Thursday, January 31, 2008

Horror Cuisine by Peter Straub

Genre fiction comes in various grades. Most of it is "fast food," tasty and quick but ultimately utilitarian. Some of it is "junk food," total crap that's barely worth reading. In terms of horror I'd put somebody like Stephen King in the first category -- he writes novels whose substance is basically a set of well-disguised plot vehicles -- and in the latter category is Dean R. Koontz, an author of carbon-copy books meant to be read on airplanes.

But there are some writers whose substantial style transcends the genre they write in, and I'm mainly talking about Peter Straub.

Straub's best books are weird human dramas that happen to have horrific elements to them, and for that reason they come across as both rich and confusing. Books like "Ghost Story" and "Shadowland" have enough depth to cover hundreds of trashy horror novels; the relationships and events have a purpose outside of the plot, some scenes simply provide "colour" instead of advancing the story, and inexplicable things happen that are never ultimately explained...just like real life.

The thing is, Straub never seemed to be able to TOTALLY fuse his literary style with the plots of his horror novels, maybe because his heart wasn't entirely there or because such a thing is impossible to mass-market. Straub's books, while wonderful and enriching, are also maddening. They're schizophrenic. They ramble.

When "Floating Dragon" came out in 1983, my sister and I were already avid Straub fans...and both of us HATED the book for reasons we couldn't articulate; it just seemed STUPID, especially the climax, in which the heroes defeat a monster by singing "when the red, red robin goes bob, bob, bobbin' along."

A few weeks ago the book was staring me in the face at a used bookstore, and I decided to give it another chance. I can appreciate it more now, though I still think it's a failure, and at last I can tell you WHY.

Half the book is Straub at his best, giving us a huge cast of multi-dimensional characters whose personalities evolve over time. When the wife-beating character who we've grown to hate finally dies, the book doesn't jump immediately into the expected celebration; instead, the characters sit around and talk about him, wondering what made him tick, gradually exposing the small piece of worthwhile humanity that may have been buried inside. This turns into a meditation on the wife's own character and history, and some thoughts about gender and politics, and suddenly...geez, the dead man stops being "the wife-beater" and becomes an actual PERSON. He has leaped off the page to become somebody we know, even if we still hate him.

Straub does this often in "Floating Dragon," expanding on his characters even after (or ESPECIALLY after) he's killed them the point where you suspect that he cares more about the drama than he does about the killer bats and shape-shifting murderers...and so do us more mature readers, no longer eleven years old.

For a horror novel, "Floating Dragon" contains very few thrills, and the thrills it DOES contain tend to be in Straub's weak "phantasmagorial" style: bleeding earth, shambling corpses, skull-like moons, cackling demons. In his introduction, Straub defends these touches as a "love-letter" to horror (because he had decided to leave the genre), but love-letters still need to make sense. A love-letter that says "Smooch kiss hug sweet mush-mush winsome cuddle forever" does not make a good read, and neither do endless passages about motivationless corpses who creep up on people through pools of imaginary blood.

This book would have made an excellent creepy drama if 50% of it were removed, all the repetetive boo-weirdness-hallucination stuff. Some of the ideas are brilliant -- the "leakers" are particularly creepy -- and only Peter Straub would try to pull off TWO unrelated malevolent forces at once, and then refuse to explain any of it in the end. But ultimately this is like a collection of the worst parts from "The Talisman," where random spooky-boo stuff happens because it's "nightmarish."

One thing I learned in writer's groups is that nobody wants to read a transcription of your nightmares. And that's what "Floating Dragon" feels like.

To make matters worse, Stephen King released "It" a few years later. I don't know if Straub ever accused King of plagiarism, but he might have had a case. Except that "It" was a good book, and "Floating Dragon" wasn't.

PS: The "Red red robin" ending sounds better to me today than it did back then, but it's still pretty silly. In his introduction, Straub calls it a "climactic moment of outright lunacy." I call it "being stuck for an ending."

Yeast Saves the Window-Washers

"My work calls for steady nerves," said Mr. R. Royce Wilson in the September 1, 1928 issue of The New Yorker.
"RECENTLY I formed my own window cleaning business. I work on the job all day, and in the evening attend to the details of management--taking on helpers and getting new business.

"I am also keen on dancing. But pimples and blackheads embarrassed me and I felt below par from stomach trouble.

"My doctor advised Fleischmann's Yeast. It drove all the poison out of my system and completely cleared my skin. I come home with plenty of pep left over for dancing. What's more, the girls seem glad to dance with me."
Mr. Wilson comes across as a bit of a moron in this letter but I can't exactly pinpoint why. Maybe it's because, instead of using a scaffold or suspension rig to wash windows on, he's just hanging out of the sill like a trained monkey.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Strangeness of Cats

I've long been confused by my cat's refusal to sit where I want her to. My mother bought her a luxurious blanket to lie on, but she'll walk right past it in favour of a ratty green towel awaiting sorting.

I used to think she was just being stubborn, but then I noticed that she liked to lie down on my clothing. I discovered that if I put one of my old T-shirts on that luxurious blanket...she'd lie on it!

Maybe this means that my cat is so offended by my odour that she is trying to eradicate it with her own. I wear only unscented deodorant, since I get headaches and an urge to flee when I'm around people who wear obtrusive perfumes, so as a result my clothes might smell too much like me (you know, human).

Or...maybe she loves me? Maybe she likes to sit in places where she can be reminded of me? That's an awful sweet thought, and knowing my cat it's probably true.

From Breeze to Wind to Gale

Now, in the middle of winter, I am sick of wind.

What GOOD has wind ever done? Windpower is not particularly viable, so it hasn't earned its keep in that way, not like water (against which I have nothing). I'm sure it helps scatter pollen and seeds...but isn't that what insects and birds are for? Besides, I'm sure both birds AND insects would be happier without wind. There are a LOT of insects so their opinions do matter.

I've been wracking my brains and all I can think of is: wind blew Columbus to the New World in 1492, but that was very much a bitter-sweet thing.

Has wind been an inspiration to anybody? I've never read "Wind in the Willows," and I've never liked Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." Woodwind instruments don't actually rely on wind at all, and usually when you see the word "wind" it's actually referring to its homonym ("to wind something up") so if anything it CONFUSES language and art.

I'm tired of wind. Can we stop it?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


I've been having an awful time getting to sleep lately. I was at the end of my rope and about to have a nervous breakdown when Tanzi suggested the obvious: maybe my sleeping schedule had simply gotten out of whack and I needed to reset it by conking myself out with medication?

She suggested Gravol and I was willing to try anything.

REAL Gravol -- not the herbal stuff -- is now kept behind the drug store counter, either because it's being abused or because people are stealing it. In front of a bunch of elderly people I admitted that I was using it as a sedative, which is not what Gravol is generally used for, and I felt mighty embarassed until I realized that most of those old people were probably buying erectile aids and extra-strength laxatives.

My only previous Gravol experience was ten years ago, when I was spending a week's vacation with a friend in Toronto. Stricken by the flu the night I arrived, she gave me Gravol so I could get through a shopping trip, and I vividly remember standing in the middle of the Eaton Centre saying "I don't know where I am, I can't see anything properly, please lead me to a safe corner somewhere." It was a strange drug experience that I only now understand is the effect of taking TOO MUCH Gravol, which some folks do for fun. This is probably why it's kept behind the counter.

Anxious to avoid hallucinations, I took only one pill at 9pm last night. By 9:30 I was feeling disconnected and sleepy, but I'd spent the last two weeks feeling that way so I'm not sure how much of that was the Gravol. I got into bed and read until 10pm, by which time I felt ready to sleep. I was calmly unconcerned about the growing numbness in my extremities, ready to sacrifice a finger or a toe for a good night's sleep. I dozed off immediately and slept like a total log, not dreaming, until 5am when I woke up for a bathroom break.

As though compensating for the seven hours without dreams, my last two hours of sleep were jam-packed with bizarre, vivid imagery. By 7:30am I was fully awake, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to go to work with all of my toes intact.

I feel much better today and hopefully this has done the trick. As for the efficiency of Gravol, either it really does give you a powerful drowse-on or I suffered one heck of a placebo effect. I hadn't gambled on the hand-and-foot pins-and-needles, but my circulation is worse than normal so most people shouldn't have a problem with it. Still, I have to say that if you're going to take it, see your doctor and don't blame me if you die.

Thanks, Tanzi!

"Playing the Game" Is Now Online!


Last summer I took part in the filming of Steve Hutton's latest project, a Web-TV series of interrelated shorts called "Playing the Game." After meticulous post-production the show is now going online with a new episode available every week.

You can see high-quality versions of the first two episodes here.

To put things into honest perspective, I'm only in episode seven ("Wolf") and I have a non-speaking role...though nobody speaks in that particular episode anyway (except for the narrator). It was a particularly bizarre shoot and I can't wait to see how it turns out!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Fat Ankles Again

Last year I blogged about a 1920s hosiery company who constantly poked fun at the "fat ankles" of famous statues.

