Wednesday, September 29, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 155

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 45
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 20
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 16


As Cassy’s sophomore year of high school came to a close, Mal and I realized that things would be quite different for us. Adam worked as a waiter at a nearby “Friendly’s” restaurant and his scheduled hours changed from week to week. Cassy also worked at the same restaurant but on different shifts so we always ended up with one of our children at home with us. We loved our kids but we knew we’d never have peace and quiet while they were home. We began a search for a “get-away” cottage on a lake. We gave our requirements to a real estate agent and she began looking for an inexpensive place for us to buy. We couldn’t really afford to buy anything on Lake Winnipesaukee because it was the largest and most popular lake. Even a small, run-down cottage would sell for $500,000 on this lake. Since we lived in “The Lakes Region” of New Hampshire, there were dozens of other lakes with available cottages. She drove us around for several weeks but we didn’t find anything that seemed right for us. The search would continue.

Cassy and Adam usually got along quite well, but there were some problems now that Adam was back with us. He shared a bathroom with Cassy and the rule was that they would alternate cleaning the bathroom each week. Cassy was very thorough when it was her turn to clean it but Adam didn’t do a very good job. He’d leave wet towels on the floor, his whiskers around the sink, and he hated cleaning the shower. This made Cassy upset that he could get away with this poor cleaning job. Mal and I would ask Adam to do a better job but it didn’t seem to make much of a difference.

A short while before, at Adam’s request, we turned over Adam’s finances to him again. Although the “envelope system” had wiped out most of Adam’s debt (other than his large college loans) he insisted that he could now handle his money. Within a couple of months he was deeper in debt than ever before. Handling money just wasn’t Adam’s strong point. This also frustrated Cassy because she was very careful with her money and she worked hard at developing good savings habits.

Cassy asked me one day why I treated Adam differently than I treated her. How could I put up with so much from him? I related this parable from Luke 15:11-31.

Jesus said: "There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.
"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
"When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.' So he got up and went to his father.
"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
"The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
"But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.
"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'
"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'
" 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "

I explained to Cassy that I was just so happy to have Adam back with us that I could overlook many things that would have previously driven me crazy. We loved both of our kids but I felt that we had been given a second chance to teach Adam and I wouldn’t allow myself to be discouraged. Cassy seemed to understand.

Next chapter: Cassy’s heart gets broken.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 154

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 45
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 20
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 15


The high school musical of “Oklahoma” was going to be performed one month before the middle school play of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.” We had sold almost all of the available tickets for both shows of “Oklahoma” and we had sold a lot of tickets for the middle school play, much to the surprise of many people who didn’t believe that there would be that much interest in it.

Very nice-- but conservative—people governed the school so Brenda was a bit concerned about some suggestive lyrics to the song, “Kansas City.” To keep everyone happy, Barry and Margaret Armitage cleverly changed them. This song was sung by John, Cassy’s boyfriend. There were also concerns about the kissing scenes in the play. In one scene, John would lift up Cassy and twirl her around and end up kissing her. In the big “dream sequence” the characters of “Curly,” played by Andrew Hare and “Laurey,” played by Nicole Behan were supposed to be madly in love with each other and the end of the scene called for a passionate kiss. It was decided that John would still kiss Cassy but Andrew’s kiss would be a delicate kiss on the forehead of Nichole. Dramatically, it worked perfectly and it pointed out the distinct difference between the “flirty” affection of John’s character and the true love and respect that Andrew’s character had for his girl.

When Brenda had chosen to produce this play many of the students complained, “Oh, this play is stupid! Can’t we do something else?” On the night of the last performance they were all sad that it was over and they were eager to participate in next year’s play! It was a fantastic show that was thoroughly enjoyed by everyone. Well, almost everyone. One man complained about a scene that he thought was “making fun” of the idea of suicide. About a week later the school board got a lengthy letter from someone who had broken down, scene by scene, the things they thought were offensive in the play. While the school board took these complaints seriously, they also understood that we couldn’t please everyone.

A month later, it was time for the production of the middle school play “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.” Although I was the director, I was also the only person who knew the show thoroughly enough to run the spotlight because many of the scenes in this show are performed in a “black-out” technique. It was complicated but it worked. I wasn’t needed up front to help any of the students with their lines because they had all worked hard and were very sure of their parts. Stephanie Goddard, assisted by Caleb Parys on the drums, played the music perfectly.

