Tuesday, January 30, 2007


As part of my resolution to "see more movies," Peevil and I went to "Volver" last night at the Princess Cinema (Peevil and I also have a resolution to "see more of each other," so we both bought memberships, and now we can't come up with excuses).

I've loved Pedro Almodovar's films since my first exposure -- I think it was "Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down." I miss the raunchy, silly campiness of his older films in the same way that I miss John Waters' old-time craziness...but unlike Waters, Almodovar has mellowed into something beautiful and strange. He's no longer making movies about nuns on LSD, but he's not making blockbusters either. His films are as crazy as ever, really...but he's learned to relax. I think I've finally learned to relax with him.

As always, Volver stars unconventionally beautiful women (Lola Duenas is the logical, toned-down follow up to Rossy de Palma's "pretty but shouldn't really be" standards...far prettier than Penelope Cruz anyday). These women -- as always -- work towards gaining independence from men and towards friendship with each other. Crazy stuff happens and everybody stands around and acts like it's sort of normal. Almodovar stalwarts Carmen Maura and Chus Lampreave (she'll always be Sister Rat to me!) are just so darn GOOD and so darn SPECIAL that it makes my heart ache.

The plot? Well, Peevil and I had already figured out the two big twists halfway through, but we still enjoyed the development. You tend to know what Almodovar's up to, but you never know how he'll present it. I also notice that when you watch his films in a crowd, people don't know whether they're supposed to laugh or not. Sadly the two old ladies behind me decided to live on the edge and laugh at everything, and they were sorely in need of a pepsodent soak. Peevil didn't notice because she had her nose buried in her coat; the theatre was freezing.

Anyway: go into Volver expecting an intriguing, funny, harrowing story about Spanish women with curvy bums. That way you'll get what you want and you won't be disappointed.

Traumatizing the Cat

I've had Zsa Zsa for six years and I've never taken her to the vet. I know several people who never take their cats for regular check-ups, and since Zsa Zsa is as healthy as a pony I figured there was no point.

But guilt finally won out. Also I bought her one of those cat water fountains, which is sort of like buying a Thunderbird fountain for an alcoholic. She's always been OBSESSED with running water, and now she can drink it whenever she wants...and as a result her litter box is a wet swampy mess.

Golly! Maybe she's diabetic? Maybe she caught it from me that time I smooched her?

So I made an appointment at the vet's, dusted off her old cat carrier, and dragged poor Zsa Zsa into a strange environment. She meowed pitifully in the cab when I got out to get her adoption papers. She sat with her face pressed against the grille, gazing at me, in the back seat. Then, at the vet's office, she had a staring contest with a dog (and won), she hissed and growled when the vet examined her butt, and finally she looked resigned and proud as they wrapped her in a blanket and took her away to do a biopsy of That Thing On Her Head.

First things first: she's probably not diabetic. Rather than subject her to blood work they gave me a packet of litterbox crystals that supposedly change colour when she pees on them.

Next, That Thing On Her Head. It's a lump that suddenly grew during her first year with me but hasn't changed since. Turns out it's a mastocytoma (warning, sad and gross), which in a dog is critical...but cats get them frequently and they are almost always benign.

Finally, her "happy-twitching." When she's very very relaxed and I'm petting her, her face starts to spasm slightly; her lips twich suddenly, her mouth wiggles a bit, her eyes clench spastically. It never seems to bother her but looks like some kind of seizure. I mentioned it to the vet because I noticed she was doing it in the clinic, which means it happens when she's both happy AND stressed. I'd be stressed too if the vet thought MY name was pronounced "Saw-see."

The vet was very happy to expound on twitching cats. She's heard this from a few other cat owners and she feels it's a "cluster seizure," but since nobody has the time, motivation, or money to stick cats in MRI scans to see how they act when they're happy...well, maybe we'll never know what it's all about.

A non-deductable $70 later, I now have peace of mind and Zsa Zsa -- on my lap as I write this -- doesn't appear permanently damaged. Of course I still have to do the urine test...but I'll leave that for another day. Jeez, I think I found the whole experience more stressful than she did.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Palatable Bollywood Joy: Maghta Hai Kya

If I were going to pick one clip that embodied the best of Bollywood -- a clip palatable to non-fans AND avoiding outright culture-shock goofiness -- I'd pick this scene from the film "Rangeela."

What you've got here (by way of plot) is sweet bumpkin Aamir Khan trying to deal with the sudden stardom of his girlfriend, Urmila Matondkar. This song (Maghta Hai Kya) is just showing us their passion, love, unpretentious silliness, and adventurous spirit...before they begin to drift apart into different classes and ambitions.

Why's it special? First off it's a great song by unconventional musician A. R. Rahman, known for his odd rhythm, studio trickery, and long quiet stretches broken by sudden and unexpected shocks. You've also got Ram Gopal Varma directing, who at the time (1996?) considered himself the "Steven Spielberg of Bollywood," which in this case was a good thing. Finally you've got Urmilla and Aamir who had a great chemistry and a certain charm (this was during their pre-fame days...in fact, this was the film that really "made them.")

