Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Upcoming Guelph Show, Plus Some Ruminations on Drag Performances

The lovable Guelph folks are putting on a drag show called "The Main Drag" on Friday night, and I'll be there to perform! It starts at 9 o'clock at the Grad Lounge in the University of Guelph, which is always a friendly venue as long as you don't drink in the dressing rooms.

There are good reasons for not signing up to do drag shows. I generally weigh the pros and cons: what kind of crowd is it? What's the mood like in the back rooms? How much time do I have to take off work?

I always get twitchy the week before a show because I prefer to have SOME sort of plan. I try to remember which outfits I wore the last few times I was there, and try to come up with something new. I also go over the songs I've done at the venue and do my best to have at least one new one.

The clothes are tough enough -- finding all the matching articles without actually spending the time to try them all on -- but it's the music I really worry about. Picking a song for a drag show is both an art and a science. My preference is for upbeat, somewhat manic numbers with lots of emotion and an obvious storyline (Natasha Richardson's "Don't Tell Mama," for instance). I want a song that *I* would sing (if I could actually sing), something with variety and spice. Spunky and smart and a bit silly. And since I tend to pick songs outside the mainstream, I try to find ones with a storyline that's easy to follow on first listen.

It's harder than you'd think. Ballads are notoriously dull unless the crowd knows them or they have a sizzling emotion to them. The songs people DO know off by heart have already been done a million times, and you need to be a REALLY stellar performer to make people want to watch them again and again.

Fortunately, for a lot of reasons Guelph is a less jaded town than most, so I sometimes successfully "push the envelope," trusting in my own love of the music to hold the attention of others. Sadly, last time I pushed it a bit too far -- I'll never try "The Monkeys Have No Tails in Pago-Pago" again.

My DREAM is to do Kate Bush, and if wigs looked good on me (and if I could find a credible '70s Kate Bush wig) I'd be able to pull off Kate Bush on the basis of it being "Female Impersonation." I've watched her enough to know the stereotypical moves. But I've never plunged into outright impersonation, most people at drag shows don't know who she is, and it's difficult to find an upbeat Kate Bush song, surprisingly...upbeat as in a song that keeps you moving back and forth a lot on stage, without just...well, moving back and forth endlessly for no point.

Anyway, I was at a housewarming party on Saturday night and two people were talking about how they'd re-enacted Kate Bush's "Hammer Horror" video on a drunken dancefloor. This got me thinking: maybe more people DO know who she is, and maybe there's a drag-friendly song I haven't thought of? Armed with a very convenient Kate collection on my iPod, I started evaluating songs.
  • Babooshka: Too slow, and the repetition of the word "Babooshka" derails the story for drunken drag show attendees.
  • Rocket Man: Sure to charm men and women alike, but...well, slow.
  • Sensual World: WAY too slow. Can only be done if you're walking through a polystyrene forest. So no.
  • Wuthering Heights: This is the best candidate -- since some people know it -- but it's still too languid for comfort, even with the "let me in-a your window-oh-oh-oh" miming.
  • Hammer Horror: Might work, but again: slow. Also requires a man in bondage gear.
  • Wow: Cheeky and fun. The only likely candidate.
  • December Will Be Magic Again: For holidays only!
  • Don't Push Your Foot on the Heartbrake: Faster, but has an alienating jangly '70s rock sound. Not as bad as "James and the Cold Gun," though.
  • Anything from "The Dreaming": Much too strange for the average person.

If you're waiting for a solution, forget it, I haven't found it. None of Kate's upbeat songs tell a coherent story; they tend to degenerate into repetition. So instead I'm retreating into the comfort of Poe and working on "Extraordinary Way." Slow, but intense.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

My New Digs: Fancy Couch

I would LOVE to decorate with animal prints but I know from simply decorating my OWN body that it's difficult -- if not impossible -- to do it in a classy way without going all out. And it's extremely hard to coordinate.

So my mom and I spent an hour hunting for futon covers. Ever since I inherited this gorgeous futon couch/bed from Vanilla I've been making do with a white sheet for a cover. Now I finally have a leopardy -- but not EXACTLY leopard -- couch cover that greets the visitor (and me) with a hearty "how-do!"

Synchronicity: Banned in Boston

A day of coincidence with the radio,
and a word that won't go away...
More about Kate Bush soon, but for now: I've been having bizarre moments of synchronicity lately. A subject comes up that I hadn't been aware of before, and suddenly it's popping up in other parts of my life as well.

Previously I was being dogged by the "French Phone." Next it was "Madagascar." And now? "Banned in Boston," that is, a catchphrase from Boston's traditional and archaic crusades against "vice" up until the '60s.

This was a particular issue in the late 1920's, (which is why I keep running into it while reading The New Yorker). Thanks to a shockingly oppressive set of laws in the municipal books, and to the uneasy jostling between merchant's organizations and the Watch and Ward Society, the late '20s saw a spate of high-profile magazines and books get banned in the city (bans which were generally overturned in the courts).

What was one of the most vehemently banned books in Boston? You guessed it: Elmer Gantry.

So tonight I'm listening to an episode of "The Big Show" from March 18, 1951. Despite my intense dislike of Meredith Willson's music -- everything he does is simultaneously overblown and ultra-conservative -- I'm looking forward to Fred Allen, Portland Hoffa, and Ella Fitzgerald later in the program.

Early on, Ethel Waters enacts a scene from "Mamba's Daughter," a play that seems better left forgotten (Waters quit the radio show "Beulah" because of its stereotypical nature, but her character in "Mamba's Daughter" doesn't seem much better). Anyway, Talullah Bankhead (the glamorous, unpredictable) banters with Ethel Waters about autobiographies. Talullah says she's working on an autobiography about her fiery romances...but she's not done it yet, and -- ha! -- she "mostly works on it at night."

Ethel says she hopes the book has a fireproof cover, and Talullah replies that she can't wait to travel around America, just to see the book being sold in every city. (Pause for effect). "But I never go to Boston anyway."

The audience loves it.


...dozens of times you've noticed it. The climax of a long evening...a cabaret, crowded, warm...a merry party sitting close...bodies twist, necks crane to watch the entertainers. Something unpleasant creeps in. Under the arms, dampness...stains...inevitably, odor. Nature's sure reaction! But Nature never catches you off guard. Twice a week you, like millions of men and women the world over, use your Odorono for checking excessive perspiration and odor. That's what gives you your assurance--which soap and water can never give--of constant after-the-bath freshness, of continuous daintiness.
The New Yorker, June 11, 1927

Monday, February 26, 2007

"Elmer Gantry" by Sinclair Lewis

How can I say everything I want to say about "religion" in a blog post, let alone one that's also a book review? I guess I can say -- by way of introduction -- that I see a great deal of goodness in organized religion: it builds strong social bonds, often has some connection with charity, gives people hope and purpose when they can't find it anywhere short, organized (and in this case I mean Christian) religion SHOULD be a win-win situation.

Except for two basic problems. First off, the Bible is a vague, symbolic, and contradictory document. Christians all believe certain limited things about Christ -- which is what Christianity should be about, you'd think -- but for some reason they elevate picky details ABOVE Christ. And since they tend to insist on a (totally impossible) "literal" interpretation of a vague Bible, ANY deviation is enough to cause a schism, and when athiests, Jews, and Muslims aren't strong enough opponents of the Christian church, they historically end up killing each other over the stupidest of things.

The second basic problem is that Christianity (for one) turns essential (or at least pervasive) human drives -- lust, anger, envy, curiosity, quest for knowledge -- and turns them not just into UNDESIREABLE traits, but actual SINS that must be eradicated and are more important than most things Jesus Christ ever supposedly said. People are kept beholden to their church because they need to be SAVED from these sins -- many of which they can NEVER be reasonably saved from -- and -- worst of all -- priests are expected to be even MORE perfect that the people they serve. They aren't allowed any vices, and somehow their followers can convince themselves that Oral Roberts and Jim Bakker are incorruptable. They are held to an impossible standard of "goodness." They can't just be like Doctor Phil and say "I guess I SHOULD be a better person." They MUST be better people...they must be better people than it is even POSSIBLE for a human to be.

Which brings me to "Elmer Gantry" by Sinclair Lewis, a book about how priests survive in the toxic, impossible environment created by Christianity in its more literal form. Some of the priests acknowledge that their dogma is flawed -- they can't reconcile the Bible with the things they see around them, especially not in the early 1920's when science, sociology, and technology are stripping away the superstitions that religion was built on. But they STILL see the GOOD that they can do in their churches: supporting people, educating people, keeping people away from "vice.

