Saturday, March 31, 2007

Objective-C and Letting Go

While suffering insomnia last night I realized something strange about my personality: I'm afraid to physically "consider and experiment." At some point in my life I lost the joy of playing in sandboxes. So now, whenever something needs to be done and I don't know how to do it, I'm afraid of fiddling with it until I figure out how to "fix it."

Oh, I'll RESEARCH it, or I'll lie in bed worrying about it and trying to find an answer, but when it comes to actually sitting down and physically interacting with it: no way.

I only realize this now because I'm starting to get over it. I first noticed a change when I moved into my new apartment: so many things needed fixing that -- somehow -- I found it in myself to actually stand around and figure out how to fix them. The gross bathtub, the screen doors, the furnace, the wonky lighting fixtures...and then my new cosmetic foundation, and now learning to program in Objective-C: in all of these cases I've just sat down and started messing around until I've figured it all out.

I realized this last night while taking advantage of my sleeplessness to continue learning Objective-C. I've tried to learn the language three times in the past, and every time I've simply stopped when I no longer understood what was going on.

But this time I'm doing something that I realize is unlike myself: I'm taking my existing knowledge and saying "what happens if I do THIS?" then just trying it out to see what happens. In the past just THINKING about this sort of experiment would have made me unreasonably (and somewhat subconsciously) anxious: I'd have insisted on following the book, and the only time would have "struck out" on my own was when I had some serious result in mind...and if the result failed, I would have given up on it all out of a sense of failure and embarassment.

So what's changed? I think the greater responsibilities in my new job, and my need to learn a new skill and set of applications as I go has something to do with it. Feeling proud of my apartment and wanting to "fix it" is another reason. In any case, this is a good thing because I've just gotten a new (and girlier) haircut that will require experimentation to get right. Just in time!

And why was I so afraid to "physically experiment" in the past? Beats me. Maybe I got an electrical shock from a Fischer Price toy while in the crib.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Yossarian Lives!

People have always told me that I should read Joseph Heller's "Catch-22." They always compare it to "Gravity's Rainbow" in its intricacy, huge cast, WWII setting, and combination of low-brow humour and high-falutin' intellectual condundrums.

So I've finally read it, and I'm not sure what I think. I know that I disliked the first half, with its constant string of repetative jokes (and when I say "constant," I really mean it: page after page, paragraph after paragraph, joke upon joke upon joke).

Gradually, however, I became aware of "the trend," and therefore I started to "get it." Every one of the huge number of characters is a critical piece of the novel's fine-tuned equipment, like the 34 miniscule parts of Orr's tiny valves. They're like parts of one of those Rube Goldberg machines: each character is ridiculous, but they fit together and spin around and perform their stereotypical actions until -- at the end -- Yossarian is popped out with a new, honest, and strangely noble purpose at the end.

I also noticed that, about halfway through, the novel was getting darker. From the first uneasy hints about Snowden's death in the plane, to Milo's bombing of his own base in order to make a profit, to Kid Sampson's comical but gruesome death ("Kid Sampson had rained all over. Those who spied drops of him on their limbs or torsos drew back with terror and revulsion..."), to Yossarian's gut-wrenching, helpless walk through "The Eternal City," and ending with a real, final, blow-by-blow description of Snowden's slow death from a piece of shrapnel that literally burst his entrails into the casing of his flak jacket...

Wow. My skin crawled. By sickening me with silliness and then, gently, leading me into some of the most grotesque and hopeless fiction I've ever read, "Catch-22" did something that most books can't do: it UPSET me. It didn't necessarily ENTERTAIN me or EDUCATE me, but it got under my skin and made me hurt, mentally. As for its comparisons to Gravity's Rainbow...I can certainly see that, but whereas Gravity's Rainbow is paranoid yet hopeful, Catch-22 is more cynical and relentlessly pessimistic: the characters know EXACTLY who is out to get them, and they know EXACTLY how it will be done, and there's no way of stopping it.

I think the book is often messy and confused, and too wrapped up in its cleverness for its own good. But at other times Joseph Heller's games made me laugh in outright delight; other than Nately's Whore's outrageous homicidal antics, which had me stifling my laughter in my little cubicle at work, my favourite moment was understated, and one that you needed to read closely to understand:
'Hungry Joe was killed.'

'God, no! On a mission?'

'He died in his sleep while having a dream. They found a cat on his face.'

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Today's Etymology: Buff

The August 30, 1927 New Yorker is trying to convince me that the term "buff" -- as in "enthusiast" -- came about in 1865, when New York's first paid fire department was organized. The older volunteers who USED to fight the fires still wanted to help out, so they'd sleep overnight in the fire houses, waiting for a chance to rush off with the official firemen and help put out fires.

Since the fire department wouldn't give them any bedding, the fire enthusiasts slept in heavy buffalo robes...hence "buff" as a term for somebody who is enthusiastic about something (eg. "film buff").

This sounded like a load of bunk to me, but it appears (in my short pre-work researches) to be pretty much true.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Development Development

When I got my first REAL computer -- an Atari 400 -- I certainly enjoyed the games, but what I REALLY wanted to do was learn how to program. I've never tried putting into words WHY programming/developing appeals to me, but today I ran across this quote:
If you can program your computer, here is a tiny universe in which you can be God. Within the realms of expression that the computer can provide, you can build a world, define its laws, and watch the universe unfold. As your whim dictates, you can intervene at any time, and if you desire, the history of the universe can be changed and rewritten at will. Such a power this is!
That sums it up perfectly, and since it was written by Gregory Yob -- most famous for "Hunt the Wumpus," a game concept which fascinated me enough to create a mammoth new version of it -- it resonates deeply for me.

Anyway, I started with Atari BASIC. I dabbled a bit with Assembly but I was too young and I didn't have the patience. In highschool I was weaned on to structured programming with WATCOM BASIC, and even though I excelled at programming my total lack of math aptitude scared me away from a Computer Science major...though I did take an entry-level course at University (where I learned and then forgot TURING), and another entry-level college course in C.

Meanwhile I'd been hacking away at Inform, which introduced me to object-oriented programming. Since Inform was designed for writing "Interactive Fiction," the object-oriented approach made perfect sense: all the elements of the "world" are objects, which the "player object" can pick up, carry around, interact with, put inside other objects, etc. But even though I grew accustomed to classes, methods, and instance variables, I was never prepared for the next step:

Objective-C, the language of choice (apparently) for Mac OS X developers. My Mac came with a full development suite and reams of documentation, so why not learn this new language? I'd already done object-oriented programming with Inform and I knew a bit about pointers from that course in C, so I figured it would be a breeze.

But it hasn't been. I have trouble conceptualizing pointers, particularly as they relate to the huge library of classes that come with OS X. Never before have I had to retain and destroy objects. And, most importantly, it's clear that while I understand the "how" of object-oriented programming, I've never grasped the "why" of object-oriented DESIGN.

So I went online to find a book specifically about design. I figured there'd be THOUSANDS. It turns out there are enough to give me a selection to choose from, but they're all specific to particular languages I'm not using, or -- and here's the catch -- they're textbooks, and therefore ridiculously expensive.

I finally settled on "Applying UML and Patterns" by Craig Larman, but I'd never pay $75 for it, particularly since I know the high price isn't due to the content so much as an attempt at making a profit above the number of copies sold at campus bookstores every year. Why should I suffer for that? I KEPT my textbooks (at least the good ones). So I turned to ebay.

And that's where the weirdness started. There are a LOT of copies of this book for sale on ebay, and most of them are 1/10th the price...but they come from China. Which made me suspicious, especially when I saw inconsistent page counts and comments like "all illustrations in black and white" and "we promise all important text is in English." Coupled with lots of negative buyer comments and long shipping times, I decided this all sounded too creepy; there must be some sort of bootleg textbook thing happening in China.

The sellers on abebooks look more reputable; they're from Japan, and they're selling "International Editions" that are somewhat more expensive. They say they contain "the same text as the American version" but they're also 200 pages shorter. Hmmm?

Finally I realized that there were a few ebay stores selling an OLDER (and shorter) edition of the textbook, so I finally bit the bullet and bought one. But I still wonder: what's with the Chinese textbooks? Also, why can't somebody write a generic book on this subject that doesn't cost $75? And how on earth can I conceptualize a program where even the NUMBERS are objects? Gah!

