Friday, August 31, 2007

Because It's Friday: Mother Mother

Oh, I'm very sorry for not writing lately. Life has been incredibly busy. I am constantly on my toes. I can barely remember to clean the cat litter, but that's because I choose to forget.

Instead of writing something meaningful and beautiful, I leave that up to "Mother Mother," the most stunningly incredible band that I've heard in an awful long time. Clever songs, creative arrangements, and vocal harmonies quite unlike anything you've heard of before...Vancouver is a real hotbed of great Canadian music right now.

And hey, don't crowd me on October 27th...they're playing here in Kitchener AND it's right after my birthday. I'm THERE.

What's all the fuss about? Just watch them perform my personal favourite off their debut: "Love and Truth" (pretend that the first few lines aren't cut off).

Be there!

Monday, August 27, 2007

NEVER "Bid Two Spades!"

From the March 10, 1928 issue of "The New Yorker," we learn a new piece of slang-that-never-was:
Despite her beauty and her youth she "BID 2 SPADES" (The synonym for gaseous indigestion) -- far from a bridge game, there in the tea-room--and how uncomfortable she was!

Concerning a damsel in distress, it is difficult to write. She was young, she was witty, she was impeccably gowned, but in spite of her youth, in spite of her grace, in spite of her wit, she was very much embarrassed.

So mundane a thing as her food was causing her discomfort. The nut sundae at the tearoom had been a little bit too much--and her luncheon was heavy on her heart.

The ordinary measure of relief--some soda and some water, helped her discomfort for the moment, but increased her embarrassment. For hiccups and murmurs escaped her swanlike throat. She was, as the saying goes, "bidding two spades."
Like myself you may be wondering what exactly this poor woman was DOING. What were the "murmurs" that escaped her "swanlike throat" due to that accursed "nut sundae?" Was she just belching, or does "bidding two spades" actually mean letting rip a swanlike fart?

We can't look it up online because it appears that Bristol-Meyers Co. (makers of "Gastrogen tablets") simply made the phrase up. This had some precedent, as another company (whose name I forget) had been warning people against "The Ha-Ha's" -- AKA "dry skin" -- for most of 1927.

Why would this sort of "made up phrase" advert have appealed to the people of the 1920s? Well, it certainly was a time of bizarre "fad" phrases to begin with ("The bee's knees," "23-skidoo," "hotcha!") so I guess the advertisers decided to get in on the action. I'm not surprised that "bidding two spades" didn't make it into the dictionary. It's too refined and weird.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Book Meme Squared

"Meme Queen Hilda" (over at The Mind Wobbles) put this one up and I couldn't help responding.

What are you reading right now?
"Giles Goat Boy" by John Barth.

Do you have any idea what you'll read when you're done with that?
Definitely "Letters" by John Barth...I've decided to read (and re-read) all of his books in chronological order, partly because "Letters" (which I've never read) deals with characters from all his previous novels. I couldn't read it without going back for a refresher.

What's the worst thing you were ever forced to read?
"Nights in the Underground" by Marie-Claire Blais. I was stuck in a hotel room with this book and it was the most whiny, choppy, self-indulgent piece of crap I've ever laid eyes on. I couldn't finish it. I was feeling whiny and self-indulgent enough as it was.

What's the one book you always recommend to just about anyone?
I've stopped recommending books to people, but "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez would probably be the one if I started again.

Admit it, the librarians at your library know you on a first name basis, don't they?
No. I like to own books, not rent them. Libraries never have books by the authors I like, and I've never found libraries to be very comfortable places to read.

Is there a book you absolutely love, but for some reason, people never think it sounds interesting, or maybe they read it and don't like it at all?
"Gravity's Rainbow" by Thomas Pynchon, but I'm not surprised when people don't enjoy it.

Do you read books while you eat?
Yes, especially during breakfast. Certain books can be tucked under the plate and read "no-handed," as long as you move the toast around.

While you bathe?
Yes, but never anything very meaningful.

While you watch movies or TV?
No, too distracting, and that would take away from my "nail-filing and sandwich-making time."

While you listen to music?
No, though I can play Solitaire to music.

While you're on the computer?
No, I like to touch pages.

When you were little, did other children tease you about your reading habits?
A bit, but it was always playful teasing, especially because I read books that their parents wouldn't have approved of, so I was kind of cool. And all of my friends were avid readers too.

What's the last thing you stayed up half the night reading because it was so good you couldn't put it down?
Any book that I was very close to finishing. I get so excited at the end of a book -- either because I love the book, or because I hate it and can't wait to read a different one -- that I don't begrudge a few hours of lost sleep. But sometimes I misjudge how long it will take me to finish a book...

Friday, August 24, 2007

I'd Buy Anything By...The Beloved

Ahhh, Jon and Helena Marsh. Such smooth loveliness. Such a perfect pair. His voice will always make me feel calm and warm, and her lyrics are beauty incarnate. Next time you're feeling foolish or lost or just a little bit achy, have a listen to The Beloved and realize that there is honest goodness in the world around you. For at least five minutes.

It isn't hard to "buy everything" by The Beloved because they've released so little and it ain't easy to get here. The first song I heard is still my favourite: "Time After Time." It doesn't get much more sublime than this, to my eyes and ears, and never have bedbugs been so freakin' sexy. They used to cut the end of the video off, surprise.

Still living down (or living up) the "bunch of nude models" furor over their "Sweet Harmony" video, they went back to ultra-artsy in the mid-90s. A bit more formulaic, but it's still a nice song (and a killer vide0)..."Deliver Me."

Albums to buy? There aren't enough of them for subdivision. Just pick up whatever you find.

Get Yer 1928 Male Archetype Here!

Trying to get a feel for the "guy types" you'd meet in New York during the late '20s?

Look no further than this handy chart, which I just found accompanying an advertisement for Brunswick Records (March 3, 1928). This company had been running ads in The New Yorker since its first year, all with the same schtick: they give a cartoonist the name of the new record they're promoting, and the guy -- who probably has never HEARD the record -- draws a cartoon to go with it. This cartoon is for "The Man I Love" (Ben Bernie and His Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra), no doubt because "Show Boat" had just appeared on stage.

So click on the picture for a full-size image of all the "types." The only one missing is a collegiate guy in a raccoon coat. Here are some quick explanations and observations, in case you get lost.

A "Butter and Egg Man" was a rich patron at a bar. This phrase was famously coined by Texas Guinan, who -- legend has it -- asked a high-tipping customer what he did for a living. He said "butter and eggs." So it stuck.

A "Bootlegger" was the guy who sold you illegal booze during prohibition. A "Pugilist" was a boxer...he's no doubt on the list because Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney were so often in the news (and the society papers) at the time. Likewise "Aviator"...after Charles Lindbergh's famous solo flight, you couldn't swing a pug without hitting an aviator looking for some publicity.

And yes, you COULD buy an electric icebox in 1928...but most people couldn't afford one. So the "Iceman" still brought you your ice, and I think he continued to do so for a long time after, at least into the 1940s.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

An iTunes Word Search: "Sister"

An important question arises when I think of my sister's marriage this weekend: when somebody is singing about "sisters" in a song, what are they REALLY singing about? iTunes word search to the rescue!
  1. Baby Sister (The Residents)
  2. Cry Little Sister (Gerald McMann)
  3. Little Sister (Concrete Blonde)
  4. Little Sister (The Residents)
  5. Mother-Sister! (The Fall)
  6. Neon Sisters (Thomas Dolby)
  7. Sister Europe (Gogh Van Go)
  8. Sister Marie (Harry Nilsson)
  9. Sister of Mercy (The Thompson Twins)
  10. Sister of Night (Depeche Mode)
  11. Sister Rosa (Nits)
  12. Sister Ship Twenty Three (Sky Cries Mary)
  13. Sister Witness (A Thousand Other Names)
  14. Squeezit's Vision of His "Sister" (Mystic Knights of the Oingo-Boingo)
  15. Three Sisters (The Divine Comedy)
  16. Three Sisters (Nits)
  17. Unchain My Sister! (Elastic Purejoy)
  18. Your Sister Can't Twist But She Sure Can Rock and Roll (Elton John)
Thematically we've got some wise earth goddesses, we've got songs about close relationships, and we've got some vampirey "blood sisterhood" sort of stuff. There's a general sense of naivete, rarely sexual.

And The Residents. God only knows what they're talking about.

The Song I Wrote For My Cat Last Month

I wrote this song for my cat last month. It's sung to the tune of Concrete Blonde's "Joey," especially the second verse and chorus. I thought it would be a big hit with cats all around the world, and Vanilla agreed.
Zsa Zsa, kitty,
You’re so, pretty.
Meowin’, moanin’,
Purrin’, rollin’.

And if you need to take a poo
I’m so sad to frustrate you,
When I give you water I should clean your litter too.

But if it’s food you’d like to eat,
Well I can make your life complete,
‘Cause when I come home drunk and pass out at your feet…
Oh, Zsa Zsa, you’ll get soft food as a treat.
I tried singing this song to my cat and she didn't acknowledge it as music, she saw it more as something annoying I was doing to her instead of just gettin' with the petting.

The song still has potential. I think I just need to work on it.

Women and the Cynical Bachelor (Twelve)

Do not read this advert (from March 3, 1928) until you've finished eating.
"A woman," said the Cynical Bachelor, "is a woman one-tenth of her life. For the other nine-tenths she is a model for clothes."