Also notable is this was when the "kiss taboo" in Indian films began to loosen: note the strange "kiss-and-cut" moment halfway through. And there's a green-screen effect that sort of works. And leaf-covered natives. And sexiness. And sweetness. You can almost excuse the traditional "standing on rocks and pinwheeling" elements near the beginning, which any fan of Bollywood has seen far too much of.

The choreography, though more adventurous than average, is still typical Bollywood: it doesn't matter if it makes sense in a cultural or traditional way, just as long as it LOOKS GOOD. Even when it doesn't. Which sums up the fun of Bollywood in general.

So in short: it's moments (and movies) like this that really MADE Bollywood for me, when I watched it regularly. Eventually I got tired of seeing the same things over and over again, and also got jaded with the craziness, but some films really shone, and "Rangeela" was one of them.

My New Digs: The Shoe-Eating Porch

When you arrive at My New Digs, be careful walking on the Shoe-Eating Porch. There's nothing it likes better than snapping at the heels of your favourite shoes. If you're lucky both you AND your shoes will escape alive!

Sarah Jane Smith

I figured: okay, I just spent a great night in Guelph with wonderful people at a wonderful party...I can go home and enjoy a totally nerdy persuit, right?

So I watched the pilot episode of the "Sarah Jane Adventures."

Gah! Okay, it's a show aimed at pre-teens. Obviously. But those of you (like me) who grew up watching Sarah Jane Smith in the late '70s during the heyday of "Doctor Who" can't help feeling a little nostalgic about her. Or in this case, a LOT nostalgic.

The Sarah Jane character got unceremoniously dumped in 1976, the way many of the Doctor Who "companions" got dumped when things just weren't working out. Elizabeth Sladen (the actress) felt that the character wasn't going anywhere, and she was right...there's only so many times you can say "Doctor, WHAT'S HAPPENING?!?" before things get a little tiresome.

But the problem is, Elizabeth Sladen never went anywhere afterwards. She'd been typecast. And we all loved her and wished we could see her again (though I admit that Leela and Romana kicked butt as travelling companions afterward).

On the heels of her brief return during the second season of the new Doctor Who, introducing a whole new set of neuroses, Elizabeth Sladen stars in her own TV series -- "The Sarah Jane Adventures" -- which is really darn fun. I mean sure, I'm twice the age of the target demographic, but that doesn't matter: Elizabeth Sladen has aged beautifully, she's got a killer pair of boots, and the production team does a great job aiming at children while still being fun for adults.

Besides whatever entertainment value the program has, it makes me happy to see Elizabeth Sladen back on screen again. She has justified her talent, she's a great actress, and if the only way she can prove it is by playing the same character again...well, sad but okay. And need I mention John Leeson as K9?

Okay, okay, the core of this post is the little kid in me screaming "YAY! K9 AND SARAH JANE! AND THEY'RE GREAT!" Nothing else matters. Tomorrow, life goes on.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Rising Up and Rising Down (Volume III)

For the last month or so I've been quickly -- but diligently -- making my way through William T. Vollmann's seven-volume opus, "Rising Up and Rising Down." It's an analysis of justifications for defense, looked at from many different angles and since the beginning of recorded history. Now that I'm midway through the third volume -- and almost at the spot where I gave up the last time -- I guess I can say a few things about this beautiful and maddening work.

Vollmann spent twenty years writing this, and it shows. The research is meticulous and his depth of understanding for so many topics is probably unmatched. At the same time, and in an attempt at making his analyses as comprehensive as possible, it can be difficult to follow the convoluted path of his thinking: he justifies carefully thought-out positions, then destroys them, then rebuilds them with new caveats and conditions that are sometimes surprisingly logical and elegant, but at other times totally useless. And he's the first one to tell you when he fails to come up with a practical section in his "moral calculus."

Rather than try to do this book justice, here are a few pointers to anybody considering tackling it (I understand the complete set is long out of print, but there's a "condensed" version available now).

The first volume is difficult to get into. It begins with "Three Meditations on Death" which don't have much to do with the book itself; this is typical of Vollmann, he seems to have trouble beginning his books, so the first chunk tends to be "warming up to the topic," a sort of mental purge so he can get to business. The following two sections show another annoying Vollmann trait: they're essential, but he's given them esoteric titles that only serve to throw the reader off the trail. "The Days of the Niblungs" is an advanced apology about how difficult the book will be to read and how subjective much of it needs to be.

The next ridiculously-titled-but-hugely-important section is "Definitions for Lonely Atoms." Since much of the book is about complex issues generally tackled by groups of people acting against other groups of people, this section is simply an analysis of the rights of the INDIVIDUAL; what are a person's basic offensive and defensive rights? He gets somewhat sidetracked on the issue of weaponry but I think Vollmann scores with his conclusions, which he reaches by analyzing countless historical precedents and by imagining the beginning of the human social contract:

  1. To violently defend yourself, or not.
  2. To violently defend another, or not.
  3. To destroy yourself or preserve yourself.
  4. To violently destroy another who would be better off dead
  5. To violently defend your property, or not.

All of these points (and all other points I might reference here) are usually qualified with caveats -- for instance, point 3 specifies that suicide is permissible whenever uncoerced, but most noble as an act of assertion in defense of a right.