It seemed obvious to me that statues generally HAD to have fat ankles to prevent them from falling over, but in any case it was a silly thing meant to highlight the "ankle slenderizing" designs of the latest stockings; a desperate advertising meme and nothing more.

Now, one year later in real time (and almost three years in "New Yorker time," September 1st, 1928), it's the editors making the jibes:
"Across the street from Sherman and his golden horse is a good statue--the lady in the fountain. It is not the best statue we have ever seen (the lady has fat ankles..."
I'm AMAZED that people ever noticed the ankles on statues. I'm even MORE amazed that intelligent people thought that statues should physically conform to real human bodies. It truly is no lie that folks WERE obsessed with ankles in the 1920s.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Toss and Turn

Sleep has always been difficult for me at the best of times, but I go through phases when it's downright maddening. Some nights I'll lie there for two hours or more and still be wide awake.

I've learned that there is a physical "sleep zone" that I need to reach. In this zone I feel mentally drowsy and comfortable, the real world starts to retreat, the images in my head take on a hazy quality. Once I'm in that spot I can happily congratulate myself and be unconscious in a few minutes.

GETTING to that zone has always been the trouble, because there are "things" in the way. Sometimes these things are physical -- like a high energy level, an uncomfortable sleeping area, or blood sugar that's out of whack. But most of the time the obstacle is a mental one. I have "things on my mind" and my mind won't let them go without a fight.

One technique I've used for a long time is to let each mental "thing" appear in front of my eyes -- like a future task that's worrying me or an activity I'm looking forward to -- and then I mentally burn them in a quick flash that instantly disappears. If I can do this fast, for all those things, then there are no mental left-overs. But the difficulty is that the very mental process of imagining these flashes is ANOTHER "thing," and I must make sure not to dwell upon it in any way: just let the flash happen and instantly forget it happened.

When that doesn't work I try something I discovered last year: I visualize a bright white "square wave" -- a blocky line with a few 90-degree angles in it -- accompanied by a deafening, clean, unmusical tone. My brain instantly starts to whip around to concentrate on those other things," and each time it starts to grasp one I intensify the tone and bring the square wave in again. This works for more bothersome "things" but is easy to get tired of...if it doesn't work after ten minutes or so it just won't work at all.

For the past two weeks I've had A LOT of trouble sleeping, because I'm experiencing this burning creative urge: a need to devise new projects and consider old projects. I'll go to bed and instantly start writing blog entries in my head, or considering musical possibilities, or sketching out storyboards. When this happens I start to lose more and more sleep, which is ironic because if I actually GOT enough sleep I'd have the energy to follow THROUGH with all those plans.

All these visualization things I've mentioned are ways of turning abstract mental "things" into nearly physical objects, because physical objects can be destroyed or ignored or -- even better -- turned off.

So now, in this time of sleep-crisis, I've been trying out a new technique. I imagine a little cave full of filmstrip machines -- remember those? -- and each one is showing a different basic TYPE of "thing." Rather than projecting SPECIFIC things, like "I can't believe I said that thing to so-and-so last year" -- as I've always done before -- I now lump all those "things" into categories -- like "regrets," for instance. I let them play for a while and then, one-by-one, turn the filmstrip machines off until finally the cave is dark.

Besides "regrets" I commonly have an "anticipated worry" machine, and a "reruns" machine for all those times I obsessively re-run recent events in my head. I have a "chores" machine devoted to the things I haven't done yet (like clean out the litterbox) and a "work" machine for stuff I've neglected at work. I have a "self worries" machine for agonizing about my own shortcomings and another machine for "grudges."

Not all of them are negative. There's a "creativity" machine for all the projects I'm working on, and an occasionally-active "state of the world" machine that speaks for itself. There's one for "worrying about others" and one for "remembering neat things," and of course a "song in my head" machine for those pop songs that just won't let me sleep.

The one problem I've had with this new routine is that, as I'm walking around turning off these machines, I'm often thinking "I'll need to blog about this activity I'm doing," which is a sort of inconceivable meta-machine that can't be conceptualized and can only be ignored. Now that I HAVE blogged about it, I hope that hurdle can be overcome and that I'll sleep like the dead tonight.

ZAngband, My Guilty Pleasure

Every few years I dust off the old Roguelike and spend some time obsessively playing it. For the last eight years my personal favourite has been ZAngband, and I've spent a week joyfully hacking away at it.

What's so nice about a Roguelike? You can play it on any platform. The vibrant development base makes for frequent updates and tweaks. With no attention paid to spiffy graphics -- as you can see above -- all the code can go toward providing balance, interest, and surprise. At the best of times it's like playing randomized chess. At its worst it's an endless tapping out of the same command codes ("m4b*t, m4b*t, m4b*t...").

The BEST thing about playing a Roguelike, though, is that it provides a good opportunity to just sit and listen to a CD at the same time. Each time I sit down to play the game, I put in a CD I haven't properly listened to and then play along with the CD. When the CD's over I force myself to quit the game, because nothing kills your character like general game fatigue.

Another nice thing about it is the "code of game ethics" which states that when your character dies...that's it. Game over. You don't do anything tricky -- like back up your save file -- to resurrect it. This leads to a lot of reflection during the game and a reduction of potentially suicidal choices. It also leads to intense frustration when eight hours of your life go down the toiled due to "Yet Another Stupid Death."

What's so nice about ZAngband? It's the only Roguelike with a huge randomized wilderness full of towns, ruins, and themed dungeons. Its magic system is unparalleled. It also has a good sense of humour, having strayed from the traditional Tolkein influences to bring us Robin Hood and -- jeez -- Barney the chaos-spewing dinosaur.

ZAngband has so many character options -- race, class, magic types -- that it can be a bit daunting to the beginner. So I have only one (nerdy) thing to say: Mindflayer ranger with Death magic. You'll spend the first hour or so running away from everything, but once you hit your stride...

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Simple Things That Make Me Happy, Off The Top of My Head

  1. Strangers who smile and nod when they walk past you.
  2. Suddenly remembering something that I've spent hours trying to remember.
  3. A comfortable chair, an afghan, a book, a lap-cat.
  4. Creating something and deciding that "it is good." Extra happiness if other people say "it's good" too.
  5. Drivers who pull too far ahead into the intersection, then thoughtfully back up to let me walk past.
  6. Untroubled sleep.
  7. Clothing that fits perfectly.
  8. The anticipation of starting a new project which I fully understand.
  9. A complete collection of something.
  10. Animals doing whatever it is they do.
  11. Being part of an efficient process.
  12. A big, shared Indian meal.
  13. Anticipating free time, with many options for filling it.
  14. Meeting strangers in a strange city.
  15. Looking around a corner and seeing something I hadn't expected.
  16. Epiphanies.
  17. That drunken state when everybody seems perfectly wonderful, including myself.
  18. An epic thunderstorm.
  19. Easy face-to-face conversation.
  20. Halva.

I'd Buy Anything By...The Fall

I've spent a significant portion of my life listening to most of these "I'd Buy Anything" bands, but a few of them are recent discoveries. Witness "The Fall."

During my early years at university I used to hang around with an annoying guy called Monkeyboy, and he LOVED The Fall. At least, he loved the IDEA of The Fall -- an esoteric British band fronted by a hateful man who ended most of his sentences with an "-uh" sound -- and Monkeyboy used to play a handful of their songs on his CKMS radio show.

The fact that Monkeyboy liked the band was enough of a reason for me to DISLIKE them, so I never bothered to follow up in later years. But in the back of my head I was aware of this crazy cult group -- essentially just one man with a revolving roster of amazing musicians -- chugging away through the years, coming in and out of favour, following surprise hit singles with uncompromisingly unfriendly NON-hit singles...always different and yet always still the same.

So last year I bought a random used CD by The Fall -- "Extricate" -- and I couldn't believe my ears. Smith's ballsy vocals do a weird hopscotch around poetry, ranting, and singing. Sometimes he makes sense and sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes he's sharp and sometimes he's a mushy mess. And in the background are some of the most disciplined musicians around, held tightly down to repetitive catchy hooks and tinkles.

Every month I try to buy another CD from their extensive history, and every month I'm delighted all over again. I have yet to find an era of the band that I don't like.

So first, here's The Fall in 1981 performing "Totally Wired" as a brash post-punk band. Note the lack of anything resembling "a solo," except for one of the oddest bass moments around. Also note the video introduction by Brix, future Fall guitarist who would inspire the band's most popular music.

In the "what the heck were they doing?" category, here's a 1988 live performance of "Big New Prinz," with Brix on rhythm guitar and wearing clothes that are...well, I don't know. This song, I think, is the distilled essence of The Fall: off-kilter, slightly shabby, high-spirited, confusing, and totally repetitious. Note the awkward host at the end. I love it.

There's certainly a point when Mark E. Smith's vocals begin to...well, MUSH. He was a speed-freak during the '80s and I suspect that he eventually just became an alcoholic. Mr. Smith doesn't look so good nowadays and he is almost unintelligible, but The Fall are very much still in operation and they still sound good.

