Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Monday, July 28, 2008

Life on Repeat

The Broken Computer Keyboards

I recently noticed that the "plus" key on my new computer keyboard didn't work. Apple promptly sent me another keyboard...which has a mostly unresponsive "right arrow" key.

A third keyboard is now in the mail. You'll know it's arrived when different letters start disappearing from my blog posts.

The Persistent Junk Mail

After three weeks of receiving "The Record Save and Sell," an enormous package of weekly junkmail, I finally had enough. The thing is too big for my mailbox, but the carrier just stuffs it in anyway and leaves the lid open. Therefore my legitimate mail gets crushed and rained on.

I called the company and was "taken off the list," but I received it again the following week. I called back and was reassured that I REALLY wouldn't get it any more...but of course I did. I finally managed to track down the MANAGER, who absolutely, positively promised that I would never receive the Save and Sell again.

It was in my mailbox on Friday.

The Squatter Squirrels

Several months ago my landlords finally admitted that there are squirrels in my attic, and they patched up the roof and laid out traps to remove the critters once and for all.

This weekend they gnawed a hole into the opposite end of the building. They're back again, and this time I imagine they're singing a song:

We're happy little squirrels and we're back to bother you,
with our squealing and our humping and our chew and chew and chew.
We spurn all laws, we have big claws, we're muscular and furry, oh,
don't try so hard to lose us 'cause we'll get back in a hurry!

If you sit all day and wonder what we're doing to your ceiling,
you cannot understand...your little attic's so appealing!
We live in peace, we'll sign no lease, we'll send no rent your way, 'cause
we're happy chewing squirrels and we've moved in here to stay!

Catching Up on the 1920s Vernacular

Georgette fabric was a bouncy and crinkly derivative of silk. Women in the '20s who wanted to be fashionable but couldn't afford expensive dresses would settle for georgette. You can still buy it today.

A comptometer was a very early adding machine which allowed numbers to be entered by holding down several keys at the same time. For this reason they were actually faster than modern calculators, but I somehow doubt they still offer training courses for them.

It would seem that the "motor robe" I posted about last week had a close cousin in the "steamer rug," as mentioned in the Feburary 23, 1929 New Yorker.
Those warm plaid steamer rugs that zip up, either in a long version to extend to your waist or in a short knee length, ideal for chilly motoring or for steamer crossings, are to be found here.
Our anonymous commenter was right...those cars really WERE cold!

In the '20s you could actually create colour home movies using the Kodacolor technique, which used lenticular trickery similar to those posters and billboards that change their image as you walk around them. It was apparently pretty good, but awkward.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Maid of the Mist

I have just received the pictures from our Niagara Falls photoshoot, and holy cow they're fun. I really do need to learn to stop kvetching about my "dewy shine" and just let loose.

I can't reveal the really stellar money shots until the Daily Muffy episode actually begins -- about a month from now -- but here's a candid teaser with the sucky American falls in the background:

As for me being upstaged by the majestic Canadian falls...hold your horses!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Little House in the Wilderness

I love the little house in the wilderness, the one tiny house which has withstood all efforts of the Big Insurance Company to buy it. The B.I.C. owns everything else on that block, with the hopes of someday building another tower or a parking lot there...but that plucky little house has stood its ground and -- if Ian has anything to do with it -- it will be there for a long time.

Ian owns the house. Today he caught me snooping around and we started talking. I'd assumed that the house was deserted -- most of its windows are painted over and its wall of two-storey bushes form an impenetrable shell around it -- but no, Ian still lives there. He's an imposing middle-aged guy in green mechanic's coveralls, his face is huge, he is enthusiastically anti-establishment. I found him yanking out the four-foot high thistles, part of the foliage that he correctly calls his "naturalization." It would seem, however, that the B.I.C. doesn't like those thistles.

The 1861 farmhouse has been in Ian's family for a long time, and he says that if anything happens to him it will be inherited by his equally imposing cousin. Ian is friendly and gregarious, a brilliant talker. He calls the B.I.C. tower "Big Brother" and the rising loft tower on the other side is "Big Sister." He shares my amusement that a newly-constructed apartment complex can be called a "loft." As a child in that house he remembers seeing the factory which used to be there belch huge clots of fabric out of its smokestacks.

Ian says, referring to the B.I.C., "They hate my entire G.I. tract."

We talked until the big storm came down and hammered us, when Ian gathered up his electric clippers and disappeared back into his tiny patch of wilderness. It thrills me that he lives in there, happily isolated, a pain in the ass.

Because It's Saturday: "Xanadu" by Hank and Lily

If you live in central Canada, be happy! Hank and Lily are starting their next tour, and here's their new video, "Xanadu."

I am thrilled beyond belief that they're coming to Waterloo in August. You should go and see them!

In Praise of Morley Callaghan

I first heard about Morley Callaghan while reading Carolyn Strange's mostly-dire "Toronto's Girl Problem." She presented Callaghan's book "Strange Fugitive" (about bootleggers and gangsters in Toronto during 1928) as a deliberate attempt to counter Toronto's self-proclaimed squeaky-clean image.

Before reading "Strange Fugitive," however, I ran across Callaghan's short story "Escapade" in The New Yorker. I fell in love, and found myself wondering how I'd missed reading his work for so many years.

Callaghan's fiction has been mostly overshadowed by his colourful life; his brief stay in Paris and his friendship with Ernest Hemmingway, who he famously K.O.'d in a boxing match. He has also been dismissed by some as a hack who hammered out short stories and novels which rarely deviated from his established style (or, as some have interpreted it, a complete LACK of style).

But his style is so GOOD. I have never read Hemmingway's work but Callaghan's straight-forward, undecorated prose is often compared to his. He uses no excess words, no colourful adjectives, no metaphor. His stores are written in an almost journalistic style along the lines of "These are the people and this is what happened to them."

I just finished the first volume of Callaghan's four-volume "Complete Stories" and I've noticed that his REAL genius was the limited nature of his omniscient narrator: he tells us what his characters are thinking but never delves into their motivations or tries to interpret their thoughts, let alone judge them. Since most of us -- like Callaghan's "everyday Joe" sort of characters -- fool ourselves constantly with rationalizations and repression, each story is a slow peeling-away of motivation, until you're left with the bare and unambiguous working of the protagonist's soul.

This is what makes Callaghan's fiction so spectacular. He captures what it really feels like to exist and to think in the limited way that us people do. Using the simplest language he conveys human complexity without every appearing DELIBERATE about it. As always, "These are the people and this is what happened."

He can get a bit tedious, I admit. By avoiding flowery language Callaghan tends to frequently use the same adjectives ("plump") and you get a BIT tired of every story opening the same way. But that's what he did, and it's what he did best. If you have never read a Morley Callaghan book then you really, really should.

Friday, July 25, 2008

"Stride of Man" by Thames Williamson

I admit it: I have a fascination for things which are under appreciated or outright forgotten. Maybe someday I'll figure out what such things appeal to me, but for now I'll just revel in it.

While going through old New Yorker magazines, I read tantalizing book reviews about authors who you never hear about now; some of them were up-and-coming stars who never realized their potential, others were one-book-wonders, and a few wrote well-regarded fiction of a sort which just doesn't resonate nowadays. In the latter category I put Thames Williamson.

If you can find substantial information about Thames Williamson on the internet then you're savvier than I am. Myself, I read a review of "Stride of Man" in a 1929 issue of The New Yorker, and it sounded strangely intriguing. One trip to abebooks later and I had a second edition copy in my hands, complete with ratty page trimming and a gorgeous art nouveau cover.

Then I read it, and...well, they just don't write books like this anymore.

It's an "epic," tracing the life of fictional Daniel Patterson -- distant relative of Daniel Boone -- from his humble beginnings to the height of his career as an automobile king. That element is straight-forward enough, but the book is really an allegory for American migration, invention, and ambition.

Patterson begins as a pre-teen orphan, living off the land west of the Rocky Mountains during the beginning of the civil war. As he moves east he learns about steamboats, he hunts buffalo, he falls in love, he boards his first train, he tinkers with bicycles...then he migrates to the prairies and tries to eke out a living, before travelling further east to Chicago where he labours in a factory. He deals with unions, he dreams his dreams, and then -- finally -- he starts work on the invention that will make him rich: the automobile.

