Monday, April 30, 2007

Après-Midi d'un Phone

We continue to unravel the mysteries of "The French Phone," using only New Yorker magazine as our guide. In the October 15, 1927 issue we get more details about Bell's telephone monopoly, and also finally learn the REAL name of the French Phone:
The French type of apparatus is increasingly popular. The company avoids the use of he term French phone, however: its official title is Bell system hand-set. Several hundred experts have been at work since this instrument was devised, improving it, but experiments still go on. The phone does not survive satisfactorily the rough treatment it receives, although it is as durable as the old desk type of instrument. Slamming the headpiece on to the delicate plunger and knocking the whole apparatus on the floor present problems in durability...

It is even now, however, superior to any other of its type, the engineers report, and is the only French instrument the company allows to be used. Employees are instructed to report any "alien" instruments and the company then orders them removed. In investigating faulty transmission the officials first determine whether the subscriber has an outlaw instrument...

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Just Because it's Sunday: "Slippery People"

During the Talking Heads' stellar "Stop Making Sense" concert, the band slowly arrives -- one by one -- and are gradually joined by guest musicians.

Here we've got Funkadelic alumni Lynn Mabry and Edna Holt (Bernie Worrell isn't on stage yet but Jerry Harrison is up to the task). It's all incredible except for Tina Weymouth's parachute pants.

It's Sunday and it's beautiful outside. This is one of the most beautiful things I can think of. If you've never watched the concert video, now's the time. Listen to Weymouth's chunky-funky bass breakdown and check out two of the best backup singers around. And in case you didn't know it: yes, David Byrne is a wicked guitar player.


Whenever I'm feeling particularly bored or aimless I find myself playing Paul Edelstein's 1982 game "Wayout." It's annoying -- endless featureless corridors, a map-stealing "Cleptangle," deliberately confounding mazes, and windy areas that seem to serve no purpose but to make the game longer -- but I'm a sucker for labyrinths and it's a good time killer.

If anybody can tell me how to use the fireflies to find the exits, that would be much appreciated.

Open Ears Festival: April 28

Whew! The final night. After lunch and drinks with my mom (and a few ZZs), time for:

7:30 PM - KWS: Urban/Wilderness

Or perhaps 8:00 PM, depending on your source. I came in late but managed to see most of what transpired.

I always assume that people "dress up" when they go to the Centre in the Square, and I'm always surprised that nobody does but me, which means I don't learn lessons very well. The KW Symphony performed four pieces, the first two of which I saw from a blurry perspective and far removed from the ideal acoustics.

Kleines Requiem fur eine Polka (Henryk Gorecki) and Crystal Fragments (Peter Hatch). Nope, I didn't like them. Didn't feel a thing. Had the usual thoughts about deliberate unconventionalness, though both pieces had a fair share of melody and structure. Sitting, staring straight ahead, thinking about my footwear, it ocurred to me that somebody looking at my face might think I were enjoying the music or at least paying attention. Usually you can tell when somebody is enjoying their own disconnected internal world, but not always. So I stared straight ahead, thinking that I might look appreciative, while only staring straight ahead. I tried to imagine how people look when they appreciate things, but I didn't want to experiment for fear of getting foundation on my gloves.

The world premiere of Linda Smith's Wilderness grabbed me by the heart and didn't let me go. Quiet and meditative, no gimmicks, it appeared to come out of her soul without guile or self-consciousness. Lovely.

Peter Hannan's Side with Entropy, however, wins this year's Muffy award for most awful Open Ears piece. In order to qualify for this award the performance must be high-falutin' and pretentious...and totally fail to achieve its goals. After introducing the piece as an attempt to blend electronic gadgetry and samples with a modern orchestra, Hannan bashed out an awful string of cheesy sci-fi boops and whizzes, even worse than the ones you saw on Star Trek. This might have worked if it somehow matched with what the orchestra was playing, but no...they were off on their own tangent. It was laughable and stupid. Not quite as laughable and stupid as last festival's opera about serial killers...but close.

At every festival there are people who rave about the performance even when you can tell they didn't like it. Two elderly ladies were gushing to each other afterwards: "It reminded me of...Star Wars! Or E.T.!"

10:30 PM - Scanner: Alphaville

(That picture up there is of Beetle and I waiting for the show to start...thanks for all the fun, Festival-Buddy!)

Robin Rimbaud (Scanner) gave us a smart and funny introduction to his project: radically recutting Jean-Luc Godard's "Alphaville" and providing a live soundtrack to it. Without the dialog -- and with most of the human scenes removed -- I might have found myself hungry for plot, but instead I just drowned in beautiful cinematography and remarkably human electronic music. Images of faces and buildings and cars and machines -- lots of machines -- with inexplicable body movements and long quiet static shots, I found it difficult to separate the music from the film. Sad and funny and over-the-top, not a single false note, sheer innovative brilliance without seeming forced or derivative. Loved it.

11:00 PM - Systatic

By midnight the party was just starting at the Former Kitchener Legion. Billed as sort of an unofficial "after party" for the festival, it was shaping up to be an shockingly average hip-hop night. No liquor, only beer and wine. Uncomfortably warm and stifling. People from the festival filtered away into the night, adequately replaced by the very young techno kids who were surely the target audience. The beginnings of a strange gut-rot and the realization that I'd put off getting sick for far too long: I was not feeling well and I couldn't stand the music.

Then the drums started piling up around the dancefloor and I knew we were in for some raucous tribal drumming.

Definitely time to leave before that happened.

As a postscript I dipped into Club Abstract, but my metabolism was winding down and alcohol wasn't going to help. Time to go to sleep and reflect on the festival.

By far, my favourite moments were Barnyard Drama and Scanner. I guess what I liked most about them were their willingness to embrace some degree of convention, and their largely unpretentious demeanor. It didn't hurt that they both consist of extremely talented people.

Those two shows alone were worth it but I saw enough other fun things to make it more than worthwhile. Now it's time to get back to my life, and I'm actually looking forward to that.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

"Chewing Gum" - Addictive, Maddening

Ever since I first heard it at Delirium last month, I haven't been able to get Annie's "Chewing Gum" out of my head. I go to sleep humming it and I wake up humming it.

I figured the only cure was to find the CD ("Anniemal"), which turned out to be surprisingly difficult. But now that I've got it I can begin exorcising this demon, and I'll start by embedding the video:

By the way, those Delirium gals deserve credit for being way ahead of the culture curve. Annie might be old hat by now, but they were playing April March's "Chick Habit" years ago.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Open Ears Festival: April 27

Some celebrities tonight:

7:30 PM -- Frederic Rzewski

I have never managed to get my "contemporary piano composition" ears. This stuff tends to sound like disconnected bursts of tinkling, broken up by brief snatches of melody. It doesn't connect to me emotionally. Intellectually I sit there thinking "yeah, that must be difficult to play," but part of me is also thinking "are you only avoiding melody because you think you're SUPPOSED to?"

Saying this about a composer like Rzewski might be blasphemy -- and his final piece, De Profundis, featuring snatches of letters by Oscar Wilde along with some odd squeaks and squawks, connected with me wonderfully -- but I just don't understand how to appreciate much of this genre, particularly the second piece (Four Pieces). J (festival stalwart) enjoyed it, and B (festival stalwart 2) felt he was on the verge understanding, but I think it comes down to frequent exposure, so you begin to recognize themes and references. When that happens you might be able to break it all down into chunks that you can digest.

10:30 PM -- Wunderkabinet

A dash of Laurie Anderson, a big whack of Peter Greenaway, and you get Pamela Z's "Wunderkabinet." Technically over-the-top with beautifully overlapping samples (these folks know how to use their delay processors!) along with intriguing fake museum entries and a three-dimensional X-ray "piercing devil." Unsettling, cerebral, beautiful visuals by Christina McPhee.

Unfortunately we were seated in a strange position, so we couldn't see much of what was going on...but still a thrill.

J & T Cousins Exclusively Fine Shoes

Did Eve Wear Snake Skin Shoes?

Historians differ on this point. They agree that a snake (generally called a serpent) did figure in the situation--but not in a wardrobe way.

In fact the modern Eve has waited until now for this charming idea of Boa Snake Skin Shoes.

If you are looking for the Shoe Temptation of the season, you will find it among the charming models (just ahead of the style) now on display in our wonderful 57th Street Store.

The New Yorker, October 8, 1927
What a brilliant advertising campaign.

Mamma Spank!

The New Yorker, October 8, 1927

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Open Ears Festival: April 26

I decided to save my energy and my sanity by not going to Morton Feldman: For Philip Guston, a four-hour, three-musician, extremely minimal and meditative and slow performance. I'm not a very meditative person so I probably would have gotten jittery. From what I hear I didn't miss much.

Instead I walked through the dark, rainy, and deserted back alleys of Kitchener to see:

10:30 PM - Barnyard Drama

Another improv quartet, but instead of being cool as cucumbers, every member of Barnyard Drama brought out their inner autistic. As always it's a matter of "getting into a groove" and, at the beginning, Christine Duncan annoyed me. I'm not much for Rainman postures and vocalizations, and all I could concentrate on was how much she sounded like gibberish guy from "How's Your News" ("Ahh-by! Ah-boy'en boy ahh-by! Ahh-by'en boy-ya by!") and how much I disliked her toilet-cover hat.