The two performances were interestingly different because different actors played Snoopy and Lucy each night. Several people bought tickets to both performances to see the differences. Cassandra came to see both of the shows but my son, Adam, only came to one of the performances. The play was so much fun and the young actors all did a great job. Looking back, it still surprises me that we could have sold 350 tickets to a middle school play. I was hoping to do another play with the middle-school but my life drastically changed the next year and I just couldn’t do it.

Next chapter: The Prodigal Son

Monday, September 20, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 153

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 45
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 20
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 15


I had decided to produce and direct the Laconia Christian School’s middle school musical of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” and I was committed to handling most of the business aspects of the high school musical of “Oklahoma” that Brenda Carney was directing. Brenda had secured the talents of Barry and Margaret Armitage and Jane Jepsen to handle the music and choreography chores of Oklahoma. Dennis Emmerton, a talented carpenter and parent of some of the students, offered to build the set for Brenda.

I was initially concerned that I wouldn’t be able to get help with the middle school play. Cassy was playing the role of “Ado Annie” in Oklahoma but she was willing to help me with the choreography for Charlie Brown. Stephanie Goddard agreed to play the piano for the play so I was relieved that this very important task was in talented hands. Belinda Simpson and Lyndel Jackman offered to help me with set construction. It was a good thing, because I have no skills at all in construction.

The high school play was going to be performed at a local public high school with beautiful facilities. The auditorium was much larger than the facility we had used the year before when we put on “Annie.” I was a little concerned that we wouldn’t be able to sell that many tickets. I’d hate to have any unfilled seats! I created a diagram of the seating and began to pressure the students and parents to buy their reserved-seat tickets as soon as possible so that they’d have their choice of the best seats in the theatre. Cassy played every sport offered for girls at the school and we attended almost every game, even the boys’ sports, so I used these opportunities to sell tickets to the play to the other parents and students in the audience. It didn’t take too much pressuring because the play from the year before had been so good that parents were eager and willing to buy tickets for this year’s high school play. I was concerned that selling advance tickets for a middle school play might not be quite as easy.

The play we were doing for the middle school, “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” was written to have six characters. I knew that if I included more students in the play we’d be able to sell tickets to their parents and grandparents so I wrote parts for a large choir. This consisted of about fifteen kids and I added a part for the character of “Pigpen.” I hoped that this would result in at least one hundred advance ticket sales. The school couldn’t afford to actually lose money on one of our plays so I needed to be very careful with the budget for the middle school play. The royalty fee to perform this play was almost one thousand dollars. We certainly couldn’t afford to rent a theatre for our performances because the cheapest of the nearby venues charged at least $1500 to use their facilities for two days. We decided to do the play in the gymnasium at our own school. We had about 175 chairs available and we had an old, plywood stage that came in several pieces. We would have no stage “wings” or backstage rooms to use so we knew this was going to present a few problems but we really had no alternative. It wasn’t ideal but it would have to do.

I had a videotape of a performance that was co-directed by my son Adam a few years previous so I showed the students how the play looked. This helped the actors understand the progression of the story. I decided to change quite a few bits of the “blocking” to keep the action flowing more. This was something I had learned by watching Brenda work as the director of last year’s play. The kids learned their lines very quickly but the songs needed much more work. I’m not a singer so I asked for help from a woman who had recently moved to the area and was working as a music-vocal teacher, giving private singing lessons at the school. Dona Lynn Curry had worked as a performer for many years and she was a very talented performer and musical director. Cassy had been taking lessons from other vocal teachers for several years but she learned so much more since she had switched to lessons from Dona Lynn. I was disappointed when Dona Lynn told me that she just couldn’t fit the play into her crowded schedule.

Someone recommended that I ask Cathy Stephenson, a parent of a school student who had been volunteering at the school teaching chorus to the younger students. With the coaching from both Cathy and Stephanie, the actors learned their songs. Abel Broughton, the actor playing Charlie Brown, was taking private vocal lessons from Donna Lynn and he used much of his time with her to master his songs. Everything was working out great.

As we neared our performance dates I needed to step in and help out with some of the props. I decided I’d paint Snoopy’s doghouse a nice bright red. I set the doghouse up on our makeshift stage and began painting it, holding the paintbrush in my right hand while I was holding the gallon of paint in my hand. I was all alone in the gymnasium because all of the students were currently in the classrooms. The gym floor had just been replaced with a brand-new textured vinyl tile and the students were instructed to be very careful with this expensive upgraded floor. As I was leisurely painting one side of the doghouse, I fell off of the stage and landed directly on my head, almost losing consciousness. As I was falling, all I could think of was how much grief I was going to get because of the nearly full gallon of bright red paint that was going to splash all over the gym floor! While my head and neck throbbed with pain, I cleaned and scrubbed for over an hour to clean up my careless accident. By the time some students came into the gym my mess was mostly cleaned up and I realized how lucky I was that I had not broken my neck. I could have been lying on the floor, undiscovered, for over an hour.