"My friend," smiled He Who is Post-Graduate in One Woman at least, "your point of view is oblique. A woman is never more truly a woman than when she is concerned with clothes. For her preoccupation with clothes is her aspiration to the ideal expression of her womanhood.

"And every woman can apply all her creative and interpretative power, unhampered, if she knows those admirable Studios for the Expression of Feminine Personality--the Emily Shops.

"Here, with all dresses distinctively smart, all prices delightfully moderate, her one problem is-- which of all these desirable frocks will most completely express her."
I do agree that women have room for EXPRESSION with their clothes, far beyond what men's clothing can express. But if women weren't REQUIRED to use these clothes to express themselves, perhaps it would be more acceptable for them to do it in other ways...particularly in ways not outlined by the editors of Vogue?

But I'm stopping before I sound like John Barth.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The Barthathon: "Chimera"

John Barth wrote "The Sot-Weed Factor," and was shocked when critics pointed out that the journey of the book's hero (Ebenezer Cooke) was strikingly similar to the "pattern," as outlined by scholars such as Joseph Campbell, which mythic heroes always follow. Intrigued, Barth wrote "Giles, Goat Boy, or, The Revised New Syllabus" (a conscious adaptation of "the pattern"), showed his increasing interest in mythology with parts of "Lost in the Funhouse" ("Menelaiad," "Anonymiad"), and then stuck both feet right into the Grecian heroic pattern in "Chimera" (1972).

You don't need to read a Barth biography to find these things simply need to fight your way through Chimera's closing novella ("Bellerophoniad"), in the middle of which Barth himself (or rather, a sort of "interview with Barth") appears, where he talks candidly about his attempts to distill the heroic myth into a single story (ending up with rejects such as "The End of the Road Continued," "Sot-Weed Redivivus," "Son of Giles, or, the Revised New Revised New Syllabus") before finally writing the three novellas in "Chimera." He also talks a bit about "Letters" his next book, which I look forward to reading soon.

Barth gets away with this intrusion -- as well as the intrusion of "Jerome B. Bray" from "Giles, Goat Boy" -- because "Bellerophoniad" is, among other things, a piece of's a story that knows it's a story. As a matter of fact, it is ACTUALLY the final incarnation of Polyeidus, a shape-shifting seer from within the story itself who tends, unwittingly, to turn into historical documents, a particularly strange and useless talent in the pre-literate days of the mythical Gods. Unless you're writing a book about them.

What's more, mythology in the real world is a remarkably fluid and often contradictory thing. We have only fragments of tales from wildly different ages and regions, in which the same heroes -- including the subjects of Chimera, Bellerophon and Perseus -- do dramatically different things. Ultimately, not even the heroes themselves know who they are anymore. Was Medusa good or evil? Was Bellerus the son of a God, and which children did he father? Who the heck were the Amazons, anyway?

Through all the soul-and-pattern-seeking of Bellerus and Perseus -- suffering mid-life crises in the second half of their heroic patterns -- is the first airing of a new Barth obsession: literate, witty, married adults trying desperately to understand each other. This happened a bit in "Menelaid," but here it gets the full Barthian treatment: man and woman lie around discussing sexuality, love, and committment, always in a wordy, cute, sensitive, and sexually explicit way. Emphasis on "cute."

Often, in Barth's books, these discussions sound like confessional debates between Phil Donohue and a first-year Woman's Study major...but just as you're about to break into a terrible rash, the female character will jump out of the story and yell, "that doesn't sound like me at all! Women don't really talk like that!" at which time Barth himself (or some Greek-hero Barth-surrigate) will admit that he doesn't really understand how women feel...but he's trying.

And I think the world can love him for that, even if we feel a little sick afterward.

Anyway, "Perseid" is the story of a mythic hero trying to find his pattern in hindsight, while "Bellerophoniad" is a mythic hero wannabe trying to conform to the pattern in advance, with disasterous results. The first story -- "Dunyazadiad" is about Barth himself visiting Scheherazade and learning that "the key to the treasure IS the treasure," which keeps on coming up in his books and may mean (in plain english) that while fictional characters spend entire books doing deeds in order to find a treasure at the end, the REAL treasure (for the reader) are the deeds themselves; the reader doesn't care about the stash of gold at the end of the book, the reader is more concerned with the adventure leading up to it. Or something like that.

"Chimera" is not particularly readable, and even though the Perseus and Bellerophon myths are explained within their respective stories, the explanations come in the MIDDLE of the stories and are (due to everything I've already mentioned) incredibly muddled. So brush up on your gods and heroes before diving in. Barth seems to have let his "rollicking adventure" mandate slide this time, giving us what are basically longer versions of his "Lost in the Funhouse" experiments (though "Bellerophoniad"'s use of contemporary slang and references is always good for a laugh, and you've just got to love Pegasus).

More Barth obsessions here: the marshes of Maryland, the fear of impotence, and sibling rivalry. Right out of "Water-Message" and "Anonymiad" (from "Lost in the Funhouse") comes two things we'll be seeing a lot more of in the future: bottled messages and that overgrown triangle of Tidewater marsh where the protagonist may or may not have had His First Sexual Experience.

Note: I was planning to skip "Giles, Goat Boy" because I read it recently, but I'm realizing how perfectly it fits into Barth's OWN pattern, so I'm jumping back to read it next. That's why there are TWO triangles in the Progress-o-Meter, above.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Ambitious Kitchener/Waterloo BusWalk Tour: Route One

ROUTE ONE: Stanley Park (In which our intrepid explorer discovers the plan's weaknesses). Go here for pictures!


I'm doing these routes in numerical order, and this is my first one...but fortunately I've been this way before. My friend Clay used to live in Stanley Park, though now he's famous in Japan for drawing hardcore anime porn.

I've packed Skittles and cola and a camera. I'd considered bringing a microphone in order to capture the whole sight, thought, and sound impression, but that would have been overdoing it.

I'm open to all possibilities except mugging, I have no priorities. I figure I'll get off at the furthest point and take a zig-zag, shady route back. This tour is about exploring new things, not revisitng old things.

* * *

Sitting in the shade, on the grass in front of a school called Crestwood. Fifteen minutes and I'm already lost, exactly as I'd hoped to be. This isn't exactly suburbia -- the houses are too old and the streets too orderly -- but it's certainly off the beaten track. You can't tell if a road will take you to a traffic artery or to yet another dead-end crescent, and while I don't begrudge a wrong turn I HATE retracing my footsteps.

This is a rest to get my bearings and enjoy the shaded grass. I'd like to say it's a pretty school, but like so many Southern Ontario schools it appears to be built on a 1960's plan: single storey, red brick, lots of angles, lack of flair. I could be anywhere.

The weather is oppressively, beautifully hot. Low-flying planes make it sound even hotter. Vague nautical associations. Vague nausea. Forebodings.

* * *

I have travelled far and talked to elderly people, who drank summery drinks on their front porch and pointed me in the general direction of downtown Kitchener. The wife thought I was particularly stupid. Men are repairing their roofs and carrying boxes from apartment to car, keeping to the shade. Some women have strollers, but not many. I orient myself by power lines and the sound of River Road, which I don't believe actually follows a river, unless it's one of the ones my ancestors bricked up and buried long ago.

* * *

Middle-class homes are generally boring, so exploring residential areas is like walking endlessly in circles. Now that I'm walking through the comparatively interesting Shantz Park, I think maybe these adventures should become a series of park tours? Now that I'm away from the ashphalt and the traffic, that idea sounds pretty good.

This is a wide strip of grassland and dense forest that runs parallel to the distant expressway. The only vehicles I can hear are motorcycles, and they're very far away. Soon I can't hear them anymore either. I'm sitting on a bench that's more moss than wood, carved with old names and initials. No garbage here, no people. The moths are of the small white kind, cat-chaseable but with no cats, no animals at all that I can see.

I go deeper, further. I am in the wilderness. Culverts bleed the recent rains and feed ropes of nearly-dead vines in long, sloping hollows. Poison ivy and flowers and endless shade. A single jogger passes me, then a man with his daughter. Otherwise it's a ghost trail. Just the breeze, which gradually blends with approaching traffic. After walking forever I am near the end of the park.

* * *

After exiting the secluded shady forest I am where I least expected to be: Ottawa Street. It's a major four-lane thoroughfare, sunny, shadeless, radiating, SWELTERING. I want to take a detour through a cooler area but I know that Ottawa Street is my only path across the expressway; if I stay on this side I'll NEVER get home. I'll die and the truckers will find my bones.

Apparently I've travelled in a huge loop and now I'm boiling, I'm sweating terribly. My sunscreen is long gone, I have no sunglasses, I'm out of liquid, I think I'm losing my mind. There is no shady place to sit down and I'm breathing exhaust fumes that are physically, tangibly hot. I'm lost in a desert of pavement and cars and I know my skin is baking. I'm light-headed and woozy, almost sunstruck. I must get out of the sun. Pronto. Now.

I keep walking until I reach an area where people are SUPPOSED to walk: across the expressway and into an oasis. An air-conditioned Tim Horton's.