But she won me over. They all did. Gospel/jazz improvs with just a touch of silliness, another kick-butt drummer (Jean Martin, not a hobbit tonight), guitarists Bernard Falaise & Justin Haynes (who fell into a GORGEOUS underwater surf-guitar duet near the end), and a big tent revival as an encore. Most importantly they knew when to quit: an hour was all we got out of them.

Open Ears Festival: April 25

Just some thoughts about yesterday, the first "real" day of this year's Open Ears Festival:

7:30 PM - PSQ: Black and Angelic

The Penderecki String Quartet are legendary, but I've never seen them before. This is partly because I tend to find new orchestral/string performances to be sort of madenning; I find myself wondering why it is necessary to so often break ALL the rules -- forsake tempo, melody, coherence -- in order to make highly-regarded "new" music for orchestra.

Or maybe I'm a Philistine, which is possible.

I arrived early due to problems with my festival pass, and found myself in the midst of Kathy Kennedy's "HMMM," which seemed to involve radio interference and static and humming. These sorts of things are always stressful for me because I arrive alone and feel awkwardly out-of-place, considering how seriously these events tend to be taken. It's always a relief to finally be seated.

The first piece was Midaregami (Tangled Hair) by Veronika Krausas, which summed up everything I don't like about this type of music: pretentious and overblown themes that simply cannot be accomodated by a trite score (or, in this case, by the equally trite video by Robert Drummond). This was made worse by Kimberley Barber, mezzo-soprano, whose picture-perfect delivery of the translated Japanese poem turned beautifully minimalistic words into the cries of a spoiled child.

But then, I don't much like this technically perfect operatic delivery; it seems cold and heartless to me.

The only highlight: Krausas' apparent faux-pas during an interview before the show, when she made a flippant comment about drug use that will probably be edited out of the recording made by the CBC. After her draub comments about scales and spectrums, her astonishing facial blush was the most honest display of "spectrum" I saw or heard that night.

Next: "Waves" by R. Murray Shafer. I thought of it as "jumping, echoing, and holding," and it was absolutely beautiful. The theatrical touch at the end -- three of the PSQ members playing in opposite corners of the stage, with the cellist watching them through a telescope in the center of the stage -- was whimsical.

George Crumb's "Black Angels" felt a bit gimmicky to me -- the performers playing crystal glasses and gongs with their bows -- but it did manage to convey its theme of war and chaos. Piotr Grella-Mozejko's "TrancePaining," however, captured the same theme with a relentless chugging bang; the perfect counterpoint to "Waves."

10:30 PM - Françoise Houle with I Have Eaten the City

I wasn't too excited about this; improvs can be hit or miss, depending on the sort of groove the participants get into, and listening to an experimental clarinet improvisation? Oh, please!

But Toronto's Houle -- with his clarinet, laptop, effects, and treated piano -- stole the show. He was unpretentious and spectacular. Despite his incredible breath control, this was one of those performances where you suddenly realize you no longer know how it's happening. Where are those sounds coming from? And how can they sound so GOOD?

After a sort of lacklustre entry at the beginning of the show, the "I Have Eaten the City" trio joined Houle for an improv jam at the end. The guitarist/sax player and the "bag o' tricks" guy seemed to have trouble getting into it, but their Incredible Hobbit Drummer kicked butt and kept it together. The best moments came when any two performers grabbed the spotlight while the remaining two retreated to change instruments. I could have handled a BIT more calm and structure, but I was impressed and I was never bored (hard to say when you've just watched a 45-minute clarinet solo).

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Fathers and Crows: Communication

Samuel de Champlain (known to the Huron -- or "Wendat" -- as "Chawain") speaks to the Huron through Étienne Brûlé, his interpreter:
He told the Savages that they were now subject to the Roy of France, at which they expressed great joy. Or, to relate the conversation more exactly:

Tell them that it's essential for them to be protected from the Hiroquois, because they make war badly and have no more freedom from error than children. Make that clear, boy! Tell them that the Roy loves them, and that if they regard him as a father and promise to obey him, then -- then he'll send armed Frenchmen to live here, and priests to instruct them in the Faith. (Thus Champlain, to his good subaltern, Monsieur Étienne Brûlé.)

Chawain says to you: You are great warriors. Our Big Stone in France desires to assist you in your wars and reap glory with you. Chawain asks you if you will permit the Iron People to live among you as your brothers. Chawain's friends are Sorcerers who will teach you to cast spells and make iron things. Is this well? (Thus tactful Brûlé, to the Wendat.)

We say to Chawain our brother: Our lodge is your lodge. We desire to learn the use of your guns. We desire to learn from your Sorcerers. Come live among us. Take our daughters in marriage. Learn from us to be hunters and strong bearers of burdens. Learn from us to shave off your foolish beards and to speak softly. You are welcome here. (Thus to Wendat, to Brûlé their nephew.)

The Huron reply to you: It is well. (Thus Brûlé, to Champlain.)

Champlain, who had been watching them narrowly, let his shoulders fall. He smiled; he laughed; he passed out hatchets and hatchets...
("Fathers and Crows," p.417-418)

Monday, April 23, 2007

It's That Simple ("Marriage")

Okay, this one isn't as nasty, I can live with it. Be sure to read this post first to understand the context behind this "editorial."

Tragically, "Enshrine Marriage Canada" is no longer online. Neither is the Michael Coren column (from September 17, 2004), which was a real gem about how a lesbian couple made a "bloody sacrifice on the altar of selfishness" by deciding to have children.

Childless “Marriage” – Time To Speak Up!

Just like the first bird of spring, a U-Haul truck is cause for celebration for me. It means a new family is moving onto Maple Street! As much as I abhor change of any kind – especially in my undergarments -- I admit that I get a thrill out of meeting new people, as long as they’re not godless or poor. Meeting a new neighbour is an opportunity to share cleaning tips and recipes with folk from distant, exotic lands (sometimes as far away as Timmons!)

This week, however, the U-Haul didn’t bring new friends. It brought two people who gleefully partake in a lifestyle that no right-thinking Realerwoman can condone: the unnatural, barren social experiment of the Childless “Marriage.”

Since people don’t wear any form of identification to mark them as deviants, upstanding folks like myself sometimes treat them as equals before we realize what who we’re talking to. Let’s just say that I’ve been burned before. I’ll have to start being more careful, at least until we get a Conservative politician in power, one who understands the need for immediate stigmatization.

In any case I didn’t know that the Andersons were childless when I arrived at their front door, bearing pastries and wearing my best bonnet. The two of them were a bit flustered with their move but they were happy to take a break and share their sofa with me.

“Gosh,” said Mr. Anderson, “these cherry-filled things are great!”

“They’re ‘Passion Flakies,’” I replied, flattered.

“Why do you call them that?” asked Mrs. Anderson, giving the plate a curious look.

“Because they remind me of the humiliation of Christ.”

“Oh,” said Mr. Anderson. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

After this strategic injection of religion into our first meeting (“scoring points with God,” my husband likes to call it), our conversation turned to the rigors of moving, which I said was always difficult and never fails to remind me of the humiliation of Christ. “Not to say that I have ever suffered as much as he did, of course. I mean, he was scourged, and scourged, and scourged some more! But gosh, moving can be tough too!” I paused to let my “lesson of the day” sink in, then said something I assumed was inconsequential: “Fortunately we have children to help us with the chores. Two of them. Well, three, if you count the one we never talk about.”

Mr. Anderson glanced at his wife and made a nervous gesture with his Passion Flakey. Unaware of their unholy secret, I barreled on.

“I hope you two have plenty of little ones on the way…Lisa and Zipporah could use some new playmates!”

That was when Mr. Anderson dropped his bombshell. With deceptive tenderness and mock regret, he said “Actually, we can’t have children…I had a…”

“What my husband means is…”

“…an accident with a waffle iron…”

And then they were both crying on the sofa in their empty livingroom – its barrenness reflecting both the state of Mr. Anderson’s genitals…and the state of their immortal souls! They were a childless couple! And they’d had the nerve to get MARRIED!

All of us know that marriage is centered on children…this is rule number three in the “Declaration On Marriage,” a pastiche of seven marriage rules invented last week by Enshrine Marriage Canada. If you’re not going to have children, your marriage is a sham…in fact, it’s not even a marriage, it’s just the word “marriage” with quotes around it!

How dare these people defy the sanctity of marriage by breaking rule number three! And to think that I’d come over here to welcome them.

But Mr. Anderson hadn’t finished trying to indoctrinate me – have you noticed that these deviants never shut up about their misguided beliefs? Crying crocodile tears, he told me that they were pinning their hopes for children on artificial insemination. He said this as though I should APPROVE!

Far from this making a childless “marriage” alright, artificial insemination just makes it worse! As Michael Coren said, the procreative nature of marriage is paramount, and “if love is excluded from the original act” (as it is in artificial insemination), “it is likely to be discarded from the outcome.” In other words you can’t LOVE a child that you didn’t produce sexually…it’s that simple! By getting married and choosing this artificial means of producing a child, infertile couples have “made a bloody sacrifice of children’s happiness on the altar of selfishness” (Mr. Coren has such a way with words! This phrase is just CRYING OUT to be hung on the wall!)

