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improbable-looking limestone karsts in Guilin

Monday, April 13, 2015

What I Did for Love

I was fairly relaxed that morning, just lying in. Nowhere I had to go that early in the day, nobody expected anything from me. I wasn't aware of just how relaxed I was until my quiet was shattered by the melodic tones of Venus, calling my name as she might call a cat.

"Oh, BACCH-us!" she said, completely ending a dream in which I was floating happily down a great purple river of finely aged grape juices. I looked around unhappily, quickly determined that there was no river, and closed my eyes to try and go back.

"Bacchus, honey, open your eyes! It's morning. Don't you want to see your sweet Venus?" I peeped once and closed my eyes again. Normally, the Goddess of Love is a sight for sore eyes, but that morning, my eyes were actually sore, and no sight was sweet enough for that. "No," I said, ungraciously, then remembered my manners. "Please go away."

"Bacchus, I've just seen the sweetest little man, and I'd like to meet him, just for a little while, and you're just the one to help me do it."

Now I was awake. Not 100% awake yet, but enough that I knew I wasn't going to be sleeping again anytime soon, so I might as well just open my eyes and face the revoltingly bright, cheerful Olympus morning and my demure torturer. "What," I asked in the loudest voice that didn't make my head throb unpleasantly, "Would make you go away, Venus?"

"Speak up, darling," she said brightly, "And it'll help if you point your face in the general direction of my ears. Up here." She pointed helpfully. I suppose it was my fault she always wore that tunic of hers, and gave the impression of always wearing trick underwear, when in fact... how can I put this? ...she didn't.

"WHAT DO YOU--" My voice hurt. I tried again, letting clear enunciation carry the burden instead of volume. "What. Do. You. Want. Venus?" That was better, but my lips didn't care for it. There's no satisfying everybody.

She started explaining, in the patient tones of a high-school boy's dream substitute teacher. "I saw the most adorable little mortal, Bacchus. In the water. And I thought, well, wouldn't it just be sweet if I could go down and give him the nicest night of his life?" Her tone was fairly dripping with ambrosia. Now, I'm not normally an ambrosia man, but there's no denying it has its appeal, and it was certainly reaching me, in spite of -- or maybe because of -- my weakened state.

"Well, what do you want -me- to do about it?" I said, then realized that I had as much as given in to her. At least, that's how she would interpret it, and I was beginning to think that if I just agreed with her, she might leave me alone so I could look behind my eyelids for that river of grappa once again. "Why don't you just go down there yourself?"

"Well, you see..." she said, hesitantly, slipping around behind me at the same time, "there's just this little difficulty." With as much smoothness as, say, the god of oil, she had raised me to a sitting position, and started rubbing the knots and frays out of my neck and upper back. She raised her voice a tad to be heard over the involuntary sighs and groans I didn't know I was making. "He's the sweetest thing, but he's just a little bit of a stick in the mud." She leaned in closer to whisper in my ear, and I could feel her pressing against my back. Hangover or not, I was starting to feel like I could do great things.

But I knew that if I agreed right away to her little assignation, she'd stop persuading me, so I continued to protest. "You don't need me to help you," I said, leaning back just ever so slightly. "You know you've got what it takes. If you set your mind to it --" I tilted my head up and back to look up at her, which practically put me in her lap. "-- you could make a High Priest jump over the altar."

"Well, to tell the truth, that's almost what I want to do." She wrinkled her nose conspiratorially at me. "He's not quite a High Priest, but he's a Bishop, and his church is just so stuffy! You have no idea what things are like down there nowadays!" I just shrugged. I knew that people still pressed the grape, they still drank when they could, and the little world below us still turned as it always had. "So what I want you to do, Bacchus-kins (I'm afraid this is the closest translation I can render for her endearment in terms that make sense to you.), is to go down there and get him just a little teeny bit... you know."

"Swacked," I said. "Spifflicated. Falling-down friendly."

"Tipsy," she said. "Just so I can talk to him and he won't be such a prune."

"And why, my sweet Venus, should I do this for you?" I asked, quietly.

"Well," she said, idly touching one of the leaves I was wearing, "after all, I am well aware of your love of feminine beauty."

"Yes," I admitted, "I do have an eye for the fairer sex."

"And I know that you would just be so sad if your sweet little Bacchantes all started saying, 'Not tonight, Bacchus! We have a headache.'"

I looked up at where she was still beaming sweetly at me. I shaded my eyes from her brilliance, feeling a headache of my own forming behind a spot between my eyebrows, and realized that my forehead was knotting itself. Like it or not, there was wisdom in her words. "I'll see what I can do," I said.


It was late when I returned. She was waiting up for me, and I could see the threatening shadow of a snit clouding her fine features. "And just where have you been?" she demanded. The ambrosia had been replaced with icicles, but at the moment, I didn't care.

"I've been plying your little Bishop with the fruit of the vine, as you asked, dear cousin."

"And did that take you the entire night? Is he made of the stuff of Hercules?"

"No, not Hercules. I plied him, and got him just ever so slightly tipsy, as you asked." I put a certain emphasis on those last three words. "And, as you desired, he became less stern, less unbending..."

"And why did you not summon me, so that I could enjoy his company? I was all ready for him -- I even dressed for him!" Now that she mentioned it, I could see she was wearing a black robe, such as a choir singer in the Bishop's church would wear. If I'd been in a better mood, I'd have found it fetching.

