Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Muppets Meet The Sopranos

The world of comics isn’t all muscle-bound heroes in capes, samurai-sword-wielding Asian adolescents with hyperthyroid eyeballs, and toilet-tongued teenagers spouting fart jokes. Division 18: Union of Novelty Costumed Performers is something very, very different—a super-cynical, tartly-written and tautly-drawn graphic work (novel? compendium? album?) that defies both convention and classification, providing thought-provoking entertainment and more than a few belly laughs along the way.

What’s it about? It’s the Sopranos version of The Muppets Take Manhattan. Imagine what would happen if Tony and his goombahs hijacked trucks and shook down deli owners while dressed like something you might see parading through Greenwich Village on Halloween. The concept came from Matt Bergin and my son, Jeremy Donelson, two thirty-somethings with respectable day jobs and cracked creative imaginations perfectly suited for creating comics.

In Division 18, the characters are criminals who hide their nefarious undertakings behind day jobs as novelty costumed entertainers, the psuedo drag queens, Elvis impersonators, and six-foot frankfurters you might hire for a demented six-year-old’s birthday party or the grand opening of a Laundromat in the Twilight Zone. In the comic, these guys have an imaginary union, complete with a crooked boss of course, that allows the creators to mix them together in unlikely union meetings and send them on bizarre assignments. There’s sort of a satire of a satire in every panel.

Advance reviews are good and there’s a wealth of preview material online. The 96-page trade paperback ($9.99) will be published by Silent Devil Productions. You can pre-order now (July Previews catalog, page 326, order code: JUL08-4207) at your favorite comic store for the fall release.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

Friday, July 25, 2008

Home Improvement Horrors - Part Five

Once you’ve done all your homework, drawn up your plans, checked out your contractor, etc., it’s time to go to contract. You may not need an attorney to vet your agreement (although it never hurts), but make sure you have it all in writing. In fact, NY state law requires that any home improvement project valued at more than $500 have a written contract behind it. Other states have similar requirements. The law also allows you to cancel the agreement in three days if you change your mind. If your contractor says a handshake is good enough, run like the devil is after you.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) contract is pretty much the gold standard in the industry. It clarifies things like who’s responsible for paying subcontractors (read: not you) and what procedures will be followed if problems arise (go to mediation). Other items to look for, whether you’re signing the AIA form or something else, are provisions for things such as debris removal and post-project cleanup. And another word of advice: “No matter how specific your contract is, you have to have room for change orders,” kitchen designer Leona Hess says.

Written contracts are all well and good, but they can’t cover the vagaries of human nature and work habits that might seem foreign to those of us who weren’t born with a drill-driver in our hand. “These guys were crazy,” says a Waccabuc, NY, homeowner who laughs about it now but was flabbergasted when she hired a crew to put an addition on her house. “There were nails everywhere, but one guy ran around barefoot all the time. Every morning, we would be awakened by someone shouting ‘Morning, Misses,’ and opening the bedroom window to plug in an extension cord so they could have power outside.”

The worst came when the guys were working on the roof and pulled the garden hose up there so they would having drinking water during the day. “But they just left it running non-stop! All of a sudden, I found water running down into the bedroom. I ripped down a shower curtain to protect my computer, then went running outside to yell at them.”

Friday, July 18, 2008

Home Improvement Horrors - Part Four

Westchester, NY, has 6,700 licensed home-improvement contractors, but there are plenty of operators out there who aren’t. Why does a county license matter? Before the county issues one, they do a background check on the applicant for a criminal record, make sure the contractor is insured, and see there are no outstanding judgments against them. “We also look at the contractor’s complaint record,” Consumer Protection Director Gary Powers says. “If there is a pattern of unresolved complaints, that could be a reason for us to deny a license.”

Leona Hess, founder of the Westchester Chapter of the National Kitchen and Bath Association, recommends questioning the contractor closely and specifically. “There are customers who have expectations that are too high; things just can’t physically be done. But some contractors will say anything to get the job, so both sides have to be fair and open.”

You should find out not only how long the contractor has been in business, but how much experience he has with jobs like yours. “It doesn’t make sense to hire a contractor to do a kitchen, for example, if he specializes in doing additions. It’s not the same” Ken Kroog says. Kroog is chairman of the Mid-Hudson chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. Another item to look for are professional credentials that mean something. A county home improvement license doesn’t guarantee the contractor can drive a nail straight. Organizations like Kroog’s NARI and Hess’ NKBA provide technical coursework and certification programs for their members that help insure they know what they’re doing.

Even the biggest and best don’t always deliver, though. One homeowner's renovation included extensive heating and cooling work, for which she hired a company that was like an octopus where none of the tentacles knew what the others were doing. “We walked into our dining room one day to find a man drilling a hole into the wall to install a thermostat that had already been in place in another room for a number of weeks,” she relates. “He was unaware that there even was another system in the house.”

They had four separate “start up” visits from the contractor, but workmen frequently showed up without the right tools or parts for the job they were supposed to do on a given day. “ The final straw came when one of the workmen put the wrong thermostat in the wrong place,” she says. “He just installed the one he happened to have in his truck and told me not worry about it—-it was the same thing.” It wasn’t, of course. “To him it didn’t matter, but I’m going to have to use that thermostat for the next ten years or whatever. It’s the nitty-gritty details that raise your stress level.”