So these priests just decide to stay quiet, view the Bible as a work full of symbols intended to help people, and work towards "liberalization from the inside."

A minority of the priests -- personified by Frank Shallard -- can't reconcile even this...and what's more they believe that there ARE no simple answers, not even from Christ himself. A fair section of the book is devoted to these sorts of soul-searching, agonizing crises of faith:
"Just what are the teachings of Christ? Did he come to bring peace or more war? He says both. Did he approve earhtly monarchies or rebel against them? He says both. Did he ever -- think of it, God himself, taking on human form to help the earth -- did he ever suggest sanitation, which would have saved millions of plagues?

"...There's just one thing that does stand out clearly and uncontradicted in Jesus' teaching. He advocated a system of economics whereby no one saved money or stored up wheat or did anything but live like a tramp. If this teahing of his had been accepted, the world would have starved in twenty years after his death!"
So which priests actually THRIVE in this environment? Hypocrites, in the form of Elmer Gantry. These people KNOW they're lying, and actually lie to get ahead, become cozier with politicians and businessmen, earn bigger profits, and -- in the case of Elmer Gantry -- hold more people in thrall. Elmer loves the money but what he loves MOST is power over others. During the course of the book he embraces hooliganism, Baptism, Revivalism, New Ageism, and finally Methodism, whichever route promises him a bigger and more adoring audience.

On the way he ruthlessly destroys everybody in his path, and also anybody he no longer has a use for. He particularly likes to "out" doubting priests like Frank Shallard, because doing so makes him appear even more dedicated and virtuous (the same way he goes on periodic "stamp out vice" sprees which accomplish absolutely nothing but victimizing a few average people).

The ultimate fate for Frank is horrifying, made even more shocking by the otherwise distant, flippant tone of the book: Sinclair Lewis is DEEPLY cynical and sarcastic, and even though he's herding the characters through an obvious round of tricks, the irony is so understated that it's up to the reader to keep up with it all: to recognize that Gantry has been rehashing the same pointless sermon for thirty years, to notice the gradual embellishments of his past, tailor-made for his audience. But when Frank Shallard is tortured and disfigured by a small-town mob who objects to his support for Darwinism, it's almost like the book has given you a physical shock. Don't read while eating.

Sinclair Lewis doesn't like Elmer Gantry, and he has little patience for people who lie and demonize even in the service of noble ends. He has nailed the character of Elmer Gantry perfectly: a man who experiences intense love for unattainable people, but utter disdain for those he's finally caught...especially women. Even his love for his mother, which seems credible at the beginning of the novel, is sidelined in his quest to head the largest anti-vice squad in the country -- a quest that he obviously attains at the end, propelled by the very people he's cheated and lied to all his life.

And does Gantry believe in God? At the beginning he is slightly AFRAID of God, but by the end God doesn't enter into the equation. He TALKS about God a lot, but that's as far as it goes. As with many powerful religious people, God becomes a tool for Elmer as opposed to an ideal. People like Elmer know how to use that tool beautifully, and through the extensive research he did for this novel, Sinclair Lewis understands how they do it too. And he uses this weighty novel to tell us about it.

So should you read the book? It's topical, written shortly after the Scopes monkey trial, and now we have our own monkey trials going on all over again. It's well-written, though you tend to share the same dislike for the characters that Sinclair Lewis has. It often feels a bit encyclopedic and dry, though it has plenty of moments of dry, hilarious, and bitterly sad black humour. I'd like to read more of his work -- Lewis even name-drops himself near the end, when a character makes fun of one of his earlier novels -- but unless you're up for a bleak study of human beings at their worst -- ala Nathaniel West's "Day of the Locust" -- stay far, far away.

What about the movie? I'm watching it now, and BOY do I have lots to say.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Marcia Baila

The United States had MTV. In Canada we had MuchMusic. But if you were a REALLY adventurous (or masochistic) Canadian you also watched MusiquePlus, the Canadian Quebecois music channel.

As a kid who basically flunked French in highschool, I didn't verbally understand much that happened on MusiquePlus, but I sure as hell knew that they had a significantly BROADER field of interest than plain-old, provincial MuchMusic. Crazier videos (usually from Europe), weirder production values, more beautiful was a joy. Among other obsessions that this station instilled in me (both big and small), I include Niagara, "Two Men, a Drum Machine, and a Trumpet," and Nits.

Not to mention Mitsou, who I'll get into some other time.

But this post is dedicated to Les Rita Mitsouko, a French band that blew my little mind when I first saw them on MusiquePlus:

I would like to post their song "Andy" -- my first Les Rita Mitsouko exposure, and still the funkiest, fartiest New Wave song ever -- but instead I present "Marcia Baila." I'm doing this as a public service since people who weren't actually CONSCIOUS during the '80s have some misconceptions about what it was really like. The best way to describe how a culture was SUPPOSED to look during a specific time is to examine how OTHER cultures interpreted that look. In short, this video is what the arty side of the '80s WANTED to be in terms of fashion and sensibility.

What did the '80s REALLY look like? Unless you were Jane Siberry, not like this, unfortunately. But just watch the video and revel in every bit of beautiful, over-the-top, French oddness that Catherine Ringer and Fred Chichin indulge in. Goregous, gorgeous, gorgeous. And these two geniuses are still making music today, by the way.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Radio Curiosities: "Dinah"

I'm going to start an informal tradition of posting notable or odd songs that I come across while listening to old radio programs. I already have seven CDs chock full of discoveries -- so I'll never run short of material -- but I'm always finding new stuff that makes me say "wow!"

Today's offering is "Dinah," broadcast on November 29, 1942, during the "Command Performance" show. Notable in its ability to draw the biggest names, "Command Performance" is a great place to dig up musical gems from the past.

"Dinah" is an old standby, but take a look at the performers on this version:
  • Tommy Dorsey: Trombone
  • Count Basie: Piano
  • Lionel Hampton: Vibraphone
  • Spike Jones: Drums
  • Dinah Shore: Vocals
How often do you think THOSE people got together to jam? Throw in Bob Burns playing his "bazooka" and you have a performance simultaneously sublime and ridiculous.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Bridle

Someone has brought up the question of obsolete gestures, among them the Ogle. This calls to mind the conventional response to the Ogle--the Bridle.

Not long ago I thought a gentleman ogled me, and so I responded with what I thought was a Bridgle. But instead of following at a discreet distance, as oglers are said to have done, this gentleman came up to me at once and said: "Didn't I meet you last Saturday night at a party on West End Avenue?"

Something, you can readily see, was wrong. I began to wonder if I had bridled incorrectly. In order to find my mistake, I asked my friends to bridle.

Most of them thought, as I had, that bridling was a self-conscious recognition of wicked admiration, involving, of course, pleasurable sensations.

We thought it was akin to smirking or simpering, and had something to do with edging nearer without quite losing one's niceness. We may have confused the Bridle in some way with the Sidle.

We were wrong. Webster defines the Bridle as an indignant Toss of the head, as of a bridled horse. Can you EE-magine?

Now if some kind gentleman will Ogle me or Insult me in the good old-fashioned way, I shall be glad to bridle properly. It has taken practice to acquire the gesture, I must confess, for without the old spirit to inspire me I can achieve only the outward observance. But given the proper stimulus, who knows how well I can do?

--Josie Turner (The New Yorker, May 28, 1927)
When somebody ogles me, I don't bridle...I ignore. Or I walk away a slight distance, hoping they'll follow. This is my way of saying either "you don't know what you're getting into," or "yes, I'm interested...but I'm not doing ANYTHING unless you're more obvious about it."

In nightclubs, at least, the Ogle still exists, but it has been partially replaced with the butt-grab. I think most women in clubs tend not to Bridle, they tend to slightly isolate themselves (but not so much as to be alone) and wait to see if the Ogler approaches.

The unfortunate female version of the Ogle seems to be the Lesbo Routine, which involves grinding with another girl as though the two were lesbians, but actually doing it to attract MALE attention, which I think is unsavoury on so many levels both social and political. It works...but at what cost, ladies?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Atari 2600 (Computer #1)

I get moments of gut-wrenching, heart-squeezing sentimentality when I think of the computers I grew up with. Not because I was a nerd (though I was), but because computers were a wonderful escape into new worlds and -- later, when they became more sophisticated -- they allowed me to created my OWN new worlds, which is something I still love to do.