The Fabric Group

Some of the most entertaining elements of the early New Yorker are its advertisements, especially from the companies who appear every week with a new "clever" variation on an established theme.

One of these companies is "Weber and Heilbroner," a successful men's clothier. Every week they present the adventures of "The Fabric Group", three identical paper cut-out figures who travel around New York (and are, as of mid-1927, travelling "abroad"). Photographed by famed advertisement photographer Anton Bruehl, the focus is always on the nifty model-work, lighting, and photography, as opposed to the somewhat lame captions (which always take the form of "Gosh, here we are in XXX!" "Everybody's looking at us!" "Must be because of our Fabric Group Suits!")

Unfortunately, due to whatever compression algorithm the New York reissues use, the Fabric Group adverts always look a bit splotchy and grotesque. But it's always a treat to come across the next one in the long-running series, and to marvel at how Bruehl set the scene.

Monday, March 26, 2007


I've long suspected that I'd enjoy the "Xena" TV series, but I've never actually seen any episodes. The ever generous Team Toronto Daily Muffy (Jason & Craig) loaned me the first two seasons so I can give them a taste and...well, I'm not sure what to think yet.

First off, it's not meant to be significant or monumental, and I'm still getting over that. It's a flippant, ironic, action-adventure series made for...who?

Disregarding the people who use their DVD's zoom and Step features to find out if Lucy Lawless has a meticulous wax job (she appears to), I'm trying to figure out who this show is aimed at. I've watched the first two episodes and they veer between sly adult jokes and little-kid moralizing. The best I can gather is that it's meant to be a "family show" with something for everybody, and it certainly excels at that.

I'm not hooked yet, but I'm going to watch a few more episodes to see how much it grabs me. It certainly is fun, and every episode has its exciting moments, but I tend to get easily bored by chariot races. I'm hoping they give Lawless some more substantial material, because she is a superb actress, and she waxes meticulously.

Incidentally my trip to Toronto reaped other rewards as well. On my way back to the bus station I decided on a whim to check out a used bookstore (because I'm looking for textbooks on object-oriented design, but more on that later). Since the aisles were small and I was lugging a huge suitcase I quickly realized my search was doomed, but I was too embarassed to just turn around and walk out. The only section accessible to me was the VHS tape collection, containing -- wonder of wonders! -- every videotape for the first six seasons of Doctor Who...for $2.99 each!

So now I've rounded out my Hartnell/Troughton collection, though I really don't know if I can sit through "The Gunslingers" a second time.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Daily Muffy PATH Video Preview

The videos we filmed during our PATH adventure are now up on YouTube. They're short, esoteric, and shoddy...but you might think they're fun anyway.

Pairing Wine with Cheap Frozen Food

A few months ago I blogged about President's Choice putting WINE SUGGESTIONS on the back of their "upscale" line of frozen foods. The world of quick meals is a large one, and it's only now that I've run across the possible origin of this ridiculous "TV dinner wine" idea: Stouffer's Bistro Italiano.

On the back of my $3.99 package of frozen Italian Sausage Cavatappi (aka "freeze-dried noodles, dessicated tomato sauce, meat shards") is an advertisement for Sawmill Creek wine. It takes up so much of the total package area that I had difficulty finding the cooking instructions. It shows well-groomed, upper-class people sitting amongst Renaissance paintings and statuary. Their table is adorned with the finest crockery (but I notice you can't see what they're actually EATING).

Under the weird picture -- and I'm not making this up -- "The SAWMILL CREEK Shiraz-Cabernet has a round fleshy fruit mouth feel that blends well with the gamey herbaceous meaty flavour of this savoury pasta dish."

Krasny! Come back to reality! This is a single-portion frozen dinner which comes IN ITS OWN BOWL. Nobody is going to go out and buy three or four of these, microwave them (for six minutes), and place the plastic bowls on the fancy table amidst the statuary. Even assuming that somebody would be deceptive enough to dump the "gamey herbaceous meaty" food into Their Finest Crockery, it still wouldn't be cost effective OR pass muster. People do not serve single-portion frozen dinners within ten kilometers of wine. IT JUST DOESN'T HAPPEN.

So let's try to figure out what Stouffer's is up to. They KNOW this is stupid, but they're doing it anyway...they're devoting a huge section of their packaging to promoting something that is totally laughable.

There must be reasons, and here they are:
  1. It's a cross-promotion with Sawmill Creek wines. They're banking on upper-middle class bachelors with reasonable incomes; enough money to buy wine, but not socially connected enough to "dine well" every night (and even the richest people stoop to Tim Horton's donuts now and then). I say "bachelors" because of the four people in the picture, one is a man, and he's surrounded by pretty women with weird hairstyles.
  2. They're "upscaling" half of their brand. By charging an extra dollar and giving wine tips, they're separating themselves from "regular" Stouffers, supposedly calming the anxieties of people who are afraid that buying frozen food makes them look cheap. They still have the cheaper stuff available, so they're hoping to either capture a new demographic or coax the rest of us to buy the more expensive stuff.
So this is a curious advertising technique: everybody knows it's stupid on the surface, but the ad agency assumes nobody cares about what's "under the hood." They're getting kickbacks for advertising another company's wine, and they're making you feel better about eating frozen food, AND they're selling it at a higher price (even though it's surely made by the same pasta-squirting machine).

Why did I buy it? It looked tasty. But lots of other food looks tasty and actually IS tasty, so I'll chalk my Sausage Cavatappi up to "experience."


Today, at breakfast, a preppy couple in their mid-30s were seated at the table next to me. Just as I arrived they asked the waitress for directions to the bathroom. They left and never came back...they'd done a "dine and dash."

What was shocking about this was the utter RESPECTABILITY of these people. They were yuppies. They had expensive haircuts and nice clothes. They did not fit the stereotype of people who are thrill-seekers or who can't afford breakfast.

But I'm happy that some people still manage to surprise me with their unpleasantness. If I hadn't been shocked by the deadbeat yuppies I'd be worried.

Psychology classes teach you all sorts of pithy factoids that stick with you through the years, and one of them is that people who suffer depression tend to have a more realistic view of things -- world events, future prognoses, the way they're percieved by others -- than do happy people. I've always believed this was true, but I realize now that I've looked at this issue from only one direction...the path to happiness MAY be ignorance (it's bliss, apprently)...

...or maybe the problem is that we have UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS for human behaviour? Maybe we expect too much? The first step may be seeing selfish unpleasantness in human nature, but the NEXT step could be to see this as NATURAL. This could lead to hedonism, but it could also lead to Kate Bush's "Rubberband Girl" philosophy: rather than get depressed and angry when somebody does something supid/annoying/cruel/selfish, just "bend" with it. Why SHOULD you get frustrated by something that's natural? The frustration may come from believing that people SHOULDN'T behave in this way, which is stupid if (like me) you believe that everybody does, now and then.

(An important part of this is to assume that you yourself are just as stupid/annoying/cruel/selfish as the average person, of course).

This all gets uncertain when I acknowledge that I can't be SURE that selfish unpleasantness is a basic human trait; I might just see it because I'm projecting my OWN selfish unpleasantness on others, or maybe I'm just selectively noticing the things that annoy me (see the earlier post about persection and Beelzebaby).

On Saturday night, on the bus home from Toronto, I practiced this theory by tolerating the guy sitting next to me, who smelled like a rotting gym towel. His odour was oppressive and almost made me gag. It washed over me in waves, depending on his posture.

I tried to look at him in two different ways:
  1. He's selfish/stupid/dirty. This is an actual character trait. It stems from him being clueless and not caring what other people think.
  2. He's a bit clueless, but just doesn't wash his clothes often enough. When he got caught in the rain the vaguely smelly bacteria in his sweatpants began to thrive and multiply, and now he smells far worse than he's ever smelled before, and he's acutely embarassed by this.
The first is the pessimistic approach, the second is the optimistic one. Given that the guy seemed totally oblivious to everything and wasn't particularly pleasant -- and that, c'mon, it takes EFFORT to smell that bad -- I had to settle on the first approach ("realistic.")

But then I get frustrated. I think, "what a stupid, selfish jerk! I shouldn't have to sit next to him for 90 minutes while people in other seats sniff around and wonder if it's ME who stinks. He doesn't deserve friends or pleasantness or positive reinforcement!"