Comment on Corporation for Public Media

One big reason Sesame Street is so successful in nearly every medium is that it invests a tremendous amount of money ($9.5 million in 2007) in research--not the kind of research directed toward measuring the audience or telling them what features or characters will draw more eyeballs, but research into the effectiveness of the program in carrying out its mission to educate. In other words, the Sesame Workshop constantly tests its product with an eye toward making it better, not more popular.

In interviews I did with Gary Knell, Joan Ganz Cooney, and others for a recent magazine article and series of blog posts, the prevalent theme wasn't how big their audience was (I had to dig that info up myself), but rather how effectively the various programs have made a difference in children's lives. Their focus is on doing good, not being large. Funny how success rewards that philosophy.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

Friday, July 11, 2008

Home Improvement Horrors - Part Three

You would assume that choosing the right contractor is the first step to a horror-free home improvement project, but it’s not. Before you start calling contractors, you need a set of detailed plans and specifications, says Ken Kroog, chairman of the Mid-Hudson chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry. “Without that,” he points out, “contractor A might look at a job one way and contractor B will look at it another way. It’s not just the plans—it’s the details.”

Depending on the type of project, you may need to start with an architect or an interior designer to draw up the specs so you can secure apples-to-apples bids. It’s also a lot cheaper to work out your ideas on paper beforehand than with lumber, tile, and imported marble as you go.

Then get your bids, preferably from contractors your friends and neighbors recommend, and, even if you were the kind of kid to pay your big sister to do your homework, do it now. “People get three bids,” contractor Eric Messer observes, “but then all they look at are the numbers. You wouldn’t just get car prices from three dealers, then pick one without driving it. Remodels can cost a lot more than a car and last a lot longer, yet people seem to be not nearly as thorough.” That due diligence can ensure that you don’t wind up living in your car.

“The single most important question you can ask is, ‘would you hire that contractor again?’” says Westchester (NY) Director of Consumer Protection Gary Powers. “Don’t just get references on completed jobs; get some on jobs in progress,” he advises. “And don’t just get on the phone, get in your car and go look.”

Friday, July 4, 2008

Home Improvement Horrors - Part Two

Home improvement is expensive, which just adds to the excitement. You should expect to spend 10 to 15 percent of your home’s value on a totally new kitchen, according to Leona Hess, founding president of the Westchester (NY) Chapter of the National Kitchen and Bath Association. For a $685,000 home (2007’s median single-family home price in Westchester), that’s $68,000 to $103,000. For a $1 million home (not unusual in the county), your kitchen remodeling can run $150,000. It might be cheaper to buy a small restaurant in Arkansas and have your meals flown in.

Numbers like those are enough to give every potential home improver the heebie-jeebies, especially when you add in some of the horror stories from your neighbors. According to Eric Messer, a contractor since 1986 who owns Sunrise Building in Briarcliff, NY, and serves on the board of the Westchester Building and Realty Institute, it doesn’t have to be that way. “If you just do your homework,” he advises, “you can avoid most of the problems from the start.”

And Edgemont, NY, homeowner hired a guy named Sheldon to rip out a first floor bathroom and expand the family room as well as to remodel an upstairs bath. She says she can’t remember his last name because she blocked it out—-like the pain of childbirth. She also admits to committing three errors right at the beginning. For one, “We didn’t really do much due diligence because we trusted the guy who gave us the referral,” she explains.

Secondly, Sheldon was the low bidder on the job—-by a lot—-which is not necessarily a good thing. Finally, the contractor apparently carried the plans for their job in his head. “He said he had done this project and that project and it wouldn’t be a problem,” she says. Unfortunately, Sheldon spent a lot of time in Miami while the project was underway, which made it difficult for his crew to consult the plans in his head, not to mention for the homeowner and her husband to talk to him.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Something More From Your Library

You know you can find a book at your public library, but did you know you might also find a job there?

The Westchester (NY) Library System (where I am a trustee) has been a pioneer in offering career and educational counseling through our WEBS program. Literally thousands of Westchester library patrons have gone through the eight-week programs and various other programs and received individual counseling on everything from career management to job search techniques.

Help with your career is just one more way your public library contributes to the quality of your life. In a study released earlier this year by the American Library Association, 73 percent of public libraries reported that they were the only source of free public access to computers and the Internet in their communities. Why does this matter? Aside from the public’s never-sated need to update their MySpace pages, thousands of job hang in the balance, too. Seventy of the top 100 U.S. retailers accept online applications for hourly positions, and 16 accept only online applications, according to a 2006 study from Taleo Research. If you want to apply for a job, but don’t have a computer or Internet access in your home, you’re at a distinct disadvantage. Your public library levels the playing field.

But the library can do even more than help you file an online job application. It’s also the place to go for technology training, workshops on writing résumés and cover letters and on filling out online job applications, not to mention tips on establishing email accounts to receive the responses to your applications.

This is just one of many services provided to America’s communities by their public libraries. The cost to the average taxpayer? About $31 per year—or about the price of one hardcover book.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds