Make Mine Marvel!

My love of superheroes started at a very young age with two dolls..my sister’s Wonder Woman doll which she no longer played with, had no legs, and a rats nest of hair, and a 12 inch Spider Man doll by Mego. Spider Man I was especially obsessed with, and my mom had to hide the web/rope glide it came with because I was playing with it too much (yes, my mom was strange like that)

I also loved the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman television show that was playing often in syndication in the 80s, along with the Bill Bixby Incredible Hulk show, which I loved but was also terrified of. I was fine when David Banner was the Hulk, I just had to be out of the room for the transformation.

1960s Spider Man, Spider Woman, Spider Man and his Amazing Friends, The Hulk and Super Friends were some of my favorite cartoons growing up, along with the pilot of the Sunbow/Marvel version of X-Men (the series never got made and only aired a few times on syndicated tv).

When we would go down to North Carolina, my very gifted at drawing cousin Charles would make cut out paper dolls of the Super Friends for us to play with, compete with capes.

In 7th grade at Waldenbooks in Yorktown Mall in Lombard, Illinois for some reason I bought a copy of West Coast Avengers when writer/penciler John Byrne was at the helm of the book, and I became hooked. Just like when I first got into Electronic music, I started just buying any comic book that even seemed interesting, not knowing its content. Then I discovered the Chris Claremont/Marc Sylvestri run on Uncanny X-Men and the David Michelinie/Todd McFarlane run on the Amazing Spider Man, and I became an addict. The X books (Excalibur, X-Factor, Classic X-Men,New Mutants/X-Force, Wolverine) became my go to books, but would also dabble in the Avengers and Captain America from time to time. Then I discovered the Miller/Mazucelli run on Daredevil, specifically the Born Again story arc.

Somehow I discovered there was a comic book store in my town of Glen Ellyn Illinois called More Fun and I became a regular. I convinced my dad, and later my sister Sandra to somehow drive me to the comic book store weekly. I got so good that I knew which week which book came out. I feel bad for my dad waiting out in the car while I would take a long time in the very small store reading and trying to decide what to buy.

Then the 90s “golden age” of comics at Marvel happened with Jim Lee/Todd McFarlane/Rob Liefeld ( loved Lee and McFarlane, never loved Liefeld, but bought it anyways). I also fell in love with the art of Arthur Adams.

On a family trip to North Carolina I made my Aunt find a comic book store in Winston Salem just so I could buy Todd McFarlane’s solo debut as a artist and writer on Spider Man. Looking back I feel like a spoiled brat!

I also started collecting backwards with X-Men, and exploring the Byrne/Claremont years, of course with the epic Dark Phoenix saga.

One of my best friend’s Chris Mitten and I would spend hours drawing comic book characters, both Marvels and our own. He was WAY better than me, but I tried to keep up. Our classmate Mike Park also tried to draw, but was not as good as Chris and me and we often would make fun of him behind his back (ha!)

For some reason DC comics did not appeal to me. I bought a few issues of Death, The High Price of Living (which my mom freaked out at me having, thinking it was some sort of occult book) and my mom bought me The Death of Superman (remember that publicity stunt?) as a gift. I also bought Frank Miller’s Sin City comic book.

My love of comic books along with my love of album cover art is what led me to become a graphic design major. My room in high school and college was a mix of cars and X-Men and Spider Man, with some Kellogs cereal glow in the dark stars on the ceiling… which I all brought to college with me.

When I got to the University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana I just got to0 busy to collect comic books, even though I would go to the comic book store there on Green Street from time to time to see what was going on in the comic book world and pick up a random issue. My roommate and I did watch the Fox Kids X-Men animated series which was based on Claremont/Lee’s X-Men run.

One hobby took over another one and I sold all my comic books to More Fun comics to buy my first synthesizer, except a few ones I was emotionally attached to. In retrospect I got cheated because I sold some very valuable issues like the introduction of Gambit and Cable to X-Men/New Mutants.

In 2000 the first X-Men movie came out and I was very excited. I also picked up the Joe Quesada/Kevin Smith ( of Clerks fame) revival of Daredevil which was really good. While I was not a huge fan of the first X-Men movie, X2 was great, only to be let down again by the X3, The Last Stand. First Class was a great movie, but I didn’t bother with any of the Wolverine or other X-Movies or Deadpool (yes, it’s a crime, I know)

I also liked the controversial Ang Lee Hulk movie and did not particularly like the Ed Norton Hulk movie.

Of course all the Fantastic Four movies were bad, but the Sin City movie was pretty good.

Daredevil/Elektra was awful.

I enjoyed the Sam Rami/Toby McGuire Spider Man movies, at least the first two. The other franchises are not bad, and Into the Multiverse was really good.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe was hit and miss for me, enjoying the Captain American franchise, but only liking Iron Man 1. I only liked Thor Ragnarok, and the first and third installment of Avengers (Endgame).

I kept up with some of the X-Men animated series of the 2000s and the “motion comic” of the Astonishing X-Men run which was actually really good, but the motion comic was pretty gimmicky and dumb and actually reminded me of the 60s Marvel Comic cartoons where they just literally cut up old Marvel Comics, made them move on the screen and used a lot of close ups and limited animation.

The only DC movies I’ve seen is Wonder Woman (good) and Super Man Returns (Brandon Routh). The 90s Batman movies which went from great to horrible, and the Dark Knight trilogy. Justice League and Ben Affleck Batman I never bothered with because it looked awful.

My niece loves the Arrow/Flash verse, and the few episodes Ive seen with her were good, but never got hooked.

I did enjoy the Punisher, Jessica Jones and Daredevil Netflix series, but Iron Fist (who cares about him) and the Defenders was awful. Also never bothered with Agents of Shield. Also didn’t bother with Captain Marvel.

