Monday, September 1, 2014

I Need My Pain

It's a good thing I need my pain, because I got the mother of all bad reviews today. "Bad" meaning pretty much eviscerating The Glass Character. I was totally spoiled by my first two novels, which were widely (and with two exceptions, positively) reviewed. This included two in the Globe and Mail that compared my work to that of Anne-Marie MacDonald, Alice Munro and even Stephen Leacock.  Excuse me while I blow my nose.

The gods made me pay for all that. Obviously. I got very little coverage this time, no newspaper reviews that I could find, a little bit on the internet here and there. Newspaper review sections have dwindled, faded or disappeared entirely, a setup that isn't so good for novelists. I set up Amazon and Google author pages, this blog, a web site, a Facebook page as well as a special page for the book. But it didn't help much. When this sort of thing happens, a writer feels very alone.

It didn't ruin my day or anything - in fact I had a quite pleasant day for the most part, and I plan to have another one tomorrow. No boo-hooing or petulant foot-stamping or head-tossing or point-by-point counter-evisceration - that's childish. I did however find out who the guy was. He's a poet, standup comedian and performance artist (he calls himself an improvisor, which makes no sense to me at all) working out of Winnipeg. I'll quote in its entirety a small autobiographical piece he wrote for the Globe and Mail, the "little essay" that runs on the back of the first section every day and is coveted by writers everywhere because it's one of the few paid freelance gigs left in the country. (I did a few of them myself, back in the day.)

I have a certain amount of difficulties at parties, for a number of reasons. Chief among them is my struggle to answer the boilerplate question, “What do you do?”
There is no complete answer I could give, aside from a downright facetious one like: “I convert food calories into muscle and fat, and in doing so contribute in my small way to the heat death of the universe.”

According to the taxman, I am the proprietor of a number of struggling small businesses. By my roommates’ accounts, I am a generally fun guy who occasionally vanishes into his room for a few hours to do something inscrutable.

To myself, I am terribly few things at all during the cruel honesty of the day, but a veritable da Vinci in those precious moments of hallucination just preceding sleep.

Call it a protracted adolescence, that novelty of our time. It may be that I drank too deeply from the cup of praise during my formative years, and have remained drunk on the possibilities of my own potential. This has no doubt been a problem for the bright and lazy for centuries, but I think that our modern world creates the conditions for this disease of habits to become a pandemic.
This is why I consider myself a New Idler, certainly distinguishable from the Renaissance Man or the Victorian Amateur or the Parisian Saloniste.
For one thing, I am not landed gentry. I am not independently wealthy, or dependently wealthy, or even well-to-do. This must be the first time and place in human history when a young man with no skills, no income and no direction can not only survive, but thrive!

I have never been healthier, more romantically successful, or more full of zest for life than right now, and I can assure you that I am both penniless and unemployable. Oh, what wonders our age has wrought!
Secondly, there is that great equalizer, the Internet. Education and meaningful work once surely conferred a great social advantage on people, the ability to condescend. Whether they tried or not, the intelligentsia would simply have access to exciting new ideas, challenging modes of thought and fresh experimental data. Their speech would be condescending for no other reason than that they had all the facts.

Enter Radiolab. Enter BuzzFeed, HuffPost, the Daily What and, for that matter, the mandatory Twitter feeds of the greatest thinkers of our age. Not only is all the wildest new gossip from politics and the natural sciences completely available – for free if you happen to be one the 28 million Canadians living within walking distance of a coffee shop – but it is collated, curated and prepackaged into witty banter.
Every morning, while brewing coffee, I can stream a lesson in erudite, educated conversation that would make Henry Higgins sound like a backwoodsman.
So, with education and hard work appearing grossly obsolete, how else am I to define myself? That’s the central question for my epoch of wandering youth.

To be sure, the answer lies in bountiful possibilities of some vague, delayed tomorrow. To that end, I starting collecting lists of great books to read so I might improve my mind. The Modern Library, Time magazine, The Guardian, everyone had their say. My combined list currently has 1,028 entries, and far surpasses the number of books I could possibly read in my natural life, particularly since so much of my time is taken up with list-collecting.

