Making holiday memories.

Sunday, December 19th, 1999

So I’m trying to put myself into the mind of my seven and a half year old niece. Would she be captivated with Olive: The Other Reindeer, the “contemporary” holiday offering from the nice people at Fox? Honestly, that’s what was going through my mind as I watched last week.
I was trying to get back to that elusive place where holiday offerings from the 1960s had their chance to make a lifetime impression on me. A Charlie Brown Christmas. Mr. Magoo in A Christmas Carol (the inspiration, I’m sure, for Patrick Stewart’s recent bravura TNT performance.) And even the bizarre Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a musical filled with stop-animated dolls and puppets (one of whom resembled Burl Ives.) These framed my childhood Christmases, and their regular reappearance on our TV was as much a signal of the season as the first snow.
So that’s the role I was looking for Olive to play. Would the tale of a slightly baffled dog who gets the idea that she’s needed as a backup reindeer for Santa be one that kids will be showing to their kids 20 or 30 years down the road?
Yeah, I think so. It’s cute. It works. It’s fun. I smiled.
I didn’t realize the story was actually adapted from a book by Vivian Walsh and J. Otto Seibold until I did some web-surfing to back up my viewing impressions. Walsh and Seibold are husband-and-wife writer/designers who have a distinctive visual style that’s best described as a cross between kid’s construction paper cutouts and those bizarre early 1960s cartoons where the characters eyes’ kept to the same side of their noses. Some designers might also characterize it as “Adobe Illustrator run amuck.” It’s also, in this special, quite charming and affecting, despite my best efforts not to like it. (Avid surfers can check out this interview for the story of Seibold and Walsh’s success, entertainingly told in their own words.)
Part of the reason Olive works, of course, is the all-star cast of voices—everyone from Drew Barrymore in her first canine role to Ed Asner as Santa to Michael Stipe—Stipe!—as Schnitzel the reindeer to the man of a million animated voices, Dan Castellaneta as some sort of deranged, evil postman. Drew’s California articulation sets some type of tone for this extravaganza (just this side of “like, whatever”) which, combined with the “abstract, neo-cubist” quality of the book’s original illustrations makes it a challenge for anyone to pull together.
I’ve always appreciated the efforts of the behind the scenes production companies who make animated works like this work. Animation pioneer Lee Melendez and jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi brought the “Peanuts” specials to life—solving the tough questions of how you make those two dimensional drawings move.
In the case of Olive, Matt Groening’s The Curiosity Company turned to Dallas-based DNA Productions, who took on the task of computer-animating these complex-looking characters in a flat sort of 3D. The end result is vivid, dimensional, offbeat, and visually quite engaging.
Will it look silly in 30 years? I’ll check with my niece.

Ten years on.

Thursday, December 16th, 1999

A week ago ten years ago, a bunch of people we know came into town to watch Sammy and me get married. It was, in many ways, a wonderful event, full of joy and friendship and good food and spirits, and it stands an obvious benchmark to where we are now.

It was also, for friends coming from the north—a bit of a surprise. When you come down from Ohio and Michigan in December to the South, you pack your bathing suit and expect good weather. Well, it snowed—not that much, but as I’ve said many times, a quarter-inch is enough to trigger "city paralyzed" psychosis here in the Bad Driving Capital of the South.

It was still a great time, and, most importantly, as the multiply-divorced Garrison Keillor once wrote, "We are still married."

We celebrate the strengths of personality that brought us together, and we celebrate each other’s intelligence and sense of humor. We’re lucky in a world that has a lot of sadness and horror in it to have each other, through arguments and turbulence. I think we’ve both learned volumes about how to make room for another strong personality in the most close-in parts of our lives. We’re so much more successful as a team, as partners, than we were on our own.

We share so much. We move into the next century together smiling, holding hands.

Holiday greetings from all of us in (positively) Atlanta. Here’s hoping your next century starts with a smile.

Taking a hit from The Big Pipe.