"He was in the mood for different game, my Lady."

"What ever do you mean, different game?"

"I mean that I have spent the last two hours evading the drunken affection of a Bishop on earth. As he drank, he kept leaning to me, telling me the most tedious details of his life. I know enough about it now that I could be a Bishop myself, if I ever decide to leave here and set up shop on Earth below! And with the fourth drink, he started to pursue me. Around and around the cathedral that wretch chased me. I should have just flown away, but the cavernous place was so large, I got lost..."

"Oh, my! Who ever knew he was so inclined?" Venus pretended shock, and pulled the front of her robe a few inches with her fingers in ventilation, as if she was contemplating a faint. "Well, I certainly can't hold you responsible for that."

Emotions chased themselves across her fair face. Her cold anger gave way to warm embarrassment, then that was replaced with wide innocence -- one of her best effects -- and finally, she inclined to me and gave me a look of forgiveness. "You have done your best," she said, graciously. "Though I am disappointed, you will find I am still generous.

"Your little followers -- the ladies, I mean -- will be as warm to you as ever. Now you must excuse me. I go to change my garments and rest to overcome my sorrow at this turn of events."

And she was off. Generous as always, she had allowed me to do what I would have done anyway, and all I had to pay for it was to waste an entire day drinking sherry with a lascivious clergyman when all I wanted was to sleep. I watched her walking away in those satiny robes and knew what I would dream about.

Sunday, March 29, 2015


This, to me, is proof that P.J. O'Rourke used to be funny, and not just when he was a commie agitator thinking of ways to put tits in the National Lampoon. No, he was still funny way into his downhill political slide, and he only really stopped being funny when he finally got the memo to always punch down, not up, not straight across, just down.

But here he is, in 1988, perhaps at the point where rising conservatism and not-yet-plunging humor met on the graph, resulting in what I still regard as genuine American humor in the tradition of Twain, at the end of a longish Rolling Stone piece where he visited the world's trouble spots, only to find more love for us than hate in those heady days before George W. Bush.

(Hey, maybe that's why he stopped being funny. Cheering on the death of satire might do that to you. Seems more likely, though, that he was replaced by a smarmy clone with the humor section replaced with a sign that says REMEMBER THAT JIMMY CARTER IS UGLY.)

Anyway, after all the war zones, he goes to the place where he can still find America haters.

Back in London, I was having dinner in the Groucho Club—this week’s in-spot for what’s left of Britain’s lit glitz and nouveau rock riche—when one more person started in on the Stars and Stripes. Eventually he got, as the Europeans do, to the part about “Your country’s never been invaded.” (This fellow had been two during the Blitz, you see.) “You don’t know the horror, the suffering, you think war is… 
I snapped.
“A John Wayne movie,” I said. “That’s what you were going to say, wasn’t it? We think war is a John Wayne movie. We think life is a John Wayne movie—with good guys and bad guys, as simple as that. Well, you know something, Mister Limey Poofter? You’re right. And let me tell you who those bad guys are. They’re us. WE BE BAD.  
“We’re the baddest-assed sons of bitches that ever jogged in Reeboks. We’re three-quarters grizzly bear and two-thirds car wreck and descended from a stock market crash on our mother’s side. You take your Germany, France, and Spain, roll them all together and it wouldn’t give us room to park our cars. We’re the big boys, Jack, the original, giant, economy-sized, new and improved butt kickers of all time. When we snort coke in Houston, people lose their hats in Cap d’Antibes. And we’ve got an American Express card credit limit higher than your piss-ant metric numbers go.  
“You say our country’s never been invaded? You’re right, little buddy. Because I’d like to see the needle-dicked foreigners who’d have the guts to try. We drink napalm to get our hearts started in the morning. A rape and a mugging is our way of saying ‘Cheerio.’ Hell can’t hold our sock-hops. We walk taller, talk louder, spit further, fuck longer and buy more things than you know the names of. I’d rather be a junkie in a New York City jail than king, queen, and jack of all Europeans. We eat little countries like this for breakfat and shit them out before lunch.” 
Of course, the guy should have punched me. But this was Europe. He just smiled his shabby, superior European smile…

PJ O’Rourke (the funny one) in Holidays in Hell

Saturday, March 28, 2015

a close reading

Overanalysis, based on the stuff I've written on my copy of the music. Unlike a lot of pieces, where I've written just a couple of things, like reminders of a sharp or flat, or a fingering, I really notated this one to the hilt, and now I'm expanding on that, you lucky, lucky person. (almost said 'people')

"The Pink Panther" (theme for the original movie) by Henry Mancini. Arranger's name not given. It'd be nice if it was really Henry's handwork, but if this is an anonymous staffer, I wish they'd allow them to take a bow for the nice job they did here.

Piano solo: the 4-page version, not the punky little two-pager. I searched for years for the longer version of this piece, with the bridge, and found it in one of those cheap, pulp-paper collections that used to go for about $10 and are now maybe $14. 

The piece starts with the cat offstage, and that one ambiguous non-chord drifting in like cigarette smoke from just around a corner, where all we can see is a French Galoise at the end of a long, black holder. 

