Saturday, October 31, 2009

My Shy Date With Modern Dance

On Thursday night I watched the rehearsal for "60 Dances in 60 Minutes," which will be performed at The Registry Theatre on November 4th. I'd hoped to learn what contemporary dance is all about and -- more importantly -- what makes it entertaining, enlightening, or (God forbid) insufferable to the modern layperson audience-member.

Can I explain the secrets of dance after a mere four hours of exposure? I only saw one single company performing one single piece and I didn't even get to see the end. There are many different approaches to dance, and every audience member is an individual, so I can't just say "This is what it's all about" (as much as that would save me some heavy pondering and how-do-I-express-this anxiety).

Seeing the rehearsal -- and enjoying some whispered chats with Jacob Zimmer, the dramaturge -- hasn't left me with many answers and it hasn't turned me into an instant fan. I learned a few more things about my personal hangups and how they relate to my entertainment the very least it was a good private therapy session.

But I'm not here to tell you about my childhood trauma; that's what the REST of this blog is about. I'm assuming instead that some of my insights may be interesting to you, whether you loathe modern dance or you think it's the absolute cat's meow.


"60 Dances in 60 Minutes" was first performed in February by the five principle dancers of the Dancemakers company. For the show in Kitchener they'd chosen to add five local dancers to the performance, and they thought it would be interesting to have me -- the clueless, curious, neurotic-but-eloquent spectator -- sit in during one of their rehearsals.

I was nervous. As is always the case with events where audience-appreciation is not tied to long-standing rules of etiquette and judgment, my first concern was how much reverence I was expected to have for their work. How serious must I be? Dost I dare to make jokes about thee art, especially being the only person in the audience and surrounded by its performers and creators, all of whom are extremely fit? I can't speak for other shows, but I can say this for sure: if you don't laugh a bit during "60 Dances in 60 Minutes" then you probably have a really crappy sense of humour.

But the question remains: what should the audience get out of this particular performance? The more abstract a piece of entertainment is -- the more distant it is from convention, the fewer obvious cues transmitted by the performers, the more flexible its parameters -- the greater the potential for hostility, boredom, confusion, or feelings of boorish inadequacy. Nobody likes to feel stupid, especially not those of us who consider ourselves open-minded and experienced enough to be able to "get it."

Most forms of contemporary dance do not, in my experience, present themselves in traditional or unambiguous ways. If the audience doesn't "get" the performance, is that a failure of us or the dance company? Is that even a failure at all?


The title "60 Dances in 60 Minutes" gives you an idea of what this performance is about, but here's a more explicit precis: the dancers, singly or in groups, will perform various tasks during a certain time period. How will ten dancers (and the audience) perceive the performance of these tasks in relation to the passage of time?

We have all benefited from (and been victimized by) time's subjectivity. Two hours spent at a good party can feel like ten fleeting minutes, while a ten-minute drive home with a full bladder simply never ends.

"60 Dances in 60 Minutes" is -- in its most obvious interpretation -- about the subjectivity of time. Even if you miss the somewhat hasty and informal explanation at the beginning of the performance, you will eventually notice that the dancers are attempting to synchronize their tasks -- like counting silently in their heads -- but they never finish together despite all their highly-polished dancerly-discipline.

Why can't they sync with each other? Because the passage of time, in the absence of coordinated cues like the a visible clock, is a subjective and ever-changing thing. None of us have quartz crystals in our heads. We rely on metabolism and breathing, stride-length and thought-passage to inform us of how quickly the rest of the world is moving in relation to us. When all the dancers close their eyes simultaneously and start counting silently, and then each of them raises a hand when they have reached the agreed-upon number, the dancer who ate a cheeseburger may finish faster than the one with a painful blister on her heel. This is a bizarre and entertaining way of expressing what we deal with every day: there is no way for people to synchronize with each other without external time cues.

To look at it in one way, "60 Dances in 60 Minutes" is a series of experiments to demonstrate how individual people perceive time. Sometimes the time intervals are short and sometimes they're excruciatingly long, and due to this occasional excruciating nature, the AUDIENCE is ALSO confronted with their individual time-perceptions: three minutes staring at a motionless line of dancers evokes all sorts of feelings, but one of them is how long three minutes can be when not a heck of a lot is going on.


Back to the rehearsal and my impressions of it. Early on I noticed that the director and the performers were using evocative words to describe the sixty different sections of the performance.

One section was called "witnessing," for example, and another was "the how-to's." There were movements called "abbreviations" and "acronyms," and there were also "koala" and "suicide."