Next chapter: The two plays are performed.

Friday, September 17, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 152

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 45
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 20
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 15


Now, although there were times that Adam frustrated me so much that I’d lose my temper, there were also many times that his sense of humor would really crack me up.

Mal and I were having a cookout and we invited about twelve people who we didn’t normally get together with socially. We wanted to get to know more of the people from our community and our church. Before the guests arrived, Adam took my video-camcorder into the bathroom and stood on a chair high up in one corner. He videotaped the toilet. Later, during the cookout, the pastor of our church (a very private guy) used the bathroom. When the pastor came out of the bathroom into the family room it appeared as though we had just all watched him in the bathroom because Adam was now playing the videotape that he had recorded earlier. After a few uncomfortable moments, we let the pastor in on the joke.

At some point in his life, Adam began to laugh about bacon. He loved bacon but thought it was funny that America seemed to be obsessed with adding bacon to sandwiches that already had enough fat to clog our arteries. One day he showed me the illustration on a hand-dryer in a public restroom and explained that it appeared that if I pressed the button, bacon would come out. (See my photo) This still gives me a little chuckle whenever I see this illustration on a hand-dryer.

I could also get Adam to laugh pretty easily. One day, returning from a trip together, we stopped at a rest area on a highway. Adam was following a short distance behind me and as I entered the bathroom I noticed there was no one else in there. By the time Adam entered the rest room, I was on my knees pretending to use the low urinal. This really struck him as a very funny visual gag and we both laughed for quite a while. Simple things but they struck us as humorous. Although these particular three examples are about bathrooms most of the things that made Adam and I laugh were not!

Unfortunately, there were too many times when we weren’t amused by each other. Adam frequently found a way to drive me crazy, sometimes with just small things. I know he didn’t usually do these things purposely, but I expected so much from him and when he didn’t give his best effort it would make me angry. Sometimes it would cause me to go into “a rage.” I’d be screaming at him and even this venting wouldn’t lessen my anger. This just made things worse. It had adversely affected our relationship in the past and I didn’t want this to continue now that Adam had moved back home at our request. Through it all, Adam somehow managed to love me. When he was in college, he had no money to buy us a gift for Christmas, so he wrote this poem to express his feelings:

“As we grow old,
Time moves quickly.
Too quickly for parents and children.

We have lost the time
When I slept in your arms.
There are many nights
When I am alone
That I imagine
Sleeping on your lap
But still I do not call.

Time has moved on.
Past cars
On the braided carpet
To cars in the driveway.
And my memories of games
And stories
Have, over time,
Become tainted with
Arguments and things
Under our breath.

As a child,
I missed so my chances
To tell you
I love you.
Now, as an adult,
I will not.
I love you both.”

I realized that Adam was still doing things that drove me crazy but I wanted his time living with us to be peaceful and productive. How could I control my rage? Mal kept trying to convince me that Adam’s life was in God’s hands but I was so accustomed to being in control of my own life that I wanted Adam’s life to be the same. So I tried not to let Adam drive me nuts. When he’d do something that bothered me, I’d try to calmly leave the room before I would get too angry but this really wasn’t a good long-term solution.

One day, when I was getting near the breaking point, I decided to ask God for relief from my building anger. (I had never considered this before.) Now, I know many of you will be skeptical about this, but I’m not kidding, within moments my rage was gone. From then on, when Adam would do things that would have previously triggered my anger, I’d use these times to calmly discuss things with him. My crazy anger-blow-ups were gone! I have to admit that I would still occasionally get irritated with Adam, but as far as my extreme anger goes, I had been healed by the power of God. I certainly wish I had prayed for this healing many years before.

Next chapter: Charlie Brown and Oklahoma.
Pictures: The Bacon-dispensing hand-dryer and the urinals

Thursday, September 16, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 151

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 45
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 20
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 15

“Our trip to Holland.”

Our daughter, Cassy, had been invited (along with two senior girls) to visit Anika, a former foreign exchange student, at her parents home in Holland. Cassy was only a sophomore in high school and since we were not comfortable with her traveling such a long way away from home with the two older girls, we arranged to travel with them. We’d stay in a hotel nearby while the girls would enjoy the hospitality of Anika’s parents.

