27 June 2017

I Can't Cope [2009]


News in Brief
[27 June 2009]

Sri Lanka—Authorities have taken Chandrasiri Bandara, a popular astrologer, into custody to investigate one of his predictions. Defying the polls the astrologer says that changes in the alignment of the cosmic spheres on 8 October are bad news for the present government, signifying hard times ahead with rising living costs. (Economists have made similar predictions.) The prime minister, he predicted, would become president, and the opposition leader prime minister. The Criminal Investigations Department is looking into the basis for the prediction according to police spokesman Ranjith Gunasekera. It is not clear exactly what they are looking into—do they think he had political motives, or are they merely suspicious of his astrological interpretation? The arrest is condemned by the opposition. (BBC)

Los Angeles—Noted Beatles collector Michael Jackson died Thursday of possibly natural causes. The owner of such coveted Beatles memorabilia as the rights to the bulk of the Lennon-McCartney catalog, Jackson has been the subject of much speculation recently concerning the disposition of these much-coveted sentimental treasures. One theory has it that he's left at least some of his collection to ex-Beatle Paul McCartney. With the imminent re-release of the Beatles catalog in listenable condition for the first time since the advent of the CD, fans are concerned about the fate of these soon-to-be-lost tracks. Jackson's condition is unchanged. (NY Daily News)

Stockholm, Sweden—The Swedish Court of Appeals blandly ruled that Judge Tomas Norstöm, one of three judges who presided over the recent Pirate Bay trial, had no conflict of interest, despite his membership in two advocacy groups on the other side of the issue, the Swedish Association for the Protection of Industrial Property and the Swedish Copyright Association. "For a judge to back the principles on which this legislation rests cannot be considered bias," appeals court judge Anders Eka said, apparently with a straight face. Four men involved in the operation of The Pirate Bay, which among other things makes it possible for smaller artists to share their work with others via peer-to-peer networking, were tried and convicted for copyright violations earlier this year, despite the utter worthlessness of the legal claims against them. Backlash against the verdict is considered responsible for electing a member of the Pirate Party to the European Parliament. (ZDNet, BBC)

26 June 2017

Chicken McNuggets Were Still New [1982]


