Friday, April 30, 2010

The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen

In January I read an extremely positive review of Elizabeth Bowen's short fiction in a 1930s New Yorker magazine. Unable to find any of her short stories at the time, I instead read "The Heat of the Day," which I found tedious in its obsessive examination of people's thought processes. In short, I was impressed by her approach and her zeal but I found the book extremely annoying.

Now, after a long slog, I'm finishing off "The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen," which apparently contains all of the short fiction she ever wrote...and let me tell you, she wrote a lot. Many of these stories were ones that the New Yorker reviewer raved about. How has it been?

Complete collections of a prolific writer's short fiction should come with a big warning, which unfortunately I know I'd disregard anyway: "Do not read all these stories in a row. They were not meant to be read this way. They previously appeared in diverse periodicals and smaller collections. You have been warned."

So I'm warning you: just as the complete short fiction of Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges can drive you insane, so can the complete short fiction of Elizabeth Bowen. Not because it's BAD -- it's brilliant, in fact -- but just because there's too much of it.

And like the complete works of ANY writer I found myself noticing the trends in her work, most particularly:
  • The trauma of moving to different houses, particularly among the upper classes. Her characters suffer the sale of the ancestral homes and the purchasing of newer, awkward, unpleasant homes which turn out of have sweaty plaster.
  • The trauma of living off another person's charity, especially when the other person isn't charitable and -- in reality -- just keeps people around to traumatize them.
  • The strange boredom of off-season luxury resorts.
  • The thought processes of alienated, troublesome children.
  • Aunts. Everybody's got an aunt who is the most significant secondary character.
These are things that you wouldn't notice if you read her stories occasionally, and they're entirely superficial to the plots themselves, but when you're reading them all in a row it's like "Oh yes, a new house, a strange aunt, now let's get to the heart of it please."

And the hearts of these stories are devastating, especially the ones written during the '20s and '30s. Most of them are about the slow, mundane grind of everyday relationships and the hidden compulsions that modernists so loved to write about. Bowen has a particular ability for troubled children who are so lifelike that you almost want to turn away. The precocious Maria (in the story of the same name) the crying little boy with his ducks (in "Tears, Idle Tears") and the absolutely doomed Hermione (in "The Easter Egg Party") are permanently stuck with me.

Bowen's style isn't one that relies on an all-encompassing statement to make its point; instead, the drama builds and builds through successive examples, leaving you squirming with the terrible, truthful awkwardness of it all. Here's a description of Hermione, viewed through the eyes of a pair of aunts who are trying a last-ditch attempt to integrate her with other children.
She shook hands with a rigid arm, on which all the bracelets jumped. She looked straight at everyone, but from a moody height: what was evident was not just fear or shyness but a desperate, cut-off haughtiness. In her eyes existed a world of alien experience. The jolly, tallish girls with their chubbed hair, the straddling little boys with their bare knees, apt to frown at the grass between their sandshoes, rebounded from that imperious stare. Either she cared too much or she did not care a fig for them -- and in either case they did not know how to meet her.
And that's before things get bad. You see, it's both normal and abnormal, expected and unexpected: it's the odd part of people and everyday life that you try not to look closely at.

Elizabeth Bowen writes almost all of her stories about these situations.

Then there's the other, somewhat less satisfying trend, the one that the New Yorker reviewer had particularly liked: the ghost stories. These appear from out of nowhere in the collection and they disappear just as quickly and bafflingly. Why did Bowen write about ghosts as often as she did?

Well, most of the ghosts are catalysts for the emotional outpourings of her characters, and likewise the reader is uncertain as to whether they're REAL ghosts or not...except in two stories, one of which (Green Holly) is surprisingly gruesome.

Unfortunately Bowen had an occasional tendency to doddle, in which case her longer stories end up in the same vein as "The Heat of the Day," seeming directionless, obsessive, and far too inward-looking. Her writing was at its best at ten pages or less. I found every story that was longer than 15 pages to be virtually unreadable (and believe me, I have a high threshold for this sort of thing).

Rather than tell you to go out and read the whole book (which I don't recommend) or tell you NOT to read her work (which would be a disservice), I suggest you pick up her Collected Stories and only read the ones from the '20s and '30s, and only the shorter ones. If you have a personal interest in the London Blitz then you should read the War-Time stories as well (and at least give "Mysterious Kôr" a try, which harkens back to her best creepy character studies).

If any Elizabeth Bowen fans read this, please let me know which novels YOU would suggest. I have another one lying around someplace but I don't think I can handle it right at the moment.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


In the summer of '90 I had an amazing opportunity that I mostly squandered: I spent a few months working at WATFAC, the Waterloo Foundation for the Advancement of Computing.

I got into this because my computer science teacher at the time (Savio Wong) recommended me for their yearly student work program, which required some level of aptitude for computer programming. Not knowing C I was at a bit of a disadvantage, but I WAS a little BASIC wiz and I had some experience with dBase III, which would turn out to be the big asset.

What they wanted us students to do was to learn how to use the new software they were developing: Application Creation Made Easy (ACME). It was -- for the time -- an amazing package that integrated with their WATCOM SQL engine and a specially built "Foundation" library, and was supposed to do exactly what it said: make it easy for companies to create applications, particularly the types that were front ends for data storage.

Basically, you built a database using WATCOM SQL, and then you went into ACME to add a user interface for it. This interface was -- strangely and perhaps fatally -- built in a spreadsheet, where each cel represented a page. It was up to you -- the application developer -- to place fields for displaying and entering data, and buttons that the user could press, and write the behind-the-scenes code that controlled the flow throughout the program.