The beginning, for me, was the Atari 2600. I was probably 8 years old. I vividly remember the smell of the rubber joysticks which everybody chewed but few admit it. I'd sometimes play unsatisfyingly abstract games of Breakout, but my imagination was held most by the maze games we had: "Adventure" and "Maze Craze." I must have been a bit autistic because I was ENTHRALLED by mazes, I used to draw them and imagine them and write about them all the time. To this day I still get a thrill looking at a maze, and I have absolutely no idea why. Someday, to illustrate my mania, I'll post a picture of the ridiculous multi-page maze I spent months drawing in public school. You'll understand why my mating pool is so small.

I also get a thrill thinking about the Atari 2600. I haven't played one in about 25 years, so -- after some depressing auctions of the original article -- I've settled on an "Atari Flashback 2." It's pretty much the real thing with all the original quirks, and it's certainly more tangible than an emulator. I want to play these games on my TV...while chewing the joysticks.

And now, with experience in broadcast signals and assembly language, I better understand the terrifying process that went into creating these 4K games. I also understand why the Pac-Man ghosts flickered so horribly, and why the playfields tended to be horizontally symmetrical.

I don't have it yet, and maybe I'll be bitterly disappointed when I get it, and it will probably sit unused after the first few weeks...but I'd rather spend a small amount of energy and money on a throw-away toy than continue feeling my heart get squeezed like this.

My New Digs: The Puppy

So I've already made it clear that I love my apartment but the "make-or-break" issue is the volume level of my neighbours across the wall. They're quiet so I'm not constantly disturbed...but if they were loud I'd need to leave.

Today I got home -- bad mood, high blood sugar, big pores -- and entered my front door. Instantly I heard the incessant, punctuated yapping of a very small dog next door. Barking and barking and barking. For fifteen minutes. Sounding as though it were sitting right at my feet.

I went into panic mode. This was it. My neighbours got a puppy which can't handle being left alone. Time to move.

When I'm this upset (panicked, actually) I feel the need to take INSTANT action. I feel like if I just sit and wait awhile I'll literally explode. Since my neighbours weren't home, I called one of the landlords and basically tattled. I didn't consciously INTEND to tattle; what I really wanted to know was whether they knew if the dog was a temporary thing -- like, were they dog-sitting for a week? -- or if this was going to be a daily issue. I said I couldn't handle a yapping dog. The landlord was annoyed that the dog arrived without them being told. He said he'd take it up with the other landlords. I hung up the phone and realized: jeez, I just ratted on my neighbours without even giving them a chance to explain themselves, I've maybe just started a WAR.

So I sat on my couch, twitching. I leafed through a book ("Pictures Showing What Happens On Every Page of Thomas Pynchon's Novel Gravity's Rainbow") without actually paying attention to it. One of the neighbours came home. I didn't hear the dog, I didn't hear the phone ring. I agonized and agonized and agonized.

I called the landlord back and implored him to PLEASE not address the issue. I said that I'd like to wait and see if it continues to be a problem, and that if I felt it was a problem I'd talk to them myself first. I feel that's the responsible, adult, considerate, and most effective thing to do. He agreed, and I was relieved, but I couldn't help thinking that they'd end up telling my neighbour I was a tattle-tale eventually. How could the landlords pretend to not know about a dog that the tenant isn't supposed to have?

Later, lying on the couch and reading "Elmer Gantry" (and no longer twitching), my neighbour knocked on my door. She wanted to tell me that she'd bought a puppy, and for illustrative purposes she actually brought the puppy over, and it's one of those small dogs with elastics in its hair. She apologized about the dog barking that morning, which I hadn't heard because I wasn't home at the time. She said that she wanted to give the dog a chance to calm down, but that she would give it up if it was a problem, and if I was EVER bothered about it I should go over and tell her right away, and she also said she felt bad for not telling me the day before.

I confessed, standing in my kitchen in a bathrobe and with white pore minimizer all over my swollen nose. I told her I'd called the landlord in a panic but I'd told him I'd only follow up if it was a problem. She was a bit unnerved but understood that I'd been listening to the mystery dog barking. I said that I understood that dogs get lonely, but most of them can be taught not to bark when they're lonely, and I hoped that would be the case. I also told her that I REALLY appreciated her telling me about it, and that knowing she was open to complaints would make it MUCH easier to tolerate any barking in the future. I also, for some reason, offered to walk the dog occasionally. I suppose this was due to guilt about telling the landlords.

Happy ending? Well, I probably sounded a little nuts, and I still feel slimy (a feeling that I either need to "own" or to justify by saying "she should have told me earlier") but it was definitely an establishment of an "open door policy" for any issues we might have. It's my firm belief that western countries need an informal ritual: after living beside each other for six weeks, new neighbours should get drunk together and talk about their hopes and concerns. It would make ME happier, and I'd spend less time sitting and brooding and twitching.

Pore Reduction

Big nose pores run in my family so it was only a matter of time before each of mine began to look like Kentucky's Mammoth Cave. On top of this, my new foundation is much less "goopy" than the old stuff, so rather than filling in my pores when I put it on it just accentuates them and makes them look like blackheads, which is not the look I'm going for.

I'm tackling this problem from a few different directions. First I'm trying to find a way to "goop them up" without making my nose look like it belongs on a different face. Every goopy thing I try -- concealer, swabs of panstick, foundation mixed with powder and water -- vacates my pores as soon as I apply my actual foundation, as if to say "look at what a great product I am, I'm actually cleaning your pores."

Annie, queen of cosmetics, gave me some Clinique pore minimizer. It's thermal active. You apply it to your nose, massage some water on it, and it begins to burn in a way that screams "I'm working!" I think what it's really doing is inflaming the skin, puffing it up so the pores look smaller, which they certainly do. But it only lasts for a few hours. Like Cinderella, I need to go home by midnight if I don't want people to see my pores, and I don't want to imagine the "glass slipper" analogue for this situation.

I could always, you know, just admit that I have big pores and be done with it. I'm not the type to take elaborate measures to disguise the way I really look, after all.



Monday, February 19, 2007

The Marx Brothers: Cocoanuts

Needless to say I was a late-comer to the Marx Brothers. I'd always dismissed them as little more than the Three Stooges, who I have never been able to enjoy, partly because they're grotesque and they're lunkheads.

But when I worked at Generation X video I was determined to watch all the Classic films from the top of the shelf to the bottom, and the Marx Brothers were at the top.

The first film I saw was "Room Service," which is pretty awful but started two obsessions in one swoop: the need to find out who this "Ann Miller" person was (pre-nose job, only 15, terrorized by Harpo behind the scenes), and the inkling that there was more to the Marxes than I'd thought. And I was right.

It still amazes me that, by the time their first film had been released, they were already up in years and late in their careers. That film, of course, was "The Cocoanuts," and it stands up both as typical Marx insanity AND an example of Hollywood learning -- from scratch -- how to make a movie with this new sound technology.

Anyway, one great thing about reading "The New Yorker" is finding reviews of films and plays that were written when the films and plays first came out. It was fun reading about "Metropolis" ("gosh it's weird, those Germans are really on to something, it features a sexy robot") and now, on May 28, 1927:
The return engagement is the Marx Brothers in "The Cocoanuts," at the Century. It is now a platitude to say that no intellect has been found profound enough to drain the heady madness of "The Cocoanuts" at a single draught. True, the Florida real-estate theme on which "The Cocoanuts" is built has come to seem like a series of kicks at a pecurliarly destitute cripple, the music has died a little, and the settings and costumes were never much--still, "The Cocoanuts" must be seen again. An arabesque of wisecracking, clowning and satirization, reaching its climax in the immortal viaducts conference, "The Cocoanuts" can be relied on to induce a glorious condition somewhere between vertigo and hysteria.
And yes, from the very beginning (1925) this paper has been full of details about the "Florida real-estate theme." I didn't realize it until now, but "The Cocoanuts" must have been very topical when it first appeared on the stage. In 1927, when the stage show returned to New York, the theme was getting old. By 1929, when the film was actually made, it must have been positively out-of-date.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Rising Up and Rising Down: Columbine

A magazine sent Vollmann to Littleton after the school shooting. The article he wrote is mostly about the "vultures": the media who shamelessly exploited the tragedy for ratings, and also the relgious and ideological vultures who opportunistically swooped in to convert the grief-stricken to their causes.