The accompaniment comes in first, and it tells us a couple of things. It's in sequential paired chords, by which I mean 'dead-ant, dead-ant,' with an accent on each "dead" and "ant" is either quickly released (on the first 'dead-ant') or held (as in the second). This figure strikes me as quite feline, pushing off hard and landing with delicate softness.

[This, to me, is Mancini at his Manciniest, with the loud start and the soft finish. He will also gladly do the opposite, because of his admirable willingness to shake up the formula.]

The melody comes in almost furtively. It’s a sneaky melody: again, feline in nature, congruent with the established accompaniment. With the accents indicated, it's not dead-ANT, dead-ANT…, but DEAD-ant, DEAD-ant. Watch the accents and staccatos carefully, and mind the rests. They make the difference between playing Mancini and just getting to the end.

Bridge. This is why I looked so long for the four-page version. The bridge is where the piece really lets go, and I learned to expect it from hearing it in so many of those Panther cartoons from DePatie-Freleng.

The 4/4 in the left hand throughout the bridge should walk on little cat feet, with self-possessed portamento, and mostly sticking to four pads per measure. It doesn't nail itself to the formula, but most of it is in straight fours.

Second half of the bridge is a "solo"—either play the nice little chords or go for it. Wail or fail. I live in the hope that I will live up to my penciled note and wail on it. I'm in the grey area in between at the moment, neither wailing nor failing utterly. Flailing, maybe.

After the bridge, we're back to the A section again (the second half of the two-page version). This time, it's an octave higher, so slightly less cool. There's a sudden chord inserted in a quiet spot, as if the cat can’t resist sticking a cold paw in your ribs to see if you jump.

It proceeds much like the first part, and ends soft, and then… 

One last poke in the ribs. Mancini got ya!

diminished Liszt

I first became aware of Liszt's piano sonata right around my brief stint as a maid at Holiday Inn. I remember listening to Slobodyanik's exciting performance on my boom box, which went from room to room with me on the cart. (Sad to say, Slobodyanik—young and just starting out on the LP cover—died of meningitis in 2008.) The sonata remains a great pleasure, and my interest was piqued last night to see that it was available on a new (to eMusic, anyway) release in a transcription for solo violin. Not even violin with piano, but solo violin, which puts it in some rarefied company of virtuoso works arranged for the four strings and bow: Liszt's Mephisto Waltz, Schubert's Erlking (calling for both piano and vocal parts to be at least suggested by the lone viol), not to mention solo guitar traversals of Dvorak's 'New World' symphony, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, and Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.

As I pondered paying $6.49 just to find out if she (Vera Vaidman) would make it all the way through, I checked to see if I could find something more to go on than the 30-second clip that consisted of silence, some applause, tuning, and perhaps the first note of the piece, and found the whole thing on YouTube. Viz:

Using my arcane chops, I extracted the audio and listened to it for a while as I went to sleep. The results were much like what I have found in the guitar hero versions mentioned above: large sections of the work are playable, at least to the extent that the melody can be carried along and some accompaniment sketched in or hinted at, but there are also places where the audience might plausibly expect more than two or so distinct lines and a chord here and there, and in these places, the guitarists—Larry Coryell on the Rite, and Kazuhito Yamashita on the others—seems to admit defeat and fall back on windmilling (I think this is called 'shredding') in hopes that the excitement of the rapid motion of fingers fanning strings will satisfy the listener that something musical is happening which conveys the composer's intention. I imagine that the performer can hear the correct notes in there, and expects that we will sort it out in our heads. Whether this is the case or not, I can't. It just sounds like someone punishing the instrument for not having 88 strings.

Thus my disappointment with Vaidman, who fell in love with the arrangement when she happened upon the sheet music, even though by this time the transcriber had had second thoughts on the fiendish difficulty of his work and produced a new edition that answered the criticisms of violinists in sanding down the hardest bits. With endearing quixotry, she would only be satisfied in conquering the extreme problems of the original, and I can't help but respect her for taking the hard way. As I say, there are whole sections that sound fine, but there are too many that don't work. As I started on it again this morning, I could detect a warning flag in the initial measures of the piece, where her intonation slipped a little (do I need to tell anyone how live performances home right in on any part you're not 100% certain of?), and when a real hell-section comes along, like the fugato (here set for pizzicato), the polyphony fails to come off.

So that came off of my iPod. It was a good try, and points for valor are awarded, but as a listener, valor isn't enough. I came here to meditate upon the transcription and the performance, and compare it to other solo string instrument transcriptions—the Erlking and Mephisto solos have been recorded very well by Rachel Barton Pine, among others (I don't know who else has recorded the Mephisto, but it was arranged by Nathan Milstein, who left many recordings)—and I was all set to suggest there are some pieces that should be left to larger instruments, when here came Giora Schmidt.

I don't know if he's playing the 'easier' version, but if he is, then it has everything the piece needs (well, apart from a piano, because I miss those big chords and some of the accompaniment) to sell itself, and with nary a wince. The pizzicato fugato sails by con brio—he puts the bow on the music stand and plucks away two-handed—and his intonation and tone are clear and confident all the way through. He's performing live, too, and I see from another video description that the music stand holds his iPad, from which he's reading the score. Did I mention that my big plan this year is to get a tablet of sufficient size to put my music into it so I can just put it on a piano and play from it? Anyway, the transcription clearly is playable, and more importantly, it sells itself to an audience.

