Let Me Tell You About My Other Mom

My biological mother, Donna Mary Turner, circa 1969.

I have kept this close to the vest for quite a while for numerous reasons but I am finally comfortable with sharing at least part of the story.

In December 2018 I spit into a tube and mailed that tube off to 23 and Me hoping to discover my ethnicity. Part of me hoped to learn something of my biological family. I was adopted during the first week of my life and I was raised by John and Yung Hi Knaak, then of Erie, Pennsylvania. My parents John and Yung Hi never kept my adoption from me, on the contrary, they told me when I was four years old. Not that I really understood what it meant at the time, but I’m sure the information was intended to explain why a Caucasian boy’s mother was Korean.

As I grew up, I often wondered about my biological family, my mother in particular. However, every time I brought it up, my mom Yung Hi would get upset and question her parenting skills and my love for her. My dad John would try to placate her and assure her it was just the curiosity of a child and nothing more. He was right. And believe me, I got into plenty of scrapes defending her honor and nationality and my status as one of the adopted. I loved my parents; I couldn’t have been raised by better people. They passed away more than 15 years ago, and I still think about them every day.

Even as an adult, I felt weird about seeking out my biological family. I thought it would have been an insult to John and Yung Hi. I wasn’t what you’d call a model teenager, I put them through the wringer even into my early 20s. When they died in 2006 and 2007 respectively, I decided that maybe it was time to launch a search. You see these TV programs featuring emotional family reunions between long-lost relatives all the time. I started to investigate it.

Until 2017, Pennsylvania was Draconian with regard to adoption records. When I took up the idea in 2010-2011, I would have had to spend $150 and petition the court, and even then, they still could have said “no,” especially if the birth parents were still alive. We had just bought a house in 2008 and we were cash-strapped at the time and couldn’t afford the $150 to take a run at “maybe.” I was also still skittish about the whole thing, disrespecting my parents’ memory and all that.

Fast forward to December 2018 and a 23 and Me Christmas present from my wife that led me to a biological cousin on my father’s side. She said that Pennsylvania had changed the law and all I had to do was fill out a form and send in a check for $20 and I could get my original birth record. Well, a quick Google search confirmed my newfound cousin’s information. I am one of those old-school guys who keeps the emergency husband check in his wallet. I couldn’t fill out the form and write the check fast enough. Still, my birth record may not have existed. It was a shot in the dark and it could take up to 45 days to get any kind of response.

My biological mother Donna Mary Turner at approximately age 15.

Exactly 45 days later my original birth record arrived. The information printed on it was sparse, but it was enough. My mother’s name was Donna Mary Turner, she was 23 when I was born, my name was Baby Boy Turner, and my father’s name was left blank. The detective work began rather quickly. After a few dead ends and unreturned Facebook messages, I found someone who turned out to be my mother’s first cousin, my first cousin once removed, Melissa Turner. Melissa made a phone call to my mother’s widower and within hours told me that I had indeed found my biological family. And an Ancestry DNA test further confirmed what we already knew.

I spoke to my mother’s husband on the phone shortly thereafter and although I came away with some answers, I was still left with several questions. That call also led me to another with my grandmother who is still alive. I was a bit surprised to learn that more people than just my mother were aware of my existence. My great-grandmother was in the room when I was born. My mother’s widower knew about me. However, my mother took my father’s identity with her to her grave.

When it comes to the Knaaks, at this point in time I have well over 100 cousins, most of which fall into the second cousin category. I have taken over responsibility for the maintenance of the Knaak family tree and this has further kept the genealogy fire burning when it comes to learning about my biological family. The Knaaks are predominantly German, while I am not. I am English, Irish and Scottish.

I left my hometown of Rochester, New York, at age 18. I knew at an early age that my future lay elsewhere. At age 53 my wanderlust has been satiated for the most part, it’s more of a mental and emotional journey at this point. Yet, I have much more of my adopted state of Washington to explore. Interestingly enough, most of my Knaak relatives still reside in western New York, and most of my Turner relatives still call north central/western Pennsylvania home.

And that brings me to my point. I have been Facebook friends with my biological cousin, Melissa, for three years or so, and as luck would have it her son and daughter-in-law now live in Seattle. Just this past week, Melissa had the opportunity to visit, and she had a free day that she chose to spend with me. I gladly drove the 2 ½ hours to the Emerald City.

A meeting 53 years in the making, me and my biological cousin Melissa.

Melissa and I conversed over food and adult beverages for more than four hours. We discovered that we have much in common, including similar personalities and a shared sense of humor, and we are both fluent in sarcasm. We have traveled along similar career paths and we each live on an ocean, on opposite coasts mind you, but an ocean, nonetheless. I felt like I have known her forever, and we fell into easy conversation. It wasn’t forced and it didn’t feel like a first-time meeting, it just felt like the most recent visit among many.