Through all this he matures as a sort of Ayn Rand hero: serious, fair, able to juggle his workers with his down-to-earth reasoning skills, born of wildness and never tamed by the city or by the demands of high scoiety. It all comes across as terribly contrived...because it IS, and it's meant to be. It's a totally unsubtle pastiche of American-innovator stereotypes, meant to encapsulate the stages that the United States went through in order to become an industrial giant.

Fortunately Thames Williamson is pretty level-headed through most of the book, presenting both the pros and cons of every stage of Patterson's (and America's) development. At the end, however, he introduces a "practical art and culture" character in the form of Patterson's son Brand, who -- after going through the first world war -- decides that it's time for America to leverage its infrastructure toward creating...well, art, or culture, or something.

Through most of the book Patterson argues against anarchists and artists, chastising them for being all "idea" with no "plan." But somehow Brand's arguments eventually sink in, and since Williamson's writing is so non-judgemental, it's hard to know what point he's making. Is he telling us that Brand's ideas are correct, and that in 1929 it's really time for America to plot out a Grand Cultural Roadmap? Or is he saying that Brand has somehow distracted his father, perhaps implying that American businesspeople are likewise being co-oped and distracted by the younger generation?

I don't know, and that's the frustrating thing about "Stride of Man." After 300 pages of lean, quick prose, it descends into pseudo-intellectual babble about destiny and maturation, the kind of talk that the Patterson character had been mocking since the beginning of the book.

Anyway, I DID enjoy the book, and it's certainly like taking an undiluted sniff of Pure '20s Optimism. But if Williamson's other novels are like this I can see why he's been totally forgotten.

PS: The back sleeve of the book advertises MacKinlay Kantor's "Diversey," that damn book that I scorned but which continues to haunt my life. I WILL TRY TO READ IT AGAIN, if just to stop it from tormenting me in the future.

1960s Techno?

We've always thought that "techno" emerged during the mid-80s...but would you believe it if I told you that the first techno song was recorded in the '60s? If I clarified that Delia Derbyshire was the perpetrator, though, you'd probably realize that if anybody was going to invent and then dismiss a new electronic artform, it would be her.

It would seem that Derbyshire kept stacks of old reel-to-reel experiments in her attic, and after her death the BBC started going through and cataloging them. They found some truly amazing things, as described in this NoiseAddicts post.

Most interesting was a very capable techno song, recorded during the '60s and therefore without sequencers, keyboards, samplers, or even multi-track technology...I assume it was created using the traditional Radiophonic method: a bunch of reel-to-reel recorders all in a row, each playing a meticulously-constructed tape loop.

You can hear the mindblowing results here, including a brief dismissive prologue by Derbyshire herself.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Dr. Seuss and Flit: The Awkward Edition

If you've been following these "Dr. Seuss and Flit" advertisements, it won't surprise you to see a creepy African caricature amongst all the rest. I do, however, enjoy the queerly long-legged cat.

Exquisite Creations of Master Designers Woven from the Finest, Virgin Angora Mohair!

Alright. Even if we eventually figure out what "broad-jumper's pants" were, will we ever understand the concept of a "motor robe?"

Described as "the finishing touch of luxury," this advertisement for "Robes by Chase" (made by the L. C. Chase & Company of Boston) tells you everything you'd want to know about the available colours, weaving techniques, and superior fabrics of a motor robe...but it doesn't tell you what they're USED for.

I initially thought they were just a type of upholstery, but check out the picture: the robe is hung on a rod that's attached to the front seat, conveniently available for the driver to reach back and fondle now and then.

Was it used as a blanket during the winter? Was it a cushion in case of a car accident? The advertisement says that the motor robe "feels welcome, indeed, to silk stockings," maybe implying that stocking-wearers could put it on the seat under them, to protect their hosiery from rough seat fabric (though that doesn't explain why the women in the picture above are STARING at the thing instead of SITTING on it).

The motor robe...another of life's great mysteries.

(The New Yorker, February 16, 1929, page 48)

PS: It appears that the motor robe was patented in 1925. The only other online reference I can find refers to it as a "lap robe," which means it probably WAS something meant to keep passengers' legs warm.

Diary of a Daily Muffy

During the blizzardy winter of 2008 Jenn Wilson and I made a plan: we would go to Niagara Fallsview Casino Resort and take pictures of me wearing my Ann Miller "bumblebee" outfit. Since it takes almost two hours to get there we decided we must go during the summer. To avoid traffic we would have to decide on a weekday, preferably around noon hour.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008, 7:20 am: We are aiming to make a head-start on the day so I have already done my ironing and planning and worrying the day before. I have cereal for breakfast and begin to get into drag.

I had tried to be blase about this adventure, but perhaps I was a bit TOO blase when it came to choosing my drag timetable; due to a simple miscalculation I have lost twenty minutes of prep time. There is a lot you can do -- or, in this case, CAN'T do -- in twenty minutes. My hair and makeup is done in record time. I forget my gloves.

9:10 am: We're off! Almost immediately we are surrounded by cars; it would seem that everybody is going to Niagara Falls on the same day as we. They want to see us succeed in our crazy endeavour. They are slowing us down and getting in our way.

10:00 am: Somewhere around Lincoln I begin to feel uncomfortable and anxious and I need to go to the bathroom.

I generally try to avoid bathrooms while I'm doing a Daily Muffy. Drag bathroom-etiquette is difficult at the best of times, and THIS time I'm wearing an outfit that takes time and subtlety to get in and out of. We pull into a Tim Horton's because I'm hoping that the bathrooms have a single stall.

On my way through the door a man asks me if I have a gas can. Then he notices that I am wearing a bright yellow '50s tap-dancing dress that is cut up to my crotch. He recoils.

By the time I'm finished in the bathroom I realize that I was suffering a form of anxiety due to the way the morning has gone: I got out of bed, jumped into drag, and then rushed into Jenn's car...then we drove non-stop through an alien landscape toward a place I'd never been before. I had felt a bit like a fish, yanked out of the ocean, dropped into a fishbowl, and then rocketed off without yet having a chance to get a grip on the environment.

Now that I have stared down the clientele of a roadside Tim Horton's, I have finally "decompressed." Damn it, Niagara Falls, I'm ready for you!

10:30 am: We park at a pay lot and walk toward the casino. We'd been worried about the weather, but the black storm clouds have all cleared away. We are proud that we remembered to bring umbrellas, but of course we leave them in the back seat of the car. We will regret this.

We are well aware that we cannot take pictures near the resort casino, but we plan to run totally amok within the mall and its surroundings. We befriend the man who appears to be head of security and with his blessing we duck into nooks and crannies that we'd otherwise be too scared to explore.

The mall is mostly full of middle-aged tourists and "casino types." They avoid us and are polite when we block their access to brutally expensive posh-stores. One older man walks up to me and shouts "What happened to your skirt? THE FRONT IS GONE!" but before we can be friendly we are interrupted by yet another security guard, who is feeling us out.

We go outside and begin to walk around the mall. It's beautiful! From a distance I get my picture taken with both the American and Canadian falls (another goal achieved!) The Canadian side is WAY prettier. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the war of 1812 was fought entirely due to falls-jealousy.

Then, thunder. We have become very accustomed to thunder this summer...but I'm standing outside in a fragile dress and Jenn is carting around a ton of very expensive camera gear. Terrified, we rush back to the mall.

12:30 am: It is POURING. We sit in the food court and watch the rain. As I said previously, we'd left our umbrellas in the car, which is a five-minute walk away.

We hatch a devious plan. We walk through the resort's parking garage until we find the exit which we assume is closest to our parking lot, and then Jenn darts out the door to get her car while I huddle in the stairwell and guard her stuff. I realize that the door is identical to all the other doors on that side of the building, and also that I don't remember what Jenn's car looks like, and I don't have her phone number, and that this was a really silly idea.

Then Jenn pulls up and we drive away; she is soaked, I am not.