I do look forward to the next phase of the MCU, Black Widow, what will happen with Spider Man (will Matt Murdock be his lawyer?), and if another X-Men franchise will happen. I’ve never been a Thor fan, so Natalie Portman as Thor doesn’t do a lot for me. Wonder Woman 1984 looks great. We shall see.

Make Mine Marvel!

When Do I Get To Sing My Way? My love of singing!

I love to sing. I mean most people do, but I really love it. Now, I’m not necessarily a great singer, I’m a decent singer, and I can definitely carry a tune and sing in the right key. We have a very musical family..my parents both sang in the church choir, my siblings and I all took a string instrument and piano, and me and my sister Sandra sang in junior choir at church.

We had a big collection of records, 45s, 8 tracks and 12 inch remixes, mostly pop, disco, r&b and dance, but a few rock and country records also. I was also the stereotypical child of the MTV generation, watching both that and VH1, and sometimes BET when they would show videos. I even liked songs like We’re Not Going To Take It by Twisted Sister, and I didn’t like hair metal, but I saw plenty of Poison and Guns N Roses videos. I remember being on the big swings on the playground of my elementary school singing Separate Ways by Journey.

One of my earliest musical memories was in the basement with my sister Sandra and we had an old cassette recorder and I had a blank cassette, so I recorded us singing Endless Love by Lionel Ritchie and Diana Ross, and I was hamming it up. The Evita musical was very popular at the time and was playing in Chicago and the adverts were constantly playing on Good Morning America and they kept on playing this funny clip of the song Buenos Aires, the “just a little touch of star quality” bit at the end, and my sister thought it was hilarious for some reason and we kept on singing it in a very high pitched voice. Must have annoyed my mom.

Another fun thing I would do is slow down 45 records to 33 1/3, especially female singers like Madonna to sound like soulful black men. When my voice started to change, I noticed I could sing along with it.

In second grade, my teacher Mrs. Watson called my parents to tell them I was singing in class and singing in the bathroom (there was a private single occupancy bathroom in the classroom). My mom asked “well is he disturbing anyone?” and Mrs. Watson said “well, no” then my mom said “well, what’s the problem then?”

I had a pretty good singing voice as a kid, and would often have to sing in musicals in school. I was my elementary schools first black Santa Clause in a play called The Christmas Doll where I had a brief solo. Then I played Johnny, in a play about oral hygiene, where I had to sing a solo in the song “Johnny Remember the Rules”, a bizarre play. I only got the part because I was out sick and no one wanted to sing a solo, so got stuck with it.

In fourth grade, my friend Pat Newell and Joe Golson we sang in a trio. Another odd musical about Americana, and eating corn on the cob and singing with home made kazoos which were really plastic haircombs with wax paper over them.

I never really sang in public again till my senior year of high school and I tried out for Madrigals and actually got in. It was a fun experience and I got to explore my voice more, which is in the lower tenor/high bass range. I liked Madrigals so much, I tried out for show choir, but I hated the music and singing style, and it made me feel like a cruise ship/theme park singer, something I always hated and cringed at, so I dropped out.

I got an AIWA stereo my senior year of high school and it had the karaoke/voice fader feature. It wasn’t the best, but it would often soften the lead vocals and you could still hear the background vocals and harmonies. I got really obsessed with this feature, trying it on every cd and tape I owned and trying to figure out the background arrangements of my favorite songs.

I had dreams of being a singer songwriter at a very young age, like at 6th grade. I was writing my own songs in my head (usually rip off of modern pop songs with different lyrics) but didn’t have the technology to write or record them till my senior year of high school where I got a somewhat decent Casio keyboard that had a record function that I could record at least one part, then go back play live over it, while recording into a boom box..all very primitive. The first song I wrote was called Forever And A Day, which was a rip off of Sarah McLauchlins Possession mixed with the Irish fiddle solo from Sineade O’Connors You Made Me the Thief of My Heart. Not very original. The other was a song called You Don’t Have to Lie About Me, a song inspired by the movie Dr Zhivago which I saw in honors English class. Laura mentions this to Dr Zhivago when he goes back home to his family, which I thought was a really interesting concept. I never showed these songs to anyone however.

I continued to write songs, but I thought my voice was too weak, so they all just became instrumentals because I didn’t have the courage.

If you worked with me over the years, you know I often got caught singing (and dancing in my chair) at work, with people telling me to keep it down, or asking “Fred, you realize we can hear you, right?” Somewhat embarrassing.

In 2011, I was feeling pretty good about my music production, and I thought, well, maybe I should try and sing. So I took singing lessons at the Music and Language School in Oak Park, Illinois. They allowed you to go for a demo to see which teacher you would like. First woman, who was at least 10 years younger than me and was VERY enthusiastic was very much a show tunes/musical woman. She asked me what musicals I knew. To be honest, I only like a handful of musicals (Jesus Christ Superstar, the Sound of Music, West Side Story, Evita, Once, Moulin Rouge, Grease and the original animated Lion King movie and that’s it) “Do you know Rent” she asked. I said, “no”, and with high pitch shrill, “how can you NOT KNOW RENT?!?!” I was like, sorry I don’t know it. I saw it once, didn’t like it besides the 5 thousand minutes song, or however it goes. Then we settled on singing A Whole New World from Aladdin, which I barely knew and really needed the sheet music for the words. Since I didn’t really like the attitude from this millinial woman, I tried another guy..who was the exact opposite of the first woman. He was also a guitar teacher at the school and looked like a long hair hippie stoner, and he acted like one. He was almost TOO chill and “go with the flow” and had me do some crazy voice exercises, “just let it all come out man”

I finally found a good match, a guitar and piano playing guy. He let me choose my own music, which was Heaven on their Minds from Jesus Christ Superstar, and a song I fell in love with in Croatia, Advertising Space by Robbie Williams. We also did Beatles songs for warm ups, which to me were foreign because I didn’t grow up listening to the Beatles (not too common in black households)

I downloaded a bunch of “singing for dummies” like mp3s and practiced in the car on the way too and from work, and teaching myself breathing and voice exercises, and practicing my head and chest voice.