I do think that news media is probably the most lethal thing in the world today. It homogenizes, exploits, simplifies, and cynically manipulates. Worst of all, it usually doesn't even have an's just acting this way so it can make more money, get bigger, and acquire more subsidiaries...and as I've said before, I think the idea that everything MUST get bigger and better is the basic root of human evil.

This case study ("Murder For Sale") is a vicious and much-deserved swipe. While watching a journalist take pictures of a weeping grandmother:
I watched that journalist for a while. The grandmother proved to be an aberration. Mainly he was taking pictures of little girls. I suppose that they were his natural prey. Just in case you wish to understand the feeding habits of this subspecies of vulture, I now refer you to my friend Noah Richler, an acute and articulate student of the world who's worked with me at BBC Radio and now runs the book review section of Canada's National Post. He put it to me like this: "In a way, the climactic moment is always being pushed forward. Twenty years ago, the shootings themselves would have been the point. But now the shootings are not good enough. You neeed the weepy hugs. And it becomes something other than news. You know, here we are at the newspaper, and we had loads of shots from Littleton of the kids hugging each other. Then the next day there was that copycat shooting here in Canada, and so we had shots of teeth biting the lips and parents hugging their kids and all that, and I found myself thinking, these kids aren't as cute as the Littleton kids-you know, prairie kids, farmer's daughters and all that. I suppose the American journalists had searched out more photogenic kids..."

Rising Up and Rising Down: Little Haiti

Having reached volume 6 of William T. Vollmann's "Rising Up and Rising Down" I find myself awfully tired. Vollmann's work usually swoops up and down between dizzying ecstacy and horrible depression, but when he's writing about violence, death, torture, and war...well, after 3000 pages it gets a bit tedious. I've started feeling like the jaded people he so often mentions in his stories about war-torn countries: these people settle into a "war attitude" where they no longer care about atrocities. They accept their inability to walk around at night or go to certain neighbourhoods as though it were perfectly normal. When writing about Colombia, Vollmann says these people have basically been flayed alive, but then stepped back into their skin again: they hide the atrocities and say everything is alright, even though it isn't, they've lost all their skin but they still LOOK okay.

So while I can't say that "Rising Up and Rising Down" has been metaphorically flaying me, I CAN certainly say it's exhausting me, and it doesn't help that Vollmann's search for meaning in violence has come down to a simple, unworkable conclusion: violence is personalized even in war, nobody can tell anybody how mass violence should proceed because all of the people involved feel violence so personally, and everybody is different and unique.

But anyway, he ends volume six with a section on "Perception and Irrationality." The case study "Nightmares, Prayers, and Ecstasies" is about voodoo and faith healing in the American south, and during a "joy ceremony" I'm finally reading one of those ecstatic, beautifully written moments that Vollmann has been unable to treat me with until now.

Watching a woman possessed by a voodoo spirit during a stifling, hours-long ceremony in Miami, he meditates on spirits and how they can be both sweet and cruel:
That was how it was with the spirits, which I had perhaps thought of as gentle watchful distant beings like Southern girls in Lafayette, standing on their white-washed porches in the evening time, leaning against railings whose pillars resembled a woman's braids artfully reproduced in white-stained wood--Southern girls who stood and leaned and faintly smiled as they watched the world go by from their houses; or spirits like the fat ghetto girls in New Orleans who sat smoking and drinking beer and talking on the extension phone out there on their stoops whose steps were as grimed and stained and crusted as lichened boulders or slaughterhouse tiles; they sat with heat oozing from their steep dark staircases and through their open doorways and between their meaty shoulderblades as they looked outward, watching nothing pass, waiting for nothing and maybe enjoying their lives Sometimes they shifted bottles or beer cans between their legs or even stood up, grabbed a hip and danced for a sticky moment, their stage a cement wall or a brick wall or the square buttock of an air conditioner which the tenant couldn't afford to run. --Some spirits were like that. Others were wild and rash and cruel. There were more of them than stars; there were millions and billions of them; who could know them all? I wanted to know some, at least...

The Best Joke, Ever

Q: Where do all the little bugs go in the winter time?

A: Search me.

Q: No thanks!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

A Cat Nap Dream: Two Tall Police Officers

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, I'm walking past the Bauer Loft construction site. A truck stops and an apparently crazy man wearing wrap-around sunglasses approaches me.

MAN: Hey! Hey, do you know if it's okay if I take bread crumbs from birds? I'm only asking because I'm starving and I need some, I want to make dressing...

ME: Where do you want to get them from?

MAN: From Bird Island. I started taking bread crumbs and people started staring at me, calling the police on their cel phones.

ME: That's a protected area, for birds can't go there. I think it's okay if you take bread crumbs from birds, but there's a more serious problem of you simply GOING to Bird Island...

In typical dream style the man has suddenly become two police officers who are very, very tall...I'm craning my head back just to talk to them.

ME: You two are incredibly tall!

OFFICER 2: You've got to be tall to join the force!

ME: Is it your boots?

As we compare boots, a woman on a bicycle rides slowly past through the snow...I don't see her face, but she has pigtails.

OFFICER 1: Who's that girl over there?

ME: Oh, that's Molly Conchlin! She works at the...ummm...I know her...Hi!

The confusion here is that she's actually a woman named Erina, but I can't remember her name. When she turns to look at me I see that she isn't really Erina after all...she looks at me like I'm a pervert.

ME: No, guys, that's not Molly. Sorry. I'm almost blind, you see, I can't see faces...everything beyond about eight feet away is a blur.

OFFICER 2: {Showing a spiked wrist collar to OFFICER 1} So yeah, I want to get another one like it...

ME: Oh, go to Delirium Clothing! And have you been to Club Abstract?

OFFICER 1: We go there on Thursdays because that's Jenny's day off.

OFFICER 2: Mike has a crush on Jenny, but now she's going out with Joe, and the only day she doesn't hang around with Joe is Thursday...

High blood sugar wakes me up. I realize that I thought about Molly Conchlin because I was listening to "Our Miss Brooks" earlier in the day, and the rest of it is a combination of anxiety about my neighbours and anxiety about social awkwardness and Doing the Wrong Thing.

The "French Phone" again (AKA "Synchronicity")

Harry McNaughton: You know, somebody called me on the phone the other night, I couldn't understand a word they said.
George Shelton: Why was that?
Harry McNaughton: It was a French phone.
"It Pays To Be Ignorant," December 7, 1945.

So the "French Phone" term was still in use in the '40s. But since McNaughton and Shelton were old Vaudeville performers, the joke just might have been incredibly old, though the audience still laughed.

But Some People ARE Just Stupid

I eat at Subway an awful lot because it's close to my work, the food is relatively cheap and healthy, and I can sit undisturbed and read during my lunch break.

A woman works there who I'll call "Crone." She's been there for years. She isn't mentally handicapped but she's certainly "slow." I don't have nasty feelings towards people who are simply "slow," even if they're a bit annoying. But when a slow person is also needy and socially retarded I begin to hate them. Crone is all of these things, and she also has an annoying voice and a face like Schlitzy The Pinhead.

Crone wants to talk to every customer, ESPECIALLY the customers who don't like her, which is most of them. The more you discourage her from talking to you, the more she'll try. The thing is, whenever you DO talk to her she says something unbelievably clueless and usually rude.

My first real experience with her was a few years ago when she asked me if my fingernails were real (they were long at the time). I told her they were, and she cackled in her annoying way and shouted "No they're not! No they're not." Yes they are, I said, and she cackled again and shouted "No they're not!" The owner, who was standing there, looked as shocked as I was.

A few weeks later I came in with a book of Sherlock Holmes stories. Crone thinks she's quite the reader, and she asked me what I was reading. I told her, and she shouted "Oh, I HATE those old books!" Shortly thereafer I came in with a book on the history of London, England. "What'cha reading?" she asked again, and -- trapped -- I told her. Her response, predictably, was "Oh, I HATE those history books!"

That was when I decided I would no longer speak to Crone. I'll still say "hello" and "thanks," but I won't respond to any of her questions. She'll ask me what I'm reading, and I'll pretend that I don't hear her, which confuses her. But this doesn't stop me from hearing her abortive conversations with OTHERS. Here are my two recent favourites:

First, an employee (Dave) from Wordsworth Books came in for a sub. Wordsworths is a sort of high-end bookstore which specializes in quirky, literate stuff as opposed to romances and Oprah's picks. On the other hand -- for those who don't know -- "Chapters" is a chain bookstore that is notoriously falling back on selling knick-knacks as opposed to actual books.