I am on a trial membership with 12 different skills-building websites, each taking me right up to edge of the dedication and sacrifice it would take to make progress. I run so many free services that my laptop screen blazes and blares like a Times Square of squalid gratification.
These distractions slow down my already-glacial progress, of course, but it doesn’t matter! I have all the time in the world, and the joys of laying myself down to sleep, dreaming into the future where I am a concert pianist, a foreign correspondent, a Saturday Night Live cast member and Jonathan Franzen’s best friend, are all I need for sustenance.
In my mind, I am already there, and since a recent podcast informed me that time is unified and unmalleable, I am already there in reality as well.

The only thing that could defeat this vision of a perfect and masterful future is to collapse this superposition of histories and dedicate myself to one thing at the expense of all others. So this is the one path I must not take.
I would give up everything I have in this life, my pasta maker, my Bowflex home gym, even my ribbonless vintage typewriter, in order to preserve the dream that is me. I would sweep out every cobwebbed corner of my hobby-filled apartment to make room for more of that one truly renewable resource: potential.

Every night, I concentrate on a still more perfect future, and escape that much further from a still more banal present.
That is what I do, but this answer is a little too wide-ranging for casual party talk, so I had to spell it out for you here.

Steve Currie is an improvisor and poet in Winnipeg. In any other century, he would have died of consumption by now.

OK, this is sideslapping and knee-splitting  (or is it the other way around), I admit it, but it's also pretty revealing. I found a YouTube video of him flogging his latest "improvisation", some sort of live comedy show in Winnipeg, and discovered he's pretty young. He lives with "roommates", so is not married. He's a child, and in the literary sense, a poseur. If I am to take his little Globe piece at all literally, unless he is making the entire thing up, he's a very serious idler with no prespects of anything much, so sharpening his teeth on poor Harold might have served him as a form of sport.
But I wasn't going to do this. I wasn't! Oh all right, I'll try to find the GIF I made of him to send Matt, who as usual was a brick through the whole thing. Here are only a couple of his rejoinders to the man's hatchet job (as well as some timely advice for me):

He likes you. He did the litcrit's equivalent of the gradeschool boy putting a frog down the blouse of the girl he crushes.
Send the jerk a live scorpion.

He needs a good Vuhjinya ass whuppin.  I'll gather up the bubbas...

Snarky twits, the two of them.  Gay, most likely (sorry, wrong frog).

And while I can't say I understand all of the last statement, it made me feel like a warm puppy inside. I just wish someone else would give this thing a decent review!

(I just realized something: I sent a copy of this to Kimmy, my editor, whom I now realize might know this guy personally. Maybe they're friends. Quelle blague!)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

IT'S A LIE!: The plump juicy raisin scam

All right.

I've already spent too long at the computer, and have "keyboard finger", in which my arthritically-swollen right ring finger twinges like a toothache every time I hit a key. This finger has such a major swelling in the knuckle - the one nearest the nail - that it pushes the end of my finger inward, almost sideways. It's permanent, i. e. nothing that will ever go down. And all my other fingers are following suit.

But in spite of that, I have something I've wanted to say for a long time, and now I must say it.

You know Kellogg's Raisin Bran with their cute little ads? For years now, they've been talking about "plump juicy raisins", and no one is saying a thing about it! I can't even find a rant on Google. In fact, if I go on Images, I get mostly decorative pictures of raisins in bowls, presumably looking Plump and Juicy.

SINCE WHEN IS A RAISIN PLUMP?? They are brown, sometimes even black, deeply wrinkled (worse than pruny, since the new pitted prunes are more flat than wrinkled), and dessicated-looking. That brings me to JUICY. Try to extricate an atom of juice from a raisin. Just try it!

Advertising Mascots - Objects

California Raisins - In 1987, the advertising world was taken by surprise with the popularity of a group of animated singing raisins who pushed the goodness of sweet, juicy California raisins.