So, during their winter vacation in February of 2000, we left for Logan Airport (in Boston) five hours before our scheduled flight to Holland. The trip to Boston should have taken no more than two hours but as we left New Hampshire the weather changed to sleet and freezing rain. The driving was slow and treacherous and as we neared the city of Boston we got stuck in traffic that brought us to a complete stop. If we missed our flight we would probably have to cancel our trip and the girls were not happy about that. After dealing with barely moving traffic for over an hour we finally arrived at the airport with barely enough time to make our flight. Once we were seated on the plane, we relaxed and began to be excited about this vacation.

As our plane was descending, we could see a hint of red and yellow in the fields where the world-famous Dutch tulips were beginning to bloom. When we arrived in Holland, we rented a car and drove directly to Anika’s parents’ home. It was a comfortable home in a nice neighborhood where most of the homes were attached to each other, much like the condo-townhouses in the United States. After we met the parents and visited for a short time, Mal and I left to check into our hotel. The hotel was about two miles away and it was conveniently located a few blocks away from a bus station. Even though we had rented a car we ended up using buses and trains for most of our exploring around Holland. It was a surprisingly easy system to use for our travel. We did notice, however, that most of the local people used bicycles to get around and there were thousands of bikes parked at the local train stations.

Mal and I traveled by train to Amsterdam to ride the water-taxis along the canals and we spent a couple of hours in the Vincent Van Gogh Museum. Although we enjoyed spending time with them, it was very relaxing to travel without the kids. We could stop to eat anywhere we wanted and could just sit and “people-watch.” We didn’t have to keep the kids entertained because they were having a nice time with Anika.

A few days later, Anika’s mother, Tina, decided to take some time off from work to show us all some of the “highlights” of the country. We made sure that Cassy, Kendra, and Lindsay were okay with us tagging along and they assured us that would be fine. We all went to Delft, a rural town famous for the production of fine china and pottery. We all went out to lunch at a local restaurant and Tina recommended that we try “poffertjes.” These were small, fluffy, round, pancake-type treats that are covered in butter. These were a big hit with all of us! After lunch we headed to a large flea market and shopped for an hour or two. We were surprised to see that high-quality leather coats could be bought for $20 but after looking through several dozen booths, none could be found to fit us because we were just too short. We later learned that The Netherlands had the second tallest population in the world so not much is available for little people like us.

Anika’s mother had invited us to their home for a great home-cooked meal that night. When we arrived there we learned that because of the small size of most refrigerators in The Netherlands, it was common for people to go to the market or grocery store several times each week to buy fresh produce, meats, and baked goods. Conveniently, their home was located just minutes from a market. (Now, years later, Mal and I have adopted this kind of grocery shopping.)

Cassy enjoyed her time in Holland but she did have a few difficult moments when her eighteen-year old friends tried to encourage her to have an alcoholic drink. It was legal for them but not for Cassy so she passed but her friends kept pressuring her to try it. She held firm but it made her uncomfortable. It was clear that the two other girls really wanted to party while they were there but they were probably intimidated by Mal and I being there even though we weren’t there to chaperone them. Overall, they behaved themselves and we all had a good time. We hope to revisit Holland again someday.

Next Chapter: My anger.

Pictures: Our Holland trip

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 150

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 45
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 20
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 15
Brenda Carney: the director


Late 1999 through early 2000 was a fun, but busy time for us. Adam was living back at home with us because he had decided not to go back to The Boston Conservatory for his second year of college. He was now working full-time to try to get out of debt. Cassy was in her sophomore year of high school at Laconia Christian School and she was involved in several sports and the drama program. Mal and I were also involved there. We had committed to organize fundraising activities to raise money for Cassy and her classmates senior class trip cruise.

In the past, a parent or sport coach would occasionally have some snacks available for sale during a sporting event but it was not done with any consistency. Most of the time there was no food sold there. Mal and I knew that if we committed to making full meals and snacks available at every game, we could build up a steady business. We asked the class members to bring crock-pots of food and we’d always provide hot dogs and beverages. We would usually end up selling out of everything by the end of the sporting event. Suddenly, after a few months of this, other classes and parents decided that they wanted to be able to sell food as a fundraising effort for their classes. We were told that we needed to allow the other interested groups to have equal time and ended up only being allowed to run the snack bar one week each month.

