Monday, September 28, 2009

I Totally Understand

"Oh the rent--the rent! What about my career!"
(It's by William Crawford Galbraith, who did a lot of artwork for The New Yorker but appears to be otherwise forgotten).

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Spider Attack!

My mother told me horror stories about cleaning the kitchen window yesterday, and I saw her pile of blackened paper towels, but it wasn't until today that I learned the TRUE horror of a filthy window.

Since we're in for some cold and blustery days this week, I decided it was time to remove the air conditioner from my new bedroom. I figured that the hardest thing would be...well, just removing the air conditioner, which I knew would be heavy and which -- as is the nature of air conditioners everywhere -- had been installed in an individualistic and unorthodox manner.

After unscrewing the wooden platform and ripping off the electrical tape, I started pulling the air conditioner out...and spiders ran EVERYWHERE. Little tiny spiders the size of pin-pricks, monstrous pea-sized ones, and all sizes, gray, transparent, ZOOM! All of them running for cover as I stood, helpless, with the air conditioner in my hands.

So I got Windex and paper towels and started scrubbing every groove and platform in the window. Everywhere I looked: spiders. DOZENS of them. I'd spray Windex in a corner, and three or four more spiders would run out. Crush-crush-crush!

And not just that...the MOULD. At least a decade of thick, black gunge in the corners, mixed with countless splats of flyshit and the corpses of long-forgotten flies. Under the eaves-troughs: dangling webs, more spiders. On the outsides of the windows: thick strands both new and old.

I thought I'd seen it all, and then I tackled the upper corner, which I thought was crammed with insulation to fill in the gap around the air conditioner. But Jesus, no, I don't even know WHAT it was: a solid black crud, an inch thick and several inches deep, which crumbled under my touch to reveal insect husks, spider legs, opaque membranes the size of peanut shells. This was ALIEN. IT SIMPLY COULD NOT BE.

And then the big-daddy spider came rushing out of some hidden cranny, fat-bellied, an inch long, waving at me. I sprayed him with Windex, he went down, he came back, I sprayed again, drowning him, but still he shuddered and spun until...well, I picked up a piece of the air conditioner and knocked him out into the air.

I think he's still alive. Tonight...close your windows.

So why are there so many spiders? Maybe because the previous owners just never cleaned the windows...but I never cleaned MY windows either, and nothing even CLOSE to that ever happened.

Strangely, all the spiders seem to be on the windows on the western side of the building, so either they never cleaned those ones or there's some natural phenomenon involved. Maybe mould grows on that side, which attracts insects, which attracts spiders...

Either way I thank goodness that I haven't found any spiders INSIDE the apartment. Yet.

T-Plus One

It took only two hours for seven of us to move everything. I hate making other people deal with my own personal shortcomings -- pack-ratting, high dust-tolerance, unfastidiousness -- but everybody grinned and bore it for the duration, despite a few heart-jabbing jokes about hygiene.

My father drove the big 17' U-Haul truck, and was also in charge of packing everything into the back. The rest of us just carried boxes and boxes and boxes, and -- despite my best-laid plans -- everything got hopelessly muddled. Where's the hammer? Where does this box go? Should I have taken more chairs?

Then the moving in: brazenly parking everybody counter to the condo rules, then my mother -- spade in hand -- turning my ho-hum patio into a beautiful little garden. Vanilla and Jon took me out for lunch and de-stressing, then we returned and I began to put together the brand-new, luxurious computer desk.

Meanwhile my mother got to work on the windows. The previous owners of this townhouse were clean in every way but one: they never touched their windows. My mother was aghast, elbow-deep in black mould, fly sh*t, and "at least forty spiders." I have to console myself that whatever my housekeeping shortcomings I have NEVER left THAT sort of mess. Just other sorts of messes... we went back to the old apartment and did some post-moving cleaning-up. I apologize to future renters that the fridge and stove are somewhat gross. As for the cat smell, I promise that's not my (or Zsa Zsa's) fault: it always smelt like that, depending on the day and humidity.

Bell Telephone arrived to hook me up, and I have to say that despite a few problems with them in the past, this time they were absolutely GOLDEN. Everything's working perfectly and -- what's more -- arranged around my beautiful new desk. My keyboard is in a comfortable spot for the first time in...well, forever. My feet no longer hurt when I sit and type.

My hope was that the single party wall in this townhouse would be totally soundproof. Well, it's not; I seem to be able to hear them when they're close to their walls, but either they're relatively quiet or the effect decreases with distance. In any case, so far it seems adequate.

It was SO nice to put my filthy clothes (remember, I haven't been able to wash them for almost a week) into MY OWN WASHER, and then into MY OWN DRYER, and then gently fold them in my own good time.

It hasn't sunk in that I own this place; currently it seems like "a place that I'm in." This is partly because I slept on my new couch last night, which is nice to sit on but terrible to sleep on, especially with a cat. This afternoon the guys from Sleep Country arrived and put my new bed together in TEN MINUTES. They even wore protective booties.

There is a lot of stuff remaining to be done. My life revolves around easily-performed routines, none of which are established in this new place. 95% of my stuff is still in boxes, and there are a lot of things I still need to buy, and I can't wait to try out the coffee maker that my sister bought me.

But my first real moment of bliss came when I went out back to sit in my yard. I sat on my new patio furniture and read Vladimir Nabokov in the cool morning air. Zsa Zsa explored the shrubbery, and then settled down to watch the neighbours as they passed by my gate. For the first time I really felt the words "My house," and then I thought "Good," and it was like something hard inside me melted just a bit.

Friday, September 25, 2009

T-Minus One

Last week I told my mother that I only had about another three hours of packing to do. After an entire week of near-constant packing, I just finished ten minutes ago...and there are STILL some things I could do.

I have cleaned. I have even SCRUBBED. I have thrown out at least twenty bags of garbage, most of them full of crappy old pillows and bedding. I have a box full of carefully-coiled cables, and a big duffel bag for "things I'll need right away," and then a smaller carry-on bag for "things I'll need in the morning," and a box that says "Cat Food and Wine," and more boxes full of feathers, feathers, feathers.

Yesterday I gave the lawyer a cheque so mammoth that I'm surprised I could lift it. Today he gave me a key, which supposedly fits the lock in my new front door. Tomorrow I am beholden to the benevolent condo corporation, and I am responsible for my shrubbery, and I...

...I have a HOME!

I'm packing my modem now, and I'll be back online when Ma Bell deigns to hook me up. See you soon!

The Yo-Yo - Helen Kane - Poop Connection

If you've been reading this blog today, you've been wondering what yo-yos have to do with feces. I myself wasn't aware of any connection but a November 23, 1929 advertisement from Reubens gives us this, a note handwritten by Helen Kane.