1:00 pm: Sensing how much I want to take the restrictive "bumblebee" outfit off, Jenn pulls into a covered parking garage behind a hotel and I jump out to get changed. The rain is pouring down. I strip to my underwear just in time for a bunch of tourists to wander into the parking lot with me. Then a car pulls in. The tourists and the car shuffle back and forth as I crouch, virtually naked, waiting for them to sort their crap out and go away.

Finally we are back on the Queen Elizabeth Way and we are heading home.

1:30 pm: The black clouds descend and the traffic slows to a crawl.

Due to an evil brew of construction, weather, car accidents, and the other people's desire to interfere with our shit, our next ninety minutes on the QEW are spent in impenetrable gridlocked traffic, inching forward mile after mile. Then a truly fearsome hailstorm reduces visibility to nil, which is particularly terrifying when you're stuck on the Garden City Skyway. Jenn pushes us through one jam and into the next; we struggle, we fight.

3:00 pm: When the weather clears we are still creeping along the QEW...but we no longer recognize the landmarks. We wonder why the hell we're driving through Oakville. When we start to see "Airport" and "Mississauga" signs our worst suspicions are confirmed: during the storms we missed a crucial turn-off into Hamilton, and spent an hour DRIVING IN THE WRONG DIRECTION.

My mind snaps. I am being driven through a strange area, very far from home, and I am in drag. That alone would be fine except that my face is steadily disintegrating and I have no "boy clothes." I cannot (or rather will not) exit the car in this stage of degeneration, and we've ALREADY spent hours driving in the will take at least another hour to get us back, and we are getting perilously close to rush hour (which would add an ADDITIONAL hour to our journey).

In the face of my emotional-mental meltdown, Jenn is the rational one. We stop and get directions, which are: follow Winston-Churchill Boulevard until we hit the 401. It's a long way home from there but at least we KNOW that area.

Making the best of it, we turn around and resume our journey.

4:20 pm: Home at last. I greet the cat, wash my decaying face, and happily look forward to seeing the pictures we took (you'll see them as part of the next Daily Muffy, if you're interested). I am suddenly cold and I huddle up under the covers, reading Morley Callaghan short stories and enjoying my return to stability.

I realize that the horrific drive home has almost completely wiped out my memory of what we did in Niagara Falls. Thank goodness we'll have pictures to remind us!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Broad-Jumper's Pants

It took me forever to figure out what was going on in this picture. Eventually I realized that the two old ladies were laughing at the man because he was walking funny, and the reason he was walking funny was because his pants were wrinkled. He was crouching down to hide the wrinkles, you see.

So why were his pants wrinkled? "Because he wouldn't take a trunk," according to the Hartmann Trunks advertisement.
After all these years--think of it--still a suitcase addict! O me, o my! And not even a best friend to tell him! Perhaps you, too, have weathered the withering eyes of the Hotel Porch Brigade...the doughty dowagers who never miss a trick--who spot the suitcase customers by their baggy, wrinkled wardrobe.
So that's one convoluted mystery solved, but maybe YOU can explain why the subheading for this advertisement is "Broad-jumper's pants." It might be because the posture of a man who is hiding his pant-wrinkles is similar to the posture of a crouching broad-jumper, but that's a real stretch.

In any case, I assume it's a term that didn't catch on (much like "bidding two spades.")

A HappyHuman Post: Royal Bank Customer Service Lady

I went to the Royal Bank in order to get a new client card.

The customer service representative was already saying "hello" before I'd even cleared the door. She listened to my spiel, then cheerfully walked me through the mundane procedure of getting a new card, lightening the mood by "quipping" now and then but never getting off-track or personal.

She was pleasant and professional. She made me feel like a valued customer and a distinct human being. She had a genuine smile. I liked her and I'd never even seen her before.

Thanks, customer service lady!

Dialects in the 1920s

I have read an unusual number of '20s novels during the past year, and it seems that all of them are OBSESSED with dialect. Every character in these books -- the Swedish immigrants in Martha Ostenso's "Wild Geese," the Chicago gangsters in MacKinley Kantor's "Diversey," and now the uncouth westerners in Thames Williamson's "The Stride of Man" -- has their own distinct way of talking, and in case you need some help their dialog is spelled out phoenetically, to varying degrees of success.

I've been thinking recently that North Americans must have been particularly interested in dialect during the late '20s...then what should I read this morning but a fun New Yorker piece called "Mammy!"

In the piece, Robert M. Coates is planning to visit the south, so he takes "Southern accent lessons." When he arrives he tries out his accent on a black man.
"Hiyah, yo bleck reskil," I hailed him, pitching my voice to a mellow, throaty drawl. "Whah yall gwine gwine?"

"I beg your pardon?" he replied.

"Ah sade," I repeated, "de mos thing Ah is wantin' is tuh diskiver whah-all de Mainshun House Hotail is a-locatid et, an' ef yall is a-gwine in that dee-reskshun, Ah'd be raight smaht obleeged ef yall ud..." I paused, for an expression of bewilderment had crossed his otherwise placid features.

"I'm sorry," he said, "but I haven't the slightest idea what you mean."
After similar problems communicating with a waitress, Coates decides that the problem is one of education: the southerners were never taught to understand their own language.
If these people don't know the right way to talk, the only thing is to teach them. It might come hard at first, but we could soon have them saying "Suh" and "Ah raikin" almost as well as our own character actors do.
Beautiful sting at the end, and it makes me wonder if the dialect prevalence in books -- assuming it existed and isn't just due to the books I'm sampling -- was due to the character actors and songwriters of the time.

(The New Yorker, February 6, 1929, page 59)

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Well Blow, Roy, Blow!

Here's a happy Sunday treat: Anita O'Day and Roy Eldridge with Gene Krupa's band performing "Let Me Off Uptown." This was their first big hit and the one that briefly solidified O'Day and Eldridge as a popular team.

You just can't beat her "window-washing" dance routine, can you?

See the AMAZING way she vamps at Roy? In O'Day's autobiography ("High Times, Hard Times," my copy of which sports a truly frightening autograph), she has this to say about the group dynamic, and the limited options of "girl singers" during the '40s.
While we were playing different theaters, I'd kept developing my part of the act. What was I to do? Stand there doing nothing? Or the same thing every time? That's not the way I live or think. So I'd embellished my part, thinking I was making something better of the show from the front... But from Roy's point of view I got to dancing too much during "Thanks for the Boogie Ride" and "Let Me Off Uptown"...

...Roy finally got to the place where he stopped talking to me offstage. I didn't care whether he talked or not. In fact, I was glad. If he was really pissed off, he'd say out of the side of his mouth, after he finished a solo, "See what I'm talking about" or "You're at it again."
O'Day's book is a candid and entertaining expose, and if you're interested in the big band and jazz eras seen from the perspective of an intelligent, talented, under appreciated, and terminally hopped-up broad, buy it and read it now.

Misfortunes Come to Those Who Are Fuzzy-Headed (The Short Version)

Last night I locked myself out of my apartment. Then I lost my bank card and my driver's license.

I am continuing to receive the "Waterloo Record Save and Sell."

The humidity has turned my cat's litterbox into a seeping miasma of stink.


Saturday, July 19, 2008

"Wild Geese" by Martha Ostenso

Literary modernism had to arrive in the prairie provinces sometime. In 1925 it struck with a bang in the form of Martha Ostenso's classic novel "Wild Geese."

It's an evil book, a study of non-stop emotional abuse in a pioneer family. Caleb Gare, an up-and-coming farmer -- uses subtle psychology as a daily torture against his wife and children, primarily because he loves the power, partially because he views his family as free labour...but underneath it all he does it because it AMUSES him. And that's what makes the book really wicked.

"Wild Geese" is mainly told from the point of view of Lind Archer, a new teacher in the community who is billeted with the Gare family. She arrives when Caleb's power is already entrenched, and she watches in amazement as it spreads unchecked throughout the neighbourhood. Everybody hates Caleb but they are either too unsophisticated or too good-natured to stop the terrible, quiet building of his influence.

Caleb's power comes mainly from discovering secrets, leveraging them to force other farmers to grant him favours or give him land. Caleb controls Amelia, his wife, with the knowledge of a previous infidelity which lead to an illegitimate child. Amelia is terrified that the child -- Mark -- will someday find out that he is the bastard child of a poor farmer's wife, and the fact that Mark arrives in the neighbourhood near the beginning of the book makes the situation much more immediate.