We all know that a REAL marriage can only involve two people who are capable of having children with each other. This is one of the primary reasons why we say homosexuals can’t be married, and what’s bad for them is bad for the rest of us. But defenders of Traditional Marriage seem to forget that there is another enemy out there besides homosexuals, a group of deviants already sanctioned by our liberal society: these sterile couples! By choosing to marry, they are contributing to the destruction of Traditional Marriage, an institution which has ALWAYS required children in order to legitimize it. A marriage without children is like a Passion Flakey without the cherries: AN ABOMINATION WHICH MUST BE STOPPED AT ALL COSTS!

As always, I urge true conservatives to speak up. When you meet people like the Andersons, tell them that you do not recognize their marriages as legitimate. After all, we have invented the rules for marriage and we must not allow ANYBODY to break them. I am disturbed that conservative organizations – like Enshrine Marriage – have yet to speak out against the fronts in the Marriage War which DON’T involve homosexuals. I hope this editorial wakes them up.

I’m not a coward. I stick to my guns. And if enough of us get together we might be able to start a constitutional amendment. We must write into the constitution a clause stating that marriages MUST produce children, and that those children MUST be biological descendents of BOTH parents. Otherwise it’s only a “marriage” (with quotes), and a selfish, “adult-centered” one at that!

It's That Simple! (Spanking)

Nothing politicized me more than the 2004/2005 same-sex marriage debates. It wasn't same-sex marriage per se that got me going, it was the increasingly contradictory and bankrupt arguments against it that made me realize what was happening: the social conservatives had motives under the surface of the debate that they dared not state explicitly. Extreme bigotry was hiding behind a string of bizarre and stupid debating points.

So JP and I decided to infiltrate the Canadian right-wing noise machine by forming our own social conservative group: "The Realer Women of Canada." A spoof of "REAL Women of Canada," we decided to pretend to agree with all of their premises, and then take those premises to their "logical" (and more extreme) conclusions, in order to expose what we believed were the rotten underpinnings of the movement. We found some sympathetic webmasters and began our secret plan: to say all the vile stuff that the social conservatives WANTED to say, and then clasp those people to our bosoms. Sort of like abortion clinic bombers publically cozying up with the American Family Association. We wanted to embarass them by making them explain why OUR stances differed from THEIRS, which (we predicted) they'd be unable to do. If they were REAL women, we were REALER women!

We started writing topical "editorials" as the headwomen of "The Realer Women of Canada." My section of the site was called "It's That Simple!" and I wrote as a suburban housewife from somewhere in Calgary. I seem to remember that JP's character was more of an understated, embittered ex-scholar.
Even though the site went online and our editorials and mission statements were posted, we quietly took it down a few months later without ever publicizing it. I think the idea behind it was sound, but we'd been completely unable to find any actual women to write for it, and it seemed wrong for us to condemn bigoted women when we didn't actually have any women on our team. More importantly, though, writing these editorials made me feel emotionally drained and terrible; I didn't enjoy stepping into the shoes of somebody so reprehensible, and I couldn't see myself going beyond the four pieces I eventually wrote.

I thought this stuff was lost forever, but I stumbled upon the rough drafts today, and I figured I'd post them for posterity. They're nasty, offensive, small-minded, and brutish, but I think they really do peel back some of the layers of civility that barely cover the bigoted mind (with some satirical embellishments to make them more entertaining).

(I was originally going to post them in this blog, but somebody is bound to think I'm endorsing these ideas and report me to Blogger. Years ago, in response to rampant and ongoing anti-semitism in a chat room, I made a website called "Jewish People Eat Worms and Ride the Lochness Monster." Whenever somebody started ranting about the sinister "Jewish Conspiracy," I'd say "yeah, I agree, look at this site, it proves it!" But somebody thought I was serious, and I was promptly banned for violating the server's terms of service. I don't want that to happen again).

(So I had a link to my site, and I realized the articles were so reprehensible that I didn't want to be associated with them, so I wimped out and took away the links. Sorry!)

Sunday, April 22, 2007

How's Your News?

In highschool I decided that I wanted to help people with mental disabilities (at that time officially known as the "Trainable Mentally Retarded," AKA "Trainables" or "TMRs"). Our school had the region's largest TMR program, and every year we held the national TMR floor hockey tournament in our gymnasium (you can imagine the size of the crowd for THAT event).

Anyway, all of my good intentions went out the window when I saw Robbie -- one of the more notorious TMRs -- vomiting all over himself in the hallway. I just couldn't do it. For all my good intentions I don't like dealing with other people's bodily fluids, whether they're pooping their pants or just spraying me when they talk. And I quickly learned that I don't know how to talk to anybody who doesn't have at least average verbal skills...children included.

Vanilla recommended I watch "How's Your News," a documentary about a team of mentally and physically challenged people who travel across America asking people -- more or less -- "Hey, how's your news?"

I'm halfway through it and it's making me uncomfortable for several reasons. I don't like seeing people being put on the spot and feeling embarassed (which also dulls my enjoyment of Ali G. and his ilk), and many of the people being interviewed are definitely put on the spot; two of the interviewers have no speech skills whatsoever, so when people are confronted by a strange little man who speaks a gibberish language...well, the situation tends to be awkward.

Worse, however, is the fact that these two virtually mute interviewers are wearing cameras on their eyeglasses, so you get an all-too-real look at what it's like in their world: their arms reach out to people, and the people walk away and pretend not to see them.

The real crushing thing about all this is that *I* would probably walk away as well. I don't like being engaged by strangers on the street because 99% of the time they want something from me, and I suppose I'm just too selfish to barter with strangers. I also suffer a complete nervous breakdown when confronted with non-verbal people; I'm paranoid enough in well-oiled social situations, and I simply don't know how to "act naturally" around people with mental disabilities or severe physical disabilities. Part of me wants to be as patient and understanding as possible, while another part screams "you're being patronizing!" and the third part is frustrated with the whole situation.

Watching "How's Your News?" I have a great love for these people -- who really do seem like sweet souls -- and even though I don't believe *I* would make them happy (or vice versa), I'm thrilled when they meet wonderful, selfless, patient folks who know EXACTLY how to get along with them. And they certainly do, and I can't help thinking that if there's a heaven, those folks won't have to wait in line to get in.

No More Limbo

In the 21st century it's still a monumental statement to say that unbaptized babies DON'T go to their own personalized hell? Were people actually concerned about this? In a world full of so many important issues which must be tackled, the release of a 41-page "we were wrong about limbo" document ranks up there with press releases about the brand of God's hair gel.

I find it amusing that Popes seem to catch up with society two hundred years after the issues stopped being important. I'm eagerly awaiting the 2207 proclamation that homosexuality is not actually a sin, long after the human race has been sterilized by the new, genital-scrambling strain of Morgellons Disease.

That Obscure Object of Desire

It seems strange (and kind of sad) to me that nobody can REALLY be that Obscure Object of Desire. Being the OOoD requires total isolation -- since no human being can POSSIBLY live up to OOoD-hood 24-hours a day -- which just means "teasing" in the every day vernacular. All of the typical idols are only idols because we don't know what they smelled like the morning after.

Men get a break here because they're SUPPOSED to smell bad ("manly"), and to be odd or flawed or whatever. But women? An unreachable ideal. Perfect only as long as the situation can be carefully controlled. Movie stars have that luxury (except in the National Enquirer), but actual real human beings?

My goodness, no wonder everybody's so messed up!


Google! Horsepucky! Good Night! Krasny! And all the other fake cuss-words that I can't think of right at the moment.

After last week's totally depressing tour-de-trash at Club Abstract, I decided to wear the most obnoxious outfit I could think of, in order to drive the Bad Flotsam crazy tonight; an outfit that would both turn them on and repell them in equal measure. I spent a week searching for the proper accessories. I ate very little food in order to fit into it. I practiced getting in and out of it as fast as possible, in order to forsee potential problems during the night.

I wore The Guitar Wolf, the most "crotchy" outfit I own.

And what happened?

Nobody came. The jerks didn't show up. It was totally dead. And there I was, in my weird crotchy outfit, acting like a prima donna for nobody in particular.

Regardless I don't regret a second.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Shoe Trauma

Golly, I'm REALLY out of practice buying clothing. For so many years I've been getting things specially made, or ordering things, that I've forgotten what it's like to really go out and SHOP. I envy the women -- esentially ALL women, give or take -- who can just wander from store to store and try things on. I could do that too, but it would mean bringing all the "accessories," and even so I wouldn't look "right."

Shoes are the worst, because they're expensive and if they don't fit...well, you're screwed. Today I went to Fairview Park Mall to look for tan fishnets and houndstooth shoes (as part of my "Scare The Bullies at Abstract" plan for tonight). I came up empty on both counts but I did find myself staring at three extremely cute pairs of shoes at "Spring," and I was instantly confronted by a salesperson.

In shoe stores I tend to just buy the size 10s. Rarely do I go wrong, though to buy a shoe without trying it on is virtually unheard of. So if the saleslady isn't insistant, I'll bite the bullet and buy size 10s...but if she is basically forcing me to try them on -- to be nice, or to just treat me like any other customer -- I'll go along with it, though this is weird in a store packed full of 14 year old girls.

So there I was with my leopard-print heels, blushing and taking a few steps while the salespeople smiled encouragingly, with a thousand small eyes on me. And wouldn't you know it, only the size 11s fit.