And yet, here is a snippet of the copy describing the nightmarish California Raisins. And yes, there's that word again: JUICY. A juicy raisin!

Doesn't anybody THINK any more?

Why does everyone accept this "plump, juicy raisins" crap without question? The same reason they accept a lot of other things. Huh? Duhhh? WHY aren't they plump and juicy? They're raisins, aren't they?

Oh God. I hate the human race.

I hate Raisin Bran and their goddamn ads, their "the rai-sunniest brand under the sun!', implying, nay, ADMITTING  these things have been baking under the scorching sun in Fresno. Baking until they are dessicated, meaning DRY, NOT JUICY. "Plump" is even more mind-boggling, like saying Kate Moss is plump. Another ad had something like, "Plump goes east, Juicy goes west. . . "

These things, hard, dry, wrinkled, brown or black, often with teeth-jarring unpleasant grit in them that you can't get rid of, are meant to be a (heavily sugar-coated) chewy relief from the crumbly disaster that is bran flakes. We have a problem with bran flakes, All-Bran, bran muffins,and all other bran-containing products. We all know what they are designed to do, and not only that, THEY LOOK THE SAME WAY GOING IN AS THEY DO COMING OUT. They look pre-digested, processed, and spewed out.

Bran muffins might as well be meadow muffins, as far as I am concerned. They look like something a cowboy would fnd along the trail. The only thing in this world more turd-like is the prune, and NO ONE talks about "plump, juicy" prunes, do they? That is because they are a DRIED fruit, not a FRESH fruit. A DRIED fruit has almost all of its moisture removed, which is why it wrinkles up like that!

Someone should slap the Kellogg's ad executives upside the head, but no one will, because by now, the public seems to AGREE that raisins are "plump" and "juicy". Most of the Google images I found, depicting dry, wrinkly, dessicated raisins, were under the heading "plump and juicy!". Big Brother (or should I say Big Bran) has triumphed once again.

(P. S.: there is only ONE way a raisin can be "juicy", and that is from saliva. Let's not go there, shall we?)

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A festival of GIFS from the 1950s: "Look! Up in the sky!"

Full marks if you can guess where this came from. I stumbled upon it during my late-night gif-image crawl. Looked like it might lend itself to some experimentation.

I don't have the capacity to do too much here. In fact, it's rare I that see any gifs that have real technical merit, and most are only one or two jerky seconds. (Ahem.) This is the slow-mo version, making me wonder if the animator somehow transferred actual writing to the screen. Well, they must have! I know almost nothing about animation and have to limit myself to 15 seconds max.

This backwards version is also interesting, as the title eats itself. It seems a bit jerky, and faster than you would think at "slow" speed, but it's probably only registering a few frames per second.

All right, this is the last one, at "normal" speed, but it plays very fast. Reminds me of someone sucking up a wet piece of spaghetti.

For some reason I love these. They remind me of the old "fill-ums" we saw in the basement of McKeough School in Chatham, Ontario when I was in Grade 3. These "fill-ums", though paralytically dull (hygiene, geography, National Film Board stuff) were a nice break from classes that were even more paralytically dull. 

I like this, too, a sort of reverse countdown. Countdowns remind me of the astronauts, of course. Gus Grissom and the like. There are a lot of phony countdown headers on YouTube, and you can tell they are phony because they go down to 1, which a real header NEVER does (don't know why). This is from some Paramount thing, and once I slow it down you will be able to see the details.

I think I see "SMPTE UNIVERSAL LEADER" before the countdown. The top one is the hardest, because the brain will more quickly recognize a real word and its meaning. I have no idea what the captions mean, some sort of arcane code. Is it a real header or "leader"? Is it really from Universal Studios, or does this mean it's a sort of generic leader? Now that I look at it again, yes, I think so, though SMPTE makes no sense at all.

There is a reason why it was effortless for me to memorize High Flight for school. I already knew it. Anyone who had ever stayed up past 11:00 p.m. knew it. For reasons which are now completely incomprehensible, many TV channels used it as a signoff before the long "boooooooooop" that ran all night and used to scare the hell out of me. Most things scared the hell out of me then.