My mother Donna, who had three brothers (Melissa’s father being one of them), married her husband 15 months or so after I was born. She attended Bryant and Stratton in Buffalo, New York, after graduating from Port Allegany High School in Port Allegany, Pennsylvania. She died of cancer in 2010 at age 64. Ironically, my mom who raised me also died at age 64. By all accounts, I take after my mother Donna quite a bit, except for the Elvis Presley fandom. Photos Melissa was kind enough to provide show where I got my curly blond locks as a toddler.  

Again, as many answers as I have, I still have more questions. Who was my father? Why did my mother eventually decide to give me up? I am zeroing in on who dad was. I am pretty sure his last name was Taylor and we have narrowed it down to two possibilities. That cousin on my father’s side who helped propel me down this path has stopped responding, perhaps her life has gotten in the way and she doesn’t have the bandwidth for me and my quest, or maybe she was told to shut up and stop asking questions. Regardless, we’ll have to get more aggressive and persistent if I am to answer this question.

Of what information does exist, there is so much more to learn. Genealogy is a shared passion and Melissa is quick to teach me the family history. On the other hand, I do not believe that I am going to make up 53 years of lost time with any of my biological relatives. I think it’s a fallacy and misguided to think that anyone who finds long-lost relatives could ever do that. However, you can have and enjoy whatever relationship you choose with those you do find.

Sitting across from my cousin Melissa it was readily apparent that we are indeed related, cut from the same cloth as it were. Yes, we already knew about the shared DNA and family tree connection, but the more we talked and spent time together, I came to the conclusion that Melissa is family, my family. She is the first biological relative I have ever met in person, and it took quite a bit of resolve to keep my emotions in check.

This meeting drove home the fact that I still have a living grandmother and that I have much more to learn about my mother and my people and where we come from. Beyond a window into my mother’s life, I have gained a friend and cousin in Melissa.

I wish I could have known Donna Mary Turner. It sounds like I would have just missed her had I started looking when I finally had the mind to. I take little solace in that knowledge.

In January 2019, I wrote, “I am still a Knaak. And I always will be, and I am proud to be.” That still holds true, but I am also a Turner and from what I have learned so far, I am proud to be and proud to be Donna’s son.

Starting From Scratch

You’ll have to forgive me but I tend to forget that most of you follow this blog to read about my fitness journey and the struggles along the way. I have been using it more as a creative outlet and a way to share some memoirs. However, I recently remembered why I created this blog in the first place and I thought it would be a good idea to update you on my progress or lack thereof. I am a big believer in knowing where you come from in order to understand where you’re going. So, if you’ll indulge me, here is a bit of a recap …

I started this blog along with a commitment to exercise and eating better in 2013. I had hit an all-time high at 236.6 pounds and I was miserable. I found everyday tasks to be difficult and I truly hated what I saw in the mirror. It took two years, but I achieved my goal weight of 180 pounds by the end of 2014. I maintained that weight until mid-2017. I crept back up to 200 pounds or so and then dropped back down to 177 in 12 weeks. I have been gaining and losing weight ever since, and I have developed a love/hate relationship with the fitness industry. That’s a story for another day. And now, I am afraid I am very close to undoing everything I have accomplished in the better part of 10 years.

I was at roughly 215 pounds last May when I put fitness and exercise on hold until after a move. I was down to 205 last July and I was stronger than I ever have been. I have been steadily gaining ever since, fluctuating between 220-230. Prior to a recent packing on of an additional five pounds, I thought I looked better at 225 than I did the last time I was at this weight because I was in better shape. Well, add five more pounds, and that view or perception goes right out the window. Once again, I absolutely hate what I see in the mirror. I can’t remember who said it, but someone once told me that I am fueled by self-loathing. I guess that’s true. There’s some measure of wanting to be healthy or add years to my life span, but what obesity looks like on me is what motivates me, not the ill effects. Sure, everyday activities once again became uncomfortable and I get winded doing household chores, but I cringe when I see myself in the mirror.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing is not appreciating what I looked like the two times I got down to 180 pounds. All I could think of each time was that I still didn’t have the body I wanted. And instead of continuing to work for it, I backed off. Not so far that I fell off the ledge, that was last summer. Unfortunately, I had to give up quite a bit of my exercise equipment in the move because there wasn’t enough room in the truck. But, that’s not a real excuse. I could go into all kinds of reasons but I’m just not going to do it. Let’s just say I tried to get back into it and just couldn’t. Fits and starts is the best way to describe it. I lost my love for running after achieving a goal, and for the past 10-11 months, I could not rekindle my passion for exercise. I was floating between 220-225 until I overindulged for a couple of weeks and gained five more pounds. I hadn’t seen that high of a number on the scale in almost 10 years and I was mortified. And then I took a long, hard look in the mirror.

My god.

Almost back to where I was in 2013 was a sobering reality. I had fallen off the wagon with daily vitamins and supplements as well. I finally said to myself that I was done screwing around. It was high time I rediscovered my love and passion, and dare I say addiction, for fitness and exercise. So, I have dug out the workouts, taken to the streets of my town more often, and gotten back to shooting hoops. The past three weeks have been great. I am trying not to obsess over the scale, but it’s difficult because the way my body works, my weight is directly proportional to body fat. I can’t reduce one without reducing the other. I’ve touched 225, let’s say that. I was ahead on my weightlifting sessions for this past week until a hamstring pull derailed me.