Why don't I like this situation? Because I don't like to confuse salespeople, and I don't like being in "1/10th drag" in public (I have nightmares about that), and as I get older I get more anxious to avoid these situations. But I got a good pair of shoes regardless, and managed to replenish my collection of cheap black/white/red earrings. And the saleslady was very sweet and acknowledged that -- yes -- houndstooth shoes are in short supply.

The other frightening thing about Fairview Park Mall is the bus ride. Sometimes the person next to you will insist on telling you about their glory days at the Coronet, and yeah it was a rough place full of bikers but if you knew the rules you wouldn't get beaten up. Or you'll get a nice old lady who wants to tell you about her grandchildren. Those types of people are all okay, but sometimes you'll get the crazy people -- or simply be SURROUNDED by the crazy people -- because both downtown Kitchener and Fairview Park Mall are most visibly populated by the adult offspring of crack addicts.

All this explains why I avoid that mall -- and the bus ride there -- at all costs.

Fathers and Crows: Culture Clash

"Fathers and Crows" is a rich book, but one of its greatest pleasures is watching "Savages" and Frenchmen try to understand the differences between each other's cultures. Vollmann seems to have a perfect handle on this; his explanations are convincing and often quite subtle.

In the chapter called "The Exercise of Hell," Membertou (tribal elder of the Micmac) deals playfully with a topic that the French (represented here by Lescarbot) take quite seriously (though not nearly as seriously as the Jesuits will a few years later).
Lescarbot spoke to him of christening. What a stupid bearded word! He could hardly say it!

What is christening for? he asked.

To keep your soul from getting lost.

In the woods? -- Membertou (who could grind chert-stones to bits with his teeth, who could swallow a stick two hands long) did not comprehend this answer. His soul never got lost.

No, in Hell, cried Lescarbot. His eyes gleamed.

Where is Hell? asked Membertou patiently.

Under the ground.

But we never go there!


To Lescarbot he said gravely: Brother, I seem to see us both in Hell together, eating much meat and laughing at the DEVILS. What do you say to that? -- for he wanted to try the man's courage.

But at this, all the Iron People shouted out against him, rudely, as if he were not in his own Country.

Membertou gazed upon them. --Brothers, learn once and for all: I speak here, even in this drafty box you've built. When I open my mouth, you must listen. I sit while others stand. It is not the custom in my Country for friends to shout against friends.

The Masturbatory, Self-Interested Fiber Disease

I try to stay on top of all the most grotesque and mysterious fringes of our bio-diverse world, especially when they're related to parasitism. I'm pleased to finally find out that they've named a film genre after my obsessions: "Body Horror."

My fear and fascination of parasitic invasion probably began (as I've said before) with "The Seeds of Doom" and solidified with "The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill" which puts me in a particularly exclusive body horror sub-genre: fear of being turned into a plant.

That sounds funny I'm sure, but through most of my life this has been an honest-to-goodness little phobia...but though it still fascinates me I no longer sort of suspect that it will happen to me. I'm not alone, though, judging by the amount of horror fiction written on the subject: "Fungus" by Harry Adam Knight springs immediately to mind, and also "The Voice in the Night" by William Hope Hodgson (which inspired the Japanese film "Attack of the Mushroom People.")

All this explains why I find "Morgellons Disease" so intriguing. Rampant parasites under the skin? Weird egg-sacks? Multi-colored cellulose fibers growing out of sores that never seem to heal?

That would be interesting enough, but add to this the fact that the "disease" -- which apparently affects thousands in the United States -- is most likely a case of internet support groups gone mad, and you have a REAL fascinating story.

I won't recite the whole schpiel -- you can research it yourself if you're interested -- but I will point out the prevalence of Morgellons-themed You-Tube videos by people who are supposedly filming their "intelligent fibers." I'll also point out the intellectual dishonesty of so many of the "sufferers," who proudly trumpet that the CDC is investigating the disease but neglect to mention that they're only doing it because they're barraged with letters about it.

The claims of the sceptics seem reasonable to me: it's delusional parasitosis (otherwise there'd be SOME physical evidence other than what's posted anonymously on YouTube), but the sufferers of delusional parasitosis now have Morgellons to fall back on. Now that they have a support group they can all cluster together and reinforce their beliefs, avoiding the antipsychotic medication that would supposedly stop the delusions. This is complicated by people who want to be part of a grotesque mystery, and -- perhaps -- by a real but much-less-spectacular condition that a very small group of people actually have.

But maybe I'm wrong! Lord knows that being worried about something unknown and dangerous makes most people feel more alive. No wonder many of us sort of half-wish it would turn out to be real!

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Book Sale

UPDATED: Beers' connection to the eugenics movement is spurious at best, so I've removed the "e" word from this post.

Every SPRing the Unitarian Church in Waterloo holds its annual book sale, an event they've been hosting ever since I was a small child. Their book collection is enormous, largely unsorted, and stacked in ways that make it difficult for even the most avid reader to find what they're looking for. I think the sale is somehow linked to the Canadian Federation of University Women, but the Unitarians get their fringe benefits too: a sprinkling of strange religious books are always to be found in the most mysterious of places.

The sale often attracts crazy people, or the guardians of crazy people. Last year a man was endlessly playing "chopsticks" on the piano. This year they'd hired young adults of dubious functionality who roamed around listening to their MP3 players. Their job seemed to consist of alternately leaning against the book tables looking bored, and lunging at you to snatch books out of your hands, saying "I'll put that away for you."

Most of the books are cheap discount self-help paperbacks, but the real gems are to be found in the "old books" section. Sometimes they have interesting handwritten inscriptions on their flyleaves, making an already interesting book even more interesting. This year I escaped with four nifty ones:
  1. "Klondike" (1958) by Pierre Berton. Vanilla asked me if I'd be looking for "Ice Lit," and indeed I was. Considering the joy I got from his "Just Add Water and Stir" collection -- and knowing that he grew up on the jolly tundra -- I figured I couldn't go wrong. The inscription: "To pop from Charlene & Frank, Christmas 1958."
  2. "I Married the Klondike" (1961) by -- you guessed it -- Laura Beatrice Berton. Owning these two books is sort of like owning the husband and wife themselves.
  3. "A Mind That Found Itself" (1927), an autobiography by Clifford Whittingham Beers. Credited as the founder of the mental hygiene movement, this promises to be a bizarre read. The inscription: "To Mrs. Lucy E. Beach, secretary of the Child Guidance Council of London, with the compliments of the author Clifford W. Beers, founder and secretary of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, 370 Seventh Avenue, New York City, January 18, 1928." So this copy is signed by Mr. Eugenics himself, a dubious treat. Looking online it seems that he was fond of signing copies of his books, many of which go for an excess of $150 USD. This copy is pretty ratty, though it does include an odd printed addendum pasted in the back.
  4. "The Guide Handbook" (1965), the prep guide for Girl Guide Recruits. I was a bit confused by the chapter headings "To spread and Mount," "Stalking," "What To Do If Clothing Catches Fire," "Burping," and "Diagonal Lashing," but I'm sure it will all be clear in time. The inscription: "Barbara L. Gratton, May 4/66, 7 Riverside Drive W." which has been clumsily pasted over with a printed address label saying "Hayman, 141 Woodhaven Rd., Kitchener, Ont, N2C 1V2."
The third book is by far the most curious, especially since it's from the "MENTAL WELFARE LIBRARY," according to the notice pasted inside the front cover:
THIS LIBRARY is intended for the use of mental health workers and teachers of defective children. Subscription: 10/' per annum [postage extra.] For more information apply to:-- MISS EVELYN FOX, Hon. Sec., Central Association for Mental Welfare, 24, Buckingham Palace Road, London S.W.1.
The address has been crossed out and a new stamp added: "39 Queen Anne Street, London, W.1, Tel: WELbeck 1272." I bet that phone number doesn't add up anymore. There's even a sign-out sheet on the following page, covering dates from 22.10.36 to 18.9.47. The notice at the bottom says:
This book must be returned within one month of date of issue. It may be re-entered for a second month, on application, if no other demand for it has been made. If retained without permission, a fine of 6d. will be imposed for each week or portion of a week in excess of the month.

Update on Mount Hussey

I said last week that I'd keep "you" posted about Mount Hussey, and I'd tell you as soon as it melted (because as you know Spring arrives as soon as Hussey melts completely).

I took this picture on Tuesday. As you can see, Mount Hussey was entirely melted, leaving behind only a clump of topsoil known as "Dirty Little Hussey." This means that, as of Tuesday, you are allowed to put away your winter wardrobe, lighten your haircolour, and do whatever gardiners do when it's Springtime.

As an aside, people in some countries don't think it's necessary to capitalize the seasons. In the case of Spring I feel that a single capital letter doesn't even do it justice, so from now on I'll be spelling it SPRing.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

My New Digs: Soundproofing Mystery Partially Solved!

My neighbour (across the duplex partition wall) is listening to music. It's the first time she's done so since she moved in, and of course I can hear every note. I know more about Jamiroquai now than I ever wanted to know.

But honestly, this is a wonderful opportunity because it's allowed me to test some audio hypotheses...this is the first time I've had a really steady noise next door to experiment with.

By sealing myself in the bathroom I was able to learn two things: the noise is NOT coming through the ceiling, but it IS coming through the bathroom heating vent. It's also coming through the vent in the computer room and is REALLY noticable in the living room vent, which might explain why all the vent baffles were closed tight when I moved in.