So, there it is. I was going to write one thing, and I ended up writing another. I wholeheartedly recommend the second performance. If you've read down to here, send me money. Baby needs a tablet.

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

The Heart of Hell

Willie Whopper, that congenital li'l liar, sits at a piano in black and white, pounding out his theme song while his dog helps. Though the title on the "Celebrity Productions, Inc" card is VULCAN ENTERTAINS, and though the incomplete color print I have on laserdisk and DVD calls it MASQUERADE HOLIDAY, this is really a 1934 cartoon called HELL'S FIRE, from producer (and legendary animator) Ub Iwerks, who made history at Disney as Mickey Mouse's first animator (and who made the classic SKELETON DANCE as well) before going out to form his own company. Later, he went back to Disney and was subsequently honored for technical innovations (like the multiplane camera). He also animated some bird attacks for Alfred Hitchcock's classic, THE BIRDS.

Now, this cartoon goes back and forth between color (two-strip cinecolor, looking pretty darn good here) and black-and-white, because there are many parts of this particular short that don't exist in black and white at all. It seems to me that here would be a legitimate use for colorization technology, but I digress. This is an improvement over the all-color version I have, because it has all the parts that were cut from my version in an attempt to disguise the fact that this is a cartoon about a little kid and his dog going to Hell (by going down a volcano, not by dying in their wickedness), where they see a mini-pageant of famous monsters in Hell, the precursor of some South Park cartoons where, it seems, every famous person went to Hell. But it's a fun kind of hell, with luaus and parties to help blunt some of the sting of eternal torment. I digress again.

Willie and his dog, who I will refer to as Fido, because if three minutes of searching won't turn up anything better than "his dog," then man was not meant to know. Now he's Fido. Willie and Fido are apparently dicking around atop "the world's most dangerous volcano," as kids will do, and get into a hassle with Satan, who sits around smoking directly under the circular opening of the volcano. He gets irked when Willie drops a rock on his head, but Willie arranges for his dog to lick the lump until it goes down, and everybody's happy as hell again.

Now that the most evil being in all creation is well-disposed toward our hero (and his dog), we go back into color for some light entertainment, as the fallen angel puts on an impromptu parade of unworthies from history for Willy's enjoyment. Napoleon, Nero (fiddling Turkey in the Straw), Rasputin (doing a Hopak and burping rhythmically, he seems to be played by John Barrymore), with Cleopatra and Mark Antony next — he bangs on a cymbal while she twerks at it. I suspect at some point they wanted her can to be hitting the cymbal and chickened out.

Heh. Ub I-twerks.

ahem. Simon Legree whips through next, on a dogsled pulled by bloodhounds, and some eloquently shrugging Pasha? with a blue beard? Eh, he must be Bluebeard. Then the Frederic March Jekyll turns into a hairy Hyde, and the color stops long enough to introduce the guy this cartoon's really all about, Old Man Prohibition. You don't see his label in the color part, but it was clear enough who he was from his long black frock coat, tall hat, and blue nose. Well, he's blue all over, but a lot of that is nose, and the Devil really, really, really dislikes him. The inmates of Hell dislike him. Willie dislikes him. I'm pretty sure the animators hated him intensely. Not sure when in '34 this came out, but Old Man Prohibition was killed in 1933, so he'd have been a fairly recent addition to Hell.

Well, Satan rags him a bit, and the others laugh, and demons with pitchforks chase his ass, knock him down, flatten him, and refill him with booze (including a fairly disgusting maneuver with a funnel that I'll skip describing if it's all the same to you). Whoever chicken-edited this later on, apart from their notable lack of technique, seemed bent on disguising not only Satan and Hell, but the identity of the personification of the 18th Amendment, who had been a standard figure in cartoons for many years by this time. Because any mention of booze at all is tantamount to endorsing it in front of all those wholesome, imitative kiddies! Though, to be fair, the vehemence we will see in "getting" OMP seems almost to be a call for everyone to get drunk in reaction.

There's some by-play with Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the Underworld (and Hell!), who gives Iwerks a chance to really let loose on the incredible Three-ness of everything. One head eats the bone, the next head swallows, the last burps. The music seems designed to hang tripartite jokes on, and in parts of this scene, the note-for-note mickey mousing of the score actually can get a little oppressive. But it's hard to stay oppressed when watching a textbook example of a perfect dog-butt crawl maneuver (which good old Annie was a master of, back in those childhood days), and we perk up readily. If you really want to see Ub let go on triplicate motifs, go find Goldilocks. It's true that the tale calls for exactly three bears, but by the time that cartoon's over, you'll feel like you've been cobbled on the noggin repeatedly and rhythmically for ten minutes by a great big hammer, a middle-sized hammer, and a wee, tiny, baby-sized hammer.

More black and white scenes have Mr. Prohibition frightened by hallucinations (apparently he's an easy DT), but starting to enjoy himself just in time for heightened persecution by the hound of hell. He lurches and dashes awkwardly away down what is apparently the only corridor in Hell, and Satan points and shouts "Stop him!", forgetting that he could manifest lightning hands and catch somebody, the same way he caught Willie and Fido (and remember, future animation scholars, I gave him that name!). So Willie, that little kiss-ass, jumps up and puffs his already-spherical form up, and gives chase. "Satan's Little Pet," as a Far Side cartoon once said.