I mentioned this morning that one of the 1929 yo-yo tricks was the "Boop-a-doop," obviously derived from the Helen Kane song "I Wanna Be Loved By You." Then, later in the day, I told three stories about poop. Now I give you a note written by Helen Kane in which she says
I wanna be loved by you --
Poop Popp Poop Poop
There you go! I don't just write about random things! It's all connected, just sometimes you have to wait a bit!

PS: I find it hilarious to think of Broadway star Helen Kane being so drunk at Reubens that she can't even remember the lyrics to her one hit song.

PPS: A long time ago I posted some of the choicest Reubens advertisements. Remember? They would spy on their celebrity guests, and then write about what they ordered and what terrible pigs they were. As of 1929 the new Reubens schtick is to publish celebrity quotes, and then somewhat more discreetly call them pigs.

The Anal Trilogy

You know what they say..."Poopy things come in threes!" Or at least they SHOULD say that, because it's certainly true this week.

Warning: Do not read this while eating.

One: The Final Walkthrough

On Tuesday I went to my soon-to-be-new-home for a final walkthrough. My real estate agent and I were met at the front door by the former owners. They're a really sweet couple, but they seemed strangely anxious to leave...I assumed they just didn't like people looking at their stuff while they were still around.

After they scurried out the door, my agent and I went through the rooms, making sure everything was still fine. When I approached the bathroom door...WOAH! One of those cute, sweet people had taken a horrific dump sometime previous, and the stench was REVOLTING. I could only stand it long enough to take a quick look around and run back wonder the two of them ran away so fast.

Unfortunately I didn't include the "No Stinky Poops" clause in my list of conditions.

Two: The Laundry Room

I go next door to do my laundry, and I've mentioned previously that they have an occasional sewage problem down there. On Wednesday I walked over with my dirty clothes and detergent, and I noticed that the basement door was open. I looked in...and there was one of my neighbours, sitting on the washing machine with his shirt over his nose and at least two inches of raw sewage floating around him.

"You'll have to leave," he said. Apparently he'd just dumped some water down the floor drain, and the sewage just gushed right out.

I asked him if he could escape, and he said "I think so." He gingerly lowered himself into the mire and tip-toed between the floating lumps of sh*t.

I am SO happy I'm moving away.

Three: The License Bureau

Today I went down to the license bureau to get my driver's license renewed. Amazingly, I was faced with exactly the same thing that happened the last time I was there, four years ago: one of the three attendants -- a poofy-haired blonde woman -- was having a long, whispered, personal chat with a creepy older lady across the kiosk counter.

I'm serious, these same two women were doing exactly the same thing the last time I was there, and we're not talking about a quick chat, we're talking about a good five minutes: "I knew somethin' wasn't right, with him always stompin' up and down the stairs." -- "Yup, nothin' else you could do." -- "An' I'm thinkin', what can I do?" -- "There's nothin' else you can do."

And on and on and on. We patient people in the growing line exchanged glances and whispered gripes that this always happens here.

Suddenly the creepy old lady at the counter let out a long, wet, deafening fart. We stared. We were dumbstruck and amazed. And the two of them just keep on talking as though nothing had happened.

"I hope I don't get that kiosk," said the woman behind me. She didn't, but the woman AFTER her did.

Stocks and Cigarettes

The articles in the 1929 New Yorker continue to use the stock market crash as fodder for jokes and insults, but now the advertisers are trying the angles:

It's an advertisement for Fatima cigarettes, and the tagline is "Yes...and what a whale of a difference just a few cents makes." Fatima's gimmick was that their cigarettes cost more than the rest, but only because they were far superior.

Anyway, what is this advertisement meant to convey? Is the guy in the picture receiving good stock news, or bad? Considering that pretty much EVERYBODY got bad news at this time, it would seem awfully strange to alienate customers by saying "Ha ha, YOU might have lost everything, but FATIMA smokers didn't!"

On the other hand, if the guy in the picture DID lose everything, why are they all so happy? Is it because they have a backup plan: to put their amazing levitating dog on the vaudeville circuit?

I don't know and I am confused.

Timely Yo-Yo Tricks

In the November 23, 1929 issue of The New Yorker, a helpful reader (Mary Rose Himler) submits a timely list of popular yo-yo tricks:
The Moanin' Low
The Touchdown
The Standing Sitting Standing
The Lindbergh Loop
The Double Trouble
The Lowdown
The Boop a Doop
The Four Easy Marx Brothers
Who would have thought that trick names would reflect current events? Somebody needs to do a study on this through the last eighty years, to see how the names have changed.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Voyage to Purilia

During the latter months of 1929, The New Yorker ran a continuing series called "A Voyage to Purilia." Written by Elmer Rice -- a playwright with some early successes -- it's the fictional tale of two earth men who travel to a planet where social norms (and even the laws of physics) follow the unspoken conventions of popular films.

This "popular film" angle is never stated, but Rice sure as hell milks it, and for the most part it's clever and funny. The citizens of Purilia all behave according to their caste (hero, vamp, villain, virgin, or mother). The businessmen do a vague sort of work which is never explained. Farmers live on tiny plots of land, always inches from being foreclosed by a dastardly landlord. Prisoners who are sentenced to death are always saved at the very last minute.

In part seven, after speculating that high-caste Purilians rarely get diseases because their "susceptibility to wounds, bruises, contusions, fractures, and swoonings" has caused immunity, and revealing that low-caste Purilians who suffer disease (influenza, delirium tremens, gout, parasites, and "maladies of the teeth") are always subjects of mirth, the narrator describes an upper-caste malady which IS taken seriously:
Chief among these are heart-failure and apoplexy, both of which are deemed highly respectable and worthy of the expenditure of a good deal of emotion. The symptoms of these twho ailments are almost identical. The victim opens and closes his mouth several times in rapid succession, rolls his eyes, and then slumps heavily either upon the floor or into a chair. If the attack is particularly acute, he dislodges a vase in his fall, or else clutches at a tablecloth, with a resultant breakage of crockery.

This is typical of the incredibly detailed descriptions in "A Voyage to Purilia." It's simultaneously a fun adventure, a vicious satire, and a checklist of hundreds of film tropes. It's also an indication that not much has changed in Hollywood during the last eighty years. If you have a copy of the New Yorker DVDs lying around, I recommend you go back to the fall of 1929 and start reading.

Barth vs. Nabokov

Not long ago I read every single John Barth book in chronological order, and I didn't like what I discovered. My basic conclusion was that, after a certain point, he started using the same characters, style, and list of obsessions in every single book.