Must-have albums? There are SO MANY of them, but I'd put "The Infotainment Scan" at the top of my's the highpoint of their angry electronic period, full of unconventional keyboards and techno-crashing. Some others would recommend "Hex Enduction Hour" for the noisy two-drummers period or "This Nation's Saving Grace" for Brix-friendly rockabilly. Albums to avoid? I have yet to hear a bad one, but the more recent work has a sludginess to it that is missing something. For fans only: the huge amount of live stuff, and the 4-CD set of John Peel sessions.

More Vaudeville Cats, Plus Special JJ Synchronicity Bonus!

I've just finished Douglas Gilbert's "American Vaudeville." It really is an exceptional book. Sloppy, yes, full of asides and written almost like a journal, but if you pay close attention you get a real sense of the interconnectedness of vaudeville; the stage hands, the performers, the booking agents, the theatre chain owners, the critics.

But of course you want to hear about the vaudeville cats.
The domestic feline--the writer, who adores them, regrets to say--never graduated with high honors in vaudeville although there were a number of successful cat acts. Of course, these cats are not dangerous, but they are unreliable, merely because they are supreme individualists, preferring to do the thing they want at the time they want to do it; which should be understandable...

Yet even [Tetchow] could get from his pets, for indeed they were that, but one trick each. His star performer was a tom who ran from the wings, scrambled up a rope hanging from the proscenium arch, got into a basket attached to a parachute and came floating down to the stage.
Heck, my cat could do that. Or at least she would if there was a toilet up there to drink out of.
It may be unnecessary to say that goats are difficult to work with and more unreliable than cats.
So no goats in baskets.

Special synchronicity bonus for reader jj! He mentioned this act last week, and what did I find on page 247?
Willie [Hammerstein] combed the museums and side shows for his freaks. In Philadelphia he found the wonderful Sober Sue...A number of the best comics of the period tried [to make her laugh]--Sam Bernard, Willie Collier, Eddie Leonard, Louis Mann. All failed. But the customers kept coming, not to see Sober Sue, but the comedians who (without salary) were contributing thousands of dollars in prestige and box-office take... When the engagement terminated it was discovered that her facial muscles were paralyzed and it was physically impossible for her to laugh.
Apparently Sober Sue suffered from the very odd Mobius syndrome, and her real name was Susan Kelly.

Friday, January 25, 2008


On Saturday night a friend walked into Club Abstract with her scarf over her nose. I said "It's cold out, isn't it?" and she shook her head and mumbled a reply. I leaned in close and said "Pardon?" She pulled down her scarf and yelled "No, I've got STREP THROAT!"

This was basically like spraying infected phlegm directly on my tonsils. No amount of recoiling or huffing or puffing would change the fact that I'd gotten a huge whiff of bacteria in my face, and two days later I was down with the flu, exhausted and feverish, missing appointments and neglecting my work.

Lying on the couch, dazed and with all of my immediate responsibilities piling up around me, I imagined what my brains would look like if I were -- just for example -- shot in the head. I figured my brains would be so full of infected gook that they would slowly crawl away from me. This is because I've been watching all those horror movies, and also because I tend to get a bit pessimistic when I'm ill.

I suddenly remembered something my father had told me a long time ago. He said that if everybody would stay isolated for a week, the flu would be eradicated...anybody who had it would manage to kill it, and it wouldn't be able to travel to anybody else. This was quite an awe-inspiring thought when I was younger but not so much now, especially since most flu strains can survive on doorknobs for ninety days (why they hang around on doorknobs I don't know).

So assuming we could all stay isolated for NINETY days...what about people who have medical emergencies during that period? Or the people who work at essential services, maintaining hydro and telephones? What about people who live in one-room apartments with a bunch of children? What about the flu strains that cross species barriers, or strains that mutate naturally while within a host?

No answers there, but this got me wondering about the "flu season" in general, and why we tend to get the flu during the winter time. My mother always said it was because we didn't "bundle up" enough outside, therefore compromising our immune systems. But it turns out that mom isn't always right, and that nobody really knows why the flu travels so well in the winter.

In any case, this will be a weekend for much sleep and for catching up on the things I should have done, and also for mourning the fingernail I broke at the grocery store today. Please, I implore you: go out and do something exciting, and then tell me that you had a terrible time so I won't be jealous.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Drag Show: "Lithium"

It suddenly occurred to me: I should perform Ali Milner's version of "Lithium" by Nirvana! I got all excited about this and was halfway through the storyboard before my worst suspicions were realized: like most Nirvana songs, "Lithium" makes no conventional sense and doesn't tell a story, even though it SOUNDS like it does.

And I'm not exactly an "I love you, I kill you" type of person.

So somehow the project morphed into a "crazy housewife" story, and here are the results:

There were supposed to be candles all through the video but my smoke alarm went INSANE and I had to blow them all out. I also experimented with the "low light" setting during the kitchen clips, since my kitchen light is annoyingly dim. I now think of this camera feature as the "turn your kitchen yellow" setting.

A lyric in the song refers to "broken mirrors," and just before I left for Club Abstract that night I broke a REAL mirror, thinking it was made out of cheap metal instead of glass. Judging by the way things turned out at the bar I guess I'll suffer seven years of guys who fart on the dancefloor.

Liveblogging "Willie Wonka"

Not really, though I AM enjoying it.

I wonder where Johnny Depp got the idea for his Willie Wonka characterization: a cross between a midwestern drag queen hostess and Eric Idle's "old lady" routine from "The Meaning of Life."

Yaaargh, Synchronicity! "Diversey"

In May of last year I was stuck in a hotel room with MacKinlay Kantor's book "Diversey," and it annoyed me so much that I made a beeline to Barnes & Noble to ask for something "happy."

I mentioned this in the blog and Eric replied in the comments, explaining that Kantor was actually a well-resepected author at one time. I found that hard to believe, but since Eric was a professor (and actually spent a great deal of time riding busses on Diversey street) I bowed to his wisdom and assumed that this novel was just a rare moment of badness for Kantor.

But what do I find in the August 18, 1928 New Yorker book review section?
ANOTHER book against which insomniacs are warned by the publishers with considerable justification is MacKinlay Kantor's "Diversey," based on the activities of Chicago's gangsters and their corollary network of machine guns, gin-crazed girl friends, and crooked politics...
That makes it sound a lot more interesting than I remember it, but I suppose I'll have to go back and try to read it again. The reviewer genuinely likes the book, and though the section is no longer written by Dorothy Parker, he-or-she seems to have pretty good taste.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

More Quirky Vaudeville Anecdotes

I'm having so much fun re-reading Douglas Gilbert's "American Vaudeville." His anecdotes about popular variety acts are priceless and rapid fire. I can't vouch for his accuracy -- heck, he was there and I wasn't -- but vaudeville was so exaggerated to begin with that you can forgive the occasional over-the-top description.

Here are a few more of my favourite moments in the book. First off, he reprints a wonderfully nasty song by Dan Collyer called "Tommy, Don't Wriggle the Baby."
Now I am the oldest one of a family numbering twenty.
At the tender age of one begun my troubles of which I had plenty.
The children I had to nurse, with an infant's nursery bottle.
And when they were twins, upon my pins!--the infants I'd like to throttle!

Tommy don't wriggle the baby.
Please don't tickle the baby.
Be pertickeler, perpendickeler
Always carry the child.
I think this would be a good companion song to the Talking Heads' "Stay Up Late."

I'm intrigued by the short chapter regarding Charlie Case, who Gilbert describes as "a natural Negro, a gentle neurotic (strange combination!)". Ahem. The transcription of one of Case's routines is unlike any vaudeville act I've heard before, so deadpan in its weirdness. It has a touch of the Marx Brothers to it but is so toned down...
Father was a peculiar man. Us children didn't understand him. Mother understood him. Mother could always tell when father'd been drinking. We couldn't tell. We used to think he was dead.
In the "synchronicity" department, just a few weeks ago I blogged about the practice of "paying the angles" on 1920s radio. This was just as big a problem in vaudeville, and Gilbert knows who to blame.
Lottie Gilson...almost ruined her art with an innovation that is still a nuisance in night clubs and on the radio--song plugging. She was the first of the pluggers, singing for an extra fee the most awful junk of the one-finger Tin-Pan Alley boys...
For an interesting article about the birth of the "hit song," see this parlor songs page.

A Song for 2007

Occasionally a dancefloor song comes along that sends me into complete rapture. I can't get enough of it. It gives me goosebumps, tingles, and dancey-feet.

2007's song is definitely Goldfrapp's "Ride a White Horse." It is a finely-crafted piece of music from start to finish; every sound is carefully constructed, every idea is fully-fleshed. I don't think that any song has ever made me feel so GOOD.

When it came time to make the video, however, somebody decided to subvert the track with ugly, grotesque visuals. Okay, I see the point, but I'd much rather have a video that actually does the song justice. And one with the original album mix ("You're so good, you're so good, you're so good...!")

But since wishes don't always come true I'm stuck with this horrorshow. If you squint your eyes and just listen to the music you might experience one fraction of the joy that I experience. This song is everything I love. Mwuah, Goldfrapp!