More importantly, however, I can say with almost total assurance that noise is ALSO coming through the cracks in the upstairs landing walls, left when the landlords removed the carpeting (over the summer) and didn't replace the baseboards. I bet those cracks go right through to the other apartment. One very wide crack spans part of the wall at the top of the stairs, but a more obscure culprit is a series of cracks in the top step. The other steps don't seem to be leaking sound.

This was difficult to figure out because I'd never clued in that my stairway has killer reverb, so when the noise leaked through the top step it bounced around in the stairway, obscuring the source. By (yes) covering my head with towels and resting on the top step, I was finally able to figure this out.

So here's my plan:
  1. I need to fill in those cracks. Right now they're stuffed with bath towels and closely-packed paper towels, which isn't ideal. Tomorrow I'll go to the hardware store and find out what they recommend; maybe it will involve caulking.
  2. Get a rug for the landing at the top of the stairs. It will look nice and dampen the sound further.
  3. Find something fuzzy for the wall, to further stop noise from bouncing around the staircase; good friend Peevil recommended a big shag picture of a Matador. Now I know where to put it.
  4. Close the vent baffles as soon as it gets warm, if ever.
That takes care of the high frequencies, but I'm afraid the low frequencies -- footsteps, cupboard doors, midnight aerobic workouts -- are just as loud as ever. Maybe a box fan...

The Masturbatory, Self-Interested Death Orgy

Minutes after the second spate of Virginia tech shootings became news people had turned tragedy into a tool to support their causes. The postings I personally saw -- on Americablog -- connected the incident to both gun control and the war in Iraq. Meanwhile, on the right (Townhall), the incident was being used to illustrate the heartlessness of the left (turning tragedy into support for gun control) and to then say "I wish some of those students were carrying guns."

The frenzy has already started in the media, I'm sure. Have they chosen music to go with the Blacksburg graphic yet? What's the catchy phrase, is it "Virginia Tech Tragedy" or "Columbine II" or "Blacksburg Slaughter?" It may be too early for the shots of cute weeping children, but I'm sure the satellite trucks are ready for the upcoming mourning ceremonies and the inevitable pilgrimmages which allow people to say they were there (and maybe get on TV and be part of an event).

The real frenzy will begin once we know the ethnicity and social affiliation of the attacker. In the few clips I watched yesterday the poor news anchors were virtually PANTING for this information. Does "Asian" mean, like, a muslim from India or Pakistan? Or was he a Christian fundamentalist? A recent immigrant? An over-achiever? Did he watch violent movies, was this an example of jilted male rage, and what sort of music did he listen to? Where are his parents, HOLY COW, WHAT AN INTERVIEW, find his parents! Are there any copycat killers? Exacly how many morbid records did he break? Let's interview pundits with contrary opinions about how the incident was handled, speckled with families of the slain, heroes of the day (quick, find a hero!) Let's even raise our ratings by condemning the way the news media latches on to tragedy in order to raise ratings.

On Sunday we might find out which element of American foreign or domestic policy prompted God into doing this. There will be an "outpouring of sympathy" across the country, in which people hope silently for more camera time and get a thrill out of the "bonding." If they ever read this blog entry, they will accuse me of not "feeling" anything and insist that they have every right to be -- not just sad or regretful -- but totally and verbally broken up and outraged about what happened. There will be an unspoken desire to keep the story alive so we can all feel excited and in permenent danger. The school officials will be rightly or wrongly crucified. The Bush administration will accuse democrats of crassly pursuing corruption investigations while the rest of the country is "in mourning."

Very little of it will be honest, most of it will be destructive, and it makes me damn sick.

Monday, April 16, 2007


From its inception The New Yorker has carried weekly advertisements for Fleischmann's Yeast, which apparently cures everything from acne to insomnia, meanwhile improving "digestion" and upping the energy levels of people who had all but given up hope.

The ads always have photographs of healthy, vigorous people demonstrating what they can now do thanks to Yeast. All of them were in some way notable before their digestive/acne/blood problems began, and all of them are now able to return to the strenuous activities with made them notable in the first place: dancing, golfing, fishing.

Here's a sample testimony for Miss Myrtle R. Ivins from Philadelphia, pictured above:
During business hours, I meet many people, including the officers of the large firm where I work. Naturally, my embarassment was almost unbearable when, after an illness that upset my blood, my face broke out in pimples. I was actually ashamed to meet anyone.

What made it hardest to bear was that formerly my skin had been especially clear--kept so by an active outdoor life. I played some tennis and golf, swam and rode a little, and had done my share of hiking. But I had to give up all these sports, I was so badly run down. My whole digestive system became unbalanced.

My doctor suggested Fleischmann's Yeast. Today, after eating it faithfully every day for over six months I feel fine. My face has improved greatly. My appetite is splendid. I'm able to be back in the open once more, enjoying the sports I love.
By the 1940s these "yeast miracles" became fodder for radio comedians; I've heard many radio spoofs of the time that feature over-the-top testimonials about the life-changing effects of yeast.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

My New Digs: Closet B

I've already taken pictures of myself in the interesting parts of My New Digs, with the exclusion of those difficult places (like the attic) and the places I don't want you to see. But when I remember to clean the toothpaste out of the bathroom sink I'll show it to you, because it was built for a very thin person with tiny hands (or fetal alcohol syndrome), and it's just unbelievably small.

So last night I picked a random spot that still qualified. Here I present Closet B, the southerly closet (closer to the equator and therefore warmer).

The problem is that my camera only has a ten second timer on it, so I have to set it up close enough for me to be able to fold myself inside and crouch down far enough to get in the frame. As a result, this is really a picture of me crumpled up amongst my clothes, with very little of the closet visible anyway. You'll just have to trust me. Besides, why else would I get into this position?

I Know What I'm Here For

I don't think that the band "James" was ever taken very seriously in North America...they splashed with "Laid" and that was it. Their passion and diversity never caught on here, but I guess it didn't help that their last two albums were never released across the Atlantic.

My favourite James song is -- by far -- "I Know What I'm Here For." Sadly I haven't gotten my hands on the album it's from, and the live version is excised from their concert DVD, but it DOES appear on their live 2CD set. The live version is gorgeous and sweet. I've never heard the original...until now, thanks to YouTube. It's got a fun "dirty disco" sort of vibe -- very different from the "rock out" sound of the live version -- and while the video suffers CG overkill, the costume designer deserves several awards, and can I please get my hands on that showgirl outfit?

People in Heat, and Me

Updated: The guy who swiped me wasn't wearing a baseball hat, he was wearing a toque. This confused me because I THOUGHT it was a baseball hat, but when I reached out to grab the brim there was nothing there, which made it look like I was casting some sort of "back off, jerk" spell in the air. A really clumsy spell.

First off, on the right, that's Meagan and me tonight. Meagan owns Scaredy Cats and is a super-cool, wonderful woman. We also used to own the same boots. Whenever these boots frustrate me or hurt me, I tell myself that Meagan used to dance in them, and then I feel alright.

A person can't have a good night every night. If we somehow managed to always have The Best Night Ever, we'd no doubt get horribly bored.

I've learned that the best thing to do when going "out on the town" is to expect the worst...that way I won't be disappointed. Somehow, though, every time I expect a LITTLE MORE than the worst I end up having a disturbing night with the people in heat.

There are only two bars in Kitchener/Waterloo that I'm comfortable in: Club Renaissance and Club Abstract. While I love so many of the people at Renaissance, I hate the music, so I tend to find myself at Abstract...which is usually pretty quiet and calm and protective of Yours Truly.

Nobody can pretend that, at a straight bar, I don't stand out. And I'm the first to admit that I enjoy being visible and standing out, mainly because I think I DESERVE it. I'm not necessarily a BETTER person than the average, but I'm certainly different.

For me, the ideal night at Club Abstract is a lot of comfortable dancing and a lot of sweet people. Too much of that can get dull, for sure, but every year or so -- at unpredictable moments -- the stars align and the bar becomes packed with...well, "Flotsam."

Much of Flotsam are really sweet people, I'm sure. They tend to be quite young, they dress in a very average and conservative way. The boys are in baseball caps and the girls grind with each other (the "Lesbo Girl Routine"), and their ONLY reason for being in the bar is to find SOMEBODY to have sex with. Everything they do is directed towards the basic need to rut. They don't dance because they like the music, they dance because they want to grab some girl's butt.

This is offensive to me because it ruins all the reasons that I go to Club Abstract in the first place: room to dance, and wonderful songs to dance to. But when the Flotsam is taking up all the room, I start to wonder why the heck they don't go to the 9 OTHER bars in town. And I realize that they're slumming. They think it's a dangerous, spooky bar. They view the "regulars" as zoo animals. Or, equally likely, they're spilling over from Friday night at Abstract, which is about as meat-head-y as you can possibly imagine.

So I'm seeing the Flotsam. Wonderful people I'm sure. But they're taking up lots of room on the dancefloor, and most of them aren't even dancing. The ones that ARE dancing are doing the inexcusable "circle dance," where they all stand in an inward-facing circle just like they did in grade seven. Circles are inefficient shapes that waste space. Tonight somebody told me that girls did it to "avoid boys." That's bull...boys always come up from behind anyway.

Now I'm engaging in stereotypical behaviour that is -- objectively -- equally inexcusable. I start to deliberately puncture circles. Hey, if I'm the only person actually dancing to a song, I have a right to claim that enormous empty spot in the middle of your circle. At least that's what I'm thinking at the time.