The first thing *I* did with it was create an interactive adventure that allowed the player to explore the WATFAC building, because it was a very strange place to work. Formerly located on the corner of University and Phillip (where "The Marble Slab Creamery" is now), it was a refurbished bank, complete with a vault in the basement where we ate our lunch. The whole place was a rigged-up nightmare of tiny rooms and running cables.

In addition we were occasionally overseen by Wes Graham, patron saint of Waterloo computing, wonderful and just a tad eccentric. During his bizarre orientation speech he used an "onion" metaphor to describe the way layers of information are peeled back, but then he got frustrated when he realized that onions don't have the cores that his metaphor demanded. This lead to us lowly co-ops -- so often with free time on our hands -- creating a grand mythology: Wes didn't want to "advance computing," that was just a front for his REAL project: the sinister development of a peach/onion hybrid called "The Ponion."

All of the games, drawings, and stories we made were based around the Ponion mythology. This was better than what the co-op University students were doing: playing battlechess across the local area network. WE never got caught (because our fun and games were created with company tools and looked like work) but when THEY got caught there was absolute hell to pay (and a memorable lecture to the whole group about teamwork and work ethic).

My problem was that I'd been placed in the only large room in WATFAC, a conference area that I called "the circus." This room hosted about twenty computers and was where all the nerdiest computer students were...and me. These guys were hardcore, they smelled a bit, they had loud voices and yawking laughs; the archetypal computer nerds. Since I was several years younger and I DID NOT KNOW C, there were frequent attempts to denigrate me, and equally frequent attempts by me to explain to them that they should try to straighten out their hygiene and their social problems, and never any work getting done because they were all yelling about the jokes in the latest Math newsletter.

Anyway, our REAL purpose at the company was twofold: to be beta testers for the ACME software, and to write full-fledged applications using it that could be demonstrated to local companies like Bell Telephone and the Waterloo Public Library. We were each randomly assigned an application that a company had shown interest in, and unfortunately I got the one I was least passionate about: a tracking program for expense accounts, under the watchful eyes of a local insurance company. It also had the worst name of them all; while others got names such as "InfoBook" and "InfoList," mine was "InfoExp." Difficult to say, even more difficult to enjoy doing.

What I remember most about this process was the attention given to the user experience, particularly in relation to hotkeys. There were few standardized hotkeys back then -- F1 for help was the only function key that had any real meaning across programs -- and the management quickly saw the necessity of standardization. So everybody brainstormed and came up with hard-and-fast rules for what each function key would do in every "Info" program, and we stuck to it.

Another thing I remember about the user experience was trying to organize data onscreen in a way that was friendly AND informative. While the other kids in "the circus" were outperforming each other trying to hack the ACME boot program with C in order to add esoteric and impossible-to-maintain features, I introduced my one innovation: ASCII graphics to create boxes around lists and to separate data from instruction. Simple and effective, but nobody had thought of it before. Within days everybody had a sheet of ASCII codes at their desks.

At the end of it all we had to give presentations of our programs to the companies themselves. I think I've blocked my presentation from memory -- not bad, but not great either -- but I DO remember the presentation that Mike gave.

Mike was the most obnoxious co-op there -- every day he'd make an endless string of bad computer jokes, along the lines of "Database engine won't start? Pour some gas in it! Hyuk hyuk hyuk! Right into the floppy drive! Hyuk hyuk!" -- and his application was for book filing and reference. He used to brag about how fantastic his presentation would be, and when he stood up there in front of the Waterloo Public Library board I saw an obnoxious, pushy braggart become a confused and stuttering fool. Plus all the books in his sample database were by Gary Gygax. Fail.

Eventually the job was over. I got a nice paycheck, a nice evaluation, and a nice reference, plus a free copy of ACME that I used as supplementary income (by creating a locker assignment application for our highschool).

What I remember most, however, is something I haven't even touched on: it was the first time I lived away from home. The parents of my friend Jeff -- who was also in the program -- owned student housing in the university ghetto, and they allowed Jeff and I to stay in an empty house while they renovated it. I remember many evenings mowing the lawn and painting the railings.

Looking back, it seems to me that I enjoyed this "moving out" experiment very much. My parents would drop in occasionally, and I spent some time wandering around the city and hanging out with Waterloo friends. This was when some women had been sexually attacked on the university campus, and I remember little groups of calm vigilantes wandering around campus and checking student IDs.

I also remember the first time I learned not to leave a kettle boiling when you leave for work. I remember playing Dragon Spirit obsessively at Flynn's arcade during lunch hour -- just to escape the airless, windowless lunch-vault -- and also that my Kate Bush obsession had reached its peak: my paychecks were going to vinyl bootlegs from Encore Records, and I picked up my first Peter Gabriel album (III) when I learned that Bush had done vocals for it. My mind was blown.

Now WATFAC is gone, and WATCOM is only really remembered for their compiler (though children of The ICON will remember WATCOM BASIC). Looking back, I think that ACME failed because it was released around the same time as Visual BASIC, and while ACME was more powerful it was also much harder to use. I'd love to see the program again someday.

And Wes Graham? When I went to the University of Waterloo many years later I was thrilled to see him as a "special guest" in a FASS show, playing a janitor. Everybody cheered. Now there is a road named after him.

Bless you, Wes, and your elusive Ponion.

Monday, April 26, 2010

A Cigar for the Battered Husband

The P. Lorillard Company advertised these "little cigars" with an amusing ad campaign. While the name "Between the Acts" suggested a person who wanted a quick smoke during a theater intermission, the advertisements focused on more entertaining moments when the protagonist had very little time to spare.