CRONE: Hi Dave! Hi, how are you?
DAVE: (Unable to pretend he's reading the paper any longer) Fine, thanks.
CRONE: I love your bookstore! But I only buy books at CHAPTERS!
DAVE: (Taken aback) Oh...
CRONE: I love Chapters.
DAVE: (Making a joke) I didn't think Chapters still SOLD books.
CRONE: (Shocked) Huh? No! They still sell books!
DAVE: Ummm, yeah, I thought they just sold bookmarks and placemats now...
CRONE: Ha! Oh no, they still sell books! Don't worry! Chapters still sells books!

My all-time Favourite Crone Story took place just last week, when an employee from Timothy's Coffee Shop came in. Timothy's is a small chain store that managed to survive for years, but then Starbucks moved in across the street and took all their business.

CRONE: Hi! How's Timothy's?!?
EMPLOYEE: Not so good. We're closing this weekend. We've lost all our customers.
CRONE: Oh, that's too bad.
CRONE: At least we'll still have Starbucks!
EMPLOYEE: (Speechless)
CRONE: I always go to Starbucks!

Postscript: Crone belongs to a strange subgroup of people called "The Stinkies." They're slow, needy, socially handicapped, physically odd people, and they have extremely annoying screechy voices. I first noticed them when I worked at Tim Hortons; huge gangs of them would come in, drag you into go-nowhere and somewhat offensive conversations, and then spend hours screeching and cackling to each other. I don't know if this is a genetic issue or not but I strongly suspect it is. The cook at the time (Ben) referred to them as "Stinkies," and the name stuck.

My New Digs: Misdirected Persecution Complex

I think it's natural for human beings to feel persecuted. Rather than admit the random scariness of life -- random because life is so complex that we can't possibly predict it or make sense of it -- we prefer to interpret the bad events as some sort of persecution. What's more, if we believe that somebody else is deliberately hurting us, we by extension feel important enough to warrant the effort that goes into persecution, and we also feel superior to the people hurting us: we'd never be so nasty ourselves, would we?

Part of me likes to feel persecuted. Let's call that part "Beelzebaby." The OTHER part of me recognizes this tendency and, after objectively (or obsessively) reconsidering events under the influence of correct blood sugar, this part usually prevails. Since I'm so concerned about what other people think of me, I also have a tendency to analyze other people's motivations for doing things. And that helps me triumph over Beelzebaby once in a while.

I'm going to explain how this relates to My New Digs in a second, but first let me say that Beelzebaby serves another useful purpose: if I feel that other people in the world are stupid jerks who do stupid and mean-spirited things, by logical extension I can make myself a better person by NOT doing those stupid and mean-spirited things, right? The downside of this is that we ALL do stupid things, and due to the pervasive tendency for humans to think that evil motives lie behind stupid behaviour, OTHER people think we're doing MEAN-SPIRITED things too. So it's a losing situation in the long run but a little self-improvement never hurt anybody.

Let's get to the point of the story. My neighbours and I have a curious relationship in that we never really see each other -- our doors are on opposite sides of the building -- but we share a center wall that transmits (and perhaps even amplifies) sound. What's more, we also share a very small parking lot.

I don't drive a car but my friends do. Last Saturday I had a "mini-party" that involved a car being parked in the tiny lot. I didn't give my friends any parking instructions, and I didn't notice where they'd parked when they came into My New Digs, so for a few hours one of their cars was blocked in.

Later, when we piled into the car to go to Club Renaissance, we found a note attached to the windshield asking us to PLEASE be more careful next time. This is a sweet and gracious gesture, especially since the note was elaborately (and sort of hilariously) wrapped in Saran Wrap to keep it from getting wet. Being drunk and happy, my persecution complex didn't kick in and I assumed everything was A-OK, and later that night I left a (poorly wrapped) note in their doorway apologizing for the inconvenience and asking if their heat was working properly (since I'd fixed it a few weeks previous as mentioned in another entry).

I figured one of them would come over to accept my apology and/or respond to my heat inquiry, but neither of them did. My persecution complex kicked in: maybe they didn't like me? Maybe they took the parking lot issue more seriously than I did? Maybe they thought my reply was flippant, or thought I was making fun of their Saran Wrap?

On Wednesday afternoon I happened to run into Jenny ("call me K.C."), who said it was no problem and explained that her roommate's boyfriend was the one who got blocked in. She also said the heat was working again. Still Beelzebaby whispered in my ear that they don't like me, they've got a grudge against's certainly true that they aren't "warm" to me. Maybe they don't like hearing Bob Hope at 8am any more than I like hearing them making dinner at 11pm. I'd love to be able to hash this stuff out with them, but that sort of thing is best done when drunk and our relationship isn't at that level.

On Thursday night I put my garbage out, and I also took the recycling bin to the curb. I think of this as my small samaritan duty, my willingness to take the recycling out, mainly because I get home from work earlier than they do. But the thing is, they never put anything into the bins...we have two of them near my back door, and I always fill one up but they never touch the other. Later that night they took their garbage out as well...

...and guess how they recycle? They stuffed all their plastic bottles and soup packets into a flimsy, open cardboard bouquet box, and just left it at the curb. Of course the recycling truck didn't pick it up, because (doesn't everybody know?) that they'll only pick up the official bins.

So Beelzebaby whispered in my ears again: your neighbours are irresponsible and dim-witted slobs. They don't even know how to recycle. And, what's more, two days later their bouquet box was STILL sitting in the snow at the curb, looking ugly and on the way to getting buried and frozen until somebody would have to deal with it in the Spring.

But then I stopped to think about it more: maybe they really DON'T know how to recycle? If not, would they be insulted if I left them another note? I didn't want to clean up their garbage myself because they'd never learn to do it themselves. Then I looked at the backyard through their eyes and realized: maybe they think BOTH recycling bins belong to me, since they're so close to my door? Maybe they did this because they're angry because they think that *I* stole the bins?

You see how the persecution complex gets out of hand.

So I decided the best thing to do was to take the second recycling bin, put their bouquet box and bottles into it, and leave it near their porch. That's my way of saying "this bin is yours, and you need to use it." I'm not trying to be condescending or vindictive. But K.C. surely has her own Beelzebaby. Will K.C. come out of her house today and say to her roommate, "oh, SOMEBODY'S leaving us a HINT, what a JERK"?

Postscript: This morning at 7am I was awoken by frantic pounding on my front door. It was Fedora Nerd, who lives in the other building which shares our parking lot. He asked if my car was blocking him in. I sent him next door. Eventually The Boyfriend sheepishly came outside and moved his car so Fedora Nerd could get out of the lot. Yes, this is the same guy whose girlfriend left me The Note last weekend. He'd done exactly the same thing.

My point? We tend to get riled up about other people doing stupid things, but at the same time overlook that we do exactly the same stupid things. Even if everybody does only one stupid thing a year, we see so many people every day that we're bound to see lots of stupid things happening, and therefore to assume that people are just stupid. Some of them are, certainly. But not all of them. And even when people do stupid things, they usually do them for reasons other than basic cruelty or stupidity.

Goodness Me, It's the New Blogger!

After dealing with the endless prompts I've finally switched to the new version of Blogger. I assume it's been out long enough for them to have ironed out the kinks. And look: there are tags at the bottom! Gosh, I've always wanted tags...

Friday, February 16, 2007

Henry Ford and Father Coughlin Love the Jews

Update: I can't possibly do this subject justice during breakfast, but this is simply a quick "off the top of my head" writeup. I'll be the first to admit that it contains simplifications and generalizations of Coughlin's speech. But that doesn't mean he wasn't a dirtbag.

From the May 28, 1927 issue of The New Yorker:

A visitor calling on the Marxes in their dressing-room, incidentally, arrived just as another gentleman departed. "That fellow you saw leaving," explained Harpo (of the red wig), "is the greatest salesman in the world...He must be, because he just convinced two Marx Brothers that Henry Ford loves the Jews, and sold them Lincoln cars."

Henry Ford's extreme anti-semitism is no secret, but this reminds me of another psycho, this one Canadian: Father Coughlin.

I make it a habit (or rather a duty) to listen to every old time radio show that comes my way. The wonderful otrcat site includes comprehensive "samplers" of shows when you order from them, so even though I haven't purchased the Father Coughlin collection, I still listened to one of his 1938 broadcasts called "Jew, Christian, and Persecution."