After our successful performances of “Annie” the previous year, the school had asked if we could possibly do two plays for this year. Brenda, our director from last year was interested in directing another play but really couldn’t commit to do two plays. I volunteered to direct a play with just the middle school students while Brenda would do “Oklahoma” with the high school students. Brenda was lucky to have very enthusiastic and talented volunteers including Jane Jepsen and Margaret and Barry Armitage to help with choreography and music. The problem was that once these people had committed to work on the high school play it left our middle school play of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” with no musical accompanist or choreographer. I certainly had no talent in these areas!

I approached Stephanie Goddard to see if she’d be willing to play the music for us. Stephanie played piano at her church where her husband was a pastor and Mal and I had gone there a few times so I knew she was very talented. She was reluctant to commit to such a large responsibility but she told me that she’d review the sheet music to see if she thought she could learn all it. I was confident that she could but Stephanie wasn’t so sure.

Auditions were held for the middle school play and I was surprised to have over thirty kids try out. The play consisted of only six characters but my desire for this production was to include everyone. To accomplish this, a large chorus was added to involve more of the students and two of the major characters, Lucy and Snoopy, were “double-cast” since there were four girls with outstanding talents. Each of these girls would play their part for one of the two performances.

While Stephanie was considering if she felt comfortable playing the music for our play, we began rehearsals even though we were many months away from our performance dates. I wanted this to be fun for the students so we planned a leisurely rehearsal schedule of only twice each week. For our practices, I had rented a prerecorded musical score from the company that rented the scripts. For some reason, the company didn’t allow this soundtrack to be used for the actual performances but it gave us plenty to work with. After a few weeks, the students asked if we could rehearse more often because they were having fun! I was pleased to see the dedication in these young actors.

At the same time that we were working on this play my daughter was invited to go to Holland on her winter vacation to visit Anika, a girl who had attended Laconia Christian School the previous year. Kendra and Lindsay, two senior girls, were invited also. Kendra was on the cheerleading squad with Cassy so we knew her quite well but we didn’t know Lindsay much. Both of these girls were over eighteen years old and we thought that Cassy was still a little bit too young to go without us. Even though the girls would be staying at Anika’s parents’ home, we were uncomfortable with this idea. We suggested that we would be willing to travel there with the girls and they could stay at Anika’s while we stayed nearby at a hotel. We just wanted to be nearby in case of an emergency. Kendra wanted no part of this arrangement. She was afraid that we would somehow ruin her fun over there but, after we explained that we would not allow Cassy to go without us, Kendra changed her mind. We were now “allowed” to go with them.

Adam finally couldn’t stand his clerk job at Providian anymore so he quit and began working the night shift at The J. Jill Company packing catalog clothing orders. He didn’t like this job either but he enjoyed working with his cousin, Jesse. This didn’t last too long though.

Next chapter: Our trip to Holland and Adam’s new job.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 149

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 45
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 20
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 15


While Adam was living in Newport, Rhode Island, he quit the job he had and, with no money to live on, applied for a credit card. The credit card company gave him a card with a $600 limit and he soon reached—and exceeded---that limit, getting himself rather deeply in debt.

I was determined to help Adam learn to budget his money and to get out of debt as quickly as possible. A friend from our church hired Adam to work at his company as a data-entry clerk. Adam hated this boring job but he knew that this job was necessary; at least for a short time. When he got his first paycheck, we cashed it and divided up the money into several marked envelopes. One envelope was designated for his credit card payment, one for car insurance, one for his smaller student loan, one for his large student loan, and one to begin to pay us back for the money we loaned him to pay his monthly student loans while he was without a job. Whatever was left was for Adam’s personal use. With this simple system, we planned to have Adam out of his credit card debt in as little as three months. It was also a good budgeting experience for him.

After a few weeks, Adam missed his Rhode Island friends and he decided to drive the three-hour trip to spend the weekend there. He would leave after he got out of work on Friday afternoon and he’d return home very late on Sunday night. He was usually exhausted when it came time to go to work on Monday morning after one of those weekends.

In order to renew his registration, Adam’s car, a beat-up Chevy Celebrity, needed a safety inspection. The service station manager called us after it was inspected to let us know that there was no way for him to “pass” this vehicle. He showed us that the metal frame was rotted which made it too dangerous to drive anymore. Adam contacted a junk car dealer who offered $100 for the car if we could drive it down to his business location. Sadly, Adam’s first car was turned into scrap-metal. Until other arrangements could be made, we planned to let Adam use our ten-year old mini-van while Mal and I would share my ten-year old Honda Accord. Our daughter, Cassy, was beginning to drive and it didn’t seem like she needed a car of her own right away. I actually enjoyed driving her to school each day. Since the school was only twelve miles from our home it was an easy trip.