These words were a convenient shorthand for the dancers, of course, but I was fascinated by the fact that the audience would never hear those words (unless they looked at the rundown which was provided at the end of the show). When I saw one dancer carrying another, belly-to-belly, in a tight and motionless embrace, my perception of the act changed as soon as I found out -- thanks to my privileged position as silent rehearsal voyeur -- that they referred to this action as "koala." If they'd called it "frog" or "Kali" then I probably would have viewed it differently.

Why do I bring this up? Because our perception of PLOT is just as subjective as our perception of TIME. "Hamlet" would give a very different impression to a 17th century barmaid, a bored highschool student, and a queer theorist respectively. No plot can contain one single, universal impression for everybody. You can say this about books or movies or any other type of public art you can think of.

Contemporary dance rarely telegraphs its narrative as clearly as a Hemmingway novel, and even if it DID there'd be the same issues of interpretation. When we see one woman suspending and holding another woman closely, what does that mean to us? Is it love? Is it trust? Is it fear or hope or disability? Hemmingway would tell us which it was -- and he'd probably wrestle both dancers to the ground as well -- but would we agree with his assertion? And would our perception of the act be richened -- or cheapened -- if we found it was called "koala?"

Contemporary dance, to me, seems largely ambiguous. The thematic clues given to the audience in "60 Dances in 60 Minutes" are not presented like they would be in an Agatha Christie novel...

...but the point of "60 Dances" is not to discover whodunnit before the pompous detective does. I suspect that the dance company would agree with me that they do not expect everybody in the audience to absorb the information provided in exactly the same way; in fact, the company might HATE that possibility. I suspect that they -- and perhaps most artists who work in relatively non-traditional ways -- want the audience members to make up their own minds.

But here's the thing: I'm not part of the dance company, I'm an audience member, so how many clues to the narrative should I be given? How much of it should be explained, and how clearly? Should there be identifiable characters in the performance with individual motivations, or are they all just "dancers," lab rats in a time experiment...a time experiment which I may not even understand is going on? While watching the rehearsal I found myself fixating on the words "koala" and "the how-to's" and "witnessing" because I CRAVED a plot. I clung to one reoccurring figure -- a girl in a parka with a subtly funny walk -- because she provided me with a sense of character that I find satisfying and fulfilling.

"What is the narrative of a symphony?" Jacob asked when we talked about this, and he's correct. And keep in mind that I was also watching the rehearsal of a performance that was yet to be completed, and watching it in the artificial environment of a closed theatre, without an audience, under bright lights, with a full bladder.

But I think this comes to the root of my general wariness about contemporary dance. I am not familiar with the concepts and history of the artform so I can't construct even a tenuous narrative like "I don't understand the literal soup cans but at least I understand pop art." I am also not privy to the thoughts of the dramaturge or the director or the performers, because they choose to remain silent or (more likely) because I hate reading the tiny print on theatre brochures.

Without knowing the concepts that the company is trying to express, I can't compare them with my own impressions. I don't know whether they've succeeded in getting their ideas across. And if my impression is the opposite of what they intended to convey, has the performance been a failure? Is there such a thing as failure in contemporary dance? Or in an abstract painting? In a symphony?

PS: I am generally confused by the symphonies as well. Sorry.


Back to the rehearsal. "60 Dances in 60 Minutes" is not just an experiment in subjective time; if it were then it would be best inflicted on a bunch of undergrads in a controlled manner (hopefully with electric shocks), and not performed on a stage.

No, the AESTHETICS of this performance are important as well. It's as though the success of the aforementioned experiment depends partly on whether the experimenter is wearing footwear which compliments the style of the electroencephalogram.

During the rehearsal there were constant negotiations between the artistic director, the associate director, and all ten dancers about the smallest details of the piece. This process was collaborative and everybody offered suggestions, and while some were practical -- dealing with safety, for instance -- and some related to theme, most of them were based on simple aesthetic considerations.

The discussions about the look and feel of the piece were the only extended and difficult ones I witnessed; should the dancers who perform the "knee burn" be hesitating before they slide, or should they dive right in? When two dancers do an impromptu translation from French to English, should they do it cautiously or should they just shout over each other? And how noisy should each of them be when they all count out loud?

A lot of discussion went into what one particular dancer should do during a three-minute segment. When somebody suggested that she should run to the back wall and press herself against it, associate director Bonnie Kim said "That's great. I love the wall." And everybody agreed.

"Loving the wall" has nothing to do with the theme of "60 Dances in 60 Minutes." There is no thematic reason why that dancer, at that time, should do that particular action. It's not a plot thing, it's not a character thing. It just seemed good.

In another one of our whispered conferences, Jacob agreeed that aesthetic decisions are pervasive and important to him, and they provide another aspect of what the audience may take away from the show: does it feel right? Is it well-paced? Is there enough variety?