I don't have a lot of time for racists, and that includes anti-semites. It's always confused me that certain people (including Ernst Zundel, who was just sentenced to jail in Germany and who used to live across the street from a friend of mine in Toronto) stereotype Jews as being incredibly capable on one hand -- able to control the entire WORLD, apparently -- but incredibly inferior on the other. If one race has managed to dominate the financial and political machinery throughout the entire world then the rest of us are a bunch of lazy bums.

So sitting through an hour of Father Coughlin wasn't my favourite thing to do, but it did hammer home the lessons that racists -- and ideologues in general -- use to twist the facts.

The most disgusting and cynical technique of all is false sympathy. He repeatedly and vehemently sympathises with the Jewish victims of persecution in Germany...then proceeds to blame them for their persecution. And this is how he does it:

  1. In Russia, the Czar treated the people well (he never states this outrageous claim, but it's a necessary unspoken premise for everything that follows).
  2. The only reason that the people suffered was because the bankers in Russia were greedy.
  3. Jews dominate the banking community, therefore the Jews made the people in Russia suffer (pogroms, anyone?)
  4. As a reaction to this Jew-created suffering, the people were willing to embrace any ideology that would save them.
  5. So they embraced Communism, an idea developed and bankrolled by "secular Jews" (must of Father Coughlin's broadcast consists of his proving this link, but I don't think it's particularly relevant. Since Coughlin hates Communism almost as much as he hates the Jews, however, this link is important to him).
  6. Communism is evil, not because it resulted directly and indirectly in the deaths of millions of people (which the world community wasn't much aware of in 1938) but because it's GODLESS, thanks to those secular Jews who developed and paid for it.
  7. Nazism is sorta bad and represses people (Coughlin gives lip-service to Hitler's badness, but is most angry that people focus on the repression of Jews in Germany, and don't give equal time to repression of one of Hitler's most heinous crimes is of eclipsing repression of Christians by repressing so many darn Jews).
  8. Nazism is simply a response to the GODLESS THREAT OF COMMUNISM!

That's the big point of Coughlin's speech, which leads us to his final rhetorical swoop: since Jews are responsible for Communism, they are ALSO responsible for their own victimization in Germany! And as Coughlin ominously says, if communism isn't stamped out here in America, something akin to Nazism will arise in America as well, and the Jews will suffer.

But you see, Coughlin says he doesn't WANT the Jews to suffer (it's apparent that he really doesn't want Jews getting any sympathy). He really loves the Jews. Meanwhile, from the other side of his face he's exposing the Great Jewish Conspiracy to Spread Communism. So excuse me if I don't buy into his false sympathy routine.

Why am I mentioning all this? Because this is one of the most complicated and bizarre anti-semitic slippery slopes I've run across, and also because people have forgotten Father Coughlin, who was born in Hamilton Ontario so therefore not so very far from where I live. He's better left forgotten, but he is a potent reminder of how offensive hatred often hides itself as concern and defense.

PS: If it's any consolation, FDR managed to get Coughlin shut down in the early '40s. Not because of his antipathy towards Jews, but because of his opposition to FDR's policies, mainly as they regarded American entry into WWII.

PPS: And where did Hitler plan to relocate all the Jews in Europe? You guessed it: Madagascar.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Roly-Poly Smokador

No, he's not rubbing a lit cigarette against this woman's wooden leg...he's using the Smokador, a product terminally advertised in the pages of The New Yorker! It's a tall ashtray with weighted bottom...tall enough for easy cigarette-snubbing, but balanced so it won't fall over when your guests bump into it (which happens a lot when they're drinking illegally-imported rubbing alcohol with a label on it that says "scotch.")

Even better you can place the Smokador in the center of a group of rebellious flappers, and they can easily tip it towards each other when they want to deposit their ashes. Not to mention that the column of the Smokador is hollow, so the ashes drop down into the base, supposedly creating a less smokey environment (or, I suspect, an environment in which the smoke just puffs out of the ashtray in a more stale and concentrated form).

A few weeks ago Vanilla commented that advertisements used to be wordier. As far as I can tell this was the case until the mid '60s, which was probably when advertisers realized that people really DO buy stuff ONLY because of the pretty girl, and not because of the overblown, deceptive hyperbole in the ads. This Smokador article is a prime example of wordy advertisements, telling us not just the exact composition the metal but also repeating -- several times -- where the unit is most conveniently paced (they do not, sadly, mention Madagascar as a placement option).

The advert is FAR too long to quote, but I do need to mention that the Smokador has a "patented roly-poly 'Rock-a-by' base."

Gimme one in Chinese Red, please!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Happy Valentine's Day, Madagascar!

A few days ago I posted an impromptu distillation of William T. Vollmann's article about Madagascar ("The Jealous Ones"). I was struck by Vollmann's uncharacteristic dislike of pretty much everything he saw and everybody he met in that country (and I actually wrote the distillation before I'd gotten to the REALLY disturbing stuff).

What are the chances that somebody reading this blog is actually FROM Madagascar? It's a small world after all, and one reader made it clear that they didn't much like this characterization of their country.

Here at The Muffyblog we like to be fair to everybody except Anna Nicole Smith. Aware that I should never swallow somebody's viewpoint without independent verification I decided to learn what OTHER people have to say about Madagascar. I figured I'd find all sorts of websites warning travellers away from the country...but other than comments that it "isn't for everybody" and that you shouldn't walk around outside at night, I couldn't find a single Vollmann-style negative comment about rampant thievery or people getting ammonia sprayed in their eyes. Shock!

I trust Vollmann's characterizations but in this case he's outnumbered. I don't know the real story -- I'd have to actually GO there to find out -- but I can at least say that if other people find the country as unpleasant as Vollmann did, they either aren't posting reviews online or they didn't survive to tell the tale.

So in the spirit of Valentine's day -- and since I don't have Somebody Special of my own -- I decided that MADAGASCAR is my valentine. To prove it, here's a picture of me comparing my ring-legs to a ring-tail, next to the Lemur who loves me:

Friday, February 09, 2007

Rising Up and Rising Down: Madagascar

After Vollmann's novellas about Cambodia (where all bad things are "just politics" and he manages to rescue a 12-year-old prostitute who turns out to be absolutely terrified of him) and the former Yugoslavia (where people constantly lie to him and he is unable to confirm anybody's stories, and where his car hits a landmine and he spends an hour in shock and fear lying behind the dead body of his childhood friend and the comatose, violently vomiting corpse-to-be of another journalist), Vollmann goes to Africa to learn more about violence and necessity. Because he hasn't learned enough, you see.

I promised myself that I'd find a nice -- but still emblematic -- excerpt to post here, but his story about Madagascar ("The Jealous Ones") is by far the most horrible one yet. He describes it as a place where the have-nots are constantly (and violently) taking from the haves, but even the haves are desperately everybody is essentially just stealing from everybody else. The anecdotes are less horrific, traumatic, and violent than those in the other stories, but the constant menace and extortion in "The Jealous Ones" is exhausting. And Vollmann is very good at describing the endless, exhausting sameness that breeds thoughtless violence.

It doesn't help that his interpreter/companion for this trip -- "O." -- is not a sympathetic character like the ones in other stories...she's 100% a product of the environment: poor, desperate, and terminally jealous. Apparently, in Madagascar, people are honest when they steal things from other people: they say they do it because they're jealous. And everybody there is jealous of everybody else, especially when somebody has a zebu.

But regardless. Here's probably the nicest emblematic statement I've read so far in "The Jealous Ones." This isn't a condemnation, it's a statement of fact:

When I think of Madagascar, I remember eroded roads and hills (they say that astronauts can see the erosion from the moon), jungle stumps with the soil between them now desert; I remember the smell of woodsmoke; I remember people's long skinny brown legs, and above all I remember dirty feet. Almost everybody goes barefoot. Beautiful women in dainty dresses think nothing of walking unshod through open sewers (or for that matter adding to them; Madagascar is one of those countries where one can excrete almost where one pleases, and people do; every day I'd see O. squat down in the middle of the street, urine slowly hissing between her bare or sandaled feet, and afterward she'd smile and say: Ah, darling, a very sweet piss!)

