Friday, December 29, 2017

Out on the Streets Again

  When I was laid off in February from my previous job as a consultant that was hired out to different companies I was lucky in that I immediately hired myself out to the same company that I was hired out to by my old company and didn’t miss a day of work. The arrangement I had with the company was that I would be contracted out until the end of the year and possibly more. In addition, my old employer found themselves unable to support the software I maintained that interfaced with a government entity and hired me to continue maintaining the software on a part-time basis.

  I had never worked for myself full time before and I found that I am not the greatest guy to work for. I took eight days off all year which included three half days off to go to the dentist, two days I had previously committed to playing in the Twin Ports chess tournament, and four days visiting relatives in South Carolina and seeing Ben graduate in Idaho. I did take holidays and weekends off but that was only because the company I was working for was closed because I might have been greedy enough to work eight days a week if I could have. Even when I was ‘off’ I was still working at least a half hour a day checking the program I was supporting as part of my part time duties which included weekends and holidays.

  Long before I started contracting with the company it had been purchased by a bigger company based in Minnesota. I have been through having the company I was working for being bought by a bigger company twice before and I kind of knew the script. Slowly but surely the kind of jobs that are found in every company are eliminated in the company that has been bought. Then a lot of people at the company being bought find new jobs and aren’t replaced. This time around wasn’t any different. Naturally there is a push to move the computer systems over to the buying company which in my experience takes a lot longer than anyone expects and that was no different in this case either. I was expecting to be told that my contract would be ending at the end of September when the company officially changed names. That didn’t happen but I was told in November that none of the contractors’ deals were going to be extended at the end of the year.

  The way my supervisor told me the news I think he was expecting me to be upset which I wasn’t. We had an arrangement until the end of the year and they lived up to their end of the bargain. I was told that it would be understood if I got a new job and left early. To me that wasn’t an option since I also had made a commitment that I intended to live up to. I have been working pretty hard this year and also made a lot of money and I intend to take a few weeks off to relax. I haven’t had a week off with nothing to do since I moved to Iowa in 1994 and spent 6 weeks looking for a job.

  I have a number of projects I’m planning on tackling during my time off. Whether I’ll get to them or not is an entirely different question since I started getting calls from recruiters about jobs before I let my availability be known. One call came from a recruiter who was looking for an EDI programmer. He wrote to me with the job specs and I said I was interested so we set up a phone meeting. The recruiter’s first question was how excited was I about the job opportunity and his second was how much money I wanted since I told him my excitement at the job opportunity was going to be dependent on his much the job paid. The recruiter spent most of his time gauging how negotiable the salary number I gave him was. He first told me that I was at the high end of the clients range and would I be interested if the offer came in for a little less. I said maybe if the benefits were right and then he went a little lower and a little lower until I said that I wouldn’t be interested for that number. Having settled that we ended our conversation but the recruiter called me the next day. He wanted to talk to me right away so I called him back. The recruiter told me that he was worried I would just want to work for his client for a short time until I got a better job. I asked him if he had my resume and we both knew he did. I pointed out that I had worked 13 years at one place and 7 years at another and asked if he thought I had never had chances to move on from either job. This got the recruiter on the defensive and he said of course he knew all that which didn’t explain why he called in the first place. Maybe he was trying to see if I was desperate for a job so he could lower the offer but I’ll probably never know as I haven’t heard from him since.

  I had another call from a different recruiter a few days later. This person wanted me to submit me for a job at the State of Iowa. I sent him my resume and he said he submitted it and then wanted me to send the State of Iowa a form saying that his company was my representative. I sent the form in, the recruiter confirmed it, and I haven’t heard from him either.

  Both of these ‘opportunities’ were cold-calls from recruiters looking for low-hanging fruit which is how most of the recruiters I’ve ever worked with operate. If they can’t place someone in a day or so they lose interest and don’t follow up. They are generally pointless exercises that I don’t bother with but I went along with it because I figured I needed the experience dealing with these types again. In 1994 the job market was pretty tight and I was jumpy about getting a job but in 2018 there seems to be a lot of demand for programmers so it is just a matter of finding the right place to work and I can even be a bit choosy to start with, choosy meaning looking closer to Marshalltown than the 60 mile drive to Des Moines I’ve done for 19 of the past 23 years.

I got the title for this post from this song by the inimitable band 'The Selecter' which was a favorite of mine almost 40 years ago when I DJ'd at a college radio station.

I also saw this band at the late Hurrah club in New York City over half a lifetime ago - here is a live version of the same song!

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Tale of Two Apples

  When I last wrote about my adventures using my self-directed 401K to buy stocks and write covered calls against them it was the end of September and my purchases of Exxon (XOM) and Apple (AAPL) were stuck in limbo as their stock prices had dipped so far below the purchase price and option stock price that I felt compelled to sell an option for Exxon with an expiration date four months into the future to generate cash flow while my 100 shares of Apple was showing a loss of over $400 despite my having collected over $400 in selling options on the stock over a 5 week period.

  In the intervening three months the stock market has risen upwards. The Dow Jones Industrial Average has gained 10% and most of my favorite stocks have gone along for the ride. Exxon burst past my option strike price of $82.50 in October and flirted with $84 days before the dividend date of November 10th. I was expecting my January 2018 option to be called in order for the buyer to collect the dividend but to my surprise the option was not exercised and I received a bonus of $154 on December 10th. With a month to go before the option expires, Exxon is in a band between $82 and $84 and it seems to be a close call as to whether the option gets exercised. Whether it gets called or not I only consider this a minor win since being stuck with the stock for an extra 4 months my ROI is 9% on an annualized basis which is good but not great and could be considered downright poor considering the length of time I had to hold the stock.

6/19/2017Buy 200 XOM @83.005-16605.95
6/19/2017Sell 2 XOM Option @82.5 (2.06)
Expiring 8/18/2017
8/2/2017Buy 2 XOM Option @82.5 (.05)
Expiring 8/18/2017
8/18/2017Sell 2 XOM Option @82.5 (.85)
Expiring 10/20/2017
8/10/2017.77 dividend payable 9/11/2017+154.00
8/28/2017Buy 2 XOM Option @82.5 (.10)
Expiring 10/20/2017
9/5/2017Sell 2 XOM Option @82.5 (.80)
Expiring 1/1/2018
11/10/2017.77 dividend payable 12/11/2017+154.00
Total (If option is exercised)+889.605.36%

  I has a much happier time with Apple. A week after my post the stock crept over $155 and I took the opportunity to collect $170 by selling another option to sell the stock for $162.50 on November 3rd. I could have done much better by waiting a week or two since Apple continued to gain momentum throughout the month and broke over $168 on October 30th. I knew that AAPL’s dividend date was on November 3rd and the risk of the stock sliding back under $162.50 was minimal so I bought my option back on October 30th at a high price and sold the same option only expiring on November 17th, picking up $60 in the exchange. The new option was exercised a week early on the dividend date of November 10th so I was happy to have an extra $60 in return for a weeks worth of patience and overall the investment gained $750 over three months for an annual return of 19.45% which I consider very good.
8/15/2017Buy 100 AAPL @161.7053-16175.48
8/15/2017Sell 1 AAPL Option @162.5 (.88)
Expiring 8/18/2017
8/17/2017Buy 1 AAPL Option @162.5 (.10)
Expiring 8/18/2017
8/17/2017Sell 1 AAPL Option @162.5 (.84)
Expiring 8/25/2017
8/257/2017Buy 1 AAPL Option @162.5 (.04)
Expiring 8/25/2017
8/25/2017Sell 1 AAPL Option @162.5 (.90)
Expiring 9/1/2017
8/30/2017Buy 1 AAPL Option @162.5 (1.86)
Expiring 9/1/2017
8/30/2017Sell 1 AAPL Option @162.5 (3.65)
Expiring 9/15/2017
9/14/2017Buy 1 AAPL Option @162.5 (.03)
Expiring 9/15/2017
9/15/2017Sell 1 AAPL Option @162.5 (.70)
Expiring 9/22/2017
9/20/2017Buy 1 AAPL Option @162.5 (.10)
Expiring 9/15/2017
10/3/2017Sell 1 AAPL Option @162.5 (1.75)
Expiring 11/3/2017
10/30/2017Buy 1 AAPL Option @162.5 (6.05)
Expiring 11/3/2017
10/30/2017Sell 1 AAPL Option @162.5 (6.75)
Expiring 11/17/2017
11/10/2017Sell 100 AAPL @162.50
(option was exercised)