You see, every time one of Caleb's children engages in an act of rebellion, Caleb unleashes a torrent of threats against Amelia, chief among them that he will tell Mark who his real parents were, thus ruining his life. The children don't know this secret but they pity the fate of their mother and -- more importantly -- they are convinced that this "secret" might involve them somehow; they know how vengeful Caleb can be when crossed, so they live in perpetual submission, worried that the mysterious and dreadful secret could come out and make their lives even worse.

As a modern reader I had difficulty getting worked up about this secret; in fact, I kept waiting for somebody to say "Hey, Caleb, nobody CARES who Mark's parents were." But the book is so sincere about this issue that I can only assume that parentage WAS a make-or-break issue for small-town Canadians in the 1920s. And since the whole book revolves around this issue I had to get over those feelings pretty quick.

95% of "Wild Geese" is brilliant, an elaborately-constructed showcase of Caleb's ability to terrorize and manipulate those around him. I was totally absorbed in the story and had difficulty putting it down, I just couldn't WAIT to see how Caleb's influence would eventually be thwarted.

But therein lies one of the book's problems: there are a half dozen explicitly revealed set-ups for Caleb's eventual fall, but the one that's finally used comes mostly out of nowhere and has no bearing on the characters themselves. Rather than have the abused children, the resentful neighbours, or the subversive "big city" influence of Lind Archer bring the old tyrant down, he is eventually laid low in a way that has a BIT of poetic justice but does no credit to the hard work of the protagonists themselves. This was most unsatisfying.

I also found the shifting points-of-view to be sketchy at times and the ham-handed symbolism was downright annoying -- the lonely call of the wild geese, the comforting shroud of romantic rain, the oil-filled curse of the flax, the nearsighted daughter -- and while all this could be excused by the fact that Ostenso was a first-time author, it has recently come to light that the book was effectively co-written by Douglas Durkin.

Still, it's a beautiful, torturous work, and I'm glad I picked it up (entirely on a whim) and finally got around to reading it.

PS: If you've read the book, consider the situation of Charlie Gare, Caleb's youngest child. While the other children are fully-fleshed characters with lots of dialog and "book presence," Charlie is only ever mentioned in passing and he is laughably forgotten in the final chapters -- his masquerade ball costume is the only one that isn't described (except that it has a "peaked cap") and his fate is completely skipped at the end.

Do you think that Ostenso only put him in at the last minute when she realized that Caleb needed an even number of children to do the threshing?

Thursday, July 17, 2008

It's Called the TOASTMASTER -- And It's the World's ONLY Completely Automatic Toaster!

I suppose that The Toastmaster was a pretty amazing device in its time. Are you curious about it? SEE HOW IT WORKS!

Previous to The Toastmaster, toasters required you to manually FLIP your bread in order to toast both sides. The Toastmaster did this AUTOMATICALLY...though not by flipping; it probably had two elements, one on either side, the way our modern toasters do today.

Note, however, that it only toasted one slice at a time. Maybe people didn't eat a lot of toast back then.

For some reason you needed to push TWO levers down instead of just ONE. In the next picture you'll see what appears to be different hands pushing down each lever. I imagine that The Toastmaster was like a nuclear failsafe device, requiring everybody involved to turn their keys at exactly the same time, to prevent holocaust.

The Toastmaster didn't set your apartment on fire if you turned your back on it. In fact this advertisement specifically told you NOT to watch the toaster, as though doing so would give it performance anxiety.

Note the way The Toastmaster radiated hypnotic "toast light," even when it wasn't turned on. Maybe that's why you weren't supposed to stare at it for very long.

As the accompanying text said, the toast was "automatically discharged," giving you "the superlative in toast." It also implied that toasters had only been around "for two years" or so, which probably explains why this one was so crappy.

Really, though, toasters haven't advanced THAT much. I find that the biggest difference today seems to be in terminology; have you noticed that all new toasters have buttons on them that say "Cancel?"

PS: "The Toastmaster" was made by the Waters-Genter Company in 1926, though this article appears in the February 2, 1929 New Yorker. You'll be thrilled to know that there is an entire website devoted to early toasters and that they give lots of attention to The Toastmaster...they even have scans of the original instructions!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


As a constant and unrepentant pedestrian I suppose it's inevitable that I get hit by cars every few years. This morning I was hit for the third time -- I've got a nice scrape on my knee from a license plate -- and as stood amazed at the edge of the road I had a sudden revelation:

I am always hit by drivers who are turning right, either at a stop sign or at a red light. As these people pull up they see a gap in the traffic and they decide to take advantage of it, never coming to a complete stop, jumping quickly out toward the propitious gap...and slamming into ME as I cross the street.

The first time this happened a police car literally RAN OVER MY FOOT. The second time a man -- with his windshield so iced over that he could barely see -- drove six feet with me on his hood before he realized I was there. This morning the homicidal driver was a woman who -- fortunately -- was not talking on her cel phone when she whacked me.

In all three cases I have been fortunate to suffer nothing more than scrapes and bruises. I come away from these accidents far less rattled than the drivers, who have suddenly seen their licenses, reputations, and freedom pass before their eyes. I like to think that by being calm in these situations -- not yelling, not sniffing around for a lawsuit -- I am teaching some people to be better drivers. And maybe, if *I* do something terrible someday, somebody will do the same for ME.

We all make mistakes, of course.

Which brings me to the traffic safety tip of the day. Pedestrians, you should ALWAYS try to make eye contact with drivers before you cross the street, to make sure they SEE you. Sometimes they'll look right through you, and sometimes they're too busy salivating over the God-given traffic gap to actually look in your direction, but you can often avoid pain (or death) by looking for the whites of their eyes first.

"The Conservation of the Wild Life of Canada" by G. Gordon Hewitt

I have previously mentioned how much I love reading books from the "Coles Canadiana Collection." These thick, meaty volumes are exact reprints of Canadian nonfiction books written before the 1930s, many of them journals, reports, and memoirs. Unabridged, they contain all the antiquated dullness and dried-out warts of the originals...just the way I like them.

I just finished reading C. Gordon Hewitt's "The Conservation of the Wild Life of Canada," a 1921 report which dared to state the obvious: "Hey folks, if we keep killing all these animals, we're going to RUN OUT of animals...and that could be BAD!"

It's impossible to evaluate this sort of book without taking into account the time it was published, but much of it sounds awfully current. Hewitt had a real love of wild life for its own sake but he recognized that he'd need to sell his policies in practical ways: preserve the birds so they can eat the insects which damage our crops; protect the elk so that the Native Americans will have something to eat; save the goats because they make our parks prettier; domesticate the muskox in order to breed hardier cattle.

Except for the muskox thing his ideas were pretty good. Animals such as muskox tend to die when you move them around.

Much of the book is a dry and repetitious accounting of the habits of wildlife and the terrain of conservation areas, and for that reason I found myself focusing on Hewitt's amusing quirks. I loved the way he always described bad animals as "noxious," and whenever an animal was described as "fur bearing" I found myself picturing an animal who could barely tolerate its own fur.

I particularly enjoyed his "elk/wapati" hang-up. Hewitt's sense of order was obviously offended by the incorrect application of the word "elk" to the Canadian animal, so he constantly described them as "elk, or wapati," as though he could train us dumb readers to use the proper word.

Sorry buddy, we still call them "elk." And "cattalo," his proposed word for a buffalo/cattle hybrid, never stuck either (I guess somebody figured that "beefalo" sounded less silly...ahem).

Also amusing was Hewitt's intense hatred of cats. Lest you think he was a lover of all creatures, Hewitt constantly exhorted people to exterminate the "alien" cats because of their "cruel" slaughter of birds. Likewise he hated "market hunters." Nobody knows his opinions about ALIEN FELINE market hunters, but I think we can guess.

The book contains many photographs of Canadian animals, most of them carefully posed in front of explicitly fake backdrops. At first I was baffled, thinking that a photographer had herded trained polar bears, moose, and elk (AKA wapati) into large studios and forced them to pose for pictures. This seemed like a lot of effort to go through. Eventually I realized that the pictures were of stuffed animals in MUSEUM exhibits. Aha.