Willie gets within ass-grabbing range of the fleeing inebriate (who is apparently still not "cool," even though he's as drunk as Hunter S. Thompson), assisted by some of the lightning hands that Satan seems to have tardily recalled. To make up for lateness, they reform themselves into a flaming brace and bit, which of course proceed to drill his keister up to the hilt. Ho ho! He got it in the butt! Walt Disney, I hope you're taking notes on this, because you're going to use this gag in cartoons two times for every hamburger sold at McDonald's. The terror-stricken pariah, ignoring the Ixnay signs, heads into the boiler room. The boiler room of Hell!

For some reason, the image of the red imp (in nice blue gloves and booties) happily pulling the release of the coal chute feeding that furnace is my favorite of the cartoon. The colors are rich and saturated, the floor and walls are a clearly marked stage, and the boiler emits satisfying flames when the coal flies in. Then Willie and Fido (© me!) and the Old Man go barreling into the chute and knock it aside, which (paradoxically) causes it to overload with coal, and in the ensuing ka-boom, all three are blown out of Hell, into a large nest a mile or so away from the world's most dangerous volcano (remember?). The NRA (National Recovery Act, that is) Eagle shows up, posing iconically before unbending into a regular, albeit huge, bird that picks up the trio, glides over the cone of the Hellmouth, and drops Prohibition back to Hell again before flying off with Willie.

So, they really did hate the guy.

Willie, back at the piano, invites us to tell our own lies ("Now YOU tell one!"), but we have learned our lesson! No more lying for us, not even a little white one. If you lie, we end up, like Willie and his dog (Fido!), doing the bidding of the Prince of Hell, before being carried off bodily to an unknown fate by a giant PSA logo. At least we know he came back afterward, seemingly the same happy kid as before, but how could he not be changed by such a horrific experience? How?

Answer: he could not. Some time later, Willie lost a lot of weight, and his voice changed. It's all documented in the films.

Take-away from all this? Never tell the truth. Eat a lot. Prohibition bad. If Satan tells you to "get" someone, don't ask stupid questions, just do it.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Our New Colossus

A gigantic, bronzed statue of a dame,
Gleaming limbs 'neath 'lectric sunlamp tanned;
Below yon giant lamppost, see her stand—
This brazen woman sings her song of flame.
She gestures, having turned from early fame
To spurn unshelter'd poor. Now her hand
Waves them off with heavy book of Rand;
Thro' painted lashes seeks she fitter game.
“Keep your poor and tired trash,” calls she
With ruby'd lips, “Send me your rich, your white
Your lucky heirs, who scheme to live tax-free;
The wretched I refuse—my legal right!
Outsourcing, open-handed men for me—
Above my door I shine the scarlet light!”

[line 8 tweaked 15 Feb 2015]

Saturday, October 11, 2014

this just in (in 1972)

"A recent study by the Food and Drug Administration reveals that over 90% of all alcoholics started with beer. The yellow-ish colored carbonated beverage, which many groups contend is harmless, contains up to 12% of ethanol (c2h5oh), the same active ingredient found in higher quantities in stronger liquor.

"Though the study failed to find a provable cause-effect link between the use of beer and of harder beverages, the researchers did point to 'an atmosphere of experimentation" that was conducive to involvement with more powerful alcoholic drinks."

This was presented as a (fake) news item in a 1972 National Lampoon, and from time to time I want to quote it somewhere, so here it is as a private service. 

Caveat: reproduced from memory, and likely paraphrased as a result, but it's accurate in its particulars.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

baboon river anthology?

This has been festering in my head for a while.


I met a human from a time-lost land
Who said: “A woman, bronze, with diadem
Sits broken, buried slantwise in the sand,
Her legs and trunk are gone: no sign of them.
A head remains, two shoulders, arm and hand,
A torch, long dead, and one piece yet beside,
A copper plaque in whose impassioned plea,
Corroded words bade weary travelers bide.
I traced their meaning; not an easy chore:
‘Give me your masses, yearning to breathe free…
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!’
My horse browsed nigh; the witness to my yell:
You blew it up! Curse you forevermore!
Mad, hairless apes! God damn you all to hell!”

Friday, September 05, 2014

Toon River Anthology continues

It's a long one this time!