  A few days before the Apple option was due to be exercised my 401k had become cash rich because my favorite stock Intel (INTC) had jumped from a multi-year high of $40 a share to over $47 a share from October 20th to November 3rd. I decided to cash out much of my Intel holdings because while I like the company and believe I understand the company I think that the price has grown too much too fast and I’d rather not be left holding the bag when their price once again drops because all stocks rise and fall. I kept my profit in the form of Intel stock but had the initial capital and went looking for new covered call option opportunities.

  My first purchase was with Apple which is becoming one of my new favorite option stocks because of its volatility and the seemingly eternal optimism of its stockholders. On November 7th I bought 100 shares of APPL near its all-time high of 174.70 and sold the option to sell the stock for 172.50 on November 10th for $258. My thought was that I would make $30+ for a three day investment and if the stock dropped below 172.50 I would collect a $63 dividend on the 10th. The stock stayed well over 172.50 and on the 9th I traded options, buying back my November 10th option and selling the same option for November 17th. The trade netted me an extra $64 and as a bonus the option was not exercised on the 10th which gave me $63 in dividends for a total of $159 in profit if the option was exercised the next Friday.

  IF. Unfortunately, Apple took a tumble the next week and dropped past $172.50 on its way to $169.64 a share by November 17th. I bought back my option for $4. I could have sold a new option for $50 for the next week but since I had at this point collected almost $400 on this particular stock purchase I decided to gamble a little and sold an option expiring in 2 weeks on December 1st but at a strike price of $175 instead of $172.50. I collected $70 for the option and there was the promise of another $250 if the option was exercised. Apple rose over $175 on the 27th and 28th before dropping below $170 once again on November 30th and December 1st. I bought back my option for $10 on the 30th and when AAPL jumped over $171 on the 1st I sold another option to sell the stock for $175 in two more weeks (on the 15th) and collected another $120.

  In the succeeding two weeks Apple’s share price never got to $174 a share much less the 175 strike price. I bought my option back on the 14th for $10 and got $79 for the option to sell the stock at $175 on December 22nd. This week Apple set a new all-time high stock price and climbed over $177 on Monday before settling in between $174.50 and $175.50 on Tuesday and Wednesday. At this point it is a coin flip as to whether my option will get called or not. If the option does get called I will have collected a profit of over 3.7% on my 45 day investment which works out to over 30% annually. If the price stays below 175 and I still own the stock come Monday I think I will start selling the option at a strike price of $177.50. While the stock may crash in the next week or so I consider this a big win so far.
11/7/2017Buy 100 AAPL @174.655-17470.45
11/7/2017Sell 1 AAPL Option @172.5 (2.65)
Expiring 11/10/2017
11/9/2017Buy 1 AAPL Option @172.5 (2.25)
Expiring 11/10/2017
11/9/2017Sell 1 AAPL Option @172.5 (3.00)
Expiring 11/17/2017
11/10/2017.63 dividend payable 11/16/2017+63.00
11/17/2017Buy 1 AAPL Option @172.5 (.04)
Expiring 11/17/2017
11/17/2017Sell 1 AAPL Option @175 (.80)
Expiring 12/1/2017
11/29/2017Buy 1 AAPL Option @175 (.10)
Expiring 12/1/2017
11/30/2017Sell 1 AAPL Option @175 (1.25)
Expiring 12/15/2017
12/14/2017Buy 1 AAPL Option @175 (.10)
Expiring 12/15/2017
12/14/2017Sell 1 AAPL Option @175 (.84)
Expiring 12/22/2017
Total (If option is exercised)+658.893.77%

  I made two other option plays with my Intel capital as well as the cash I am accumulating from the covered call options. Both were incredibly successful thanks to an email from a blog reader suggesting that I could increase my profit by playing this option game with stocks on the low end of their yearly cycle and selling the option at a strike price close to or over the purchase price instead of looking for a small profit by selling the covered calls below the current selling price. The idea made sense to me. Buying quality stocks at yearly lows is normally a good policy anyway and collecting option money and profiting by a stock price increase is a win-win while getting stuck holding a quality stock purchased at a low price isn't an awful situation. AT&T (T) seemed like a likely candidate for me. It is a mainstay of my FMF (Found Money Fund) and has increased their now 50 cent a share dividend for 34 consecutive years. The stock was also near its 52 week low due to the uncertainty over whether the government will challenge or stop its purchase of Time-Warner. On November 9th I bought 200 shares of T for 33.87 and collected $157 for the option to sell the stock at $34 a share on December 15th. After bouncing between $33 and $34 for most of November, AT&T went over $36 a share on November 29th and over $38 a share on December 12th. My option was exercised and I sold the stock on December 15th for $34 as agreed upon for a total profit of $172.20 for a 36 day investment which works out to a return of 2.5% and 25.75% annually. Yes, I could have made more money by holding the stock and not selling the option but that was not apparent on November 9th and I am happy to have made a great return with little risk of a big loss.
11/9/2017Buy 200 T @33.877-6780.35
11/9/2017Sell 2 T Option @34 (.82)
Expiring 12/15/2017
12/15/2017Sell 200 T @34
(option was exercised)

  My other play in November was with another FMF standout, Phillip Morris (PM). PM is the foreign tobacco and cigarette arm of Marlboro and has provided a steadily increasing dividend for the last 10 years since it spun-off from its parent company Altria. PM was over $120 a share earlier this year but a strong dollar had depressed its earnings and was sitting at a 6 month low of 103 when I made move on November 10th, buying 100 shares at 103 and collecting $95 for the option to sell the stock at the same $103 a week later on November 17th. This ride was similar to my apple adventure. PM bounced between 101 and 103 a share for the next week and on the 17th I was able to buy back my option for $9. I immediately sold an option to sell the shares for $104 expiring 2 weeks later on December 1st for $70. I was leaving some money on the table in the expectation that if PM went over $104 a share I would collect a better profit when the option was exercised. PM never got to 104 and on November 28th I was able to buy back my option for $10 and sell another $104 option expiring on December 15th for an additional $81. On December 4th PM went over 104 and didn’t look back. It hit $110 on December 15th and my option was exercised, leaving me with a $316 profit which works out to 3% (32% annually) over 35 days. Again I could have made more by holding the stock once again I am happy to take a outstanding return with for a low risk.
11/10/2017Buy 100 PM @103.005-10305.45
11/10/2017Sell 1 PM Option @103 (1.00)
Expiring 11/17/2017
11/17/2017Buy 1 PM Option @103 (.09)
Expiring 11/17/2017
11/17/2017Sell 1 PM Option @104 (.75)
Expiring 12/1/2017
11/28/2017Buy 1 PM Option @104 (.10)
Expiring 12/1/2017
11/28/2017Sell 1 PM Option @104 (.86)
Expiring 12/15/2017
12/15/2017Sell 100 PM @104
(option was exercised)

  As pleased as I am with my recent option results, I can't help but think that the stock market is so high right now that it is primed for a big fall. When? No one knows and certainly not me. That is why I continue to stick with solid companies that have a decades-long history of paying and raising dividends. Even when I get stuck with XOM and APPL like I did in September I am stuck with a top quality stock that makes money and pays dividends. The higher this market goes the more inclined I am to keep my option plays of a shorter term so I can hopefully get out before the bubble breaks but in the meantime I am riding the ups and downs like a surfer and enjoying the ride.