By doing this I start to make enemies. And on these rare Flotsam nights, I can't afford enemies, because already I'm being scoped out by the men who spy me as an easy target. Maybe they think I'm a girl or maybe they don't, but with me acting all cocky it's already apparent that I have no friends on the dancefloor (and this is the funny thing about Flotsam nights...the "friendly" people are always absent).

So it becomes a stand-off: I'm out there to assert myself, and they're out there to victimize me. Honestly, this is how it happens. Often it's just a matter of some beefy f*cker sticking his fat bully neck in my path, or some guy doing a mocking "pick up the drag queen jig" around me. I deal with these situations by looking as happy as possible, which -- believe me -- makes them SO angry.

But every few years -- like tonight -- I get into a physical situation. As I walked past two of the Flotsam boys, one of them grabbed my skirt and yanked it up. Personally I can deal with this, but for some reason I feel it's my duty to teach men NOT to do such things, even though most of the women I know decide to just put up with it (to be nice), which only perpetuates the behaviour.

It's not my place to tell men what they can't do to women, but in any case I turn around and grab at the edge of the guy's toque and say "Don't EVER do that AGAIN!" Later, when I find myself in the middle of an increasingly hostile dance floor, buddy swats me on the back of the neck as he walks past, so I swat him too. This is stupid.

This has happened SO many times. I continue to stand there but I don't even WANT to be there, I'm NOT having fun, but I feel the need to stand my ground. I don't want the bad element of the Flotsam to think they've "won" by chasing me out of the bar with their general idiocy. Most importantly, I'm realizing that there IS a difference between the GOOD Flotsam and the BAD Flotsam, and I've spent part of the night alienating the good.

So tonight I speak to Nigel about it. Nigel wears showy clothing and is usually the other person who gets pushed around on these nights. All night, Nigel has been -- get this -- DOING MAGIC TRICKS for people. By doing this he is marking himself as a non-threat. He's being the "class clown" to avoid victimization. I do this too on more relaxed nights, but I'm at a disadvantage because men don't tend to think that Nigel is threatening their sexuality.

Might I just say for a second that most men come across as threatening in these situations? Do men realize this? I don't think so. I think that many doggedly pursue sex without realizing how claustrophobic they can be. But then a lot of women -- and I'm lumping myself in here -- either don't complain or (in some cases) don't seem to mind such a thing, so who's to blame? Perhaps me.

While Nigel plays the clown, my way of getting through these nights is to put on my sociology hat. Who are these people? What do they want? Why are they here? But for the most part they all just melt into the "sexual stew." It's like watching locusts in a mating frenzy. Intellect, self-reflection, and individuality appear to be completely shut off. They're animals.

Then I step back and realize that *I* am the abnormal one. *I* am the one who isn't perpetuating my genetic line (and thank goodness!). Who the heck am *I* to say that their behaviour is wrong?

Finally -- after many drinks and many songs I didn't want to dance to -- I come to a basic conclusion: we've got different ideas of right and wrong. I don't think you should take up space on a dancefloor if you're not actually dancing -- and I mean REALLY, you jerks, STOP DOING THAT -- whereas they believe they should be able to go wherever they want and pick up somebody, and why the hell is that FAG in the way?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Fathers and Crows

Hot on the heels of the book on polar exploration (appropriately called "Ice"), I had a yen to re-read William T. Vollmann's "The Rifles," the sixth volume in his "seven dreams" series. I remember loving it and being moved by his descriptions of Resolute Bay and John Franklin's horrifying attempt at finding the Northwest Passage. "The Rifles" probably nurtured this tiny seed of my fascination with the Canadian north.

But no...that would mean skipping "Fathers and Crows," the second volume of the series. So I've decided to read it instead, which is a real treat because it's my favourite of his books.

I stumbled across William T. Vollmann when a University friend ("The Fantichrist") loaned me "You Bright and Risen Angels." I read it and fell in love with it, but the only other Vollmann books I could find were these strange historical fictions...and at the time, non-fiction was definitely NOT my thing.

But "Fathers and Crows" really opened my eyes. Majestic in its scope, somehow taking in the beauty of the landscape, the justifications of both the Jesuits and the Huron, the establishment of Lower Canada...this single (huge) book made me realized how much I had to learn, and how little of it I'd learn by reading Dean R. Koontz.

I've read it twice now, and when I think of it I get a little chill: scurvy, Ignatius of Loyola, political intrigue, exploration, the saving of souls, the Indians getting sick and the Jesuits being martyred. Beautiful and rambling and crazy, exactly the way it happened, and exactly what Vollmann pours heart and soul into.

Oh yes, and a sea monster.

Ronnie Update

I forgot to mention that Ronnie O'Vera got a new pot.

Forget the Groundhog; Listen to the St. Bernard

Nobody at this latitude is happy about the least nobody *I* know. We're tired of being cold and bundled up, and we're also tired of gooping our "swoopy curl" with pomade and then looking like a girly fascists at work because the gale-force wind messed up our hair. Correct?

But that's no reason to pretend that spring is "just around the corner." No amount of pretending or praying or collecting pop tabs will hasten the arrival of spring.

I can't do anything about the weather myself, but I CAN tell you when winter is officially over. I don't use the calendar or the almanac, and I don't pay any attention to groundhogs either. I have a foolproof method that works every year: I watch mounds of snow in parking lots.

Traditionally I've watched the mound in the Sun Life Financial parking lot, but this year they've scattered it around so it melted early. Sun Life gets two extra parking spots, but loses an invaluable weather aid. As a surrogate mound I'm using the snow in the parking lot for the Erb & Best Funeral Home. I took a picture of it today so you can see it:

I call it "Mount Hussey," named after Leonard Hussey the polar explorer. This mound of snow is perfect for measuring the end of winter because it gets a fair amount of sunlight every day, and it doesn't look like anybody will soon attack it with a shovel.

When Mount Hussey melts, I'll tell you, and THEN winter will be over.

But don't hold your breath. The mountain is mighty sturdy.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Torchwood Thoughts

A few thoughts, now that I've just finished watching the final episode of Torchwood:
  • Everything from "Countrycide" to "Out of Time" was very, very good.
  • The other episodes ranged from flawed ("Small Worlds") to embarassingly bad ("Cyberwoman").
  • The final two episodes of the season were bungled. So bungled, in fact, that I can't even figure out where the screw-up began. What's with the horrible shadow-killing monster that we first hear about during the last twenty minutes of the program? Considering the effort they've put into programming us for future episodes ("BAD WOLF! TORCHWOOD! MR. SAXON!") couldn't they have given us SOME foreshadowing?
  • Eve Myles is an exceptionally good actress. I mean really, she's fantastic. The sad thing is, watching her go bonkers over the death of her hubby, I knew that the writer would cop out in the end. WHICH HE DID, THAT JERK! I can't take a second year of "Ack, Gwen, y'bloody well nevah home!"
  • John Barrowman is an exceptionally bad actor. This does not bode well for the series, as he's the main character. But he simply CANNOT convey sincerity. Every time he cries, I laugh. Every time he says "I'm sorry" I have the urge to bite styrofoam.
  • Why does it still feel like a children's program?
I will buy this series when it comes out on DVD, simply because the middle portion was so successful. And I'll even look forward to watching Borrowman flap his trenchcoat around in season two. But c'mon people, get it together, will you?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


"Hooves and Harlots" was the episode that finally did it for me. It strikes a wonderful balance between campy humour and kid-friendly drama: no attempts to make me cry, lots of wit and silliness, but the actors still played it for keeps without just goofing off.

Except Renee O'Connor, of course, who is unapologetically the comic relief. I don't find her annoying in the least, partly because of her superb comic timing and her chemistry with Lucy Lawless, but mostly because of the REAL strength of the show: the writing.

I didn't want to start enjoying Xena because I couldn't see how the writers could keep it up. How long before the jokes become stale, the plots grow repetative, and the fight scenes start repeating themselves? That's still a danger (and I'm sure after six years it got a little old), but thanks to their incredible creative freedom -- drawing willy-nilly from a wealth of classical mythology, license to tweak each episode's tone as they see fit -- it's still surprising me. One minute Xena is a fearsome warrior, and the next she's the "straight man" for some silly merchant or bard.

The strength of the show -- for me -- is its variety. Otherwise each episode would consist of the following elements (sadly enough of them DO follow this formula):
  1. Xena and Gabrielle arrive in the middle of a conflict which consists of either "powerful evil character versus powerless peasants" or "two powerful characters fight each other without regard for the damage done to the powerless peasants."
  2. Xena and Gabrielle get separated for whatever reason.
  3. Xena must prove that she is really trying to help. She usually does this by fighting the "good character" and then refusing to kill him when she wins.
  4. Gabrielle falls in with a hunky guy/soulmate.
  5. When Xena and Gabrielle are finally reunited, there's a huge fight based around some new gimmick.
  6. After the fight, everybody apologizes to Xena for doubting her, and Gabrielle looks sad as her guy either dies or is forced to leave.
  7. The Moral Is Announced. A joke is made at the moral's expense.
Be that as it may, the episodes deviate enough from this (and some of them REALLY deviate) to keep it fresh and interesting.