[bus trip, 26 June 1982]
M
y cousin had gotten up late enough that we basically did nothing except go to the LA terminal; she drove me there so that I could catch the 11:00 bus to Portland, which I did. I arrived there within minutes of departure time and for a while it looked as if I would miss the bus regardless (which didn’t worry me because I knew I could just catch the 1pm or so bus, but which did worry my cousin) but with the help of (and sometimes in spite of the help of) my cousin I got on the bus and said goodbye to her and all that. There was only one seat vacant on the bus I could see (although it developed afterwards that there was probably one other vacant seat which I missed somehow) and it was occupied by a vast man of vaguely Mexican cast who it turned out spoke little or no English. Half-occupied, I mean; he had his own seat and sprawled into the other.  I sat beside him, and went to sleep. When getting on the bus I checked my other bag to Portland, so I had only my carryon piece to worry about.
It turned out that I was sort of surrounded by a family of five—two brothers, two sisters, and the wife of the oldest brother—who were going up to a small town in Washington which even I had never heard of which was about 37 miles from the Canadian border. They were going to visit their dying father whom they hadn’t seen in years (why I don’t know—the youngest of the kids must have been still in high school). They had left from Virginia the day before, or maybe the day before that—it wasn’t clear. They were appallingly ignorant of local geography; for some reason they suffered from the delusion that Portland was just over the California border and so were amazed at the extent of the state [of California] (an extent which is amazing enough with­out giving it most of Oregon as well), and they argued about whether Vancouver was in Washington or Canada.
I had drifted off to sleep quite nicely (although plagued by nausea and headache) when I was awakened by an appalling racket from the back of the bus. A little girl, maybe six years old, was singing at the top of her lungs a song about putting Satan in a box, and about how glad she was she had salvation from the Lord. She sang another song which seemed to be about sheep, and then the members of the family which was more or less scattered about my area began to call out requests. “Do you know ‘Jesus loves me’?” She didn’t seem to, but she did know a song about how Jesus loves the little children, and, delighted by the attention, drifted up to a point more or less in the middle of the family, which happened to be directly beside my seat, and sang that at the top of her lungs. This excruciating torment went on for—it seemed—hours, as the child had a large repertory of these numbers, which, it developed, were sung in her church. When she had gone through them all two or three times (with all joining in on some of the choruses) she got tired of it and went back to her seat. I drifted back off to sleep, and when I awoke again my head hurt less and my nausea had vanished.
Some time around three in the afternoon we stopped at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere which consisted mainly of a McDonalds. Most of us zipped inside to eat there including my seat companion, but I stayed on the bus, not feeling up to moving. I ate my tuna fish sandwiches—the half-eaten one from the morning and the other which I had made for the trip. The younger members of that family had gone in to the McDonalds while the older had gone to an Arby’s or something, and the younger came back complaining that the Chicken McNuggets were still new here and they didn’t have the McRibs at all … These disasters notwithstanding they had good meals of hamburgers and other hot sandwiches before the bus took off. Others ate similarly.
We next stopped briefly at Stockton I think it was but only to let various members of the troupe off. Among these were my seat companion and our humorist from the back section who had enlivened the trip by singing “Ninety Nine Bottles of Beer” and by making wisecracks about everyone who came back to use the bus restroom.
At Sacramento I just missed witnessing a knifing and I ate two baconburgers and an order of fries from the local Burger King. Everything there was all screwed up. The bus waited there for about an hour, and I waited with it.
At some stop soon after—or perhaps even at Sacramento itself—I acquired a new seat companion. I had already stolen the window seat and now was watching as the new riders got on. I asked the gods to let the seat stay empty or to provide me with a lovely young lady if the former was (as I suspected) out of the question, and, after a fashion, the request was honored. The best-looking female in the bunch sat next to me. She didn’t talk, preferring to listen to an inaudible tape recorder, and she was too damn young, really—she couldn’t have been much out of high school, if at all. She spent part of the night sleeping with her head against my shoulder. Leg pressed against mine. Warm accidental contact.
Late in the evening we acquired a bus driver—he took us into Oregon—who was a kind of humorist, and at that hour of the night he was even funny. I think he got on at Orland or some such imaginary place.