I can't remember any of the previous ones right now, but I get a kick out of this one from May 17, 1930. There are so many cute symbols involved. I'm not sure why he has a feather in his tophat, but he's obviously the drunk husband coming home and trying to sneak into the apartment without his wife seeing him. He's holding his shoes in his hand so he can move silently, and because he's smoking a "Between the Acts" cigar we know he only has a few seconds before his wife clobbers him with her rolling pin.

I particularly like the way she's rolling up her sleeve in the background, and the fact that you can't see her face. This is such a fun, ominous, and perfectly-designed image!

PS: When will people stop recognizing the rolling pin as a weapon wielded by disgruntled housewives? I'm not even sure how *I* recognize it, except that it was probably a staple of cartoons throughout the '40s and '50s. Like so many symbols of the times, the cartoons serve as an unintended method of feeding the public consciousness. Someday children will only recognize trees because they saw them in Merrie Melodies.

PPS: Who was the mysterious artist "F.G.C."? I'm unable to find out. I've certainly seen his/her work elsewhere in the magazine, and you can find a few references to his advertising copy online, but other than that...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Hallowed Halls Emmanuel

I love reading yearbooks. They're curious anthropological documents that capture certain elements of a subculture, allowing some degree of "backstage" information to seep through, while simultaneously being constrained by the idea of what a "yearbook" should be: that is, a collection of memories that everybody can supposedly relate to, giving tribute to the institution and its people, and also usually some really terrible poetry.

Imagine my joy when I discovered a heap of yearbooks that a nearby church was throwing out! But these weren't just run-of-the-mill highschool yearbooks...these were for the Emmanuel Bible College.

Oh bliss.

I had no idea that our twin cities contain a thriving, long-standing bible college, and I'm anxious to take a bus out there just to look at it. Other than looking at the slick website and fantasizing about what the dorms must be like, how could us secular folk ever know what a bible college is really like?

By reading the yearbooks, spanning the years 1966 to 1991, and finding all the little gems of culture: the things that you'd find in ANY yearbook, and the things you'd ONLY find in the yearbook from a bible college.

First off, the similarities. The usual tributes to the institution's president, the pictures of the students with special attention given to the graduates, the pages given over to clubs and teams (and the egotistical editorial by the yearbook editor), the myopic cafeteria ladies, followed by a dry list of advertisers. And don't forget the candid pictures of goofy campus life! Yes, even in the Emmanuel Bible College yearbooks you will find men in drag with balloon breasts.

But what's different? First, lots of pictures like this.

That's not a bomb drill, it's a time to make personal contact with your multi-denominational saviour. Myself, already breaking the commandments, I covet that girl's leopard jacket.

Next, many of the students are quite old. Ex-farmers from a myriad of itty-bitty Ontario towns seem to come to Emmanuel when they get the calling. Here's Harry Habel from the graduating class of '66, and one of the little poems that the yearbook staff banged out for the graduates that year.

As somebody who was once a member of my highschool's yearbook staff, I vividly remember the torture of having to write upbeat and personal blurbs about people I disliked and barely knew. I'm pretty sure that Mr. Habel -- in between doing a spot-on Jimmy Durante impersonation -- got on everybody's nerves in the cafeteria. Inka dinka doo!

What's disappointing about the books is the constant focus on God's authority. It's to be expected, obviously, but simply EVERY piece of text must lead into a parable or a scriptual quote of some kind, which reduces all of the activities -- even badminton -- into a Thin Tasteless Gruel of God. I can't help wondering if these students -- who so happily write "God is GREAT!" on their dorm murals -- secretly wish the message was toned down a little bit. It's not like everybody who goes to bible college is exactly the same as everybody else.

But besides the emphasis on two aspects of evangelicalism that I find particularly horrible -- missionary work and the Crisis pregnancy center -- there's very little in these books to offend or to cast the college in a bad light. These folks seem intelligent, diverse, passionate, and fun. Granted I'm getting that impression through the rosy-coloured yearbook lens, but even so I find myself wishing I could spend a day or two there, just to experience the comfort and solidarity of a bunch of people who believe very strongly in what each other are doing.

Hey, is there any chance I can get a scholarship? And if so do I REALLY have to learn Greek, and why?

The Littlest Scammer

Some people seem like they're born to scam, even if they don't have to. It's like there's some part of the human brain devoted to "getting something for nothing," and in some people that brain-part has gotten cancerous and absorbed everything else in their skulls except for the little reptile nub that controls breathing.

For the last year I've been noticing a girl at the local Tim Horton's coffee shop. She's short and chubby and unpretty, and every time I see her she is trying to get something for free. Whether it's asking me endlessly if I have a spare cigarette, or concocting some ridiculous story about how she got the wrong order that morning and now she'd like a replacement coffee, or walking from table to table and canvassing for change...I never see this girl have an interaction that does not involve a scam.

Her performance on Friday took the cake. She walked into the store just as two university students were walking out, and she yelled "Hey, you're Judy, right? Hey Judy, wait!" as the students kept saying "What? No, we're not Judy, no..." and frantically trying to escape the girl's clutches. I can only assume this was the prelude to a scam that didn't work.

Anyway, she walked in and -- as usual -- started asking the patrons for cigarettes. Then she made a big show of counting her change and going "Oh no! Damn! I hate that!" When nobody responded, she got into line -- pushing in front of the last person -- and kept counting her change. "Oh no! Damn!"

As she got closer to the front of the line she became more and more demonstrative, trying to engage the people around her in The Scam. "Damn! I hate this, you know? Hey, you know?" Finally, with nobody biting, she actually yelled across the store at two men who were about to leave.

"Hey guys! You know how when you only have $1.50, and you want to get a coffee AND a Coke, you know how annoying that is?"

"No," said one of the men, baffled.

"I hate that!" she shouted. "I've only got $1.50 and I need $3.00 to get a coffee AND a Coke! I hate when this happens!"