I still don't really CARE what happens next -- it's mainly a good thing to watch while I'm eating dinner -- but I'm genuinely liking the show, and hopefully I'll continue to like it as it goes on.

Smart Paris Gives us Gorgeous New Russian Shades of Rouge


A Vogue Created by the Imperial Exiles of the Czar's Court--The Most Beautiful Make-Up in the World

There is a saying in Paris--"there is nothing in the world as smart as a Russian woman who has chic!" And today the Chic of Russia, the Romanoffs, the Tchermechieffs, the glory of the Czar's Court, are all in Paris. Lending their own note to the world of fashion.

Living in splendor in palaces on the Avenue de Bois de Boulogne, starving in attics by the Porte Maillot--but received everywhere, admired everywhere, sought after for their barbaric beauty, their infinite allure, their grand style!

The New Yorker, September 10, 1927
How wonderful to see that those chic barbarians benefitted from their exiles. Sure a fair number of them were "starving in attics," but still they had the BEST rouge!

Monday, April 09, 2007

Pain at the Poles

I just finished reading "This Was the North" by Anton Money, and it was absolutely wonderful. Particularly striking was the account of his first winter on Frances Lake, where he spent five months without another human being within 100 miles, building his own log cabin and waiting to start panning for gold (which eventually made him extremely rich).

Just before Christmas he realized how intensely lonely he was, and he started going a little batty. He watched herds of caribou wander across the ice of the lake, and he decided that he NEEDED to meet the caribou on Christmas day. So for several days he took huge quantities of salt from a distant mountain and spread it on the ice, letting the caribou get used to his smell on the salt that they apparently craved. On Christmas he went and stood motionless on the ice, and after a bit of uncertainty the caribou herd surrounded him to eat the salt. Within hours he was walking among them, feeding them out of his hands...hundreds of wild caribou. That was his Christmas miracle, and it got him through the winter.

But now I'm reading a somewhat less happy book: "Ice: Stories of Survival from Polar Exploration." The editor (Clint Willis) has found all the most harrowing and gruesome excerpts, perfect for a person like me who -- for some reason -- NEEDS to know how terrible and unforgiving nature can be. And also likes to hear gory stories.

In 1912, Douglas Mawson went on an Antarctic expedition with two other men and a dog team. Far from shelter, one of the men and most of the dogs fell into a glacial crevasse, taking most of the supplies with them. If there's one thing I'm learning it's that glaciers are really frightening places to be, and if you fall into a glacial crevasse you're never coming out.

During Mawson's 100-mile walk back to shelter, alone, starving, he starts noticing an "awkward, lumpy, squeltching feeling" in his feet. The following description is not for the faint-hearted, and it's kept me in a state of low-level anxiety for about 24 hours:
The sight of his feet was a hammerblow to the heart. The lumpy, awkward feeling came from underneath--where both his soles had separated into casts of dead skin. The thick pads of the feet had come away leaving abraded, raw tissue. His soles and heels were stripped; an abundant, watery fluid filled his socks, and it was that which had caused the squelching feeling. A wave of despair rode over him. He sat aghast, staring at the ruined feet he had trusted to carry him to Aurora Peak. He was to write later: "All that could be done was to heavily smear the red inflamed exposed flesh with lanolin--and luckily I had a good supply--and then replace the separated soles and bind them into position with bandages. They were the softest things I had available to put next to the raw tissue."
This man walked almost 100 miles with the soles of his feet detached. And you know what? He made it and lived another 40 years.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Little Cat and the Dirty Dog

I think Swedish band "Whale" was the best thing since Surströmming, but after their disappearing act us Whale fans have needed to delve into the past.

So I present "The Little Cat and the Dirty Dog," a song by Eurotrash group "Ubangi." Often compared to Devo (but more reminiscent of Oingo-Boingo in my opinion), they put out a few singles in the early '80s, most of them nasty, explicit, juvenile, and obnoxious. So in other words they were fun.

Cia Soro -- lead singer for Whale -- got her start in Ubangi, and you can see her here in all of her hyper-lipsticked glory. I can't quite get over her weird dance at the end. I've been trying for years to get my hands on an actual Ubangi CD, but they just don't seem to exist anymore...

Sarah Binks, Sweet Songstress of Saskatchewan

Since we're talking about poetry -- and also about the unforgiving wilds of Canada -- I can't help mentioning Sarah Binks, the "sweet songstress of Saskatchewan" who wrote such eerie poetry during her P.R. ("Post-Regina") period:
"They Arose"

They arose, three dead men,
Stiff and dank,
From the gloomy depths
Of a water tank;
And they bowed full soon
To the rising moon,
For the one was Bill,
And the other two, Hank.
"(Untitled Fragment)"

When I'm buried in a graveyard,
And this feeble flame is snuffed,
Will a spottled magpie murmur,
Mutely sigh with ruff unfluffed?
Who can forget this stanza from "Hymn to Rover?"
When on that day the last bark rings
To call the dog-like throng,
Rover shall rise and don his wings,
And raise his voice in song;
He'll raise his voice in song and sing,
In ecstasy of dog-like things.
Eventually Sarah rebounded from her misery and gave us some of her best work. As her biographer Paul Hiebert notes, "sheer exuberance of joy is expressed in that paean of praise to the hunt":
"The Duck Hunt"

The duck hunt, the duck hunt,
Ahoy, for the duck hunt,
Yahoo, the duck hunt so fine;
With my shot gun and duck-dog,
I'm off for the duck-bog,
And I leave for the duck hunt,
While yet there is time;
My loved one is weeping,
And clings to my side;
"Oh stay with me Oscar,
The duck hunt can ride,
Remain with me Oscar,
And let the duck hunt slide."
But hark, in the gloaming,
The moor-hens are moaning,
The marshes are sighing,
The sea gulls are groaning,
So I'm off for the duck hunt,
The duck hunt, the duck hunt,
I'm off for the duck hunt,
While yet in my prime.
I leave you with the first stanza of Sarah's acknowledged epic, "Hordes of Sheep":
'Tis night on the prairie and night on the plain,
And all is still--no sign of rain--
And all is peace, and deep in his teepee
The red man sleeps and his squaw is sleepy;
The red man snores with the red man's cunning;
But hark, what's that? 'tis the sound of running,
'Tis the sound of rushing, of hurrying feet,
And hark, what's that? 'tis the sound of bleat;
Louder it comes, it rises wild,
Ah, the mother hears it and grabs her child,
Louder still, the frantic mother,
Grabs her child, and another and another;
And the red man waked by that hurrying tread,
Turns deadly pale beneath his red;
The Indian Brave is roused from sleep;
"Run for your life boys, here come sheep!"

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Awful Poetry

There's nothing quite so heartbreaking and hilarious as a piece of bad, sincere poetry. A few years ago VanillaJ held a "bad poetry" party, and I think everybody agreed that the best places to find bad poetry are:
  • online,
  • in yearbooks, and
  • at open-mic poetry readings.
You don't have to pay a fee to get a poem into any of these places, you are largely free from criticism (especially if your poem is so sincere that people think you'll commit suicide if they make fun of it), and most people involved with them are adolescents. And adolescents write the BEST bad poetry.

I'll leave somebody else to compile a list of Bad Poetry Themes ("moth to the flame" and "broken china doll" are my favourites, not to mention your average thinly-veiled threats of suicide), but I want to bring up one pervasive technique of bad poetry: forcing the rhyme by displacing the verb.

(Please note that I learned everything I know about English from reading books. So I know how English is supposed to be written, but I don't necessarily know the technical aspects. So if I'm wrong in my explanation for WHY the following technique is bad, please let me know, and recognize at least that it IS bad for whatever reason).

The Bad Poetry Author settles on a single verb that fits the rhyming scheme of his or her poem. In this example from the 1956 edition of "The Grumbler" (the Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate yearbook), poet Barbara Kraft has written:
The soft, gay voice now still
and she can think of only ONE POSSIBLE WORD that rhymes with still: "fill". But the problem is, the verb form "fill" doesn't come at the end of sentence clauses. "Filled" does...but "filled" doesn't rhyme with "still!" (let's ignore that "still" shouldn't come at the end of that clause in the first place).

So Ms. Kraft does what bad poets always do: she sticks "fill" at the end of the clause anyway, and since it can only be placed there in the infinitive form, she has to add "to" or "did" or "will" or "so" in front of it:
Her heart with grief did fill
Damn! That's awkward and bad and all wrong! "Her heart filled with grief" would be correct, but then she'd have to change her previous line to rhyme with "grief," and that's too hard! It might be trying to evoke some classical sentence structure, but it never works...and sentimental bad poetry is FULL of this! Here are some more examples from "The Grumbler":
"A night by strife so torn"
"Stained red with blood so quiet lay"
"All hearts i' the castle now do weep...
...Two hearts true, their love to keep"
"Which round thy sands do seethe"
See what I mean? This drives me nuts, even when they try to soften it a bit with a few extra words ("so quiet lay"). If you're a bad sentimental poet, think about it this way: when with this method I do write, my writing correct does sound? No, so stop it!

Call of the Wild

I suppose I have a fascination with "The North" the same way some people are fascinated with "The West."

Growing up on a relatively isolated farm I learned to love ponds and swamps, trees and groundhogs, not to mention storms sweeping across the fields in either winter or summer. It was "wilderness in miniature," just big enough for a child to get lost in.