As gasoline prices started rising, it became obvious that the mini-van was too expensive for Adam to drive on his frequent trips to Rhode Island. He couldn’t afford to buy a decent, reliable car from a dealer, so we worked out a deal for him to buy my Honda Accord and he’d make payments to me when he could.

After a month or so of Mal, Cassy, and I sharing one car, we realized it was time to start looking for another car. I went out one afternoon and bought a new Toyota Camry. Mal teased me that it was a boring, middle-aged man’s car. I bought it because it was comfortable and reliable so I guess she was right. Soon, it was going to be time to buy a new car for Mal and she didn’t want a “boring” car. She had driven her very boring mini-van for over ten years and it was time for something more fun.

We still owned the run-down apartment building in Worcester, Massachusetts and it had been for sale for over a year. I was losing about $1500 each month on it because the tenant in the commercial part of the property just refused to pay her rent. I could have evicted her but I had no other tenant willing to rent the location so I just didn’t bother. I got a call with an offer to buy the property for $65,000 and, though I had paid $185,000 for it, I realized that it was time to sell. It had proved not to be a good investment for me. Even though this was a large loss, it was a happy day for me when it was finally sold!

Once we were no longer losing money each month on the apartment building, we began our search for Mal’s new “fun” car. We test-drove several convertibles including the Mercedes Kompressor, a Chrysler Sebring, and the BMW Z3. The Mercedes was just too expensive and the Chrysler Sebring was a Chrysler (looks nice but it’s junk) so we were leaning towards the BMW Z3. Our daughter, Cassy, thought it would be inconsiderate of us to buy a car with only two seats because then she couldn’t go anywhere with us in it.

While watching television one night, Mal caught a 15-second commercial for the newly redesigned Mitsubishi Eclipse Spyder convertible. The car flew by onscreen and Mal said, “That’s the car!” There was a Mitsubishi dealership in Laconia, New Hampshire so we drove there the next day, only to find out that these cars were in very short supply. They only had a red one on the lot and Mal and I wanted a silver-colored car. The salesman did a computer search and located the car we wanted at a dealership in Virginia. He arranged to have the car shipped up to his location but we would have to pay full sticker price! This was the first time in my life that I had ever paid full-price for a car and it made me feel stupid, but it was exactly the car we were looking for…a nice looking, four-seat convertible sports car. Driving this car was fun because it handled great and was quite powerful. This model was so new that we’d rarely go out for a drive without someone commenting on how nice the car looked. (Now that this model has been around for several years, it’s not so special.)

Our schedules worked out much better now that we each had a vehicle to use. This happened at a good time because things began to get hectic. Overall though, life was good!

Next chapter: We have a busy season!

Pictures: Mal with her new more mini-van!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 148

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 45
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 20
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 15


My wife, Mal, and I were getting more involved at the school that my daughter was attending for her sophomore year of high school. Mal was organizing and running the snack bar at almost all of the school’s sporting events as a fundraising event for Cassy’s senior class trip. I was enjoying my involvement with the school board even through some difficult times.

After our very successful (and profitable) performances of “Annie” last year, Brenda (the director) and I were asked if we could do more than one play for this school year. Since Brenda was very talented as a director, it was decided that she could do another play with just the high school students. I would attempt to direct a play with just the middle school students. Brenda chose “Oklahoma” and I chose “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.” Brenda was lucky to secure the talents of Barry and Margaret Armitage to handle all of the musical aspects of “Oklahoma.” These two dedicated people worked very hard to teach the kids all of the songs. For my play, I’d need to find someone else to perform the music. They would have to learn to play all of the material and be available every day to teach the songs to the kids. Trust me; it’s not easy to find someone who is willing to take on such a big responsibility. This left me with the difficult job of finding another pianist to play the music for “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.”

Around the time we began our pre-production work on these two plays, we got a phone call from the owner of the home in Newport, Rhode Island where Adam had been staying over the summer. She expressed her concern for Adam’s health and well being. She was concerned because Adam seemed to have lost his motivation to be productive and he just wanted to spend his time hanging out with the large group of kids known as “the park rats.” These were the troubled kids with lots of body piercings, tattoos, unusual clothes, and oddly colored hair. These things by themselves are not necessarily a bad thing, but there was a lot of drinking and drugs in this group of underage kids and that worried our friend. It worried Mal and me too, but we thought Adam was smart enough to avoid these things.