The staff is surly but the drinks are cold and sweet. My blood sugar is far too low and I'm red and drenched and deshevelled. I sit with old men, skateboard kids, construction workers, ostentatiously typing. Gradually my blood sugar returns to normal and I make careful note of lessons learned: more sunscreen, more liquid, and LOTS more rests in the shade.

There is not much to see between Ottawa and downtown Kitchener, other than my grandfather's grave, but I'm not sure exactly where it is. Instead of searching, me and my red face go home. I'm sure I'll pass this way again.

Felines and Freakiness: New Pictures!

Turn You Off!
Calling all people who thrive on visual stimulation! There are new pictures on the Flickr site, including another Zsa Zsa "collector photo" for all of her fans. It's the best way to get to know her without getting cat hair on your black skirt.


Yes, this is the first anniversary of the Muffyblog. 'Nuff said.

The Stinkies Overheard

I mentioned in a previous post the phenomenon of "The Stinkies," a strange subgroup of physically odd and socially inept people who I first discovered while working at Tim Horton's.

I spent part of my morning at that very same Tim Horton's store, typing up a DVD review for Generation X's irreverent movie magazine. The concept of "The Stinky" was INVENTED in that store, and as luck would have it the two ARCHETYPAL examples -- who we naturally called "Mr. Stinky" and "Mrs. Stinky" -- were sitting in the store and having a bizarre argument.

Mrs. Stinky was clearly brow-beating Mr. Stinky in her creepy, phlegmy, piercing, almost unintelligable voice. I couldn't hear a word HE said (and I could barely follow her side of the conversation either), but here's the most accurate transcription I can give. I think it offers some insight into how the Stinkies communicate with each other:
No I'm not goin! I'm not goin! Nope! I'm not goin! No I'm not goin! I asked you three years ago, forget it! I'm not goin now! I'm not goin now!

You screwed up! What? What you mean? Where you goin? Sit sit! You screwed up, didn't ya? You screwed up good, didn't ya? Didn't ya? You screwed up good, didn't ya? We could-a gone three years ago. Why didn't ya? Why didn't ya? Why didn't ya? Nope, I'm not goin now. I asked you three years ago, didn't I? I'm not goin now. I'm not goin. I'm not goin noplace. You said no. I ain't got time for it.

You can fix it so they have-ta come here.

Just Because It's Sunday: "Let Go the Line"

The last song I hear during my "Nights o' Booze" is whatever song the cab driver is listening to. Tonight, after a GORGEOUSLY PERFECT time -- wonderful people I haven't seen in years -- the cab driver was listening to the Most Wonderful Song Ever.

I was listening to the song and it "pinged" into me: I was five years old again (sans lipstick), listening to my Snoopy radio while killing the little red spiders around the artesian well...and it was the song! THE SONG!

I'd totally forgotten it, and the cab driver was playing it. I was in a state of bliss. I interrupted his life story and demanded to know: "Who sang this? WHO SANG THIS WONDERFUL SONG?" And he said "Max Webster."

We had a howling fight. NO WAY Kim Mitchell had been put his greasy fingers on such a wonderful song. When I was a child, Kim Mitchell was a big freaking joke...I guess if you were a Canadian Rock Groupie in the '70s (like my wonderful Mr. Cab Driver) then Kim Mitchell was a pretty cool guy, but when *I* grew up he was a terrible CanCon nightmare. No way! That song could NOT be by Max Webster! Kim Mitchell wasn't involved!

But he was. The song is "Let Go the Line." It's wonderful and appropriate and everything a song could be. I can't find an original video, but here's some guy (Terry Watkinson) performing it for me, and also performing it for anybody who's drunk and happy this weekend:

Nothing demystifies a song by some guy (Terry Watkinson) mutilating it. THANKS TERRY. You killed my childhood.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Kicking Out the Crazies

I served so many customers at Tim Horton's that I was bound to deal with many difficult, aggressive, and downright crazy people.

If you've never been in that situation, then you can't imagine what it's like to have to assert a non-existent authority in the face of downright nuttiness: you can tell them to "get out" a hundred times, but they can simply call your bluff until you phone the police, and even then it could take half an hour for them to show up. Crazy people also tend to act up during the busiest times, when you can least afford a distracting confrontation...they probably know that if they bug you when you're busy, you might give in to their demands just to get rid of them.

I was sitting in a Tim Horton's tonight when a bouncy girl came in with her boyfriend. She started talking to one of the new employees:
GIRL: You're new here, right? I used to work here too, I'm still waiting for Sandra to send me my last cheque. I quit last week, and you know what? I had five dollars in tips from my last day, but I forgot to take them with me, and somebody STOLE my tips, can you believe that?


GIRL: So I called Sandra today and she said I could just come in and get two free medium cappuccinos. I'd like to get those now, one with milk and one with lots of chocolate.

EMPLOYEE: Uhhh, just a minute...

GIRL: Hey, I just want my cappuccinos, Sandra said it's okay.
It was obvious to me that this girl was full of crap, but she was so bald-faced CHEERFUL about it. The employee went and got her supervisor.

This supervisor is only about 17 but she's a tough was fascinating to listen to her struggling to keep calm, ALMOST swearing but then remembering her role and cutting herself off. It was an admirable display.
SUPERVISOR: Yeah, Eileen, you've got to leave now.

GIRL: I came for my cappuccinos. Sandra said I could have them.

SUPERVISOR: You stole sh... You stole stuff and Sandra said we can't give you anything.

GIRL: You get on the phone and call Sandra, she'll tell you.

SUPERVISOR: Sandra was already here and told us we can't give you sh... Ahh, get out of my store NOW.

GIRL: I'm not leaving until I get my cappuccinos.

SUPERVISOR: I'm calling the police.

GIRL: Call Sandra!

SUPERVISOR: Get out of my store, girl!

GIRL: {Appealing to the customers standing in line} I can't believe this place, I can't get my cheque, they won't give me the cappuccinos they owe me.


GIRL: Huh? I have a UNIVERSITY DEGREE, you know.

SUPERVISOR: You got a degree, why're you workin' at Tim Horton's? Get out of my store NOW.
The girl did leave, promising to call the manager to get it all "straightened out." The supervisor, suffering post-adrenaline freakiness, explained to the customers that this person does this every day.

As Delirium-gal Annissa screamed at me last week: "Has the whole world gone MAD?!?"

Thursday, August 16, 2007

I'd Buy Anything By...Adrian Belew

I don't much care for masturbatory guitar virtuosos. You can play really fast, Mr. Van Halen? So? What really matters is the guitarist's ability to integrate with other instruments and -- in the case of Adrian Belew -- go completely off into left field, then come back still grinning a nerdy grin.

He has worked with everybody -- Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, King Crimson -- but he's also had a fun (but slightly spotty) solo career. He's an accomplished drummer and pianist, often playing most (if not all) his own instruments. He has a beautifully quirky personality that encompasses both joy and tragedy...though usually joy.

He's achieved massive critical and niche success, yes. But actual fame? Ironically, the closest he came to being a rock star was with a goofy pop song about how he'd been UNABLE to achieve stardom, despite working his butt off. A duet with his daughter, it illustrates Belew's "cute" side.

After the Belew-fronted incarnation of King Crimson toured with Tool they came back with a new sound (and album) that is decidedly NOT cute. Here's the meta-song, "Happy With What You Have to Be Happy With."

Albums to buy? Definitely Mr. Music Head (one of my favourite albums, BRILLIANT songwriting if can get past the aforementioned "Oh Daddy") and any one of his recent "side" albums (why not start with "Side One?") Avoid "Young Lions," his post-Music Head stab at stardom that today sounds too cheesy even for Belew. For fans only: Guitar as Orchestra. Sure he can make his guitar sound like an orchestra, but that doesn't mean he should.

My Fantasy Office

I used to fantasize about having my own office. I didn’t fantasize about WORKING there…instead, I pictured my future office as a tranquil place with a small fridge and subdued lighting, where I could go at night and read or perhaps have wild sex on the couch.

In University I did have a few offices, but they were sickly places without windows or adequate ventilation. I did schoolwork in those offices and sometimes I slept in them, but I never viewed them as a sort of refuge.

I still look at buildings and fantasize about having cozy offices in them. Yesterday, while imagining the joy of having an office in an old public school, I realized that I already DO have an office, or at least a mostly-private cubicle...but I would NEVER think of hanging out there for pleasure. I spend enough time at my workplace already. Even when the six-year-old neighbour on the right is practicing his newly-discovered "shrieking ability," and the teenage neighbours on the left are bashing themselves against my workroom wall, I'd still rather be at home than at my office.

The more I think about it, the more I understand that what I REALLY yearn for is a PLEASURE COTTAGE, isolated but still close to my home, that is cleaned nightly by custodians and has a fabulous view. And a couch.

So in other words I'm out of luck.

Octavia and I

I’ve been spending a lot of time on dates with my AlphaSmart Neo word processor (tentatively named “Octavia,” for reasons that are either obvious or silly). We’ve been sitting in parks, in coffee shops, and on the front steps of my apartment. We even took an ambitious Kitchener/Waterloo walk/bus tour, of which more in another post.

Whenever I throw myself into an activity I’m aware that it could be a “fad.” Some of my fads last years, and some of them are recurring, but a few are brief flirtations with productivity methods that are quickly shucked when my routine ends up changing. So the fact that I’ve managed to hack together the bulk of three short stories – more fiction than I’ve written in the last ten years combined – is both amazing and worrying: can I keep it going? Is this a dead-end? Will Octavia retire to the basement when the winter comes, allowing me to return to the other things I've stopped doing, like...errr, writing blog entries?