The worst aspects started happening with the publication of "Chimera" in 1972, which introduced the characters he'd beat to death over the next thirty years: a man and a woman, highly sexed and of above-average intelligence and education, engaging in cute and explicit discussions about their sex lives. These discussions are always goofy, alliterative, and full of puns. What's more, the Barth narrative style post-Chimera is almost exclusively expository, and usually the narrator is also the author.

These are perfectly good storytelling techniques in themselves, but my beef is that John Barth used them almost without exception. I found this SO distasteful that I've vowed never to buy another of his books.

This week I decided to re-read Vladimir Nabokov's "Ada or Ardor." I've only read it once before -- about fifteen years ago -- and I remember being totally in love with it...but it's driving me BONKERS.

Why? Because IT CONTAINS THOSE JOHN BARTH CHARACTERS! It is (among other things) the story of the relationship between Van and Ada, two highly-intelligent and highly-sexed individuals who talk endlessly about their sexual relationship in a cute, alliterative, pun-filled way. And it's written in an expository style in which the authors are...Van and Ada themselves.

Seriously, reading "Ada or Ardor" is like reading a long-lost John Barth novel, right down to the fact that the main characters say "et cetera" and "tant pis" (which Barth's characters also do, constantly, pointlessly, in every book).

I said at the beginning of this post that Barth started writing this way in 1972, with the publication of "Chimera." You won't be shocked to learn that "Ada or Ardor" was published three years previously...and that Barth is an acknowledged Nabakov fan.

Now, I don't have PROOF that John Barth enjoyed "Ada or Ardor" so much that he basically spent the rest of his life re-writing it...but it sure as hell seems that way. And do you know what the real shame is? That bastard has ruined this book for me. Every time I read a sentence like this--
Could he find the right words: not to hurt Ada, while making her bed-filly know he despised her for kindling a child, so dark-haired and pale, coal and coral, leggy and limp, whimpering at the melting peak?
--I want to scream and write a hateful letter to Nabakov, even though he did it FIRST. And he's dead.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dr. Seuss and Flit: "Cello Contraption"

He's trying out that panel-style again in the November 16, 1929 New Yorker:

It's difficult to comment on this one, other than to suggest that spraying insecticide directly into your face is probably a bad idea. Note that the cat was smart enough to move out of the way.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Epiphanies and Discoveries

Here are some things I've recently realized.
  • I enjoy brushing with a small toothbrush, and I will brush longer and more vigorously, than I ever did with a larger toothbrush.
  • Don't worry if you missed a Big Sale at Loop Clothing! There'll be another Big Sale next week and you'll definitely find out about it.
  • Beds are expensive.
  • Once you smell your cat farting after she's eaten Liver and Chicken cat food, you will be able to perfectly relive the smell just by thinking about it, wherever you are, whether you want to or not.
  • The world can be awfully crappy, but it will be ESPECIALLY crappy if you EXPECT it to be.

New 1920s Technology: The Yo-Yo

Not to be sidetracked by the stock market crash, the November 9, 1929 issue of The New Yorker describes a brand new craze.
This backwater hamlet has been very slow to discover Yo-Yo. Cities like Dallas and Birmingham knew about it long ago...

Yo-yo is a small yellow top with a groove in the centre. Around the axis is a string. We could describe it, but it would be simpler for you to buy one... The printed directions that come with it say "you can invent many tricks yourself." (The only decent trick we've invented so far is called "Putting It Away in the Desk.")
The tricks mentioned in the article are "The Strut" and "The Spinner," both performed by a Texas boy named Delma White (who spun it 121,111 consecutive times). They go on to tell the standard (and apparently true) story of the Yo-Yo's American popularity: a Filipino bellboy named Pedro Flores would occasionally entertain guests with it, and then he opened his own factory in 1928.

The Yo-Yo craze in New York was thanks to Mr. Louis Marx of the "Jaymar Specialty Company" (in the '70s this company was still sponsoring Yo-Yo events, but was known as the "Louis Marx Toy Company"). Mr. Marx included the following poem with the first New York Yo-Yos of 1929:
What is the dearest thing on earth
That fills my soul with joy and mirth?
My Yo-Yo.

I'd Buy Anything By...Stan Ridgway

As I'll mention when I write the "I.B.A.B. Wall of Voodoo" entry, I ran across Stan Ridgway mostly by accident. Before I discovered that he used to be in Wall of Voodoo, I knew him only from the goofy "Camouflage," which I'd previously ridiculed as total schlock.

Now I know that Ridgway is rarely saying what you think he's saying. He's been compared with Raymond Chandler, but I'd like to add a hint of Bob Dylan and Dorothy Parker in there, along with primitive New Wave sensibilities and the carnival keyboards of his wife (Pietra Wexstun). You might remember him best for "Don't Box Me In," a song he created with Stewart Copeland for the movie "Rumble Fish." And it's a damn good song.

In his long (and mostly obscure) solo career he has occasionally stumbled. Sometimes his rhymes are terrible. Sometimes his production sucks. Sometimes his extended live between-song rants are downright unfunny and dull. But for the most part his work is golden, eccentric, surprising, and uncompromising. He has a rabid cult following which is much deserved.

Over the years he has toyed with synthpop, adult-oriented rock, sample-heavy noise (in his side-project "Drywall"), and folk. Here he is this year, live and solo, in one of his frequent shows which never seem to cross the border (but I did get to meet his drummer Joe Berardi several years ago, which was a real treat).

Stan Ridgway just keeps going strong, and I keep following along.

Albums to buy: His debut "The Big Heat" (for the synthpop period) and "Black Diamond" (for the more Dylanesque sound). Albums to avoid: "Partyball" sounds like a poor commercial compromise but still has some good moments. For fans only: His album of children's songs, his album of '40s big-band standards, and his retrospective DVD "Showbusiness in my Life."

T-Minus Seven

We set the closing date for my condo to be really far in the future, because one of my RRSPs was stuck like Pooh in Piglet's door. That was cleared up surprisingly quickly, so I've just been waiting...and waiting...and waiting.

But oh thank goodness, next Saturday is the moving day! I have a truck rented, and friends who will help, and I've been stockpiling alcohol of various kinds because I think they all drink different things.

I've packed almost everything and it's strange living in an almost-empty house. Most of the musical equipment is still hooked up -- just in case I need an outlet -- and my clothes and bedding still need packing, and other than that it's just the odds and ends; pots, pans, lights, remotes, extension cords, and all the stuff that's too big for me to carry.

