine asks him whether he wants to go kill some Nazis, Steve’s character is summed up when he responds, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I just hate bullies.”

One could do all sorts of between-the-lines reading about the jingoistic heroism of the film, but that would miss the point that it’s a World War II film named Captain America, and bringing 21st-century cynicism into it would miss the point of the film (I’m sure we’ll get plenty of that in next year’s Avengers movie). Instead, this is about a good, flawed man fighting the good fight for his friends and his country. Even the somewhat-painful scene of Cap being used as a showman to sell war bonds ultimately pays off when he has the opportunity to show his stuff and becomes the army’s secret weapon against Hitler’s mysticism-loving scientist, Johann Schmidt, the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).

While it won’t win any awards, the acting is surprisingly good for a superhero film. Chris Evans played the fun-loving Human Torch in the two unremarkable Fantastic Four films, but he’s a completely different character here. (If anything, I wish they’d processed his voice early in the film since its deepness and richness seems incongruous coming from his body when it’s been CGI’ed into Steve’s pre-treatment physique.) Weaving chews the necessary scenery as the Skull (though Toby Jones as his lead scientist, Arnim Zola, overshadows him at times with his Peter Lorre-esque performance), as does Tommy Lee Jones as the general overseeing Cap’s special forces unit. Hayley Atwell as Steve’s love interest Peggy Carter isn’t exactly the weak link, but she’s not given a lot to do – Dominic Cooper’s role as Howard Stark (father of the future Iron Man, I presume) is smaller, but he frequently upstages her.

The film looks good, too, a little grimy in the European war scenes, with flat colors in many of the New York street scenes, and bright colors at the World’s Fair and during Cap’s tour selling war bonds. The CGI in the action scenes looks fluid, although it still underscores how unnatural superhero fighting is, and what an accomplishment it was for Jack Kirby, et. al., to make it look natural in those old comic books. And the film neatly sidesteps one of my big gripes about superhero films, that they’re always contriving ways for the heroes to lose their masks so the stars can show off their real faces; the extensive focus on Steve makes it feel natural for Evans to appear as himself, but there are plenty of scenes with Cap as Cap.

The weakest part of the film is the Red Skull’s plot. He finds the Cosmic Cube (which in the comics allows a person’s wishes to become reality, but here is simply an über-energy source) and plans to use it to rule the world. He harnesses the power to create energy weapons, and plans to destroy yhe capitals of the major world powers, but since his men are unable to take on the U.S. Army even with their weapons, it’s not really clear how he plans to actually take control of the world, much less maintain control. The story would have made more sense if he were simply causing mayhem to further the conquests of Nazi Germany (in the comics, the Skull is an ardent Nazi and had the utmost respect for Hitler), but oh well. At least it’s a pretext for some lively action scenes.

Cap’s story is, ultimately, a tragedy, but the film ends without really exploring the depths of that tragedy. Presumably the plan is for the Avengers film to work through some of that, but I doubt they’ll really do it justice given the larger cast and the (presumed) need to fit some adventure story in there. (I think Avengers could be a fun film, too, but I think it’ll be easy for the story to get away from the writers and director if they’re not careful.) However, what we do see here is pretty effective.

Overall, Captain America is a really fun ride, only dragging in a few places, but otherwise engaging, action-packed, and even touching. Why can’t they all be like this?

A Much-Needed Vacation, But Not Mine

I’m back from dropping Debbi off at the airport. She’s flying back east to visit her sisters for a week and a half. Her company, you see, has a sabbatical program, so after 6 years working there she gets 6 weeks off. Lucky duck! But it does mean I’m on my own for 10 days.

Well, me and the cats, anyway.

I could use a vacation, too, given how busy it’s been lately. Work has been pretty nutty, filled with the unreproducible bugs, and the impossible-to-diagnose bugs. Especially the last of these, late this past week. I am going to take a couple of days off next week to catch up on some stuff that Debbi wouldn’t be interested in, though; should be nice.

On other fronts, Blackjack is hanging in there. Actually, the vet says he’s doing very well, but he’s been low-energy lately. She thinks he might just be tired of going in to the vet every other week. Certainly it’s getting to be a drag to bring him in – last week was the first time I actually had to chase him to put him in his carrier. But, it seems he has only two more chemo treatments and then he’ll be done! Yay!