Could be, but the Neo is a very nice device anyway, and it complements my customary writing style. My method of writing has always been like kneeding dough: I force myself to type substandard, off-the-cuff junk until a glimmering of an idea appears, then I go back and edit it to massage out the idea, and the piece is edited over and over again until it is both polished and (hopefully) a good short story.

The Neo makes this a breeze. I can skip between the workspaces, each of which contain ideas or stories or character lists in various stages. The small-ish screen doesn’t hinder me because I’m not much of a “page-formatting” writer: every time I revisit a piece, I start back again at the top (or, if the top has already been polished, at the next section down…and you can easily navigate between sections on the Neo) and I gradually descend through the story, kneeding the wording, deleting the pieces that have become unnecessary, adding detail, and occasionally branching into whatever “theme” seems to be forming.

I also have to give props to the built-in thesaurus. My creative writing teachers always insisted we use a thesaurus, but I read so many awkward and flowery writer’s workshop atrocities that I’ve shied away from them, not to mention I hate losing my train of thought while flipping through an ugly little book. But I find myself using the Neo’s thesaurus often enough for it to be worthwhile, and now I understand that – used judiciously – it’s a really effective/competent/powerful tool.

If you’re the kind of writer who likes to dramatically REARRANGE blocks of text, editing on the Neo is painful (which is why many people use it for drafts and then upload their work for later editing on their computer). But if you take a more organic, unplanned approach, Neo edits as well as any regular word processor.

There's another bonus: since my workspaces are mutating so drastically, I regularly dump them all to my computer. I place each dump into a dated folder so I can preserve old copies and old ideas that I’ve painfully abandoned. Then I drag the cat back outside and keep going.

Are Octavia and I having just a summer romance? Maybe. But what a whirlwind fling it is!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Interactive Fiction Research

Dennis G. Jerz has spent the last several years researching an obscure but fascinating subject: Will Crowther's "Colossal Cave Adventure." Considered to be the real forerunner of modern interactive fiction, the game has been glossed so many times that it has become obscured by its own mythology.

Finally, Jerz answers some of the questions and dispels some of the myths have surround the game. With new interviews, an partial exploration of the Bedquilt caves, and -- most shockingly -- the original 1976 source code, he has written (and illustrated) a sprawling and intricate piece of scholarship: "Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther's Original 'Adventure' in Code and in Kentucky."

I.F. fans are going nuts about this, and rightly so. It's a beautiful thing.

Holy Cow, Lysol Saves Marriages!

Nope, this isn't a scene from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," it's a warning to wives from February 18, 1928.

We already know that a Lysol douche is the most important tip to pass on to your terrified daughter. But did you also know that it will prevent your husband from having reluctant sex with your sister?
Her husband and her sister are going to the country club dance. She would like to go...but hasn't the energy. She is "too tired" usual.

And, when they were first married, she was always the one who thought of interesting things to do. Now, so much of the time, she is listless, unhappy, bored.

The change came about gradually. But now, without understanding why, they both know that the joy and zest have gone out of their marriage.

These pathetic, "quiet tragedies" are very common, and so often they are unnecessary. They are caused, so often, because the wife is negligent about the delicate matter of personal hygiene--or perhaps because she does not understand the facts about it.
All those years that I spent watching douche advertisements on television, they were always focused on the aesthetic argument: "you stink, darling, so take some of this." Lysol, however, was telling women in 1928 that spraying their insides with watered-down poison would prevent lethargy, perhaps in the way that setting a cat on fire makes it run really fast.

Monday, August 13, 2007

An iTunes Word Search: "Fish"

Ever curious, I found myself searching for songs about "fish." iTunes to the rescue!
  1. 4:50 AM - Go Fishing (Roger Waters)
  2. A Nice Little Fish Business and Making Money (Transglobal Underground)
  3. Around the Fish (Nits)
  4. Blowfish (Doubting Thomas)
  5. The Family and the Fishing Net (Peter Gabriel)
  6. Fish Head (Adrian Belew)
  7. Fish, Chips and Sweat (Funkadelic)
  8. Fishes (Nits)
  9. Fishing (Nurse & Soldier)
  10. Joan Miro's Procession Through the Insides of a Purple Antelope Across a Sea of Tuna Fish (Adrian Belew)
  11. Sukkafish (The Grates)
  12. Swordfish Lame?nt (The Legendary Pink Dots)
  13. Wall Was More Like the Spot than the Fish (Barnabee Log)
I see that some songs ("Go Fishing," "The Family and the Fishing Net") use "fishing" as a back-to-nature/primitive ritual. Both Nits songs ("Around the Fish," "Fishing") are superficially about fish, but mostly about freedom and movement. "Fish, Chips and Sweat" covers the "food" part of fish.

But all the other songs -- the large majority -- use the word "fish" for an alliterative or surreal purpose. I suppose that "fish" is sort of a strange and funny word, in the same way that "duck" might be (we'll try that another time!)

Women and the Cynical Bachelor (Eleven)

Emily Shops Inc. reveals to us the greatest of feminine virtues:
"All women are divided into two classes," said the Cynical Bachelor; "those who have money, and those who are persuading some man to give it to them."

"You are hopelessly Victorian," replied the Man Who Had Been Caught Young and Educated Wisely. "The two types of women are those who know what to do with money and those who do not.

"You have observed the species spendiferous, but your data is incomplete. Follow me into one of those little Salons of Feminine Sophistication, the Emily Shops, and I will show you Woman at her Best.

"Here you will find women who are buyers, not spenders. Here are women supremely happy, for here they have found clothes that mean to them the utter gratification of the greatest of feminine virtues, a Sense of Values."
This from February 18, 1928. These adverts are strangely hypnotic.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Because It's Saturday: Kate Nahi Kat Te Yeh Raat

Jane Bond (a local cafe) recently had a "Bollywood" night. Since then, people have been commenting on the way that Bollywood manages to sneak sex into its films. You could spend a lifetime studying sex in Indian films (and not just in Bollywood...if you want to see more overt raunch, check out some movies from further south), but the symbols and techniques are pretty obvious if you know what you're looking for.

In this clip, however, you don't HAVE to look; it's the most overtly sexual song I've ever seen in a mainstream Bollywood film. It's traditional to portray sex with a "wet sari during a monsoon" dance, but Sridevi's sari is so sheer, her pole grip so obvious, her gyrations so coital, and the final kiss...

Well, let's just say this clip STEAMS. The music (Laxmikant Pyarelal I think?) is just meltingly beautiful...and Sridevi, as always, is otherworldly-gorgeous, and Anil Kapoor is...well, not shockingly unattractive. I had the pleasure of seeing Anil Kapoor sing and dance a few years ago and the man is truly a superstar. Try to ignore his hat.

To set the scene: this is a pivotal moment from the film "Mr. India" (which I reviewed here). Anil Kapoor is a man who can turn himself invisible, and he's used this power to fight crime. Sridevi is a hard-nosed (and very funny) crime reporter who is renting a room from Kapoor. She hates him, but she's fallen in love with his invisible, crime-fighting alter-ego, "Mr. India." Of course she doesn't know that the two of them are the same person.

But none of that matters at the moment. During this song, Mr. India and Sridevi -- after weeks of invisible flirting -- finally...errr...
you'll see.

The Barthathon: "Lost in the Funhouse"

Ahh, homecoming. This was the first Barth book I read so, at the time, I couldn't view it within the context of his other work. Now I think I can, and -- what's more -- I can appreciate how insecure it made me feel about fiction in general (and why).

While Barth's books were growing more self-aware and unconventional, the collection of stories in "Lost in the Funhouse" (1968) allowed him to overtly play with the form and become downright (sometimes annoyingly) postmodern. Temporarily free from the constraints of the novel, he could experiment, not just with chapters or occasional concepts here and there, but with a selection of short stories. A new idea in each story, explored from beginning to end. And maybe with some kind of coherent idea throughout?

Some of the fiction in "Lost in the Funhouse" is straight-forward, showing us what Barth was moving away from (and what he was still in love with). "Night Sea Journey," with its apt, exacting, philosophical nature-of-creation and nature-of-being meditations (with a profound twist) introduces us eventually to Ambrose, who we assume will be a major character in the stories that follow. But after a naturalistic, straight-forward "early years" portrait of his life, things begin to veer off-track.

If, as you read the book, you continue to view "Lost in the Funhouse" as Ambrose's life-cycle, you must assume that most of the subsequent stories are Ambroses' own musings about literature, writing, creation, mythology, and personality. Another interpretation is that the stories themselves become "Lost in the Funhouse," exactly the way Ambrose does in the title story: the biography of Ambrose cannot be completed, especially not in a traditional way. There are too many concerns and too many things that cannot be said.