Friday, December 15, 2017

TV Review - The Walking Dead Season 8 Episodes 1-8


Season 8 of The Walking Dead featured the 'All Out War'

  AMC’s ‘The Walking Dead’ just completed the first half of its season 8 ‘All Out War’ story arc in which our intrepid zombie apocalypse survivors of Alexandria, the Hilltop, and the Kingdom seek to fight off the oppressive regime of the band of Saviors and their leader Negan who receive ‘tribute’ from all the nearby communities in return for not killing them.

  This show is still the top rated cable show but its viewership has plummeted to six year lows and barely half of the season 5 average of 14 million viewers a week. I think the reason for the drop is that instead of following our cast of a dozen or so apocalypse survivors for the first five and a half seasons there are at least 3 dozen characters to follow. We still have our core group but now there are four to six people each at the Kingdom, the Hilltop, the Saviors compound, as well as the newly discovered communities by the ocean side and the trash heap. So many groups to keep track of and visit leaves less time for the viewers to stay connected to the main characters. Season 7 focused on a character or two in each episode but left the main characters unseen for weeks at a time. Season 8 has tried to patch in snippets of each group of each episode. It is great to see stalwarts like Rick, Carol, and Maggie in each episode but in most episodes it seemed they were guest stars giving cameos instead of the main characters we should be following all the time.

  The season started with a great premise as Rick Grimes and company use information given to them by Dwight the Savior traitor to lead thousands of zombies to the Saviors ‘Sanctuary’ compound during a meeting between Negan and his lieutenants in an attempt to starve out Negan and the Saviors. Escape seems impossible with a well-positioned group of snipers ready to foil any attempt to leave the compound. Meanwhile Rick has sent teams to destroy Negan’s satellite operations while all the leaders are trapped at the Sanctuary.

RIP Shiva the CGI tiger..

  The raids work although there is a heavy toll of redshirts from the Kingdom along with the death of minor character Aaron’s husband Eric who is left by a tree to bleed out and seemingly reanimated as a zombie. The main objective of not allowing reinforcements to free the Sanctuary from the zombie horde has been met. This storyline took the first five episodes of the season and contained intense side plots. One outpost has seen two dozen Saviors surrender, leaving Hilltop leader Maggie to decide whether to execute them or imprison them which requires using resources to feed and guard them as well as the knowledge that an escape attempt or riot could erupt at any time. At the Sanctuary, Father Gabriel and Negan are trapped in a trailer in the compound and must work together to fight their way through the surrounding zombies while inside the Sanctuary his lieutenants have to deal with a worker uprising without their leader. I found Episode 3 especially intense as King Ezekiel deals with the killing of his entire army by the saviors, having to escape from his now zombified-army, and if that wasn’t bad enough the king loses his beloved CGI tiger Shiva who manages to be devoured by a half dozen slow moving zombies while protecting her master.

If James Tiberius Kirk was in the zombie apocalypse this is what he would be like.

  The first five episodes had a lot of what I like about this show - zombies and more zombies.After a great first five episodes of the season the show seemed to go off the rails with many of the main characters leaving their lane in a rush to the ‘grand’ season finale. In episode six, Rick Grimes heads to the dump to once again enlist the help of Jadis and the monosyllabic trash people. These are the same trash people that sold out our group of survivors to Negan just last season which in show time was a few weeks ago. Naturally the trash people take Rick prisoner which did have a redeeming quality in giving us another Star Trek like fight between Rick and a helmeted zombie> Rick’s Captain Kirk like victory convinces the trash people to join his side at least temporarily. Meanwhile the plan to starve out the Saviors is working too well for Darryl who decides to ram a truck through the Sanctuary walls to let the zombies eat their way to victory. This idea meets with the approval of the snipers surrounding the Sanctuary.

  Daryl’s truck breaches the Sanctuary walls and the zombies flood in but when Rick arrives at the end of the seventh episode the zombies, Negan, and the Saviors are gone. What happened? How did the Saviors escape? We never find out but we do see despite having their vehicles blown up and there outposts destroyed there are enough Saviors to outnumber the communities of the Hilltop, the Kingdom, and Alexandria. The confrontation between Simon’s group of saviors and the Hilltop on a barricaded road is especially odd. After hearing for at least two episodes how Negan wants Hilltop leader Maggie must be captured along with Rick and King Ezekiel so they can be killed and have their zombie selves posted on spikes at the Sanctuary, Simon allows Maggie to take her crew back to the Hilltop after killing the obligatory redshirt. It was the equal of the many times one of our crew of survivors or snipers had the drop on Negan but failed to pull the trigger. Naturally Maggie heads back to the Hilltop after promising to be the Saviors minions but immediately kills one of the Savior prisoners and prepares for a last stand.

  There are some vague references by the Saviors how Eugene came up with the plan to drive the zombie hoard away from the Sanctuary but that doesn’t explain what happened to the snipers. It also doesn’t explain how Eugene has morphed from a fairly useless science teacher who can barely fix a radio into MacGyver. Another unexplainable occurrence happened in the season finale. Rick, Carol, and Jerry are driving when their car is rammed violently and we cut to commercial. Jerry ends up captured by Simon and shows up at the confrontation with the Hilltop people, Carol ends up at the Kingdom, and Rick at Alexandra for a showdown with Negan. How did they survive the car crash and end up in such disparate locations? The only explanation is that it was required to advance the plot. The confrontation between Rick and Negan featured both men taking turns hitting each other with Lucille the barbed-wire baseball bat and again in the name of plot advancement both men were able to walk away from the fight.

In a massive break from the comics, Carl has seemingly met his end...

  I don’t mind all the silliness of the plot consistencies or lack thereof - after all this is a zombie apocalypse show. What I want is to see the small band of apocalypse survivors fighting zombies and other groups to survive. There were plenty of zombies this season but there is no longer a small band of survivors – there are so many characters the show keeps track of that only one or two get any meaningful screen time in any given episode. That is my biggest problem with the show at present – the show needs a purge and get the group on the road instead of the current civilization building arc. There will be one less character after the mid season finale revelation that original cast member Carl (Rick Grimes’ son) has been bitten by a zombie and presumably will pass away in the second half premiere. While I hate to see Carl go the development gives me hope for the future of the show as it is a major break from the comics (where Carl is still around years after the ‘All-Out War’). Other characters have met an early end but other characters can have their roles replaces – not the main protagonist’s son. I suspect the falling ratings may prod the showrunners to ditch the comic arc and get our zombie survivors back to what made the show so attractive which is the constant quest to new locations and survive zombie attacks.

Coming in February..Hopefully a return to a tighter cast.

Friday, December 8, 2017

TV Binge Review - The Punisher

Netflix's 'The Punisher' mixed incredible violence with plodding inaction disguised as drama.