"Yeah," said the men, and they scurried out the door.

The scammer eventually just bought the coffee, presumably because the rest of us are accustomed to her performances. It must be hard to carry on a racket -- even one so small -- in the same store over and over again. It must be PARTICULARLY hard when you have an unpleasant demeanor, as she does. Successful scammers need more than brute persistence, they also need charm.

Yes, The Littlest Scammer annoys me.

Scrutable Poetry Corner: "Life's Problems" by Patience Eden

Poetess Patience Eden nails it in this May 17, 1930 poem in The New Yorker: "Life's Problems."
When I was twenty-three I could
Discern the evil from the good;
I quickly knew which way to turn,
Which path to take, which path to spurn;
Not only this--I could decide
What all my friends should do; I tried
To steer them competently through
Their troubles...and they asked me to!
Responsible as traffic lights
I sent them to their lefts...and rights.

But now that I am forty-odd
I hesitate advising God
About a case of turpitude,
It somehow seems a little crude:
And furthermore I have no views
On bigamy or jazz or booze:
Quite recently I was beset
By problems in a kitchenette--
I could not choose the proper site
For dish-towels to dry at night!
Amen, Eden! How to explain this temperament that comes on many with age? Is it hormonal? Is it from so many years of negotiating with people of all different kinds? Is it a desire for comfort and easy socialization after scuffling with the world? Is it the cynicism of seeing all your sacred cows get tipped over -- one by one -- by their critical inadequacies?

I think it's all of the above. I still have the knee-jerk desire to bludgeon others with my opinions, but I'm learning when it's appropriate to do so, and also -- I hope -- blunting the edges of my criticism a bit.

Unless I'm playing the ROLE of critic, of course.

PS: Who was Patience Eden? Apparently her real name was Martha Thomas Banning, but other than that I can't find any biographical information. She was certainly one of the New Yorker poetry stalwarts, writing under both names from the magazine's inception and into the early '40s.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Dunjonquest: The Upper Reaches of Apshai

(See this post for background on what I'm talking about here)

Give some creative and intelligent people a framework for creating games, and before long they'll figure out how to do tricks that are far beyond the original specifications. "Temple of Apshai" may have kept rigidly within the Dunjonquest engine's parameters, but "Upper Reaches of Apshai" has the software jumping through hoops.

Specifically, they've realized three things:
  1. Rooms can overlap. Because each room's data is totally discreet -- not being part of a single large structure -- you can create a multi-leveled effect. This is first seen in the spiral staircase of level four, "Benedic's Monestery."
  2. Adjacent doors don't have to have the same connections. This is first seen in "Merlis' Hall of Magic," (level 2) where returning through a door takes you to a room that LOOKS identical but is totally different (and might have different exits, secret doors, etc.) This adds a whole new dimension to the game, allowing rooms to "change" depending on how you enter them.
  3. The other effect of disconnected doors is the simple one-way exit, fully exploited in the "cave ins" within "Olias' Cellar" (level 3). It's easy but effective: walk through a door, and the next room doesn't have a door that goes back in the opposite direction.
  4. Finally, the most maddening and subtle trick of them all: the "two rooms appear to be one room" trick. Because all Dunjonquest rooms must be rectangular, you begin to assume that every rectangle is a single check for secret doors within a room and then you walk out. But by creating two adjacent rooms, each with only three walls, the level creators can make a "hidden" room that is only visible when you cross the midpoint. A treasure might be in that room, or -- in the case of the "bear cave" in "Olias' Cellar" -- a secret door that cannot be detected until you cross the room.
What amazes me about these games is how polished they are. Each time I find that I've missed a room or a treasure, my first thought is that I've encountered a bug, but no...after diligent searching I realize that I didn't find what I was looking for because the level designers wanted me to WORK HARD.

That said, I think there IS a bug in "Olias' Cellar," involving a secret door in room 19 that leads to a corridor section (15) which overlaps another corridor section (20) but shares the same exits. Nothing in the text explains why this happens, so I suspect the design was glitchy and they just left it in.

(I also think there's a missing treasure in the final level of "Curse of Ra," but I'll get to that next time).

Anyway, here are the levels for "The Upper Reaches of Apshai."

Level One: The Innkeeper's Backyard

Level Two: Merlis' Cottage

Level 3: Olias' Cellar

Level Four: Benedics Monastery

Besides the innovations in the room connections, these levels are more fun to play because they're coherent. They have interesting backstories and little mysteries which go far beyond the "kill monsters and find treasures" plots of "Temple." More importantly, these levels tend to be FUNNY. There are actually JOKES in them. Rather than endlessly fighting motivationless Antmen ("Oh no! Antmen") you are meeting vicious farmyard animals ("Oh no! Goose!") and doing your darnedest to vanquish the Creeping Crud.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dr. Seuss and Flit: "Darker Seuss"

Ahh yes, the drama of the depressed bug. I expect this would have happened pretty frequently if insect legs worked that way.

(From the May 10th, 1930 issue of The New Yorker)

Coming Up!

I'm not just sitting hunkered over the computer with my torn cartilage, rheumatic toes, and carpal tunnel, I'm totally active! And here are two events you can catch me at:

May 8th: "A Night Out with the Queens Part 2" at the Royal Canadian Galt Legion (4 Veterans Way, Galt)

I love a good legion, and I love a good hand-picked drag show with Victoria. Come out and see us perform! Doors at seven, show at eight, fun instantaneous.