The story called "Autobiography" is the angst of an autobiography being written (or attempting to write itself). "Title" is an author and a story searching for a form. "Life-Story" is an author, character, and story searching for a plot and for a meaning, where Barth explicitly states what sets him apart from other writers in this genre:
If I'm going to be a fictional character G declared to himself I want to be in a rousing good yarn as they say, not some piece of avant-garde preciousness. I want passion and bravura action in my plot, heroes I can admire, heroines I can love, memorable speeches, colorful accessory characters, poetical language.
Barth doesn't give us many rousing good yarns in this book -- it's an exploration of possibilities and worries, not a "story" in a traditional sense -- but the last two stories bring us adventure in the form of mythology, and they're the first time Barth REALLY wallows in his love of the deeds of Grecian gods and heroes. "Anonymiad" is the minstrel/author, scuttled on an island, composing (and compromising) his epic and sending it out to sea in bottles. Barth loves these bottled story-messages, tiny snatches of a larger fiction that arrive without context (or with a misleading context) which must be interpreted by a distant and random reader who knows nothing of the author. He'll do this again and again in his later work.

The other rousing good yarn he gives us is "Menelaiad," which is SIMULTANEOUSLY a piece of avant-garde preciousness: seven tales embedded within the narrative of each preceeding tale, complete with nested quotes...and nested seers. And since seers can see the future, they are capable of communicating with future listeners, which makes for some very strange (and funny) dialog. That Helen is a participant in three of these dialogs -- at three different times during the events narrated -- makes things particularly weird. Here's a sample:
"'"That's right," Helen said. "I killed him myself, a better man than most."

"'"'"Then Odysseus--" began Eidothea.

"'"'"Then Odysseus disappeared and I was alone with topless Helen. My sword still stood to lop her as she bent over Deiphobus. When he was done dying she rose and with one hand (the other held her waisted sheet) cupped her breast for swording."'"

"'"I dare you!" Helen dared.'

"'Which Helen?' cried Peisistratus.
The very nature of written dialog and recitation comes into question -- since Menelaus was telling the story, in his own voice (obviously), how was it possible that the characters he quoted were actually speaking in his voice? And since one of those characters (Proteus) was a shape-shifter, and Menelaus spoke his lines in his own voice, couldn't it be that Proteus WAS Menelaus, or had at least taken his form?

I hated this story the first time I read it, but I love it now, and I think it's the second-richest part of the entire book. If you need some guidance and background, here's a diagram of the nested dialog, and also a brief history and context of the Menelaus myth. I survived without those aids, however, and if you read carefully, you can too.

The real glory of the book, of course, is the title story. It was my introduction to John Barth and probably the most maddening, significant, and beautiful thing he's ever written. Ambrose (remember him?) gets lost in a funhouse during a trip to Ocean Beach...while everybody else went through the right door, he must have stumbled upon the WRONG door, which, instead of leading him down the simple and prearranged path, has dumped him into the endless corridors and inner workings of the funhouse itself.

This alone is an interesting, gripping, and well-written story...but the author (Ambrose as well?) has ALSO gotten lost, this time in the "funhouse" of story-writing. He shows us the inner workings of his plot, and explains how and why his plot is not entirely functional. Unable to find the exit -- or even the proper, simple path -- he gets lost in extraneous details, superfluous characters, possibilities of much information is too much information? When do all these details become dysfunctional noise? We learn the richness of Ambrose's (and the author's) personalities, but we also come no closer to the exit, the ending. The author, in fact, is practically mourning his ability to see the inner, hidden workings of the story; with an understanding of all these possibilities, how can he ever write a proper tale and finally exit the funhouse?

My thoughts exactly. I don't know the answer, but I do know that when you've finished the book and closed it and put it back on your self, it's finished. An exit of sorts. And you'll be richer for the experience of reading it.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Brave Worker Fears No Warts (or, Small Plague of Frogs)

The company I work for is on the edge of a creek, so we regularly interact with the creek biosphere (which in our case includes “stinky bums,” who appear to be at the top of the food chain except when they’re inebriated, and “kids who throw rocks through our windows during the weekend”).

For this reason we sometimes need to deal with the birds and the beasties, and I have been elected the first-responder for wildlife emergencies. I’ve previously documented the forcible removal of salivating bats and panicked ducklings, and in the past I’ve also been the Chief Cricket Finder.

This week brought something new: I was called to rescue Bufo americanus. He’d decided to sleep on our wheelchair ramp, an especially non-warty structure that is a poor camouflage spot for toads. A nocturnal creature who just wanted to sleep the day right through, he was huddled up in direct sunlight, crouched in a posture meant to preserve water that also, as a bonus, communicates “don’t bother me or I'll urinate on you.”

Strangely, it seems I’m the only person who dares to pick up a toad. Of course nobody likes being pee’d on, but otherwise toads are entirely non-threatening unless you’re a fly or a centipede, which only a few of my co-workers are. Anyway, I’m proud to say that Bufo was returned safely to the creek (with an empty bladder) and neither of us suffered very much.

It also turns out that birds are inspired to crash into the windows near my desk, which some people think is hilarious but I think is really very tragic. I have yet to rescue a bird at my workplace, but I'm anticipating the day, and I have the splints and bandages ready.

Plague of Flies

After the wasps, the flies.

For the last two days I have been plagued with houseflies. Fat ones, skinny ones, they’re flying back and forth between the two large windows on the first floor, and they even penetrated the upper storey last night. Lacking a flyswatter, I’ve been using my telephone bill to kill them, which is far more fun than actually paying the bill...but sort of gross.

This is driving me nuts. My eyesight has become hyper-sensitive to small black things that fly horizontally. I killed about two dozen of them on Wednesday, and that seemed to be the end of it. Then, on Thursday, a whole new swarm appeared, all bright-eyed and bushy-thorax’d. There are more of them today, and when I killed the latest one there were SQUIRMING MAGGOTS inside it. I will not allow these creatures to use my apartment for cheap sex.

My phone bill is a real mess. I have become the fearsome, silent killer of housefly mythology.

I have cleaned everything and removed all household waste, scrubbed the sinks and the stove-top, swept floors, filtered the litterbox. I washed and took out those empty bottles of booze that I tend to collect. I can’t imagine where they could be coming from, unless there’s a hole in one of my screens (but I doubt it). Are they spontaneously generating? Are they the devil?

I grew up on a cow farm so I know how to kill flies. Still, that hasn't stopped me from doing some research online, and I’m delighted by some of the new-fangled, urban methods that people recommend. None of them will inspire me to retire my phone bill (and actually pay it), but chasing flies around with a vacuum cleaner or applauding them at close quarters seems comic.

On top of all this, I notice that a shifty-looking wasp is visiting the elaborate, rustic pipe on the side of my house that the power lines come through. I worry that another nest is developing in there. In a moment of fury I sprayed hairspray and mouse into the cracks around the pipe, before realizing I was messing with a potentially lethal electric charge and revealing powerful secrets of hair-care to unworthy insects. So I followed up by filling the cracks with “DAP Kwik Seal." No self-respecting wasp will be stopped by such a wimpy sealant, but maybe they’ll decide that my apartment is more trouble than it's worth.

Then I'll be safe. Until the locusts come.

Sex and Death on The Avengers

I’m in love with John Steed and Mrs. Emma Peel, but they’re fictional characters so nobody can get jealous.

When I say “fictional,” I really mean it. The '65-'67, ultra-mod period of “The Avengers” had no pretensions about realism, and the crime-fighting duo of Steed and Peel seemed totally aware of this. They traipsed blithely into the deadliest of intrigues as though they were going on vacation, knowing that neither of them would actually be killed and they’d both get equal time to kick butt at the end. When Emma was strapped to a conveyor belt on her way to a buzz-saw, she just couldn’t stop cracking jokes. When Steed barely avoided getting clobbered by yet an other assassin, his biggest concerns were for the position of his hat and the state of the champagne bottle. Even the strange, ritualized tags for the shows ("We're needed!") were a sly wink at the viewers.

This goes far beyond the dapper suaveness of a Bond or a Blaise. Steed and Peel do not live in a world where they can be hurt, let alone killed. They spend their entire lives stopping crime – seemingly for their own enjoyment – but next week’s famous criminals are completely unaware of their activities. Even the baddies tend to view crime as secondary to their personal obsessions: the satisfaction of a good joke, or an appropriately wacky revenge, or a ridiculously elaborate scheme.

So you can’t get tense when you watch The Avengers.

Just as importantly, the sexual dynamic between Steed and Peel is absolutely perfect. When they flirt with each other, they’re flirting for the same reason that they do anything else: because it’s a fun diversion and they enjoy each other’s company. There’s no sexual tension between the two of them and you CERTAINLY can’t imagine them – God forbid – actually having SEX. They're far too classy for that, even when Emma's in her bondage gear.

If you haven't watched it, give it a try. You'll be charmed if you have an ounce of silliness in your bones.

PS: There is an exception to every rule. The occasional Emma Peel-era episode is deadly serious -- "The House That Jack Built," "The Joker" -- and seeing Peel and Steed actually look concerned -- let alone terrified -- is a shock indeed.

I'd Buy Anything By...Banco de Gaia

Toby Marks is the man behind Banco de Gaia, and before he ships his frolicsome house music...he puts a BRAIN inside it.

Sure, his songs are often upbeat and catchy, built with crazily-filtered keyboards and complex, slowly evolving sequences. His samples are unusual, carefully integrated, and usually have a "world music" quality to them. It's hard to listen to Banco de Gaia without NEEDING to dance, and his musicianship shines through when, through some bit of low-key subtlety, your arms are suddenly covered with surprised and uncomprehending goosebumps. A key-change? A particular sound? Sheer bliss?