I'm having waves of panic, apprehension, excitement, and outright glee. People are wandering through my apartment, anxious to rent it for themselves. Zsa Zsa is adjusting surprisingly well to all her hiding spots being packed up and sent to the basement, but that's probably because the basement now has new hiding spots: rows of boxes, shelving units, and the milk crates I fortunately kept for all these years.

The vacuum is ready. The broom and feather duster are seeing heavy action. I am interrupting the long subterranean war between spiders and sowbugs in the basement; do you know how sticky a spider's egg-cocoon is?

PS: I finished reading The Young People's Library of Entertainment and Amusement, and I have to say that the Spanish-American warmongering was partly countered by statements from other anti-colonial politicians, and that Victorians really knew how to spend an evening indoors.

PPS: Then I re-read William T. Vollmann's "Whores for Gloria." It's amazing how different his prose is these days. I'd forgotten how "stream-of-consciousness" he could be. Anyway, it's an ugly book about an ugly subject, and its final statement seems to be "Don't go looking for happiness, because somebody will always find a way to make your happy times turn sour."

PPPS: So now I'm re-reading Vladimir Nabokov's "Ada or Ardor," which I remember loving many, many years ago. I'm hoping it will get me through to the end of the week.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


Those of you with iPhoto know the way that it "scrubs" your picture thumbnails when you move your mouse over them. When I accidentally scrubbed the 106 pictures from the "Jewel Thief" photoshoot I thought...hey! That looks sort of fun! I'll make a movie!

So here you go: an entire photoshoot in twenty seconds.

The Making Of

This was surprisingly hard to create music for. Since "Koyaanisqatsi" taught us that all fast-moving imagery must be accompanied by Philip Glass-style music, I decided that a quick arpeggio was required, one note for every picture.

In addition, VanillaJ said to me a few weeks ago, "Have you ever noticed that all the arty/experimental videos are depressing?" So I wanted to make a HAPPY song.

The problem was the part near the end, when each picture lasts twice as long for a very brief period. That happened because there were two versions of each picture in that section: one with the hole in my fishnets, and the other with the hole Photoshopped by Jenn (look at my left thigh for the subtle evidence).

It was a happy accident but it made no musical sense; it threw the time signature right out the window. I had to learn how to use Logic Pro's signature editor to fudge it so that -- at the end of the double-picture portion -- we'd land at the beginning of another 4/4 bar.

I spent a week on that, simply so I could get the drum pattern to match up. Then I decided it sounded better if the drum pattern didn't return anyway.

Anyway, this was just a fun experiment and it turned out pretty nicely.

The New Yorker and the 1929 Stock Market Crash

I've mentioned in the past that, because I am reading The New Yorker back issues chronologically, I am anxious to see historical events unfold. Now, in the November 2, 1929 issue, I've finally come to the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

The magazine treats the issue in a flippant way, which is frustrating; I can't wait for The New Yorker to graduate from the goofy humour rag of its early years! Maybe the crash (and depression) will inspire a more serious tone, but the first indications on page sixteen do not suggest such things.
The collapse of the market, over and above the pain, couldn't help but be amusing. It is amusing to see a fat land quivering in paunchy fright. The quake, furthermore, verified our suspicion that our wise and talky friends hadn't known for months what they were talking about when they were discussing stocks. Forcing us to breakfast on copper and oil, dine on sugar and food products, and sleep with rails and motors, they had succeeded in boring us to the breaking point.
Then they talk about the arrival of a rodeo. Oh well, I guess things can't change TOO quickly.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Scrutable Poetry Corner: "Work for the Censor"

Have horrid habits;
Are pretty bad;
Have no religions;
Expose their knees;
Parade their sins;
Have damaged souls;
Are total losses;
Are dreadful rakes;
Are law-deriders;
Won't say their prayers.
I'm shocked to see that unabridged zoölogies
Are still permitted in our schools and colleges!
(By the always-wonderful Arthur Guiterman, from the October 26, 1929 issue of The New Yorker).

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Dr. Seuss and Flit: "Insect Heaven"

This time around -- in the October 26, 1929 New Yorker -- Dr. Seuss draws some pretty cool bugs. I like the way they speak in old-timey-prophet fashion.

The good doctor has also added to theological knowledge: Insect Heaven is located within sight of Earth and Saturn, and perhaps the other planet is Uranus with slightly exaggerated rings. Scientists have yet to locate the distinctive planetary feature which looks an awful lot like the letters "Dr. S".

Korg Nanos and Logic Studio

UPDATE: After you read this, check out my "two months later" review.

I'm saving money, right? I've got a mortgage and new furniture and a brand-new bed, and God only knows how much money I'll be taking home from work once all those expenses kick in. So I've been counting my pennies and going out less and eating cheaper food...

...and then I bought these.

They comprise the "Korg Nano Series," three very cheap and powerful MIDI controllers that you can hook up to your music software and do amazing things with.

It should be obvious what the "NanoKEY" is for: it's a two-octave, velocity-sensitive, polyphonic keyboard that's perfect for tapping out melodies. My "workhorse" keyboard is an enormous and heavy Ensoniq ESQ-1, and it's sheer overkill when I just want to tinker. But I can plunk the NanoKEY down on my lap and use it without any setup or bother. It just works.

Likewise the "NanoPAD," which is ostensibly for drum programming but can also be used to make wonderfully freaky noises. It has a touchpad which you can squish your finger around on, bending and modulating notes with total abandon.

Most important, however, is the "NanoKONTROL," which comes with nine faders and knobs and eighteen buttons. You can decide for yourself what you want these controls to do; since the NanoKONTROL has four different "scenes" that you can switch between, I've programmed the fourth scene as an eighteen channel mixer (I'll explain how I did that in a second), the third scene to accomplish common editing tasks (changing the zoom level, switching tools), and the second scene for controlling EQ parameters. The first scene is for whatever tweaky thing I want to do at the moment...changing the cutoff and resonance of a synth, for instance.

The NanoKONTROL also has six buttons for controlling the's nice to be able to play, record, stop, and move the playhead without ever touching the mouse or keyboard.

The three devices are lightweight and tiny, and can all be run off an unpowered USB hub. And you damn well better use a hub, for reasons I'll cover in a second.

Bad Things About the Nanos

You get what you pay for. The keyboard is certainly not for's good enough for recording, but it occasionally drops notes.

As for the controller, the faders are short, none of it is motorized, and it receives no feedback from your editing software, so it is rarely in sync with what you're doing; if you tweak something in your software and then try to tweak it with the controller, the position of the controller and the value in your software will not match. This isn't crippling, but it does lead to twitchiness.

Also, since it has no assignable labels on it, it's very easy to forget how each control is assigned. And you can't get a nice shuttle/jog setup because none of the knobs are continuous; they all have a beginning and end.

