Category Archives: a bit of history

In Media Res (1991 Edition)

Speaking of workspaces . . .

I opened my e-mail this morning to find a photograph (seen below) from my pal Marron, with whom I shared an office in my first years on Capitol Hill in the early 1990s.  She and I (and usually two, sometimes three, others) worked in this office in the U.S. Senate Dirksen Building — a building that had all the charm of a 1960s-era high school — from 1990 until about 1995. It was here that we first learned that airplanes were on their way to the Middle East for the opening volleys of first Iraq war, where she and I answered phones over Columbus Day weekend during the infamous Clarence Thomas hearings, and where we generally worked long into the night when the Senate was in session. Marron and I could also get into quite a bit of trouble together; we took great delight in pranking our fellow staffers, and each other.  (Marron once crashed our office phone system by forwarding every phone in the office to my direct line.)

Anyway, if you think from watching television or movies that the life of a Hill staffer is glamorous, and that we all work at enormous oak desks in offices lined with gigantic bookshelves crammed with leather-bound books and framed prints of the Founding Fathers on the wall, well . . . not so much.  Here’s me in my workspace in 1991 or so, as photographed by Marron from her desk across from me (you can see her own inbox in the foreground):

(Click on it if you want to embiggen it and enjoy me in all my twentysomething glory.)

Yeah, that’s me with a head full of hair.  Shut up. Given the way I’m dressed, the Senate was likely in an extended recess, when we didn’t have to wear our usual suits and could come in a bit more casually dressed.

Sitting on the desk in front of me is one of those gigantic old IBM desktop computers.  Back in the early 1990s, the only people in our office who had desktops were the low folks on the totem pole — and that’s because we were using them to draft responses to constituent mail, which we could then save onto an inner-office network, where anyone with a desktop could pull them up. And let me tell you, we worked those things hard, responding to about 10,000 pieces of mail each month.  (And as Marron reminded me in her e-mail  accompanying this photo, it wasn’t too long after this picture was taken that my computer monitor actually caught fire.)

All other office business — including a rudimentary e-mail system — was carried out on computers we called The DeeGees — old green-screened Data General computers, hooked into a central system that made it possible to share files and send messages. Mine was on the desk’s return,  just behind the clunky IBM.  (If you think your computer currently takes up too much space on your desk, try having two.)

The bookshelf to the left in the photo was my filing system — and you can see that, even then, I was still a black binder kinda guy. There was an old dot-matrix printer in the space just behind the bookshelf, where our assistant press secretary would print out wire stories once each day, making a loud zzzt zzzt zzt! for about 30 minutes.

The television you see — which we used to monitor the Senate floor — wasn’t mine or Marron’s;  it belonged to another staffer we all called Joe T, who had one of the two desks next to the window. And on the wall?  Not Founding Fathers, but Georgia O’Keeffe prints (the one behind my desk was a painting of the Taos Pueblo)  and framed photos of New Mexico scenery.  And it looks like I also had a small promo poster for Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta taped to the wall just above my DeeGee.

Finally, it appears there’s a pile of papers on the desk in front of me.  Some things never change. Apart from the hair, of course.

Lost Genius


In Memory of Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

A Blast From The Past: The Midnight Conference

The other day, I received a nice e-mail from Rob Dale at AmDale Media, the fellow who puts together the Comic Fanzine Price Guide. Through a bit of clever detective work, Rob discovered that, back in the late 1980s, I used to write for a Batman-related fanzine called The Midnight Conference (TMC), and would I mind providing a little insight about the ‘zine?

Well, sure.  In those heady days before Batman was ever a money-printing movie franchise, there was The Midnight Conference, a  fanzine produced by a pleasant fellow from Canada named Martin R. Noreau, who printed and distributed the mag mostly out of affection for a character he loved.  I doubt the thing ever made a nickel, but Martin diligently put out the mag for a couple of years, typing up each issue and pasting in drawings, then photocopying, binding and mailing the thing.  This was in the days before computers made things like formatting and typesetting as simple as changing a setting in the template or selecting  a different typeface, and while it wasn’t exactly bearskins and buck knives, it was pretty close.

Eventually the production got large enough that Martin needed a bit of help, so he tapped the pseudonymous lettercol phenom T.M. Maple — who seemed to have a thoughtful letter in nearly every comic book published in the 1980s — to act as his assistant editor.  TMC lasted until the late 1980s, when Warner was preparing to put out the first Batman movie — you know, the one with Michael Keaton and directed by Tim Burton, which we all groaned about until we actually saw it and decided it was pretty darn cool —  and, allegedly, the Powers That Be at Warner issued poor Martin a cease and desist letter in the name of protecting their copyright. That was pretty much it for TMC.  It folded after thirteen issues. (Meanwhile, T.M. Maple — whose real name was Jim Burke — died of a heart attack shortly thereafter at age 38.  He was a thoughtful guy who genuinely loved comics and couldn’t understand why they didn’t have a more mainstream acceptance. I wonder what he would think about the medium and characters he loved now.)