I've learned a lot from this book. I now know that a cow will apparently run AWAY from storms, but that a muskox will stand bravely (or stupidly) and face inclement weather. I learned that the arrival of the railway impacted buffalo in more ways than just transporting hunters: it also broke up the herds and caused lots of forest fires. I learned that New Brunswick really sucked when it came to animal preservation in the 1920s. I also learned that I'm still childish enough to laugh at the following sentence:
It has been calculated that a pair of tits and the young they rear will consume about 170 pounds of insect food a year.
This is certainly not the best or most informative Coles Canadiana book, but it is a slice of undiluted zeal from a well-intentioned and very wise man who died too soon.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

For Munch Enjoyment

I apologize for this sudden glut of New Yorker advertisements. I try to engineer this blog so that there are no "runs" of similar content -- personal anecdotes, pictures, videos, book reviews, etc. -- but I'm reading an AWFUL lot of The New Yorker recently, and I'm discovering SO many things that I simply can't resist posting. If I don't post them now I never will.

It's Clara Bow having her daily nibble!

What's most striking about this advertisement is its mix of '20s and '30s styles. The art nouveau graphics -- dots, pyramids, choppy picture cut-out -- are sheer '20s, as are most of the typefaces and Clara Bow's top. But her skirt, plus the audacious tone and the style of the "Chock Full O' Nuts" logo and "munch enjoyment" subheading are unlike anything I've seen previously in the magazine.

A change is afoot, I can practically smell it. This is good because -- between you and me -- I've never much liked the look of the '20s.

(The New Yorker, January 26, 1929, p.62)

Dr. Seuss and Flit: Marital Strife?

Hmmm. This confuses me more than Dr. Seuss' books ever did. Who the heck are these people?

Folks, How Can I Make Whoopee UP HERE...When DOWN IN FRONT The "Coughers" Are Whooping?

Oh my. You tell 'em, Eddie.
Maybe the audience would be grateful if I stepped to the footlights some night and voiced the above protest about the 'coughing chorus' down in front.

But that wouldn't be kind and it wouldn't be just. The cougher doesn't cough in public on purpose. He can't help it. It embarrasses him as much as it annoys his neighbors.

What he needs, to avoid that throat tickle, is an introduction to OLD GOLDS.
Many of us have seen enough minstrel photographs to be somewhat desensitized,, THOSE GLASSES! This picture of Eddie Cantor is the most frightening thing I've seen this year. I don't think I'll ever understand the grotesque caricature that was blackface comedy.

When I first looked at this advertisement I instinctively thought it was a reference to whooping COUGARS, which any frequent nightclub patron can relate to.

PS: Cantor wasn't bemoaning his inability to have intercourse on stage, he was referring to the play he was currently in.

(The New Yorker, January 26 1929, p.40)

I'd Buy (Almost) Anything By...Ministry

Having written many of these "I'd Buy Anything" posts I think I can solidify my musical watersheds in the following way:
  1. The music my parents and other elders listened to when I was very young. All that stuff has a "living on the farm" resonance which involves wood paneling, flipping through stacks of dusty vinyl, and watching birds through the windows.
  2. The small selection of oddball music videos I saw when we first subscribed to Superchannel.
  3. The groups I discovered while watching "City Limits" on MuchMusic. This was a desperately adolescent time of "pushing the envelope."
  4. The music I heard while working at CKMS...this was a more gentle time of discovery.
I haven't mentioned many City Limits discoveries, partly because most of those groups -- who tended to be permanently angry -- either stopped releasing music or stopped resonating with me. But I'll never forget the night in 1988 when I saw the video for Ministry's "Flashback." It was the first big smooch in my industrial dance love affair.

I love Ministry's sheer ear-gouging power. I also love Al Jourgensen's ability to combine angst with humour, and his desire to try out new ideas, evolving from vapid synthpop to brain-dead metal in just about twenty years. During that time he hit a lot of highpoints, the first of which was certainly "Over the Shoulder." The song makes me think of an out-of-control oil tanker, something which started as a slick little ditty but then got covered by giant remix barnacles. I think this is one of the most interesting songs ever...a highly underrated dancefloor killer and a big part of the birth of the "Wax Trax!" monster.

Next came the guitars, and Ministry began edging industrial culture into heavy metal territory. It was a slow process and it produced a lot of great albums, as well as bulldozing the wilderness so that young folks like White Zombie could take over. I saw Ministry's "Psalm 69" tour, which -- in retrospect -- was a teaser for the band's troubled future. The fans ripped up the chairs in Maple Leaf Gardens to build a forbidden mosh pit and the opening bands were...Sepultura and Helmet. Hmmm.

By the time their next album came out ("Filth Pig") I had already lost much of my enthusiasm, and the album itself seemed like a messy metal goof-off. It didn't help that the cover was so ugly. I totally dismissed "Filth Pig" and its follow-up ("Dark Side of the Spoon") and figured my Ministry love affair was over.

But it turned out the band was just changing faster than I was. Years later I bought both albums and discovered that I loved them. They really ARE messy metal goof-offs, but they're also eclectic and fun and multi-layered, not to mention way ahead of their time. I give you the last TRULY great Ministry song, "Reload."

Given my backtracking on "Filth Pig" and "Dark Side of the Spoon," I should be more careful when I dismiss their subsequent albums, right? Wrong. Coinciding with the slow eclipse of bassist Paul Barker, Jourgensen's musical vision seemed to narrow down to two simple variables: "harder" and "faster." Forget melody or creativity or careful production, just throw out a bunch of albums which sound like...well, generic metal. As much as I appreciate their anti-Bush lyrics I can't enjoy -- let alone recommend -- anything after "Filth Pig."

Albums to buy: as with any band which went through several musical metamorphoses, I have to recommend several: "Twitch" (dark electropop), "Land of Rape and Honey" (perfect guitar/synth balance) and "Filth Pig" (crazy-nutso-loud). Albums to avoid: everything post-"Filth Pig." For fans only: the billion-and-one Jourgensen side-projects and collaborations.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Daily Muffy: "PROTEST!"


"PROTEST!" -- season 6, episode 2 of The Daily Muffy -- begins on Monday, so be sure to check here every weekday for a new picture!

It's the story of my noble attempt to get off my tush and change the world, and also to keep my foundation from stippling in the intense sunlight. All pictures were taken by VanillaJ -- Queen of Composition -- who drove me to various protest hotspots and provided invaluable thematic advice. Thanks, VJ!

PS: I apologize for letting the previous Daily Muffy languish for a week...I think I wore myself out editing the "Hot Lips" video, and I wasn't quite up to the task of wading through the quirks of iPhoto '08.

Now that I've figured everything out I'm back in the Daily Muffy swing, I promise!

Embarrassing Moments: The Precocious Teen

In the late '90s, the video store I worked at moved to a new location and the stock was distributed differently throughout the store.

One night a teenage boy came into the store and started looking around.

"This place has changed since I used to come here!" he said.

"Yes, everything's been moved."

The boy walked around a corner and came back. "The Russ Meyer section is with the other sexploitation films now."

" was always with those films, only now they're labeled."

"No, those sections were always apart! I know because I used to come here all the time!"

"I WORKED here, and I'm telling you that they were always together."

The boy huffed and walked to another section of the store, then came back to the counter again. "I notice you finally got the Nick Kern videos."

"We've had them for years."

"No you didn't! You didn't have them last year!"

"We DID have them last year."

"I've been coming here for YEARS and I've NEVER SEEN THEM."

This kid was obviously worked up about something so I stopped arguing and let him spout his incorrect factoids, which he continued to do for another half hour.

The next night I came to work and told my boss the story. "You should have seen this kid! He was such a freak! Kept on babbling about how he used to come to the store, as if anybody cared, and insisting on describing 'how the store used to be'...and getting it wrong every time! It was embarassing to listen to him, he was such a brat, you would have loved making fun of him."

Suddenly, out of a crowd of people who were standing near the counter, the boy pushed his way forward. "THAT WAS ME!" he yelled, then ran away.

We stood there, stunned. The boy's mother came to the counter and said "He's been in the hospital for a while, he's clinically depressed. He always loved this store because he said that people here respected him and took him seriously. This was the first place he wanted to visit when he came home."