No disrespect to Dad, of course, but I never really understood
Why Mom insisted on combing my hair in just that particular way
With those little ‘dags’ always sticking out on the sides. 
The lookalike thing was fun when I was little, but as I grew up,
I wanted to be myself, to be my own man. I asked to change it
When I was sixteen, but she got around me just as easily
As she always got around him. The hair stayed as it was.
I even kept wearing those one-button shirts, just like his.
Years passed. After Dad died, I finally ventured out
And found a college 300 miles away — close enough
For visits, but far enough that I felt independent, able
To make my own decisions and, more importantly,
To make myself something other than a living memorial
To my father. The barber I chose said he’d never seen a cut like it.
I told him to take a picture, because it would soon be gone.
He trimmed it down into a generic cut that I picked
From the poster by his mirror. He chatted away as he cut.
I mumbled assent occasionally, thinking of my new, different life.
For me, the cut symbolized everything regrettable about Dad:
Eccentric, almost willfully so; sticking out inconveniently, 
Yet docile, deferential, even kind of dumb. I was done with it.
The barber brushed and patted and sprayed it with something,
And told me I looked great. In the mirror sat the new man,
Moving when I moved, standing when I stood, brow furrowing
At the exact moment that something looked unsettlingly familiar.
The shop faded away, leaving only me and the staring stranger.
I pushed my hair to the right. He pushed his to the left. I pushed mine back,
As did he. My heart thumped, and I wished I had a sandwich.
For no reason I know, I was holding the barber’s skinny comb.
My hand moved, held it under my nose, not unlike a mustache,
And I knew. I knew him then. I knew myself, and I knew why Mom
Spent all those mornings brushing and combing and spraying my hair
To avoid this moment: The man in the mirror could be none other
Than Mr. Woodley — Herb Woodley, from next door. Dad’s best friend
Who’d died in retirement, down in Florida. The resemblance was clear.
The intolerable moment passed. The barber was still talking. I settled and left.
For the next while, I kept to my room until it was long enough
To restore the way I’d always looked. Well, I stayed in college two years —
Enough to learn I was no office worker; I ended up becoming a mailman.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Jukebox for August 30, 2014

It's Ben Light again (see also January 11, 2009)! Last time we had the science fiction utopian tale of the scientific robot man. This time, we're bending genders just to see what happens, with Ben's unnamed vocalist singing the role of a housewife with a special friend. Clicking the title will send you to archive.org and their meagre collection of his works. Let's see if I can embed the thing.

Okay, I can, but it wants to put all the songs in. Between you and me, I can only recommend numbers 2 and 4. (The extra space is apparently unavoidable.)


I listen for the bell
I’ve primped and powdered so
I know his footsteps well, and in case you didn’t know,
I’ve got a crush
I’ve got a crush on the Fuller Brush Man.

He shows me all his samples
And he looks so wondrous wise
That I can’t help but listen
As he looks into my eyes.
I’ve got a crush
I’ve got a crush on the Fuller Brush Man.

Oh, every time he comes he shows me something new
He sweeps my sitting room
With a fancy broom
He sweeps my dining room
And then my back porch too
For a man like that, what wouldn’t I do?

Oh, he sets me all a-twitter
My, I could write a book
Oh, what a wife that man could make
If only he could cook
I’ve got a crush
I’ve got a crush on the Fuller Brush Man.

[instrumental with tinkly, arpeggiated piano from Ben]

Oh, he takes me in his confidence
And he holds me in his spell
He plays with my… emotions
And he makes me feel, oh, well,
I’ve got a crush
I’ve got a crush on the Fuller Brush Man.

For every brush he sells, he gives a guarantee
That it would last for forty years,
That’s long enough for me!
I’ve got a crush
I’ve got a crush on the Fuller Brush Man.

He gives a special prize with every brush he sells
With ones as big as this, he gives a little kiss.
It won’t be long before my precious bankroll’s shot
Cause I’m a-gonna buy the biggest brush he’s got!

He’s got a brush that tickles,
And he’s got a brush that hurts
And then he’s got a special brush
That I think is the nerts,
I’ve got a crush

I’ve got a crush on the Fuller Brush Man!

Charming, and the music flows like water with Ben's liquid piano playing. I was so impressed by this and the Robot Man song that I listened to all the Ben Light sides I could find at Archive, and I was a bit disappointed with the rest of his output (which is far larger than what they have), because of a degree of casual racism that suddenly showed up and ruined everything for me. I do hope there's more of the good stuff out there somewhere.

ps: According to a link I followed at the bottom of Ben's page at Archive, he's not the vocalist in these recordings. They don't know the vocalist's name. He sounds a bit like Benny Bell at times, but I think that's just the tone of their delivery. There's a two-CD set of recordings from Light (born Benjamin Leight in 1893), but these don't seem to be the party records, alas. Which doesn't mean they might not be great. Time will quite possibly tell.


from January 26, 2001 (quoting myself):

I've been reading Marlowe lately. Great stuff. Nobody could begin a
story like him:

For long and weary hours, I bored myself
Counting the old, tired webs of spiders
In my narrow office. Just then I heard
A ringing sound from the bell out front,
And in my dismal garrett I beheld
A wench who made a good first impression
To my eyes. Her face, I thought could launch,
A thousand or so ships, her eyes burn down
A hell of a lot of topless towers.
I took in her form and her tear-streaked face
She beseechingly asked,  "Mister Marlowe?
I'm in trouble. They told me you could help."

  (Christopher Marlowe, _The Tragedy of The Big Slumber_, act I)

(This is on the web in a couple of places, but it seemed advisable to put it somewhere I could reliably point to it as needed.)