The next 3 volumes explore various types of self-defense, and try to codify when self-defense is justified. This is done by carefully defining the terms involved (for example, "inner honor" versus "outer honor"), giving huge amounts of historical detail as case studies, giving continuums of opinion on the subject from the writings of others, and -- most importantly -- defining a set of rules and conditions which make a particularly type of self-defense justified or unjustified.

I've worked my way through his analyses of violent defense of honor (the first, longest, and most complex topic), class, authority, race & culture, creed, war aims, homeland, ground, the earth, and animals. Each section is slightly different in its approach; some are more anectodal (Vollmann's experiences in Bosnia, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Nunuvut), others are careful retellings of historical events (the American Civil War, the Russian Revolution, Napoleon, Caesar vs. Pompey, Joan of Arc, World War One and Two), and others rely a lot on personal interviews with today's activists.

I find the chapters on defense of Earth and defense of animals to be most interesting, because it's there where Vollmann really struggles. In most cases (so far) he's tackled issues that have been explored for centuries and experimented upon by other grand civilizations, but when it comes to Eco-terrorism or the Animal Liberation Front, not only are they relatively NEW (and as yet relatively undefined) issues, but the violent actions tend to be perpetrated by people who seem to be acting on compassionate grounds (never mind that they don't necessarily have compassion for their opponents, but the PETA folks certainly seem to care more for animals than -- for example -- Trotsky seemed to care for the proles).

In his chapter on defense of Earth -- involving the spiking of trees to prevent logging, and any sort of violent uprising to prevent pollution or global warming -- he constructs an elaborate and clever concept: a private army called "Same Day Liberations." It sounds great until you begin to realize that Vollmann is REALLY wallowing in despair; he knows the idea won't work. People are too easily bought off, disinformation is too easily spread by rich and powerful authorities, human beings are too short-sighted. All he can really suggest is that we become our own experts and be critical of where our information comes from.

The most interesting point he raises, though, is Garrett Hardin's "Tragedy of the commons," which is so depressing that I'll just quote Vollmann's paraphrase:
Problem: What is my utility in adding one more animal to my herd on a common pasture?

Solution: Buy another animal, let it overgrazed, and be damned to everybody else
On a related note he mentions what he calls "The Crocodile's Maxim," which boils down to a general way of thinking that things MUST get better/bigger/easier, and if they don't then we're doing something wrong. But it's unlikely that things can increase in this way indefinitely; how many people can the earth support? How big can a company get? I think this is a very important and awful part of human nature and I wish I could express it better. Every time I see a report that a company is achieving record stock prices, I think jeez, how can anybody believe that will continue forever, and what's wrong with a stock staying at the same price (I know what a stockholder would say, at least).

When it comes to defense of animals, Vollmann is even more uncertain, mainly because nobody can settle on a threshold at which violence against animals must stop (monkeys, dogs, rabbits, mice, flies, flatworms, bacteria?), and how useful violence against animals actually is (medical research, hunter/gathering societies, animal attacks, community rituals).

Vollmann is never more interesting than when he's writing about the Inuit, as far as I'm concern. He's the first to say that he is perhaps unreasonably romantic about their lifestyle, but his descriptions of seal hunts -- and subsequent family dinners of raw frozen meat -- are eye-opening. When an animal-rights activists tells him that the Inuit would stop hunting for meat if they were provided with enough other types of food (disregarding the cost of getting the food to them, since agriculture just isn't feasible up there), he delivers a stunning comparison: this is exactly what Cortes said about the Aztecs, it's the placement of one group's ethos over another's, and the disgusting assumption that the other group will gleefully embrace your own values because they're naturally "better."

My favourite moment, though, is when Vollmann spends several pages writing about how wonderful his sealskin kamiks (moccasins) are, how important they've been to him in his travels up north, and how synthetic boots can't match his kamiks in certain situations. After waxing romantic about his kamiks for four pages gives an animal activist named Lizzy her own chapter to respond. She says simply:

"I just wonder how that seal felt when he was killed so some guy could take his skin and go up to the Magnetic Pole to think."

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The "French Phone"

In early 1927, the New Yorker begins mentioning a revolutionary telephone that everybody wants to have. Called "The French Phone," I didn't know what the heck it was until I ran across this cartoon this morning:

It seems this type of phone -- with the receiver and headset combined into one section, the way we know it today -- cost more to install and caused minor havoc with the Bell Telephone company.

To get around the higher cost, people bought cheaper French Phones made by third-party companies and installed them personally. But Bell had a contract in its clause that nobody had paid attention to previously: you were not allowed to use non-Bell accessories with Bell's telephone service.

From the sounds of it, this prohibition was pretty much unenforcable. It may have begun the breakdown of Bell's phone-and-service monopoly. If you're interested in learning more about early telephones, check out this site. But I warn you: you'll suffer a disturbing MIDI loop of "Puttin' On the Ritz."

PS: Why was it called "The French Phone?" Apparently it resembled phones in Europe. What that means exactly I'm not sure.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

If the Nightingale / Could Sing Like You...