I will say that I am feeling better already. Strength and flexibility are coming back slowly, but surely (don’t call me Shirley). I’m sleeping better as well.

It’s funny, everyone always says you’ll have more energy when you exercise regularly. When I was at the top of my game I never felt that way, I didn’t think my regimen gave me any boosts whatsoever. Then I pretty much took a year off and oh boy, did I feel that lack of energy. I know some of it has to do with getting older. Naps are your friend when you climb well past 40. It’s amazing the things you don’t notice until you undo everything.

I’ll be back at it for Week 4 on Monday. I’ll hop on the scale and see what kind of damage I did since pulling a hamstring a few days ago. But I will tell you this, I am nowhere near done. I have a goal of hitting 180 again. It’s the best I’ve looked and felt throughout this journey. I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I’d wager that it won’t take me two years to get back to 180. It is better to look good than to feel good. It’s always been a journey with no real destination. That’s something I forgot along the way as well.

An Exploration of Hammer Horror

In October 2020, I wrote an extensive treatise on Universal horror, the Universal Monsterverse, something I believe to be the very first cinematic universe (intentional or not). Universal reached the end of a rollicking ride through Gothic horror and science gone wrong in 1956 with the third Creature from the Black Lagoon film. This ride, which began in 1925 with the Phantom of the Opera, took us from Paris to London and deep in the Carpathian Mountains and sands of Egypt all to way to the Amazon jungle. Vampires, werewolves, monsters, hunchbacks, mummies, mad scientists, and prehistoric creatures terrorized moviegoers for more than 30 years.

The horror genre found itself in a precarious place in the 1950s. Science fiction and giant bug movies were all the rage, while Gothic horror took a backseat or became a bit of a joke to be parodied, despite Roger Corman’s best efforts. Although productions like The Fly and Eyes Without a Face gave us that claustrophobic monster next door War of the Worlds and Them! couldn’t, it took little-known Hammer Films out of England to change everything.

Hammer introduced us to Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein. What followed was a more than 20-year run of Gothic horror and science fiction that culminated with the Hammer House of Horror anthology TV series in 1980.

As Universal unwittingly created a somewhat interconnected cinematic universe with their mash-up “House of …” films, Hammer did not do this. The only through-line was Cushing’s portrayal of vampire hunter Van Helsing (and his descendants), and Lee’s on-again-off-again reprisals of Count Dracula. As with Universal decades earlier, Hammer utilized a stable of venerable actors, directors, and screenwriters to produce these popular films at a rapid pace on a shoestring budget. And like Universal, there were franchises with numerous sequels and the occasional one-off. However, unlike Universal whose most complete story arc belonged to Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man, Hammer eschewed a werewolf franchise in favor of Cushing’s Van Helsing and the seemingly never-ending battle with the undead.

The Collinson twins in Twins of Evil

From 1934–1968, the Hays Code ruled Hollywood, which involved a “list of ‘don’ts’ and ‘be carefuls,’ with bans on nudity, suggestive dancing and lustful kissing.” While Hollywood struggled with this form of censorship, Universal flirted with sexuality in their horror films (mainly with lesbianism in Dracula’s Daughter in 1936), but as much death and evil were depicted, hardly any blood, if any, was ever shown.

Hammer, which got its start adapting radio dramas and serials, changed the game in the late 1950s. After 1955’s The Quatermass Xperiment, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee starred in The Curse of Frankenstein in glorious technicolor in 1957. Blood and gore appeared on screen for the first time. Universal never shied away from the grotesque, but Hammer was the first to gush blood. Cushing’s portrayal of Victor Frankenstein painted the tortured genius as more villain than visionary and that theme permeated the sequels. Another element Hammer brought forth was gratuitous sexuality. Something the studio fought the censors over for years. Valerie Gaunt and Hazel Court became the first Hammer Horror actresses to be sexualized in any way, and they wouldn’t be the last. The Curse of Frankenstein also gave us another venerable pairing, director Terence Fisher and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster. Universal still owned the rights to Jack Pierce’s Frankenstein monster design, so original make-up had to be developed for Lee’s portrayal of the monster. Six sequels would follow: The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), The Horror of Frankenstein (1970), and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974).

Christopher Lee as Dracula

In 1958, Lee cut his teeth on another titular Gothic monster that Universal had originally brought to life in 1931, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Lee had a big cape to fill as Hungarian-born actor Bela Lugosi had turned in a character- and genre-defining performance 27 years earlier. Lee was enamored with the character and tried to play him as close to the novel as possible. Jimmy Sangster wrote an original screenplay, which, like the 1931 film, was a tremendous departure from the novel. The Horror of Dracula was a smash and Lee fit the role to a “T.” Terence Fisher was quickly establishing himself as a top-notch horror film director.

The Horror of Dracula spawned eight sequels starting with Brides of Dracula in 1960, which oddly enough, didn’t feature Count Dracula. The rest of the canon includes Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Scars of Dracula (1970), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974).