25 June 2017

An Eocene Critter


[Mostly reminiscence of 25 June 1963; Camp Hancock, near Fossil, Oregon, when I was twelve]
U
p at reveille again, in line for breakfast, mail call and announcements. I probably got letters from home today and I ate a couple of pieces of toast. We went to the Mammal Beds, where forty million years or so before a river had piled up small bones in silt, to be left relatively undisturbed until Lon Hancock had discovered the site.
They were currently in the process of excavating the ribcage of some extinct mammal about the size of a small pig; as this was the opening of the season they spent most of the time unwrapping the layers of canvas put there the year before to protect the fossil bones from weathering. We were given this explanation before being set to work chiseling out material from the side of the exploratory pit. I looked at pieces of discarded matrix, splitting them open to see if I could find anything.
For the most part there was nothing, but finally, in one of them was the remains of a small mammal. It was just a tooth and a jaw fragment, or something of that sort. I wasn’t even sure that it was real at first, but when I showed it to one of the counselors he confirmed that it was a tooth.
I stared at the remains of the little critter, marveling how it had been born, spent its small life, and died so long ago, and no one else had known of its existence until me, some sixty million years later. As far as I can recall, nothing else of interest turned up during this particular expedition, but I was so blown away by my fossil fragment they could have discovered a mastodon and I probably wouldn’t have noticed.
This being a science camp, when we got back I was set to work identifying it, and I went through the books in the library (a big building with lab equipment, instruments, and books, with one side entirely open to the elements). There was a guide to fossils there that you could use to quickly narrow down what you’d found, but it led me nowhere. The tooth looked odd; there was nothing quite like it in the guide, or in the books there, as far as I could see. Seeing I was in trouble a counselor said he thought he could help me out, and brought me one of his own books from his trailer. I looked through it, turning page after page, until I found a tooth that looked similar to mine. I showed it to the counselor, and he agreed with me that I had found it.
It was, as I remember it, something in the Multituburculate order, a long-extinct group of mammals. Although I’ve retained a fondness for this group over the years on the strength of that identification, I am now dubious about it, since as far as I can tell nothing of that sort has ever turned up at the Hancock fossil bed. Possibly I misidentified it, or possibly my memory is off, and I identified the fossil tooth as something else, and only later confused it with the multituburculates. Nobody thought it was anything amazing, anyway—just a neat find. I’d planned to do further research on it when I got back to civilization and had the resources of a full library.
Next year—I note parenthetically—when one of my tentmates found a fossil amphibian apparently unknown to science all hell broke loose, and the thing was carefully packed and sent off to the Smithsonian for further identification. My tentmate was upset as hell—what was the point of finding the thing if he didn’t get to keep it for his own collection? I didn’t say this, but I would have given one of my own teeth to have discovered an unknown amphibian and had my fossil end up at the Smithsonian.
The fate of my little multituburculate, if that’s what it was, is unknown. I had it tucked away in a box with some other nice specimens—a couple of perfect leaves, a conifer fossil, a bit of purple zeolite that was striking in appearance—that I kept under my bunk. I don’t know exactly what happened, but one day midway through the camp session I went to put something in the box—and it was empty. Everything in it—gone. The only conclusion I could reach—and I came to it very reluctantly—is that one of my fellow-campers had stolen it. I searched the entire area of my bunk without success, and eventually had to give up on it.
That doesn’t affect the base narrative here—that some small seed-eating critter lived and died forty million years ago or so during the middle of the Eocene, and that enough of her bones washed up in a silt formation to be fossilized and recognized on a June day in 1963. I would have liked to nail down her identification enough so that I could form some idea of what she had looked like, how she had lived, and how she might have died—but the awe and mystery of that moment of discovery remain regardless.

24 June 2017

Running a Few Simple Errors [1980]


[passage from my journal, 24 June 1980]
I
 spent the day running a few simple errors—I mean errands—with my ex-brother, but I ended up accomplishing absolutely nothing. I couldn’t find Aresti’s dictionary of aerobatic maneuvers in any standard reference source (not Books in Print, not the Union Catalogue, not CBI—nothing. And yet it’s supposed to be the standard for all aerobatic pilots to work with—well, whatever); I lost the card and phone number of the person I’m supposed to call to see about getting a xerox of a rare book; the recordstore folk had never heard of Walter Carlos (or Wendy Carlos either—“Well, if we have any I guess they’d be in the electronic music section, but I never heard of the Brandenberg Concertos in an electronic version…”).  And people kept asking me dumb questions—“Have you tried the Cumulative Book Index?” “You realize the lyrics are in English—only the jacket is in Italian?” “Do you really want it in Latin? We have good English Bibles you know.” A day in the life of sbh, ace researcher, or something. Fuck it, is all I got to say. Of course my horoscope warned me. Do whatever you’re going to do in the early hours it said—just what I want to hear when I’ve gotten up at one in the afternoon after having worked until five or so writing. My parents are supposed to be in Spain or something and I guess I’m supposed to look after their pseudoapartment while they’re gone but I don’t know because when my mother called to give me the final word on the arrangements I was at the airport not-flying with my other ex-brother who has become so good flying aerobatics that I was unable to remain aloft with him even with the aid of Dramamine for more than about fifteen minutes.

23 June 2017

The Crappiest Tent in Camp [1963]