Old Time Radio: Buck Rogers

I'm making my way through the handful of surviving "Buck Rogers" radio programs from the 1930s, and though I found them annoying at first -- they're written for pre-teens, and they were the very essence of disposable radio -- I find myself starting to actually LIKE the characters. Not Buck so much -- who's just a dull schlump hero -- but everybody else.

Black Barney for instance, the bumbling ex-villain who has a strange ongoing relationship with a young boy named Willy. "Oh no!" cries Barney when his little friend is captured. "Oh NO! MY WILLY'S GONE!"

You've also got Ardala Valmar, played by 100% forgotten radio nobody Elaine Melchior. She has the thankless role of being the main villain's sidekick...and as if that weren't bad enough, she's female, so most of her characterization is her saying "What'll we do now, Kane?"

But NOTHING beats evil female villains in children's shows. I think most kids grow up falling in love with the villainesses, because they're always sort of trashy and sexy and perhaps stereotypically pre-menstrual. Ardala has this down pat, playing it with a "tough cookie" swagger and a real vicious hate-on for little Willy.

These shows were intended to be throw-away programs whose real purpose was to sell Fudgesicles to children (though they keep calling them "Fudge-icles," which may have been their 1930s name). But there's lots here for the jaded 21st century listener. They bring in Popsicle Pete -- winner of the "Typical American Boy Contest," implying that typical American boys are highly educated but obsessed with snack food -- and the commercials are aimed at "mother," as in "tell mother to buy you some frozen treats." I love the way these old radio shows always sell stuff to "mother" like that.

You've also got an almost fetishy obsession with technology -- the episodes I'm listening to now are about the "Gyro Cosmic Relativator," a line that Killer Kane keeps tripping over -- and, at the beginning and end of each show, some guy taps a thunder sheet for 30 seconds. When I close my eyes I can picture him, shirt sleeves rolled up around his sweater cuffs, brown pleated pants, Clark Gable haircut, dress shoes, underpaid, endlessly tapping that damn thunder sheet and staring longingly at Elaine Melchior's butt. Later, at the cafeteria, he tries to sit down next to her. "Who are you?" she asks, and he's too ashamed to say.

Update -- Some choice lines from April 16, 1939:

ARDALA: Kane, are you still set on putting our headquarters here, so close to where Willy left us?

KANE: If you'd use that pretty head of yours for something other than a perch for a flying helmet, you'd realize there's no better place for our headquarters.

ARDALA: You haven't answered my question.

KANE: Ardala...for once. THINK. Just try it.

ARDALA: Oh alright, rave on.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

UPhold Update: Overdue

This is the "point form" version:
  • Yes! The new CD is on the way. Soon. I promise. I just need to do the fiddly stuff that I always hate doing.
  • I'm working on a cover of "On the Boards" for a Legendary Pink Dots tribute CD, coming soon too.
  • I think I've finally come up with a name for this "studio," but I'm still thinking about it so I'll tell you later.
  • Conceptural tracks never work out for me, but that hasn't stopped me from planning something called "Muffy's Psychedelic Housewarming."
  • No word on that AFE CD with exclusive UPhold stuff.
  • I'd like to learn how to play bass.

Ciao, Anna Nicole

I was originally going to write a great big entry about body image, but it's all been said before. I was also going to spit venom about the spoiled, stupid, doped-up brat that was Anna Nicole Smith, but somehow this doesn't seem to be the right time (though the chances of her reading my blog are pretty slim as of today).

So instead I'll just say that as a model she certainly had her moments, but as a ROLE-model she was thoroughly undesireable. She did make a dent in beauty stereotypes, but mostly because she just sort of tripped over her feet and bumped into it and not because she wanted to. The fashion industry just knocked the dent out again anyway.

I do think she was pretty, at times. If anything she served as an example of what highly-trained cosmeticians and stylists can do with a person's body, given enough money and enough time.

The above picture shows Anna Nicole in Bryan Ferry's video for "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow." Since we're on the topic of beauty standards and Bryan Ferry, I present a picture of Rossy de Palma in the video for "I Put a Spell On You." The video is horrible but there's little doubt that Rossy is a far more unconventional beauty than Anna Nicole was, and she never stooped to a nose job either.

The "French Phone" (Continued May 14, 1927)

We continue to hear much about the new French-style phones. Everybody wants one and everybody that has one likes it. Much more convenient than the old instruments, they are much better looking too. We have heard artistically inclined people approve the design and applaud the prospective disappearance of the unlovely upright instrument. In a country wiich places utility above everything, this is certainly a big step forward. We heear mutterings, however, about the fifty-cents-a-month charge for the new instrument, the general opinion being that the corporation should discontinue this after the cost of a new phone has been made up. We presume the Public Utilities Commission or the City Club will look into this matter in due course.

While on this subject we might as well express our satisfaction with the dial system. We have found that twirling the little discs has always proved not only amusing but effectual. It is a long way ahead of the old method of depending on a human operator. Progress is being made, even by our mightiest corporations.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Rising Up and Rising Down: Beograd

By nature of the topics he writes about, William T. Vollmann rarely sustains a "happy tone" throughout his writing. His work tends to be about thoughtful people who observe things, fall in love with things, then discover the ugliness underneath them. Wonderful people can turn out to be scary, and so can nature. I'm still waiting for an uplifting Vollmann book but I'm not holding my breath.

This is my way of apologizing for these excerpts from "Rising Up and Rising Down," which all seem to be tragic, cynical, and depressing. The most striking moments are those when Vollmann tempts you with something innocent and beautiful then punches you in the stomach.

I'm reading "The War Never Came Here," written in Beograd during 1994 while NATO forces were bombing the cities. Vollmann, an American, is immediately aware of Serbian hostility toward him; people won't speak to him, they yell insults at him on the street, they won't let him buy things at their stores.

During his first few days in Beograd he grows increasingly frightened of the population. His only relief is Goran, the chief chef at the hotel. When William T. Vollmann, the terrified journalist, tells Goran about his troubles, Goran just sighs and says "Ah, Billy, Billy, Billy."

One night, Vollmann is followed back to the hotel by two ominous men who may be soldiers. Nervous, he walks into the hotel and goes to the front desk.
Ah, Billy, Billy, Billy, laughed Goran, waiting for me behind the desk when I came in.

I greeted him and took my key from the desk manager.

Billy. Billy Clinton. Billy Clinton, he sneered, and suddenly I understood that this stupid joke which he continually made was not a joke at all. That afternoon he had taken a pen and tried to write "CLINTON" on my lapel until I'd pushed his hand away, and even then I'd passed it off.

Billy Clinton, Billy Clinton, Billy Clinton, you will write bad things about us, he said in a jovially terrifying voice while the two desk men looked on, maybe understanding and maybe not since Goran and I always spoke in German, and I knew that my situation had reached a new stage.

Why do you say that? I said calmly.

You are American, Billy Clinton. You are all the same. You all write bad things about Serbs. You are no good.

I'm sorry you think that, I said.

Billy Clinton, Billy Clinton, he crooned, stepping forward.

You are not right, I said, turning my back on him and walking away.

I didn't know whether he -- and they -- would let me go, but I did know that the longer I stood there the more this man who last night had bought me vodka and sat at my table would brood upon my face and convince himself that I was evil. No doubt this was how ethnic cleansing worked, how ordinary people who knew each other slowly rejected, withdrew and demonized, slowly cauterized the arteries of friendship and then severed them with the saws of their hatred; and I was afraid. But they did let me go. I went upstairs and double-locked the door as usual. Then I wondered if they would come and do something to me. Probably not in the night, I decided. If NATO bombed Gorazde again then I would be in trouble; otherwise I could probably last another twenty-four hours before Goran and the others became more actively threatening; by then I hoped to be in Sandzak...
Then, the next day, Goran is as friendly with him as ever.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Rising Up and Rising Down: Cambodia

Before reading William T. Vollmann's "Rising Up and Rising Down," the geography and politics of the far east (Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam) has been a big muddle to me. Other than the obvious events, I viewed it as a confusing place where wars spread back and forth across mountainous borders, politicians switched sides, and lots of people keep dying in wartime fighting that mutates into new forms every generation.

Now I'm on volume five of the book, so I've started my crash course in eastern history. The book consists of several "studies in consequences," and are written in that captivating style of Vollmann-Investigative-Reporting. In this volume, Vollmann travels to war-torn regions of southeast Asia, Europe, and Africa, trying to clarify the studies in the previous four volumes: when do soldiers, politicians, and citizens in these countries feel that violence is justified?