In retrospect, Advertising Space was out of my range, with some high notes I could only hit in certain conditions.

I would try and record myself practicing at home, but like most people, I can’t stand the sound of my voice, and I still sounded bad and no being able to hit notes.

Needless to say, I never recorded myself singing to any of the songs I wrote, and thought to myself, maybe I’ll just be a behind the scenes singer/songwriter that never actually sings.

But some of my favorite bands have singers that really cant sing or have traditionally good voices like Bernard Sumner of New Order, or Neil Tennant of The Pet Shop Boys or even Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails.

It was a fun experience anyway!

I love Cartoons!

I watched A LOT of cartoons in the 80s and 90s.I love them and still watch the adult ones. My favorites are Bob’s Burgers, Archer, and Big Mouth

I’m not sure if it was more than the average kid of that time period but I certainly watched a ton up until college and a few out of college.. Of course I watched the standards: Tom and Jerry/MGM, Flintstones, Jetsons, Looney Toons/WB. But I also watched some more obscure stuff.

So, I’ll try and break it down by animation studio:

Hanna Barbera
Yogi Bear, Flinststones, Jetsonsm Space Ghostm Whacky Races, Harlem Globetrotters, Super Friends, Hong Kong Phooey, Grape Ape, Richie Rich, Bird Man, Snorks, Johnny Quest, Powderpuff Girls, Smurfs, Shirt Tales, Pirates of Darkwater

Filmation
Superman, Superboy, Fat Albert, Star Trek, Tarzan, He Man, She Ra

DePatie Feleng
Pink Panther, Spider Womanm New Fantastic Four (didn’t have the Thing, weird)

Rankin Bass
Thunder Cats, Silver Hawks

Marvel/Sunbow Productions
GI Joe, Transformers, Jem, Dungeons and Dragons, Muppet Babies, Original X-Men Pilot (Pryde of the X-Men), Defenders of the Earth, Spider Man and His Amazing Friends, The Incredible Hulk, RoboCop, Kid N Play,

X-Men on their own
Wolverine and the X Men, X-Men Evolution

DIC
Inspector Gadget, The Littles, MASK, The Real Ghostbusters, COPS, Beverly Hills Teens

Japanimaion(remember when they used to call it that, ha!)/Anime
Robotech, Tranzor-Z,Voltron,Speed Racer, Captain Harlock


Ruby Spears
Plastic Man, Pac Man, Rambo, Thundarr the Barbarian

Mainframe Entertainment
Reboot, Transformers Beast Machines, Transformers Beast Machines

Saban Entertainment
Kidd Video, X-Men,

New Warner Brothers
Tiny Toons Adventures, Animaniacs, Freakazoid, Batman The Animated Series, Justice League

Cartoon Network Shows over the Years
Space Ghost Coast to Coast, Star Wars Clone Wars, Teen Titans, Dexters Laboratory, Gi Joe Resolute

Adult Swim
Robot Chicken, Frisky Dingo, Home Movies



MTV Liquid Television, Aeon Flux, The Head

Disney
The Proud Family, Kim Possible, Lilo and Stitch. As you can see, Disney was just not big with the Royster family for some reason. My parents never took us to any of the pre Disney Renaissance movies except Robin Hood. We did not buy VHS cassettes ever when I was a kid, so there are ton of Disney classics I have never seen all the way through, only from clips online.


The Marvel Super Heroes (1960s)
Thor, Incredible Hulk, The Avengers, Spider Man

Comedy Central
Drawn Together, Dr Katz, South Park

TBS/Fox
Family Guy, Cleveland Show, American Dad

Miscellaneous/Weird Stuff
Clutch Cargo, Space Angel, Garfield and Friends, Casper the Ghost, Popeye, Science Court

Modern Adult Cartoons
King of the Hill, The Simpsons, Futurerama, Bobs Burgers, Archer, Big Mouth, New She-Ra