I felt terrible. The boy came back and started crying, yelling at me while the mother stood in the background. I pulled a rationalization out of my butt.

"We make fun of EVERYBODY here," I said. "Are you telling me you've never heard us make fun of customers before? That's what we DO. If we didn't care about a person, we'd never talk about them. Seriously."

This was partially true -- we DID always make fun of customers -- but we genuinely disliked the people we mocked. Fortunately the kid was so desperate that he grasped my rationale. By the end of the night he was happy again. Whew.

I learned a crucial lesson that I try to apply every day (and should apply more often in this blog): don't mock people in public places, and try to remember that annoying people are sometimes covering up a deep fragility. You must not drive them to suicide in front of their mothers.

"Hothouse" by Brian Aldiss

The sun is going nova and the increase in temperature has rearranged the world's genetic balance. Humans have "devolved" into small, relatively brainless creatures who eke out survival in a small ecological niche. A few species of insects -- the "termights" and wasps -- have grown larger but remain relatively humble beside the immensity of...

...the plants, which dominate the food chain and comprise most of the earth's diversity. Struggling to survive in an increasingly hostile environment, the plants have become vicious predators and are constantly fighting each other. They also like to fight the humans, which is when most of the fun occurs.

This is the basic idea behind Brian Aldiss' "Hothouse," which I read based on two factors:
  1. Brian Aldiss was a major booster for Anna Kavan, who I have a medium-grade obsession with. I figured it was time to read one of HIS books.
  2. Killer vegetables scare the heck out of me.
I'm not an avid sci-fi reader these days but I USED to be, and my dissatisfaction with the genre is fully represented in this book: it is so in love with its IDEAS that nothing else needs development. Characters and style are chucked aside so that Aldiss can describe The Next New Vegetable Horror, which is always followed by a detailed historical explanation for how the Vegetable Horror came to IMPOSSIBLE explanation, since none of the humans have any way of knowing such details. The book is a slave to its concept, which reminds me of so many sci-fi stories I read as a teenager.

Fortunately Aldiss' concepts are fun, if physically impossible. His vegetable monsters are ingenious, bizarre, and never repetitive, and -- yes -- some of them scare the heck out of me, especially the parasitic Morel.

Most beautiful of his concepts is that of the "traversers," mile-wide vegetable bags who spin webs from earth to the moon. Their webs add a magic touch to the squshy unpleasantness of the dying earth. I say "magic" because the idea is both imagination-stirring and totally wonked. But anyway.

Sometimes Aldiss dispels the books mystery with excessive descriptions of "how and why," but at other times he leaves us totally baffled, and that's when the book excels. At one point, some adventurous humans discover a long-dormant tool from the past, a flying bird-like machine that constantly shouts bizarre slogans ("Boycott chimp goods! Don't allow Monkey Labour in your factory. Support Imbroglio's anti-Tripartite scheme!") This machine achieves absolutely nothing for anybody but the humans enjoy having it around; they call it "Beauty."

Aldiss also writes excessive language for the annoying "tummy-belly men":
"Never before have we seen the stalker-walkers to take a walk with them when they go stalking-walking? Where were they when we never saw them? Terrible herder man and sandwich lady, now you two people without tails find this care to go with them. We don't find the care. We don't mind ever not to see the stalker-walkers stalky-walking."
This quote alone sort of sums up the book: it's a weird, annoying, funny hodge-podge of thoughts all jammed together. "Hothouse" is a mess full of abrupt endings and loose threads, maybe because it was compiled from a series of five novellas that Aldiss had written previously.

Mess or not, "Hothouse" is still fun to read. It is dense and impossible and silly, and I would go so far as to say it's poorly written, but the ideas and the crazy moments keep it going. You don't HAVE to believe that a bunch of mindless vegetable bags have colonized the moon by spitting bubbles of oxygen at it, you just have to be intrigued by the concept, and I am.

Friday, July 11, 2008

My Latest Facebook Friend Wannabe: Taygun Kuşçu!

Recently I mentioned an interesting Facebook phenomenon, wherein I receive "friend" requests from totally unknown men from far-off lands who CLAIM to be interested in women, but whose friends are all transsexuals with their legs prominently on display.

I present a typical character, Taygun Kuşçu.

I certainly don't begrudge a fetishy person looking for sex -- we all have our quirks, and I'm the one wearing tights after all -- but it's the "interested in women" thing that continues to baffle me. And I don't feel bad posting this guy's profile because he has tried to contact me based on the most tenuous information. Also his hair is unpleasant.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Seen at Reuben's: Helen Kane

Because I get a strange enjoyment out of these crazy "celebrity pig-out gossip" stories, and I hope you do too:
HELEN KANE can't blame our A. M. devotees one little bit for singing "We wanna be fed by you, just you and nobody else but you". She brought it on herself! And between great hungry mouthfuls of a particularly luscious Reuben's Hot Turkey Sandwich rubily bespangled with Cranberry Jelly, this town's newest Jazz Diva enthusiastically endorsed the parody in her best "Boop-boop-a-doop" manner. And for that matter so does everybody else!
So let's get this straight. Kane walks into Reuben's and orders her food, and while she's eating it a bunch of radio fans sing a weird, food-centric parody of Kane's biggest hit. Supposedly Kane appreciates this and does her trademark "boop-boop-a-doop" thing.

These people were mental.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Pre-Digital Electric News Tickers

If you've ever seen early "hustle-bustle" footage of New York City, you've probably noticed the electric news ticker (or "zipper") that circled the One Times Square building. It's not an unusual or bewildering sight nowadays, but have you ever wondered how that thing worked back in the '20s?

Think about it. The only computers in operation back then were differential analysers, which used wheels and gears to solve equations. These were strictly analog devices and had no real concept of "memory," let alone interactivity. They couldn't store information, let alone allow an operator to enter the text of a news report.

So how was it done with analog technology? The January 12, 1929 issue of the New Yorker explains the process beautifully. The sign was "designed, built, installed, and inaugurated" by Frank C. Reilly, who seems better known for the plays that he wrote than for this incredible invention. The way it works is ingenious...and totally crazy to modern sensibilities:
The frame which encircles the building and on which the moving letters and words appear is controlled by a smaller rectangular affair in a room on the fourth floor. Through this the letters, made of metal, are run after being dropped in proper order down a chute. Each letter, as it moves along, passes over myriad metal brushes which are connected with the bulbs on the outside of the building.
Nowadays we'd be encoding -- digitizing -- the letters into a code that could be deciphered by the sign. But back then, the only way anybody could conceive of such a sign was to LITERALLY make it an ANALOG which responded to REAL letters which whizzed around and triggered the lightbulbs. Amazing!

I think this is a situation where the technology looks more surprising to a modern day observer than it would have to somebody in 1929. We've moved so far away from the idea that a REPRESENTATION of something can nearly match its ORIGINAL, that the thought of somebody designing such a sign is totally bizarre. And yet, when you think about it, the design makes perfect sense, and it's probably the only way it could have been done.

The sign is still going, though I'm not sure if it uses the same technology. This New York Times article gives a few more details about how the sign worked (or still works).

PS: After reading the scant details another time I realize that my original conception -- that the letters were full-size models that moved directly behind the lights -- is probably false. It would seem that the letters were made to scale and run through a miniature track, whose sensors extended far out to the actual bulbs on the walls. This explains why the sign wasn't incredibly noisy on the outside, and also how it could gracefully go around corners.

"I Am A Strange Loop" by Douglas Hofstadter

To end my obsessive re-reading of classic computer literature I tossed in Douglas Hofstadter's "I Am A Strange Loop," which really has nothing to do with the topic at all. It's a rigorous explanation of Hofstadter's views on consciousness and "I"-ness, all based on his concept of "strange loops."

A strange loop is a (potentially) infinitely-recursive loop of (potentially) infinite symbols. Many of these symbols are much larger than the loop itself, which is just the beginning of the Gödelian properties they involve. Most importantly, each level of a strange loop can be perceived and analyzed by the levels above it...and out of this strange configuration, says Hofstadter, arises the illusion we call "consciousness."