We had no way to contact Adam because he didn’t have a cell phone and he was no longer staying in our friend’s home, so we decided to drive down to Rhode Island to find him. The three-hour drive to Newport seemed to take “forever” because we were very worried and had no idea what to expect when (or if) we found Adam. We drove around the area and eventually decided to stop and ask a store owner if they knew of a park where kids hung out. They directed us to a small seaside park but when we got there it was deserted. We weren’t convinced that this was even the “right” park because we had the impression that the large group of “Park Rats” usually stayed in the park until very late almost every night. It would be unusual for the park to be empty. After driving around for a while longer, we decided to get a hotel room for the night and resume our search in the morning.

We didn’t sleep well that night but getting back to our search early in the morning didn’t make much sense since Adam and his friends rarely got up early. When we drove up to the park around mid-morning we were relieved to see Adam there with several of his new friends, several of whom told us how much they loved Adam. To be honest, I didn’t care. I wanted Adam out of there and away from these bad influences.

We took Adam out for lunch and we told him about some of our concerns. He did his best to convince us that although he knew he was doing some things that were not very smart, he felt that he needed to remain here with his new friends. He had no interest in returning to The Boston Conservatory to begin his sophomore year of college. He didn’t want the stress of the increased debt of $30,000 per year and he wasn’t convinced that the education he was getting was worth the price.

After lunch, we drove him to the place he had been staying in Newport. We had no idea that he had been sleeping on the couch of a family who lived in “the projects” of Newport. We didn’t even know that Newport had “projects!” This wealthy city did indeed have low-income government housing and it was just as run-down and disgusting as the government housing in most major cities. Adam told us that there were frequent gunshots heard during the nights and there was drug dealing and violence on an ongoing basis. This convinced us that he needed to come back home to New Hampshire to live with us until he could decide what to do with his life. After much pleading, he agreed to come home for a three-week trial period. You see, once he had tasted the independence of living at college and had experienced basically living on the streets of Newport, he wasn’t excited about the idea of being “controlled” by his parents. We promised to try to work things out while he stayed with us so it would be tolerable for all of us. We left Adam there that day but returned a week later, as arranged, to bring him back to New Hampshire.

Cassy’s friend, “Amy,” was still living with us at that time in our extra bedroom upstairs. Adam set up a bedroom area in the finished basement so he could have his own space and this arrangement worked out just fine.

Next chapter: Adam needs our help.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

My Life With Comic Books: Part # 147

The current cast of characters:
Paul Howley: age 45
Mal Howley: my wife
Adam Howley: my son, age 20
Cassy Howley: my daughter, age 15
Ken Carson: manager of our stores

“Conclusion of the article about our stores in Inc. Magazine.” The entire content of the original article from Inc.Magazine is copyrighted by Inc.Magazine.

Inc.Magazine writer, Anne Marie Borrego, wrote:

Last year a regular customer brought in a giant stage prop of a cat’s head from a concert by the 1970s glam-rock phenomenon “Kiss.” The seller offered it to the store for $250, but Carson wasn’t confident it would sell for the 60% markup needed to justify the purchase. After some bargaining, he and the seller made a deal: That’s Entertainment would auction the prop through its eBay account and take a 40% commission.

There appeared to be little interest when the auction first went up on eBay, but as the week progressed, Kiss fans emerged in droves. And in the last ten seconds, the bidders were in a frenzy, sending the price from $800 to $1500. That’s Entertainment made $600 from the sale, at least $450 more than it would have made if it had sold the cat’s head in the Worcester store.

In 1999, Howley’s first full year of selling on eBay, That’s Entertainment averaged $4000 in on-line revenues a week. The company is now an official eBay “PowerSeller,” with more than 1000 transactions to its credit. The company’s sales have now hit a new record.

There are, of course, the obvious growing pains that come with a new revenue model. Take inventory, for one. With new auctions going on-line daily, That’s Entertainment has to stock more merchandise, much of one-of-a-kind items of all different sizes. That’s being handled now with an inelegant mish-mash of adjustable shelves in the back of the Worcester store. At first, a running list was used to keep track of everything. Now the store has a searchable database, but Carson says he finds it confusing and a bit cumbersome.