And I admit my world philosophy is that people are, generally, selfish and annoying, including myself. But rather than get ANGRY and DEPRESSED about this, shouldn't I be RESIGNED? And I don't mean "resigned" in a bad way, I mean in the same way that I'm resigned to gravity and work and the fact that shoes don't last forever. Shouldn't we all just "bend?"

Caveat: People delight and amaze me, too. I have wonderful friends and I see people behave wonderfully every day. But I always assume that they, like me, have a gunky, nasty little imp sitting inside them. Can anybody say they don't? And can anybody who SAYS they don't be telling the truth or be even remotely self-aware? Hmmm.

UPhold Update: The "Damage" is Done!

Whew! The new UPhold CD-R, "Damage," is finally ready. I have 34 printed, labelled, and personalized copies of the first limited edition ready to send out.

If you're interested, you can order one of your very own...and don't forget to pick which "flavour" you want!

Saturday, March 24, 2007

"If I Were Queen of the PATH"

I don't make blog announcements BEFORE I go away on a trip, because I don't want y'all breaking into my apartment and stealing the few clean socks I have left. But now that I'm back...

Yes! Today was the day to meet with "Team Daily Muffy Toronto" to prepare and photograph our next adventure: "If I Were Queen of the PATH."

For those who don't know, "The PATH" is a huge network of tunnels and walkways which connect many of the buildings in Metro Toronto. Our mission was to start at the southernmost point -- the Air Canada Centre -- and zig-zag back and forth until we arrived at the northernment -- the Atrium on Bay.

For some reason this was one of the most exhausting experiences in our lives. It wasn't just the walking -- I think Craig guessed seven miles, much of that on slippery tiles -- but there's something soul-sucking about spending three hours in endless corridors, riding endless escalators, and walking past endless rows of closed and darkened stores.

What's more, my intense animal magnetism blew up the transformer at The Hudson's Bay Company, cutting off power to much of the downtown core. So our final walk through The Eaton Centre was sort of primitive and surreal.

When we got back to Jason & Craig's to download the photos we expected little more than unworkable dullness...but wow, these pictures are lots of fun! So this is the only time that I'll admit that it was all very hellish and monotonous...from now on, the official word is "it was a RIOT!"

Menaced by hockey players, gang bangers, and space-time vortexes...crashing an odious "get rich quick" convention...escalators, fountains, labyrinths and cold rain...we got a lot of mileage out of those miles!

We ALSO recorded a few high-quality video clips, so you'll get to see Muffy In Motion (and not on a carousel this time). I'll let you know when they're on YouTube.

And now: a shower and a sleep. There's only so much havoc we can cause in a single day!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Decline of Leering

Prohibition has effected many changes, but one of its most far-reaching has been to abolish the Leer. We have still most of the stimuli to leering, but the present endurance-test method of drinking allows little leisure for stepping outside to leer at passing ladies now and then. Also, it tends to make earnest young men out of our men-about-town, for drinking must be taken seriously today. And no one can leer in a solemn mood.

The most important reason for the decline of the leer is not the lack of liquor, however. It is the absence of the proper setting. Travelling salesmen, the country over, have reported that men no longer leer. The reason is that the corner saloon is gone. They have tried leering from the doorways of tearooms, but the gesture fails because it is never recognized. They have tried hotel lobbies and bus stops. Everywhere it is the same story. The old-fashioned leer is gone.

Virginius Whimple, rake salesman, 43, states that he would guarantee a genuine leer if he could only harden himself into betraying the location of a bar or a dispensing chemist. His intense loyalty to these institutions has thus far prevented his making the attempt. For my part, I am afraid that even Mr. Whimple would fail to produce a real leer, for unless an effect is produced on the ladies the leer is nothing. And how can the ladies realize that a man is leering unless it is perfectly obvious that he is leaning against the entrance to a bar? If they DO know that it is a bar, they are not--well, we need not go into that.

Men have tried to comfort themselves for their inability to leer nowadays by reminding themselves that the leer is only "a sidelong glance." It need not, technically, be a wicked glance that frightens the ladies and makes them look again. It need not be a gesture indicative of Experience and zest for adventure. It NEED not be, to satisfy the dictionary definition. But we all know that the dictionary definition is inadequate, and we must face the truth: the leer as we used to know it is gone--irrevocably.
So says Josie Turner in the July 30, 1927 edition of The New Yorker. Regarding the mention of a "dispensing chemist"...during prohibition, drug stores were notorious for stockpiling government-sanctioned "medicinal" liquor, and selling it to thirsty folks at a huge profit.

Assuming that Josie had written some real whiz-bang books in her day, I started hunting around...and discovered an obscure gem.

It turns out that her real name was Phyllis Crawford, and as Phyllis she wrote a number of children's books. But the "Josie Turner" pseudonym was the outlet for her more risque work, and it's as Josie that she published her one great book: "Elsie Dinsmore on the Loose."

The original Elsie Dinsmore books were written in the mid- to late 1800s by Martha Finley. They were sickly-sweet stories aimed at young girls, thinly disguised as lessons on how proper, God-fearing ladies should act.

You can still buy the original run of Elsie Dinsmore books, and they appear to have regained some of their relevance to a certain "barefoot and pregnant" demographic, but in the 1920s they were ripe for parody.

So Josie Turner took the bait and wrote a dead-accurate parody of Elsie, which was serialized in The New Yorker. I've been skipping the Elsie stories (understanding them depends on knowing who Elsie Dinsmore was -- which I didn't -- so on the surface her parodies look like the tiresome "burlesques" of high society that clutter up the rest of the magazine), but now I'm reading them, and they're hilarious.

Sadly "Elsie Dinsmore on the Loose" is LONG out of print, but used copies pop up now and then so I'm on a determined hunt.

* Information about Phyllis Crawford is scarce, so this blog post is based on a fair amount of "connecting the dots." Any mistakes are purely my own.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Synchronicity: The Manual

Henning (HE FIXED MY BLOG TEMPLATE!!!) has occasionally loaned me some rare and wonderful CDs by KLF. While their overblown and strangely beautiful "stadium house" sound is fun to listen to, and their collaboration with Tammy Wynette ("Stand By the Jams") is outrageously funny and odd, I reserve most of my affection for one-off KLF side-project The Timelords. They produced one mega-hit single, and then -- in typical quirky style -- produced "The Manual."

Subtitled "How to Have a Number One the Easy Way," it's their tongue-in-cheek guide to constructing the ideal hit single. Amazingly, many people have read The Manual and then produced number one hits, usually before fading away into obscurity. Close to my heart were Edelweiss, who in 1988 combined ABBA and yodelling to create one of my all-time favourite "fun" songs. They credit The Manual. So does (shiver) Chumbawamba for (shiver) "Tubthumping."

Now I find out that "The Pipettes" ALSO give The Manual credit for their success.

So what the heck is IN this manual? I'd love to read it, but until I can find a copy I can only guess, based on the examples provided above. All of these songs have simple repetative beats. Excluding The Pipettes, the songs also juxtapose different song segments that are surprising and seem slightly bizarre. Most importantly, they all have a sarcastic/base/simple/ironic tone reflecting elements of popular culture: The Timelords rip off (among other things) Gary Glitter and Doctor Who, Edelweiss rips off ABBA and German ski resorts, Chumbawamba combines a drinking anthem with "Danny Boy."

From what I hear, the original Manual focused more on electronically sampling other sources, but later groups show that simply referencing those sources is enough to score a hit.

The Symbolic Housewarming

I had a terrible dream that I'd held a housewarming. Two types of people showed up. Some of them were stoic, relaxed, worldly men and women in their late '20s and early '30s: social workers, philosopher-waitresses. The others were very rambunctious, hyperactive, early '20s gay men with a tendency to primadonna-ness.

The dream skipped over the happy part of the evening and started instead at 7am, twelve hours after the party had started. A subsection of the primadonnas were out of control and were doing crystal meth. They were refusing to leave. One of them had spread layers of chocolate on my bedroom carpet. The other primadonnas had taken on a babysitting role for their out-of-control peers, but they were too distracted to keep them from being destructive.

I was terrified of the trouble I was causing my neighbours.