  Netflix released their latest Marvel Comics series ‘The Punisher’ on November 17th. I waited until the Thanksgiving weekend to binge watch the 13 episodes, watching four episodes on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, three episodes on Thanksgiving, and two episodes on each of the remaining three days of the long weekend. The 2004 Punisher movie starring Tom Jane is one of my all-time favorites and I liked the Jon Bernthal version that appeared in Netflix season 2. In that series, The Punisher (real name Frank Castle) avenged the murder of his wife and children at the hands of a drug cartel aided by corrupt members of the NYPD.

  I was hoping that having dispensed with the ‘origin’ in Daredevil, The Punisher would be moving on to his war on organized crime and corruption in government. Instead the main plot brings more layers to the death of Castle’s family by linking it to a drug-smuggling ring in Afghanistan that was unknowingly aided by an elite Black Ops team named Project Cerberus that Frank Castle was part of. The team would capture, torture, and kill unquestioningly at the command of group leader ‘Agent Orange’. The project comes under the scrutiny of Homeland Security agent Madani in New York when a video of her former partner in Afghanistan being tortured and killed by the as yet unknown members of Cerberus.

  The video was sent to Madani by a former NSA agent who is shortly shot and left for dead by ‘Agent Orange’ but survives and is off the grid except for his being able to hack into seemingly every computer and camera on the planet. The NSA agent (code named ‘Micro’ who is the Punisher’s aide and confidant in the comics) then locates the Punisher and convinces him that ‘Agent Orange’ was really behind his family’s death and sets off the 13 hour adventure.

  I understand the need for a ‘big bad’ for the series but dredging up the death of Castle’s family as the reason for the Punisher’s involvement seemed like overkill to me. Since we are introduced to many of Frank Castle’s military pals from his previous life and special emphasis is given to how the Punisher will risk his life for his friends there could have been many other ways to get to the main conflict between Punisher and Agent Orange underway. Having the constant flashbacks of Castle’s family being murdered combined with Micro’s anguish at being able to see his family (through cameras he has wired into their home) but not let them know he is alive made the series extremely dark. In addition, there is the massacre of a team of Homeland Security agents (including the brutal neck slicing of Madani’s confidant Sam Siegel). The Punisher is such a dark character that the rest of the cast doesn’t need to add more to it. The supporting cast doesn’t need to bring comic relief but they shouldn’t add to the darkness. The only character that didn’t brood their way throughout the series was Punisher’s fellow ‘Project Cerberus’ member Billy Russo. Russo has a great time dressing up in nice suits, having an affair with agent Madani, and running his ‘army-for-hire’ contracting business. Unfortunately for Russo he is also Agent Orange's right hand man and gets his comeuppance by series end.

Believe it or not this is one of the least violent confrontations in the series...

  To say the series was violent would be an understatement. In all but two episodes there are brutal fist fights, gunfights with head shots at very close range, and knife work with neck slicing and regular run of the mill stabbings. Agent Madani is shot in the head, shot in the side, and has her car smashed by a truck with each incident requiring downtime. The Punisher seems to need no rest after countless stabbings, shootings, being beaten to a pulp by ‘Agent Orange’ to the point of having his teeth knocked out. The only time Castle needs a break is when Micro poisons him and when he is shot with an arrow that causes a massive infection (that is cleared up within hours after the arrow is removed. I would rather have seen the Punisher being maimed one or twice in the entire series instead of hourly. After all he has no super powers and should be wearing body armor to protect him instead of miraculously healing in time for his next confrontation.

  I liked the show primarily because of Jon Bernthal’s portrayal of the Punisher. Bernthal is unrelenting and vicious in his Punisher persona and I liked his ‘New York quiet tough guy’ Frank Castle. There was a lot of violence which OK with me but the show had a lot of warts also. With the extreme violence in each episode came a lot of slow moving plot development that seems to be a staple of the Netflix/Marvel shows. The intrigue at Homeland Security and the CIA was interminable as was Madani’s soul searching talks with her mother. The only slow moving parts of the show I liked was Castle’s bonding with Micro’s family as he infiltrates the household in order to keep an eye on them. I was expecting Castle to get involved with Micro’s wife which didn’t happen and was a nice fakeout.

This is more of the typical Punisher violence in the series.

  The overarching mission of once again finding his family’s killers intermixed with the slow moving plot development made the show lurch from one confrontation to the next. My favorite parts of the series was when the Punisher finds himself as part of the day to day violence of life in New York. In the opening episode Castle works at a construction site slamming a sledgehammer against concrete walls for hours on end in an attempt to forget his past when he stumbles on a co-worker being dumped into a cement foundation for his part in a robbery gone wrong. Castle switches from crazed sledgehammer guy to Punisher mode in a heartbeat and quickly and painfully dispatches his co-worker’s assailants. In another show Punisher saves his friend Karen Page from being killed by a PSTD suffering veteran turned suicide bomber while confronting the FBI, homeland security, and the NYPD. I would have liked to have seen more of the Punisher in the role of protector of the ‘somewhat innocent’ than once again seeking revenge for his family’s death. I can only assume the showrunners did not think the revenge plotline was exhausted in the Punisher’s stint in Daredevil.

  If there is another Punisher season it will likely be in 2020 at the pace Netflix is moving with their Marvel sagas. The stage is set for Punisher’s nemesis ‘Jigsaw’ to make his appearance. I am hoping I get to see more of the Punisher stopping random crimes in short bursts rather than the epic tale that season one attempted and failed to deliver.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Movie Review - Justice League

'Justice League' lived up to it's considerable hype in my opinion if not at the box office.

  The weekend after seeing Marvel Studio’s ‘Thor:Ragnarok’ Kathy and I went to see the DC super team flick ‘Justice League’ on it’s opening weekend. When I was a kid comic book readers were generally either in the DC or Marvel camp. Marvel was the cooler option with their large grey areas of flawed super-heroes and anti-hero villains set largely in Manhattan as opposed to DC’s white hat/black hat view of the world with the heroes living in fictional cities like Metropolis and Gotham. I was always a DC fan for a very simple reason – economics. 10 cents and later 12 cents were very hard to come by to get a comic in my youth and when I had that kind of cash to spend on a comic buying a Marvel story was almost a surety that I would walk into the beginning of a multi part story that I would not be able to afford to read to the conclusion of, the end of a story line that I had missed out on, or worse yet a crossover with another comic title that would be off the shelves before I ever had a chance to see it. On the other hand a DC comic was sure to have a self-contained story all in one issue and that made it my top choice. If these ‘comic wars’ were ongoing today I could characterize Marvel as the ‘limousine liberals’ of comics that had relatable characters but cost a lot of money to follow.

  This all changed in 1970 when DC brought Jack Kirby (along with Stan Lee the creator of many Marvel creations like the Hulk, Thor, and the Fantastic Four to name but a few) over from Marvel to create the ‘Fourth World’ of the peaceful planet of New Genesis and the hellish planet of Apokolips in perpetual war and Earth stuck in the middle. Kirby’s Fourth World got started in the formerly insipid pages of ‘Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen’ and continued in the issues of ‘New Gods’, ‘Forever People’, and ‘Mister Miracle’. The stories had overlapping plots and characters and made DC comics as hard to follow on a limited budget as Marvel was. When I got older and had more money I get the back issues of the ‘Fourth World’ series and was able to appreciate it for the epic saga it was. The addition of Apokolips, its leader ‘Darkseid’, and insidious allies like Steppenwolf, Granny Goodness, and Desaad revolutionized the DC Universe. Now DC had a cosmic scope to rival Marvel entities like Galactus and the Watchers and suddenly Superman seemed not nearly as super as before. The New Gods had made a brief appearance in the television series ‘Smallville’ but had not made it to the big screen, which made my anticipate the Justice League movie ever since I saw Kirby’s famous ‘Boom Tube’ make its appearance in the previews.