But it's more than that. He'll release a two-CD set about the Chinese government's aggressive settlement in Tibet, with a totally danceable title track built out of chugging trains. Another album might be surprisingly dark and political, or feature twenty-minute concept songs that are almost devoid of rhythm. One track on an album might be full of Pink Floyd-inspired prog rock sax and live drums, while the next could be a dance anthem sung by one of his stable of female vocalists. When you buy a Banco de Gaia CD you don't know exactly what you'll hear.

He has never achieved stardom and has remained on a small label since 1991 (the beginning), so you won't find many actual "music videos" online...but here's "Last Train to Lhasa," one of his bigger hits, in a dramatically shortened form. Banco de Gaia tracks are often beautiful because of the slow evolution of a theme over eight or nine minutes...this one, sadly, has been compressed by about 50%, but you still get the drift.

You also won't find many of his sadder, more thoughtful, or outright tragic songs online, but this one will bring you's "Not in My Name," which pretty much speaks for itself. WARNING: Unpleasant.

Albums to buy: "The Magical Sounds of Banco de Gaia" (for upbeat songs) and "Igizeh" (for extended moments of crushing depression). There are really no albums to avoid, but I'd put "Big Men Cry" into the "fans only" category, since it's unlike most of his other work...and even more fabulous.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Neo Update

Two weeks ago I said that I was buying an "AlphaSmart Neo" as a productivity aid and an encouragement to write. My Neo deserves a blog entry of its own, and it's only fitting that I compose it in the expected way: sitting on my balcony with this gorgeous little device on my lap.

I was worried it would look childish; it was primarily developed for school kids, after all. Despite the large font used for the keyboard keys, however, it's nicely sedate and can pass for a professional device. There are no dancing pandas on it and it's not even neon.

I've had it for less than 24 hours and I'm already getting something out of it. I can escape all distractions -- and the distracting word processor on my actual computer -- and just type away. Quickly, efficiently. Quietly, with keys that have just enough "click" to them. Free from the tyranny of italics and boldface and page formatting: type, type, return key, tab key. Type, type, return. That's all it does.

I was afraid it would be broken. Other than an initial problem transferring files to it from my Mac (the capital I's became inverted exclamation points), a simple upgrade to the computer software has made for trouble-free usage.

Things it doesn't have, but it should: a method of controlling the key repeat delay, which is far too slow when you're editing text. Sensible keyboard shortcuts would be nice too; they're hackneyed and weird and there are far too many of them to ever remember. And hey, why not a port for flash card storage? Or a clock?

Things it doesn't have, by sensible design: there's no mouse. The screen is big enough for typing, but not quite large enough for effective editing. Surprisingly, nobody has reverse-engineered the operating system and built a Z-Machine interpreter for it.

The only thing that really bothers me is this: when you select text and then hit a key, the selected text doesn't go away unless you hit DELETE or BACKSPACE, which is not the way that typical word processors work (but it's probably a good idea in the absence of an "Undo" function).

None of that is very important. You're supposed to type a draft on the Neo, then send it to your computer for further editing. And if I spend enough time using the navigation and shortcut keys then I'm sure I'll learn the essentials.

So yes, I love this thing. I love its simplicity and its motivating power: when I grin at my Neo it doesn't grin back, and I'm forced to get down to work instead of checking my email. Again.

Now the real question is: what do I call it? I need a name that communicates cool, friendly professionalism, but doesn't imply that I'm ripping off the style of somebody I respect. So "Miss Laurie Anderson" is out.

Now, at my computer, I just plug the Neo into the USB port and click send. Through some sort of keyboard emulation, the text appears here in my blogger interface as though I were typing it. Then I add some links and formatting, and you can almost smell the fresh breeze that this entry was composed in!

A Long Way, Baby?

It's perfectly legal for women to go topless here in Ontario, but for some reason I've never seen it done outside the Toronto Pride parade.

Every woman I've asked about this has replied that going topless would be more trouble than it's worth; there'd be so much staring, and so many negative comments, that the "freedom" of doing it would be worth less than just wearing a top.

Now here's a "Talk of the Town" section from The New Yorker, February 18, 1928:
The progress of the nicotinization of Women has been interesting to watch. Cigarette manufacturers have admitted openly that women smoke; the railroads have provided ladies' smoking-rooms on the more venturesome trains; and even the Old Lady from Dubuque has learned, through hearsay, that smoking occurs in both sexes. It strikes us that the only party not completely emancipated is Woman herself, for we have rarely seen a woman smoke on the street, the reason being--so our cigarette-borrowing lady companions advise us--that it attracts undue attention and the satisfaction isn't worth the embarrassment. To be exact, the only times women smoke in the street are on the sidewalk in front of playhouses during intermission, and the three or four steps they take getting into or out of a cab. We, who have supplied literally tens of thousands of cigarettes to ravenously beautiful smokers, will never be convinced of the reality of their fag-life until we see one of these ladies enjoying a brief siesta on a bench in Madison Square, non-chalantly smoking.

Incidentally, any lady desirous of learning to smoke in the street should know that the finest street in which to practice is the old half-abandoned mall right behind the Library, where a lady may pace and puff, in what travel literature might describe as Old World Splendor.
I'm surprised that women had problems smoking in the late '20s. I'm pretty sure that women were publically smoking by the mid-'30s, though there was probably still some stigma. Nowadays there doesn't seem to be any smoking stigma at all, other than the one that covers both genders.

I suppose that going topless is quite a bit different from smoking, in that it's something disapproved of even in men, and that for women it would be considered an outright sexual activity (which smoking probably wasn't, at least not overtly).

Rotarians of Literature

In the February 11, 1928 edition of The New Yorker, Dorothy Parker gives a priceless description of what she calls "Literary Rotarians." I'm not sure exactly who she's making fun of, but I assume they're up-and-coming authors who are always glad-handing around, desperate for a sale or for a valuable contact. Or maybe they're just "Constant Readers," like herself.
They are all bright and brisk and determinedly young. They skitter from place to place with a nervous quickness that suggests the movements of those little leggy things that you see on the surface of ponds, on hot Summer days. The tips of their noses are ever delicately a-quiver for the scent of news, and their shining eyes are puckered a bit, with the strain of constant peering. Their words are quicker than the ear, and spoken always in syncopation, from their habitually frantic haste to get out the news that the Doran people have tied up with the Doubleday, Page outfit, or that McCall's Magazine has got a new high-pressure editor. Some of them are women, some of them are men. This would indicate that there will probably always be more of them.
I love Dorothy Parker's flippant, oddball style, even when she's describing something I couldn't care less about. "Those little leggy things" sounds SO much better than "water strider."

Update: She's talking about "literary folk," who go to all sorts of literary functions and who consider themselves to be writers -- of novels or of newspaper columns -- but who never write anything that is remembered. Or who never write anything at all.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Sandwich Chore Routine

Few chores can be worked into my life unless they can be paired with something that ISN’T a chore, or unless they are absolutely essential. For instance, I can move objects between rooms because I often walk between the rooms anyway, and if I designate an “ingoing” and “outgoing” spot in each room, and if I can motivate myself to put objects in those spots, I find myself eventually moving books to bookshelves and moving cans to the recycling bin. And since I walk past the grocery store on my way home from work I can buy groceries with a minimum of pain.

There are some things that I can’t find a routine for, generally because they cannot be “paired” with neutral or pleasurable actions. On a good day I can clean up the apartment by listening to music, or wash dishes while lending half an ear to a dull DVD commentary, or hand-wash clothes while listening to an old-time radio program…but I can’t find a pleasurable way to vacuum, clean the litterbox, or do laundry. These are things I only do when it becomes necessary, or when I’m in such a good mood that even HOUSEKEEPING becomes fun.

Which brings me to sandwiches. I have nothing against sandwiches and they’re a cheap lunch option, but bringing them to work implies making them in advance, which I find unpleasant. Plus you can only make so many of them, otherwise they get soggy waiting for you to eat them.

Recently I was bemoaning my inability to find time for nail-care, and Vanilla tactfully pointed out that I could do my nails while watching a movie…and glory of glories, I CAN! What’s more, I’ve been experimenting with MAKING SANDWICHES while watching movies, which is the perfect way to distract yourself if you’re trying to finish watching “Performance,” something you yourself may have dealt with in the past.

I’ve managed to make four sandwiches this way and I’ve enjoyed every single one of them. But I know from experience that it’s easy for me to eventually drop these chores, either due to time constraints or the approach of a Characteristically Bad Blue Funk.

Which brings me to a final problem: I have never gotten the hang of buying sandwich supplies at a deli. I feel strange talking to people at delis and I can never remember how many grams I should buy. People, at various times, have reminded me how many grams equals how many slices of meat or cheese, but when I’m IN the deli I forget this information, and I’m afraid that if I get it wrong I will look foolish and autistic.

My conclusion: there should be a "grams-to-slices" sign for new sandwich-supply-purchasers, and every chore should be pairable with an anti-chore.

The Ambitious Kitchener/Waterloo BusWalk Tour

I’ve lived in Kitchener/Waterloo for over ten years. I’ve tried to explore both cities but I’m severely limited by lack of transportation, and I’m also repelled by the major centers and arteries that I see too much of anyway. If I have to walk along King, Weber, or Erb Street to get somewhere, I'll get bored long before I arrive.