But when you spend $80 for a controller you don't expect those kinds of features. These units are for hobbyists and for quick-and-dirty experiments; they aren't professional gear. Sigh.

Bad Things About Logic Pro

The real problems come when you try to integrate the NanoKONTROL with Logic Pro. In some ways it makes sense that the procedure is difficult: both Logic and the controllers are so freely configurable that it's impossible to offer a single solution. You, the user, must make decisions about how you want to use the controller...and then you must teach the hardware and the software to speak to each other.

Configuring the Nanos themselves is super-easy: you download the Korg Kontrol Editor and use it to tell the nanos how they should behave. Which MIDI channel will they use? Which notes and/or control codes should they send for each pad, fader, button, and knob? Should the buttons act as toggles -- sending a different code for each press -- or should they be "momentary," sending one code when depressed and a second when released?

Korg also tells you that, if you want to use more than one Nano at a time, you need to install their USB MIDI driver. I don't know if this is really necessary or not...I did it as a last resort when things seemed to be going haywire (see below).

Your nightmare only begins when you need to tell Logic how to use the NanoKontrol. You need to use Logic's "Controller Assignments" dialog, which you can access by pressing Command-K. Remember that'll use it a lot.

The Controller Assignments dialog is the dark smelly butthole of Logic Pro. It's ancient and unfriendly and buggy. It can just as easily make your dreams come true as it can totally destroy hours of hard work.

If you are faced with the task of configuring your NanoKontrol within Logic, my first advice is to READ THE LOGIC PRO CONTROL SURFACES SUPPORT MANUAL, but when it tells you in chapter one that you must "add" the device to Logic Pro, DON'T BELIEVE THEM. Logic cannot detect the NanoKontrol so it can't be "added" in the usual way. Skip chapter one entirely. Chapter two -- "Customizing Controller Assignments" -- is the one you need to read.

My next piece of advice is to NEVER USE THE EASY VIEW. It's confusing and gives you no idea of what you're actually doing. Skip right to the Expert View and do everything in there...

Key Commands

...unless you're assigning Key Commands, which is best done in the Key Commands dialog (Option-K). If you want to assign a button on your NanoKontrol to a keyboard shortcut in Logic -- and there are hundreds of them -- then use the Key Commands dialog...just select the command you want to execute, click the "Learn New Assignment" button, and press a button on your NanoKontrol. Presto!

This is great for the transport buttons (Play, Stop...) and for things like "Page Forward" and "Switch to Scissors Tool." It is NOT, however, useful for the knobs and faders, or for special controls inside plugins. For those you need the Controller Assignments dialog.

Additional Key Command tips: use the Search field to find the controls you're looking for, and NEVER try to resize the columns; you'll end up with the first column becoming half its width, therefore obscuring most of the commands, and you will not be able to fix it. You'll need to hover your mouse over the commands to receive tooltips, which don't always appear. Grrrrrr!

Controller Assignments

Now for the hard part: the infinitely configurable faders and knobs and plug-in stuff.

Logic Pro remembers the last thing you touched within the interface. If you open a plug-in -- like the EFM1 synth, for instance -- and then click on a control -- such as the FM knob -- then Logic will remember that you touched it.

If -- immediately after touching it -- you go to the Controller Assignments window and click the "Learn Mode" button, the following things will happen:
  • A new control called "Learned" appears in the Control list.
  • The "Learn Mode" button becomes shaded, indicating that Logic is ready to associate the last thing you touched (the FM knob) with the next MIDI message it receives.
So when you twist a knob on the NanoKontrol (or move a fader or press a button), the NanoKontrol sends the MIDI message associated with that knob/fader/button (which you can set in the Korg Kontrol Editor), and Logic assigns the control to the MIDI message. Presto! The Control list will show something like "Learned - EFM1: Carrier FM Intensity," and when that list object is selected you will see information about the "class" of the control (see the Control Services Support Manual), the device which sends the MIDI message ("nanoKONTROL SLIDER/KNOB"), and nifty options for setting the value (see the manual again).

Here's the awful shit you must now remember to do:
  1. If you are finished assigning controls, CLICK THE LEARN MODE BUTTON TO EXIT LEARN MODE. If you don't do this you will screw everything up. As long as that button is shaded, Logic is hijacking everything in order to link controls with MIDI messages. Do not touch anything else in the interface or twiddle ANYTHING on the NanoKontrol before exiting Learn Mode.
  2. If you want to assign another control, however, then click something else in the interface (like the EFM1's "Harmonic" knob), then twist another knob on the NanoKontrol -- resulting in a new control assignment -- and keep doing this until you've assigned everything. But remember to click the Learn Mode button when you're done! Otherwise you will reassign controls, or assign multiple knobs to the same thing, and untangling that mess can be hell on earth.
  3. Kick whoever designed the Controller Assignment window squarely in the ass. "Learn Mode" button which acts as a toggle? This is NOT part of Apple's design specifications, I'm sure.
Once Learn Mode is off, twiddle your assigned knob. It'll work! You can now tap the keys on your NanoKey and use the knob to change the FM Intensity of the notes. Brilliant! That's why you bought this thing!

If you're using the NanoKontrol to change the automation on a track -- say, to change the FM Intensity for MIDI notes recorded on one of your tracks -- you need to switch the track to either "Latch" or "Touch" mode (read the regular Logic Manual), then hit "Play" (not "Record") and twist the knob as the notes play. The changes are recorded to the track as automation values, which you can go back and edit.

If you want to use the NanoKontrol as a mixing desk, you want to assign your controls to the "Fader Bank" channel strip within the "Channel Strip" class, then set which Fader Bank track you want to assign the control to. This is BEST done in the Mixer window, because when you use "Learn Mode" after touching a channel strip control in the Mixer window, the Controller Assignment window automatically uses the proper Fader Bank and track number. Otherwise, if you do this in the Arrange window, the control will be assigned to just the "selected track."

Remember when I mentioned that I'd assigned the nine sets of controls in Scene Four to be an eighteen-channel mixer? That's because I set one of the buttons to perform a "Mode Change," to toggle between two sets of controller assignments: one for tracks 1 to 9, the other for tracks 10 to 18. By changing modes you can infinitely extend your number of assignments, but this requires planning (because you have to add all your assignments to new Zones and Modes within the Controller Assignment window).

Fortunately, if you fiddle with something on your NanoKontrol, its assignment is highlighted within the Controller Assignments window, which can help you fix mistakes like multiple assignments. But that's the only user-friendly thing about the window: you cannot sort or group your assignments in the list -- they appear underneath whatever you have selected at the time -- and you can't make changes to the parameters of multiple assignments at once, and you can't drag assignments between zones and modes.