Here in Ontario we're blessed with the Niagara Escarpment. When I was very young my father would take me on trips to Mount Nemo, where we'd hike pieces of the Bruce Trail and explore the smaller caves. Later I made a few wonderful trips up to Cypress Lake -- the furthest north I've ever been, and by far the most rugged and unforgiving landscape I've seen for myself.

But this is all small potatoes. In reality I want to see the unspoiled, virtually unreachable places...the land of moose and bush pilots. The problem is that you can't simply get in a car and drive to those places. If you're going to actually get out and EXPLORE, you need to endure the hardships that come with such places. And though I've got pretty good endurance I don't think I'm up to the task.

So instead I find myself reading about OTHER people doing the hard work. Right now I'm working on "This Was the North" by Anton Money. It's the true story of the seven years he spent in Alaska, British Columbia, and the Yukon. In 1923 the land was still largely unsettled and partially unexplored. Money arrived from Britain as a "Greenhorn" and fell totally in love with the landscape, frequently referring to it as "Eden."

The book is beautiful, written in a plain and descriptive style, and Money perfectly conveys the majesty of the countryside. He tells you about the lives of the Hudson Bay traders, the Indian trappers and the ubiquitous gold hunters. He describes in minute and fascinating detail how they built their houses and roads, their boats and "high caches." He also provides pictures of the people and places he describes, taken by him in the 1920s.

So far they've reached Frances Lake, and he and his friend are of the first few Europeans to survive the trip there. I wish I could be at the lake with them...but I'd settle for another weekend in Northern Ontario!

Friday, April 06, 2007

alloc! init!

For the third time now I am tackling Aaron Hillegass' "Cocoa Programming for Mac OS X." I've finally reached the farthest point that I'd reached previously ("Bindings and NSController"), but this time I actually understand what's going on. Mostly.

I'm realizing something that I think the book glosses over: the AppKit framework -- the classes you use to communicate with the OS X GUI -- is quirky. Understanding what you're doing involves knowing all of the bizarre ways your code needs to interact with AppKit. For the methods in any particular class you have to know what it returns, what it retains, what happens if you send it nil...and you also need to know which methods it delegates to other objects...

I'm sure that for common classes this becomes second nature. But when I see inconsistencies in Hillegass' code, and he doesn't explain why they're there, a bit of research reveals that it's due to a class quirk...a quirk I wouldn't have known about if *I* were writing the code.

I was in a rage tonight, trying to figure out why he allocates memory for and initializes SOME objects, but not others. I think it's because some of these objects -- the ones you use often for temporary reasons, like NSString -- can allocate and initialize for themselves, since they're immutable and they'll be autoreleased as soon as the method ends anyway.

Speaking of releasing, I'm not even thinking about that yet. The knowledge that (as Hillegass basically says) some methods retain objects and some don't, and you just need to learn which does which, is not exactly heartening.

But I do have to say: wow, this is elegant. The way that all these objects lock together, sharing their duties in such a logical way, is a miracle of design. I love it!

Until I get stuck again...

Why I Didn't Like "Frankenstein"

Deciding to read Frankenstein was a bit of a whim. I wanted to see how different it was from the twentieth-century film versions, and since I love to be grossed out and I get thrilled by Arctic adventures...well, Frankenstein seemed a worthy book to read.

I can't blame Mary Shelley for some of the things I disliked. I find early 19th century fiction to be strangely paced -- paragraphs and chapters are generally of identical length and tone -- and I simply cannot stand these sensitive, high-born protagonists who suffer nervous fits. I can understand the women fainting -- their lungs were corseted into their necks and they wore sixty pounds of heavy clothing -- and I suppose even the hardiest miner could be excused a consumptive faint. But these delicate lords who require six months of recuperation after every surprise try my patience. And Victor Frankenstein has so many nervous fits -- and spends so long in recuperative spells of madness -- that it's a wonder he ever gets a chance to build a monster in the first place.

So I can excuse these novel-elements as par for the course -- particularly since Shelley's own husband was known to flop into narcoleptic slumbers on occasion -- but I can't excuse Victor Frankenstein's justifications for his actions. I could see it if Shelley were ultimately condemning Frankenstein for being such a lazy, selfish, inneffectual, cold-hearted bastard...but she isn't. The only thing Frankenstein did wrong was to play God by delving into the secrets of nature.

The fact that he totally abandoned his "monster" (so he could flit around Europe studying Eastern languages) is not seen as irresponsible. And when that monster found itself alone and terrified, spurned by all humans, unable to find companionship even from the man who created him...well, Frankenstein doesn't think this is particularly sad. When the monster decides to get revenge of those who rejected him -- ESPECIALLY the man who created him and then abandoned him -- Frankenstein (and Shelley) both label the monster as "cruel" and "bloodthirsty."

Almost half of the book is about the monster's good deeds and his heart-wrenching attempts to join a society that will never accept him. The other half is about Victor Frankenstein running away from every responsibility he has (to his creation and to the protection of his friends and relatives), occasionally taking time out to explain to us (again and again) how he is the most miserable person on the planet...not because he screwed everything up through his own impotence, but because he created the monster in the first place.

I couldn't help feeling that Victor Frankenstein was like a deadbeat dad. Rather than support his child and take responsibility for what he's done, he runs and regrets, runs and regrets. Hey Vic, just give the monster a MATE already!

So I got very little out of the book. When describing geography -- lush and majestic Switzerland, the malevolent Arctic ocean, and the flat, barren Orkney islands -- Shelley entranced me. When it came to characterization, however, I could only care about the monster...and I don't think she intended it that way.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Cat and I

I grew up with all sorts of pets. Living on a farm, we weren't limited when it came to space or animal husbandry; hamsters, gerbils, mice, budgies, cats, dogs, rabbits, lizards, a racoon and -- yes -- a tarantula named Legs who poisoned my father's wine.

After I moved away from home I didn't feel comfortable having pets, because I lived with unpredictable people. But when I got my own apartment seven years ago there was no question about it: I needed a cat, and I needed one who would allow me to pet its belly.

So I went to the Humane Society, since I'd rather rescue an animal than pay $500 for a cozy inbred pet store creature. They had lots of cats, but when I came to Zsa Zsa's cage she immediately rolled on to her back, kicked her legs in the air, and started to purr. She wasn't going to just ALLOW me to pet her belly, she was going to REQUIRE it. Zsa Zsa was mine.

We have always had a good relationship. Sometimes she gets too needy and begins to meow plaintively, and when I'm trying to work or trying to sleep that can drive me into a fury. In return I don't clean her litterbox as often as I should, and she doesn't contribute monetarily to the household, so I think we're pretty much even.

When I come home she flops onto her side, squeals, and begins to kick herself across the carpet. This is her "seal impersonation," and you are supposed to respond by enthusiastically petting her. If you do a really good job she begins to drool. After that she leaves me alone until the afternoon, when she sits either on me or beside me as I do whatever incomprehensible things I feel the need to do.

She rarely wants to play. When she does, her favourite game is to hide behind something and watch ME play, which I quickly get bored of. When she walks into a populated room she announces herself calmly. When I take a bath she does perilous tip-toes across the edge, and though her tail gets wet she never falls in. Sometimes she drinks out of the toilet and licks her butt. She is meticulous in her grooming.

Our new apartment is heaven for her, because she has access to most of the windows and they overlook scenes with bushes and trees. In the bushes are birds, sometimes squirrels. She hunches down and wiggles her bum, but never pounces. She does not see herself in mirrors, doesn't recognize cats on TV, isn't afraid of thunder, and can't seem to hear cats or dogs, either live or electrically reproduced. Though if I imitate her she will imitate me, and we can have a nice conversation this way.

On Saturday nights, when I come home drunk, she is very calm and understanding. The next morning she literally demands soft food, which she only gets after I've been drinking. She gleefully scratches at the furniture even though she has no claws. She stomps around in a tiny circle before lying down, even though there is no grass. If there IS grass somewhere she'll eat it and not throw it up.

Her favourite spots are the couch, the computer chair, the sun-drenched living-room floor, and under the armchair. At night she waits patiently while I read in bed, usually lying in the scoop between my ribs and my hips. When I turn out the light she'll sometimes scratch at the covers until I let her go underneath, where she curls against me and crackles and sometimes dreams. When she wakes up from a dream she "talks" frantically, looking all around the room, and eventually runs away to take stock of the situation. At 3am, when I wake up, she's always lying on the bed hoping to be petted.

This morning, at 3am, she had sticky black gunk on her head, where her mast tumour is. I clipped away the hair; the tumour was ugly and crusted up. I positively could not sleep and regretted that I hadn't written down the way we lived together. When I finally did sleep, I dreamed she was in a sack and I couldn't get her out.

This afternoon I put her in her cat carrier and took her to the vet. The vet took a look at the tumour, said "oh, yeah," and gave it a steady squeeze. Black sludge oozed out of Zsa Zsa's head in a thick tube, like rancid toothpaste. She kept squeezing until all the sludge was gone, and so was the tumour, then she washed it off and said it would probably fill up again eventually. She says the sludge is a combination of mast cells and melanoma which -- she assures me -- is pretty much harmless. I'm to watch for infection and not worry about it; the tumour just "popped" when it got too full.

The vet likes Zsa Zsa and didn't charge me anything for the visit. On the way home the cab driver told me about how he'd had to put his own cat down, and that it's something you never want to happen but will always eventually happen.