Some modern works are composed entirely within rigid initial constraints, which is why they may come across as dry, pedantic, and mechanical. There must always be the consideration of how much one should deviate from (or add to) the central conceit in order to appeal to form and feeling, those most subjective of audience impressions. Does it look or sound good? Does it resonate nicely? Does it move so far from the theme that the point is lost and the audience is distracted?

Sometimes yes, if you're as literal-minded as I am. When the dancers jog or slide or tickle each other, a somewhat grumpy part of my brain wants to know "why are they sliding?" because I can't relate those things to my everyday life. When a stranger walks up to me on the street and spends three minutes explaining to me how to bake a Shepherd's pie, I think he's insane and he probably wants to put me IN the pie, which is not pleasing at all. It's kooky.

Jacob whispers to me about furnishing a room: there are basic rules regarding size and clearance, but there are also aesthetic considerations. It's not generally desirable to eliminate either consideration: you end up with a fully rule-based composition (like a boiler room) or one that looks great but your friends avoid, because the couch is too far away from the coffee table, and you can't see the TV properly, and when you touch the wall it collapses.

If modern dance doesn't appeal to the eye, has it failed? Conversely, if it ONLY appeals to the eye, is it nothing more than an awkward Hokey-Pokey that you're not allowed to join?


Why all this speculation? Why didn't I ask Jacob or director Michael Trent what THEY felt the audience would perceive?

I'm not lazy, honest! I wanted to develop my own ideas about the piece, and I also wanted to glean -- non-verbally, instinctively -- what they subconsciously hoped for and expected. What would be a success for them? What would failure be? Did success or failure even matter?

The primary impression I got was that they enjoy what they do, they are intensely interested in their audience, and they are confident that people WILL appreciate and understand it. During the four hours I was there I didn't actually see them debate their methods of communicating their ideas, but those discussions probably happened long ago, during the initial planning stages, before the February shows ever happened.

And me? My original plan was to go to several rehearsals and try to see the process from different angles, but I don't think I would have learned anything more than I already did, and besides I'd need a lot more exposure in order to make this really be about THEM or YOU instead of ME.

All I REALLY know is that, despite all of my kvetching and analyzing and quizzing, I'm impressed with what they're doing and I can't wait to see the show. I'm sure I'll enjoy it. I won't know why, thank goodness. I think I just will.

But I'll have to take all other performances as they come, much as I would a book, or a film...or even a symphony.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Night With the Creeps

As a child and a teen I had a strange ability to re-watch movies, and while I still enjoy seeing a good movie two or three times, back then I could literally watch my favourite films ad nauseum. Dozens of times. With as many different people as possible. Until I knew every line and nuance off by heart.

Only certain movies could invite such scrutiny, and one of them has finally been given the deluxe treatment after twenty-three years. If you're not a film geek then you may never have heard of it, but otherwise you might be as excited as I was today: yes, I finally got my hands on the at-long-last release of "Night of the Creeps" on DVD.

This is not a film for everybody. As fun as it is as a successful blend of horror, comedy, sci-fi, and cop story, it's just complicated enough to confuse the inattentive. Much of the joy is in the little details -- now gloriously visible after years of bootlegs and VHS copies -- so if you're unwilling (or unable) to put the pieces together...well, you'll just find it confusing and annoying.

One thing that's exciting about this release is to finally have one of my personal, esoteric obsessions be reaffirmed: other people love the movie for the same reasons I do! They've had the same questions and impressions over the years that *I* have had, but which I've never been able to share! Though nobody comments on the coolness of Stan Ridgway appearing twice on the soundtrack (I hope he gets residuals).

It's also wonderful to see the director (Fred Dekker) finally get acknowledgment for the unique little film that he poured his soul into, only to see it flop and disappear from sight. Now, suddenly, "Night of the Creeps" has a new fan base, and it's getting the recognition that he (and we) always knew it deserved.

Despite the dozens of times I've seen the movie, there are lots of little things that I only noticed for the first time with this new transfer: the trails of blood and goop that the departing slug-creatures leave, and the dead goldfish in the dorm room, and the collapsing frat boy that was previously obscured due to pan-and-scan. And it's a thrill to finally have the director explain certain oddities in the movie...why was Cynthia Cronenberg's final line cut off during her fade-out with Brad (because it was deemed too raunchy), and what was with J.C.'s awkward and nonsensical shout of "Tell HIM that"? (he was responding to a line of dialog that was subsequently cut).

The cast interviews are a bit saccharine in their (apparently genuine) love for the film, but the deleted scenes are very cool, especially a bizarre and stagey '50s scene that probably would have alienated audiences.