I started volunteering at CKMS in 1994, and I've continued to be a part of the station since then. I like to think that my skills improved during that period; the "She-Devils On Heels" chat show was an exceptional program, I think, and my "Repeater" old-time radio retrospective program was -- at the very least -- entertaining.

But now the Federation of Students has voted for a referendum: do students want to stop paying the $5.50 fee to keep the station running? If they vote no, CKMS will have to shut down; they will no longer be able to afford to operate.

Even back when I was a student, it was obvious that most of the student body DID NOT like CKMS. They thought it was amateurish and esoteric, which it tended to be. There were some excellent shows on the air, but for the most part it was pretty masturbatory, and sometimes downright awful.

So it's no surprise that a vocal "shut down CKMS" group arises every few years: these people hate the "alternative" designation of the station, they complain it doesn't represent students as a whole; they say it's difficult to pick up on the radio and that it isn't visible enough.

Strangely, about five years ago, these sorts of complaints prompted a radical reorganization of the station. A new Station Manager was hired and a hierarchy was developed. The fundamentals of CKMS changed as it began to slouch out of obscurity and into a new professionalism.

You see, previously it sort of hid away...the previous staff members were aware of their tenuous position, and they did not want to compromise. The new members of the staff want very much to raise the station's profile -- that's why they were hired -- but all of us knew the danger: if more students were aware of CKMS, more of them WOULD NOT LIKE IT.

Because CKMS' mandate from the CRTC is to be a telecommunications alternative. They can't be a station that plays popular music. It also doesn't help that the station is largely volunteer, and that the people most interested in it tend to be community members instead of students. And it REALLY doesn't help that there are some really bad programs on the air.

When I was on the board of directors, we faced a very serious situation where -- once again, but moreso -- an attempt was made to take over the station (in our case by changing the voting procedure). A mix of potentially well-meaning people and at least one person desperately obsessed with political procedure staged an odd sort of coup. The rest of us -- who were there because we wanted the station to succeed -- sat there dumbfounded as we were told "the students don't like you, you don't represent them, you're not visible enough." But that was the POINT of the new management: to get more students involved, to raise the station's profile, to ultimately GROW.

So now that the referendum is approaching -- headed partially by a former board member, who we always suspected was in it for a purpose of his own -- the students will decide whether or not the station continues.

I'm of two minds about this: if the students don't like it, obviously no amount of good-will will get them involved. They have been invited in, but unless they adhere to the CRTC's "alternative programming" designation they will not be able to change things. And the majority of students are not interested in alternative programming.

So they have a right, as a group, to make this decision.

But you see, when I was a student, I paid for a LOT of stuff I didn't care about. I paid money every year for an expanded Student Life Centre, even though I knew it wouldn't be finished until after I left. My fees went towards all sorts of things that I wasn't involved in. The entire Physical Activities Complex could have fallen into a pit and I wouldn't have noticed...but the University spent a ton of my money promoting squash and hockey and swimming...

I viewed my University career as being part of a community. I didn't get involved very often, but I was still happy that stuff was going on even if I WASN'T INVOLVED IN IT. That's what communities are like, and that's what you pay for. It's vibrancy. It's choice.

So I've never understood this idea that "if I don't take part in it, I won't support it in any way." I think that's selfish. A university, in my opinion, should not take that attitude. It leads to stagnation, defunding, and total dullness.

If CKMS' funding is cut off, I'll understand the reasoning behind it. But it doesn't bode well. It means that people are only looking after their own interests. The world won't end because of that but it will still make me sad.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Lexicon MX300

Today, on a lunch-hour whim, I committed myself to buying a multi-effects processor. The one I settled on was the Lexicon MX300. I could only get sparse information about the other options in the store, but the MX300 seemed to be the most flexible, so I chose it.

It was also the highest priced. As I endured the inevitable Long & McQuade cashier wait (during which the people ahead of me always bather to the salespeople about their exceptional musical virtuosity) I was inches away from chickening out...I don't really NEED an effects processor, and I could put that money towards something more necessary...

So imagine my surprise that, when we rang it in, the unit was actually MARKED DOWN a hundred dollars from the list price. Imagine the surprise of the cashier as well. It was obviously "a sign."

My previous multi-effects processor was an ART which -- I discovered later -- was notorious for flakiness and dull sound. As for the flakiness, yes, after half an hour it would start to show impossible numbers on its display and then would shut down with an eardrum-shattering squeal. That squeal turns up in a lot of the music I recorded with it.

I've only had the Lexicon for a few hours so I can't vouch for its reliability, but I can certainly say this: all reverbs are NOT created equal, and the MX300 sounds absolutely SUBLIME. I didn't know what I was missing until now. It has a complexity of sound to it that I never knew was possible, leagues beyond the ART's relative flatness.

Granted, the ART could chain more than two effects together (depending on the complexity of the effects themselves), but the MX300 effects are so rich that you really don't NEED to use more than two.

I wanted knobs that I could twiddle, and the MX300 has twiddlable knobs. Although they turn with a slight clickiness, changes to all the effects are acceptably smooth (not as smooth as my DOD R-910 but that's a very different beast). The tape delay is super-cool and the ability to set tempo in BPMs is an unexpected godsend. And the Leslie rotor? Holy cow.

You can control the Lexicon with your long as you have OSX 10.4.x. Sometimes you can take that stipulation with a grain of salt, but not in this uses the CoreAudioKit.framework. So us OSX 10.3.9 users are out of luck. It will not work. Sigh.

Otherwise, though, it seems to be a fantastic unit and I'm sure we have many happy hours ahead of us.

The Yeast Parade Goes On

As usual, Yeast is turning the children into poop-machines:
"WHEN BENNIE was in such poor health, we didn't feel like taking week-end drives to any nearby beaches.

"But now that he is rid of his chronic constipation--thanks to Fleischmann's Yeast--he is a different boy--no longer listless and fretful...Since giving him Yeast he has had his first natural elimination in three months!"

Mrs. Benjamin E. Fielder
Now, when they go to the beach, I bet they stay really close to that bucket.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Public Meetings

I have no illusions that council members and boards of directors don't get up to all sorts of nasty shenanigans behind the scenes, but I'd like to focus on the most draining aspect of board work: dealing with crazy people who come to the meetings.

I was part of the board for a local organization for over a year, and while we managed to get a lot done, by far the majority of our time was spent dealing with frivolous people whose mental state ranged from "deluded" to "clueless" to "outright insane."

These folks would often criticize us as a whole for not getting things done, and then they'd bury us under yet another ridiculous complaint or appeal that needed to be treated delicately.

It didn't help that we were timid and inexperienced -- we got involved because we liked the organization, not because we were planning on making a living out of it -- but it's a sad fact that there are few ways of getting a destructive and disruptive person out of a meeting. Which is surprising because they so often plan on attending.

Anyway, I accidentally stumbled across the train-wreck which is the Scranton, Pennsylvania city council meeting. Every week they are accosted by crazy folks, many of who attend every meeting. It doesn't help that the meetings are televised and that it's become a sad sort of reality TV phenomenon. Now the crazy people are becoming celebrities. And one of the council members is notoriously short-tempered and nasty as well.

Maybe EVERYBODY knows about these meetings -- I've heard something about them being referenced in the American version of The Office -- or maybe they're a little Scranton secret. But for your dubious enjoyment, here's a typical segment. When I watch it, I instantly flash back to annual general meetings when we'd sit, dumbfounded, as a guy like this tried to browbeat us.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Life Was Cheap For the Vaudeville Felines (plus "socks")

In his rather informal book "American Vaudeville," author Douglas Gilbert often goes off on wild tangents, describing the long-lost vaudeville routines that he obviously pines for. He takes real delight in remembering the more bizarre acts for us, and I take a real delight in reading about them:
A performer whose name nobody can recall had an act called "The Cat Piano." It comprised a number of live cats confined in narrow boxes with wire netting on the front ends. Artificial tails extended from the rear. This performer was a marvelous cat imitator and miaowed the "Miserere" by pulling the cats' tails. Spits, snarls, and plaintive mews added to the effect of the back-fence serenade.
He also mentions "Nelson's Boxing Cats" in his huge list of standard acts from 1880 to 1930, sadly with no further details.

Here's another passage that I love:
Most of the museums pasted warnings in dressing rooms that the words "slob," "sucker," "damn," "hell," and "socks" were forbidden. The ban on "socks" may seem unreasonable today [1940] but in the eighties crude jests--"stronger than father's socks," or "I threw my socks at the wall and they stuck"--were common gags.
Next time I'm at a party I'll be sure to try out some of those sock gags. "The wine has a pungent bouquet...stronger than father's socks!"

Even More Modesty

Sometimes my nightly ritual involves taking a few more chunks out of the 10,183 Modesty Blaise strips, thoughtfully being reprinted by Titan Books. I've followed the stories from 1963 to 1969, and if anything they're getting better.

How do you evaluate a comic strip? Here you have two innovative, creative, and driven elements -- Jim Holdaway's stark line-work and Peter O'Donnell's endless parade of tangled plots and bizarre villains -- who meshed together perfectly. They knew each other well and, just as importantly, they knew the characters.