This is, in part, an experiment to see how many 15-second gifs I can run in one post. I want to see if the whole thing crashes or what. The opening of The Adventures of Superman also scared the hell out of me. It was intense. Another incomprehensible thing is how George Reeves ever ended up getting the part - a paunchy, not-very-good-looking middle-aged man who couldn't act. Later, he either committed suicide or was murdered by the mob, like Bob Crane who was rumored to have made soft-core porn films in his basement. Bob Crane was better-looking, however.

There were a couple of other things about the intro that scared me. The way Clark Kent morphed into Superman was scary. In this case it's reversed and in slo-mo, so it appears that Superman is morphing into Clark Kent (who, as we all know, was partially inspired by Harold Lloyd. Though how anyone can be "partially inspired" is anyone's guess.)

I was maybe three or four, five tops, when this show would come on, and it was already in syndication. My brother had a Superman costume that he'd put on, and he would lie along the back of the sofa and go "Pssssshhhhhhhhhhhh!" I didn't know it was an American flag flapping behind Superman, in fact I didn't know what the hell it was. The announcer, who turned out to be Bill Kennedy, a B-picture actor and host of a long-running Detroit movie program, had a note of hysteria in his voice that just mounted: "Superman. SU-perman. YES, it's SUUU-per-mannnnn!" Last night when I played the clip over and over again,  looking at the menacing flag flapping around, I was reminded of Nazi Germany: "Is vee not zee Super Race? Super Duper Super Race!"

I think this housewife has had too much coffee. This was a demo of the new television technology: the remote control! It had a cord on it, which is carefully hidden beneath her wrist. I converted a faded color print into b & w for effect, though the announcer, who had the strongest Bronx accent I have ever heard, kept talking about "culluh teck-NAHHH-la-gee".

Very early Disney, in which Walt himself does Mickey's voice. This was so freaky, I had to see what it looked like slowed down.

Good night, all.

(Special Bonus gif. You thought there wouldn't be a Special Bonus Gif? There are literally thousands of snippets on YouTube of completely unknown provenance. I mean: where do people GET all this stuff, old ads, old TV shows and cartoons, and even TV station signoffs from 70 years ago? This one is for WABD, New York's Window on the W(blkphtdbt).  WABD was on the Dumont Television Network, which for some reason reminds me of Milton Berle, whom I never liked. I was two months old at the time. Dumont bit the dust a long time ago, and back in the 1940s its logo was mighty strange, quavering and flashing, with Lady Liberty's torch cut off at the top. No one called it TV then, and it was common to refer to viewing as "looking at television".)

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Friday, August 29, 2014

Rudy, Harold, book and bird

The perfect frame for my Rudolph Valentino vintage postcard from Kevin Brownlow turned out to be no frame at all - or almost - one of those clear lucite things where the photo seems to be hanging in mid-air. He stares morosely at Harold, who takes up a special corner of my desk, and stands guard in front of an artfully-carelessly-arranged stack of The Glass Character, placed there so somebody out there in the stratosphere might want to buy it.

The bird is just a little ceramic thing. I like little ceramic things. I have tiny turtles standing on pieces of coral, a magnificent gecko from Mexico, and - gasp - a Blue Mountain pottery cougar!

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It must have been owls

This was an odd day, an odd week, and sometimes considerably worse than odd. You see, after my last routine mammogram, I got the dreaded "call back". They wanted to take a more detailed mammogram, along with an ultrasound. Fine, I thought, except these retakes generally meant that they "found something", and that couldn't be good. So I went through it all again, they squeezed and kneaded and poked and pressed, I got all covered with KY Jelly or whatever-it-is they use to lubricate your skin while they look underneath it.

They concentrated on my left breast, where they seemed to think the "problem" was. By the time they got done, I knew how a waffle must feel while it is being baked. Or at least, my left breast did. I could practically see the grid-marks.