[retrospective passage from my journal for 23 June 1963]
W
e headed out to OMSI for me to catch the Camp Hancock bus. We met a girl named Ruth. My family had planned to stay until the bus left but KXL unexpectedly went off the air and my father had to go see to things. I boarded the bus and got a seat by a window toward the back. The trip was long but the scenery was interesting and I kept making mental notes of things to tell when I got back home. There was one section where the rocks as the road cut through them appeared in squares and oblongs, and I was reminded of a cubist painting. We stopped somewhere, possibly at Mt. Hood, to eat, and I had most of the lunch I’d brought with me. (For whatever reason I saved the banana, either for later or because I didn’t like its looks, I don’t know.) I think it was at this stop that Barfy got his nickname by throwing up—but I didn’t see it, just heard about it later on. At one point I accidentally got into a staring contest with some other guy at the back of the bus; getting tired of it I deliberately broke if off by looking away.
Eventually we got to camp. The first order of business was picking our tents, which this year was optional—our choice, I mean. A group of us first-year campers decided to bunk together and ended up with Tent 2—the crappiest tent in camp. It had a gaping hole in it larger than the door on one side. We went to dinner in the dining hall—a huge structure open on three sides—where the food was inedible. This turned out to be a camp tradition, by the way—the inedible food I mean. Things were made from powders mixed with the alkali water from the artesian well, and the result was indescribable. This time it was some sort of pasta with sauce I think. I didn’t have any, but there was some sort of lemonade-like drink and maybe bread or rolls or something. I wasn’t worried—but the people who ran the camp were.
Meanwhile, back in Vancouver, “Steve got back from the beach [wrote Bruce] and my father said that It was just beginning to be peaceful.” He added a parenthetical explanation “without the phone ringing”. And after dropping me off at OMSI the rest of my family “went straight to the station and as we turned in the driveway of KXL, they came on the air; we picked them up on the transistor. They still have a really feeble signal, but [my father] got them some parts from KKEY this afternoon and they are okay.” Also my morning glory had reached the top of the trellis and was spreading along the top of the living-room roof.

22 June 2017

The Twonky [2008]


[Originally posted 22 June 2008]
I
 read in the news that China is blocking still more websites in honor of the Olympics, and I see that ERV is still at war with the semicolon, so nothing much has changed. My brother’s macaw has quit squawking now that I figured out that she wanted food in her dish, which quiets things down some here. I spent the time today I would have written something trying to figure out where much of the internet had gone. I tried to check out CNN—nothing. I tried to read something in National Review—gone. Yahoo was still operating, and most of the blogs seemed to be up and functioning, but virtually all news sources (except FOX, for some reason, if that counts) had disappeared.
Being me I quickly jumped to the conclusion that right-wing terrorist militias had taken over the news outfits of the world and that from now on we would be forced to rely on government handouts for our alleged information. It wasn’t at all reassuring to find that Comcast appeared to be broadcasting a news show where CNN Headline News was supposed to be on the TV. One of my nephews, however, suggested that I should try accessing CNN through an internet proxy, and sure enough, that worked. CNN was still there; I just couldn't get to it from my usual point of departure.
Feeling a little like a character in that recent episode of South Park—the one where the internet disappeared—I sent my nephew down the street to his father’s house to see whether they still had the internet up there. (This is my other brother's house—not the one who left his macaw here with me for the week; he’s in Pendleton for an aerobatics competition. This is the brother who keeps fish, brews beer, and cooks the most amazing Chinese food.) A few minutes later my nephew returned, reporting that there was still internet a mere three blocks away, so whatever was keeping us from CNN et al was only targeting us, seemingly. (Okay, that’s generalizing from very selected instances, but still—it’s a straw in the wind, an augury of the cosmic powers.)
“It’s got to be the router,” my nephew explained, launching into a short dissertation that conveyed to me little except that apparently tiny demons live in our router and one of them had got lazy and was refusing to do his job. A high-ranking demon, apparently, or there wouldn’t be so much of the damn internet missing. A few minutes and a couple of resets later the internet was back up and running again, and I was back at my keyboard launching data into cyberspace.
So I guess there were no terrorist right-wing militias clamping down on my news—this time, anyway. And it wasn’t an evil corporate plot to destroy the internet either. Still, I’ve got used to living my childhood fantasy of having all the news of the world brought to my doorstep and available at my command—The Guardian, the Times of India, The Podunk Gazette and Cross-Time Wanderer—and it’s downright unnerving to have it taken away from me at the whim of some internet demon. What if next time it’s my ISP making decisions about what I should or should not be reading or listening to over the magic intertubes? Or some anonymous functionary in the depths of the great bureaucracy that passes for the free enterprise system here? The Department of Appropriate Content has decided that your choice of information is not acceptable by the community standards established by Free Information Act of 2007 and from now on you will abide by the Decency Provision (Subsection 3A, Paragraph 72) as determined by a committee of your peers….
A million years or so ago, in the golden age of sf, a fellow named Henry Kuttner wrote about a futuristic record player that took it upon itself to censor its owner’s choice in music, books, and—well, everything. It ended badly. The day that the machines that bring us content, whether it be food, music, or news, start telling us what to eat, listen to, or read, is not yet. Still—
I can’t help wondering, what the hell is it like to live in China?