I'm not a fan of mystery-thrillers by any means, but O'Donnell has me permanently hooked. Far from being repetitive, each story has a new angle that puts Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin to the test. The fact that he could cram so much into a daily three-panel strip -- and make it engrossing even when collected into books -- is baffling to me.

Simultaneously ahead of its time and the last of its kind, it's cinematic and epic, funny and terrifying, and ultimately touching. I'm sad it's all over, but I still have 31 more years of strips to read.

PS: Peter O'Donnell says that "The Hell Makers" is one of his favourites, and I agree. Willie is kidnapped and tortured with a brain-damaging psychedelic drug, so Modesty teams up with a dusty old cowpoke and his trained eagles. And that's just the beginning...

Empowering the Servile Employee

It goes without saying that serving customers at Tim Horton's was not an empowering job.

I worked there for five years between 1994 and 1999, and while the owners were fantastic and we usually had good managers, workers, and customers, a shift couldn't go by without some jerk trying to "put you in your place" (meaning, make you feel bad and inferior).

As a result we felt justified in empowering ourselves in passive-aggressive ways. The employee motto was "the customers are always right...except when they are wrong" and it was open season on evil, obnoxious, and greedy people.

I now present portraits of each type of person, and techniques of empowering yourself when confronted by them.

The evil people behaved with undisguised maliciousness. They'd come in angry about something that had happened to them at work, and they'd instantly try to mess you up by being intimidating or deliberately confusing. They wanted to find something to yell at you about, and if you weren't going to screw up accidentally they'd make sure you did it in some other way.

They'd order something, then say that they didn't order it. They'd claim that you shortchanged them, even though you didn't. They'd mumble their orders, then scream at you when you asked them to speak up. They'd watch you like a hawk and question your every move: "Did you wash your hands? When were the donuts made? I said I DID want a tray, aren't you listening to me? Do you want me to call your boss and complain about you?"

What set the evil people apart from the simply anal people was the smirk on their faces: they made sure that you knew that they were out to get you, because they knew you couldn't call them on it.

But the perfect weapon against these people was an equally evil smirk in response. Just as you couldn''t refuse to serve them because they were smirking, THEY couldn't complain that you were smirking BACK. I followed their orders, and I was always polite, but I'd SMIRK at them in the most obnoxious way, and they HATED that. I'm sure it spoiled all their fun.

Plus, you had nothing to fear from such people: if you were a good employee, you knew your manager wouldn't give such complaints a second thought. So when the evil customers pulled out their trump card -- "I'm going to talk to your manager" -- I'd always reply "She'll be in tomorrow at you want me to write down our store number for you?"

Obnoxious customers behaved as though they were part of a performance called "entertaining everybody at Tim Horton's." They'd crack annoying jokes or ask you "funny questions." They'd put on a big show of deciding what to order. What they considered to be entertainment was what other people called "a waste of time."

There was a kid who used to come in who we called "The Orange Drink Kid." He'd always say he wanted an "orange drink," and when you tried to clarify -- "you want a peach drink, right?" -- he'd say "no, I want whatever's orange-coloured." He would pick out his twenty timbits one at a time, giving a running commentary on each decision. He'd ask for HALF of a timbit, or say stuff like "How many can I get for 83.25 cents?"

Obnoxious customers weren't just annoying to the staff, they were annoying to EVERYBODY. So you could very easily be rude to them and refuse to put up with their crap. It helped that they tended to do the same routine every time, so you could be prepared: "We don't serve anything called 'orange drink,' so look at the menu and call me when you can name what you want." You could just walk away from them and leave them chuckling to themselves, or you could bypass them entirely and take the next customer until they got hungry enough to stop acting stupid.

A subset of obnoxious customers were those who'd bypass the speaker and drive right to the drive-thru window to order. Drive-thru had to be done in a rigid way because it could so easily go haywire, so a person who just decided to order at the window was potentially screwing you up.

It was easy to deal with these people: you pretended not to see them. You'd hear them "ding" at the speaker and then you'd hear their car speed off, giving you time to quickly run to a part of the store where they couldn't see you. Then you'd amuse yourself serving other customers, doing dishes, or sweeping the floor. After a few minutes you'd come back and pretend to notice the furious guy at the drive-thru window, and if he complained you could say "since you didn't order at the speaker, I assumed you drove off." This was IRONCLAD.

The Greedy people wanted something for free; they wanted to bypass the rules. They knew that bagels could not be microwaved or sliced and still be purchased at "bulk bagel" prices, and they knew that they couldn't get a raisin tea biscuit instead of a plain tea biscuit with their soup deals.

But they'd ask for this stuff anyway, and then act surprised and offended when you refused. They assumed that by making enough of a stink you would eventually just give in.

The key to dealing with these people was to know the rules, know the situation, and know your manager. If you were 100% certain that the people were breaking the rules, and the situation offered you some free time to argue about it, and if you knew your manager would back you up, you could have SO MUCH FUN simply refusing. You had to be polite, but also firm, without any waffling: no, I can't do that, it's against the rules. No.

If your manager was a wimp or there was a huge line-up, though, you'd have to give in.

Another type of greedy person was the one who'd order something, take it away, and then hand it back to you and say "actually, can I trade this in and get something else?" The rules said you had to obey, but it was fun to shame them publically anyway. You'd take the food out of their hand and then dramatically throw it into the garbage, and everybody would gasp. Then you'd politely hand them their next item of food as they sputtered "I didn't think you'd throw it away!"

We had to throw it away. And we threw everything out at night anyway. But it was GREAT fun to make them look like they were snatching the food from starving third-world children.


It always surprises me that customers will be unpleasant to the people who prepare their food. They know what is freshest, and -- if you're particularly nasty -- they can spit in your drinks. You might think that, just because they're standing in front of you, they can't get a foreign substance into your coffee...but what if they rub their finger in something gross, then stick their finger into the coffee while they stir it?

I did spit in coffee, but only once, for a particularly evil regular customer. Otherwise I was always sure not to muck with people's food.

But here's the most important thing to remember: if you're nice to the servers, and they see you enough, you may start to get deals: the freshest coffee, free stuff, and little bits of rule bending. I was very happy to slice the bulk bagels for NICE customers...but you always needed to warn them, otherwise they'd come back and say "Why won't you do it for me? That OTHER person always does!"

Dr. Seuss and the Theologist's Flit

If there was ever any doubt about Dr. Seuss' mammoth creativity, just a few weeks of these advertisements should put those doubts to rest (assuming he wrote his own copy).

Note to Answers in Genesis: there are no dinosaurs on this ark, and if you can't trust Dr. Seuss then who CAN you trust?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Cigarette Science

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you...The Tobaccometer!

What does this amazing device do? It registers the temperature of cigarette smoke, using "a sensitive thermometer."
Every squeeze of the tobaccometer's bulb is a puff of the cigarette at the other end. And every puff tells something about cigarette smoke. The apparatus works at the rate of 10,000 puffs a day!

A chemist operating the tobaccometer recently tested two dozen leading brands. Egyptian and Virginia, expensive and popular-priced varieties...high-brow and low-brow.

What did the tobaccometer discover in these cigarettes? That Spud is 16.3% (Cent.) cooler than other brands.

There you are, cigarette enthusiasts!
And there you are, students of advertising schlock; pseudo-scientific studies that prove nothing have a long pedigree in the field. But I guess you need all the help you can get when you're selling people "Spud cigarettes."

Personally, I think it's most important that the tobaccometer only has three legs.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sad Day

I'd never be one to say that a movie should make you feel ultimately "good," but I'm telling you, "A.I." is FAR too sad.

What was the plan, here? To go back to the merciless core of fairy tales, and then rub your nose in it for 150 minutes? The endless loneliness of a Hansel or a Gretel without the emotional safety net of moral, vindication, or happy ending?

Jesus that was traumatizing. I almost turned it off several times and now I wish I had.

Ye Olde Novelty Songs: "A Bird in a Gilded Cage"

In honour of the gold rush demimondes that I'm reading so much about, here's a song they were known to sing in the far-north dance halls at the turn of the century: "A Bird in a Gilded Cage." Picture them decked out in diamonds, gold nuggets, and silk, illuminated by gaslight, surrounded by dirty and horny (but rich) men and performing until 5am. Amazing, beautiful, and terrible.

The singer is the largely forgotten Beatrice Kay who was known for her authentic reinterpretations of songs from that period. This comes from her "Gay Nineties" album, which has no date on it, but I bet it was recorded in the late '50s. There are many contradictory stories about why her voice sounds like that, most involving injury or illness.

PS: Visitors from the future, this link is bound to break eventually.

Sewing Day

In order to motivate myself to sew -- as opposed to just using safety pins to hold my clothes together -- I rent a really stupid movie, sit down on the floor, and do all my backlogged sewing duties at one time.

Starting is difficult. I don't like sitting down and evaluating each project, trying to find the best way to fix something. It doesn't help that all my sewing experience comes from grade eight home economics, where I made a stuffed beaver and learned how to fry won tons.