I just finished rewatching the Marx Brothers in "Monkey Business," you know, the one where they're stowaways and need to impersonate famous people to get off the boat. Errr, to differentiate it from "A Night at the Opera," this is the one where they pretend to be Maurice Chevalier, and where Harpo does a Punch & Judy gag with a lot of children who are being forced to laugh. And you know how awful it is when little kids have to pretend to laugh in a film.

Some of the best moments in a Marx Brothers movie are when Chico does a one-on-one routine with either Harpo or Groucho:

GROUCHO: Well, the picnic's off, we didn't bring any red ants.
CHICO: I know some Indians got a couple of red aunts.

I also love to watch the Marxes tease and confuse women. I don't know whether it's a misogynistic streak or what, but a common thread in these movies is one of the brothers flirting with a woman, routinely insulting her at the same time, and then scaring the heck out of her or sort of physically assaulting her. I find this refreshing not because I like to see women get insulted, jacked up like cars, or crushed under couch cushions, but because I like to see a Hollywood "flirtation routine" get turned completely on its head.

CHICO: You're a very pretty girl. You've got "it."
MANICURIST: Thank you.
CHICO: And you can keep it.

Watching Groucho irrationally insult a pretty girl ("Does your husband know you used to dance in a flea circus?") also provides a welcome change from hatchet-faced Zeppo woodenly wooing the dull romantic lead. And anything that delays a harp solo is a good thing in my books.

(Every blog entry requires a certain amount of writing-agony, but this time around I couldn't remember how to spell cushion...think about it, it's a strange word)

My New Digs: Satan's Lazy Susan

Ladies and gentlement, let me present: Satan's Lazy Susan.

What you're seeing is the sanitized version. When I first opened this cupboard I almost vomited, and that ain't no lie. Besides being coated with a thick layer of mouse feces, all three shelves of Satan's Lazy Susan were also covered with rotten food and other unidentifiable substances. And there was an old bottle of vanilla extract in there somewhere.

My first instinct was to nail the cupboard shut and never think about it again, but I knew that was impossible. How could I actually WASH DISHES under such an abomination? So I put on the rubber gloves -- and gave some credit to whoever decided to BUILD this crazy thing -- and spent an hour spraying, digging, sweeping, and gagging.

Now I have a clean lazy susan which I'll never use. I admit it has a "Leave it to Beaver" appeal, but whenever I look at it I think of the words "Totally F*cking Disgusting."

Such is the joy of moving into an old apartment. You never know what you'll find.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Horrible Hagfish

Yesterday I brought you the bread-secreting bowery bums. Today I bring you...the slime-secreting hagfish!

I love to read about disgusting animals, especially parasites. It instills in me a sense of nature's ingenuity and her unique code of aesthetics: lots of animals are horrible, but some of the most horrible animals are also the best adapted to their environment. Sometimes I feel like those pre-1930s naturalists who considered such animals to be degenerate abominations, and wrote treatises about how they had actual "devolved" due to laziness and immorality. Other times I can only marvel at their functional beauty.

I also like to read about horrible animals because I like to be grossed out.

So I happily present the hagfish. They're usually about 18 inches long and, like a lamprey, they can attach themselves to other fish and slowly eat them alive. But unlike the lamprey, the hagfish has a special ability to tie itself in knots...this ability gives it traction, allowing it to actually INSERT itself into other fish...and eat them from the inside out.

Hagfish can also produce HUGE amounts of fibrous slime...they can literally cocoon themselves in slime in just a few seconds, and can clean themselves off again by tying their bodies into a knot and slipping the knot back along their skin. Here's a video of a hagfish inside a slime cocoon...you can see it best halfway through.

WARNING: According to this link hagfish sometimes "burrow in the soft bottom." So if you've been feeling strange lately, grab a mirror and take a look. You don't want somebody ELSE to tell you.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Lipstick's Cure for an Inferiority Complex

Since I was just mentioning Lois Long and her somewhat irreverent, entertaining, and insensitive style, here's an excerpt from her May 26, 1927 "Tables for Two" guide to dining and nightclubbing:
More slumming notes: Those interested in the Human Interest side of life may find it, better than anywhere, at the five-cent cafeteria of the Bowery Y.M.C.A., which has already been the subject of so many sob stories that I hardly have the heart to compete with my newspaper sisters. There you can order soup or coffee for five cents, corned beef and cabbage for ten, pie for five, and bread for nothing; and you can watch the derelicts of the town decide definitely against anything too nourishing in favor of pastry and pie. You may also observe the gentlemen of the ensemble secreting bread all over their persons in whatever pockets (besides the one that contains the hootch) are still capable of holding anything.

And, if this doesn't make you feel sufficiently superior and prosperous and beautiful; if it doesn't knock your inferiority complex endwise, the Armless Wonder and the Five-Toed-What-Is-It and the Fattest Lady, gents, in captivity eat in their headquarters in the Hubert's Museum, daily between five and six.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

My New Digs: Low Frequencies

Well, there's no getting around it; low frequencies travel through this building like poop through a duck. A cupboard door being closed in the other unit's kitchen is an audible thump in my bedroom.

I can filter out the higher-frequencies -- like talking -- with a somewhat noisy fan, but I can't think of anything to stop the fact that when one of my neighbours comes home at 10pm, makes herself some food, and takes a bath...well, I can hear (and FEEL) her thumping around until she retires to her room. Which may be anywhere from 11pm to 1am.