I’m not really that worried about keeping myself busy while Debbi’s gone, but I am going to miss her. Especially when I go to bed. I’m not completely comfortable in our new house, I think, and being here by myself is going to make it feel a little weirder. I think the cats are going to miss her, too, and will be confused when I’m the only one home at night.

But we’ll make it through, and she’ll have a good trip.

Now I just have to keep myself from staying up too late at night. 🙂

New Biking Gear

This weekend I had a productive round of shopping for new biking gear:

  1. I bought a new helmet. It was really hard to find a large-size helmet; I kept finding Giro one-size-fits-all-helmets, which didn’t fit my head. I also wanted a blue helmet to match my bike, and a helmet with a visor, since a visor obviates the need for wearing sunglasses while riding (for me). I finally found a nice blue Bell Influx helmet at REI which fits great. I think the last helmet I bought cost me $90 or more; this one was $65.
  2. Also at REI I found a bike tire gauge. I’ve had people at bike stores tell me they don’t make those – “Why would you want one? Just check the pressure by feeling the tire” they’d say. When pumping a replaced tube with my hand pump I can’t really tell if I’ve overfilled the tire my hand, so I’m pretty happy to have found this tire gauge, which now lives in my seat pack along with my tube-changing equipment.
  3. I also picked up a couple of new tubes. Tubes are cheap, so it’s easier to replace the whole tube than try to patch the punctured one.
  4. Lastly, I bought a new water bottle, since the old one was getting a bit long in the tooth. I like the Polar Bottles.

I took the new gear out with me on my ride to work today. I was especially glad to have the new helmet, since my old Giro one was definitely, well, old. (I understand you should replace your helmet about every five years, for safety.) I liked the Giro, too, but I couldn’t find the one I wanted from them in searching for a replacement, so I’m happy with the Bell.

I got a late start on biking to work this year thanks to moving, but I’ve been going twice a week for the last month (often with my coworker Sean). I may not catch up to the number of rides I did last year, but I should have a fair number by the end of Daylight Savings Time.

Spider-Man: The Death of Jean DeWolff

Spider-Man: The Death of Jean DeWolff HC, by Peter David, Rich Buckler, Sal Buscema, Brett Breeding, Vince Colletta & others, Marvel, 2011

Creators can be a little frustrated when you point to an early work of their as your favorite. Naturally, they feel that they’ve grown and developed as a creator since their early stuff, and that their newer work is generally better. But while skills can improve with experience, sometimes other factors in an early work overwhelm the arguably-weaker craft that went into a work and make it the favorite of some of their fans.

So it is with me and The Death of Jean DeWolff, which is no-question, it’s-not-even-close, my favorite of all the works I’ve ever read by writer Peter David, yet it is (to my knowledge) his first published comics work. Some years ago I had him autograph my paperback collection at a convention, and I was a little put off that he sort of mumbled something I didn’t catch when I said how much I loved the story, and signed it with a Star Trek symbol next to his name (he was deep in the Star Trek era of his career, I think). Maybe he harbors some bad memories about the time he wrote Spider-Man, but perhaps more likely he felt a little awkward having a fan gush over his earliest work when he’s done so much more since then that he probably feels is more sophisticated and just-plain-better. I don’t know – I certainly wasn’t inclined to ask him at the time.

Nonetheless, here we are: I’m delighted to see that Marvel has given The Death of Jean DeWolff, in my judgment Peter David’s best work, the deluxe hardcover treatment.

Now, when this came out in 1985 I was not following Spider-Man, and even today I’ve never read another story with Jean DeWolff in it. Apparently she was a supporting character on the police force in Spidey’s books for a few years. But she was enough of a character in his life that when she’s brutally executed at the beginning of the story Spidey is motivated to help the police find the killer. Teaming up with wry police detective Stan Carter, he learns that a masked nut named Sin-Eater killed her, and is killing other prominent figures in New York.

While the mystery of the Sin-Eater’s identity is what initially drives the story, what makes it great is the conflicts the hunt imposes on Spider-Man: The Sin-Eater is all-too-willing to let loose with his shotgun in the middle of a crowd when Spidey’s after him, raising questions about whether Spider-Man’s partly responsible for anyone who gets hurt. (Similar issues come up in the real world when someone gets hurt when the police elect to engage in a high-speed chase.) Spidey’s fellow hero Daredevil, and his alter-ego of lawyer Matt Murdock, also gets involved when a friend of Matt’s is killed, demonstrating the contrast between the two heroes (at least, at the time): Spider-Man is a hero who works to do what’s right, but it basically a vigilante with something of a black-and-white outlook on justice, while Daredevil, who’s both a lawyer and is somewhat older and more worldly, has a more nuanced view, though one which sometimes conflicts with his own vigilante adventures. The two end up on opposite ends of a thorny ethical debate at the conclusion of the story which David handles deftly and satisfyingly. It’s a very emotional and human story, but one which would be difficult to tell with characters who weren’t masked vigilantes.