As if that didn't suck enough...

Logic Studio Can Forget Your Assignments

Until you realize this -- and why it happens -- you will be SCREAMING IN ANGUISH.

There is a terrible bug in Logic Studio. Each time you add or remove a MIDI Input device to your computer, Logic Studio's list of MIDI devices changes. And it seems that your controller assignments -- those hundreds of knob-and-fader connections you've so painstakingly created -- are not mapped to specific MIDI devices, they are rather mapped to the number of the MIDI device within Logic Studio's list. And if the ordering of the devices in the list changes -- because you've added or removed a MIDI device, simply by unplugging its USB or Firewire cable -- it is highly likely that all of your controller assignments will map to the wrong MIDI device.

So attach all your USB MIDI devices to a single hub, keep them always plugged in (at least when using Logic), and don't swap them around. If you do, you will find that your assignments no longer work. You can manually select each assignment in the window and reset its MIDI Input device (the manual claims that doing this for one device will reset all assignments which use a similar device, but I don't think I believe them), or you can try plugging everything back in and hoping that the list sorts itself back in the original order, but whatever you do DON'T BLAME YOUR NANO. It is Logic's fault.

Tip: Sometimes, when you twist a knob or push a fader that you haven't used in a long time, you will find that it doesn't immediately work; this is probably because it isn't "in sync" with the object it's controlling. Try moving the control all the way in one direction, then all the way back to the other direction, and I bet it will work again. Otherwise open the Korg Kontrol Editor and make sure the Nano is connected. If that doesn't work, open the Controller Assignments window and see what sort of evil crap that Logic Studio has done to the assignment.

I think that covers it. I'm very happy with my Nanos, and more than a little cross with Logic. Fixing the Controller Assignments window should be a top priority for them, and this is a bug they've known about for something, people!

PS: All of your assignments are stored in a file called Every time I make a change to my assignments I make a backup of that file (it's in your user's Library/Preferences folder).

PPS: My NanoPad came with the wrong USB cable...a full-size one instead of the required mini. This is strange.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Did You Know That Michael Jackson Died?

I know what you're thinking: now that Michael Jackson is buried we can finally stop hearing about him.

But think of the anniversaries! We'll need to celebrate his birthday, of course, and relive his death-day, and also remember the funeral itself. And what about the date when "Thriller" was released, shouldn't that be commemorated? When his family members die we will SURELY need retrospectives, and Quincy Jones' death with DEFINITELY require a remastering of the back catalog.

No, there simply aren't enough ways to chew on the dead flesh of Michael Jackson. He's like the remains of some sacred Mennonite cow, stripped of everything that can possibly be turned into a pudding, then stuffed and deoderized and put back on display. Hey, get that dead cow off of my lawn! Stuff it back into your bottomless pit of vicarious misery!

Whew, I just had to say that.

Friday, September 11, 2009


You can never go back. Your childhood, your high school days, your moments of great epiphany and discovery...all gone.

It's the same with those eras we have nostalgia for, especially those we're too young to remember. We're simply buried under too many layers of history and context (and irony, even) to be able to REALLY relive swing, or the renaissance, or cabaret.

So I was hesitant about seeing L'Accordéoniste tonight at the Registry Theatre. I was worried that it would be an austere, overly-cultured, documentary-style gloss of classic cabaret songs. I imagine there's a fine line when performing cabaret; a point where it becomes pure mugging camp or even -- God forbid -- tacky.

But I shouldn't have worried. These folks know where that line is and they walk it perfectly, thanks either to careful planning or just plain passion.

There were no heavy-handed attempts at REALLY invoking a cabaret (if such a thing would even be possible with such a varied repertoire of periods and styles). The Registry Theatre is a wonderfully relaxed place, but even so I doubt they would go for dinner, booze, and pungent cigar smoke. Another of my cabaret stereotypes is that the performers are all tragic and slightly soiled; you expect they're involved in shady love affairs, and it takes every ounce of stimulant they can ingest to keep them going through the daily grind of schlock, torch, and double entendre.

But unless they're hiding it well, the L'Accordéoniste performers do not come across as tawdry people who live tawdry lives. They're highly-regarded musicians with symphonic backgrounds and I bet they've NEVER slept in a bed full of cockroaches.

As for austerity...well, things were a bit upright at first, but once they hit the Kurt Weill selections -- which seemed to be leagues beyond the first numbers in terms of craft and arrangement -- they began to loosen up. Their Latin set was pure fire, and by the time they hit the French Cabaret...well, even the stoic percussionist was cracking a smile, and the audience was firmly in their hand.

Kimberly Barber obviously loves (and feels) this music, and she did a good job contextualizing the selections. Accordionist Mary-Lou Vetere is the most expressive musician I have ever seen, and she's got a classy accordion-gauntlet to boot. I particularly liked the moments when Vetere and Julie Baumgartel eased into tremolo-heavy duets; hearing a violin and an accordion together on a CD is nothing compared to the way they sound up-close and personal.

Peter Tiefenbach and Carol Bauman anchored the songs on piano and percussion, and even added their own comic touches when appropriate. But it wasn't all fun and novelty; some of the best moments were the tragic songs..."The Sailor's Tango" and "Chitarrata Abruzzese" especially.

I leave you with an interview and a performance by the band themselves...enjoy! And if they come to your town, be sure to see them. You can buy their debut CD here.

The Vivienne Vyle Show

Jennifer Saunders makes me nervous because she's too damn good. She has raised my expectations so high that I get SCARED when something new comes out; how can her Next Big Show possibly be as good as the last one? It can't! And when she finally fails I don't want to know about it!

But I rented The Vivienne Vyle Show anyway, and I'm halfway through, and it's amazing.

Saunders plays the title character, a talk show hostess who specializes in being cruel to her disgusting freakshow guests. Meanwhile she's married to a gay "kept man," and desperate to have a child, and equally desperate to expand her repertoire (especially if that means going to America).

The comedy doesn't have the "cartoon" quality of Absolutely Fabulous, but it's still just as bizarre, cruel, and unpredictable. The whole tone is that of a constant, somewhat disturbing simmer; situations build slowly and then just as slowly resolve, while underneath it all the hilarity seeps in almost subliminally. It's subtle.

This works because the cast is spectacular and their characters are meaty. The more deadpan they get, the funnier they are...and the more uncomfortable you become, because -- unlike Ab Fab -- these folks are REAL.

Best of all is bad mom and manic show producer Helena de'Wend, played by Natasha Richardson. Her style of acting is indescribable: mush-mouthed, violent, and totally insane. She's a textbook Jennifer Saunders character played to perfection.