Meanwhile, the stoic, worldly crowd was in my kitchen, sitting around and eating the last of the food and acting totally unconcerned. I shared my anxieties -- I was tired and a subset of primadonnas were trashing my house -- and they looked at me as though I were overreacting, or as though I should have expected it. One of them -- my Guardian Angel -- recommended I tell everybody to leave.

"OKAY!" I shouted, "Everybody has to leave in...fifteen minutes!"

The primadonnas looked at me disdainfully.

"I mean, FIVE minutes!" They started picking up their stuff, turning off their music, snorting the last of their drugs, saying their goodbyes, gradually making for the door. Some of them seemed to like me and some of them of them obviously didn't. One came to say that he'd spent the whole night lying on my lawn hallucinating at the stars, and he spoke as though I were to be thanked for this, even though I didn't even know who he was.

The police arrived. There'd been an emergency at the psychiatric ward, and they were bringing distraut patients to be looked after by one of my stoic, worldly, social worker guests. One of the police officers explained to me that a particular patient was bleeding from his ears, because he had tumours in them...a new nurse had pulled them and tried to cut them out, which had caused a hemmorage. The nurse had been fired and the patient was stumbling into my house, ears bleeding.

My Guardian Angel -- calm acceptance, cool-headedness -- revealed that we needed to go to Guelph. I drove there on a rubber bicycle with a fake steering wheel, with her sitting behind me. It was a beautiful, clear, brisk spring morning.

In Guelph, I went to see Old Friend, who was living in a condominium. When I entered her apartment building I realized that I was being followed by many of the guests from my housewarming, who were following me in a sort of celebratory train. Some of them seemed to be celebrating for me, while others didn't even know who I was and were just celebrating because they wanted something to celebrate. A few of them were there to slyly tell unflattering stories about my conduct the previous evening. Meanwhile my makeup was cracking and running off as I shuffled from hallway to hallway. I'd broken both of my heels on that rubber bicycle.

Finally, in Old Friend's apartment, exhausted and feeling sick. My Guardian Angel and some of the other social workers stood in the hallway, chatting calmly. Old Friend brought me cold pizza for breakfast. I STILL had to get back on that bicycle and go home.

Old Friend, momentarily angry, pointed out that I was eating my pizza upside down and all the toppings were falling on her floor.

Polarized Videos

I now present two wonderful YouTube clips sent by Vanilla.

The first is so wonderfully happy and perfect that I can't help but feel fulfilled: "Pull Shapes" by The Pipettes. Try to ignore that it goes out of sync, the way so many YouTube videos do.

The other is this brilliant song and video, of which no more should be said:

For the Love of Guelph!

Not quite healthy, but very very happy, I've just returned from "The Main Drag" in Guelph. My impressions, thoughts, paranoias:
  1. Benn, you SWEETIE! So glad you had a chance to be drunk.
  2. I find it amusing that the licensed University bars are unable to serve you a "double." Instead, they give you a single with a shot on the side.
  3. I am unable to "work a crowd." I am only able to "do my thing," which usually provokes a maximum response but still makes for an odd experience.
  4. I will not tell any stories about anybody whose name I've forgotten.
  5. My CoverFX foundation (with "Base Miracle" on my T-zone) appears to be working.
  6. Gosh I'm old.
  7. It's amusing to meet people who are "really trying," the guys who want to be relaxed and friendly but just make you a LITTLE BIT queasy with their "really, it's okay!" stuff.
  8. Last time I took a cab home from Guelph, I lucked out with a driver who was literate and sweet and told me that the world was going to end in a few years because we weren't looking after our trees.
  9. This time I lucked out with a driver who was literate and sweet and just talked REAL, you know, human-connection stuff. Very nice. These people should charge $61 for the therapy alone.
  10. Something is definitely frolicking in my attic.
  11. I need a cough drop.
  12. I was asked to demonstrate the "drag queen walk" as part of a contest. This is amusing because Vanilla (yes you!) has made observations about the "drag queen walk," and since I can't really do "the walk" myself I had to rely on her critique, which is that the "drag queen walk" is due to people wearing obscenely high heels, which cripple a person into a uniform method of locomotion. My heels are never that high, so I pretended, which I think was just confusing for the audience.
  13. The mood was good. If I were to rate the mood in terms of vinyl on ebay, I'd say VG+.
  14. It's good to feel like A Star once in a while, with the following caveat:
  15. One should NEVER feel like THE Star, because that will ALWAYS rebound back on you and shame you. Kismet, karma.
  16. What I wouldn't give for Taco Bell.
  17. G'night.

Friday, March 16, 2007

The Passing of the Flounce

Among feminine gestures that have fallen into disuse is the flounce. As late as 1908 ladies--and others--still flounced out of rooms. It was a very usual method of betraying vexation. Then the practice gradually diminished, and the word disappeared from our literature.

It is true that chorus girls have from time to time used a similar gesture, flirting the skirts upward and outward as they make their exits. This involves using the hands. The real flounce never employed the hands, however. It was done with the hips, aided by the full skirts of the period. Another difference is that while the chorus girl makes the gesture to attract, the genuine flounce was always intended to repel, or at least to rebuke. It never prompted spectators to send notes suggesting a quiet little supper later.

No, not even the chorus girl can flounce today. An approximation can be seen in an occasinal costume play with an all-star cast. But there the best exponents of the art of flouncing are not the younger actresses.

We of today are hampered by two things--the meagreness of skirts and petticoats, and the comparative absence of hips. There are hips today, but whereas they have the bulk, they have not the contour necessary to the perfect flounce. And even old-fashioned hips can do nothing without the long, full skirts of yesterday. Present-day full skirts, sometimes advocated by costume designers, tend to distribute the gathers more or less equally at the waistline, whereas the proper skirt for flouncing should concentrate the gathers at the back, where the greater part of the movement occurs.

The flounce was not one of our most genial gestures, and few have been known to deplore its passing. It is a matter for historical interest, and not for regret.

Josie Turner, The New Yorker, July 23, 1927
I'm inclined to agree with Josie. The only people I ever see flouncing are drag queens, but they do it in a different style: hands on hips and a quick strut off-stage, hoping that their dress billows after them. The "drag flounce" is not meant to repel OR attract, but to be a campy play on the way that divas "leave in a huff."

It's interesting that I can PICTURE the flounce in my head, but I've never REALLY seen anyone do it. I imagine that women in '40s period musicals did it a lot, and I bet that I can find some quality flouncing in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" or "Kiss Me Kate."

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Synchronicity: Still Banned in Boston

While listing the three things that Hugh Hefner had going for him, Pierre Berton says:
Third, Playboy was banned in Canada, which is almost as good as being banned in Boston.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Big City Muffy: Minneapolis

I've booked the flight and the hotel, I've got a babysitter for my cat, I've told my parents that Everything Will Be Alright...yes, it's finalized, I'm spending a week in Minneapolis in May! Three days at a conference, then two additional days of free time...what am I gonna do with myself?

Aha, that's the question. I know nothing about Minneapolis. I haven't even looked in an atlas yet to see if the Mississippi River starts there, which I seem to think it does but I'm not sure.

I think I'll use the technique that worked for me in Las Vegas: scout out the cool people at the conference (maybe with the use of "The Bridle") and see if I can't hook up with them at an equally cool bar. Sure, in Las Vegas this resulted in my being saddled with a nervous man who was constantly sweating...but it was fun!

So I'm on the lookout for ideas, but since I most enjoy the out-of-the-way surprises as opposed to the prefabricated thrills ("Orlando"), chances are I'll wind up finding The Fun once I've stumbled over it.

The Invasion

The Doctor that *I* grew up with was mostly Tom Baker, with just a hint of Pertwee. But I have to say that, by far, my favourite Doctor/companion combination is Patrick Troughton, Zoe, and Jamie.

I can't really explain why I like Troughton so much; I think it's because he so convincingly switches between glee, silliness, fear, and viciousness. As others have said, he's like a wonderful, slightly scary, crazy uncle. Throw in Jamie and Zoe, who are the most lovable non-sibling siblings ever, then add the fact that the three of them got along so INCREDIBLY well off-screen, and you have almost as much fun watching them as they supposedly had during rehearsals. Not to mention Zoe with That Catsuit.