Right now this is keeping me awake.

What's my solution? Bear with me here, there's a lot of variables. And I want to make it clear that this is me "trying to understand and solve the problem," not "whining."

I can hardly tell people not to move around after 10pm; if I worked nights and somebody asked me not to open cupboards and doors when I got home...well, I'd think they were nuts. Though my neighbour could stand to be a bit more CAREFUL with her movements after 10pm -- pushing the cupboards shut instead of knocking them shut, for instance -- I don't want to suggest such a thing right now. It would seem like a demand or a lecture (unless I can find some way to speak with them long enough to "ease" the suggestion in, rather than just march over and say "stop it").

I don't think that BLOCKING the sounds is feasible; a big box fan might work (my old one is so rattly by now that I'll need to get it replaced), or maybe some other kind of polite noise-maker could cancel out the thumps. Structural soundproofing isn't something I can do without landlord initiative, and even if they would do it I think it's hopeless: the structure of the house itself is a conduit for these noises, it seems.

I could change my schedule. Normally I try to get to sleep by 9:30pm, and get up by 7am. I've spent a lifetime trying to figure out how to sleep properly, but I HAVE heard (and garnered some evidence) that people can manage just as well (if not better) with 6 hours of sleep. Though that might not be me.

Strangely, my last apartment suffered a different structural problem: the ceiling creaked horribly. I could hear every footstep in the apartment above me, and I can remember many late nights being unable to sleep -- or being woken up -- by the folks upstairs walking around late at night or (worse) having vigorous, regular sex.

But somehow THIS noise is affecting me more, either because it's a DIFFERENT sort of noise -- maybe it's vibrating my bed, slightly -- or because I'm not fully "at home" yet.

All of which forces me to acknowledge that I have a lower threshold for noise than some people do. For that reason I have no idea if THIS degree of noise is abnormal and therefore "something which MUST be stopped or fixed." This also means that I might be able to get used to the noise...and for what it's worth, my neighbours are so far SAINTS when it comes to making noise. I just wish they worked 9-5 like I do...

The other variable is blood sugar (as always). My blood sugar often rises as I'm sleeping, which happens to certain diabetics. If it rises (or lowers) to a certain point I become edgy, sensitive, and I have a lot of trouble sleeping. This is difficult because if I fall asleep at an ideal blood sugar, chances are my neighbour coming home will wake me up...at which point I'll have a higher blood sugar, and I'll need to lower it again before I can reach a good "sleep state." This is my problem right now: my neighbour's been silent for half an hour but I'm still "wound up." Not to mention I'm afraid to try to sleep, begin to drift off, and then be thumped awake again.

It's always good to have a plan, so here is mine. I'm going to just keep on and see how it goes. Chances are I'll get used to it eventually, the same way I (sort of) got used to the creaking ceiling. If this situation disrupts my life to the point where I'm a total wreck, well, I'm paying rent by the month so I can always find another place. Which would suck.

In the meantime, maybe I could get a foam pad for under the futon, to dull any vibrations that might be making it sound worse. Or try a box fan. Or earplugs. Or yoga!

Mixtures Reported

Every week, the "prohibition era" issues of The New Yorker offer -- maybe sarcastically -- new drink mixtures. This one is from March 26, 1927:
"Lipstick" cocktail, so named by its inventor, Mr. Barney Gallant, because it tastes sweet and innocuous and has an awful wallop--Two parts champagne, one part gin, one part orange juice, dash of grapefruit juice, and a flavoring of cherry brandy. Shake rapidly with single chunk of ice.
This one is obviously referring to Lois Long, the fashion and nightclub columnist for the New Yorker. Lois was successfully incognito for many years, signing her columns as either "Lipstick" or "L.L." and firmly stating that she was neither person. She married Peter Arno -- archetypal 1920s artist who developed the weird "Whoop Sisters" cartoons -- and they were notorious for their drunken romps through the New Yorker offices.

Lois has languished in obscurity for half a century. The republication of the old New Yorker magazines, followed by the 2006 book "Flapper," have reignited her fame. Notwithstanding what may be a stronger than usual strain of racism in her writing -- she enjoys "slumming" in Harlem nightclubs, where she makes mention of "pickaninnies" and such -- her amusing but factual reviews are the highlights of the early "not serious" stage of the magazine.

Tom Thomson presents one of the more commonly-quoted anecdotes about Long:

One evening when managing editor Ralph Ingersoll stopped by the office after regular working hours, he was dismayed to find the magazine's star cartoonist, Peter Arno, lying naked on a sofa with "Tables for Two" columnist, Lois Long.

Years later Long said, "Arno and I may have been married to one another by then, I can't remember." On second thought, she added, "Maybe we began drinking and forgot that we were married and had an apartment to go to."

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Cover FX...The New Foundation?

Queens are in a tizzy. Our panstick has been taken away. For whatever reason, Max Factor is no longer selling any of their products in Canada, and all of us are wondering what we should do now.