Usually I end up taking the "brute force" approach. I start out nicely, genuinely enjoying the relaxing and repetitive action of sewing. But near the end of each project I start to get impatient, and I almost ALWAYS have an insulin reaction at some point; all that hand-work must burn a lot of energy.

So anyway, near the end I tend to have little loops of thread sticking out...but that's okay, because most of this stuff is only worn in dark little bars anyway. My winter mittens are now nice and warm, my "Pride" outfit no longer has a slit that goes to the middle of my back, and my "Lexx" wrist-gloves -- after much evaluation -- have been fitted with the perfect finger-loops: those small black plastic hair elastics that hairdressers use.

Today's "background to sewing" rental was "Boo." I can mend clothes better than these people can make movies.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

I'd Buy Anything By...Electric Light Orchestra

Sometimes, when you're a kid, you aren't aware of when a certain band first oozed into your consciousness. I don't think my parents liked Electric Light Orchestra -- they were more into rock oddities like Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Elton John, and Mike Oldfield -- but our neighbour (Gloria) loved pop and new wave, and I think she probably exposed me to bands like Blondie, Queen, ABBA...and ELO.

Some bands are dominated by a single personality -- and Jeff Lynn certainly was that type of frontman -- but ELO excelled because each musician's style complimented the others. Their rhythm section was unparalleled -- "Don't Bring Me Down" -- and Richard Tandy's "futuristic" keyboards brought out the lushness of Lynn's guitars.

Ahh, Jeff Lynn. He was a hack, yes -- famously fast at knocking out a tune and a nonsense lyric to go with it -- but his songs were so GOOD. He definitely went to the Paul McCartney school of songwriting (and the George Harrison school of performance, I like to think). You can look at their albums as either FULL of filler or as totally DEVOID of filler, depending on your definition of the word. Was ELO's music bubblegum? Too often yes...but it's bubblegum we still hum along with today.

Add to all this the production skills of Jeff Lynne and the magical engineering of Reinhold Mack, and you have a band whose albums are all either good or exceptional (once they'd hit their stride at least).

Sadly, even though they were huge stadium-rock seat-sellers, I get the feeling they just weren't very good live. Lynne's weak voice depended on studio-bound automated double-tracking, the three-man orchestra was invariably overdubbed, and Richard Tandy's keyboards just never sounded RIGHT on stage. These defects appear to be corrected in Jeff Lynn's recent "Zoom" concert video, so I bring you a classic ELO song with the new live treatment, including Tandy's fun vocoder work:

There's usually a decline, isn't there? Lynne was difficult to work with and he whittled away at his band members, bumping up the keyboards in the early '80s and apparently losing all interest in the music he was writing. The final three albums were critical flops and ELO disbanded (though the eventual reformations have a droll comedy to them that you can look up for yourselves).

But I'm of a minority who actually love the final albums more than the entire ELO catalog combined. The keyboards worked, and Lynne's songwriting took on a pessimistic sweep that should have foretold good things to come. Here's "Here is the News," one of my favourite songs ever, off one of my favourite albums ever ("Time"). It should have been a hit. If it came out today it probably would be. I think it's brilliant; it is everything that was good about the band rolled into one.

Must-have albums? Most would recommend "A New World Record" as the perfect blend of symphony, rock, and prog...and I'd agree, though I still stand by "Time" as the all-time best. Albums to avoid? The eponymous first album is a creative dogfight with band co-founder Roy Wood, and therefore sounds like a poorly-engineered rock concert at a low-rent Renaissance Faire. For fans only? Check out L.E.O., a supergroup of producers, musicians, and songwriters who perform new music that sounds EXACTLY like ELO. You don't know whether to laugh at it or love it.


I have just finished Pierre Berton's book "Klondike," and I've actually had -- yes -- some epiphanies!

Once you pass the age of 25 epiphanies become more and more rare. Eventually you know enough about the world that very few "connections" remain to be made in your mind. Sure, you can still LEARN new things, but rarely do you get those "aha!" moments when pieces of the world puzzle suddenly fit together.

I guess I'm lucky because I learned very little history when I was in school, so the historical timeline is still full of these little puzzles that need to be resolved. I've pretty much filled in the geopolitical gaps from 1920 on, but the turn of the century has remained a mystery.

Thankfully, Pierre Berton's wonderful sense of scope and organization has brought me the perfect overview of that period, and explained to me some questions that I didn't realize were vexing until I really thought about them: why did so many people rush off to the Klondike, even though the chances of staking a gold claim were next to impossible? How did so many of them become rich anyway? Why did those people notoriously just "throw their gold around" like it was worth nothing? And why was it so HARD to get to the Yukon, anyway?

There is no single answer for any of those questions, which is why the period has never seemed real to me; it was like a cartoon where people just did crazy things for no reason I could possibly relate to. But Berton's "Klondike" spends so much time answering all of those questions from every possible angle that...well, I had epiphanies. Lots of them. It's almost INDECENT, to suffer so many revelations in one's own armchair.*

Regarding the last question -- why was it so hard to get there -- I suffer an inability to judge the impossibility of physical tasks, and without actually undertaking the task myself I'm bound to be deluded for life. Last year's books about the Arctic impressed on me the horrible ordeal of walking on a glacier, Anton Money's "This Was the North" gave me a good sense of what solitary survival up north was really like...and now Pierre Berton has taught me about muskeg, swamps, mosquitos, and the impossibility of getting horses through such places.

Here's a simple equation: no horses, no supplies. No supplies, sickness. Sickness, slow movement. Slow movement through the sub-Arctic, forced to "winter in" repeatedly, in which case only the Indians were able to keep you from total starvation. Demoralization, disorientation, you finally make it to Dawson City only to discover that everybody's up and left.

I'm so thrilled with my revelations that I plan to follow up this book with three others. The first, "Good Time Girls of the Alaskan Gold Rush" by Lael Morgan is one I've read before. It elaborates on the histories of the dance-hall girls and prostitutes, who were very odd characters indeed. Berton covers this topic as well, but in a somewhat scattered way. Plus Morgan's book is beautifully illustrated, showing not just the women themselves but also their houses, streets, and men.

Then I'm moving on to another one I read but couldn't contextualize: "American Vaudeville" by Douglas Gilbert. It covers 1880-1930 and I hope will give me a sense of what entertainment was REALLY like during the period.

Finally, to solidify my grasp of the Yukon, I'll come full-circle with "I Married the Klondike." Written by Laura Beatrice Burton -- Pierre's mother -- it looks to be the sort of pioneer story that I love to read.

* I admit that I still don't really understand WHY gold is so precious. How did that all come about anyway?

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Scout Shouted About the Mouse in the House

A true story and an honest plea:

Paying the Angles

The August 11, 1928 issue of The New Yorker had an interesting article about Tin Pan Alley songwriters.

Apparently, songwriters bore the responsibility of paying influential people to "plug" their songs. These people -- called "angles" -- tended to be radio singers who were allowed to choose the songs they wanted to perform; if a songwriter offered them thirty to fifty percent of the song's royalties, the radio singers would sing it.

Likewise, a songwriter could end up paying money to additional "angles" such as "jazz-band leaders, makers of phonograph records, movie-house program directors, and the like."

It's interesting that -- according to the article -- the music publishers used to be responsible for paying the angles, at that time usually vaudeville singers. But after theatre managers complained that the vaudeville shows were suffering from substandard material and constant repetition, the music publishers formed the Music Publishers Protective Association and vowed to stop the practice...which is why, by the 1920s, it was up to the writer to do the dirty work.

Compare this to the more modern practice of payola, in which music publishers get back into the game and pay DJs to play their songs.

Incidentally the article concludes by saying there were few successful female songwriters, and that the often-seen name "Mary Earl" was actually "a copyrighted pseudonym belonging to a firm of music publishers and is used on songs written by men."




I'm furious about the recycling bin thing. Maybe this second, useless post will help diffuse my frustration.

And if you don't know what I'm talking about, simply look below and read it in the context of somebody who is just AMAZED at the obnoxiousness of some people.

PS: I do not hope that people who tip over recycling bins will go to hell; I'm sure their crappy behaviour will catch up to them eventually, if it hasn't already. People who break saplings, however, certainly DO deserve hell, and I hope they get it. In spades.

An Open Letter To People Who Tip Over Recycling Bins

A few months ago the Ontario Powers That Be declared that empty bottles of alcohol were redeemable for a deposit. Whereas before you just recycled them and got no money back, now you could take them to the liquor or beer store and get a paltry sum in return.

I don't have a car so I don't bring my empty liquor bottles back to the store. Sure, I'd like to reclaim my deposit, but not at the expense of carting my bottles all the way uptown. Nope, I still recycle them, and many other people do as well.

So a cottage industry has sprung up: people -- generally homeless, as far as I've seen -- wander through residential areas and take recyclable liquor bottles out of people's bins. That's fine, I'd LOVE for somebody to get my bottles...but there's a catch:


The first time this happened to me, I started hiding my liquor bottles under all my pop cans, so they wouldn't be attracted to my bin. But then I'd see some scruffy guy come along and search through the bin, wasting a lot of time to determine whether or not I'd actually hidden anything underneath. And I felt bad for him. I thought, he could make a lot more money if I'd just put my bottles in an obvious place.