Along comes the release of 1968's "The Invasion" on DVD. The cyberman story that doesn't really have cybermen in it. Instead it's got the debut of UNIT (who I've always enjoyed), Tobias Vaughn (best villain ever), Sally Faulkner as the rude mod gal (empowered just long enough to get a soldier killed, then settles down to tea-making duties)...somehow it's eight episodes that DESERVES to be eight episodes, never dull, always something new, even if you DO have to see the same stock footage of missile silos over and over and over again.

What's more, the BBC has gone out on a limb and animated the two missing episodes, synced up with the surviving audio soundtrack. It's cheap but absolutely watchable. Particularly fun is seeing animated characters try to sell the trademark Hines & Troughton mumbling ad-libs.

But best of all -- yes, it gets better! -- is the 15-minute documentary about the sad people who recorded the soundtracks off their TVs. Yes, the kids who audio-taped every episode of Doctor Who, some of them from the time of Marco Polo. The kids that everybody probably made fun of. The kids who, after the infamous wiping of 109-odd episodes by the BBC, are now the only source of those long-lost soundtracks.

They're slightly-embarassed middle-aged men now, but they chatter about the lovingly obsessive care they took recording the shows, and Mark Ayres (audio guru) explains the process of lovingly and obsessively cleaning them up for DVD. My brain just about exploded when he explained his technique for restoring a complete 10-second audio drop-out during "The Abominable Snowmen": sampling Patrick Troughton's phonemes from other episodes, then pitching, equalizing, and splicing them together to make a mostly understandable replacement.

Personal sentimental anecdote: I never recorded Doctor Who off the TV, mainly because I didn't have enough audio tapes. But I DID consider "Phantom of the Paradise" to be tape-worthy, though it ended up being grumbly City-TV jingles and me yelling at my sister to keep quiet.

A Diabetic's Sad Cry For Understanding: Lessons in Liver

You might not realize that whenever you're agitated or sick your liver secretes sugar. I'm not sure where the sugar comes from -- it's probably stored inside the liver for just such an occasion, like the bottles of booze you keep for unexpected visitors -- but it ends up in your bloodstream with all the sugars derived from your food...and since you probably have the bonus of automatic insulin production you never even know about it.

This is something I was never told about when I was a kid, but I'd long realized that stress and sickness caused my blood sugar to plateau at an unusually high level. An endocrinologist finally identified the culprit: my liver (AKA "Parker").

A lot of the trouble I have with my blood sugar comes down to Parker's sugar-happy ways. If I get upset about something, or if I feel a bit more stressed than usual at work, I have to assume that more insulin is necessary to bring my blood sugar down again. The problem is that Parker doesn't ALWAYS secrete sugar in response to stress...sometimes he's asleep on the job, so I take the extra insulin, I have an insulin reaction, I eat sugar, Parker might wake up and decide to give me an extra jolt of sugar in the meantime because I'm stressed about my failure to properly anticipate my blood sugar level, and next thing I know I'm a mushy, totally unproductive citizen.

When I'm sick, though, Parker ALWAYS comes through. And what's more this "sick sugar" is apparently difficult to break down, because I can spend hours topping up my insulin...with absolutely NO effect whatsoever, at which point I become frustrated, inject massive amounts of insulin, and end up being unable to sleep and writing blog entries about Pierre Berton when I should be resting up and getting healthy.

So next time you get sick, or somebody cuts you off in traffic: give a thought to YOUR liver. You don't have any nerves in there so you can't tell what it's doing, but take it from me: it's injecting sugar into your bloodstream, just to annoy you.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Pierre Berton on Vogue

Blood sugar finally doing a swan-dive after hours of battling the sick-stress sugar secretions from my liver (which doesn't yet have a name...maybe "Parker?"). 53 pages and I'm in love with Mr. Berton. On women in Vogue magazine:
At the end of the neck one finds a face that has overtones of Buchenwald about it--chalk-white and haggard. Vogue women do not have noses, only nostrils. Their eyes are enormous and decadent, their lips thin and solemn. Their hair is always quite odd. They are shown thrust forward in inscrutable positions that suggest some curious doe-like animal at feeding time.

They always look terribly thin and hungry, and slightly haunted. They stand about in the queerest attitudes, modelling this and that. They do strange things with their stomachs. They perform the most amazing contortions with their feet, forcing them into positions that would bring the green blush of envy to a Chaplin's cheeks. The Vogue stance has got to be seen to be believed, but I have never encountered it outside the pages of the magazine.

Vogue women suffer terribly from curvature of the spine. Their smiles are enigmatic; their eyes are soulless; and their faces are drained of all expression. But they are always perfectly groomed; indeed, it seems to me, they have had the personality groomed right out of them.

Pierre Berton, David Foster Wallace, Advertising

When I was very young I remember watching TV with my parents and seeing a commercial where a popular movie star endorsed a headache tablet, possibly Aspirin. My dad, in his efforts to educate the family, said the movie star probably didn't even USE that brand. He told me that celebrities didn't endorse products because they BELIEVED in them, but because they got a lot of MONEY for doing it.

I told my parents that if *I* were a celebrity, and if I were asked to endorse a product that I didn't believe in, I'd go on live television and tell EVERYBODY that I didn't believe in the product. I felt awfully brave and honest when I said this but I noticed that my parents weren't impressed, and I think my mom told me I'd end up getting myself sued.

While this memory is a bit tangled up with my subsequent worries that Morris the Cat didn't really enjoy 9 Lives cat food, I think it instilled in me a healthy cynicism about advertising. Rather than get crotchety about advertisements I try to see the "fun" in the industry, and I also try to ignore that their only purpose is to line the pockets of company executives -- often by instilling fear in consumers -- and that -- yes -- Morris probably DIDN'T really like 9 Lives.

To take a break from heavy reading (but still stick with a "Canadiana" theme) I've decided to start a book of short, funny essays by Pierre Berton called "Just Add Water and Stir." The book came out in 1959 and is a "best of" collection of some of the satirical and social columns he wrote for the Toronto Star.

I've read the first three stories in quick succession and I'm sort of shocked and disturbed. He's poking fun at the advertising business by exposing some small common practice, magnifying it, and taking it to its logical (and hopefully impossible) conclusion. In "The Great Detergent Premium Race," for instance, rival detergent companies start offering mail-in prize contests. Each company is forced to one-up the rival by providing more prizes, until the boxes of detergent contain ONLY prizes...and no actual detergent.

That alone would be a cute little newspaper column, but Berton takes it one step further: the practice quickly spreads to non-detergent companies, some of whom offer DETERGENT as their prizes. So, if you want to actually BUY detergent, you have to buy a box of Whiffle towels, which comes with detergent as a "prize" but does not actually contain a towel. If you want a Whiffle towel you need to buy a box of detergent, which contains a Whiffle towel as its prize...but no detergent. This "extra step" started to remind me of the work of another author...

The next two stories are similar: they're essentially about the extraordinary lengths of fakery that ad agencies use in order to make their products sincere, relevant, and appealing. Pierre Berton does this in a deadpan style, stooping to a cheap joke now and then but mostly writing in a style more reminiscent of newspaper reporting than short-story writing. And what's more, he always takes it a step beyond into a level of silliness that you didn't see coming.

By the third story I was so surprised that I shouted the most shocking word I could think of: "Krasny!" It no longer felt like I was reading Pierre Berton...I could have sworn I was reading David Foster Wallace instead, without all the footnotes and gimmickry. At its center, the TONE and CONTENT of Wallace's work sounds EXACTLY like Pierre Berton's. Krasny!

Meanwhile many of us Canadians have spent all these years making fun of Berton as one of those non-celebrity celebrities who filled the void of Canadian media before it had ACTUAL celebrities, that stable of stuffy "stars" who were on all the news programs and talk shows but you never actually recognized (or even knew what they did for a living). In short: an ideal panelist for "Front Page Challenge."

And yet here he was spoofing advertising in exactly the same way David Foster Wallace does...40 years earlier. David Foster Wallace is hailed as a brilliant satirist, but very few people even care who Pierre Berton was.

Or maybe I've just been living in a cultural bubble? Either way it's weird.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Films for a Do-Nothing Week

There's nothing like watching a bunch of movies to fix the brain when you're feeling ill and overworked.

Double Dare

A documentary about two stuntwomen from two very different backgrounds: Jeanie, who used to double for Wonder Woman, and Zoe, who doubled for Xena. Jeanie is over sixty, well-respected in her field, classy, established, but thinking more and more about liposuction and becoming a "stunt coordinator." Zoe, on the other hand, is a young newcomer who doesn't quite know what she wants to do when Xena is cancelled. Who's going to set her on fire now?