I leave you with a clip of one of their production meetings. I can only hope that the rest of the episodes are just as good...though next time Saunders makes a new series I'll be even MORE afraid of watching it.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Louis Philippe, Parisian Colorist, Dirty Mind

The caption says that Louis Philippe, "Parisian colorist," is studying this woman's coloring.

Yeah, right! He's got the mustache of an oversexed Frenchman, and she has the sparkling eyes of a lady in lust! Plus she's grabbing her right breast and saying "I cannot feel it." For some reason.

These "Rouge Incarnat" advertisements have been getting steadily more raunchy. Oh, for the chaste days of Krasny!

Random Observations About the Young People's Library of Entertainment and Amusement

I am now firmly mired in the "Patriotism and War" section of "The Young People's Library of Entertainment and Amusement." I previously mentioned some general impressions of this 1903 child-indoctrination book. Here are more specific examples.

First, if I never read another "baby talk" poem, it will be too soon. Here's the first stanza from "Lulu's Complaint," by an uncredited author.
I'se a poor 'ittle sorrowful baby,
For B'idget is 'way down 'tairs:
My titten has scratched my fin'er,
And Dolly won't say her p'ayers.
Also included in the "Little Folks' Speaker" section is "The Spanish War Alphabet" by A. C. Needham. Here are some of the letters taught to little folks:
C is for Cuba, a tight little isle;
To get which we may have to fight quite a while.

F is for Freedom, which means a great deal
When your neck has been under a vile Spanish heel.

G is for Germany, whose rude employees
Should learn better manners; be taught to say please.

I's for Insurgents, who holler for aid;
Then eat up the rations and loaf in the shade.

J is for Jones, Davy Jones, if you will,
Whose lockers we've twice had occasion to fill.
William Hearst would have been pleased!

The modern reader will probably enjoy B. Taylor's "Grandpa's Aversion To Slang." Here are some choice lines.
It wasn't so long when I was young--
We used plain language then;
We didn't speak of "them galoots,"
Meanin' boys or men.

When speaking of the nice hand-write
Of Joe, or Tom, or Bill,
We did it plain--we didn't say,
"He slings a nasty quill."

An' when we saw a girl we liked,
Who never failed to please,
We called her pretty, neat and good,
But not "about the cheese."

Well, when we met a good old friend
We hadn't lately seen,
We greeted him, but didn't say,
"Hello, you old sardine!"
The "pathetic selections" are real gems and guaranteed to make your children hate the world. There are the child-death sagas of "Poor Little Jim," "Limpy Tim," "The Dying Boy," "Nobody's Child," and "In the Bottom Drawer," in which abused children get taken away by angels and the narrator feels really bad. Then there are the wife-death epics of "To Mary in Heaven," "The Singer's Climax," and "The Gambler's Wife." If you're really lucky, for extra pathos, these stories are told by people who -- at the last line -- suddenly jump into the air and then die. That's just how it was in 1903! And also God's way of culling bad poets.

The "Humorous and Dialectic" section taught me the following lessons.
  1. Black people use long words, but always incorrectly. They are lazy except when they're playing games. They are always, always, ALWAYS stealing "watermillion."
  2. German people are hard-working, but they're far too rigid in their behaviour. They complain a lot about petty problems.
  3. Irish people are delightful and stupid and they know their place. Then they get in a fight.
When not making fun of ethnic minorities, the "humorous" selections are usually stories about funny things that children do in church. But then there's a little ditty called "An Apostrophe to Aguinaldo." How dare the people of the Philippines resist American occupation of their territory! Especially not when treated with such respect, as in these excerpts.
Say, Aguinaldo,
You little measly
Malay moke,
What's the matter with you?
What you need, Aggie,
Is civilizing.
And goldarn
Your yaller percoon-skin,
We'll civilize you
Dead or alive.
You'd better
Fall in to the
Procession of Progress
And go marching on to glory,
Before you fall
Into a hole in the ground.
That's us--
U. S.
Even considering all the dead child and watermillion poems, this is by far the most disturbing thing in the book. So far.

Crank That Saxophone, Just Like Rudy Valée!

Not only was there a Player Cornet, there was also an Automatic Saxophone!

Note that the sax comes with an attractive crank, unlike the cornet.

Sunday, September 06, 2009


1929 was certainly the year of The Great New Yorker Cigarette War. In terms of advertisements, Chesterfields appear to have knocked off Old Golds and now hold the coveted, full-colour, back page position. And they have all stopped sparring with candy manufacturers, who had introduced a doomed "eat candy instead of having a cigarette" slogan that was easy to attack ("Smoke a cigarette to control your waistline!")

Meanwhile the Spud cigarettes gamely try to keep up. But holy crap, look at this picture.

What the HELL is going on? This is, I confess, the wackiest-looking New Yorker advertisement I've seen so far. It looks like the mad professor has just perfected his mind-control machine, and he's so excited that he can barely control his bizarre crotch.

But no, that's a radio, and they're listening to a football game, and they're so excited that they've started chain-smoking. You see, Spud's angle was that it was a "cooler" cigarette, and therefore its benefits would be noticed only after you had smoked about 36 in a row. Their motto was "Judge Spud...Not by first puff...but by first pack."

Those manipulative, evil bastards.

Football! Riding! Skating! In the Rumble Seat!

I could explain what it's about...but no, I just like the poetry of it.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

New Yorkers Agree, It's Startling! New Type Cornet!

Here we thought that 1920s inventors just invented useless stuff like radio, and talking pictures, and automatic toasters. But no! They also invented...the Player Cornet!

Try to tell me that this wouldn't have been annoying at parties. As described in the October 5, 1929 issue of The New Yorker:
Rather clever of those they bring us a new type of cornet that plays from music rolls, but is not an automatic playing instrument...

The music roll selects the correct tones or notes but you control everything else necessary for the playing of a melody with the feeling you want to express.

The blowing into the instrument to produce the volume, movement of the music roll to regulate the tempo are controlled by you. If you can hum or whistle a tune, ten minutes of practice will enable you to play the melody.
It was available at Mayfair Playthings Store for only $12 (with two music rolls included), but for some reason I can't find any online references to this instrument. How the heck did it work? Can I buy one now?

A Street Person's To-Do List

For a few weeks this summer my workplace has had to deal with a street person's leftovers. This person would sleep overnight in one of our entry ways, then leave behind a bizarre collection of odds-and-ends the next day, including syringes.

Some of his leftovers have been bizarre -- children's toys, a broken stereo, a sleeping bag -- but once I discovered a backpack, and in it a "To-Do" diary with some very interesting notations.