This is basically a pithy restating of the ideas he presented in 1979's "Gödel, Escher, Bach," with much (though not all) of the mathematical explanations, symbolic logic, and whimsicality removed. I've been through GEB twice and have never gotten as clear a picture of strange loops as I got from "I Am A Strange Loop," so Hofstadter certainly achieved his main goal: to clarify GEB for everybody who didn't "get it."

But even though "I Am A Strange Loop" contains some crucial and rigorously-outlined revelations, I doubt that a non-convert would agree with it (let alone enjoy it). Hofstadter dismisses any dualistic approaches to consciousness (such as an intangible "soul material") and gives us an explanation where "I" am only aware of "I" because "I" am one of many interrelated strange loops in my cranium. The essence of "I" cannot be isolated because it is simply a pattern which arises from situations which allow strange loops; it is not anything mystical or divine (though it IS mysterious and wonderful!) Hofstadter even shows us that "I" cannot be confined to a single brain...and therein lies the humanistic side of his approach.

So those who believe in traditional, consciousness-invoking souls will not enjoy Hofstadter's ruminations, and neither will reductionists who want to actually find and observe the mechanics of consciousness. All who's left are those of us who already sort of believed Hofstadter's ideas before he graced us with a real explanation and an arsenal of terms to use.

If you decide you want to give it a try, "I Am A Strange Loop" is mostly an easy read. Hofstadter repeats and explains his salient points many times, often using half a dozen analogies to define each one (and to show how alternate points of view are much sillier than his are). He also shares many of his own life experiences, not -- as he says in the introduction -- because he's particularly egocentric, but because he believes these life experiences are things we can all relate to. And I think he's right.

If anything, the most difficult thing about this book are Hofstadter's "friendly, informal" quirks -- what he calls his "doggies and bunnies" approach. The puns are bad and the anecdotes intensely personal. This is both a strength and a weakness.

Do I believe in strange loops now? I think they're the best explanation for consciousness that I've ever run across, and they've already changed the way I deal with people...but believing Hofstadter's ideas is not really a springboard to other things. "I Am A Strange Loop" tells you more what consciousness ISN'T, which I think is useful, but knowing what it IS won't have an affect on most people in the long run.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Dr. Seuss and Flit: "Theatrical Note"

I was beginning to wonder if Dr. Seuss had given up on being a media whore, but no! Here he is on January 5, 1929 with yet another "Flit" advertisement.

This picture gives us some crucial insight into vaudeville; we now know that these sorts of acts juggled cheese-balls, candles, flowers, piranhas, and "bowling-and-killing" implements, all while standing on the ass-faced pig-dog.

Why Groucho Marx is holding the Flit I have no idea.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

A Mystery



Have you guessed?

YOUR idea is probably WAY more interesting than the REAL reason, so tell me: Why is this man Pounding the Table in 1929? And don't say it's because he's excited about the Pittsburgh Press newspaper chain, because that would be dull.

A Man Isn't Safe Any More

Wow, the cigarette companies sure were subtle!
A man isn't safe any more.

Not if he has Camels in his case. For the young ladies of the land, with their usual penetration, have discovered the excellence of this famous cigarette....So that nowadays, whenever a male voice is heard to say, "Have a Camel," echo answers in a soft but prompt soprano: "I'd love to."
My goodness, that picture! She's snatching a cigarette with one hand and offering herself with the other. She's emancipated AND for sale!

(The New Yorker, December 29, 1928)

When Bollywood is 100% Joyful

It's Sunday morning and I can't imagine anything more sweet or exciting than Helen's performance of "Baithe Hain Kya Uske Paas"

You're wondering what's going on? Don't ask! This is from one of the wilder '60s Bollywood extravaganzas ("Jewel Thief'") and all I can say is: watch the movie. As usual Helen is just a minor "bad girl" character but she certainly steals the show, not least because of her trademarked "flappy dance."

She's basically singing about how wonderful she is and how no man can resist her. But you don't need to know that.

Need I mention that Lydia of Delirium Clothing constructed a picture-perfect copy of this outfit for me, and that I performed this song at the Director's Guild of America? Unfortunately I didn't have a strange woman in a white dress who could zip in and out of the shot. She's an oddity even in Bollywood, let me tell you.

Here's a shot of the Delirium recreation of the outfit, with me kneeing drag king Sabastian in the groin.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

I'd Buy Anything By...Meat Beat Manifesto

When I worked at CKMS -- have you noticed how many of these musical anecdotes start this way? -- Eli McIlveen insisted that I watch a series of music videos by E.B.N. I was instantly hooked on the band, but since they only ever released one full album I was desperate for more. The E.B.N. album had been heavily produced and modified by a guy named "Jack Dangers," so I started looking in his direction.

Holy cow! Jack Dangers was (and is) the driving force behind "Meat Beat Manifesto," a twenty-plus year music project that has embraced ambient, trance, breakbeat, experimental, industrial, rap, and jazz. There's an odd mysteriousness about Danger's need to constantly remix and rerecord his songs, lending a continuity between different versions and a desire to "hear them all." The debut MBM release, in fact, was a double-album consisting of four songs, each drastically modified over and over and over...

His style is meticulous and lockstep, but mixed with layers of organic "messiness," preventing it from sounding sterile. He may not be the best singer in the world but he tends to compliment the slightly shoddy nature nicely. Here, for instance, is a live 2007 performance of one of their oldest songs ("God O.D."), done in their current style: loose, informal, surprisingly sweet.

MBM is perfect "do your work" makes your body move but doesn't much distract your brain. It is not, however, easy to dance to, for some reason that I've never quite understood...maybe the tempo is slightly the wrong speed or the syncopation a bit wonky.

Dangers regularly contributes to the work of others, usually as producer, remixer, or collaborator. One of his more curious collaborations is the substantially unreal "Tino Corp" collective, producing albums of "beats" that are both sampleable and fun to listen to; Dangers is most effective when it comes to constructing his rhythms so this is a natural forum for him.

Albums to buy? Try "Storm the Studio" for the old-style industrial MBM, "Subliminal Sandwich" for the experimental fan-favourite, or the recent "At the Center" for the truly funky jazz. Albums to avoid: "Satyricon," an unpleasant detour into pop that went horribly, horribly wrong. For fans only: the "Tino Corp" albums, which are deliberately sparse.

Friday, July 04, 2008

A Plague of Junk and Silent Calls

About a month ago I started receiving the "Waterloo Record Save & Sell" in my mailbox. This flimsy excuse for junk-mail advertising is as thick as a phone book and gets shoved, weekly, into my tiny receptacle. It crushes legitimate mail and leaves the mailbox lid jammed open. I don't read it and I recycle it every week. What's the point?

So I finally had enough and I called their mail-carrier line. I was on hold for several minutes, but then managed to speak to a very nice person who said she'd "take me off the list." I should have asked her how I ended up on their list in the first place -- maybe I could track my pervasive junk-mail hydra back to its roots -- but I'm glad to remove at least one source of soliciting-annoyance from my door.

Incidentally, like many people I get several calls a day from telemarketers, but in most cases I pick up the phone and I don't get an answer...the line is dead. I've discovered that this is something called a "silent call" (or an "abandoned call") which means that a computer has randomly dialed the digits in my phone number and -- when I picked up the receiver -- it notified the telemarketing company that my phone was active. But since no bottom-feeding, scum-sucking telemarketers were available to respond to the pick-up at that moment, the call was simply abandoned.

Incredibly rude.

This happens about six times a week. It's a relatively slight annoyance but I can't help wondering: who regulates this stuff, and how much money do they receive from call-center lobbyists?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Creepy Pedro Episode Seven

I started writing episode seven of "Creepy Pedro" in 2001. I finally finished it this week. If you'd like to read it, go here and click on the last episode. I warn you that it's long, rambling, unpleasant, and not necessarily work-safe, but I think a lot of it is really funny.

Like all of the Creepy Pedro plays I had started it with absolutely no plan whatsoever, but this time I wrote Pedro and his friends into such a conundrum that I couldn't figure out how to get them see, the second half was a parody of the sort of thinking that underlay the gleeful rush into the second Iraq war, and you know how impossible it is to deal with THAT sort of situation.

At least nobody died as a direct consequence of my writing this script.