And then there’s the matter of shipping. It took a big bite from the $600 profit on that giant Kiss cat’s head to custom-pack the thing and ship it halfway across the country. Carson, for one, says he’ll think twice before putting another large, delicate item up for auction. He wasn’t looking forward to going through the same process last winter with a new arrival, a life-size figure of Anakin Skywalker. You don’t move a heavy thing like that by trusting the Force. So when Skywalker came in, Carson decided to put it out in the store to see if he could sell it to a walk-in customer—and in March he did.

But there’s an even darker side to That’s Entertainment’s success on eBay. Despite all the benefits of Web auctions, Howley and Carson worry that they could be selling the business’s soul to an on-line devil. Every item sold on eBay is removed from the hands of the customers they see every week, the ones who count on them to find great new stuff. “Our business is not a business that’s based on people’s just buying things for their own enjoyment,” Howley explains. “This is almost an obsession for some.”

The tenor of his collectibles stores is different from that of, say, your average retail-clothing store. “People don’t come in to buy comic books or toys and just leave. They talk about it with each other. It reinforces that they’re interested in an exciting hobby,” Howley says.

That’s also a huge part of the joy of working in the collectibles industry—the opportunity to hang out with customers who also love baseball cards, Green Lantern comic books, or vintage Atari video games. It’s those excited hobbyists that Carson worries he could alienate should the business go all the way on eBay.

Earlier this year Carson stumbled upon a box of Sunday funny papers from the 1930s and 1940s, including some old Flash Gordon comic strips. He eventually listed one of them on eBay, and it sold for $20 to a collector in Ohio. “But afterwards I realized that a customer here probably would have really liked to have had the chance to buy them,” Carson said. “So now I’ll run them by that customer first.” Carson plans to price the comics from $9 to $15 in the store—less than they could fetch on-line. “But we might get more value selling them to our store customers than we would by putting them on eBay,” he says.

That’s Entertainment has spent 20 years nurturing what is arguably its most valuable collection—its loyal customers, many of whom are friends who return week after week. Every Wednesday, when the new comics are released, a handful of employees unpack the boxes of comics and distribute reserved copies to the individual mailboxes of some 600 subscribers, customers who signed up for the free service. That’s presold merchandise. And while other comic book collectors may come in occasionally, most of those loyal readers show up every week to pick up their subscriptions, chat with fellow collectors, and take a gander at the rest of the merchandise. For Carson, those customers are the heart and soul of the business—not the anonymous bidders at the other end of a broadband connection.

And when you check out the numbers, he’s right. Unlike the band of repeat customers in the stores, on-line buyers rarely return to buy That’s Entertainment’s offerings. In fact, more than 90% of the company’s eBay customers are onetime buyers. “People search for the item, not the auctioneer,” Carson says.

The irony is that something about doing business on eBay, the celebrated paragon of on-line community building, violates the spirit of the community of collectors who gather in the brick, beam, and cement-floor store in Worcester. And it’s in face-to-face encounters that Howley and Carson find so much satisfaction. “Our store is like a party,” Howley says. “One of our favorite customers got married to somebody he met at the store, and they’ve been married for seven years.”

That’s just one of the reasons that Carson can’t figure out just what to do with eBay. At the end of 1999 the store’s original eBay full-timer left. That has given Carson time to reflect on just what this bold new on-line world will mean for the company’s future. What he knows for sure is that he wants to maintain the vitality and viability of the That’s Entertainment stores. “We’re trying to remain a destination,” he says, “a place where people still say things like ‘I came in today because I knew you’d be here.’”

Howley and Carson can honestly say they’ve faced the power of eBay, harnessed it, and survived—for now. That’s Entertainment will be around for its customers, both real world and virtual, for the next few years at least. Yet so much has changed, and it’s happened so quickly. Who knows how easy it will be to keep having fun in such a fast-changing world? That’s a question even Spider-Man can’t answer.

Well…that’s the end of our big-time national article in Inc. Magazine. We certainly appreciated that our friend Michael included us in this magazine! Things have changed quite a bit since this article was originally written. Although our involvement with eBay has decreased, our in-store business has increased, mostly due to the hard work and long-range planning of our quality employees.

We initially thought that most collectors would begin to sell their collectibles directly on eBay instead of selling them to us, but the collectors now realize that selling on eBay is not as easy as they thought it would be and there are significant costs associated with selling on-line. Serious collectors continue to enjoy the simplicity of selling their collections to us because we are eager and able to buy their entire collection and pay a respectable price for it!

Picture: Ken Carson as seen in the INC Magazine article.