The documentary follows the women as they pursue their own careers, face mounting rejection, and no doubt frequently annoy each other. A running theme is the marginalization of women in Hollywood, and ESPECIALLY in the stunt field...but the close-knit community of stuntpeople helps to smooth the problems a bit. It had never ocurred to me that the job of a stuntwoman is often more dangerous than it is for a stuntman; while the men usually double for actors who are a bit bulky or are well-clothed -- allowing the stuntman to wear padding -- women double for slim actresses with low-cut necklines and sleeveless outfits. No padding for them.

Even though I didn't find myself liking Zoe -- she's a bit crass and over-the-top -- it's amazing to see her land an audition for "Kill Bill" (thanks to help and support from Jeanie)...and to see her actually get the part of Uma Thurman's double. She's obviously good at what she does as she's apparently continued to do stunts in Hollywood and had a substantial acting role in one of Tarantino's recent films.

You go, stuntwomen!

Mid-'40s Experimental Films

When you rent a DVD of early experimental films you never know what you're going to get. Will you be forced to sit through an hour of meditations on trees, shadows, reflections, and the reflections of tree shadows on other trees? Usually.

The DVD of Maya Deren's films is wonderful. Mostly silent, starring herself, and made throughout the '40s, her movies are well-organized, thematic, and -- most important -- they seem to involve actual human beings. Her experiments with framing and film speed always come across as having a useful purpose.

I didn't know anything about her when I watched the films, but my first thought was: David Lynch saw these. They have that David Lynch "feeling" to them. It turns out there's a real connection, and she's viewed as one of the pioneers of "New American Cinema." Considering that she made these beautiful, slow, creepy films while Hollywood was spending millions on musical extravaganzas...well, her individuality is especially striking.

As a bonus, her husband's film "Private Life of a Cat" is almost impossibly cute. Except when you get to watch kittens squirming around in their half-eaten placentas.

I was less enchanted with the DVD of Kenneth Anger's films, however. His movies were distant and narcissistic, showing '40s Hollywood bohemia at its most self-indulgent. His love of opulence and chintz would make a cherub queasy. "Eaux d'Artifice" is an exception, mostly because of his camera trickery, and also because it isn't wrapped up with Anger's love of classic mythology and Alistair Crowley.

Guelph's "The Main Drag" is Rescheduled!

Come out to "The Main Drag" on March 16th. The long-awaited yearly drag show -- featuring both veterans and first-timers -- will be held in the Grad Lounge at the University of Guelph. I'll be doing two numbers and otherwise just schmoozing around. These shows are ALWAYS fun, and not just for the performers!

Jack Frost Overstays His Welcome

Every year the day comes when I can no longer stand winter. This morning I looked out my bathroom window at the same old icicles, and they weren't pretty anymore. I was sick of winter. It always happens.

March is when enough old snow has accumulated to make walking difficult, especially in front of houses owned by people who never shovel. Instead of being fluffy and white, the snow has became hard-packed and speckled with junk: leaves, branches, garbage. When the streets are wet they're covered with black oily slush; when they're dry they're disfigured with huge psoriatic rings of salt. Birds tweet and squirrels come out of their trees even though they know better.

Every time I go out of doors, or come indoors, I need to go through the elaborate routine of bundling up or stripping off. Winter has already given us a few good snowstorms, which are at least worth looking forward to. My Safe-T-Salt bag is almost empty and it's hard carrying a full one home. More than anything else I want to see grass.

Do you hear me, Jack Frost? Finish your wine and your boring story and go home.

Krasny: The New Russian Note in the Rouge of the Modish Parisienne


A new vogue--a new fashion in Rouge! Product of the gorgeous color-sense of Russia's banished beauty and the infallible taste in Paris!

It came about in this way. When the aristocracy of Russia, the court of the Czar, the most brilliant society in Europe, fled before the sans culottes of the Revolution, Paris became their hope!

And there the most of them are today, the Russian Coterie, the most glowing color-note in the fashionable life of Paris.

Nothing was more captivating than their gorgeous make-up, their thrilling use of rouge! Glorious shades, mircaulously harmonious with the coloring of these barbaric beauties. Paris, who lives to be conquered by beauty, by chic, of coure made this make-up her own! Krasny!

But nowhere in the world does Krasny belong as in America, with its splendid, fearless, gorgeously healthy women! So we brought Krasny to America for you, and here it is today.
The New Yorker, July 9, 1927

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Toronto the Good

I guess that my long walk through 45kph winds on Monday night has done me in: sore throat, muddled head, developing cough, and excessive saliva. The second possibility hardly bears thinking about: maybe the bat spit I touched in the summer has finally worked its way into my nervous system. Cujo was a St. Bernard, after all.

To comfort myself I'm reading "Toronto the Good," written in 1898 by Evening Telegram journalist C. S. Clark. He wrote the book to counter claims by city planners that Toronto was "the city on the hill," a booming utopia. By exposing crooked police, useless morality laws, fawning presses, corrupt financial enterprises, gambling, prostitution, and the general awfulness of women, Clark's book is well-remembered...though he himself appears to be forgotten.

This is just as well. My initial impression (partway through the book) is that Clark is a crotchety, nasty old bastard. He obviously has a narrow range of tolerences and interests, and anything that falls outside that range -- certain types of literature, for instance -- is unspeakably awful. But not REALLY "unspeakably," because he chooses to speak about it...endlessly. Bitterly. Impotently.

The thing is, I haven't figured out yet if the book is serious, satirical, or sarcastic. And herein lies my problem with the common writing style up to 1930 or so: I can never tell if they're joking or not. Part of this is because I don't understand some of the references -- some of them are only implied instead of being stated outright -- and also because satirical writing was much more subtle and dry at the time. Not to mention some words had a slightly different meaning; off the top of my head: "rise," "reach," and "brilliant."

But the big issue has to do with sentence structure. Run on sentences were not just acceptable, but par for the course. I've spent some time trying to figure out why Victorian writing gives me such a headache, and I think it's because it tends to be written like this:
"Short sentence proposing something. Another short sentence of exactly the same length that ramps up the emotional level somewhat. A third short sentence to let you know that the author really means it. An incredibly long sentence, with, awkward punctuation, that provides a useful logical link, which works towards proving the point, with a digression, and this is related to another earlier point, and you'd better believe it reader, the final logical link in the chain, and now I've proven the point with a long-winded final sentence fragment including a chuckle at the whims of humanity.

"A new paragraph about something completely different."
Anyway, I'd love to be able to present some pieces of wisdom I've gleaned so far -- some interesting insights into early Toronto life, for instance -- but all I've learned so far is that C. S. Clark probably had very few friends and that women shouldn't write about anything other than fashion (and those who do write about anything else have "acidulated" faces), that "bucket shops" were places were you could gamble on the stock market without actually BUYING stocks, that (literally) all police officers were scoundrels, and that the Evening Telegram has the BESTEST writers in the WHOLE WIDE WORLD, which is no coincidence because Clark writes for it.

Okay, here's something interesting: C. S. Clark REALLY HATES people with cute names, and he wonders repeatedly "how people, presumed to have good common sense, could expect children possessed of such names to live." As an example of the sorts of cute names that people had at the turn of the century, here are the awful ones he culls from obituaries (to prove -- I think seriously -- that people with such names die sooner):
  • Prince.
  • "A laboring grinder in a concern where I once worked called his son Earl. The child died in four days."
  • Queen Victoria Lockwood Warner (AKA "Queenie," a very popular "cute nickname" of the period).
  • "Li Hung Chang Jones is the fearsome name with which a heartless father has burdened his helpless and unoffending offspring."
  • "Birdie" Bates (another common nickname).
  • Dorathea Beatrice (Queenie) Chambers.
  • Emeline (Emmy) Gladys Davis.
  • Irminie Savage.
  • Zenith Gertrude Longley.
  • Abraham Lyncoln Ulysses William McKinley Graydon. Not to be outdone, a neighbour called his child Thomas Jefferson Andrew Jackson James Monroe William Jennings Bryan Vaughn. "At last accounts both infants were doing as well as could be expected under the circumstances."
As a sidenote, these "Coles Canadiana" reprints are priceless.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Catherine Tate

I'm watching the DVD for the first season of "The Catherine Tate Show." I've watched quite a few show clips on YouTube and I found very little of it funny, but now I realize that her comedy is based on the repetition of simple themes, characters who do the same thing every time you see them. I think of this as the "Addams Family" approach to comedy...and I really like The Addams Family.