Then it occurred to me: we have over twenty bus lines in this area, but the only one I ever take is line seven. I could take the bus to some out-of-the-way, unexplored part of Kitchener/Waterloo…and then walk back! Not only would I see new factories, parks, and lawn ornaments, but I’d also get the exercise I’ve been sorely lacking!

So that’s my goal. Starting with bus line one, I’m going to take the bus to the furthest point on the route and see what nifty stuff I find there. “Why,” you ask? Answer: it beats eating snack food and trying to watch “Performance.”

PS: Walkable Neighbourhoods

How "walkable" is YOUR neighbourhood? Mine's a respectable 70%. The really nice parks aren't close enough for my taste, but no matter what I want, I can find it within walking distance.

But can I carry a bookcase home on my back? That's another question.

Monday, August 06, 2007

A Myst Hypocrite

After all my bitching last week about virtual reality escapism, I'm wasting my long weekend by playing "Myst IV: Revelation." I bought it years ago but my underpowered video card and out-of-date operating system couldn't handle it. It's still a bit beyond my computer but not so bad that I can't enjoy it (without crashing like it used to).

I love Myst games because of the exploration, and because of the sort-of-logical arrangement of the worlds. You see some pipes and some switches and you dust off your puzzle-solving hat and, next thing you know, you're playing with levers and getting awfully frustrated. Myst is always great when it's logical...but when a puzzle relies on some bizarre visual clue that you may have missed it's just plain frustrating. I HATE walking back and forth endlessly, scouring my cursor over a 360-degree panorama trying to find a clue.

Since the worlds are so big in Myst IV, I'm doing quite a bit of that. But thanks to the built-in help system I am less frustrated than I usually would be.

Myst has never been so beautiful. These ominous weather systems are stunning, and it's fun to just "tap" things...every part of your environment has a sound when you tap it -- paper, wood, metals -- and I like to imagine the poor foley artists: "what do you think THIS shape and type of wood should sound like?"

I've finished the Spire age, and again I have very little patience with trial-and-error math puzzles and obscurely scattered notes. As usual I wonder why the voice acting is so terrible, and why so many Myst games feature villains who scream "No! No! No no no!" I guess if YOUR dad had locked you in an unpopulated Rube Goldberg-type world for decades, YOU'D do a lot of negating as well.

The graphics are stunning. These are games to be savoured. But why am I inside my apartment on such a nice day?

The Barthathon: "The Sot-Weed Factor" (Plus "Giles Goat-Boy")

After meditating on the nature of belief, rationalization, and personality in his first two novels, John Barth's third book -- "The Sot-Weed Factor" (1960) -- takes the "personality" motif to ridiculous lengths. This time around he's concerned with personal history: is a person just the sum of his or her experiences and deeds, and how do you know who a person REALLY is, both in terms of their inner thoughts and their actual physical identity?

It's annoying enough that the 800+ page novel features dozens of characters who interact in extremely complex ways. But then the characters begin to impersonate each other (in the case of Ebenezer Cooke, the protagonist, there are at least 4 different people claiming his identity at various times, sometimes simultaneously) and change their identities and stated motivations every few chapters...and THEN their histories and relationships begin to combine, twist, and alter radically right up until the end.

Keeping track of who is who, and who knows what about who, is like playing a month-long game of "Clue" where Colonel Mustard suddenly turns into Mister Green, discovers he's Miss Scarlet's twin, and unmasks Professor Plum as the REAL Colonel Mustard, who either never existed OR once saved Mrs. White and Mrs. Peacock from a pirate who was actually Mister Green in disguise, without realizing that Mrs. White was his illegitimate daughter. Only more complicated, and consistently written in wordy, hysterical 17th century vernacular.

This is done deliberately. Not only is Barth having fun with the nature of identity, he's also having fun with the "picaresque" style of historical novel, full of ridiculous twists, adventures, and coincidences. Barth can barely restrain winking at the reader now and then as if to say "you know I'm kidding, right?" As Cooke says at one point:
"What a shameless, marvelous dramatist is Life, that daily plots coincidences e'en Chaucer would not dare, and ventures complications too knotty for Boccacce!"
It helps to know a bit of early American history. There really WAS a poem called "The Sot-Weed Factor," written by a very real (but somewhat mysterious) Ebenezer Cooke, and many of the politicians and rogues in the novel were actual wheelers and dealers during the founding and establishment of Maryland. Plus you've got the character of Henry Burlingame, who not only was the lover of both Henry More and Isaac Newton, but also -- during a novel-length search for his origins -- exposes the REAL story of John Smith's adventures, both with Pocahontas and many other native women thanks to the magical eggplant ritual.

While Barth carries over many of his obsessions from his previous two novels, this is the first time he gives us Joseph Campbell's "elementary ideas" of mythology, sending his characters on an archetypal heroic quest. Ebenezer Cooke starts out as an innocent prig who -- through countless tribulations and quests -- finally becomes a "hero" in the end. For this reason, "The Sot-Weed Factor" is readable despite its constant digressions and game-play; you may not care for Ebenezer and Henry's arguments about justice, identity, and virginity, but you DO get a thrill out of their search for scattered documents, pirate abductions, shipwrecks, and attempts to save Maryland from a native/slave uprising. It helps that it's all very, very funny.

The book actually suffers from TOO MUCH plot, though Barth can skillfully hook you back in the nick of time. By page 400 you're tired of Ebenezer's endlessly tangled accidental interactions, but it's at that point when he finally becomes an active character and you begin to LIKE him. By page 600 the revelations are coming fast and furious; long-standing mysteries are solved and you begin to get a sense -- finally -- of a distant but satisfying conclusion.

The main weakness at that point, however, is that he -- NOOOOO! -- introduces NEW characters and NEW mysteries. Seriously, by that point I'd had enough and couldn't handle any more complications. But in the last 100 pages, Barth throws out the theorizing and the preaching and just gives us a good solid resolution. Thank goodness. If there's one thing Barth knows how to do, it's to weave complex themes and rollicking adventure into a single strand.

"The Sot-Weed Factor," imitating the books it's satirizing, is vulgar. Whereas "the" is the most common word in most books, in this case the most common word is "swive." Women are CONSTANTLY being "swived," in more ways than you could ever imagine. Men are repeatedly fouling their trousers. And yet, except for a few harsh scenes with rapinous pirates, it's difficult to be disturbed by the rough sex and the scatology...the 17th century language is so CUTE. "I'faith, I am beshit!"

Anyway, by writing this critically-acclaimed book, Barth had proved his mettle and given us the first of his many "heroic" novels (not to mention the first with substantial nautical terminology). It's a rich, impossibly creative, overly-complex work that is both satire and serious. And when you're done reading it you'll need a long, long rest.

"Giles Goat-Boy" (1966)

I'm sadly skipping this one because I just re-read it last year. It's a "twin" to "The Sot-Weed Factor," once again exploring concepts of identity, civilization, motivation, and heroism, as well as having another ridiculously complicated plot. Unlike "The Sot-Weed Factor" it has aged poorly, partly due to its Cold War subtext but mainly because it sounds a bit hippy-dippy-idealistic to today's jaded ears. It's very much "right on, daddy-o."

Since "Sot-Weed" and "Giles" are acknowledged twin books, here's a strange coincidence: the BACK cover of my copy of "Giles" went missing a long time ago, and the FRONT cover of "Sot-Weed" fell off last week. So they REALLY match up nicely now!

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Films Go Wild, then ABBA Goes Wild

Movie-goers in the late 20s just LOVED to watch pseudo-documentary footage of safaris and expeditions, even more than they loved watching gangsters drive their cars around. On the release of yet another safari film -- "Simba: King of the Beasts" -- the New Yorker film reviewer suddenly cracks on February 4, 1928, and he gives us a wonderful catalog of jungle-film stereotypes:
What with one movie and another I have seen more of Africa than Trader Horn. Victoria Falls is as familiar to me as Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street, thanks to the Fifth Avenue Playhouse, where they will not show pictures of battleships but where they will and do show at least twice a month a picture of Victoria Falls. Thirty-two thousand natives have cavorted before my eyes in honor of the Rain God, or the Sun God, or just for the fun of it. I have seen countless crocodiles slip into every known river in Africa, and then have watched most of them waddle out again. There isn't a monkey in Africa that has not flitted across some of the screens that I have looked at. Hartebeests, wildebeests, and allmenarebeests have shyly rushed across every horizon of the Dark Continent while I have peered at them from theatre seats. As surely as I know my bootlegger's name so surely do I know that a lion can be chased twice without its developing any hard feelings, but that the third time he (or she) will get irritated and eat you up. N'koko incoge ke wa kirria ambwini ngogudema. With the proper incentive I could lower Stanley's time for finding Livingstone by six months, three days, and one minute to change pictures.
I'm unable to find a reference for his "N'koko" native talk, so can only assume it's his transliteration of something he saw on-screen.