I'm in heaven. One of my favourite movies has been restored to look better than it probably ever did, some new material has been revealed, and many mysteries have finally been solved. So sad that a piece of entertainment should make me feel so happy! But I think that "Night of the Creeps" was a truly special film, not least because it finally made us realize how creepy "The Stroll" by The Diamonds was. I gives me shivers now whenever I hear it.


Everybody needs a great cartoon on a Friday morning.

(The cartoon -- from December 28, 1929 -- by Leonard Dove, a frequent contributor of covers and cartoons to The New Yorker until the early '60s. As is usual with artists and poets of the time I can't find a biography for him)

Ouch, My Other Shoulder!

When I got my H1N1 shot, I thought I'd be smart and get them to inject it into my LEFT shoulder, so that the RIGHT one -- with the torn-but-possibly-healing labrum -- wouldn't get any worse.

A few hours later the muscle in my left shoulder began to ache. This is okay until I try to sleep, at which time I can't even REMOTELY support myself with my left arm without experiencing a momentary twinge of absolute agony...the same twinge I've been getting in my RIGHT shoulder for the past year, and which I've managed to cope with by sleeping with all my weight...on my left arm.

So my last two nights have been like this: roll over to the left, wake up with shoulder pain, finally fall asleep again. Turn to the right, wake up with pain in the OTHER shoulder, finally fall asleep again. Repeat dozens of times.

Despite the frustration -- and the fact that I'm writing this at 5am -- I think this is amusing, because sometimes I suspect that I'm living in a farce and it's nice to have my suspicions confirmed. I just hope that the bruised muscle in my left shoulder finally settles down. I gave in and started icing it tonight.

PS: How is my right shoulder, you're asking? I've stopped going to physiotherapy -- because we'd reached a plateau -- and started daily exercises again. I wasn't paying much attention to its progress until I noticed that I could once again touch my chest, and that I could SORT OF put my hand behind my back without hitting the invisible wall that's been back there for almost a year.

They say your shoulder labrum can heal if given enough rest and time, and maybe my regular exercises are finally paying off. My shoulder's still crazy -- it "clicks" due to misalignment and it still doesn't turn outwards properly -- but there has been SOME progress, somewhere, somehow.

Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

60 Dances in 60 Minutes - The General Idea

This morning I was invited to attend rehearsals for the upcoming "60 Dances in 60 Minutes" show, which will be performed November 4th at The Registry Theatre. They didn't invite me because I'm a spectacular hoofer with hotcha feet, but because...

...well, just because. Let me explain.

I love to dance in a bar. I enjoy the "Thriller" dance just as much as the next person. I get a kick out of Ann Miller's tapping, and if I ever dust off my barely-worn tap shoes I just might decide to annoy my neighbours again.

But I don't understand "contemporary" dance. Watching a contemporary dance troupe, for me, is like watching sign language: I appreciate the craft and I understand that it has a history and a meaning and a complexity (and perhaps even a syntax), but I simply can't tell one movement from another. "Sun" might as well be "bathtub" for all I know, just as the movements of contemporary dance could be "Reaching for the tragic revelation hidden behind my lover's smile" or "Ouch, my arm!" at any given time.

I am certainly not the only person who doesn't "get" contemporary dance; lots of people find it baffling. And what's the best way to explain it to the uncomprehending majority?

Simple: send in a Mister EveryMuffy to have a look, somebody who is INTERESTED, and somebody who can EXPRESS confusion and revelation and perhaps even boredom in a widely-read (if I do say so) blog. It's even better if that EveryMuffy will do it just for the fun of it.

I know all too well that some ambitious plans don't work out. Maybe I'll find myself totally uninspired by the proceedings and unable to say anything that is interesting. Maybe, while poking around the Registry Theatre, I'll accidentally drop a sandbag on somebody -- please not artistic director Michael Trent -- and get kicked out for causing a ruckus.

But maybe not. If the stars align during the next week then you -- the curious dance outsider -- might read something of interest in this blog. And I might decide that even if I can't express complex emotions with my uncoordinated body, I might at LEAST learn how to finally do The Twist.

The Urgent Care

Three hours in the urgent care clinic, confined to a room full of coughing people, one heartbreaking baby girl who wheezed terribly while crying, another baby who promptly vomited in the corner.

Most of us wore masks and did a complex shuffle to allow old or frail people to sit down. First we wrote our names on an admission sheet, and then we waited to be called for registration. I sat on a small table and read my book, always listening for my name, and also listening to the other names and the deft ability of clinic workers to pronounce Hispanic surnames, Arabic ones, Japanese ones, East Indian ones.