In 1959, Hammer released The Mummy, which was a conglomeration of Universal’s mummy movie franchise, The Mummy’s Hand, The Mummy’s Tomb, and The Mummy’s Ghost. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee again starred as Fisher directed a Sangster screenplay. Cushing and Lee would not appear in any of the three mummy movie sequels: The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964), The Mummy’s Shroud (1967), Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971).

Perhaps the biggest disappointment during Hammer’s reign of terror was the lack of a werewolf franchise. The Curse of the Werewolf starring Oliver Reed from 1961 is an absolute gem of a film and it’s a shame Hammer didn’t develop a story arc here as Universal did with Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man. The only other Universal film Hammer tackled was The Phantom of the Opera starring Herbert Lom of Pink Panther fame, which was released in 1962.

Hammer didn’t just set out to reinvent Universal’s stable of Gothic monsters, the studio also produced The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), starring Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes, The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959), and The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960). Hammer went on to produce a slew of horror pictures throughout the 1960s and early 1970s including The Shadow of the Cat (1961), The Gorgon (1964), The Witches (1966), The Plague of the Zombies (1966), The Reptile (1966), Rasputin the Mad Monk (1966), The Devil Rides Out (1968), Countess Dracula (1971), Hands of the Ripper (1971), and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971).

The studio didn’t limit their vampire films to just Dracula. Hammer also gave us The Kiss of the Vampire (1963), The Vampire Lovers (1970), Lust for a Vampire (1971), Twins of Evil (1971), Vampire Circus (1972), and Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (1974).

Some of these films are personal favorites and grace the Countdown of My 100 Favorite Horror Movies. I must admit I haven’t seen all of them, but I would say my view rate is somewhere around 80%.

Although Hammer resisted the urge to cross storylines or produce mash-up type films a la Universal, their Dracula and Frankenstein films launched immersive worlds populated with rich and colorful set pieces and introduced us to actors whose performances would stay with us for decades to come. Hammer didn’t shy away from blood, gore, nudity, and sexuality – elements that would further define the horror genre to this day.

Hammer’s bevy of beauties has become something of legend as well. In 2009, Hammer Glamour: Classic Images From the Archive of Hammer Films, featuring and celebrating Hammer’s female stars, was published. The book contains some spectacular color photography of the likes of Ingrid Pitt, Martine Beswick, Caroline Munro, Barbara Shelley, Joanna Lumley, Nastassja Kinski, and Raquel Welch. Hammer also introduced us to Linda Hayden, Martita Hunt, Veronica Carlson, Stephanie Beacham, and the Collinson twins.

I have often remarked that horror reflects what we as a society are afraid of at any given time in history and by the 1950s the atomic age and space aliens had us running for the hills. Giant bugs and flying saucers were causing all kinds of cinematic havoc on an epic scale. Hammer studios returned us to claustrophobic Gothic horror and mad scientists from a bygone age with a new flair that has resonated throughout the genre ever since while reintroducing us to beloved characters and creating icons who went on to wide-ranging award-winning careers.   

Going Visiting

Throwing it back to 2014 when the homie Jean-Paul came to visit me in California.

On any given Saturday or Sunday when I was a young boy who counted his age in single digits and fractions, my father would pile me and my mother in the car and take us to visit a relative I had no idea how we were related to. “We’re going to go see [insert Aunt and Uncle here].” A phone call may or may not have preceded one of these jaunts over hill and dale to some nondescript house on the outskirts of Rochester in western New York in the 1970s. All I know is that anyone even close to my age usually made themselves scarce during these visits leaving me resigned to an afternoon of boredom rivaled only by Sunday evenings tormented by Lawrence Welk and the cast of 60 Minutes at my Aunt Carole’s house.

I’m not talking about those regular visits to my dad’s aforementioned sister’s house in Scottsville or to my grandmother’s brother Bob’s house in Henrietta. I had seven cousins in reasonable proximity to my age to play with during those house calls. And I am not talking about visits to see children, parents, or grandparents living out of state. No, I am talking about the random excursions to see people my parents barely knew.

The family tree had no meaning for me then. I’ve become the keeper of it now even though I was adopted and have since discovered some of my biological relatives. My father was bloody awful when it came to explaining how you were related to anyone, and if he did explain it, I have long forgotten those genealogy lessons. My mom was Korean, so there was no tree to explore there at the time, at least not one that had any names. I know now how I was related to the people we schlepped to see even though the memories all blur together in a malaise of uncomfortable furniture, unfriendly dogs, and candy dishes filled to the brim with dusty “mints” that chewed like antacids and tasted like stale toothpaste they don’t make anymore.

If you spend any time on social media, Facebook, in particular, you’ll see that there is a movement afoot among younger generations to disavow toxic relatives, eschew societal and familial norms, and create their own versions of what they define as “family.” Gone are the days of accepting people just because you’re related to them and chalking up their bad or toxic behavior to idiosyncrasies and eccentricities and waving them away. Younger people are more independent and left to their own devices and proclivities these days whereas my generation didn’t have a choice.