Word "on the street" (wig-tip to Morgan & Ezzie) is that queens are switching to Ben Nye's foundation, which is engineered for TV and studio work. Myself, I decided to trailblaze...mostly because I don't know where to buy Ben Nye foundation here in the burbs of Kitchener/Waterloo. Frankly I'm sick of hunting around for foundation, I'd rather pay more in exchange for convenience.

So I started talking to Cosmeticians. "What's the hot new product?" I asked. They've all said "Cover FX," a Canadian company that specializes in foundation made for women who've accidentally fallen into threshing machines. It's heavy-duty stuff. It covers everything. It's freaking expensive.

So I wandered over to the "big" local drug store and waited to be served. The woman ahead of me was desperate to look y0ung, and the cosmetician was selling her on Neostrata. She was saying all sorts of bullcrap about how natural it was, etc., and I stood there thinking "only a moron would buy into this spiel."

Half an hour -- and one spiel -- later, I found myself paying $171 for the Cover FX foundation, the setting powder, the prep lotion (isn't it a DEFECT if a foundation REQUIRES a prep lotion?), and a $40 brush that I thought was worth about $5, but apparently it's made out of goats. And goats are cool. So there you go.

Tonight was my first "trial run" with the Cover FX. I can definitely say that the stuff is amazing under normal lighting. It takes a bit to get the hang of it -- and your face has to be SPOTLESS before you start applying it -- but once it's on it STAYS ON. Still, don't believe them when they say you don't need to powder afterwards...right now (hours later) I'm a bit shiny around the nose.

What works for me:
  1. Wash your face, wash it, then wash it again.
  2. Apply the prep lotion. You don't need much.
  3. Swipe your $40 goat hair brush twice over the cream foundation
  4. Apply to your face. Keep doing this until your face is covered.
  5. Take a foundation sponge and mush it in ONLY where you see problems. This is for those parts of your face that you really want to cover.
  6. Apply the setting powder. Again, not much is necessary.
  7. If you can still see stuff you don't want to see, don't be afraid to put on more foundation and more powder. It blends right in.
  8. Contour and colour so you look like a human being again.
But the thing is that it looks quite NATURAL. People in the past (Vanilla!) have often said that panstick looks quite unnatural, but my point of view has always been: hell, what I'm doing isn't exactly natural to begin with. And once you've found a formula that sort of works (and is pretty cheap) you want to stick with it. Experimenting is so stressful, time-consuming, and expensive.

There are problems. It doesn't REALLY conceal the under-eye discoleration that I get from poor diet, lack of sleep, and general worry-wartiness. And it's also very light...I mean, it IS my natural skin colour -- so the cosmetician did a wonderful job matching it -- but my natural skin colour is Casper the Ghost.

It's also untried under harsh lighting. Most makeups simply disappear under a spotlight or natural sunlight. But everybody tonight told me that I looked wonderful (would they say otherwise?) and the close-up pictures actually look BETTER than usual, so maybe I'm on to a good thing...

Saturday, January 06, 2007

My New Digs: The Attic

When I go into your house I don't want to see your collection of priceless Fabergé eggs, or your fishtank, or the new wallpaper in the bathroom. I want to see your attic and your basement.

Why's that? I don't know. I guess for the same reason I love railroad tracks and storm sewers: they're parts of our society that you're not supposed to see, and for that reason they often hold the best surprises. And you get the thrill of looking at something that very few people have bothered to look at...no matter how dull it turns out to be.

In my new apartment I have both a basement AND an attic. The basement is easy to get to (and more than a little gross) but the attic is a real chore: you need to take the shelves out of one of the upstairs cabinets and then climb up through a hidden crawlspace.

I knew that I couldn't handle living here without first exploring the attic, so during the first few days I laboriously removed the shelving, bought a flashlight, and pushed my way up through the trap door. After enduring a disgusting fall of dust, wood flecks, and insulation, I poked my head through and took some pictures.

What did I find? Nothing. It's just bare rafters and insulation. I did a cursory check for rodent nests or hornets, listened to the rain awhile, then climbed back down and put the shelves back in. Never to return.

So this adventure was about as exciting as opening Al Capone's vault, but sometimes you've just gotta know.

Potentially True Photographer Lingo

This morning I listened to another episode of the superb radio suspense-horror program "Quiet Please." This one was called "13 and 8" and was about a coded phrase that 1940s photographers supposedly really used.

According to the program, photographers have to be on the lookout for "lens-louses" who want to get in the shot, just so they can see themselves in the paper. Apparently many pictures get ruined if a photographer fails to notice a lens louse.

So whenever a photographer notices one of these people lurking around, he'll yell "13 and 8" to warn the other photographers about the person. They all position themselves to make sure the lens louse can't get in the pictures.

This may not be true, and Google isn't suited to dealing with phrases like "13 and 8." Google removes the "and" so you end up with millions of pages with the numbers "13" and "8" on them. Completely useless.

Still, this reminds me of another potentially true story about early-'40s photographer lingo. Whenever a homicide ocurred in a big city, folks would wander out on their fire escapes to watch the police do forensics work. Some of them were women wearing only bathrobes. Photographers at the scene would try to position themselves under the fire escapes and look up through the grills...if they saw a woman who wasn't wearing underwear they'd yell "beaver shot," and the other photographers would gather around to take sneaky photographs of early-morning vaginas. This is where the term "beaver" comes from, apparently.