My Secret Love of Cars

One thing you may, or may not know about me is that I used to be a car fanatic. Now I don’t know about the mechanics, or how to even change the oil but I definitely love the aesthetics! My love of cars was given to me by my late and dear beloved brother Vernon. He had subscriptions to both Road and Track and Motor Trend magazine. From the 2nd grade to my Sophomore year of college I only missed one Chicago Auto Show at McCormick Place. Vernon would take me and my friends T.j. Frey and Kurt Schwab to the Auto Show when we got to high school and was always fun, and would go to Ed Debevic’s before hand.
I would obsessively go to every single car makers booth, get their model year brochure, I would have a loaded bag full of them. Then I would take them home and pour over everyone of them. Since we were a GM family, that was my favorite, since we owned every GM mark except Cadillac, Saturn and GMC. We had a 1975 Pontiac Grand Safari, a 1986 Chevy Celebrity(which later became my car), a 1990 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.
My love art started early, so I would make up my own cars, and my own car company which I called “Mega Motors” however, they were just badly drawn bootleg versions of already existing GM cars, I just changed the names. I actually wanted to be a car designer growing up. But my love of drawing turned from cars to Marvel comics in the 7th grade.
My dad also bought us all second hand cheapy cars like a 1986 Nissan Sentra stick shift, no air conditioner, A 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciara, and I eventually would drive a 1986 Toyota Truck (no air conditioning and stick shift) and a 1990 Toyota Corolla. Also bought a second hand 1982 Honda Accord, it was a lemon, back when they had the “Ha-Ha” ad campaign, and thats what we nick named the car.
I was most proud of our Snoop Dog-licious 1964 black Chevy Impala coupe, which Vernon drove in high school and drove us around to many places.
I used to be able to sit on a street corner and name the make and model of every car that went by, something I used to pride myself on. I can still remember the cars my friend had as a kid. Stephanie had a LaBaron convertible, TJ drove a Cavalier (till he crashed it 😉 Both Mike and Megan had Cavalier’s also, Damian drove a Saturn. Jay had a Firebird, some old Oldsmobiles and a Buick Regal, Yolonda Lewis’ mom had an Audi 5000, and my friend Darren had a Aerostar minivan, and my friend Chris had a Honda Accord, (well his parents did anyways!)
What was impressive was someone in the neighborhood (the Valley) had a DaLorean, which was cool because back to the Future had come out. Also classmate Mike Mandarino’s father had an Excalibur, a fancy and rare exotic car which he would sometimes drive to school in.
My dad was pretty obsessive about the cars and maintaining them and if something happened to the car, of course it was something YOU DID that made the car stall or malfunction.
When I graduate school, I would later drive a 1990 Toyota Corolla stick shift, a 2002 Chevy S-10 truck (i totaled the Toyota Truck on some slick ice on I-57 coming home from a visit to Champaign) and an inherited a 1990 pimp car from my beloved Aunt Sissy, a Buick Riviera with leather seats, and anti lock breaks (rare for the time) and headlights that would automatically turn on (also rare for the time). Sadly this car was also totaled when a semi truck hit and ran me on the Eisenhower expressway late at night as I was coming home from Berlin Nightclub.
In college I started to have a secret love for VW, and my living in and trips to Europe further cemented this. I fell in love with European cars in general..all the different makes and models that we don’t get here, or all the different trim levels and engines that we can’t get in the United States. Or foreign cars like Pugeot, Alfa Romeo, Renualt that we used to have in the states but no longer have. Of course living in the former Yugoslavia, I was fascinated by the YUGO! I could not believe so many were still on the road in working condition.
IN 2010 my dream came true, and I finally was able to buy my VW! At first I tried driving a Kia Soul, which to me felt like I was driving a toy bumper car and didn’t like the steering. Then I tried a Honda Fit (Jazz for you Europeans) but felt not the right fit and frankly the Honda folks were rude to me. Then I tried a Mazda 3, but for some reason amber interior lighting turns me off. I had no real intention of buying a Golf at first, but since all the car dealerships were right next to each other, I said , why not walk into VW and see the Golf and Jetta. Well I took the Golf for test drive, and I fell in love, it was the best driving car I had ever had, and the most fun, (also a stick shift)
I used to read Autoblog every single day, but as many of you have been reading my posts lately,a depression had me losing interest in all the things I used to enjoy like music and cars and I stopped keeping up with cars and the new models, and I can no longer spot every make and model of car like I used to. (maybe 60-70 percent right)
However, I think it’s time to jump back into the automobile world and see what’s going on
https://www.autoblog.com/2020/05/07/vw-explains-why-the-new-golf-gti-still-has-a-stick-and-isnt-a-hybrid/

2021 VW Golf

Katy B, Crying For No Reason

I liked Katy B’s debut Katy On A Mission. It got me through many a long run when training for the half marathon. She definitely has an amazing voice/talent. When I really started to enjoy her was with the ingenious duet with Jessie Ware Aaliyah, a piece of throwback 90s house that was one of my top songs of 2012, and still love till this day.
Seems like Katy’s music and lyrics have definitely improved on her latest album, Little Red.
The standout track of the album is soul bearing Crying For No Reason…a song about facing fears, regret and pain.
It also has an excellent remix package including remixes from Infinity Ink and Tom Shorterz

My Life In Croatia

So, some of you may or may not be wondering just how I got to live in Croatia for 6 months in 2006

in the fall of 2004 I went to my favorite dance club in Chicago, Berlin. It was a Saturday night, and as soon as I walked in, I noticed a cute guy dancing on the speakers. I noticed, but filed it away in the back of mind “out of my league”

Towards the end of the end of the night, I was dancing by myself on the dancefloor, and I noticed the guy from the speaker was dancing pretty close by. Then he got closer. Then closer. Then all of a sudden we were kissing on the dancefloor.

I found out he was a Croatian graduate student visiting for the weekend from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend with his roommate. We exchanged emails (not even phone numbers, ha) I didn’t really think I would see him ever again.That Monday at work at the Chicago Tribune, I decided to take a chance and email him, and say how nice it was meeting him. Then we started exchanging emails back and forth for two weeks.

Friends in Oprtalj, Croatia
In Oprtalj, Croatia

Two weeks later, he writes me and says “while I normally don’t do this sort of thing, what if I take the train to Chicago this weekend and visit you” I was like sure!It was so risky, we had not even talked on the phone or had a proper date, but I just went with the flow anyways. Honestly, I wasn’t sure I liked him at first. He talked…a lot! He was very frank and honest and opinionated about everything. So our first date was like 36 hours long. We went to Lincoln Park Zoo and I wanted to show him the Tribune tower, so we went to a Thai restaurant around the corner where we had you dined sitting on the floor. That’s when I realized I really liked himIt was a bit of a whirlwind romance after that. We would alternate weekends of seeing each other between Chicago and South Bend. He met all my friends and work mates, and I met his. I felt the need to share him with the world. I think he felt the same way about me.

While he was from a totally different culture, we bonded over music, and movies and TV. He taught me about Croatian culture and food. In 2005 we went to the Chicago Auto Show, went to see John Stewart live in Rosemont, and we road tripped it down to Mardi Gras in New Orleans (before Katrina)

It was a long distance relationship, but it made it that much more special for some reason only being able to see each other on the weekends. We didn’t take each other for granted. I had never met such an intelligent, and fascinating/dynamic/funny human being. We talked on the phone everyday and texted several times a dayHowever there was a question mark over our heads. We knew he was graduating in the Spring and had to go back to Croatia. At first we didn’t think about it, but as graduation time came closer, we started to wonder. He went to a few immigration lawyers to ask if there was anyway out of his student visa requirement…meaning he would have to return home and not be able to come back to the United States for two years. There really wasn’t a way out of it.