May 12th: "A Truck Load of Poets" at DeSotos (1079 St. Clair Avenue West, Toronto)

I'll be there as part of the release party for Jacknife Express #8, and I'll be -- gulp -- reading my fiction out loud for the first time in about fifteen years. Show from 8pm - 11pm.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai

I have so many guilty pleasures that I'm in a permanent state of mortification, and one of my pleasures is a good old-fashioned dungeon crawl. It's not because I love killing monsters and collecting treasures; the actual BULK of a dungeon crawl game is incidental to me. What I REALLY like to do is to EXPLORE.

I've always gotten a thrill out of mazes, tunnels, and imaginary digital worlds. Unfortunately there are few games that are simply about exploring...pissy monsters are always attacking you and you have to solve anachronous "eight queens" puzzles at every second step. I'm of the opinion that the world (the real one) is waiting for a computer simulation of a rich landscape that doesn't necessarily have anybody else in it. The fact that I'd enjoy such a thing is creepy, really.

But anyway, my favourite games as a teenager were the ones where you could wander around a maze and map it, and then stare for hours at the map wondering what sort of cool place it would be to live in. Unfortunately back then I had a very low threshold for frustration, so I rarely succeeded in finishing the games that were so fun to explore: Ultima, The Eidolon, Alternate Reality, and...

...the Dunjonquest series, considered to be the first dungeon crawls for the 8-bit home computers. Originally developed by Jon Freeman (who is most idolized these days as being one of the creators of Archon) for his fledgling Automated Simulations company (likewise most idolized for later becoming Epyx), these games were all about wandering around mazes, killing monsters, raising your stats, collecting treasures, and running from Antmen who apparently used a vanilla-scented body lotion.

The Dunjonquest game that most people remember is "Temple of Apshai" and its two sequels, "Upper Reaches of Apshai" and "Curse of Ra." These three games -- like the "Hellfire Warrior" trilogy that followed them -- presented you with a very basic depiction of your surroundings, requiring you to actually read the room descriptions from the accompanying manual (or "Book of Lore.")

Originally written in BASIC in 1979, the first games required a great deal of patience and imagination, and the subsequent games -- with the exception of "Gateway to Apshai," a very different arcade-style adventure -- used the same engine. Even when the Apshai games were eventually released as a re-written, integrated, machine-language "Temple of Apshai Trilogy" -- the way most people remember them -- you still needed to shuffle your little character along featureless corridors, bumping into walls and slaying barely-animated 4-colour monsters.

So Dunjonquest games don't have a lot of appeal to gamers these days, and they've slowly faded away from the eyes of even the most nostalgic 8-bit fans.

Until now!

I'm happy to say I'm not alone in my love of these games, and I've been collaborating with Robinson Mason -- and scrounging the darkest corners of the internet -- to reclaim the programs. And not just the programs, but also the even more rare "Books of Lore" which are both essential for play and a delight to read.

While my compatriot tirelessly unearths more of the games and materials, I've been concentrating on reverse-engineering the BASIC code and mapping all the levels. I've discovered some interesting things buried in the convoluted rats-nest of oddly-ported BASIC, but that will come later. Right now, here are maps for the four levels of the first game, "Temple of Apshai."

I decided not to include room numbers, traps, or treasures -- that would not only clutter up my tiny drawings but would also spoil more of the game. And I make no claims to the 100% accuracy of these maps; they are complete and fully-connected, but their proportions may be slightly off. Click on an image to see a larger version.

Temple of Apshai - Level One

Temple of Apshai - Level Two

Temple of Apshai - Level Three

Temple of Apshai - Level Four

The maps for the next game ("Upper Reaches of Apshai") are coming soon (along with playing tips), and I expect there'll be a resource site starting up eventually. Until then, spare a thought to all those digital worlds that are locked up in decaying floppy disks in attics and basements, and consider rescuing them for one last time.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Monday Morning Cartoon

"Boils All Over My Back!"

It's May 1930 in the New Yorker magazine, and the cult of yeast is going strong. Witness this testimony from a man who I think is supposed to be a jeweler:
"Boils all over my back! I was miserable!" writes CLIFTON PRINCE, Worcester, Mass. "Seeing a cake of yeast under a microscope convinced me. It was full of living yeast plants! I started to eat it and the result was miraculous. Since then, all my family have eaten it. A doctor advised it for my grandchild. My son eats it as a laxative and a tonic."
One can only wonder what Mr. Prince would have done had he seen a sample of Plasmodium falciparum under a microscope -- popped the whole wad in his mouth, no doubt -- but I suppose yeast wasn't BAD for you...I just think people took too much of it, and expected it to cure everything from constipation to withered fetlocks.

What's amusing about all these yeast advertisements is that they come with a doctor's endorsement...but the doctors are always either German or French. It's like the German doctors owned shares in Fleischmann's. This week's eminent physician is Dr. Friedrich Kraus of Berlin, under whom half the great doctors of Europe have studied ("it is said"). It should not surprise you that all these yeast-hawking German doctors have strange white beards and resemble Freud.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Music I'm Buying and Then Loving

I have a new ritual which keeps me smiling on Monday mornings: when I go to work that day I allow myself to buy ONE album off iTunes. I might buy something old that I'd never managed to find, or something new that I've been dying to get, or I'll simply hop around using the "People Who Bought This Also Bought That" links until I finally find something interesting.

Here's a chronological list of what I've been buying since I started doing this last August, with linked YouTube videos to appropriate songs when available:

Various singles by Rose Elinor Dougall. My favourite Pipette has gone solo with these lush songs, apparently inspired by '80s acoustic-goth music.

"Sign 'O' the Times" by Prince. I've long admired the tour video of the same name, but I've never been able to find the studio album until now. It was a shock to hear the original, stripped-down, somewhat bizarre versions of songs which became epic onstage, but it's grown on me...and "Hot Thing" is SUCH a sexycool song.