The episode is called "The Creepy One From the Sky" and it was heavily inspired by the books I was reading at the time: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. I figured that Pedro hadn't been dropped into a fantasy setting yet, so it was about time. I was also just discovering George Saunders and I unconsciously ripped off his dialog style in a few places.

If you have the fortitude, enjoy! You don't have to read the previous episodes to understand what's going on. It will all be baffling anyway.

The Spot-Hole

Today I'm in the bathroom at work and I'm staring at the wall -- for reasons you can guess -- and I notice a little point of light.

So I look closer at it and it appears to be a small hole in the bathroom wall, about a millimeter in diameter, but when I move my head a bit the light disappears.

To make sure it isn't just a shiny fleck of paint I cup my hands around the spot...and it continues to glow. It's a bright speck buried in the darkness of my hands. It really does look like a hole.

Workmate Charles wanders over to find out why I'm lurking around the toiletries and I show him the spot, and he cups his hands around it and says "Yeah, I think it's a hole," though he also notices the way it seems to reflect a bit, as though a flake of paint were covering it slightly. Another workmate -- Matthew -- sees us acting all suspicious and so he looks too and he confirms...yes, could be a small hole, very strange.

A hole in the bathroom wall.

I leave and get a pencil from my cubicle and come back to confirm the theory; I want to poke the spot and see if the pencil goes in. I walk up to the wall...

...and I can't find the spot. I search around and around. I cup my hands and look all over. The situation is complicated by the style of the paint, which is deliberately bumpy. I call Charles back and we look together and neither of us can see anything. Meanwhile the automatic toiletries are flushing like crazy because we keep standing in front of them.

By now we have collected a small bathroom mob. Workmate Don turns off the light while I stand in front of the wall, but I can't see anything. We ascertain out where the hole should exit -- an unused, dimly-lit storage area behind the elevator -- and we search that wall as well...nothing. Just in case there WAS a fleck of paint slightly covering the hole, I get a wet paper towel and start wiping at the wall, hoping to dislodge it. Nothing.

We sit around and stare at each other. Either the little hole got covered up somehow, or it was a remarkably reflective piece of material that fell off, or we just forgot where exactly we'd been looking.

It is an unsolved mystery. Like a UFO. In the bathroom.

Beckzy Is Just Fine

My father knows his car sounds. He is the Doctor Doolittle of cars. I don't think this skill has made him very happy over the years, because cars usually just complain or scream in agony, they rarely say things like "I'm feeling GREAT!" or "I love you!"

I called my father and explained the sound that Beckzy has been making, and he immediately said, "Your power steering fluid is low. Check it out and refill it." So I took my first dive under Beckzy's hood -- she's modest that way -- and discovered that her power steering tank wasn't just LOW, it was TOTALLY EMPTY. No wonder she's been bitching.

One bottle of power steering fluid later...and Beckzy's whine has almost totally disappeared. What's more, she steers like a buttery swan, like the car she always knew she could be. When I drove her to work today ("to get the bubbles out of the fluid") she seemed to be saying what cars NEVER say to people: "I'm feeling great! Love you! And thanks, dad!"

Scrutable Poetry Corner: "Dilemma"

In keeping with the recent "cat" theme, here's "Dilemma" from the December 22, 1928 New Yorker. I actually think it's kind of lovely.
Kittens, of course, are embarrassing...
Yet, in the full o' the moon,
Who would not wander, a sinuous wraith,
Out of the door--away--
Threading the area's fragrant shades
To a fence where gallants croon,
Tiger, maltese, and tortoise,
Many a lovelorn lay?

There, where the pails gleam silver,
What rapture to pose and yawn,
Queening it over the envious swains,
Preening, alluring, heart-harassing;
Fanning to fury a duel-din
Death to the drowsy dawn!
Helen of Troy, in fur...
--But kittens, alas, are embarrassing!
This is by Harold Willard Gleason, best known for...well, nothing much that I can figure out.

He wrote some books.

Mr. Worthington Ames Presses THE WRONG FOOT

It makes me happy that things like this could have happened, once.
When Mr. Ames tasted the Duchess Soup he put his foot in it. Here was that wonderful flavor he had told his wife about. He wanted to call her attention to it. However, one must observe the social amenities. But under the table all is different. So he aims a foot pressure wifewards, which translated into husbandese means, "This soup is flavored with that Guasti Cooking Sherry I was telling you about." The lady who looks at him askance is not Mrs. Ames and she thinks Mr. Ames a gay dog.
It also amuses me to think that, at some time, people probably guzzled this heavily-salted sherry when they were unable to contact their bootlegger.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Lois Long Finally Annoys Me

I've said in the past that I enjoy Lois Long's contributions to the 1920's-era New Yorker, particularly her somewhat acerbic "Tables for Two" column (which she wrote under the name "Lipstick"). I've also said that though some scholars have accused her of being a racist, I felt that Long's racial comments were simply par for an authoress writing about Harlem nightclubs, and that I got no impression that Long was -- as charged -- more dismissive of black people than anybody else in the magazine.

Then I ran across her December 22, 1928 review of "Club Harlem."
Above 125th Street, the latest place visited was one called, quite simply, the Club Harlem. Your first impression is of very pleasing decoration--acid yellow walls with huge, foggy, dark-blue silhouettes of barbaric negroes and palm trees. The second impression is of a grand blues orchestra, principally brasses; and the third is of probably the most inferior collection of white people you can see anywhere. Possibly they are hired by the management to give the colored race magnificent dignity by contrast, but I dunno.
I'd have to do some real twisting to make this comment sound innocuous, and taken with the tone of some of her earlier writings I'll finally admit that "they" -- those few scholars who have ever mentioned Lois Long in their research -- are probably right: Long viewed the black people in Harlem as inferior to whites...but cute scenery, and LORD they could dance!

She goes on to mention a "high-yaller chorus," the first time I've heard this term in the magazine.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Canada Day at the Pool

What do you do when it's Canada Day and the sun is shining? I'll tell you: when Tracey invites you to the public pool to sunbathe and go swimming, YOU ACCEPT.

Granted, I haven't been in a public pool since I was a kid so the experience was a little foreign to me. I was surprised when we separated at the entrance to go through doors marked "BOYS" and "GIRLS." I was even more surprised when I saw signs demanding that I take a shower before entering the pool area, but everybody walked right past the showers and ignored the signs. It would have been annoying, showering with a pack of strange pre-teen boys.

The public pool is terrific for people-watching. You see all types of bodies, backgrounds, and motivations. I really do appreciate the spectacle of horny highschool students being "cool" around their girlfriends.

There was a steel band.

We lay down and oiled up and rested in the sun. Eventually I screwed up my courage and entered the pool itself, where Tracey's son taught me to breast stroke. Small children were clinging to styrofoam floats. The sky was cloudless. The water was cool. It was easy to forget that none of us had bathed.

Sometimes the lazy, chatty days are the best.

"The Soul of a New Machine"

I'm re-reading Tracy Kidder's "The Soul of a New Machine." The first time I read it I was most interested in the technical aspects, but this time I'm concentrating more on Kidder's ability to describe his subject with beautiful prose, which is strange considering it's a book about a bunch of engineers designing a computer.

The following paragraphs, I think, are Kidder's crowning achievements and indicative of the book as a whole. Like much of his best writing, you don't need to understand what's going on in order to get to the heart of the issue: a human being, swimming in the unnatural world of equations and electronics, trying to grasp what he's seeing...and working under an impossible amount of stress. All that said, this scene is still and quiet, as most awful situations really are:
Something has happened. The straight white line that was running across the little blue screen has rearranged itself into a jagged shape, like a diagram of two teeth on one side of a zipper. Rosen is staring at the picture, his nails raised to his mouth. Slowly, still staring, he rotates his hand and takes most of his knuckles in his teeth. For a long moment, he holds this position, frozen like the image on the screen.

It might be a painting of a nightmare by Goya. Your eye is drawn from the young man's face and the hand resting in his teeth, to the jagged line on the screen, which is in fact a picture of an electronic event that took place, in infinitesimal time, just a moment ago. Though it is a common sort of picture, often seen in the lab, all of a sudden it has become dreadful. But who can say why?
Kidder earned his Pulitzer Prize.