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

toon river anthology strikes again


Sweet Mother Macready! I hate to disappoint you,
But if you’re here for a tearful admission 
Of my gnawing fears and secret doubts, or
An ironically revealing origin story, or perhaps
The news that I was put here by the betrayal
Of a colleague or a loved one —
My dog, maybe — then you’re out of luck.
Dead? No way! I don’t know what this is about, but
It sure as hello kitty isn’t my grave or my stone.
Death is for saps and sidekicks. No sirree Bob,
I’m not under this dumb rock. I’m somewhere else,
Sticking my neck out, enjoying an honest rhubarb.
This? This is a dream, or some imaginary story,
Maybe even a sinister plot by my enemies
Meant to fool someone or other. Happens every day.
Heroes don’t die. Anyone with the common sense of a flapjack
Would know that. Scrambooch, buster,
And save your flowers for somebody who needs 'em.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

still more toon river anthology


Dithers came at me with the ash tray. I ran, of course.
One minute, I was tossing paper airplanes with Crane in Payroll,
And the next, the boss was screaming about the Stevens account
(Which, for reasons beyond my understanding, flew remarkably well)
And the old man went completely ape. Well, I’d seen him like that,
So I ran for the elevator, which closed in my face as usual.
With practiced grace, I pirouetted past him toward the break room,
Trying to put the table between us, but he flung it aside and kept coming.
Long years of running had taught me to head for his office:
Sometimes Cora was there, and he always stopped when he saw her.
This time she wasn’t, so my only recourse was the window.
Hoping to get out on the ledge. The old boy hated heights,
So usually he’d just throw things at me and curse till he calmed down,
But before I could get my footing, he was striking at me,
Red-faced, panting and shaking. I slipped, whirled, and grabbed the sill.
In half a second, he was banging away at my fingers with the ash tray.
When he lost his hold on that, I thought we were done, but he resumed
With his putter. Up to now, there was nothing new about any of this,
But this time, he kept hitting. He screamed. I screamed. I was losing my hold
On the sill, and still he kept hitting. My fingers were bleeding
And my attempts to keep a purchase on the wood only resulted
In trying to cling to a surface slick with blood. That couldn’t last.
When I fell, I was dimly aware that my hands were hurting a bit less
And that Mr. Dithers was still yelling, brandishing the club like a Zulu,
His face getting smaller and smaller as the buildings seemed
To crowd together, as if to witness my descent.
The last thing I remember was my own feeling of surprise
About life, the boss, and the Stevens account. Well.
How was I to know the old man was really mad?

Thursday, April 03, 2014


Behind our brow the pressure's far too high
The dam of silence burdens us too hard
The hand we hold leaves us no other card,
So come; the weight's too much. It's time to cry.

We'll prime the pump with brine, our eyelids pursed
We're all alone. No one will mock our sobs
The others are off, busy at their jobs
And won't be here to see us at our worst.

Some gland purrs like a cat behind out eyes
We pray that brain's endorphins buy some peace
Too much to hope our cares might really cease
But, for a time, the hard lump liquefies.

The silent burden won't be eased by sleep
So come; the load's too great. It's time to weep.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

the meaning

It was merciful.

There I was, looking down at the contorted shape that had been my car, thinking that the idea I'd been trying to scribble on the back of one of my business cards probably hadn't been worth it, after all. As the flames that started in the puddle under the engine quickly engulfed it, I concluded that this wasn't going to be one of those near-death experiences, and it only took a short look at my body to confirm that, to paraphrase some Madison Avenue type, death was the new life.

I watched myself for a few more seconds, thinking I hadn't done so badly. I wasn't too far out of shape. My face and form weren't all that ungainly. I actually regretted what the fire was about to do to me in there. Closed casket, definitely. I couldn't watch. I pulled away and took stock of my situation.

Forty-five years old, and already, I belonged to the ages. The small design firm I had managed to keep solvent was someone else's concern now. By rights, it should pass to Dave and Irma, who I'd come to rely on more and more, but I wasn't sure they could do it, legally. I hoped they would at least start a new company together -- I think they'd be good at it, even if they didn't seem to have the confidence.

At the moment, I had nothing. Fair's fair, I didn't really need anything. I could float around. Was I dressed? Wearing, perhaps, a ghostly pair of Dockers with a pressed shirt and a vest? It didn't feel like it, and it didn't feel unlike it. Whatever. It was sufficient. So now what? Do I do something? Do I go somewhere? Heaven? Purgatory? Relive my life now past, like the movie about that small-town cemetery?

What is the meaning of life?

The thought came to my mind like any other, but there was something different about it. A different voice, or a different typeface. It wasn't my own thought. I realized I now had a task. Homework, or maybe a final exam. I had to figure out the meaning of life. 

My life? Life in general? No answer. Any explanation apparently has to come from me. The clock is ticking. Use only a Number Two pencil. As the emergency vehicles started showing up, I willed myself along the way I was going when I had so rudely interrupted myself. Home. I was heading home.

Home. My progress was a little unsteady. I was distracted by things I saw along the way. There was so much going on along the familiar route. I saw a family of mice in a culvert. How could they live there? What would they do when it rained? They reminded me suddenly of my own family, and my -figurative- heart fell. My family! They didn't know yet, did they? I hurried along a little faster, then paused again to look at one of those roadside crosses people put up when someone they know is killed on or near the road. It barely registered on me when I was alive, but it had been there for two years. The flowers on it hadn't been there for two years; they looked a week old at the oldest. Would Elaine put up one of those for me? Elaine! I stopped looking at the cross and made for our apartment.

Once there, I determined that I could pass through a wall. No real surprise there. Elaine was in the living room watching a kid show with our two boys. The stuff six- and eight-year-olds watch. They were on the floor about a foot from the screen. I went to Elaine and tried to get her attention. I think I was relieved that nothing I said or did got through to her. I tried with Rodney, and then with Jacob. I even checked to see if I could mess with the TV. Nothing. Then the phone rang.