Again, I don't know if this is true or not. And you can imagine the sort of pages that Google finds when you type "beaver shot."

Broadcast Signal Intrustion

I try not to stick too many YouTube videos on here -- it gets repetative, slows down the page loading time, and seems sort of a cheap thing to do -- but this is a particularly strange one with an interesting history.

On November 22, 1987, the only two successful cases of "broadcast signal intrusion" ocurred. During the 9:00pm WGN news broadcast, somebody managed to hijack the signal and insert their own video signal into the program. The signal was without audio and only lasted for twenty seconds; engineers quickly corrected the problem.

But the same hijack was attempted at 11:15pm on WTTW, this time with audio. Since the engineers weren't on duty, the inserted signal seemed to run its course...this time with audio. Nobody knows who the hijackers were, but whoever they were, they were very very strange.

Here's a recording of the incident, which occurs during a broadcast of Doctor Who's "Horror of Fang Rock."

Yes, he's wearing a Max Headroom mask and his voice is being pitch-shifted. Here's what some folks think he is actually saying, and for more information visit this site.
"He's a freaky nerd!"

"This guy's better than Chuck Swirsky." [another WGN sportscaster at the time]

"Oh Jesus!"

"Catch the wave..." [reference to a Coke commercial at the time of which Max Headroom was a spokesperson]

"Your love is fading..."

"I stole CBS."

"Oh, I just made a giant masterpiece printed all over the greatest world newspaper nerds." [??]

"My brother [mother?] is wearing the other one."

"It's dirty..."

"They're coming to get me..."

Incidentally, I loved Max Headroom. Hey, I was young, but after he teamed up with Art of Noise for "Paranoimia" -- a video which really messed up THIS 14-year-old's head -- I was hooked:

I even switched to Coca-Cola. It was at a time when people still thought he was computer generated, which made everything all the more mysterious. And the TV show was darn good too.

Also incidentally, "Horror of Fang Rock" is one of the best Doctor Who serials out there. Made during the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era -- when their mandate was "let's scare the little buggers" -- "Fang Rock" was one of a series of particularly nasty, out-of-control programs that eventually lead to Philip Hinchcliffe's ouster. And yes, it terrified me, and it's disturbing to watch even now. It's been given the full DVD restoration treatment. Sadly the Max Headroom video isn't part of it.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Something Lovely

For fear of seeming to only ever complain about things, here's something I enjoy:

Lying down on my couch, with lots of pillows, under an afghan, with a sleeping cat at my feet, reading a good book and occasionally looking up to stare out the huge windows of my living room, where the rain is striking with a most comforting pock and splash, blurring the Christmas lights on the balconies across the road. The fridge starts and stops more times than I can count. My feet are the perfect temperature. Whenever the furnace stops, the heating ducts shrink and crackle for five minutes or more.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Right Book For an Overturned Life

During these overturned weeks, immersed in moving and holidays and endless work stuff, I've been plowing through a few books to help keep myself centered.

I started out with Gulliver's Travels which -- excuse me -- is mostly just annoying. Yes I recognize that literature has changed an awful lot in 250 years, and I also understand that it was conceived as a social satire and not an adventure story. But yikes, Jonathan Swift simply cannot make a point and then move on...he needs to bludgeon you with a single idea for five or six pages, slyly winking at you in the meantime -- "Get it? Get it?" -- before he moves on.

I suppose my mistake was approaching it as a novel -- with, say, a plot and at least one interesting character -- while it's really more of an upside down essay. "Our European government is wacky," sez Swift, "and so are people in general!" Well, no kidding. I know that. But I'm having to FORCE myself to finish the damn book.

In the meantime, during my first few nights at my new place, I found myself craving a COMFORTING book. A book that doesn't ANNOY me. So I retreated to the basement and dug through the boxes that I previously kept squirreled away in my storage locker, boxes containing hundreds of short horror anthologies...and a few scary novels as well.

The one I settled upon is a book I find myself re-reading every five years or so: Shadowland, by Peter Straub. It has been part of my imagination since I was very young and it never fails to amaze me: an ambitious (but not particularly long) combination coming of age story, fairy tale, adventure serial, philosophical treatise, and absolute nightmare, with an ending that STILL shocks me and fills me with deep sorrow.

On reflection I realize now that the book is, like many of Peter Straub's books, incredibly sloppy -- basically a collection of great ideas and set pieces. Shadowland only "works" because it never tries to resolve itself. It's an early example of the "Metahorror" field that would briefly eclipse the straight-forward hacks like Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz: the reader drifts along with a plot that keeps unexpectedly diving off the path, into a 1950s prep school, a train ride through the midwest, a scary house in Vermont, field hospitals in WWI, England during the 1920s, Los Angeles in the 1980s. My more critical mind recognizes, now, that a convoluted path does not automatically make a coherent or meaningful novel, and much of the dialog that seemed deep and inscrutable to me in the past now seems to be what it REALLY is: random, random, random.

But I love the book regardless. The ideas don't gel, but they're wonderful ideas. The characters are perfectly fleshed, and I think that "The Collector" -- a homicidal rubber bodyguard with "blowtorched features" that hides in the bathroom mirror -- is still one of the scariest things around. While kids are so Harry Potter mad, why doesn't somebody turn it into the great movie it could someday be?