  Justice League takes place an indeterminate amount of time after the ‘death’ of Superman in last year’s Batman vs. Superman movie. The first third of the movie concerns itself with setting up the rest of the movie as Bruce Wayne (aka Batman) finds out about an invasion of the bug-like ‘parademons’ and finds out from Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) about an ancient battle for the fate of the earth between Steppenwolf and the allied forces of earthlings, Atlanteans, and the Amazons. Steppenwolf was going to recreate earth as a fire pit of a world by uniting three ‘mother-boxes’ that were split up after the battle. The parademons herald Steppenwolf’s return and he routs both the Atlanteans and Amazons to collect two of the three mother boxes.

  This leads Batman and Wonder Woman to recruit the super beings hinted in ‘Batman vs. Superman’ – Aquaman, The Flash, and Cyborg to form a super team and battle Steppenwolf. While the first part of the movie had some Batman and Wonder Woman action the assembling of the team was full of angst as Cyborg is full of angst at the half human-half robot he has become and Flash is full of angst because his innocent father is in prison for the killing of his mother. Aquaman is the funny man of the group but Seems more angry than funny. The team realizes that they cannot stop Steppenwolf from getting the third ‘mother-box’ so Batman hatches a plan to resurrect Superman using the mother box combined with Kryptonian technology. Superman is duly resurrected but is in no mood to team up with Batman so the group has to battle Steppenwolf alone until Superman rejoins the team and turns the tide to save the earth.

  Justice League was a good but not great movie and in my opinion far better than its reviews. When the team gets together the battle scenes are great. Steppenwolf made a fine villain and even though he was no match for Superman hopefully Darkseid will show up in a future movie to give Superman a challenge. The main thing I disliked about the movie was the time spent trying to introduce the three new characters to the moviegoing audience. Ben Affleck makes a great aging Batman and comes across as one scary guy even though he has no super powers. His interactions with the new members were great but there was too much of trying to get to know Cyborg by having him interact with his father and the Flash (through a macabre gravedigging scene when retrieving Superman’s body). Flash and Cyborg would have been better served by showing off their interesting powers more and talking less. Aquaman was a comic relief vehicle and had the same problem that the character has in the Justice League comics – if there is no underwater action he’s just a strongman and if the action is underwater the rest of the League is too slow to keep up.

  Wonder Woman was epic in her action scenes especially in the opening when she takes out a group of terrorists single handedly. She had a great fight scene with Batman (that was over in one punch) but she took a backseat like most of the characters when Superman made his inevitable appearance. I liked how the ‘Man Of Steel’ and even ‘Batman vs. Superman’ portrayed Superman as an alien that was distrusted by humanity and distrustful of humanity to a degree. Justice League gave Superman near-deity status and far too much screen time as he had to get his bearings after his death experience. As much as I like the Superman character the Henry Cavill version has all the personality of a block of wood and the character is still just too super for earthly adventures.

  The box office for the movie was disappointing but it was still enough of a money maker to justify more DC team-up movies. Justice League was very much like a DC comic in that it was self-contained except for Superman’s death which was covered well enough that any first time DC movie patron could follow the plot. I appreciated that this movie was only a single year after Batman vs. Superman and the same year as the Wonder Woman movie. I wish the Marvel movies could bang out the headline movies every year. Next year is scheduled to bring a Batman movie which will hopefully bring a Nightwing or Batman Beyond character. There is no Man of Steel movie on the schedule which doesn’t surprise me since Warner Bros/DC does not seem to have any idea how to make the character relatable or less super. When Superman is on the job there doesn’t seem to be any room for the other heroes to shine. Hopefully DC will be able to bring more of the New Gods saga to the movies as this is probably Superman’s best chance to have a worthy antagonist.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Movie Review - Thor:Ragnarok

'Thor:Ragnarok' is easily the best Thor film to date.

  I went to see the latest Marvel superhero movie ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ at the local theatre with Kathy three weeks ago on the opening weekend. The Saturday night showing we went to was half full which was expected for the #1 movie of the weekend but far from the norm for most movies I go to see in Marshalltown. This is the third Thor movie in the current series following 2011’s ‘Thor’ and 2013’s ‘The Dark World’. The first two movies alternated between Thor’s cosmic realm of Asgard and Earth with the major subplots being Thor’s relationship with earthling Jane Foster and his half-brother Loki’s persistent betrayal of Asgard and his adoptive father the all-powerful Odin. The movies were good but the earth action and constant showing off of the grandeur of Asgard made them slow-moving as well.

  ‘Ragnarok’ starts with an action scene and never lets up. It begins with Thor battling the demon Surtur on a hell-like planet. After his ultimate victory, Thor brings Surtur’s head back to Asgard for safekeeping as it was foretold that Surtur was the harbinger of Ragnarok (otherwise known as the end of Asgard). Upon his return Thor immediately sees that his father Odin is being impersonated by the mischievous Loki and the pair head to earth to retrieve Odin from the Norwegian village where Loki banished him.

  The trip to earth was as light-hearted as the battle with Surtur was action packed. This was a hallmark of ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ – the movie had both a great humor and superior action and the ability to switch between the two in an unforced manner. On Earth, Thor has a funny run-in with Doctor Strange who proves to be Thor’s match in every way and sends him to find Odin and Loki where Odin dies after giving some expository on his first born daughter Hela. Hela immediately appears and she is every bit the menace she is shown to be in the comics and more as she destroys Thor’s hammer with one hand and banishes Thor and Loki to the far ends of the universe by disrupting their escape through the warp-like BiFrost as she heads to Asgard to begin her quest for domination of the ‘Nine Realms’ (Asgard, Earth, etc..).

  At this point the movie takes another about face as Thor finds himself marooned on a planet controlled by the ‘Grandmaster’ where he is put to work as a gladiator while being enslaved by an electric shock device. Thor is desperate to get back to Asgard and promised by the Grandmaster his freedom if he can defeat the gladiator champion in battle. It turns out the Grandmaster’s champion is none other than the Incredible Hulk who disappeared at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron. The Grandmaster is crazily played by Jeff Goldblum who oscillates between being a cutthroat killer and a party animal.

  After a great fight between Hulk and Thor (which Thor seemed to be winning until being ‘shocked’ into defeat by the Grandmaster), the movie pivots to Thor’s attempts to escape from the Grandmaster’s planet and reminded me a lot of ‘Star Trek Discovery’ except with super heroes. There is the help from a resident of the planet, finding an escape ship, and the eventual escape and obligatory chase scene. The best part of this section of the movie was the screen time afforded to both Bruce Banner and the Hulk. Instead of the mono-syllabic Hulk of the Avengers, this Hulk was intelligent in a petty and child-like way and liked being the ultimate gladiator of the Grandmaster’s planet. When the Hulk finally turns into Bruce Banner Mark Ruffalo’s Banner is not the mild-mannered scientist I’ve been used to but more of an arrogant type that argues he is more valuable than the Hulk because of his doctorate degrees but also manages to keep his pulse rate down while flying the escaping space ship.

  After the funny adventures on the Grandmaster’s planet, Thor and his team of Loki, Hulk, and Valkyrie (a confidant of Grandmaster but originally a resident of Asgard) head to Asgard for the final battle against Hela in which the good guys win but at a tremendous cost.