I didn't want to watch. I wanted to fly away and not think about it. I was strangely unemotional about my own death, but the idea of watching my family cope with it was painful. Still, I stayed and watched as she told Rod to turn the sound down, picked up the phone, confirmed who she was with a nod the caller couldn't see. Then she got the news. Disbelief and shock caused her to stagger. She yelled at Rod to turn the set down again, then turned away and shielded the mouthpiece and her mouth with a hand, as if she could keep the bad news from leaking out. She asked a few questions. Are you sure? When did it...? Was anybody else...? The voice at the other end answered, offered official condolence, gave her a number to write down. She absently drifted as far as the cord would let her from the living room and called her sister Doris. Asked her to take care of letting the rest of the family know. Pause. No, she said, they don't know yet. Pause. I will. Longer pause. Yes, she said, yes, please.

She hung up again. She looked back at the doorway to the living room where our boys didn't know yet. Stood looking at the silent phone. I'm off now, she said, and the TV got louder. Then she sat at the kitchen table and buried her face in her arms. I wanted to put my hands on her shoulders and stop them from shaking, but I couldn't. I could only watch as she got control of herself and wiped her face. Then she called to the boys to turn the TV off and come into the kitchen. They tried to argue a little, and she said no, come in now. And because she didn't raise her voice, they were curious and came in, and they looked at her face and said, what's wrong, Mom?

And she told them. 

And she said, we're packing some clothes and we're going to visit your aunt and uncle for a couple of days. And I watched them hug each other and cry and try to comfort each other, and I thought, I really had a good family. They picked out some clothes and toys and put them in the big suitcase we used last summer to go to Oregon, and every now and then one of them broke down and the others were there, and they got in the car and set out on the sixty-mile drive to her capable sister's house.

I followed along. It was a pretty quiet procession. Rodney had to go to the bathroom, and they stopped for that. A couple of times, they just pulled off the road so she could cry some more, but for the most part, she kept it together in front of the boys. I watched them and cringed when another car got too close, and asked myself the question. What is the meaning of life?

What had my life meant? What did my life mean to them? What did their lives mean?

I thought back over my life, now conveniently completed. It seemed like my memories were actually clearer than they had been when I was alive. Was I distracted by life when I was experiencing it? Was this a fringe benefit of being dead? Whatever, it was easy to review my twoscore years and five. There was my great-grandpa who died when I was four. I was four, and they were explaining to me. Nineteen, and I'm getting the news about Grandpa Ben. Twenty, and it's Grandma Alice. 

I wondered if Doris had called my folks in Florida yet. 

I felt close to the meaning. It wasn't things. It wasn't stuff. Ideas? Ideals? 

Those things were important, but they weren't the meaning. They were things we had, things we did, to get close to other people. Or maybe keep them away. Were people the meaning? I watched our minivan pull into another rest stop. Elaine went to the vending machines, bought a bottle of cold water, and they set off again, sharing the water. Was sharing the meaning? I noted that Elaine was driving very carefully. Good girl. Might as well learn from my mistake! She had to take care of the family now, this new family that was shaping itself to get along with three. Rod was already starting to move into his niche, taking some of the load off of Elaine. I wanted to hug him.

I sighed. Metaphorically, if not corporeally. I thought I was kind of detached about this death thing, but I realized that I was really regretting it. I had wanted to live a lot longer. That was when it came to me. The meaning of life.

The meaning of life, I said, phrasing it in my mind (as if writing with a number 2 pencil), is to live as long as you can. We surround ourselves with others to form entanglements so that we'll be sure and try to live as long as possible. Life wants life. If we're alone, we might succumb to a momentary impulse or get careless and lose the thread. 

We intellectualize it, but it's a flame that wants to burn as long as it possibly can. It's as simple as that. The meaning of life is to live as long as possible. That was my final answer. I stopped following the car and looked up at the clouds and the stars and the moon. That's my answer, I thought. How did I do?

The foreign thought spoke in my brain again. Without words, I now had the impression that this answer had been satisfactory. I had passed the first part of the test.

First part? That was the first part? I looked at the cars below and realized they were starting to look indistinct, as if they were farther away. Not smaller, just harder to see. Words formed in my mind.

What is the meaning of death?

I groaned inwardly.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Toon River Anthology continues


How does it happen that Mr. Wilson outlived me?
I was young, with decades yet to go,
And I reminded him of it every day,
Sometimes loudly playing games to point up the age gap
Or by frequently speculating on just how ancient he was.
One giddy time, I yelled across the fence
That when I reached half his age, he’d be long gone.
I could see the red run up his neck 
Like Mrs. Dowd’s ol’ cat skinning up her elm tree to avoid a rock.
That changed him. He stopped yelling, stopped cursing,
Stopped trying to keep me out of his house.
He got friendly with me, gave me presents,
Like his old Boy Scout knife, lawn darts, a Zippo lighter.
He convinced Dad I was ready for a two-wheeler,
And later showed me how he could ride with one hand—
No hands! Who knew? All it took, he said, was practice.
When our other neighbor’s moving van backed over me practicing,
Good ol’ Mr. Wilson was first on the scene. Insisted on carrying me in.
The last thing I remember was him murmuring “sleep quietly,”
With a look of mild regret on his saggy, bulbous old features.