Graduation time came, and his fraternal twin brother came to visit to see him graduate, and that was really fascinating. I wanted to see how much they were different and alike..which they were. They looked and sounded and acted very different. But being twins, there would be moments of uncanny likeness. We watched some Yugoslavian war topic films from Netflix.. Wounds, No Mans Land and Pretty Village Pretty Flame.We got somewhat of a lucky break, Luka got a job interview with a firm he interned with in Toronto. We thought, well at the very least maybe we could Air Commute and be on the same continent. We didn’t know exactly how it would work, or the cost, but we went for it. He was offered the job…then they rescinded the offer because they had a financial shake up, all over the span of a weekend

We were devastated knowing he would have to go back to Croatia. It was so sad taking him to the airport, not knowing what was going to happen.

I became very depressed, losing the love of my life. We emailed each other and got calling cards. It was tricky trying to figure out the time difference. At first I wanted to break things off, but he insisted we stay together. He bought me a plane ticket to come visit him in September during my birthday.

Our luck got worse, well better. In August my job announced lay offs and I got cut. In September I went to Croatia for the very first time. I had never been abroad before. It was an incredible and odd experience. I had never been to that part of the world. I had no reference for the architecture or the language or how the people looked and acted. I met his family for the first time and I was incredibly nervous, but they were so nice to me. I also met some of his friends and went to the one and only gay bar (at the time) in all of Croatia, Global, which was also strange, seeing gay culture in a Balkan country, and me standing out as the only black guy there. We went to the amazing city of Dubrovnik, ate the amazing food, and swam in the Adriatic sea at the nearby town of Cavtat. His mother baked me a birthday cake, something my mother had not done for me since I was a child, and it was incredible. It was such a sense of belonging.After the visit, we made the decision that I would move to Croatia in January of 2006 giving me time to make some freelance money, sell all my stuff, sublet my apartment, get a background check, take Croatian lessons on the southside of Chicago at a Croatian Church. I started ordering books from Amazon about Croatia, the war, and culture shock. I wanted to be as prepared as possible. I joined some ex pat groups online.

My parents absolutely hated the idea. My sisters were indifferent but supportive. My friends were mostly supportive, but a couple were doubtful about what I was doing.In January I packed up 2 suitcases and my cat Moby and flew the 5000 miles to Zagreb, Croatia.

Then, the culture shock hit. New home, new food, new language, new city, new public transportation, new grocery stores, new retail shops. Luka had to work during the daytime, so I was at home alone… a lot. Thankfully they use subtitles on Croatian tv, so all the American shows I could watch. I even got into a Croatian soap opera about Soccer..it was so dramatic, you didn’t even need to know what they were saying, you could just read the body language and facial expressions.

I spent a lot of time walking around the city in the cold, taking pictures and getting lost. It was an excellent way to get to know the city however. I got so good that when my friend Ben arrived, I was actually able to show him around myself.

I had to get used to the Croatian/Zagreb way of life. You could tell it was more conservative, more Catholic than the states. At the time it was somewhat homophobic. There is close to no racial minorities besides some Chinese, Roma, and I saw maybe 5 black people the entire time I was there. There was no political correctness. Everyone swore like sailors. The police and government seemed somewhat corrupt. There is no faux American politeness at restaurants or stores. The people aren’t mean to you, but you get varying levels of service on where you go, and no one is hustling for tips. The grocery stores are like ALDI.. you pay for a cart, and you bag your own groceries. No one in a clothing store is going to fall over you asking if they can help you with something or if you would like to try something on. No waiter is going to come up to you every 15 minutes asking if you like the food.
I was taught a very formal way of asking for things in my Croatian lessons I learned on CD. It would always say “may I please…” like “may I please have one ticket for the tram” My friend said I was being too nice. All I had to say was “one ticket” at a kiosk that sold tickets. The please was optional. I was told I was saying “im sorry” too much. If you accidentally hit someone or bump into someone on a train or tram, it UNDERSTOOD that you didn’t mean to do it. But I said it anyways. At the time, the tram system was almost an honors system. You could get away with not having a ticket, but they would occasionally have secret monitors on there who would ask to see tickets from time to time. Thank god everytime they checked, I just happened to have bought a ticket. However, everything is electronic now with cards, so I don’t even think you have to punch your ticket anymore.
The Architecture in Zagreb is a mixture of old, sometimes beautiful Hapsburg era baroque, sometimes with crumbling dirty facades that no one wants to fix. There are some beautiful old churches, especially at Kaptol, and the main cathedral. There’s also socialist, Brutalist era architecture, which I thought at first was very ugly, but grew to like. Then there is the socialist era architecture that you cant grow to love no matter how hard you try, like big socialist era apartment complexes that reminded me of ghettos in Chicago, especially in Novi Zagreb. There’s a lot of graffiti , but the thing is you cant judge a book by its cover there because the inside apartments can be really beautiful, its just bad outside/wrapper. Then there is some nice and not so nice modern architecture of varying degrees like high rises, corporate towers, arenas, movie theaters, grocery stores and shopping malls.
Zagreb drivers were way more aggressive than in Chicago. I was afraid to cross the street sometimes.
However the outside café bar culture is incredible. In decent weather from Spring to Fall, people will sit outside for hours drinking coffee, beer or wine as you people watch, and catch up with each others lives. You don’t have to worry about loitering..the local businesses don’t care. Cvijetni Trg and Tkalciceva street were my favorite places to go with so many cute bars and cafes with outside seating.
The upside. Croatians are very passionate, loving and fun. They seem to really cherish partying, laughing,food,wine,spirits,cooking,music, dancing and fellowship and family. They love the sea, the beach, swimming, seafood. There is beautiful national parks, like the one we went to at Plitvice Lakes. The mountains in Istria are majestic, dotted with thousand year old towns. I had never seen buildings, churches with magnificent art and architecture. Some churches so old they were before the Catholic/Orthodox split. Croatia can be very slow pace of life compared to the States. Especially in southern Dalmatia. The slowness is both nice and non hectic, but it can get to the point of annoyance. The bus timetable in Dalmatia was merely a suggestion..waiting for a couple of hours for a bus to go from one town to another. A restaurant may say its opening at 6:00 pm, then tell you to come back at 6:30…then still not ready, so come back at 7:00
I got to know Lukas group of friends, most of all our neighbors Bianka and Neven who were really nice and we spent a lot of time together along with his twin brother Petar. I also got to know his gay friends, which was also nice. We went on several weekend getaway trips as group to places around Croatia like Istria and Bijelolasica.Being in a relationship really changes when you live together. You start to notice EVERYTHING. All the good things, but also all the bad things and all the faults, habits and idiosyncrasies. Ive mentioned all the amazing things about Luka, but then I noticed how he was sometimes selfish, proud, vain, stubborn, and very fashion conscious. I thought he drank too much and spent too much money on frivolous things.  He was a huge extrovert, and I was a huge introvert. I really didn’t notice it before I went to Croatia. Sometimes it felt like friends were always around, and I just wanted to spend time alone, especially after being alone all day by myself. Sometimes he went out with friends on his own, and I stayed home. On one level, I didn’t want go, but sometimes I wished he would stay home.