This week, my bleeding heart got the better of me. I put all of my Christmas liquor bottles into one half of the bin, and then put all my cans in the other half, and even SEPARATED the two sections with recyclable cardboard. I figured that this would help the hard-up people to quickly find what they're looking for, without needing to search through or -- as some of them do -- dump everything out and not put it back in.

So tonight I come home and discover that my carefully laid-out bin has been dumped upside down, my cans scattered up and down the street, and my liquor bottles claimed. I had to walk up and down the street in the rain, collecting cans and cardboard and putting them back in the bin, because some jerk decided -- out of obnoxiousness, I'm sure -- to dump the bin out onto the street. And take away 75 cents worth of bottles.

I will not reward people for doing this. Some of them are sweet and are willing to root through the bin to find what they're looking for, but a significant number of people are not. So I'm going to start throwing my empties in the garbage: end of story.

Bad for the planet? Yes. Vindictive? Only partially. If they stop finding bottles in my bin they will stop turning the bin upside down -- it hasn't been dumped since the last time I hid my bottles -- and I don't want to reward people for being a nuisance. Sure I want them to have that money, but not if they're going to be jerks in the process.

How frustrating is it to be punished for being NICE? Very much, yes indeed. There is simply no excuse for throwing garbage around on a person's lawn.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Broadcast Signal Intrustion Revisited

Exactly one year ago I posted about the mysterious "Max Headroom Pirating Incident" that happened in 1987.

Amazingly, some deft folks at Hack247 have managed to remove some of the clip's audio distortion, revealing some new details (and suggesting that the culprit was a disgruntled -- and very weird -- WGN employee).

For the cleaned-up clip and the new interpretation, check out their site. Not exactly work friendly.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

A Whole Bunch of Films That I've Watched Recently

Sometimes I get an urge to just throw myself into movies. In particular, after compiling my "top ten horror films," I was sad to realize that my period of really studying and enjoying movies ended around 1989. I have digested a huge number of movies since then, but I haven't actually SAVOURED them.

Part of this is because I worked at a video store during the '90s. Rentals were free for me, and my obsessive nature lead me to work alphabetically through the various sections of the store. I wasn't picking a movie because I WANTED to see it, I was picking it because it was the next one on the shelf, regardless of quality or desire. Gradually my senses dulled.

How do I find new movies to love? I don't think that's very likely; I no longer have the free time that I had when I was younger, when I could just sit around and watch my favourite films over and over again. Plus I feel guilty and unproductive when I do that sort of thing.

But I HAVE decided to watch some films I've always wanted to see, and re-watch movies I saw a few years ago that I really liked, and also to gorge myself on a whole bunch of new horror movies (because I'm on a bit of a kick right now).

So here's a taste of what I've been watching. You may wonder why a lot of these movies start with the letter "A." Yup, I'm doing the alphabetical thing again...but I'm actually skipping the movies that look crappy, which I think is a step up from my old technique.

Alone in the Dark

Oh wow, a uniformly AWFUL film. Rarely do you have the opportunity to sit through a movie where EVERYTHING is bad that it could only have been planned that way.

The stinky badness was painful to watch, but you might enjoy Tara Reid playing a serious, brainy scientist. She's obviously a very stupid person in real life and she can't hide her inability to enunciate her words. Plus they gave her outrageous hoochie-girl make-up -- candy-pink blush and lipgloss...and then put ugly glasses on her as if to say, "see, she's smart!" No, she isn't.

During the special features the director brags that they shot more than 20,000 bullets during a single scene. If you judge movies on that basis alone, I guess you should see this. But on every critical measurement known to humankind, "Alone in the Dark" failed.

An American Haunting

I love a good lead-up and an unconventional structure, but there is such a thing as TOO MUCH suspense. What started off as a creepy Poltergeist tale quickly degenerated into "then the next night, THIS happened, and the following night, THIS happened, and then the next night..."

A stylish film, well-acted, with some striking images. Also a surprisingly up-front message about child sexual abuse. But jeez, it just went on and on.

I like Donald Sutherland in his pilgrim outfit. Sissy Spacek less so.

American Psycho

Really fabulous, actually, and not a horror movie; it's a tense satire and very funny.

I read the book when it came out and I'm surprised that the filmmakers preserved the spirit of the story -- a socially-created empty shell of a human moves through a world of equally empty human creatures -- while shying away from the gruesome stuff. I kept waiting for the nailgun to appear and I'm glad they chose to (mostly) omit it.

My only complaint is that Christian Bale comes across as too goofy-manic in certain scenes. And I suppose it's inevitable that an extra layer of "'80s retro" veneer was added; it would be difficult to contextualize the film's events without playing up the music and the hairstyles of the time, being as the characters are so immersed in their vacuous culture.

The most amusing and understated theme in the book was the way that identities were constantly confused, because everybody wanted to look and act alike and nobody really CARED about anybody else. This wasn't so explicit in the movie, which might lead viewers to a certain hypothesis about "what actually happened." The book, however, was more ambiguous.

The Holy Mountain

I finally crumpled and bought the Alejandro Jodorowsky box set.

This particular film continues to amaze me, especially in its remastered form. I still can't believe they built those sets, filmed those scenes, and tortured those animals. It is uniformly beautiful and awe-inspiring, and even has a somewhat significant plot (albeit cloyingly shaman-zen-enlightenment-ish). The extremely funny middle portion helps you get through it all.

Where else will you see an elderly man, naked, squirting milk from the leopard-heads attached to his nipples? Nowhere. "The Holy Mountain" is unlike anything else. It's a freakshow, yes, but a SINCERE freakshow.


Lame-brained, poorly-acted, go-nowhere story that really, really wants to be "The Ring." I haven't seen the Japanese original and now I don't want to. After seeing a bunch of people become disfigured in somewhat gruesome ways, it's amusing to have a late-appearing crap actor scream to us what's really going on: "They TAKE YOUR LIFE FORCE! YAAARGH! They take away everything that makes you YOU! You end up walkin' around...LIKE A ZOMBIE! YOU STOP CARING ABOUT STUFF! OH, the agony, the terror!"

Sort of like being told that the Alien gives you a bad case of indigestion, then expecting you to feel pathos and fear. Especially when all the characters seem like zombies from the very beginning.

A sign of everything that is bad about Hollywood.

Silent Hill

It's a testament to the film that I didn't realize it was based on a videogame, though I suspected something was up when she had to memorize a map and solve a light/dark puzzle near the end.

Incredible, INCREDIBLE nightmare visuals thanks to the choreographed grace of the monsters (note to directors: put more dancers in prosthetics!) One of the best soundtracks I've heard in a long time. The acting wasn't up to snuff but there were a few bright spots, and everybody seemed totally into the project.

I have to admit, though, that I'm getting awfully sick of desaturated visuals. Turn up the chroma, people! I know that a grey/blue colour scheme communicates death and despair, but it's SO overdone now. Can't we move on to a different digital effect?

Monday, January 07, 2008

Dr. Seuss and the Filmmaker's Flit

During the late '20s jungle documentaries were EXTREMELY popular. Everybody seemed to be making films about stoic Caucasian explorers and their quirky African guides, seeking the next big waterfall or hunting wild game. Many viewers suspected that the films were less than truthful, and they were right to be sceptical.

Here (July 28, 1928), Dr. Seuss shows us how they got so close to those deadly wild animals: apparently they killed them with bug spray first. The mystery is solved?

PS: I've mentioned the horrific black caricatures in the past...well, here's another one, this time from our beloved children's book author.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Pie in the Pundit

I am fascinated by the slow accumulation of hits, comments, links, and subscriptions that my videos are pulling in. I wonder what I am doing that is "intriguing," what people EXPECT me to be doing, and what I might do to actually turn them off.

When I noticed that some of my subscribers were interested in pieing -- no doubt in a fetishy way -- I got even more curious: what do they like about pieing, and what makes a good "pieing video" for them?

I decided to make a pieing video in my own way, without ever having watched any of the OTHER videos. Over the holidays I built up the idea in my head, and then at 3am on New Year's Day I decided the time was right; also I had to do it soon or the pie would go bad.

Off the top of my head I can say that it was a cold, wet, and slimy experience, and that lemon meringue doesn't stick to CoverFX E20 cream foundation. I also think it would have been more fun to have the pie THROWN at me -- in the true spirit of a vaudeville pastry-attack -- but there was nobody else around so it had to be me.

I'm most interested to find out if "pie in the face" fans HATE the video. They probably want to see gorgeous, scantily-dressed, model-perfect women getting surprised by the approaching pie, not a scruffy, post-bar drag queen, pontificating without eyelashes and wearing a very old T-shirt.

So for the next few weeks I'll be eagerly watching the comments and anticipating the "hate comments" that I have managed to totally avoid so far. Are people ready for a gentler, smarter, uglier "pie in the face" video? We'll see, but I doubt it!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

[Superlative] Scary Movie List!