  This was a well-made and fun movie and in my opinion the best Marvel Studios production to date. The other Thor movies seemed too full of the ‘grandeur’ of Asgard or Thor trying to find himself or figure out his relationship with Jane Foster but this movie was just action or humor. Cate Blanchette was an incredible Hela with a bone chilling disregard for anything but revenge and power. Her costume was an improvement over the comics with an expanding headdress that gave her battle horns a ‘Medusa-like’ quality. Mark Ruffalo and the Hulk were perfect complements to the ever serious Hulk and stole every scene they were in. Tom Hiddleston was his usual superb self as Loki and Chris Hemsworth mixed humor and gravitas as he has seemingly figured out how he wants to play Thor.

  With the exception of February’s awesome looking Black Panther, this is the last Marvel Studio release until next spring’s much anticipated Avengers: Infinity War starring Thanos the Destroyer. I know it will be a big box office success but I wonder why after nearly a decade of Marvel Studios films there are still only three movies a year being produced. This year saw Spiderman: Homecoming, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, and Thor: Ragnarok and that was it. Each movie did gangbusters at the box office. Marvel films are such proven moneymakers I can’t understand why they aren’t coming out at least every other month until the market proves it is oversaturated. There is such crossover between characters that these movies could be made two or three at a time for later release. I can see why a Planet of the Apes or Transformers movie can only come out every few years – the story centers around a basic theme and characters. I can’t understand why a multi-faceted franchise like the Marvel Universe can’t produce their movies like the money-making factory they have proven to be.

Next up from Marvel Studios is 'Black Panther' in three months. It looks incredible if it is even half as good as this trailer.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Five People I Don't Want to Meet in Heaven - Part 3

  Sadly for me I’ve again run into the type of characters that compel me to add a new chapter to my series on the five people I don’t want to meet in heaven should we both end up there. Part one was about the dumpster diver that called me heartless when I didn’t let him get close enough to me and my howling beagles to ask for a handout. Part two detailed my dealings with the representative of a government entity a program of mine interfaces with telling me errors and delays on their end was ‘their lead developers highest priority’ to quiet me down for two weeks and then telling me that the problem wouldn’t be fixed for months because their staff was ‘a quarter of the size it was a year before’. My most recent run in was with master of the ‘bait and switch’ who may or may not end up in heaven that I don’t want to meet there or anywhere else for that matter.

  Not much has changed on the work front since I last wrote about it. I am still a self-employed contractor hiring myself out as a programmer to a company in Ames and still working part time troubleshooting the program I wrote for my previous employer that they couldn’t keep running after eliminating my entire department earlier this year. The program is used by two different companies that are both having it rewritten by other companies meaning not the company that laid off everyone who could maintain the program. I am slowly turning over the day to day duties to the ‘user’ companies but since the program is quite complex the turning over and the rewrites are taking longer than expected and five months after assuming the second job I am putting in as many hours as ever on my two jobs.

Bait and Switch Artists

  One of the two companies that use the program I maintain owns the software and arranged to sell the other company the source code as of April 2014 (Don’t ask me why). The issue is that the buying company had also paid for specific enhancements to the program after this seemingly arbitrary April 2014 date. I was asked by my former employer if I could merge the purchased code with the specific enhancements.

  It seemed like a simple enough task. I had done several of the specific enhancements and all the code revisions were on a repository that I am very familiar with so I agreed. I asked for access to the code and was told ‘I would get the access I need’ from the executive I made the agreement with. The next day I got an email from someone I never met before who I shall call SDM for ‘Software Development Manager’. SDM said that the easiest solution on his end would be for me to get the source code versions in a format called GIT and that I should download the GIT software from the internet and put it on my machine. I wrote back to SDM saying I didn’t know GIT and that the easiest thing for me would be to have access to the code repository I was used to working with. I left out the part about how I am generally less than impressed with people when the first thing out of their mouths is what is easier for them.

  SDM wrote back saying that getting me access to the repository “did not fit the timeline” and “you can reach out in this thread if you have questions." and also that I would have to learn GIT at some point. I didn’t mention that I have survived 57 + years on the planet without learning GIT but mention that the learning curve would delay the project but I would give it a go. After all, SDM said there was a timeline and if I needed help all I had to do was ask in the email thread.

  That was on a Tuesday. I was supposed to receive this GIT version of the code and start working (there was a timeline after all). I didn’t get the files on Wednesday or Thursday but on late Thursday afternoon I got an email from the ultimate recipient of the merged code telling me they were told I was working on it and asking when I would be done. I didn’t tell the customer I hadn’t started because I didn’t have the code but I did write to SDM mentioning I hadn’t received anything but an email from the customer asking when I was going to be done. SDM said the PG (programming guy) that was supposed to send me the files was out sick and I would get the files on Friday.

  I didn’t get the files Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. So much for the ‘timeline’. I suppose I could have written again. I didn’t because I saw no reason why there would have been a different result than the last time I asked. I wasn’t SDM or PG’s mother and if I was they probably would never see a desert again. I was also wondering if I would ever get the file but on Monday I got an email from SDM asking me if I had everything I needed and if I had any questions about GIT, PG could provide “brief assistance”.

  Part of me wanted to drop this project like a hot potato. A larger, much larger part of me wanted to mention that if I wanted to work with clowns I would have run away and joined the circus when I was a child. But being the responsible adult and someone who had made a commitment I wrote back saying not only did I NOT have everything I needed I actually had NOTHING I needed. I also expressed my concern that the offer of reaching out in an email thread if I had questions had changed in the space of five days to the nebulous offer of ‘brief assistance’.

  I got an email from PG within the hour telling me that he had sent me an email containing the code but his email client ‘appears to be blocking the sending of the code’ and sent me a link to the 73 megabyte file. I know 73 megabytes is not as much as it used to be but it is still way too much for most email servers to send and receive. I was finally able to download the source code. Then SDM wrote to say they could indeed help with GIT and they were outsourcing the project because “our resources are tight”. He closed the email by saying "Have you reviewed the online resources on GIT? If you have questions after that, feel free to ask questions."

  Now for those who haven’t dealt with this type of technical support the translation of this ‘offer’ is known as ‘RTFM’ as in READ THE F******* MANUAL assuming any question I had was going to be so basic that I could just look it up online and asking for help was tantamount to admitting my laziness. As Johnny Cash said in his classic song ‘A Boy Named Sue’ –"What could I do?" Once I had agreed to the project I was getting pushed around like a piece of trash by SDM and possibly PG (who may genuinely not know about sending 73 megabyte emails) with their minds focused on what is easiest for them, blather about timelines, and then not being able to do what they say they are going to do, and fake offers of assistance. It was a classic bait and switch - once I agreed to use the GIT source code repository nothing else that was said by SDM and PG mattered because they were give the minimum of help and do as little as possible which almost didn't even include sending me the source code required to even start the project!

  I wrote back saying that "I will be sure to review the online resources on GIT before feeling free to ask questions." and I haven’t asked any questions because I am sure that I wouldn’t get any kind of an answer. I’ll get the project done but it will take a lot longer and while that’s not OK with me I will make a decent buck from the project and once complete I will run away having anything to do with this company.

  I don’t hate much but I despise dealing with incompetent people that can’t deliver on what they say they are going to do. The only person I’m more upset with that SDM and PG is me because I agreed to this project without nailing down all the details and didn’t demand to use the source code repository I was familiar with. There’s two reasons I don’t want to run into these characters in heaven – first because I don’t like them and more importantly if I ran into them I’d probably do something to get myself kicked out!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Beagle Birthday Dreams

It's that time of the year when America's most literate beagles – Daisy and Baxter,
take over the Broken Pawn to celebrate their birthday!