 I felt like a child totally dependent on someone else to pay most of my bills ( I tried to chip in as much as possible) and to translate things for me like menus at a restaurant. I couldn’t drive, because I didn’t have car ( I didn’t really need one though because Zagreb is such a walkable city, and there is plenty of public transportation, and we lived close to downtown)

Of course I’m far from perfect, since im very pessimistic, stubborn, prone to anxiety and depression. The weight of everything, I withdrew and often got angry and passive aggressive. I know I was not an ideal person to live with.I felt the need to carve out my own identity and had to pull my own weight in the relationship financially, since I hated being dependent on someone. I tried to interview as web designer, but was always turned down because I didn’t know Croatian. I eventually got a job teaching English at Berlitz 15 hours a week, which was really great. I met more expats from Austria, Australia and the United States and other Croatians who worked there.
I also started making my own friends independent of Luka because I needed my own identity and someone to talk to.
One great thing about Luka was his parents, specifically his mother, who became a second mother to me. She was an amazing cook, making multi course meals, and having a big family lunch every Sunday. It was such an interesting thing to observe. Everyone was so passionate when talking, and it seemed like 3 different conversations were going on at once. During the day when Luka was at work, his mom would invite me over for Lunch. Between her limited English and my limited Croatian, it somehow worked out beautifully.I also enjoyed his older brother Zlatko, and his wife Nives. They invited me to their baby’s christening and the reception afterwards. I kept on thinking if it peaked any eyebrows that there was a gay interracial couple in attendance, but no one said anything, that I know of.

My favorite memory was when the family went to Crikvenica on the coast for Easter. So much food and new Croatian traditions. It was raining and the Goonies came on tv and we all watched. I felt really loved and part of the family.However, as time went on, the friction was building, and things weren’t right. I joined Luka in Vienna, Austria. It was a nice little weekend away, in a new city, that was so much different than Croatia, and it was nice to be in the European Union. Everything was so much more refined and “civilized” and large streets, boulevards, and huge Hapsburg era architecture and monuments that were all clean, sparkling and beautiful. I got to see much of things I learned in my design history courses and the Vienna Secession.

But when we got home from the fun weekend, something wasn’t right. The next day Luka broke down crying, and said he felt things weren’t working out. Of course in reality I know he was right, but I didn’t want to accept it. He had a friend who worked at a travel agency and got me a plane ticket home…for a month later. I had found a freelance web design job at local gay non for profit, so I had some money coming from that.

So we had a bizarre month of being somewhat broken up, but not. I was devastated inside. I had worked so hard, sacrificed so much, spent so much money, and loved someone so much, and it all came crashing down. The end of May came, the flight left from Budapest, 5 hours away. So me, Luka and his twin drove the 5 hours to the airport, where we had our last goodbye.

I returned to the states a totally broken man, without a job. I found myself missing Luka, my new Croatian friends, Croatian foods, Croatian and European brands of clothes and shops that were not in the states. I missed the weather, ths summers were warm, and never the bitter cold of Illinois. They had different European cars that we didn’t have in the states that I liked. I thought Croatian were rude by not engaging in small talk. No one says “hi, how are you doing” unless they mean it. Then I found myself adopting that mindset myself. Why be fake to someone and ask them a question that you don’t really care about or mean.

Everything in the states seemed too big..the stores, the people, the houses, the roads, the car, the SUVs, THE PEOPLE.

I learned how much Croatians got our ideas of us from American music, television, movies and books. Even Road Rules and the Real World were playing on MTV Adria at the time. I couldn’t help but think with all the trashy movies and shows we export around the world, its how people see us, as either amazing or ridiculous.

I eventually found a new job a few months later, met brand new friends there, started to rebuild my life again, moved out on my own to a new apartment. But it needed a few years of therapy with a great psychologist to get over such a life changing experience. I took me a couple of years before I was able to return back to Croatia, but I did. I had to forgive myself and Luka for everything that happened. He’s the most complex person I have ever met, however a very good and loving person at heart.One way Croatia changed me was my politics. In Croatia I noticed there universal healthcare, generous vacation time, like one month off paid. Zagreb almost shuts down in August, and everyone goes to the seaside or abroad and spends time with family and friends. I thought to myself, why on earth can we cant have this in the States?