By popular demand (because you know you're popular, Adrian and Scott!), I've made a list of what I consider to be the top ten horror films.

These are films that I consider to be exceptional in every way, not simply "frightening." So I'm excluding all the cheap thrills and quirky oddities (Peter Jackson, Larry Cohen, Sam Raimi). I'm also excluding any that I haven't seen in several years, or that I haven't seen enough times; these are "tried and true" movies which haven't lost their bite, which partly explains why they're all over 20 years old.

But I might just have been an impressionable child.

I should mention that I'm not a fan of slasher films (Friday the 13th), "cool visuals but no logic" films (Japanese & Italian), or movies devoid of characterization (I'm talking to you, Rob Zombie).

In no particular order:
  • Next of Kin: Not to be confused with a dozen other films with the same title, this is the one "unknown gem" in the list. A low-budget Australian production that excels in every way: memorable characters, over-the-top cinematography, a suspenseful first sixty minutes that explodes into total craziness by the end. I love this one; my VHS tape is on its last magnetic legs. No matter how many times I see it, the final half hour still gives me beauty-horror goosebumps..
  • Return of the Living Dead: Manages to be both funny AND terrifying, a difficult line to tread. A claustrophobic film that is both a send up and an improvement on the original, with Dan O'Bannon's trademark quirkiness AND a great '80s soundtrack. Colourful, fun, gory, weird. For fans only: track down The Famous Workprint.
  • The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: As the supposed genesis of the "slasher film," TCM has a bad rap that it doesn't deserve. Like most of the other films in this list it is really a classy, lovingly-crafted, character-driven drama that completely loses its mind during the second half. Director Tobe Hooper may have brought us the first archetypal weapon-brandishing maniac, but he also brought us the menaced protagonist trapped in the clutches of an alien logic, with only one route of escape: running, running, running away. See the second film for sheer lost-marbles exuberance, and the fourth installment for a "new take" on the family dramatics.
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street: Before an endless string of goofy sequels (and a theme song by The Fat Boys), Fred Krueger really WAS a horrific character. This is the least polished of all the movies on this list, suffering from cliche'd dialog and wooden characters, but Wes Craven broke new ground with the magical, nightmarish quality of it all...and I'm not just talking about the dream sequences, I'm also talking about Ronee Blakley's performance. And if you need more incentive to give it a reappraisal, how about these magic words: "Johnny Depp's first film."
  • Videodrome: David Cronenberg at his cold, clinical, unrestrained best. This was before he discovered stuff like "human interaction" and "soft focus," giving us instead a world (aka "Toronto") where everybody is stiff, disconnected, menacing, and under-the-skin wrong. You can't trust anybody. You can't even RELATE to anybody. Debbie Harry helps. Howard Shore's analog synth soundtrack mixes perfectly with all the gloops and slops.
  • Alien: Shiver. Traumatic body horror and a bunch of terrified, inarticulate, unattractive people fighting for their lives as though they REALLY MEANT IT. Veronica Cartwright seems to be literally coming unglued before our very eyes. Plus the high-tech grunge universe of Ridley Scott before everybody else started doing it, likewise the biomechanical Giger designs. This is the second time Dan O'Bannon has been involved with a movie in this list, though to be honest his original script did not show the promise that the movie finally achieved.
  • Poltergeist: Take the idyllic "family" tone of Steven Spielberg and mix it with Tobe Hooper's merciless lunacy ("why can't we kill one of the kids?" you can imagine him saying), and you get a movie that is both sweet AND traumatizing. In terms of an accessible but scary movie, I think this is the best on the list. Imaginative script, horrifying visuals, and some of the best acting around, it's long overdue for a re-evaluation and a comeback.
  • Dawn of the Dead: Once again we have a great combination: the visual craziness of Dario Argento and the restraining hand of George Romero. Probably the goriest on this list, but also the most pointed social satire. I like it because of its scope, it was very much an "epic horror" for its time, despite the obviously limited budget. But then, why should I talk it up? Everybody loves it already.
  • The Thing (1982 Remake): The most outrageous special effects by that time, courtesy of crazy-man Rob Bottin. A premise that turns your bowels to pudding if you think about it too much. John Carpenter at his scariest, directing a tiny cast who were probably just as horrified by the visuals as the rest of us were. This movie still upsets me, which doesn't happen often. I can't handle the way Windows gets it.
  • ...?
I reserve the tenth spot for films I've seen recently, ones that I've loved but I haven't re-watched in a critical way.
Of them all, I somehow don't think I could handle "Slither"'s just TOO horrific for me, despite (or perhaps because) of the disarming humour.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Joys of a Good Scary Story

In highschool, and during my first year of university, I subsisted on a greedy diet of horror fiction. I was at first mostly interested in novels, but for some reason I gradually became obsessed with anthologies of short stories, and I collected them rabidly: "The Year's Best Horror Stories," all those Charles L. Grant "Shadows" books, the sublime "Tales By Moonlight," the less sublime "Hot Blood" series, "Dark Voices," "Night Cry" magazine, "Night Visions," the seemingly endless collections edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg...

There was something fun and sort of chocolatey about picking up a new anthology and seeing the same names again and again; Ramsey Campbell, Alan Ryan, Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Steve Rasnic Tem, Karl Edward Wagner, all jumbled together without any thought of transition or theme. I'd rate each story out of ten and add it to a computerized database, then go out and hunt for all the books I'd missed over the years. It was a project, an education, and a joy.

These books inspired a friend and I to start our own small-press horror 'zine called "Lost," which pulled in a few professional authors who probably didn't realize that the editors were two little kids with acne. I even got some of my own sub-par stories published. But more on that some other time.

Soon, maybe in an attempt to resurrect declining sales, the anthologies started going all thematic. Stories about vampires! Stories about freaks! Erotic horror, zombie horror, ecological horror! Splatterpunk! Bladderspunk! Even something called "architectural horror!"

Dennis Etchison coined the term "Metahorror" for my personal favourite stories, a new breed of fiction that was kind of like "magic realism gone bad." A bunch of the more successful authors banded together as "The Horror Writers of America," which seemed particularly mean-spirited at the time (and possibly was, a bit). I bought the books anyway, I loved the books, maybe I sort of LIVED the books.

But in university I discovered a whole new world of literature that I'd never cared about before, and I packed up all those anthologies into a bunch of cardboard boxes and put them in the basement. I decided I wanted to be HAPPY, not some loser kid who sat at home assigning ratings to mediocre stories by Whitley Strieber. And that was it. The end.


Until I picked up Stephen King's "Dreamcatcher" last week, and I remembered why I liked horror fiction to begin with: it's breezy, it has a near infinite number of themes and permutations, and when it's good it scares you. I still remember the stories and novels that terrified me the most, and I probably enjoyed reading them more than I ever enjoyed "Oliver Twist." And even when a book is BAD it is still at least INTERESTING, and you don't need to invest much in order to pick out the kernels of fun.

Yeah, I'd love to open those boxes and revisit the best stories, anthologies, and novels...and maybe I will. I even bought Peter Straub's "Floating Dragon" the other day, and I'm actually considering re-reading "It" or some of the better Dean R. Koontz books.

Darn it, I've spent too many years reading high-falutin' literature. I think I've earned the right to read some genre fiction now, no?

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Lazy, Crazy Day

Exhausted, not enough sleep. The cat wakes me up and I give her some food and by then it's too late to go back to sleep again.

So I go downstairs and lie on the couch and stare out the window. It's snowing terribly, a solid sheet of white that's falling and covering everything. I pull up the afghan and the cat comes to lie beside me. When I finally feel like getting up I don't want to because it would wake her.

The snow keeps falling, it's amazing, beautiful. The cat snores, cuddled against my hip. I've begun sinking into a sugar-low; an imaginary man on a tricycle is circling around in my head, yelling at me, peeling back the layers of conceit and society to reveal the base reality of the brain damaged diabetic. I sink down, further and further. The cat snores. I eventually realize what is happening and I get up and eat an early lunch.

Back to the couch, searching for something to distract me from that tricycle demon, I start to read Stephen King's "Dreamcatcher." It is the perfect cure for my early morning plague. I've forgotten what it's like to read a mass-market paperback, a well-written and straight-forward story whose only purpose is to pull you in and keep you reading.

After a hundred pages I feel a burst of energy: I will do something! I take a shower and wash the curls out of my hair, and then my energy is gone and I return to the couch. The snow has stopped but the wind is intense, picking up entire banks of snow and shoving them into the air. It's like the tricycle demon has gone outside to stir up things there instead. There are two inches of snow heaped upon the power line, and I watch as one long section of snow peels off, falls down. The cat is snoring, paws out, uncomfortably warm.

After two hundred pages another section of snow is gone from the power line. I've lost track of time. I'm enjoying the book.

After three hundred pages the cat wakes from a dream, meows, turns around, and falls asleep again. Small tractors are moving up and down the street, clearing the snow. The tricycle demon is almost gone from my brain. It's a strange, lazy, crazy day. It has a suspended beauty, it's like living in a snowglobe, just me and a cat and the book that I'm reading.