A few days went by. I was prepared to let it go, assuming everything was fine, when I got another call back. I was supposed to see my doc so she could "go over" the results of the second mammogram.

Go over.

Go over? What was this about? I was expecting either nothing (the usual response to a normal test), or a call saying "your test is negative," or something like that. But this.

So I tried to keep my head out of it all week, and I was more-or-less fine until last night, when for the first time in a while I couldn't sleep. It was as if an icicle were slowly turning in the centre of my abdomen. All night.

Sometimes I think I want to lay it down, just give up, because, after all, I have achieved very few of my dreams, in spite of what often seems like mammoth (futile) effort. Then when something like this comes up, when I feel the hot breath of mortality blasting down my neck, I hear some voice in my head, some idiot but triumphant, desperate, ridiculously valiant and probably absurd voice shouting out loud:

"I want to live!"

It was like a pendulum, see, between the nice, logical "Ah, nothing's the matter, it never is, statistics are all in your favour, callbacks are common," etc. etc. (no family history, everyone lives to be over 90, etc.) and a violent swing in the other direction, a silent totting up of all the victims, people I had known, loved, or even just heard about, who had either survived breast cancer after a long and horrendous ordeal, or hadn't survived at all. I began to wonder if the "thing" that rides around with me, beside me I mean, always clamped to my peripheral vision, would suddenly rear up in front of me and make it impossible to take another step.

In the doctor's little room today, you know, the little room they tell you about on Seinfeld, while waiting for the doctor, I had to do deep breathing, deep slow breathing to try to relax the knot of primal terror in my belly. The doctor comes in. How are you? Fine. Oh God. The doctor sits down at the computer. So what are we doing today? MY GOD SHE DOESN'T KNOW?? No, she has been away from the office for a week and has no idea why I have come in today. This means that no one sitting in this room has any idea what it says on my report.

So she blinks and flips and scrolls and "hmmmmms", like she always does, and asks me the usual incredulous questions. So what happened when they examined you? What did they say? It says here they saw a bruise. Did they see a bruise? Yes, I had some sort of little bruise - I don't know where it came from - Oh, I see. It must have been in the spot, see here - look - where they thought you might have a cyst. Well, yes, it was. They put a sticker on it. A what? A sticker, so the ultrasound person could - Oh.

You had a bruise, Margaret, a small one that mimicked some little probably-harmless cyst, though in six months you will have to go through all the testing again in case. In case what?

It's late at night, and I sit here tired, having dodged a certain bullet, or gotten out of Dodge, or whatever it is. Strangely, a few minutes ago I heard a ghostly trilling, as if boys were hooting at each other over long distances, but after a while I realized it must have been owls. They were as resonant and loud as if they were right outside my window, and with all that thick bush out there, just a stone's throw away, perhaps they were. They might have been right in my own back yard.

Post-script. Yes, it was owls! The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology site has helped me identify many a species through sound alone. In this case, the calls of  various common owls allowed me to compare, and quickly make a match. Looks like these were barred owls, and they were very close to the house, maybe even in the back yard. We have huge rich cedars out there, so it makes sense. One row of houses in back of us, and we're in dense bush. But if these were birds, I could not believe the volume! These things fairly boomed. The sound moved around in a bizarre way, too. I kept thinking, that has to be kids making ape noises, but the sounds simply weren't human. These birds make a hell of a racket! They have a lot of different calls too, some of them sort of trilling (chilling). Since their territory is the Pacific Northwest, I think we're close enough (though they resemble the rare spotted owl in plumage - but not in voice). I couldn't see anything out there, but I'll be vigilant from now on, that is, until colder weather necessitates keeping my office window shut. This page has a rich variety of sample calls. Listen to these guys, you'll be totally spooked out!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Sex for a buck?


This-here vintage ad for a marriage manual, a classic of enlightenment and orgasmic edification, is going to require a little translation. I PROMISE you I am not adding anything or taking anything away, though deciphering the bleary grey letters may prove to be a challenge.