Made it a point to visit my cousin Judith who was living just outside of London at the time during a trip to England in 2014.

[This blog has some great statistics on the practice of visiting relatives: https://www.areavibes.com/library/visiting-family/]

As the decades have passed, fewer people attend church on Sunday, kids are busier than ever with sports and other extracurricular activities. We thought we were go-go-go in the 1970s and 1980s. Today’s kids don’t have time to sit down for five minutes and then it’s off to soccer, baseball, martial arts, and God knows what else (if they’re not strapped to a gaming chair for hours on end). My generation, Gen X, is the “whatever” generation. Hell, half the time when some news organization makes a graphic or a meme surfaces discussing the major living generations, Gen X is left off, and we’re okay with that. But we’re also the generation that got dragged to see these random relations and the generation of we’re not gonna do what our parents used to make us do.

All of these things got me thinking. Does anyone go “visiting” anymore? And again, I am not talking about your annual Turkey Bowl with the usual suspects on Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve at grandma and grandpa’s, I’m talking about the impromptu trips to the far-flung twigs of the family tree. Before I could go off half-cocked on this topic like I did when I erroneously reported the premature death of the American picnic, I thought I would do some actual research. I had a long Facebook messenger talk with my cousin Brenna who is in her early 20s, and I threw the question out to a Gen X group I belong to on Facebook. The answers I got back surprised me. They were all over the place, as individual as the people who answered my query.

Some people had become the ones who received visitors, some still went visiting as they did as children, for others the practice died when certain relatives did, some said their loved ones lived too far away or that they had moved too far away, some became antisocial hermits in their old age, while still others held fast to seeing the same folks every year for the holidays. Some are just too busy. As for Brenna … she is split down the middle between two schools of thought.

“I have such strong family values and going to see family still is really important to me. I always loved when family came over or when we went to go see family growing up, so when I got older and was able to drive myself places I was SO excited to go see my grandparents and meet my cousins and aunts/uncles for lunch/dinner/coffee and such. They would ALWAYS make a comment about how I’m the only grandchild that visits,” Brenna said. “I’m very much at a point where I don’t go to family functions that I don’t want to. If a specific person is too toxic or something and I know I won’t enjoy the event I’ll just skip it.”

Before leaving California we visited family friend Rita on a regular basis.

I had really thought the practice was dead. I guess I was wrong. Maybe because I left home at 18 and haven’t really spent much time in my hometown since, maybe because as a kid I hated those car trips and boring, lazy weekend afternoons playing with my own toys on some musty old throw rug while listening to my parents swap stories with relatives they hadn’t seen since the last funeral, maybe because I thought I couldn’t be the only member of my generation who felt this way, it had to be an extinct facet of family life.

I had another thought while I was contemplating all of this. What about those of us who left and really never went back, not in any meaningful way anyway? I think it’s a longer discussion, but what I will say is if you ever do leave home, don’t expect anyone other than your immediate family, and a few very close friends, to ever come to visit. You find out very quickly how much you actually mean to people when you relocate a significant distance from your hometown. It’s a strange phenomenon. You are always expected to go home. But when you invite people from home to come to visit, the dog seems to have eaten their homework. I was fortunate to travel for work for the better part of 20 years and I had the opportunity to meet up with cousins and friends in cities across the country. And as an only child, and as I get older, my very tight circle of friends is more family now. But, when I had the chance to go to London in 2014, I made it point to visit my cousin Judith.

Thomas Wolfe famously titled a novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, and there seems to be more than a modicum of truth to that, I have found that so much has changed in my hometown that it’s nothing like I remember in some regards, yet some things have remained eerily the same.

And that seems to be the case in many regards with my brief exploration into this topic. The more things change, the more they stay the same, meaning I’m sure there were just as many people 40 years ago who went visiting, those who didn’t, those who were made to, and those who weren’t. I just think fewer kids are dragged off to places they don’t want to go to see people they don’t know, and that’s okay by me.

Dr. Pepper Marketing Campaign Comes Full Circle

Okay, bear with me here. I love football, college and professional, always have and probably always will. I worked for an NFL team for 20 years. Part of the landscape of sports is advertising. It’s inescapable, it’s what keeps the lights on. I also love good storytelling, and an art form that has arisen in the last 20 years or so is the cinematic television series. No advertising campaign has captured both of these things as well as Dr. Pepper. Now, I am not a particular fan of the beverage myself. It’s an occasional treat. Sure, there might be a can or two of Diet Dr. Pepper in the fridge right now, but still, not my favorite, and I hardly touch pop anymore anyway.

Dr. Pepper was at the forefront of catchy advertising back in the 1970s with their “I’m a Pepper, you’re a Pepper” jingle-laden TV spots. Also in the 1970s and 1980s, Miller Lite capitalized on the popularity of beloved sports figures with their “Tastes Great, Less Filling” ad campaign featuring the likes of Hall of Fame Head Coach John Madden.