So I now present the character of Helen Marsh. Whenever a professional is unavailable, Helen reveals that she specializes in whichever field is required, but she turns out to be totally incompetent. You know it's going to happen which, somehow, makes it funnier.

In this case she's an interpreter. You could make an argument that this is in some ways racist, but I disagree for reasons that aren't very edifying or interesting.

Alluring Advertisements

Despite my complaints about the gender/class sledgehammer that Carolyn Strange weilds in "Toronto's Girl Problem," I AM enjoying much of it. And since today is an "eat Ched-a-Corn and watch Catherine Tate" sort of day I've had some time to read a little bit further.

Midway through the book she presents a reproduction of a 1912 flyer from the "Toronto Vigilance Committee." Besides the usual hysteria about white slavery and indecent literature, the TVC lists "alluring advertisements" as a source of concern:
Recently a number of persons have been advertising for lady stenographers, waitresses, etc., and when the applicants called, they would be rudely treated by being asked such questions as: 'Do you wish to have a good time, and make big money?' 'Do you smoke, play cards, dance, stand on your head?' 'Do you desire to go to wine suppers?' 'What are your measurements from your hips down?' One villain of a man induced one of the young girls to go to an establishment he operated on Bathurst Street, and there accomplished, possibly, the ruin of the girl. OUR SISTERS AND DAUGHTERS MUST NOT BE SUBJECTED TO THESE GROSS AFFRONTS!
I have to agree. I HATE it when guys in bars ask me if I stand on my head.

Atari 2600, And Now...

My "Atari Flashback 2" came in the mail last week and I'm happy to say I'm not tired of it yet. I'd forgotten how smooth and fast the games can be and it's nice to play a game with a joystick again.

(Speaking of the joysticks, unfortunately these ones are not chewable...they look and feel exactly like the old Atari joysticks but their "barrels" are made of plastic instead of rubber).

Of all the games, so far I've found "Missile Command" and "Adventure" to be the most fun, the former because it's so frantic and the latter because it's so methodical, duck-like dragons notwithstanding. The problem with arcade games, however, is that they tend to progress in levels that get steadily more difficult, and you eventually reach a level that you can never get past.

As for weird games, I'm a bit confused by "Aquaventure," a prototype that was never released. You're a treasure-seeking scuba diver who blasts the hell out of seahorses with a speargun. Why do I want to kill seahorses? Why do I need a speargun to do so? It's a mystery.

Jesus Camp

I'm halfway through Jesus Camp and I need to make a few comments before I can stomach the rest.

There's a wonderful scene where the camp organizers wander around the camp before it opens, blessing things. They bless the pews and the general space, but then they start to bless the wiring, and the computers, saying that they know how the devil likes to sabotage their works. They're basically exorcising electrical that crashes for EVERYBODY. Even Al Gore.

This, and the extreme conviction of the people in the film, clued me in to something that hadn't ocurred to me before: evangelical belief systems are so attractive because they exist outside of doubt, they provide certainty, they make sense of the world. When computers crash, it's because the devil is trying to sabotage the people who use them, which makes whatever they're doing seem so much more's so important that the devil wants to stop it! When one of their children die, these people can explain it as God's isn't cruel or random or in any way meaningless, it happens because it's part of a plan.

I think it's important and natural for people to search for explanations for things, because the world is a scary and confusing place sometimes. So in a sense I admire their conviction, though I strongly believe that they don't realize how PROUD they are in their convictions. These people aren't humble at all.

Anyway, this should be benevolent except for four things. First their belief system is contrary to fact...these people should be SEARCHING for the truth, not just sitting in a manufactured "truth bubble" that permits no further seeking or revision. There's nothing scary or empty about searching for facts, but these people don't seem to believe that.

Secondly it's based strongly around the ideas of guilt and suffering. Humbleness and delayed-gratification are, I believe, parts of a positive belief foundation...but guilt and suffering are NOT positive. They get you nowhere unless they're intermediate stages to further growth or understanding. To watch these Jesus Camp kids crying and rolling on the floor because the teacher suspects some of them are harboring sin...holy cow, that's cruel and twisted, you ugly camp counsellor f*ck. I see her doing that and all her good works are wiped away. If there's a devil it's people like her.

The third problem I see is the need to convert others to their cause. Again there is something noble and benevolent at the ROOT of conversion -- if you believe that somebody needs your help, you should probably consider helping them -- but *I* don't need help from these people, and I sure as hell don't want them writing the laws that I live under. We have a right to refuse help, especially when we see basic flaws in the help being offered. If I have a cut on my leg and some quack doctor decides I need an amputation, that doctor is NOT doing a good thing.

The fourth problem is their emphasis on fear as a control mechanism. As usual there is a grain of goodness to this because kids need to be taught to fear dangerous things. But when the dangerous thing is an imaginary devil that sabotages powerpoint presentations you start sounding like the mother from Sibyl.

So I see good and bad elements to all this. It must take extraordinary time and patience to homeschool a child, and I get the sense that these parents really DO want what's best for their children. I'm sure they LOVE their children. But when they convince their children that their basic human desires and curiosities are sins that they'll BURN IN HELL FOR, I'm sorry: you're bad and twisted.

The Big Pore Solution!

You may recall that my new Cover FX foundation emphasizes the gigantic pores on my nose, and this has been causing me stress. I'm proud to tell you that there is a solution...and it's a solution that actually WORKS!

According to a secret cosmetic source, the root of my nose problem is oil, and I have a REALLY oily nose. Oil results in shine and also undermine my foundation, which reveals my pores and produces that "rotting nose" look that I've grown so fond of lately.

"Base Miracle" by Lise Watier fixes this problem. It's a matte, transparent, silicon-like gel that you apply to oily areas BEFORE putting on your foundation. It not only fills in your pores, but it also somehow keeps the oil from washing the foundation away. I tried it last night and it worked perfectly, and it has yet to cause any sort of post-application leprosy.

To further guard against foundation-slippage, be sure to only PAT your foundation on to oil-prone areas, instead of BRUSHING it on. This goes for base AND powder. For this I'm using the CoverFX Matte compact.

Henning Fixed My Blogger!

Thanks to his unparalleled expertise with cascading style sheets, Henning NOT ONLY repaired my blogger template...but he even explained what was wrong with it!

I must also credit Henning with first introducing me to Dana International, and also credit him with patience when I used to hide in the bathroom after customers yelled at me. Thanks, Henning!

This Ain't Yer Grandma's Elmer Gantry

Last week I posted a review of the novel "Elmer Gantry" by Sinclair Lewis. I think I pretty much summed up the principle theme: Christian priests cannot live up to the high standards expected of them, so the only priests who thrive in such an environment are sneaky, ambitious, destructive, hypocritical jerks like Elmer Gantry.

Having just finished watching the 1960 movie adaptation of the novel I present a top-secret, exclusive transcript of the first planning meeting between writer/director Richard Brooks and producer Bernard Smith:

BERNARD: Hey Rich! How're you doing? I LOVED what you did with "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

RICHARD: Thanks!

BERNARD: And that Elizabeth Tailor...MEOW!

RICHARD: (explosively) HA HA HA!

BERNARD: Say, do you remember that Charles Dickens book called "Oliver Gantry?"

RICHARD: You mean "Elmer Gantry?"

BERNARD: Yeah, whatever.

RICHARD: Written in the '20s, wasn't it? I think I read it, or maybe I read a review of it. Something about a preacher named...ummm...

BERNARD: I think his name was Elmer Gantry. Yeah, and there was another preacher named Sharon Falconer, and some girl called Lulu, and I seem to remember a Jim Lefferts somewhere in there. And a big fire at the end.

RICHARD: For the life of me I don't recall the details.

BERNARD: That's okay, nobody else does either! We want you to write and direct a movie adaptation.

RICHARD: Golly, I'd better read the book then.

BERNARD: Don't bother! What we want is a slam-bang Hollywood flick with lovable characters.