Then ABBA Goes Wild

ABBA made a lot of baffling novelty songs in their early years. One that really takes the cake is "What About Livingstone." Agnetha berates some poor people at a newspaper stand who are questioning the worth of the space program, and to teach them a lesson she shrieks out:
What about Livingstone?
What about all those men
Who have sacrificed their lives to lead the way?
Tell me, wasn't it worth the while
Travelling up the Nile?
Putting themselves on the test,
Didn't that help the rest?
Wasn't it worth it then?
What about Livingstone?
We never learn how the people reacted at the newspaper stand, unfortunately, but somehow the song was never a hit.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Loving "What You Waitin' For" by Gwen Stefani

I think it really is one of the best songs ever. The production is overloaded and cluttered, but it’s all so lock-stepped in that 4/4 “electro-clash” way that it doesn’t sound overdone. The keyboards are beautiful and buzzy and they sound ominous and epic, but they're contrasted with a tappy-happy hi-hat.

And then you’ve got Gwen Stefani, who is thoroughly annoying but can REALLY sing. Fun and thoughtful lyrics delivered staccato-style. Yips and hoots and orgasmic breathiness. The song is, basically, an over-emotional “GAH!” with an ugly glacial beat. And it works. Even when she’s obsessing about Japan during the middle.

I love this song and cannot get sick of it. It always makes me feel strong, fun, and ready to frolic.

"Life is short, you're capable."

An iTunes Word Search: "Hair"

Do people actually write songs about "hair?" I did a search on my iPod to find out.
  1. Bad Hair (The Legendary Pink Dots)
  2. Bernice Bobs Her Hair (The Divine Comedy)
  3. Devil's Haircut (Beck)
  4. Hair of the Dog (Bauhaus)
  5. Hairless Domotron (Intercom)
  6. Hairstyles and Attitudes (Timbuk 3)
  7. Hairy Piano (Moodswings)
  8. Hairy Trees (Goldfrapp)
  9. Hanging By His Hair (The Residents)
I'm not sure what "Bad Hair" is all about, good luck figuring out Beck and Goldfrapp...any "hair" in their songs is more likely a stream-of-consciousness piece of beat consciousness than anything even remotely concrete. "Hairless Domotron" and "Hairy Piano" are just titles that sounded nifty, I think. And "Hair of the Dog" is just a hairless metaphor.

Which leaves us with three songs that are ACTUALLY about hair. "Bernice Bobs Her Hair" is about a woman who cuts her hair in order to feel empowered, but instead feels insecure. "Hairstyles and Attitudes" is a typically irreverent Timbuk 3 song that attempts to link...well, hairstyles and attitudes. "Hanging By His Hair" is some sort of biblical reference to somebody who really did -- so we're told -- hang by his hair.

Beating Reality to Death with Your Fantasy

I love to visit secluded creeks and look at their beauty. Forget the shopping carts and beer bottles down there, I mean the slow, uneven erosion of moss-covered banks, discrete spots of sun and shade from the trees, and green-tinted water so clear that you can see the algae waving back and forth underneath.

In those places I hear birds flapping in stereo sound, left to right, and I hear the rustling of squirrels coming down from their nests to drink, and under that I hear the irregular bubbling of a stream that never stops, and suddenly – looking at the still and green-tinted world, listening to these subdued and overlayed noises – I think “wow, this is just like Myst.” And then I feel a little sad for all the hours I spent PLAYING Myst, when I could have been standing by a brook and LIVING the experience instead.

The same thing happens when a thunderstorm is coming, especially now that I can stand on my balcony and see the clouds getting old and black. I look out at the evil skyline and hear the wind hitting my eardrums…and suddenly I’m reminded of “Poltergeist.” It’s view so bizarre that it MUST be a special effect, and the shrill sound of air rushing through tight corners is a sound engineer’s dream. I find myself "removed" from reality briefly, confusing my experience with some movie I haven’t even seen in years.

I think we all do this more than we realize, in an age when our entertainment can so closely mirror our experiences. This is even worse when savvy marketers and producers create out-and-out fantasy and then TELL us that it’s reality, and we end up mimicking the behaviour of somebody in a commercial or a soap opera or a reality TV show. It’s one thing to associate a real-life experience with a simulated recreation; it’s another to embrace a total fabrication and make it "us."

Far be it from me to deride escapism: I play video games, I read books, I watch movies, I listen to music. But I CAN tell the difference between these things and the world around me, the parts of the world that weren't carefully engineered to "make an imprssion." I do my best to understand the differences between the real world – finances, work, friends, social interaction – and their re-created counterparts in entertainment or escapism. I DO know the difference between a babbling brook and a scene from “Myst,” so much so that when I DO feel that I'm becoming disconnected, I worry a bit.

I got particularly worried when I became obsessed with “The Sims” many years ago. I could create my own worlds and my own little humans and live vicariously through them. Then I realized that I was having fun watching SIMULATED human beings doing their dishes, while letting my OWN dishes pile up in the sink. That’s wrong. It’s denial and seductive and a whole bunch of badness that appeals to my most anti-social, desperate, and voyeuristic instincts.

And yet our world seems to be going further in that direction…the much-anticipated “virtual reality” worlds ala “Second Life” are here already, and while I’m sure they are quite social in their own way, they also contain so much fabrication and wish-fulfillment – fake abilities, fake fame, fake appearances – that I can’t help thinking that it’s another step in the direction of a “fake reality,” one that is more convincing than ever.

We humans LOVE to be fakers. Most of us are faking it, most of the time. But we can only go so far in our fakery before somebody calls us on it and we’re forced to come face-to-face with the world and ourselves, and therefore grow and change and adapt and – hopefully – improve, maybe so we can SHED some of our fakery, or at least understand it better. If nobody can call you on your fakery – in fact, if fakery becomes so normalized that your “zwinky” or your “avatar” is more real to others than your actual personality – then I predict that YOU will end up a maladjusted lump, sitting on a virtual reality branch with all the OTHER maladjusted lumps, some of which are probably bots.

I use an assumed name and spend lots of time and money to swap my gender, for goodness sake, so maybe I have no right to criticize. Hey, who am I to say?

Thank Goodness for Missed Experiences

The collapse of this bridge inspires awe. We just don’t expect structures to behave like that. And obviously commuters don’t expect to find themselves suddenly dropping sixty feet into the Mississippi.

I was in Minneapolis in May but I never went over that bridge. This, fortunately, removes me from the ranks of the armchair pundits and prophets. If I want attention, however, I’ll have to change my story so I can become a sort of long-distance victim/expert, the “jeez, good thing I didn’t go there in JULY!” or “I drove over that thing and it seemed so UNSTABLE!” sort of person.

We haven't had a nice vicarious long-distance suffering since the last school shooting.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

You, Sir, are Trash

Lately, as the weather gets even hotter and the cheesy guys start taking off their shirts and sitting on their porches, drinking beer and blasting classic rock on the car radio, I can't help wondering as I always do: what makes a person "trash?"

Granted it's never nice to call somebody "trash," so let me say I reserve the term for people who are consistently bad or obnoxious. Trash, with all of its other attributes, gets in your face and refuses to leave. Trash is awful and thoughtless. Trash has EARNED its name, in spades.

These are the hallmark attributes of "trash" as I see it. You don't need to do all these things to be trash, and people who DON'T qualify as trash sometimes do many of them...but if this sounds like you -- particularly the NASTY stuff -- then you, ma'am, are TRASH.
  • A "hard" look. Trash ages early and poorly, possibly from living a "party" lifestyle and working unhealthy jobs, and eating too much fast food. Bad skin and hair.
  • A resistance to changes in style, if not a downright rebellion against updating the way they looked in junior high. Mullets, rat-tails, bottle-bleaches, "zoomer" pants, all of it cheap and out-of-date.
  • Tinkering with cars. This love of tinkering doesn't extend to other mechanical devices...just cars.
  • A complete lack of subtlety in every aspect of life. Trash doesn't whisper, it yells. Trash doesn't drive a car, it races and squeals. Trash doesn't care about shades of gray.
  • Lack of self-reflection beyond the most base concerns. No analysis of personality or existential angst. Trash falls asleep very quickly at night. Trash knows that the only way to confront a problem is to punch it.
  • Too much alcohol, too many cigarettes, prescription drug abuse.
  • Classic rock and Eminem only, though sometimes the girls like cheesy gothic rock if they're feeling "kinky," and sometimes the boys will dabble in metal. Whatever it is, it must ALWAYS be LOUD. Bonus "trash points" if your speakers are in your windows facing OUTWARD. Hard-of-hearing at a very young age.
  • No work ethic. In fact, a certain pride in not working, yet still drawing a cheque in some way.
  • A certain accent. In southern Ontario the trash accent has blunt consonants and slurry vowels. Try speaking without ever quite closing your mouth. Drop the w's that come at the end of words ("show" becomes "shah"). It's a mixture of northern Ontario and Quebec. When you want to say "garage," say "GAIR-edge" instead of "gurr-AWDGE."
  • Aggression. Love that physical contact. Love that yellin'.
  • Lack of empathy. Trash NEVER worries about what might be annoying to OTHER people...unless they are trying to annoy those people.
  • Spitting on the pavement. Why do you spit on the pavement? I don't know.
  • Ill-chosen, ugly tattoos, fresh off the wall of the tattoo parlour.
One half of my family is trash, but I think a crucial part of their trashiness is due to alcoholism, not to mention a lack of education. They sometimes manage to "get it together," but whenever they spend too much time with other trash (or each other) they invariably drink too much, fight, and get into debt. So hey, I know what I speak of, here.