Fast-forward to the 2010s and college football. For decades, the NCAA, the media, and fans grappled with the lack of a playoff format to decide each season’s National Champion. The Bowl Championship Series replaced an arbitrary, somewhat biased, and subjective bowl and poll system, and the College Football Playoff superseded the BCS in 2014.

Enter Larry Culpepper.

As the NCAA was on the verge of adopting the College Football Playoff, Dr. Pepper introduced us to Larry Culpepper, an affable stadium soda salesman (played by James M. Connor), who claims to have invented the College Football Playoff. He even had a diagram drawn on a cocktail napkin as proof.

In 2018, Dr. Pepper “retired” Larry Culpepper and took us to a town called Fansville, a place enamored with all things college football, and of course, Dr. Pepper. There was only one problem, no Larry Culpepper. To say the new campaign was met with venom would be an understatement. I was one of those who did not like the new concept, and I thought they did Larry Culpepper dirty. For nearly five years, we had grown accustomed to Larry hawking Dr. Pepper and extolling the virtues of the National Championship-deciding formula he supposedly invented.

*SPOILERS AHEAD*

Even as the Fansville concept improved, I would still occasionally tweet at Dr. Pepper’s official account (as if I don’t have anything better to do) and ask where Larry Culpepper was and if they were going to bring him back. They’ve had plenty of opportunities and windows to do so.

As for Fansville, I didn’t care for it much at first. My initial reaction was something to the effect of, “What the hell is this?” But as the concept evolved and the storytelling took wing, I have grown to enjoy it quite a bit. There are core characters, comedy, drama, even a bit of science fiction and horror. It pokes fun at some serious topics and parodies life’s big moments, suburbia, rivalries, and sports tropes through the lens of a small college football town. Even Joe Theismann has lent his talents to the campaign. A mythos and lore have developed around Fansville. Yet, it’s been missing something. Larry Culpepper.

Each commercial is treated as a long-form commercial for a television show, and each commercial is a condensed version of said show. In one of the current season’s installments, there was a perfect opportunity to bring Larry back and it didn’t happen. As the commercials follow a TV show style and format, the latest is the “season finale” of Fansville, the characters struggled with their place in the universe, their own reality, and their fate in the dreaded “offseason.” Just before a moment of self-realization, the camera pulls back to reveal that Fansville exists, Krampus style, in a snowglobe. You see a hand, a Dr. Pepper visor, and a pair of sunglasses on a table next to the bauble. Larry Culpepper’s hand, sunglasses and visor.

It has taken quite a while for Dr. Pepper’s Fansville story arc to get to this point, four years to be exact, typical length of a college degree program perhaps. I don’t know if Dr. Peppper planned this all along or this is a nod to those of us who liked the Larry Culpepper character and didn’t care for his undeserved end. Just as Dos Equis ruined the Most Interesting Man in the World campaign, with a college football tie-in interestingly enough, they at least shot him into space. Larry Culpepper got no such send-off.

But I do know this, Fansville exists in Larry Culpepper’s snow globe, and however Dr. Pepper got there, this is pure marketing and advertising genius. It’ll be interesting to see where this goes now.

“Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too …”

When Will I Ever Learn?

My fitness journey is well-documented, that’s what this blog was originally meant for, and hopefully it is continuing despite a recent stop at a roadside rest area. As we get older our metabolisms slow down, many abandon exercise early on, we trend toward sedentary lifestyles, and we tend to pack on a few pounds. For some, the weight gain is gradual over time, for others, it seems like it’s dramatic and overnight. And for yours truly, who completely wrecked his metabolism, it has become a never-ending battle. I hate to do this, but for new readers of my little corner of the blogosphere, a recap is in order.

On January 2, 2013, I checked in at 236.6 pounds, the heaviest I had ever been. I had decided a month earlier to do something about it. So, I started with walking and some time on an elliptical and worked my way up to strength training and running. I was told to pick an ideal, so I chose Daniel Craig, he’s one year older than me, same height, and weighed what I wanted to weigh. I took before, during, and after photos. On November 2, 2013, I had achieved weight loss goal #1 – 190 pounds. On December 26, 2014, I blogged that I had achieved my goal weight of 180 pounds. I didn’t look like Daniel Craig, but whatever.

“I think you’re just getting started.”

Moneypenny to James Bond in Spectre

During that time I had a few setbacks, one that required an embarrassing surgery, and a couple of bouts with back spasms that were a precursor to a catastrophic injury to come. But, I reached my goal, although it took almost two years to do it. I managed to stay pretty close to that goal weight for the next few years, even through recovery from back surgery (catastrophic injury). I had achieved a pretty cool running goal at the end of 2017 and I pretty much gave up running after that. Another harbinger of things to come.

Sometime between 2017 and today, I hopped on the fluctuating weight roller coaster. By June of 2017, my weight had climbed back up to somewhere near 200 pounds. Thanks to a fantastic family friend who happened to be a kick-ass personal trainer, I dropped 20 pounds in 12 weeks and I was under 180 again. But my willpower failed me and I went back to eating and drinking whatever I liked. I have vacillated between 190 and today’s 222.8 ever since. Somewhere along the line I have discovered that the fitness/dietary supplement industry, especially when it comes to protein, is full of shit. That’s a story for another day.