His writing is difficult to decipher. Here's page one:

Page two is labeled "TO DO" and says:
1 2 3


400 WATS + iPOD
49 5.100
79 200WAT
Page three is one-sided:


10 TO 2:00
1 AM
Page four is most interesting:


And finally, page five:
I suppose this is a glimpse at the functionality of a drug-addicted, partially literate person. He hasn't come around lately.

PS: As much as my workmates hated having to dispose of his garbage, what they objected to most were the syringes. This annoyed me too, but then I realized that they were all prominently displayed...almost laid out deliberately in front of his former possessions.

Suddenly it occurred to me: what is a street person going to do with used syringes? They aren't going to carry "sharpie" boxes around which would advertise to the world that they're injecting drugs. When they want to dispose of a needle, I think their only options are to throw it in a garbage or hide it in something until they're far away.

I don't know about you, but I'd much rather the syringes be immediately visible...I don't want to pick up somebody's old backpack or pull out a garbage bag and get a needle in the hand. I wonder if, by leaving their needles where everybody can see them, these street people are being CONSIDERATE?

Dr. Seuss and Flit: "Consideration"

This episode of "Dr. Seuss and Flit" is a bit unusual, because it comes in comic strip form.

Have you noticed that comic axes always have little notches in their blades? I suppose this is to represent that they're "used often," and maybe also to add some interest to the picture.

Most interesting, however, is the tibia that somebody chained to the wall. Bad tibia!

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

YouTube Jumpcuts

Almost all the amateur YouTube videos you see -- especially the "I'm just talkin' about stuff" ones -- are edited together with frequent, clumsy jumpcuts.

It's obvious that most of the footage has been chopped out in post production, leaving little "islands" of content all spliced together.

I'm tempted to think that this is because most of what was filmed was bad: the person just blathered away with no rehearsal, then cut out all the mistakes, dead ends, and boring stuff.

But now I see it so frequently that I it done on purpose?

I wonder: did this start as an aspect of crappy performance and editing, then become a "technique?" Or does this happen on TV nowadays, and are these people imitating that style? Is it some kind of cool hyperactive thing, a way of keeping your attention, a removal of every single pause?

There Was a Time When I'd Buy Anything By...The Residents (But Now They Just Annoy Me)

So you're in highschool and you've just discovered musical alternatives -- life isn't just about Tom Petty and The Tragically Hip. Like many teenagers you decide you have to experience the weirdest, most extreme things you can find, especially if you have to search in the darkest corners of the music bin to find them.

You start watching "City Limits," the MuchMusic show devoted to alternative music, and though much of the program is devoted to the Manchester scene (which you're not interested in) and industrial music (which you've already dived headfirst into), you are mortally struck by this video: "Hello Skinny" by The Residents.

Grotesque! Scary! Self-referential! Drug-inspired! Simultaneously visceral and intelligent! Absurdist! A complex mythology involving anonymous guys who wear eyeballs on their heads! Seriously, The Residents were about as obscure and "out there" you could possibly get while still being available and (somewhat) accessible.

You begin to collect their music, spending vast sums of money on whatever you can find. Some of it you love -- and you very much enjoy the IDEA of the group -- but you soon realize that sometimes...well, The Residents SUCK.

Their early days of vim and verve were spectacular. They couldn't play their instruments, but that just forced them to innovate. They spent years making an incredible avant-garde video -- "Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats?" -- which has never been finished (or shown altogether in one place).

Then they got better keyboards, and samplers, and maybe a sequencer or two, and they continued to do crazy stuff. Their concepts were alien and you could never quite believe in what you were hearing...what did they MEAN? Why did they DO that?

But somewhere along the line they discovered MIDI and they began to homogenize, and at the same time their concepts became less inspired. The keyboards got plinky and boring. The stories lost their focus. They put so much effort into their high-minded concepts that they somehow forgot about the MUSIC. At the same time they began to capitalize on their cult status, and by 1990 their CD packages were full of advertisements for watches and T-shirts. There's nothing worse than a cult band who runs around yelling "We're a cult band!" while their ideas and technique recede quickly into the past.

Eventually you give up and you stop buying their stuff. But you still remember what they used to be capable of...

Albums to buy: "Duck Stab" (for the "classic" sound) and "God In Three Persons" (for the "storyteller" sound). Albums to avoid: anything released after 1992. For fans only: their innovative (but kind of dull) CD ROM games, their comics, their watches, their T-shirts...

Teaching Kids to Suffer Well

I've been reading a 1903 collection of stories, facts, pastimes, and recitations called "Young People's Library of Entertainment and Amusement." I suppose that in the days before radio it was fun to dress up your kids and make them do "tableaux," but for the modern reader it all seems a little quaint and weird and oh-so-gaslight.

There are lots of interesting things about this book. It starts with collections of poems written by the likes of Pope, Byron, and Whitman, and while poetry generally leaves me cold I can't deny that these fellows knew their words.

The brilliantly-crafted excerpts from Shakespeare stand in stark contrast to the "recitations" which follow. These recitations -- most of them uncredited -- must have been the bane of the Victorian child. They're heavy-handed poems which can be entirely summed up by their chapter headings: "Comic," "Pathetic," "Descriptive," "Religious," "Temperence," and "Patriotic." It's interesting that the largest section by far is reserved for patriotic poems...I'll post a truly horrific one about the Spanish-American war sometime soon.

I have to keep reminding myself that these recitations are intended for children, because even though the language is sophisticated -- when not imitating the cloying baby-talk of a four-year-old bein' aw tute an' gwown up -- the moral messages are entirely one-dimensional: a flawed person has an encounter with a saintly person, and then Jesus takes the saint to heaven and the flawed person says "Now I'm a changed man! Don't make the mistakes I made! Eat your spinach!"

I don't expect real-life ambiguity or deep philosophy from a book written for ten-year-olds, but I can't help thinking that Sunday School stuff was always sort of like that, and probably is today. These recitations -- whenever they try to tackle pathos or any sort of moral question -- are based on the really horrible assumption that we're all born with a spiritual debt, that if we suffer a lot then we'll become more saintly, and that it'll all be worth it for us when we die.

Pardon me if I disagree, and if I think that the ideas of original sin and redemption make the world a crappier place. I also disagree with the contradictory and entirely cloying presentation of small children in this book as "little angels." When I see a small child, I know that she isn't above crying extra-loud in the checkout line in order to extort candy, which is something an angel would never do.

And I don't understand how all humans owe an automatic spiritual debt EXCEPT when they're small. I assume the cutoff age is puberty, but such things are sadly beyond the scope of this book.