21 June 2017

Without Purpose or Function [1986]


[Letter, 21 June 1986]
M
y goddamn typewriter’s broken, by the way, which is why I’m slowly and painfully writing this instead of typing it, as I would infinitely prefer to be doing. I’m waiting for the shop to report back on it—getting it fixed seems likely to cost as much as buying a new typewriter. But I have a massive half-finished project that I am terrified of having to re-do—it should be finished on the same typewriter if at all possible. (At least on the same model, but they’re not that common.) Complicating things is the fact that my brother has taken the word-processor to his shop to write a shop manual with, so I don’t have any fucking tools to work with. Makes me feel totally useless, absolutely without purpose or function.

20 June 2017

Who, Exactly, is Anti-Life? [2009]


[originally posted 20 June 2009]
S
ome days it doesn’t pay to put your fingers on the keyboard and start typing. I’ve started and trashed at least a dozen openings for this current entry, and I still don’t know what the topic is supposed to be. Am I gibbering about obscure Portland-area DJ Wee Willie Nelson? or about slogan-stealing? or what? My resources are inadequate to doing justice to the topics that cross my mind at the moment. I had files of documents relating to the history of Portland radio, and copies of books like Summerhill and Catch-22, that might have been helpful in one or the other, but I don’t have them any longer, and it feels like part of my brain is missing. I used to know where to go for stuff; one of my most valuable assets in writing was my file of notes taken over the decades on a variety of topics that interested me at one point or another. And just as my memory is increasingly failing me I lose a big chunk of my external memory storage, so to speak. It is goddamn frustrating.
One thing I had notes on was the use of the term “pro-life”. I can’t find a goddamn thing on the innertubes about it. I know the term was kicking around before the anti-abortion crowd got their hands on it, but I can’t find dates or specifics anywhere. As I remember those of us who were interested in the environmental movement before there was an environmental movement used the term “pro-life” to identify our position as protecting and defending all life everywhere, as being opposed to extinction for any species. (I remember concerns whether the “pro-life” movement should support extinction for organisms that cause smallpox or polio—would this not be anti- rather than pro-life?) And earlier than that I seem to recall some D. H. Lawrence types using the expression to mean a healthy open attitude toward sexuality, or something like that.
As I remember it there was a kind of split between those who preferred the save-the-planet sort of rhetoric (probably borrowed from the anti-nuclear folk) on the one hand, and those who focused on the species-in-danger approach on the other. The one direction leads directly to Earth Day, the latter perhaps to the Endangered Species Act. Speaking only for myself, I never cared for the Earth Day type of language; the planet Earth is in no danger—its sister planet Venus gets on just fine without the thin film of life on its surface Earth boasts of. It’s living things that are in peril. Hence the designation pro-life.
I do remember being irritated when I first heard the term “pro-life” used to mean “anti-abortion”. I regarded it as theft pure and simple, and not even a good theft; pro-life is utterly inadequate as a slogan for their position. It fits them about as well as a Frederick’s of Hollywood evening gown fits the average linebacker. “Pro-life?” Don’t make me laugh. And don’t for God’s sake give me that incredibly lame line about being pro-innocent life—the slogan you anti-abortionists stole says nothing whatsoever about innocence, only about life. If you didn’t mean it, why steal it? Yeah, I know, you liked the sound of it—never mind that it made no bloody sense at all.
Now somewhere in the vast wilderness of the interwebs I saw some anti-abortion type claiming that pro-life was an accurate description of the movement because it focused attention on the important thing—that the foetus, no matter how undeveloped, is already a separate human individual entitled to all the rights and privileges that come with that status. Now personally I don’t get that meaning from pro-life; something more like pro-foetal-personhood would seem to fit the bill. But really, what was wrong with anti-abortion? It’s succinct, and it’s accurate. Oh, I suppose from the “pro-life” viewpoint it only covers the conclusion, without giving the grounds for it. It’s quite conceivable for someone to oppose abortion without believing that the foetus is a separate human individual entitled to life at all costs. Such a person would be anti-abortion but not pro-foetal-personhood—or something like that. I’m not a believer, and I don’t play one on the internet either. I’ll leave it to them to explain.
The people opposed to the ban on abortion, on the other hand, had a real problem with the movement label. Pro-abortion is only accurate in the sense that supporters were against its prohibition, not in the sense that they were in favor of abortion itself, or even what opponents like to call “abortion on demand.” Many felt there should be strict restrictions on the practice, favoring it only in cases of rape, incest, or if the woman’s life was in danger. The uneasy compromise in this case was the weasel term pro-choice, which focused on the issue as they saw it, which is that the choice should exist, but leaves wide open the basic question of who should do the choosing, and under what circumstances. Also, like the term pro-life, pro-choice is way over-broad in its implications. Pro-choice in regard to what? Just one narrow issue—whether a woman chooses to bring her foetus to term. And pro-life in regard to what? Again just one narrow issue—whether a woman should be allowed to terminate her pregnancy.
If you didn’t already know what these labels applied to you’d have a hell of a time figuring it out. Pro-choice? Choice in regard to what? What profession to go into, what recreational drugs (if any) to enjoy, what church (if any) to attend? And pro-life? What does life mean here? We could be talking anti-war (as I believe Joseph Heller used the term), anti-pesticide, anti-death penalty, or anti-vivisection. Fuzziness seeps in when sloganeering replaces thought.
I suppose they’re no more inane than the labels given to groups in the past. Free-soilers, abolitionists, know-nothings, nullifiers, roundheads, levelers, and other extinct forms of life once walked the world stage, and the people then knew what was being abolished, or leveled, or nullified. It’s just some of us can’t keep from poking the phrases with pointed sticks.