I was the regular reviewer for the Batman comic for seven issues of TMC. It’s not work I’m particularly proud of — I was still in college, still feeling my way with voice, and when I go back and re-read those pieces now, they bury the needle when it comes to the cringe factor. Yet, I did take the job seriously, banging out what I thought were really thoughtful critiques of Jim Starlin’s take on the character, or discussing whether the art in a particular sequence was helping the narrative. Mostly, though, I was just trying too hard.

Still, from time to time, I scored a coup or two.  For one issue, I managed to nab an interview with writer Steve Englehart, who wrote what many — myself included — still consider one of the finest story arcs in the character’s eighty year history.  Another time, I collared MAD magazine artist Sergio Aragones and paid him twenty bucks to produce a drawing of the Dynamic Duo to use as the cover on what turned out to be TMC’s final issue in late 1988.  Wanna see?  Here you go:

I still have the original black-and-white drawing on the bookshelf in my office. And let me add that Sergio was — and is — a super nice guy with a great sense of humor. He’s still going strong today at age 73. And for the record, this marks the only time I have ever appeared in anything with a great Aragones cover.

“My Beloved Island of Manna-hata!”

The Wildlife Conservation Society has created a neat project on a topic near and dear to Washington Irving’s heart, and to mine.  It’s a history of New York, but with a twist — unlike Irving’s History of New York, which traced the rise and fall of the Dutch settlers, this one traces Manhattan’s ecological history.

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Mannahatta Project imagines what Manhattan Island was like only hours before Henry Hudson and his men set foot on the island 400 years ago, in 1609.  As the WCS puts it:

[T]he center of one of the world’s largest and most built-up cities was once a natural landscape of hills, valleys, forests, fields, freshwater wetlands, salt marshes, beaches, springs, ponds and streams, supporting a rich and abundant community of wildlife and sustaining people for perhaps 5000 years before Europeans arrived on the scene in 1609.  It turns out that the concrete jungle of New York City was once a vast deciduous forest, home to bears, wolves, songbirds, and salamanders, with clear, clean waters jumping with fish.  In fact, with over 55 different ecological communities, Mannahatta’s biodiversity per acre rivaled that of national parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Great Smoky Mountains!

The website for the project is a lot of fun, allowing you to see what New York neighborhoods looked like four centuries ago.  Most familiar sites sit in what was then dense forest, while other familiar locations — like Ground Zero — would be smack in the middle of the Hudson River, centuries before groundfill molded the island to its current shape.

Go poke around on the website, and visit your favorite New York spot or neighborhood as it might have looked in 1609.  And be sure to check out the real work behind the project, Eric W. Sanderson and Markley Boyer’s Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City.

Memorial Day Weekend

Memorial Day weekend starts early in the Jones house, as we head north this afternoon for our now-annual three-day volleyball tournament at Penn State.  It’s a great experience for all the girls — over 700 teams, I think, from all over the East Coast — as they get to stay in the dorms and live like college students for three days.  God help them.

Enjoy your weekend — but while you’ve got the grill fired up, take a moment to remember what this holiday is all about.  A bit of context, you ask?  You got it.

General John Logan

General John Logan

On May 5, 1868, General John Logan, a decorated veteran of the Civil War, issued General Order Number 11, declaring May 30, 1868 as “Decoration Day.”  On that date, the graves of Civil War soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery — regardless of whether those soldiers served in the Union or Confederacy — would be decorated with flowers.

Logan’s order was not without precedent.  On May 5, 1866, at the prompting of local druggist named Henry C. Wells, the town of Waterloo, New York became the first community to declare a formal Memorial Day to remember its Civil War dead.  In the 1960s, the Congress and President Lyndon Johnson made Waterloo’s claim as the birthplace of Memorial Day official, by designating Waterloo, NY, as the hometown of Memorial Day.  There’s even a Memorial Day museum there you can visit.  Pretty neat.

Anyway, getting back to Logan and Decoration Day: in 1873, the State of New York — perhaps inspired by the example at Waterloo –was the first to recognize Memorial Day as an official holiday; by 1890, all northern states had also fallen in line.  It would take longer, and another war, for the Southern states — which viewed the celebration as a bit of a nose-rubbing — to come around.  After World War I, the South recognized it as a day to commemorate soliders who had fallen in any war (some states, however, still declare separate holidays to honor Confederate dead).

In 2000, President Clinton issued a Presidential Proclamation asking Americans to reaffirm the true meaning of Memorial Day by observing a “National Moment of Remembrance” at 3:00 p.m. on Memorial Day. Not a bad idea — but those who we’re remembering also gave you the right to celebrate the day as you like.  Remember them in your own way — but please remember them.