RICHARD: But Bernard...were ANY of the characters in the novel lovable? I seem to remember that Elmer Gantry was a womanizing, hard-drinking, greedy, stupid bastard, and Sharon Falconer was a con artist who believed she was the reincarnation of Joan of Arc.

BERNARD: Oh, we can't have that. It's too depressing! Make them both sincere people who just want to help others, but they occasionally get carried away in their zeal.

RICHARD: So...turn ALL of their character traits from the BOOK into easily-surmountable, sidelined tragic flaws?

BERNARD: Folks'll LOVE it! And that Lulu Bains, make her a hooker with a heart of gold.

RICHARD: There were no hookers in the book, Bernie old boy.

BERNARD: And don't forget the fire!

RICHARD: So...considering the book was bascially an extended treatise on human corruption and greed, what should the moral of the MOVIE be?

BERNARD: I dunno. Don't include one, I guess. Just a love story will be fine.

RICHARD: A love story, even though Elmer only loved Sharon because she was unattainable, and she only tolerated him because he was a useful ally in her quest for money and power?

BERNARD: Just a love story, Bernard. And a big fire. And hey, make Sharon ACTUALLY HEAL somebody at the end!

RICHARD: Why? How can I reconcile that with anything?

BERNARD: Don't forget the fire.

RICHARD: I'm on it!

BERNARD: And since we've got Burt Lancaster lined up as the leading man, why not make him laugh in that weird, forced, explosive way you did at the beginning of our dialog.


BERNARD: Like that! And we must include a prostitute-slapping scene that is somehow inadvertantly hilarious. You know, "slap! slap! slap! slap! slap!"

RICHARD: HA HA HA! Leave it to me. I'll write a screenplay that is EXACTLY like the book, except that it has nothing to do with the book whatsoever.

BERNARD: That's what we want! But keep the names the same.

And the rest is history. The movie is a weird, inside-out version of the book, where the bad people are characterized as good and the one good person is characterized as bad (with a heart of gold). It's an audacious switcharoo akin to Disney's most twisted reinterpretations. Shame on you, Richard "Hack" Brooks! Shame!

Friday, March 02, 2007

The Main Drag - Cancelled

Due to our beautiful but nightmarish weather, the University of Guelph is closed "The Main Drag" event has been cancelled.

But don't cry, they're hoping to reschedule for this coming Friday!

On a personal note there is something childishly fun about stomping to work through a crust of frozen snow. And there's nothing like awful weather to bring people together; yesterday afternoon I helped my Unit A neighbour (Lindsay) and her boyfriend (Brad) shovel out the parking lot. I bugged out early (hey, I don't even HAVE a car!) but we did get a chance to thaw a bit of that weird barrier between us, though she still talks to me like one or both of us is crazy.

A New Yorker Catch-All

Certain subjects keep popping up in 1927's New Yorker magazines. Rather than write about them all, here's the general gist:
  1. The Synder-Gray murder case, and the new trend of having literary stars report on the proceedings.
  2. Bobbed hair, waved hair, bobbed and waved hair.
  3. Pearlescent fingernail polish.
  4. The Stickley Ridgeless Guest Davenport ("No ridge down the center! -- it must be a Stickley")
  5. Innumerable puns involving "wets" and "drys".
  6. New movie theaters that are huge and ostentatious.
  7. The French debt after the conclusion of WWI (and jokes therein).
  8. The convenience of living in an "apartment hotel" or "residential hotel" (as opposed to in your own apartment or -- get this -- at the club.)
  9. The joys of slumming at Coney Island.
  10. Radio sucks and is hard to hear.
  11. Only wear stockings which make your ankles appear slim. And in the spring, wear special "stocking guards" to protect you from splashing taxi cabs.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

"Toronto's Girl Problem" -- Plus Gender Study's Idealogue Problem

I'm becoming increasingly interested in Canadian culture at the turn of the century. There's lots to read about urbanization and industrialization in America, but I rarely stumble across an equivalent Canadian book.

But here's "Toronto's Girl Problem," by Carolyn Strange. It's a study of female labourers in Toronto between 1880 and 1930, which is surely a subject with a lot of potential. And Strange does a good job of communicating the dilemmas that women faced when they found "domestic service" positions intolerable: many preferred the freedom and pride that came from living alone, not to mention having fewer restrictions on how they spent their leisure time.

But being a "working girl" at the time was very difficult. Not only were they shamelessly exploited at their jobs -- ridiculously low pay, shunned by unions, little legal recognition -- but they were also viewed with suspicion as women prone to wildness: drinkers, pleasure-seekers, unfit for motherhood. And since few of them could afford to live independently on their meagre wages, many relied on the generosity of boyfriends...who rarely gave away money or gifts for free. So in some ways the women were forced to become what the Moralists feared they were in the first place.

All of this is interesting, especially Strange's occasional descriptions of what women at the time did in their spare time and with what little money they had.

But as I read the book I'm biting my tongue. Since the historical accounts of working women are rarely written by the women themselves -- they're usually culled from extremely patronizing court records and newspaper reports -- Strange takes liberties when it comes to interpreting the motives of the men and women she writes about. And a pattern has emerged, one I so often find in gender studies.

Based on flimsy reports (or likeminded secondary sources), Strange conveniently ascribes motivations depending on a simple rule that she all but spells out:

Working women are always BRAVE. They bravely testify in court, they bravely speak out, they bravely take their grievances to police. They are always exploited by everybody else...UNLESS Strange wants to portray a particular woman (usually a prostitute) as strong, in which case she's simply worldly and independent and -- yes -- brave.

Men tend to be (literally) described as cowardly and patronizing. If there's a motive to be ascribed on the basis of ambiguous evidence, the man is ALWAYS portrayed in a negative light. Middle-class women are also exploiters and patronizers.

Here's an example of Strange struggling to find a way to NOT present men or authority figures as sympathetic, charitable, or reasonable. She mentions that when women were arrested for infanticide they were almost always acquitted. She says that historians are "puzzled" by this, and she concedes that some view this as "an expression of 'compassion' and sympathy towards women who were clearly in dire straits." But then she concludes -- with no evidence or clear explanation -- that it's MUCH more likely that judges were ensuring the "proper continuation of male blood lines," and that city fathers approved of infanticide because it reduced the number of destitute children, or that judges wanted to save the children's FATHERS from scandal, or that this leniency was due to the lives of poor undernourished infants being "cheap." Lord forbid a judge EVER understand a woman's motivation or circumstances!

She uses the same reasoning when revealing that police rarely arrested prostitutes. It couldn't be because the police didn't see prostitutes as people that deserved, it was because the police were protecting prostitutes so that their male bretheren could use them someday. Naturally.

Add to this her obsession with eugenics -- which as of page 73 she's been unable to connect with her subject, though she's tried plenty hard -- and I'm finding the book increasingly unpleasant to read. I mean, OF COURSE these women were exploited, they were not treated fairly by the courts or the city government...all that is a compelling enough story. But Carolyn Strange is painting a picture of Victorian-era Toronto where all the working women are sweet people being victimized by all the men. And it's somehow tied in with a middle-class obsession with white purity, or something.

And let me make it clear that this sweeping portrayal of actualy exploitation was surely true, I don't object to that. What I DO object to is Strange's injection of this characterization into personal accounts, with no evidence.

Here's a final example, the one that really drove me crazy, just in case you think I'm being overly touchy. A woman starts to hang around with an older married man at a boarding house. The woman denies that anything is going on. When she becomes pregnant she claims she was raped by a stranger. Shortly after this she dies of a botched abortion, and it comes to light that the two of them had been trying to find a way for her to get an abortion, and when their efforts failed, the man tried to do it himself. He failed and she died.

These are the details of the case. How does Carolyn Strange sum it up? It's "a classic tale of a young maiden's desertion, betrayal, and eventual death at the hands of her cowardly suitor." It's possible that she's putting this in the terms that the newspaper reports used -- sometimes it's difficult to know what she's referring to, or what the meaning is behind her frequent scare quotes -- but it's pretty much in line with the rest of the book.

Messy Blog Template

I'm aware that the new-fangled templates in Blogger are causing my posts to look a little weird. Specifically, the leading between the lines changes after the first ordered list or block quote, which cannot be accounted for in any HTML code that I can control.

I could either fix this by putting a fake block quote at the beginning of every post, or I could just ignore it the way I'm supposedly ignoring my pores.