I love the way he writes. He immerses himself in the region, and likewise immerses himself in the report: I'm not reading about Cambodia here, I'm reading about William T. Vollmann in Cambodia. What stands out in these painfully gorgeous stories is Vollmann's sense of helplessness and his guilty reliance on good-natured locals to help and protect him. This mixture goes all the way back to "An Afghanistan Picture Show, Or How I Saved the World," where he travelled to Afghanistan in 1980 to help the Mujahideen fight the Soviet invasion. He wanted to take pictures of the fighters and find out what they needed, then create an "Afghanistan Picture Show" in America to raise money to buy necessities for them. Instead he found himself a terrible burden to the Afghanis, they had to feed him and support him constantly, and they didn't give a damn about his picture show; all they wanted from him was guns (which, since he was a rich American, they felt he was horribly rude in not providing) . His Afghanistan Picture Show fund-raiser managed to raise about $100...who wants to give gun-money to a cause they don't understand? So he wrote a book about his failure and his gratitude.

This feeling of guilt and helplessness pervades "The Skulls on the Shelves," the first "study in consequences." Fifteen years after "An Afghanistan Picture Show" he has hardened himself to some simple and unpleasant realities, but he's still a liability to his new-found friends, though he buys them a lot of expensive dinners. In this story, Vollmann zig-zags between Thailand and Cambodia in a five-year attempt to interview Pol Pot, or at least a high-ranking member of the Khmer Rouge. Helping him are his friends Vanny and D., locals who spend much of their time interpreting for him, going the places he can't go, and deterring him from potentially suicidal activities.

As I read the 150-page story I became aware that much of it is really told through D.'s experiences. Though she doesn't say much about how she feels, Vollmann shows the way she responds when they meet different people from different prominent groups in Cambodian and Thai society: rich, amoral business-people like "Wall Save" and "Madam Black Eyes," the ineffectual Thai policemen (who occasionally crack down on Vollmann's activies), the Cambodian "White" soldiers (corrupt and needy) and the remnants of the Khmer Rouge (supposedly honest, but still brutal extortionists).

The people that Vollmann meets -- both Cambodian and Thai -- are shockingly sympathetic to the Khmer Rouge. They tend to make excuses for the horrible atrocities of "Pol Pot Time," blaming the Killing Fields on the Vietnamese or Chinese, or on "politics." When even D. begins to admire the Khmer Rouge, it becomes apparent that what people like about them is that they are "honest." They'll extort your money or kill you, but they tell you about it first and they are consistent in their approach.

What's more, the Reds are the enemies of the opposing "White" soldiers who are equally brutal and corrupt, but inconsistent in their approach, largely because they lack popular they can't extort enough money to make a profit.

I had learned that Thais who liked the Reds usually didn't like the Whites. The driver fell into this mold. He had once been involved in some gold business with the Reds, but the Whites kept shaking him down. The last straw came when he was doing a dinnerplate business with the Whites and then the border suddenly closed at a time when he happened to owe the Whites money. They took it out on his sister.

Vollmann keeps asking Khmer Rouge admirers if the Khmer Rouge are "Communist." The admirers always say no. Showing his many years of experience in journalism, Vollmann presses them to explain what Communism IS. Nobody knows, not even the Khmer Rouge members he eventually meets. To them, Communism is simply a rigid, hard way of doing things. Even "General X," who turns out to be one of the top-ranking Khmer generals, says this when Vollmann asks him who Karl Marx was (as translated by D.):

He don't know too much, but he know. Marx-Lenin system is very strong and strict. If they tell you do, then you must do, dead or alive. About the rule of Karl Marx they always make the tough rule. If they want you to go you have to go; if they tell you to stop you have to stop, tell you to turn right and you have to turn right; you can't say no. If you say no they are going to punish you.

Though Vollmann doesn't have enough of a sample to make a statement about this, the implication is that -- during "Pol Pot Time" -- the Khmer Rouge were torturing and murdering Cambodian undesireables without ever knowing the reasons behind it. It was just "politics." Which opened my eyes a little bit...we tend to such people as motivated by deep political ideals and convictions, as opposed to some mixture of compulsion, expediency, sadism, and basic class hatred.

Vollmann never does find Pol Pot, but the story is really about the people he meets along the way, and the way D. gradually degenerates into cynical boredom. If 1.5 million people in the killing fields can be excused as "just politics," and if the never-ending stream of disfigured land mine victims are no longer even noticed by the people who live there, how can you pick a side?

Easy: forget about their brutality, extortion, and illegitimacy. Just pick the group that is more honest. D. literally BEAMS when she hears stories about Khmer Rouge honesty. It all comes down to that.

Here are the last lines of the story, which (to me) is a collection of most of the themes rolled into a single paragraph:

Leaving behind me the spies and the lolling shop-ladies in their folding chairs, I looked across the frontier to Poipet, and then I looked across the street at the Thai immigration checkpoint, where the usual gaggle of submissive Thai journalists sat waiting to be told the news (like me, they were not allowed to cross the border; D. said that while I'd been in Phnom Penh she'd called some journalist friends of hers together for lunch and asked them if they had any leads on Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge; they told her that they could never even think of writing a story like that, because if they did they'd lose their jobs at the very least, and probably much, much worse); and just then I heard the dull sound of a big gun ten kilometers away; the police general said that that was White artillery; and I heard another shot and then another.

Friday, February 02, 2007

My New Digs: Now I Understand Why My Parents Acted the Way They Did, Sort Of

I always thought it was silly when my father obsessively hovered around our windows, holding his hand out to check for drafts. I didn't know why he spent so much time with the furnace. I never understood my mother's concerns about squeaky floors or unnatural noises.

But here I am doing all these things in My New Digs. I guess it's because I feel a sense of ownership, even though I don't own anything but the new stuff I've bought to fill up the corners. I feel a need to maximize every room, find the problems and weed them out, and oh yeah, figure out why I can hear every word my neighbours say.

The heat in these units has always been wonky, I find out today. Ever since I've moved in the living room and master bedroom have been cozy, but the other rooms received very little heat through the vents. The kitchen in particular was freezing.

So they sent a handyman to fix the enormous gap in the door which created an enormous, heat-sucking wind-tunnel. But after several hours of repair work ("Who the F*CK fixed this place?!?" screamed the crotchety guy, who seemed to be psychically tortured by the ghosts of Slapdash Repairmen Past) the kitchen wasn't any warmer.

Meanwhile I ran into my other neighbour, who revealed that THEIR unit was so tropical that they needed to keep the windows open. Hmmm, I thought to myself. Something's up.

So I turned -- momentarily -- into my father. I took a flashlight and explored the basement, trying to untangle the maze of ducts. It didn't make sense to me that ONE furnace would so unevenly distribute air to our apartments. After discovering that half of the ducts were actually drawing cold air INTO the furnace, I noticed that whenever the ducts split into branches, one of the branches had a little screw sticking out of it.

Fortunately, the walking hash-pipe who used to live here seems to have cut holes in some of the vents, presumably to heat the basement a bit. By shining a light in one of the holes I could see: holy cow, those screws are attached to little gates! Turn them one way and they BLOCK the vent, turn them the other way and they OPEN it!

Guess what? Most of my vent-gates were closed. I opened them up, heat returned to my apartment after six years of being stuck in the vents, and suddenly the two units are the correct temperature. I'm no genius, so why didn't anybody figure this out before? I guess they weren't possessed by the spirit of MY DAD.

My new project is to figure out where the soundproofing has failed. Tonight has been a perfect night, because the gals next door invited a huge group of loud, happy, and progressively inebriated friends over. Since their noise was constant and unmodulated, it was a golden opportunity.

So where's the sound coming from? Through one of the living room heating vents, through the "air intake" vent in the master bedroom, and through the gaps where the baseboards used to be in the upstairs hall.

All of that could be handled, but there's one more place the sound is coming from: through the concrete wall that divides the units. Seriously, this all-important wall just transmits sound without any interference whatsoever. There's no point in plugging gaps and vents if the WALL is actually conducting soundwaves. Press your ear against the wall and you can hear the latest bits of gossip from J.C. and all her friends.

When Peevil was over on Tuesday night we discussed this possibility. "You've got to hang up huge pictures of matadors and stuff," she said, I guess because soundwaves are afraid of bullfighters. But I did try pushing a towel against the wall and pressing my ear to it; voila, no sound.

So I guess I need to carpet the biggest wall in the whole apartment. With matadors!