This story includes everything I most enjoyed about David’s writing: His humor is sharp and pointed, with few cheap shots, and his characterizations are vivid (several of Spidey’s supporting cast shine along the way). The plot is tight and there’s little wasted space or verbiage; the pacing is perfect, down to the issue-by-issue cliffhangers. The storytelling is helped considerably by Rich Buckler’s pencils; Buckler is something of a forgotten man in comics history, it seems to be, having been one of a number of Neal Adams-influenced pencillers (the best of them, really), but one who never illustrated any hugely popular stories. With terrific inks (mainly by Brett Breeding), he really shines here.

The one downside to this collection is that it left out David’s excellent foreword and afterward from the paperback collection (published in 1990). In particular, this paragraph has stayed with me:

[We] killed off a character who had a lot of potential. Readers couldn’t fathom why we did that, “Why kill off a character with whom you could have done so much?” Ah, but where is the dramatic impact in killing off someone with no potential? Someone who the readers are sick of? There’s no drama in that, no sense of “It might have been.” Death should be a tragedy, not a relief. Perhaps in a world where moviegoers laugh at innocent teens being slaughtered by masked madmen, that’s been forgotten.

That this story works so well even for me, who had no emotional connection at all to Jean DeWolff, both proves David’s point, and further illustrates how well he executed this story.

The new hardcover also has the 3-issue sequel to the original story (from 1987). I was disappointed in this story when it came out, in large part because it’s illustrated by Sal Buscema, of whose art I’ve never been fond (I always preferred his brother John’s style). But reading it today I think it works fine. Once more it’s about the consequences of power as wielded by Spider-Man, and about the demons that haunt a man who’s done terrible things, and whether he can ever truly be rid of them. As a sort of variation on a theme compared to the original, and bringing some closure to some matters left over from the first story, it’s a success.

This is one of the great superhero comics, and a high point for a character who’s seen plenty of them in the last half-century. Seize this opportunity to check it out.

The Strange Case of Mr. Hyde

The Strange Case of Mr. Hyde #1-4, by Cole Haddon & M.S. Corley, Dark Horse, 2011

Since Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen came on the scene a decade or so ago, there’s been a steady stream of victorian and early-20th-century comic books plumbing the depths of public-domain characters from that era. While LoEG has gotten byzantine to the point of being tiresome (the series’ “easter eggs” have overwhelmed what little story remains, as Chris Sims’ review of the second volume of Century describes), other stories have been worth the effort. I’ve particular enjoyed this little Dark Horse mini-series, The Strange Case of Mr. Hyde.

On the face of it, it’s not a terribly clever premise: There are so many real and fictional characters lurking around late 19th century Europe that we’ll probably see every possible combination of them eventually. This one is Jeckyll-and-Hyde and Jack the Ripper, but it’s done well.

Inspector Thomas Adye (a fictional character, as far as I can tell) is assigned to the Ripper case, but he enlists the help of Dr. Henry Jeckyll to help profile the killer. The problem is that Jeckyll is himself stashed away in a dank prison, after his exploits as the dangerous Edward Hyde some years earlier.

Jeckyll’s descent into depravity is shown in little pieces and in flashback, just enough to show how he was once a good man but is now a calculating lunatic. He’s a much stronger figure than the character in LoEG. Adye is also a strong character, but a bit naive and credulous, just enough so to be taken in by Jeckyll’s tantalizing promises, but also mistrustful of his superiors and feeling he needs Jeckyll to crack the case. And crack the case the pair ultimately does, but with some consequences for each of them.

Corley’s art complements Haddon’s story quite well. He has a clean style, a bit stiff at times, but a good portrayal of the period elements. I occasionally had trouble telling Jeckyll and Adye apart, as the two are each clean-shaven, brown-haired men, but that aside Corley has quite a range of facial expressions. Hopefully this is only the beginning for him.

Naturally, there’s a collection coming out. Check it out if you can’t find the individual issues.