"Dali's Car" self-titled EP. Mick Karn from Japan and Peter Murphy from Bauhaus produced a very odd album: exotic, brooding, somewhat Arabic in its sound. It's not GREAT, but it's INTERESTING, and something I fondly remember listening to on vinyl.

"Imaginary Friend" by The Faith Healers. I heard their song "Don't Jones Me" on a compilation at CKMS, and it took me almost twenty years to give them a bigger listen. It's very much rooted in the '90s shoegazer-meets-grunge scene, but with a nice eccentricity and a hypnotic vibe. The twenty-minute "All at Once Forever" is especially fab!

"Here and Now" and "Moon Bathing on Sleeping Leaves" by Sky Cries Mary. Talk about eccentric: funk, prog-rock, DJ beats, and gorgeous vocals. The live album is amazing, but I'm disconcerted by the apparent presence of TWO copies of Anisa Romero singing at once. Overdubs or backing track? Either way, not cool.

Self-titled album by Zaza Fournier. Delirium gal Anissa sent me Zaza's debut video because she said Zaza reminded her of me. I am infinitely flattered, because Zaza's persona is the one I have always subconsciously tried to cultivate: playful, gawky, cute, individualistic. Do you think you wouldn't enjoy an album of accordian-dominated songs sung in French? YOU'RE WRONG!

"The Warning" by Hot Chip. Their song "Over and Over" is perhaps as close to perfection as a song can be, and it's one that DJ Al at Club Abstract plays when he's feeling very happy. "The Warning" is a good album but just a tad uneven and overproduced.

"Couples" by The Long Blondes. A happy random discovery, but again, a sort of uneven's all good, but the hits stand head and shoulders above the rest. Oh, "Guilt!"

"Fixin' to Thrill" by Dragonette. Toronto's very own electro darlings full of attitude, oddness, and buzy-synthiness. Yet another slightly uneven album -- too long, maybe, to sustain its necessary energy -- but you've got to admit they have something original going on.

"Unmixed" by Freemasons. When I heard their cover of "Uninvited," I had to grab the album, and while it covers a huge number of styles -- being basically a collection of non-remix versions of their recent hit singles -- it thumps so beautifully hard, and the singers they choose are ALWAYS AMAZING.

"Replicas" by Gary Numan. I've mentioned here before that I've never picked up a cheap Gary Numan album that I didn't like; I love his gulpy voice and his ominous keyboards, no matter the era. But I found "Replicas" to be a tad overhyped; it's considered such a landmark album -- and it certainly helped shape the burgeoning New Wave sound -- but it's also awfully monotonous and sloppy.

"Damp" by Foetus. I'd buy anything by Foetus, so this was a no-brainer. A collection of demos, remixes, singles, and previously unreleased songs. His collaboration with Rotoskop will have to be an upcoming iTunes purchase, that's for sure...

"Your Bag" by Lida Husik. Back when I heard this album in the early '90s, it seemed so fresh and interesting: an oddball let loose in a recording studio to release a series of equally oddball releases, often with unconventional effects and weird noises and cut up tape montages. These days, however, it seems like more of a "good idea" than a "good album."

Self-titled album by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. I'd buy anything by OMD, and I was looking forward to finally hearing all those older albums I'd never been able to find. The subsequent disappearance of most of their catalog off of iTunes has put the kibosh on that plan, but at least I got this one, their first. It's a mix of perfect pop songs and bizarre experiments, best listened to in the early '80s but still a real treat.

"Big Sexy Land" by Revolting Cocks. I'd heard good things about this first album, but it's of the more monotonous type of '80s proto-industrial noodling: the worst parts of both collaborators, Ministry and Front 242. In University I had a friend who said that, to him, all industrial music sounded like a sample going "Bodies everywhere. B-b-b-bodies everywhere." I was less than delighted to find out that he was thinking of a song on this album ("Union Carbide").

"The Golden Age of Wireless" by Thomas Dolby. One of my favourite albums ever, finally remastered and restored to its original track sequence. Worth it just for the album itself, even more worth it for the additional material.

"Lust Lust Lust" by The Raveonettes. Recommended to me by a friend, and an excellent Jesus and Mary Chain brand of lo-fi -- love that spring reverb! -- but there's such a thing as too much of a good thing...the album is longer than it needs to be by far.

"The Frenz Experiment" by The Fall. I'd buy anything by The Fall. Another excellent album from their Brix/Schofield period. "Hit the North" is such a wonderful song!

"Ljubi in Sovraži" and "Arhiv" by Videosex, both incredibly cheap, both wonderful, both with awful sound quality, and both previously mentioned here.

"Horehound" by The Dead Weather. Since I'm probably the last person on earth who isn't 100% sure who Jack Black is, I can approach this supergroup without any preconceived notions or expectations. It's got a fun, gritty, dark-blues sound that gets a little dull after a while...but when it's good, it's GOOD.

"The Hazards of Love" by The Decemberists. I admit it: I've never heard anything else by them. I only stumbled across this album because amazing animator Julia Pott made part of their album-length music video. I watched the video and said "wow," and bought the album and said "WOW!" (Chorus of dead children excluded)

Many albums by Manfred Mann's Earth Band, bought in release order, from their self-titled release to "Solar Fire." Thank you iTunes, I finally get a chance to hear all the albums by a band I'd Buy Anything From.

"Prince Charming" by Adam & the Ants. It's hard not to love the Adam Ant concept: sexy guy dresses up like a "Top of the Pops" version of a highwayman, then sings a bunch of fetishy, over-the-top songs for a public scandalized, annoyed, and in lust. Do all the albums live up to this? Not "Prince Charming," but it's...well, charming.