While looking for heavy books to help me soundproof my bedroom wall, I came face-to-face with William T. Vollmann's seven-volume Rising Up and Rising Down. I tried to read it a few years ago and ended up totally confused. I vowed to learn a bit more about Caesar, Pol Pot, Stalin, and Trotsky before trying it again.

Halfway through the first volume I'm recognizing my crucial problem. Vollmann is an unconventional storyteller who -- I believe -- doesn't care much that other people don't perceive things exactly the way he does. When he writes a novel this isn't a problem; it's all part of the strange world (AKA "Vollmann's head") that you step into when you pick up his books. But when he writes a 3,500 page essay covering all facets and permutations of human violence...well, the reader wants to UNDERSTAND what Vollmann is saying. But Vollmann, full of digressions and poetry and personal obsessions, doesn't try to conform to what we expect in an essay. His chapter headings are obscure, his references scattershot, his digressions just plain confusing.

Fortunately I realize this now. The book must be read S-L-O-W-L-Y, without any skimming. I also realize that he has a horrible tendency to refer back to complex ideas -- ideas that he never presented as being particularly important at the time -- using a personal shorthand that's really freaking annoying. We have the "Machiavellian Caveat," for instance, which Vollmann paraphrases as "Never turn the other cheek or they'll take your head off." He talks about "the Asian woman" and "the tortured woman" as though we should remember who they are. When he keeps making offhand references to people, events and philosophies -- in a book that is JAM PACKED with such things -- and he doesn't bother to refresh your memory, you wind up getting lost in outrageous paragraph excerpts like this:
We heard Hobbes insisting that since my great-grandfather once agreed to form a commonwealth, I thereby agreed and will always agree to every new act of government; hence "no Law can be Unjust;" but I cannot remember giving my consent to anything so sweeping, and if Hobbes did it, I beg him to bind only himself, not me, nor my comrades who are likewise discontented; like Ivan Karamazov, who found himself dissatisfied with an order of divine providence under which any child on this earth might be tortured, we must be able to announce that we reject our entrance ticket; like the pseudonymous commanders of an insurgent group in Mexico, we must be able to say whenever and to whomever we will: "Our objectives are for the people, with the people, and against the government. We are ready for anything." By the Machiavellian Caveat, mostly we are not. "No government can exist for a single moment without the cooperation of the people," says Gandhi, but he then adds the bitterly necessary qualification, "voluntary or forced." Force may partake of outright violence, craft or mutual obfuscation. Possessing all little power in their popular assemblies, the Roman plebians, for instance, knew not how to reject the whole ticket, although by means of riots an ill-omened corner of it might get torn away, and they could shout demands at gladiatorial shows...
YARGH! To make a single point -- that governments exist because people are either afraid of governments or because governments and pundits tell us we're part in a pre-birth binding contract with them -- Vollmann referenced Hobbes, Dostoevsky, Mexican insurgents, Machiavelli, Gandhi, and Roman plebians. This wouldn't be so bad if the next paragraph didn't reference ANOTHER bunch of groups and individuals, and so on, and so on. Vollmann is suffering a wealth of information, and he doesn't seem to notice that the REST of us aren't as familiar as HE is with his sources.

Knowing this makes the book easier to understand, however. I realize now that the KEY to understanding "Rising Up and Rising Down" is by paying close attention to the "mini-chapter" headings, and keeping them in mind while reading the chapter itself, so I'll gradually figure out which direction he's heading in and arrive there with him. Then, when he finally makes his point (more or less clearly) I'll also better understand how he got there.

You might ask "why bother?" Other than not being able to admit defeat after conquering all his OTHER books, it's because his insights ARE very interesting, and needing to WORK to understand them makes them that much more fascinating. I don't necessarily agree with all his points so far -- I've always been a bit nervous about his gun fetish, for instance -- but it's still cool to see how HE arrived at his conclusions, and he's nothing if not rigorous in explaining his methods (that's the whole point of the book, in fact). And besides that, his experiences and interviews make great reading, the unpretentious photographs from his travels have a way of grabbing your head, and the historical information is welcome too.

Will I manage to finish the whole thing? Maybe not. But at least it's making me think about things: what do *I* stand for? Why would I ever "rise up?" In defense of self, homeland, earth, animals? Hmmmmm...

Psst...Part 4

Surprise! No internet. Bell says it SHOULD be fixed tomorrow sometime, but the person I spoke to was quick to say there were no guarantees.

This is frustrating primarily because it's a piece of unfinished business, and because it's delaying the release of the UPhold CD, and because I haven't been able to update the Daily Muffy in ages...but in some ways I'm getting a nice "reality check" by not having DSL. I'm enjoying sitting at home and reading (William T. Vollmann's "Rising Up and Rising Down," best laid plans and all that) and I'm leisurely contemplating home improvement projects: baseboards, weather-stripping, scouring the bathtub with sulphuric acid, getting Ronnie O'Vera a new pot.

So I guess this is an "internet holiday." But I DO kind of want to get back to work, y'know?

Hope your vacations were wonderful, if you got them.