Hi Everyone! It’s Daisy… …and Baxter with another blog post for all our fans. And of course everyone knows the big news, right Daisy? They better, Baxter. We had our birthday this week! Happy Birthday Baxter! Happy Birthday, Daisy! Now we are 7 years old. Can you believe it? I don’t feel middle aged but the doctor sent us a birthday card with an advertisement for senior dog food. If senior means more meat, I’m all for it! YUM!! I love meat! I think it means food with less calories so we don’t get overweight (she said to the beagle that weighed in at 38 and a half pounds last month…)

That’s in the past! I’m pretty buff. I lost two pounds in the last week alone. If buff means fat then you’re super buff, Baxter! I weigh a petite 30 pounds. And you only lost the 2 pounds because we had to go to the Happy Tails Kennel again last week. It was the second time this year we had to go to the kennel. We had to go there in May when Hank and Kathy went to Idaho for Ben’s graduation. This time they went to South Carolina for Grandpa Walt’s retirement party. I wish retirement parties and graduations were beagle friendly. Me too. And the worst part of going to the kennel was that I got kennel cough. I have to take medicine and I haven’t felt good for a week.

I cut my paw and had to get wheeled around in my wagon. Owwie... I had an operation and had to wear this hideous shirt to keep me from pulling my stiches out.

Then you gave the kennel cough to me and I have it too. And that’s on top of my other ailment. What ailment was that, Daisy? Kathy found a lump on my arm. The vet took a biopsy and said it was a soft tissue sarcoma. Oh I remember now – that was pretty scary because a sarcoma is kind of a cancer. It was. I had to have an operation where they cut open my arm and took the lump out. But the vet said they got all the cancer out and all you have is a scar. And they had to shave my arm. The hair still hasn’t grown back yet.

I had an ailment too. I cut my paw and it hurt when I walked. Owwie... You should be more careful where you walk, Baxter. I had to take my wagon on walks for almost a week. Seems like a pretty first world problem to me, Baxter. That’s because you have four good feet. I already have a foot with one toe so I need all my other three feet. At least with the wagon Hank could wheel you around pretty fast on our walks. When you walk you are the slowest dog in the world. That’s because I like to smell all the leaves and every blade of grass. You’ve been walking faster since we got the kennel cough. That’s because it’s hard to smell stuff. I wish we didn’t get boarded. Then we wouldn’t get kennel cough.

Humans have all the fun. Look at this incredible food Hank and Kathy ate at the Waffle House!

Normally Hank stays with us when Kathy goes away but he wanted to eat at the Waffle House, Baxter. Who could blame him, Daisy? Did you see the picture of the T-Bone steak? YUM!! It sure looked good. It would have been nice to get a taste but Hank didn’t bring us back any. HELLO!!! Hungry beagles here! And how about those hash browns? SCATTERED ON THE GRILL! SMOTHERED IN ONIONS! COVERED IN CHEESE! CHUNKED IN HAM! DICED WITH GRILLED TOMATOES! CAPPED WITH MUSHROOMS! And TOPPED WITH BERT’s CHILI! I wonder who Bert is? I don’t know who Bert is but he must be a great chef, Baxter.

It doesn’t seem fair Daisy. What doesn’t seem fair? Hank gets to go to the Waffle House and eat T-bone steak and eggs and awesome hash browns with chili and ham but all we got for our birthday was premium dog food out of a can! I know. We love premium dog food out of a can but it would have been a better birthday if we got to go to the Waffle House. Hank says that there aren’t any Waffle Houses in Iowa and that’s why he doesn’t take us to any. It’s not right that we don’t live near a Waffle House. No wonder Grandpa Walt and Kathy’s sister Megan hardly ever visit us. There aren’t any Waffle Houses here. I wouldn’t want to visit us either. Even though we are very lovable I’d rather visit less lovable dogs that live closer to a Waffle House.

Hank said that he asked Chef Roger at the Waffle House how much a Waffle House franchise cost and that Roger told him it cost a million dollars. That’s not too much money, Daisy! We helped Hank and Kathy find $12.75 on our walks just in the last 2 months. We could easily find a million dollars and we could open a Waffle House so Hank and Kathy could take us there on our birthday. Unfortunately I looked up Waffle House franchise opportunities on the Internet and found out that Waffle House restaurants are all corporately owned. Hank and Kathy can’t buy a franchise because they don’t sell them. I guess Chef Roger should stick to making T-Bones and eggs. I guess all we’ll ever get for our birthday is premium dog food out of a can. Maybe not, Baxter. What if we opened our own restaurant?

I think we need a different logo for our Beagle House restaurant... Looks good to me!

That’s a great idea, Daisy! We can’t call it Waffle House. What should we name it? How about the Beagle House? It rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? It sure does! We can serve T-Bone steak and eggs just like the Waffle House. And hash browns with ham and chili but I don’t know about the tomatoes, peppers, onions, and mushrooms. Skip the vegetables! Let’s have more meat. I’d enjoy my hash browns SLABBED with bacon! How about STICKED with a topping of beef stick treats? YUM!! That’s what I’m talking about. Maybe BONED with a T-BONE steak! Sure! And PATTIED with hamburger patties! OH BOY!!! And for the high class customers FILETED with a topping of Filet Mignon! And for the value customer – FRIED with fried chicken. MAN!! I’d like an order of hash browns, DICED, TOPPED, SLABBED, STICKED, BONED, PATTIED, FILETED, AND FRIED!!! What a meal. And since we aren’t franchising the internet says we can open a restaurant for just $275,000. Is that less than the million dollars Chef Roger said it would take to own a Waffle House? A lot less! And don’t forget we already have the $12.75 we found over the past two months. At that pace we’ll have the beagle house open in no time. Maybe before our next birthday. And in the meantime we can practice cooking our DICED, TOPPED, SLABBED, STICKED, BONED, PATTIED, FILETED, AND FRIED hash browns!! What are we waiting for? Let’s get started! YUM!!!

That's what I call a plate of hash browns!! YUM!! I'll take two plates!!

Friday, November 3, 2017

No Waffling

Amid the tangle of signs, roads, and stores in Gaffney, South Carolina a vision comes into view...

  This past Thursday I took a trip to South Carolina with Kathy to visit her dad, Walt. Walt is retiring from the college where he had worked for the past 25 years and he was being thrown a big retirement party. There were a number of reason I didn’t want to take this trip. The first reason is I hate flying. The second reason is that taking two days off work is taking two days’ pay off the table since I became a paid consultant in February and don’t get the benefits of sick days or vacation time. The third reason is that we have to board Daisy and Baxter and I don’t especially like to leave my favorite beagles in anyone’s care but mine.

  The main reason I shouldn’t have gone didn’t become apparent until the trip itself. An old friend of Walt’s was also going to South Carolina and had arranged to take the same plane with us and was going to stay in the same hotel with us and we were going to take her with us. The friend was very nice but was also handicapped which meant that she had to ride in the passenger seat of the car where ever we went while Kathy drove. This left me in the back seat with our son Matt and his wife. After being in a cramped airplane and then being on numerous cramped car rides and watching a football game on bleacher seats my back and legs were super sore from being twisted and cramped for hours on end. I know that this is a first world problem but it was my first world problem so I decided to give it the name of DPS for Distressed Passenger Syndrome and since I couldn’t find any references to it I have applied for a trademark and hopefully will be able to market an entire line of DPS™ merchandise in the future.

  Aside from my bout of DPS™, there were plenty of good points to the vacation. I got to hang out with Walt, sister-in-law Megan, brother-in-law Shawn and his family. I got a tour of the college, plenty of meals, and a great seat to the football game between the Limestone Saints and Catawba Indians. And this is before the highlight of my trip which was to eat at my favorite restaurant, the Waffle House for the first time in over a year!