"On the Threshold of a Dream" by Moody Blues. Another of my favourite albums, finally remastered and released with tons of bonus material. It's still just as scary and lovely as ever and -- in my humble opinion -- the only Moody Blues album you need to own.

"Tale to Tell" by The Mummers. Weird woman with amazing voice teams up with a soundtrack composer and releases and album with lots of potential. Composer commits suicide shortly afterward. We will never know what could (and should) have happened next, but at least we have this difficult album of outrageous orchestral pop.

"The Family Jewels" by Marina and the Diamonds. The only album in recent memory that has kept me literally SWEATING for its release...and yes, it's good, but the singles are far and above the most distinctive songs. Even so, I'd pay double the money just for that handful of songs, and there are some others that are "just good enough that another fabulous artist might have been able to do them."

"All Request Live" by Ween. They're always fabulous. Their new renditions of songs from the past are all wonderful, but check out "Where Did the Cheese Go," an insane presentation of their rejected Pizza Hut jingle. Six minutes long. It's the best.

All the cassettes by Pain Teens. I've already mentioned that I'd buy anything by the Pain Teens, so imagine my joy when I discovered all of their original cassette albums on iTunes! Well, lots of songs have been removed (probably for copyright reasons) and they're generally overpriced, but I love them both for the chance to hear the "demo" versions of songs from later albums, and for a format that they represent and has largely disappeared: the 4-track 90-minute tape recorded in your parent's basement by a person (Scott Ayres in this case, with a bit of input by Bliss Blood) who seems to have no end of creativity and talent. I recommend "Manmade Disasters" and "Cathy" if you like more song-oriented albums, and "Narcolepsy" for experimental oddness that is still listenable.

The self-titled album by Sons of Freedom. The tightest rhythm section ever, made even tighter by the fact that the guitarist usually played rhythm as well. This one just thumps and thumps and thumps along, and while the songs near the end are a bit self-indulgent and weak, the first half of the album is massively great.

The self-titled EP by Lioness. How appropriate that this should follow Sons of Freedom; take their thumpy rhythms and add the best bits of Dragonette -- everybody being Canadian, incidentally -- and you get the catchiest song in ages and a darn good EP too. They Will Be Big.

"Eyelid Movies" by Phantogram, recommended to me by Joshua, king of the OTHER twin cities, doesn't have a lot of variety to it but is excellent background music.

"Too" by Madita. Ahh, this is so good: a pop album that always sounds great, but still manages to pull the in influences and oddities that make it something special. And she has a perfectly capable voice without distraction.

"In the Flat Fields" by Bauhaus. I never used to enjoy this phase of Bauhaus' career, but now I see the joy. It's a weird album of chainsaw rhythm and guitar effects, held together by Peter Murphy's histrionics: exhausting, alienating, and -- apparently -- the beginning of Goth As We Know It.

"Trip the Light Fantastic" by Sophie Ellis-Bextor. Rarely does an album leave me so thrilled and happy! Perfect production, beautiful melodies, and Sophie's expressive voice; this is anything but a pop-by-numbers album and it baffles me that more people haven't heard it. You want to, right?!?

"Wild Young Hearts" by Noisettes. This is my most recent purchase so I haven't listened enough to give even a capsule review, but I'm liking it so far. Embarrassing fact: Delirium gal Annissa (her again!) told me about the Noisettes several months ago, and I brushed them off as manufactured entities ala VV Brown, then I forgot about them. This week I gushingly asked Annissa if she'd heard of the Noisettes, and she revealed to me my reactionary music snobbishness. Reality check!

Four Strangers in the Park

On Wednesday I suddenly snapped: I was overtired, confused, and frustrated. I was making too many mistakes. When I asked my manager if I could have the rest of the week off she said "Sure!" and the world suddenly became a better place.

One thing I wanted to accomplish during my long weekend was to get my taxes done, so today I sorted all my papers and started the long walk to Conestoga Mall. I could either take a ridiculous detour along impersonal major streets I already knew...or I could finally explore Hillside Park., whose network of trails goes there almost directly. Thank goodness I decided to do the latter.

Ever since I've moved here I've known the park was on my doorstep, and I'd seen aerial views of it on Google, but I'd never actually been inside until today. Its unspoiled lushness (complete with marshes, branching trails, crumbling 19th century foundations, and -- apparently -- foxes) makes it appear much larger than it is...I assume the illusion of total wilderness will be complete once the summer leaves grow.

It was while walking one of the trails at 11:30 this morning that I spotted a plaque of some sort located about 40 feet down a small secondary path. Wanting to read it, I started down the path when I noticed a woman sitting further down, mostly obscured by the bushes. "Hello!" she shouted to me.

You don't spend long exploring these trails in Kitchener/Waterloo before you discover the makeshift camps of homeless people. I've never had any problems, but I'm understandably wary about stepping into a home where people have been drinking all day, and probably pooping in the corner.

But this woman sounded sober so I shouted "Hello!" back, and walked down the path towards her, thinking I was just going to be briefly trapped by a gregarious person who wanted to chat.

As I got closer she said, "You know that saying, 'I've fallen and I can't get up?' Well, it's just happened to me." She was sitting on the ground next to an electric scooter. She'd driven down the path to pick up a blanket that somebody had left there -- she's a great lover of the trails and doesn't like to see them used as a junkyard -- and her scooter had hit a muddy pothole, throwing her down. She'd been sitting there in the dirt for a long time, without a cel phone, invisible to the people on the main trail, listening to the birds and totally unable to get up.

We tried a few things but I simply wasn't strong enough; she was quite heavy and had almost no lifting power in her legs. After a bit she got exhausted, so we sat back down and chatted and tried to come up with a plan.

Since *I* could look over the bushes I was able to see the main trail, and when an old man walked by I ran after him and asked him to please help. He came back and we both tried to lift chance.