The past 6-8 months on this bitch of coaster ride have been the most troubling. Before I get to that most recent of updates, I have to say that for almost 8 1/2 years I exercised 4-6 days per week, almost without fail. Up until the end of May of this year, nutrition is the biggest problem I have. Okay, so, I suspended my workout regimen at the end of May. Between a new job and a pending move, I just didn’t have the time to fit it in. I told myself I would resume as soon as the move was complete. Unfortunately, a good portion of my exercise equipment would not fit in the truck. “No worries,” I told myself, I’d figure it out at the new house. Yeah. About that …

Six months later I have hardly done anything. A few three-mile walks exploring the new neighborhood, a few walks and football throwing sessions on the beach here and there. One or two weight lifting sessions. The most strenuous thing I’ve done is play some basketball. Leave it me to move to a place where craft beer is even more popular than the place I left.

Before I get to this next part I have to tell you that I have been told for a number of years now that I cannot quit, that giving up exercise would be detrimental. Because of the arthritis that has settled in my spine, and presumably in a few other places at this point, quitting would be the worst thing I could do. Never mind the cardio-vascular ramifications. I knew in my heart this advice was wise. I spent eight and a half years trying and I never got the body I wanted. I was probably in the best shape of my life. I definitely was stronger than I have ever been. Even though I wasn’t even in what I would call good shape, I have often wondered how long it would take to fall out of shape again. Six months. Six fucking months, that’s how long. That’s it. Six measly months. I’ve lost muscle, I’ve lost strength, and I am stiff as hell. My knees don’t work right. I work remotely so I am on a lot of Zoom calls. I can see my weight gain in my face.

I worked for my firm at the Los Angeles Comic Convention this past weekend. I walked a lot, I was on my feet quite a bit. I couldn’t bend over to pick up a pen that had fallen to the floor. My knees and my feet were killing me after just two days in Los Angeles. I also saw myself in some photos. Yeesh. I maintained a brave face, but I was mortified and I hid the pain. Six months ago, I would have blitzed through the convention weekend like it was nothing. Six months ago I was loading and unloading my house at either end of an 800-mile move. I get winded putting my pants on now.

Last January I resolved to lose weight and improve my fitness. And for five months I did okay, well, January sucked, but other than that. After the move I had lost about 15 pounds and I was back down to 205. That didn’t last and the past several weeks I have been complaining about the state of me and my youngest finally told me, in the most respectful of ways, to shut up and do something about it. I promised that after the L.A. weekend I would get back on the stick and mean it.

So, despite stiffness and sore feet, I got up at 6:00 a.m. this morning and walked three miles in blustery and wet 42-degree weather. I did not wear appropriate clothing, although I thought I did, and I was soaked and chilled to the bone. The sock on my left foot slipped down and I now have a nice blister. But I kept my promise. Now, it means absolutely fuck all nothing if I don’t back it up with some kind of workout or exercise tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. We used to say in training camp in the NFL, you have to stack practices on top of each other to get better and prove yourself.

Last January I posted a video that was meant to be as much motivation for me as it was an announcement for you. I am loath to post it again, but I feel as though I have to.

I’m 52 and I am not done yet, people. I’m just getting started.

More Ways to Get the Knaak

Yours truly hosting SportsTalk in the NBS studios at NAS Keflavik, Iceland in 1994.

UPDATED! When I was in the United States Navy, I had the distinct pleasure to attend the same school (Defense Information School) as Robin Williams’ character in Good Morning Vietnam, Adrian Cronauer. After graduating at the top of my class, I was allowed to choose my next duty assignment. I chose the Navy Broadcasting Service Detachment Naval Air Station Keflavik, Iceland, so I could work for the great CWO4 Tom Jones. I was privileged enough to spend three years with the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS), which at one time was simply Armed Forces Radio. Considering the history of this illustrious organization, it was an honor.

I hosted a total of three radio shows during my time in Iceland, Vintage Vinyl Rock, After Midnight, and SportsTalk (the only sports talk radio show on Armed Forces Radio). We programmed After Midnight like we were running a college station, we played all the ALT rock we could get our hands on. I did live remote on-scene reporting from events and play-by-play for the men’s and women’s NATO/Iceland basketball tournaments. I was also a television board operator, a TV news anchor and field reporter, weatherman, and a TV talk show host. I directed and served as technical director and videotape and chyron operator for more newscasts and TV talk shows than I can remember. I also did a turn as the assistant television programming director. I did a lot in three years. I miss radio the most.

It’s not like I didn’t try to get a job in commercial broadcasting. On the contrary. But wasn’t in the cards. I did, however, use all of the multimedia skills I learned in the Navy in my job in digital media in professional football for 20 years. Five years ago I launched the Get the Knaak podcast and 3,700 plays later I am still enjoying myself. So what if I don’t have Joe Rogan’s numbers. I even had the opportunity to host a podcast for two years in my NFL job. There is a small handful of people who listened to my radio shows in Iceland back then who listen to Get the Knaak this very day. I made some lifelong friends in Iceland, including Chris Ingalls, who is a frequent guest on the podcast.