There were very few hitches to break the monotony of everybody staring at everybody else. First was the woman who kept returning to insist that she be allowed to get an H1N1 shot, even though she wasn't in a high-risk group. She'd argue, the receptionist would explain, she'd argue some more, she'd leave the clinic in anger, and five minutes later she'd come back again.

Other hitches were the people who signed the admission sheet without actually having their children present, and then were called to registration to have their ruse revealed. After having already waited ninety minutes in line, these people were sent home to get their children, only to return and go through the whole process all over again.

The rest of us, I suspect, had a subdued loathing for the angry people and the rule-breakers, and then we smiled inside when their efforts were thwarted. WE were sitting quietly and following all the rules. COMPLIANT mothers were entertaining their children for three hours out of their busy day. By vicariously enjoying the punishment of others, we reaffirmed our own worthiness, even though we were wearing hot facemasks and sitting for hours with extremely sick people.

There was a dignified old man who refused all offers of seating, only to collapse gently when a chair became naturally available. An impromptu trio of cynical strangers entertained themselves by the free telephone. A small boy reached out and tilted my book up to see what it was, and perhaps to read the blurb on the back: "Jerry Cornelius copulates, hallucinates, devastates..."

"I don't know how much longer it will take," the receptionist kept saying. "Probably hours. Everybody's in the same situation, you'll have to take your turn."

After I got my H1N1 shot they sent me out the back door, to reduce my exposure to sick and coughing people. A black, swollen bruise has slowly formed and now I have TWO useless biceps. Tiny virus, stay away from me until I am fully immunized.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Songs That My Brain Obsesses Over

Soaring melodies, poignant lyrics, catchy hooks, quirky vocals...the right combination of those elements turn my brain into a tape recorder on endless loop. For weeks after hearing such a song I am totally unable to get it out of my head. They affect my worldview and prevent me from sleeping. They POSSESS me.

Two years ago it was the live version of "I Know What I'm Here For" by James, but since their record company -- in their infinite wisdom -- prevent me from embedding the clip, I guess I can't promote the song any further.

A few months ago it was "Uninvited," a cover by The Freemasons with Bailey Tzuke's fabulous vocals.

In this case it's the lyrics that really speak to me, and Tzuke's mostly-deadpan vocals...not at all what you'd expect with such a dancey interpretation. Anyway, this song expresses exactly how it feels to be an occasionally sought-after fetish.

Now it's "I Am Not a Robot" by Marina and the Diamonds. Again, I can relate nicely to the lyrics, but her quirky vocal! As an added bonus, the video is fabulous.

For the last two nights this song has been going endlessly through my head. There's something about it. Maybe you'll be cursed with it now?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Strangeness of Art

I'm awake at 7am on a Saturday because my living room chairs are being delivered "bright and early," on the heels of my coffee table, end tables, and cute mini-dining room set. After these chairs arrive I will have acquired all essential furniture. Then I can start on phase two: storage of books and DVDs.

But during phase two I'll be considering...artwork. What to hang on my huge bare walls? I don't want to go and buy anonymous mass-produced prints simply because they're the right size and colour. I want to have things that MEAN something to me.

I'm looking forward to this puzzle, actually, because having something to hang above my couch isn't essential to my happiness, so it could take YEARS for me to find the right thing. Years of finally having a reason to buy the pieces produced by artist friends, I hope.

Oh, so many options!

Friday, October 23, 2009

There's a Knox Store Convenient to Every Social Rendezvous

For several months in 1929 the "Knox Store" had been warning New Yorker readers about the folly of wearing the wrong hat. In these advertisements, the unlucky fellow would show up at a football game in a tophat, or at a piano recital in a bowler, the point being that only Knox can keep you stylish and "proper" for every event.

None of these ads have been interesting enough to post...until this one from December 21st.

Why is the child running away and crying?
Far better for the heirs to know at once that there isn't any Santa Claus than to render them permanent idiots by his sudden appearance in the Wrong Hat, just because you rather fancied yourself in the part.
So if you're playing Santa this year, make sure you wear the correct Santa hat...otherwise you'll turn all the little heirs into permanent idiots.


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Bell Canada Punches Me in the Nose

Remember me saying that "Everything went smoothly with Bell Canada during my move?" Well, not quite everything, it turns out.

Tonight I got a call informing me that I had an outstanding bill of over $200, and I was like, what? I hadn't gotten any bills in the mail, and I've even registered for ebills to prevent just such a thing happening. Of course I'm happy to pay my bills, but why wasn't I getting them?

So I went online and logged into my Bell account, which happily informed me that I owed no money. But then I noticed that it was displaying my old address, and that the last bill was from obviously my account information had CHANGED.