The Joys of Archer

Archer Season 6 DVD
 
 
One of the joys/evils of Netflix is “binge watching”. For the past week I’ve been doing exactly that… enjoying the hilarious Archer. 
 
I really enjoyed creator Adam Reed’s “Frisky Dingo” that was on Adult Swim several years back, so I thought I’d enjoy it… I actually enjoy it better.
 
It’s like Mad Men meets James Bond meets (one some people say, since I haven’t watched it) Arrested Development (where several of the voice actors acted on).
 
It’s filled with foul mouthed, totally un-pc jokes (nothing is sacred..race, gender, class, homosexuality) and one liners that are literally and or figuratively (one of the shows many runnings gags) that will make you laugh out loud.
 
Sterling Archer (who definitely has a Don Draper vibe to him) is a hugely handsome, suave, self centered, alcoholic, man-whore with Oedipus complex issues who just happens to be one of the best secret agents in the world.
He’s simultaneously dim-witted while knowing tons of obscure facts about film, tv, literature and history.
 
The cast is rounded out by the sexy (at least bi-racial) Lana who seems to be the only one with any sense in the spy agency (though she has some sex issues), and extremely large hands.
 
Pam..gossip monster, bear claw loving HR manager who is, herself, a foul mouthed, sex-crazed, HR nightmare waiting to happen herself. 
 
Cheryl- the totally airhead, LSD, choke sex loving wealthy heiress who is a useless secretary
 
Cyril- the stuffy/uptight comptroller/accountant who never gets to save the day.
 
Ray- The  VERY openly gay, West Virginian field agent
 
Dr. Krieger- who may not even be a doctor who spends most of his time experimenting on mechanical and organic monstrosities, and who is in love—with an Anime hologram.
 
And last but not least, Malory Archer, former Cold War spy and head of ISIS, who herself, a lot like Archer is an alcoholic self centered woman, (and mostly absentee mother) who keeps on chasing after money, and the older men who have them. As much as she hates her son, he always ends up getting him out of trouble.
 
The animation style has a highly stylized 60s comic book feel to it. 
 
You also have no idea what year it takes place in. The KGB and Soviet Union still exists, Lana and Archer drive late 60s/early 70s muscle cars. The office computers appear to be Apple Lisa’s, while the mainframe computer are huge tape drives , but everyone has cell phones, GPS, Sat Phones and text messaging.
 
It takes A LOT to make me laugh, so Archer is definitely a keeper in my book. Makes me want to check out Arrested Development and SeaLab 2021 now…

Everything Is Awesome!! In the Lego Movie

Legos were one of my favorite childhood toys. I didn’t really put them away till I got to high school (embarrassing to admit, yes, I know!)

Back in the 80s there was only “City”, “Space” and “Castle” Lego. But I enjoyed them all, especially Space and City. My mom tried to get me into “Technics” perhaps thinking I was getting too old for Legos, but I resisted!

One of my favorite sets, the Emergency Medical Center

Even though today Lego has branched out into licensing deals with films, tv and comic books (From Star Wars to DC Comics to the Simpsons), it’s still essentially the same build-a-world “interlocking brick system”

So the kid at heart in me was excited and very curious when I heard they were making a LEGO Movie.  I finally saw it today and I was not disappointed.  Just like Legos themselves, it was a wildly inventive adventure, filled with jokes for both adults and kids.

Of course being a kids movie, there has to be a message..but it doesn’t beat you over the head nor is it too syrupy.

Focusing on themes like believing in oneself, individuality, creativity,the balance between when its good to be a free thinker, and when its good to be a part of team.

“Big Business” is certainly a target of the film, which is ironic since both Lego and Warner Brothers are huge businesses themselves.

What makes the Lego Movie a lot of fun is the mashup of the Lego “multiverses”. City, Space, Castle, Pirates, DC Comics, Lord of The Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Simpsons all share the screen at the same time and interact with each other. I had no idea Lego Batman had such a big part in the film, which made it interesting also. However being a Warner Brothers movie (who owns DC) the Marvel Superheroes are all absent.

The Lego Movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, and pokes fun at Lego toys themselves(Barry, the outdated 80s Space Lego who cant let go of the past) , along with all its characters.
Batman is obsessed with being dark and brooding, even writing a song about it, and swimming in dude/bro culture.
Geen Lantern being the obnoxious overbearing friend that Superman can’t stand
Vitruvius gets Gandalf and Dumbledore confused
Wonder Woman’s invisible jet being blown up, but all you see is the fireball since its invisible.
Lando Calrissian is the overly slick ladies man trying to pick up women with bad one-liners.

There also clever little homages to movies like 2001, The Terminator, Lord of The Rings, and The Matrix.

The movie also shares some elements of Pleasantville and Back To The Future in how “perfect worlds” start to crumble when people start thinking for themselves.

It’s nice when there is animated film that both kids, adults, and kids at heart can all enjoy on different levels.

EVERYTHING IS AWESOME!!

time.com Redesign and The Case of The Missing Global Navigation

Jakob Nielsen and his Nielsen Norman Group seems to has a love/hate relationship with the web design community. While his usability work is definitely pioneering, he seems to be an old curmudgeon that ignores how graphic/web design is an important part of User Experience. For him its definitely function over form.
One recent article put out by the Nielsen Norman Group by by Jennifer Cardello and Kathryn Whitenon  “Killing Off The Global Navigation: One Trend To Avoid” I found myself agreeing with quite a bit. Their summary states
 