Sometimes I can be a bit myopic and I tend to take the path of least resistance. I have been quite happy with SoundCloud as my hosting service. I pay for premium unlimited. It’s an easy path to Apple Podcasts from there and I figured that’s all I needed. However, with the rise of Spotify and Google Play, I have only just realized that I have been missing out on growing my audience. So, I have submitted to those services and you can find the podcasts there now. I also published to Audible and Amazon! I have also submitted it to Pandora, and that is pending review.

I have made it a point to produce a show once per week and have some great guests on this season and I have achieved both so far. From repeat guests to first-timers, from published authors to horror movie aficionados – I’ve had fun conversations with entertaining people. And there is much more to come. I do hope you give it a listen.

Drop me a note in the comments and let me know where you find podcasts to listen to.

A Fangtastic Finish

It is Halloween and I did promise to finish the countdown by tonight. I do hope you have enjoyed the COUNTdown of my favorite vampire movies and discovered some new films to watch and revisited some you may have forgotten about. Fangs for indulging me.

3. Bram Stoker’s Dracula – 1992

Oh, how I crave a faithful adaptation of my favorite horror novel. I’ve never gotten one. A couple have come very close. Francis Ford Coppola helmed this ambitious picture that tries to stay very true to the novel with a few major differences. I do not know why so many screenwriters and directors want to inject a love story into Dracula. There is no love story in the book. There is no reincarnated princess from Dracula’s days as the Prince of Wallachia.

I have done a fair bit of research into Bram Stoker’s process for writing the book and I can say with confidence that he did not “base” the Dracula character on Vlad the Impaler. He borrowed some elements, most notably the name, but the creature itself owes more to Countess Elizabeth Bathory, werewolf lore, and the Irish vampire legend of the Dearg Due than it does the one-time prince known for his sadistic methods for dealing with enemies.

An all-star cast featuring Gary Oldman, Anthony Hopkins, Winona Ryder, Keanu Reeves, Cary Elwes, and Tom Waits bring Stoker’s story to life in ways never seen before. Too bad Reeves is not far enough removed from Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan. Hopkins seems to be in a different movie from everyone else. I love the film for its music, costumes, effects, and most of the acting. It is the truest adaptation of the book (in my estimation) and that’s probably why I like it so much.

2. The Lost Boys – 1987

Let’s see … Jason Patric (son of Jason Miller, The Exorcist’s Father Damien Karras), Kiefer Sutherland, Jami Gertz, the two Coreys, an awesome soundtrack, vampires … what’s not to like?

Set in Santa Carla, Calif., (actually Santa Cruz, along the beach boardwalk), vampires take up residence and they are recruiting. Well done in a manner that doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s heavy and dark with lighthearted moments. This film explores the seduction the life of a vampire offers and the struggle to maintain one’s humanity.

Soundtrack spoiler, this is a bit of a pet peeve – it’s Echo and the Bunnymen’s version of People are Strange over the closing credits, not The Doors. That being written, I think this film has the best horror movie soundtrack in movie history.

1. Dracula – 1931

I wrote about the genesis of this film in my piece about the Universal cinematic universe. As the title of the countdown stipulates, these are my favorite vampire films. I was very young when I first saw this, I read the book at a young age too. I have to remind people that this is a film adaptation of the stage play that was derived from the novel. Many characters are omitted, names changed, etc. A good bit of the story is reworked as well. However, there is one reason this movie is No. 1 on this list – Bela Lugosi. Many people argue that the Spanish-language version, filmed at night during the making of the English version, is better. It does have some good cinematography and technical elements that surpass director Tod Browning’s effort, however, Lugosi is masterful as Count Dracula.

There is so much to unpack with regard to how Lugosi came to play Dracula. He was fantastic in the stage production. And he is who we imitate when we think of Count Dracula today. I won’t go into all the differences between the movie and the book. The film is dark and atmospheric and almost plays like a Sherlock Holmes mystery movie.

Edward Van Sloan plays Van Helsing, and Helen Chandler and David Manners also star. Lugosi only played Dracula one more time on the big screen in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Just remember, there are such things.

31a./31b. Blacula/Scream Blacula Scream
30. The Lair of the White Worm
29. Son of Dracula
28. Vampire Circus
27. Innocent Blood

26. The Hunger
25. Countess Dracula
24. Dracula (1979)
23. Count Dracula (1977)
22. The Vampire Lovers

21. Dracula’s Daughter
20. Kolchak: The Night Stalker
19. Salem’s Lot
18. Shadow of the Vampire

17. Interview with the Vampire
16. Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter
15. Twins of Evil
14. Lifeforce
13. Thirst
12. What We Do in the Shadows

11. Hammer Studios’ Dracula franchise
10. Fright Night
9. Underworld
8. From Dusk Till Dawn
7. Blade

6. 30 Days of Night
5. Nosferatu
4. Let the Right One In/Let Me In