Tuesday, December 14th, 1999

It’s only in these waning weeks of the 20th century that I feel as if I’m really beginning to experience The World Of The Future that was promised us in science museums back in the sixties. This is not my beautiful self-cleaning house, this is not my personal rocket pack, heck, this isn’t even my picturephone, which Bell Telephone (who?) guaranteed us by 1970.
But I did get Mindspring to hook our beautiful non-self-cleaning house up to ADSL, and in the past few days, my laptop is starting to resemble the flat-pad communications device seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now, using the same phone line we talk on, data flows inward at T1 speeds, and flows out of here, at, well, a very respectable pace.
Bandwidth, it’s so damn liberating. The power to squander bits! The power to connect to sounds and pictures from far away! The power to do simple things, like enjoy programs that local public radio WABE neglects to carry (like Sunday Weekend Edition orThis American Life) just by tuning in my college radio station in Athens, Ohio (as a bonus, I get the local newscasts from there, enjoying the illusion that I’m not living in a traffic-choked metropolis.) Want Fox Sports? Wham, it’s there, without cable TV.
Care to view a movie trailer for a film that won’t be released for six months? The stream of pictures cascades into your machine faster than you can watch. Business news and real-time sports? Get back, stuff is dumping into to your PC from one fat pipe indeed.
Yeah, it’s still a little pixelated now and again, and occasionally the parade of data packets gets mixed up, creating colorful mosaics before my eyes, but in general, it feels like the realization of what multimedia idealists have always promised for the internet "experience." Bloated web pages slam onto my screen, near-instantaneously-most of the time. My email now tolerates those huge, bizarre attachments people insist on forwarding to all their friends and acquaintances.
But my favorite part of it must be the ability to surf radio stations and TV channels, and to download large MP3 music files, almost without thinking (which, of course, describes my usual online brain state.)
Functional streaming audio and video lets Atlanta media outlets become ambassadors to the planet at large-I’ve walked into offices in Oregon where Mac-bound designers were listening to 99X ("you mean you can hear it on the radio in Atlanta?") , and The Weather Channel, in Vinings, pumps out as much web-based data as it does actual cable channel programming. Then there’s CNN. After a bunch of experiments with websites complex and simple, the CNN Interactive folk deserve credit for refined, sophisticated Content You Can Count On, offering big handfuls of fresh, just-cooked news product in all the popular multimedia formats-QuickTime, RealPlayer, and some sort of Bill Gates kludge. The pages are simpler, clean, understandable, and for me, a great way to watch CNN the way without the happy talk peripheral stuff (like commercials.)
Yes, it’s another honeymoon with technology for me. And yes, fickle critic that I am, when it breaks down, I’ll label it as a technological Frankenstein.
But this week, it hasn’t broken down. Cool.


Tuesday, December 7th, 1999

They almost look like the result of some sort of switching mistake in master control-these commercials seemingly out of the Lawrence Welk and Bing Crosby past-genial sweatered singing white guys at holiday time. The look-and the tinny monaural sound-is just what you’d expect from a rerun from the sixties, when color television was in its infancy.
But then you notice they’re singing about the Palm Pilots, MP3 players, and camcorders you can get at And you realize, then, that you’ve been reached by the huge holiday ad campaign planned by they yet-to-be profitable internet startup. For them, this holiday season is now or never, and they’re doing everything they can to convince you that a trip to their website is easier, better, and perkier than a trip to the mall.
Me, I don’t need a lot of persuading that a mall visit is a brutal, grueling experience this time of year. What’s harder to buy into, however, is that the e-way is uniformly a better way. At some sites, the concept of "browsing" involves a major-league understanding of the mechanics of search engines-if you type in "DVDs", the search engine won’t match "DVD players" because the folks who programmed them were idiots-or maybe just engineers-and the idea of users as flawed, unpredictable variables in their neat equations just doesn’t occur to them. Then, there’s the mystery of shipping-at many places, you have to go through almost all the steps of the purchasing process-including entering your credit card number-before the brain-dead software tells you how much you really have to pay to bring that UPS truck to your door. Since what I usually do is calculate "Okay, is the cost of shipping less than the cost of sales tax?" as my primary determinant of using the web versus a local merchant, not knowing what the damn charges are makes me way less willing to do "what-if"s with some e-merchants.
The funny thing is that these mundane considerations about commerce on the web are far removed from the images of e-shopping we’re presented with in print and television ads. No, what we’re getting from the pasty white guys in colorful sweaters and print ads filled with young, active people who appear to have just paused between workouts to order a new mountain bike online is a comfortable feeling, as if ordering online is as old and familiar as a Bing Crosby Christmas special rerun, or as darn near as easy as thinking "mmmme want something."
The reality is, of course, nothing like that at all. For me, it’s more like a multiwindowed web browser assault on mysterious companies located far away with all the Consumer Reports wisdom I can bring to bear. It is a laborious, multistep process (even with Amazon’s "One-click buying") that ends with the ultimate leap of faith-handing some unseen server your credit card number, which you can be darn sure they’ll keep forever and ever, tabulating your purchases and even your near-purchases into a huge database that will, someday, come back to haunt you.
But, hey, why worry? Time for choir practice. Honey, where’s my bright red sweater?