My next step was to call Bell's notoriously awful outsourced technical support. First he wanted to verify my identity by using the new customer ID and account number THAT I HAD NEVER BEEN SENT. After we got around that little problem, we discovered that the final number in my postal code was incorrect. In his words: "You gave us the wrong postal code, which is why you haven't gotten your paper bills." My response: "I gave you the RIGHT postal code, and you entered it incorrectly."

I asked him how I could access my new account online, and he said "I'm not an expert on that, you'll need to email our support team or have an online chat with them. There is nobody you can talk to on the phone."

Then he tried to sell me Bell's cable service. I told him he was about to lose a customer entirely.

Armed with my new account number and customer ID I was ready to pay the bill online, but first I wanted to see what exactly I was paying for. So I registered for a new account at Bell's website...but it wouldn't let me complete the form because "Somebody is already using that email address."


I logged back into the old account and went through the laborious process of deleting it. Finally I managed to create a new account, and when I tried to hook it up to my billing information so I could see the bill...guess what? It wants to know my "bill date." And guess where that information is?

On the paper bill. Which I never received. Because they screwed up my postal code.

Remembering what the awful tech support guy had said -- that there's no way to get website help without using email or a chat window -- I searched the entire Bell site for contact info regarding account issues. Nope! Nothing.

So I tried chatting about "Billing" instead, and got a very slow (but fortunately human) typist who -- after the fifth identity check of the afternoon -- finally gave me my "bill date."

I entered the information. I clicked through a bunch of confusing windows. I finally clicked on the link that's supposed to show me the bill I have to pay...

..."Since your account is new, it will take at least fifteen minutes for this information to become available. Please check back later."

Fifteen minutes. Long enough for me to say: yes, Bell often sucks for two reasons: outsourced technical support and tangled bureaucracy.

I am still a customer. Barely.

I finally get into my bill and what do I see? THE BILLING ADDRESS IS STILL MY OLD ADDRESS. So buddy was telling me that I wasn't getting my bills because my POSTAL CODE was wrong, but I'm REALLY not getting my bills because THEY HAVEN'T CHANGED MY F*CKING ADDRESS.

What part of "I'm moving" didn't they understand?

Of course I discovered this at 7:04pm, and their support lines close at 7:00pm. Right on the button. They won't answer the doubt they're too busy sending stuff to my previous address, you know, the one I switched my phone service from.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Michael Moorcock's "A Cure for Cancer"

Michael Moorcock's novel "A Cure for Cancer" is broken up into small chapters, each one headed with a lurid tabloid-style headline which may or may not relate to the text. The chapters themselves are all of a single tone: laid-back and deadpan and absurdist, featuring dead-eyed characters who do random things to other dead-eyed characters within static sets; there are lots of vehicles and rooms that are an awful lot like the vehicles and rooms which came before.

While the tone remains the same, the direction of the story changes every few paragraphs. Characters will be contemplating something, and then suddenly there will be a bombing or a battle or maybe just the arrival of other characters, and then everybody moves to a vehicle, and then they're someplace else, all in the span of four or five paragraphs. Because of this lack of focus, you never know what's going to happen next; when people get into a vehicle you don't know where they're going until they arrive.

More importantly, even when they DO arrive, you don't know WHY, because the characters are all identical and none of them have any motivation. You cannot tell the hero -- Jerry Cornelius -- apart from anybody else. You have no idea what anybody wants, feels, or believes. The characters just ARE, and when they talk, they speak in a free-flowing semi-witty banter which has all the sense and purpose of two plastic balls rubbing together:
"And how did you leave Europe?" Captain Brunner unbuttoned his uniform jacket to show a yellow shirt of Sea Island Cotton.

"Much as I hope to find it." Jerry pushed his dinner away and took another sip of his Californian Riesling. "It's an uphill struggle."

"Perhaps it always will be, Jerry."

"One door opens. Another closes."

"Isn't that for the best?"

Jerry raised a jet black hand to a jet black face and rubbed his right eye. Captain Brunner smiled.

"The illusion of power," said Jerry. "It sometimes seems too sweet for words."

"Or actions, for that matter."

It's all f*cking like that.

Very few books annoy me to the point where I put them down after 100 pages, but "The Cure for Cancer" is one of them. It seems to me to be Michael Moorcock's great big joke; a combination of moddish flippancy and William S. Burroughs' disdain for linearity. Separately, those things are good enough when done well...but when put together it's like experiencing somebody's really boring dream.

I enjoyed (most of) Moorcock's Elric stories, and I liked his first Jerry Cornelius book well enough ("The Final Programme"), but "A Cure for Cancer" is so wanky and featureless that I fear I'm "off" Moorcock. There are so many great authors out I really want to spend time and money on the guy who wrote this awful book?