Here is my father-in-law Walt with the brand new Chevy Malibu from his retirement dinner.
The portrait was done a few years back and will stay at the college forever.

  Thursday was full of travel. Up at 3:30, drive to Cedar Rapids by 6, arriving at Charlotte by 11:30, and then taking a van to Gaffney, South Carolina where we arrived at Walt’s house. Megan had a huge lunch spread waiting for us. We ate and then headed to the Hampton Inn where we were staying. There was time for a quick nap and then it was time to put on a suit for the first time in years and head to the retirement dinner. The dinner was at a real upscale facility with an open bar and servers bringing appetizers around. We mingled and then sat down for the dinner where Walt was lauded for his 25 years of stellar service to the college. He was presented with the Order of the Palmetto which is the highest civilian honor awarded by the state of South Carolina and a new Chevy Malibu among other gifts. By the time the dinner was over and we got back to the hotel it was after midnight east coast time which was 20 hours after I had woken up the day before in Marshalltown, Iowa.

  Over 20 years of waking up at 4am to walk beagles have rendered me incapable of sleeping late so I woke up on Friday at 5am east coast time. I worked for a half hour and played chess on the internet for a half hour. And then I played for another half hour. And another half hour. I just kept on playing until it was 9am and it was too late to go to the Waffle House because Kathy was up and Walt’s friend was knocking at the door to eat at the hotel’s free breakfast room. After that Kathy took Walt’s friend shopping for a half hour and I played more internet chess. Then we spend the day eating lunch (at the Olive Garden), having a tour of the campus on a golf cart, and then driving almost two and a half hours round trip back to Charlotte to visit Kathy’s brother and his family.

From the humble Waffle House kitchen comes the most amazing food!

  All the driving and riding on a golf cart aggravated my of DPS™ but the ride back was better because there were only two people in the back seat on the drive back. We once again got home near midnight and I once again woke up around 5am east coast time and I once again worked for a half hour but instead of succumbing to my internet chess addiction Kathy and I walked a mile to the nearby Waffle House. We arrived around seven and the restaurant was almost empty except for a lady who was sitting in the prime location at the end of the counter with a view of the entire kitchen. Thinking quickly, I angled Kathy and me to the booth that was closest to the grill. Our waitress Dee asked us what we wanted. Kathy had a waffle and eggs with orange juice. I had plenty of time to eat and plenty of time to digest with no long car trips scheduled to trigger another bout of DPS™ so I ordered the meal that was my staple of the last century when I lived for a couple of years in Florida : A T-Bone steak with eggs, toast, hash browns, and grits. The only thing I forgot was to load up my hash browns with all the toppings (SCATTERED on the grill, SMOTHERED with onions, COVERED with cheese, CHUNKED with ham, DICED with tomatoes, PEPPERED with jalapenos, CAPPED with mushrooms, TOPPED with Bert’s Chili, and COUNTRY slathered in Sausage Gravy. I knew I forgot when Dee told the cook she needed hash in the ring which meant a plain order of hash browns. It was ok, though, because my grits were almost immediately put in front of me and before I could devour the giant bowl two more plates full of food were headed my way. I pounded down my eggs, toast, and hash browns and saved the giant T-bone steak for last. All the food was awesome and brought me back to happier times of eating at the Waffle House every day when I lived in Florida, completely banishing thoughts of my DPS™. Kathy enjoyed her breakfast but not as much as I did because no one could have enjoyed a meal as much as I enjoyed my T-Bone with eggs, toast, hash browns, and grits. I chatted a little with Dee the waitress about how great it must be to work in the Waffle House, gladly paid the $22 check, and left a big tip with the anticipation of getting back to the Waffle House before our early flight out on Sunday.

The Limestone Saints and Catawba Indians played an entertaining and competitive Division II football game.

  Saturday was the day of the big college football game between the Limestone College Saints and the Catawba College Indians from Salisbury, North Carolina. It was a nice warm afternoon and we had seats on the 50 yard line. My DPS™ started acting up from sitting on the bleachers for a couple of hours but the game was very entertaining even though the home team Saints lost 45-28. It was a 4 point game with just eight minutes left before the Indians got two scores in a 10 second span a minute later to put the game out of reach. After the game we went for a donut a Sunny's Donuts (the best donut shop in South Carolina) and then to dinner and hung out at Walt’s house at which point the lack of sleep over the last three days finally caught up to me and I fell asleep in an easy chair until it was time to go home for the night.

At Sunny's Donuts you pick your donut and the filling you want and the donut is then prepared for you.
Here is my lemon injected glazed donut!

  On Sunday I once again woke up around 5am east coast time and I once again worked for a half hour and once again suppressed my desire to play internet chess and headed with Kathy to the Waffle House. The restaurant was empty and we grabbed seats at the counter with a full view of the cooking area where a server was using a squeegee to clean the floor. I’d have loved another breakfast of T-Bone steak, eggs, hash browns, and grits but with the nauseating plane trip home just a few hours away I decided to keep it light and have some hash browns SCATTERED on the grill, SMOTHERED with onions, COVERED with cheese, CHUNKED with ham, DICED with tomatoes, CAPPED with mushrooms, and TOPPED with Bert’s Chili. I learned my lesson from my trip to the Liberty, Missouri Waffle House last year and passed on having my hash browns PEPPERED and remembering how the chef was incredulous at my having both chili and country gravy on my hash browns passed on the country gravy.

Round two at the Waffle House on Sunday saw us get Kathy's eggs and waffle and my SCATTERED, SMOTHERED, COVERED, CHUNKED, DICED, CAPPED and TOPPED hash browns. I think my plate looks a lot like what heaven must look like!

  Kathy ordered a blueberry waffle with eggs and orange juice and we watched Roger the cook fire up my hash browns while he was scrambling Kathy’s eggs and prepare her waffle. While we were waiting I struck up a conversation with Nana the waitress who told me that lots of people have chili and country gravy on their hash browns and that she and Roger had been working the night shift at this Waffle House for over 20 years! Roger brought our food over and I mentioned that when I first started going to the Waffle House you could only get the hash browns scattered, smothered, and covered. Roger started telling me about all the changes he had seen in the past 25 years. For example people can get their hash browns in a bowl with eggs and sausage.

  The hash browns were awesome with each bite exploding with flavor. There was no way I couldn’t be full after eating that massive plate of hash browns. I was so happy after my hash browns I asked Roger if I could take a picture with him. Roger was OK with it and Nana the waitress brought me a Waffle House cooks hat and wanted to be in the picture too. I paid my $13 for our meal, left a large tip, and even bought a waffle house coffee mug.

  Since I was full of hash browns SCATTERED, SMOTHERED, COVERED, CHUNKED, DICED, CAPPED and TOPPED I was in a dream like state during the hour long car ride to the airport and slept most of the way through the two and a half hour trip in the tiny tube of death called an airplane. Except for my DPS™ it was a great trip. I don’t know if I would have felt the same way if there hadn’t been a Waffle House to eat at. I mentioned the trips to the Waffle House to some of my co-workers and I think you can tell a lot about a person by how they react when the Waffle House comes up in conversation. Some people roll their eyes and if they’ve been to a Waffle House it is a sure sign that we just don’t share the same world view. Some people get a blank stare because they’ve never been to one which is understandable since there are no Waffle Houses in Iowa or New Jersey (where I have spend 55 of the past 57 years). But when someone smiles knowingly I know they see the world the same way I do and are enlightened to the wonders of the Waffle House.

After taking care of the floor and cooking, Nana and Roger gave me my own Waffle House hat and posed for a picture,
ensuring me many happy memories until I can get to a Waffle House again.