I saw a hiker and brought her back as well. So there we were in the bushes, four people trying to accomplish a heavy-lifting task, and us lifters were hilariously ill-suited to the job: I've got a torn-up right shoulder, the old man was wiry and somewhat frail, and the hiker was small and couldn't even lift half of what I could.

We jostled and pushed and pulled, rested, chatted, and jostled and pulled some more. Eventually the woman got discouraged and said we'd simply have to call the police...but not only were we unable to LIFT anything, none of us even had a PHONE.

Meanwhile I'd been toying with a big log, and I reasoned that the woman's problem was that she couldn't expend the strength necessary to BOTH stand AND position her legs. We couldn't raise her up to a standing position while she was sitting on the ground...but maybe we could divide the job in half by getting her to sit on the log first, THEN -- with her weight already off the ground -- pull her into a position where she could get her legs in gear.

It was worth a try! The old man and I rolled the log over, and with some pushing and pulling we got her onto it, squashing a large number of beetles that I thought it best not to mention. Then we found some broken wooden planks and wedged them under the log to keep it from moving, and the old man pushed from behind while the hiker and I pulled from the front. Amazing! Within minutes she was back in her cart and we were almost as dirty as she was.

What was particularly strange about this is that we had to spend so much time with each other -- twenty minutes, I'd say -- but we were almost a random sample of people. To add to the social barrier we'd been intimately grabbing a perfect stranger, meanwhile trying to figure out exactly what she was capable of in terms of movement and strength. By some fluke the four of us were so darn POLITE: there wasn't a take-charge, natural leader among us, so it was like "Well, I was thinking that maybe this would work--" "Oh, you think? Would that help?" "I'm not sure, here, we can try..." "Oh, excuse me, sorry..."

In terms of social rewards, I think we were all happy in our own ways: the woman was thrilled that she didn't need to call the police, and the rest of us -- none of whom had been in any sort of hurry -- felt awfully good about saving the damsel in distress. I was also happy that I'd seemed nice and genuine enough to convince total strangers to follow me into the bushes.

The old man went his own way, and because the hiker and I were both going in the same direction but had never been in the park before, the suddenly-mobile woman gave us a guided tour of her favourite spots. Gradually we split off until it was just me in a gorgeous forest, under a warm and cloudy sky, in no particular hurry and walking on my own again. So nice!


Oh, yeah, my taxes: "It's busy," said the tax people. "Come back on Sunday."

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Subverted Expectations in My Old Hometown

I posted earlier today about the somewhat noisy environment I'm living in. At the time I found myself looking forward to visiting my parents in New Hamburg, so I could experience some of that good old fashioned solitude I remember so well.

Instead of solitude, I found out that my parent's house -- the one I grew up in -- is surrounded by a ring of six barking beagles. The house next door sports exactly SEVEN children. An angry father kept yelling at his dog "SHUT UP! DON'T BACKTALK ME! YOU SHUT UP!!!"

And then, amidst the cacophony, somebody began driving their team of snowmobiles up and down the gravel road. You know what a snowmobile sounds like when it's skidding over a mountain of snow? Imagine it instead grinding its way through dirt and rocks at 5kph. It's like a dumptruck, a leafblower, and an oil drill all at once, complete with swearing.

I can't believe it. My house is quieter than such tranquility. I count my blessings, over and over and over again.

My New NEW Digs

I moved here in September when it was a little bit chilly and everybody was retreating indoors. Over the winter I've barely seen anything of my neighbours.

Now, with the obscenely beautiful weather, I'm learning a bit more about them than I'd like to. We all have little patios so we're sort of in each other's faces. Plus I'm living next door to the Brady Bunch, a family whose uncountable children simply cannot be held within in the confines of a two-bedroom house, so they spill out in all directions and are pretty much below every window and inescapable.

I'm a much more relaxed person now than I used to be, so I am better able to view their activities as "healthy play" as opposed to "intrusively noisy." And I can (so far) drown them out when I really need to concentrate by turning on the furnace fan, which provides the added benefit of air circulation and which the previous owners had on pretty much constantly.

Fortunately this community does not seem to host partiers, at least not the type for whom partying is a lifestyle instead of just a diversion. I much prefer the sound of children playing than the sound of thumping music. And even more fortunately, my other neighbours -- the ones I share a wall with -- are so quiet that I occasionally worry about them. This is a far cry from the days of yore: the barking daschund, the wrestling pre-teens on the stairway, the pot-fueled 2:00am guitar parties on a chilly Tuesday morning.

I think this will be good. I don't know how much any of these people will like me...some of them say hello when I'm watering my terminally thirsty shrubbery, while others just walk past.

Other good things: this place is so nice and tidy that it's a pleasure to clean...well, as pleasurable as cleaning can be. Zsa Zsa adores her extended patio time and her tense exchanges with the Stray Badass Cat, who I surreptitiously spray with water when it looks like things are going poorly.

A VERY good thing: just across the expressway from where I live is the beautiful, unspoiled wilderness of Bechtel Park, but to get there I have to take a huge detour around all the fences and across the overpass. I've noticed a little stream that travels UNDER the expressway and into the park, and I've been wondering if I couldn't splash my way over there that way.

So on Friday I started exploring, and holy cow! The stream does indeed travel through a tunnel, and right beside it there is a SECOND tunnel...FOR PEDESTRIANS! It's long and spooky and black -- the kind of thing that city planners don't build anymore for safety reasons -- but thanks to some skillfully-demolished fences it provides convenient access to the park. Not a place to go at night, but a pleasant and adventuresome trip for the noon hour wanderer in search of some peace.

I think I'll need to use it a few times during the warm patio weather.