Well, yes. Because I think I recognize what Moorcock was trying to do, and I suppose I respect him for at least trying. I'm also sure there are people out there who love "A Cure for Cancer," just as there are people who love William S. Burroughs.

So I'll give him another chance. But I'm warning you, Michael, that the next one had better be good...

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Cold Coffee Makes Cold Hearts

The last time we joined the Edicraft company, they were saving marriages with easy-to-make toast. But apparently that wasn't enough.
She poured. He tasted. She smiled. He scowled. She wept. He left.
What is the latest sin of the 1929 bride?
And thus was another romance drowned in a cup of pallid coffee. Higher courts have ruled that grounds in the cup are grounds for divorce in every state of the Union...
Yes, the folks at Edicraft must have realized that divorces happened even for those who owned the Edicraft Speed Toaster! A new innovation was required to keep men from scampering at the breakfast table...

...the Edicraft Siphonator!

(Mistletoe not included, and best not put inside the Siphonator anyway).

"Electric, automatic in operation, massively-modern in design," the Edicraft Siphonator was...well, a coffee maker. The advertising copy fails to state why it's so darn great, except for mentioning that it has a "left-hand tap" which dispenses hot water for tea...or for diluting the coffee you've poured out of the right tap.

So on Decemeber 14, 1929, the Edicraft people had found a new way to keep marriages together. But what, I ask, of the undercooked pancakes?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Fury. The Barracks. Zsa Zsa. Animal Behaviour. Sociology.

I am absolutely DETERMINED to keep my house in tip-top shape. Since I've moved in I have been developing routines for everything that requires maintenance: watering the plants as soon as I come home, cleaning the bathroom and kitchen once a week, making sure dishes and pop cans move steadily to their appropriate short, organizing everything so that cleanliness and maintenance are easy to accomplish.

I haven't gotten the dish-washing routine figured out yet, and most rooms are still so unfinished that I can't get a handle on them, but for the most part I've been thrilled with my progress.

Then, today, I came home and discovered that my beloved cat has been peeing all over my basement crawlspace.

I positively f*cking SNAPPED. To see (and smell) all of my most meticulous attentions thwarted by what seemed (at the time) to be a flippant and whimsical disregard for her litterbox...well, I suddenly understood domestic hatred. I understood how people can -- momentarily -- wish that their loved ones were dead.

It was amazing. As I crawled around in the basement wiping up more and more fresh cat piss, I seriously wished that Zsa Zsa would die. I believed that if she died I would feel only relief. She kept trying to sneak back into the crawlspace, and I kept throwing heavy objects at her to drive her away. Finally I managed to build a barrier that should keep her out, and I told myself that if she peed ONE MORE TIME outside her litterbox I'd take her straight to the vet and get her put down.

As you can imagine, she studiously avoided me for half an hour, and by the time she reappeared I was ready to make nice, and by way of coincidental apology she peed in her litterbox shortly afterward...not even in the tin pan I keep outside the litterbox door, which she usually uses.

Tomorrow I'll buy white vinegar and see if it works as well as the Old Wives say it does, and if that fails...well, I hear that stinky concrete can be sealed, though I don't know how (or at what cost).

In the meantime, though, I'm a little bit shaken at my ability to see Zsa Zsa as nothing more than an inconvenience. I think I understand -- a tiny bit -- those people who go into screaming fits when kids bicycle across their front lawns. I suppose that investing a huge amount of money, hope, and emotion into an inanimate object can skew your priorities a bit.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dance Heads Make Me Slightly Ill

I just stumbled across something called "Dance Heads."

Maybe everybody's already been exposed to this's a booth which superimposes your head over a dancing body. It ends up looking like somebody just vomited on an early-'90s computer-generated cartoon. With heads.

This amazes me for several reasons. First, it's the most gaudy disposable kitsch imaginable, resulting in a hideous patchwork of colours and concepts. I can only assume that it's SUPPOSED to be that ugly, in the same way that bobbleheads and car commercials are deliberately annoying: if they had any class, people wouldn't notice them.

Second, it's expensive.

Third, the people who do them -- and there are a lot of them on YouTube -- invariably look embarassed and way too sober, maybe because they realize that it isn't nearly as fun as the obnoxiously chipper avatar says it's going to be. And also because they don't know all the words.

What's interesting -- but not surprising -- is that most of the men in the YouTube clips have chosen GIRL BODIES. So at least Dance Heads has cathartic potential.