Summary: For desktop sites, demoting your main content categories into a drop-down menu makes it harder for users to discover your offerings.”
If you are hiding your main menu, how can people quickly jump from section to section of your website?
“Traditionally, global navigation appears on every page of a website, and serves 2 functions:
  1. Allows users to switch between top-level categories easily, no matter their current location
  2. Ensures that even users who don’t enter through the homepage can quickly get a sense of what is available on the website”
This brings us to the new redesign of Time Magazine’s Website,  who along with Slate, NPR, NBCNews, have chosen to ditch the traditional omni-present ttop global navigation, for a drop down menu using the “horizontal bar icon” that mobile sites have used to hide their navigations.
time.com homepage
News websites traditionally have had a top navigation that links you to news separated into categories…international, local, sports, economy, technology, etc.
Al Jazeera website navigation
But as news organizations have started to embrace responsive web design, some are getting rid of their top navigations in favor of hiding the menu in a drop down, using the same “hamburger” icon that mobile websites use to hide their main menus.
time.com navigation
Bloomberg News is a strange hybrid of both, offering the menu icon AND a top nav, with repetitive links, and when it opens it obscures the website’s logo. Odd.
Bloomberg news site navigation
To hide a menu on a mobile device makes sense, since there is a lack of room/real estate to display a full menu. But at desktop or even tablet size it makes little sense, since there is room enough to show the main menu. Why make it harder for users to get to the section of news they are interested in?
For older and non smartphone users, do they know that the horizontal bar icon = menu? It’s relatively new convention. It’s probably why both Time and NBC had to put the word MENU under the icon, since some people may not know what it means.
However when you do get to an interior section on both Time and NBCNews, they do offer a more traditional top navigation of subtopics within that section.
But to be fair and balanced, the new time.com has a good balance of text, image, and whitespace. Headlines are easily scannable. Their is no indulging in trendy huge photos or horsey type.  It’s the anti-NBC.
Getting around in the site is a bit difficult. When you click on “Latest” or “Popular” does suffer from the trendy and sometimes annoying infinite scroll. How do i get out of the long list of articles? How can I switch to the Sports or Technology section. I feel a bit lost in the site.
All in all, its becoming very interesting to see how websites, especially news and e-commerce sites in how they embrace Responsive Web Design. It’s almost like 1995 all over again.

The Awful nbcnews.com Redesign

nbcnews.com has a new look! It debuted about a month ago, right in time for the Winter Olympics coverage in Sochi. (oddly enough the NBC Sports site did not get a makevoer)
You can use it on your smartphone and tablet!
It has huge pictures and huge headlines!
And its a big old mess if you’re on a desktop or laptop.

Some say its a dumbing down/adolescent view of the news for a short attention spanned culture with big pictures and images instead of headlines. I wouldn’t go that far, but I can see their point.

Seems like I’m not alone in my dissatisfaction of the website as you read on the comment sections on reddit,  huffington post and newscast studio

So what’s wrong with the website?

The Tiled/Modular Layout

Looks like the top brass at NBC and the agency who designed it (who also allegedly designed slate.com also) took the “mobile first” philosophy a bit too seriously.
Some have complained “since NBC broke up with Microsoft, why would they go to ‘Windows 8’ design”. In NBC’s defense, the only similarity is the tiled design, other than that, it shares little with Windows 8 “metro” design eschewing its bright color and thin sans serif type.
A very overly simplified explanation of Mobile First is to design for the mobile experience FIRST, then move to the desktop. 
It makes a lot of sense, since so many people access the web via smartphones and tablets now. Mobile sites used to be an afterthought. But it seems the designers at nbcnews.com committed the opposite sin..the desktop version is afterthought this time.
nbcnews has gone to the tiled/modular approach for the desktop version of its site. While this approach works well on more image/art dominated websites like flickr or pinterest, on a news site it makes little sense. There is no visual or information hierarchy to how the news is presented. There’s also mysterious white space where it looks like a tile is missing
Whats the most important news stories on nbcnews.com? Hell if i know! Everything is given the same weight and mass. Each story is pretty much given the same importance, from a story about “Animators Closer to Capturing Physics of Curly Hair” to “Why Does Putin Stir up So Much Trouble for America”

If you’re quickly scanning for headlines on nbcnews.com, good luck…you really can’t.

The Navigation

Both Slate and NBC News have decided to ditch the traditional vertical side or top horizontal nav bars in favor of the relatively new mobile convention/affordance of clicking on three stacked vertical bars to reveal a mega menu. There’s even the word MENU under the the vertical bars just in case you don’t know what that means!

Since real estate is precious on mobile device, this makes sense that you have to hide some menu information. But on the desktop, not so much. The type size also just seems too big which leads us into…

Horsey Type and Images

Big headlines and big images are all the rage in the new “flat design era” (Is this Web 3.0 now? I don’t think it is, but it would be a good name for it). I actually like 1em=16px for reading text on the web. Its a bit bigger than the norm, but its more legible, especially for those with vision problems.
But the huge sans serif font headline images just look TOO big on the desktop version of NBC News. There’s also a curious use of white space… there seems to be an imaginary right column that has nothing in it. Shrink your browser size, and it goes away, but once way it looks awkward. View it here.

Nice Looking News Sites are Possible!

To give NBC some credit, at least they are trying. Most news site are a mess. Huffington Post looks unprofessional. CNN Looks crowded, but at least its organized (similar to the BBC) But both the BBC and CNN offer separate mobile site experiences and are not responsive.
Al Jazeera America actually has a great well designed layout for their desktop version, and its responsive.  My only gripe is the tiny typography for their top horizontal navigation.
France 24 also has an excellent website layout, but its more adaptive for tablets, and offer a separate mobile site.

Russia Today’s website is somewhere in the middle. It won’t win any beauty awards, but it’s responsive, and there is some information hierarchy going on.

Did NBC News Get Anything Right?

Well, the site is VERY social media/sharable friendly with each story having a sticky social media nav bar, which is a nice feature.

The website does use a lot of modern website trends as I’ve stated, but they all seem to be used badly.
Do you like the new nbcnews.com redesign? What’s your favorite news site?