Will Their Dream Come True, or will Sex Ignorance Mar their Happiness

Thousands of marriages end in misery and divorce because so many married people are ignorant of the Art of Love. Is your marriage on the brink of ruin? Do you search for the joy of a perfect union? Now YOU can change despair into heavenly happiness -

if you know the secrets of  the intimate physical contacts of marriage.

Dr. Marie Stopes, in the preface to her world-famous book, said, "In my own marriage I paid such a terrible price for sex ignorance that I felt that knowledge gained at such a price should be placed at the service of humanity." This volume, "Married Love", courageously fulfills this noble purpose.

Editor's note. I didn't think they were even going to use the word "sex", what with all those references to the Art of Love, "perfect union" and "intimate physical contacts". This Marie Stopes is painted as a sort of Albert Schweitzer or Madame Curie of the fuck-book set, selflessly sharing all the hot gyrations she learned (somewhere, certainly not in her marriage) with mankind.
The thing is, these books use such remote, stilted, even clinical language that it's hard to even fit it together with the sweaty realities of sexuality, the squeezes and groans, the slippery. . . oh never mind, let's go on.

Partial Contents
The practice of restraint to please the wife.
Surest way to prepare wife for union.
The marital rights of the husband.
 What the wife must do to bring her husband's physical desires
in harmony with her own.
Regulation of physical marital relations.
Sleeplessness from unsatisfied desires.
Nervousness due to unsatisfied desires.
Charts showing periodicity of natural desire in women.
The essential factors for the act of union.
Greatest physical delights in marital union.
How some women drive their husbands to prostitutes.
Natural desire for physical union.
Joys of the honeymoon.
Ignorance of the bride and unwise actions of the groom.
The man who has relations with prostitutes before marriage.
Causes for unhappiness in marriage.
Frequency of marital relations.
Stimulation of physical desires.
The problem of the strong-sexed husband and the
weak-sexed wife.
Physical relations during pregnancy.
Problems of childless unions.

All this makes me long to get my hands on a copy of this thing, but I am sure it has gone out of print by now. Also, this looks suspiciously like one of those ads in the back of a comic book. Good grief, imagine exposing our innocent youth to such a thing! "Joys of the Honeymoon"? What sort of filth is this? And prostitutes are mentioned not once, but twice. When you think about it, however, if virginity is assumed for both "bride" and "groom", then who the hell is going to know anything about this at all? It will be like the poor bloke who kept shoving himself into his wife's belly button and wondering why he couldn't get her pregnant.

With remarkable frankness, and in simple, understandable language, Dr. Stopes explains the intimate and important details of wedded life. Point by point, and just as plainly as she would tell you in private confidence, Dr. Stopes takes up each of the many troublesome factors in marriage. She makes clear just what is to be done to insure contentment and happiness. She writes directly, forcefully, concretely, explaining step by step every procedure in proper sex relations.

1,000,000 COPIES SOLD

This whole thing reminds me of that old vaudeville routine, "Niagara Falls! Slowly I turn. Step by step. . . inch by inch. . . " Though this may sound like instructions for building a birdhouse, it's actually a guide to ecstasy and spasmodic, flailing pleasure for both Bride and Groom. It's just that they had to use this sort of clunky, unsexy language to leach out every trace of erotic content. "Point by point", "step by step",  "directly, forcefully, concretely": this sounds like something from some sort of 1950s home repair manual. But my favorite is the last line: "explaining step by step every procedure in proper sex relations." If these proper procedures had been followed to the letter, the whole human race would have died off by now.

Can't read this worth a darn, but it seems to be saying there was some sort of "ban" on this obviously filthy, salacious material and that now it has been lifted. Could this be a ploy to get people interested in this smut? The federal judge, who looks like Andy Hardy's dad, is obviously reading the back cover with great interest. I am also intrigued that to get this book, you have to send your 98 cents to the American Biological Society on East 34th Street in New York. I wonder what it looked like.

(P. S. That picture of the book - at least I think it's the book - the spine of it, I mean - at first I thought it was a spray can - then I wondered what would be IN that can. This was long before the days of Reddi-Whip.)

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