Thursday, October 08, 2009


Ever since I've moved away from my parent's house, I've lived either in grotty student housing, behind a controlled-access entryway, or on the other side of an inconspicuous doorway. I have rarely suffered the onslaught of door-to-door solicitation.

That just changed.

On Monday I got the "chocolate bars for kids" hard sell from a gang of precocious pre-teens. I was so entertained by their pushy ring-leader -- a little girl who yelled "SHUT UP!" at the boy who tried to muscle in on her sales pitch -- that I happily gave them my money.

Today was the "sponsor a third-world child" routine, pushed by the best salesman I've ever had the dubious fortune to meet. This is how he started:
"Hey, you're wondering why I'm standing at your front door. I'll give you $50 to punch me in the face! Seriously! No, I'm just kidding, only some guy down the street threatened to punch me in the face. Really! No, no, I'm only joking, that's not true. Anyway..."
When -- in response to a question -- I confessed that I don't watch television, he asked me who my favourite author was. "William T. Vollmann" came to mind first, and that's what I said, but by suspecting (correctly) that I had gone all highbrow capital-L Literature on him, he came back by saying:
"I'm a big fan of Vonnegut myself. Have you read any?"

"Oh...just 'Slaughterhouse Five' and 'Galapagos,' I'm reading some Nabokov right now--"

"Yeah, Vladimir! Great stuff! Anyway..."
This guy did such a fabulous tap-dance that it almost hurt to say no. But that's the thing about good salespeople...they're like fortune-tellers, instantly able to switch tracks and gloss over the subject they suspect you're most interested in. I'm sure that if I said I watched a lot of sports, he'd have been able to come up with a list of pretty obscure players.

Still, not many people can throw "Vladimir" at you.

Anyway, this makes me realize that -- for the first time -- my door will be a target for Hallowe'en trick-or-treaters. Small communities of anonymous condos must be GOLDEN for kids on Hallowe'en. But I've never handed candy out before and something about it...well...scares me.

I like the fact that I can't conveniently curl up and ignore the world in my house, but am I ready to face dozens of children? Do I know what to say to them? Do I know how much candy I'll need?

Right now I'm torn between "Hand out candy" and "Turn off the lights and read in the basement." I'm sure I'll waffle between decisions for a long time to come...

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Saga of the Bathroom

The previous owners of The Barracks had interesting taste in colour and style. The kitchen -- in stuart gold (HC-10) -- almost smells of sunflowers, planted on the great plains (CC-334) of the prairie dustbowl. Meanwhile some of the walls are a depressing mocha brown (2107-20) and the master bedroom is a downright murderous terra cotta tile (2090-30).

The bathroom, however, is in beautiful smoked oyster (2109-40), and while the rest of my furniture whizzes hither in trucks and trains (except for my living room chairs, which apparently are being upholstered by narcoleptic turtles), the bathroom remains the most finished part of the house.

And look at that bathroom light! They previously had a beautiful fixture in there that perfectly matched the decor...but only took sixty watt "chandelier bulbs," within nearly-opaque frosted glass, mounted high on pedestals which cast shadows on...well, everything.

Getting "into face" is difficult enough in the best of lighting, but if you can't even see yourself without a flashlight...well, you'll end up looking great in the bathroom, but you'd better STAY in the bathroom for the rest of the night. No, it was definitely time for a brand new super-bright light.

So my mom and I (you'll read that a lot in this blog) went hunting for a bathroom light, and while the plain-jane horizontal vanity fixture seemed the most practical...well, it looked CHEAP. Second-best was a mirrored light which dangled up to 200 watts of pure brilliant glare.

But how to install it? I had vague plans about getting a more knowledgeable friend to do it, but on Saturday morning I decided not to allow myself to be victimized by simple home renovation, even if it meant getting electrified and killed during my first week here.

Fortunately the light came with (vague) instructions, and after shutting off the power and sticking a flashlight between my shoulder and chin, I undertook the nontrivial task of removing the old fixture and then wiring, placing, and screwing in the new fixture all by myself. Without drinking any coffee first.

And as you can see from the picture...I did it! It's so bright in there that you can't look above the mirror without suffering temporary blindness! And now I can find all the crusty shampoo-bottle rings that the previous owners left behind!

I'll post more pictures as other rooms approach some level of completeness, but here's a picture of what Zsa Zsa did during the first week.

That's right, she sat on the back of that chair and hugged it for dear life. It was the only piece of comfy furniture I retained during the move, and even though she'd never cared for it in the old place...well, suddenly it became her bestest friend.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Dr. Seuss and Flit: "Selfless Death"

Awwww, this one is truly sad. Not even the ubiquitous cat could bear to be in it.

From the December 7, 1929 issue of The New Yorker. Weep!