19 June 2017

A Study in Contrasts [2007]


[Notes, 19 June 2007]
E
dmond Malone and Samuel Ireland—a study in contrasts. Both were roughly of the same generation, with Malone being a bit older than Ireland. In other respects they were very different. Ireland was self-made—or so we may assume; his background is actually shrouded in mystery. Malone came from a family with some money—solidly middle-class I guess, though in English terms I suppose he came from the gentry. Both were Shakespeare enthusiasts, but how different were their enthusiasms. Malone pioneered the serious study of Shakespeare, becoming versed in contemporary writers and leaving no stone unturned to illuminate a passage. Ireland, on the other hand, lacking either the temperament or the training of a scholar, exclaimed over the beauties he found in the bard, attended the plays, and so on.

18 June 2017

Taking Stock [1981]


[18 June 1981]
I
’m beginning to wonder if everyone else has lost touch with reality, or if I’ve lost my mind. Something is rotten, that’s for sure. The news keeps telling of horrible things, of fantastic nightmarish happenings, all as if they were the most natural things in the world; and they aren’t even worth a man in the street interview segment like many supposedly lesser things. However. First—the local events. Living here is like—no it isn’t like, it is—living in a perpetual disaster area. It’s like living on an alien planet, or after a nuclear holocaust. We hear of first-stage smog alerts, second stage smog alerts (air quality unhealthful [!] for just about anybody), sulphate alerts—this is not the air of earth, but of some other place. The atmosphere of hell. Fires rage out of control in half a dozen places, some started accidentally, some started by human agency deliberately. And we hear that the first death of this year’s fire season was—I mean, it’s a fucking award presentation, a game show. And we hear that the rape rate has risen dramatically in the hot weather—and of course there are the constant background noise of death by violence—automobile accidents, plane crashes, and ordinary murders. And nobody even thinks it’s unusual. It literally takes more energy to hold this thing down here together than is available—and the only conclusion I can see is that it’s going to come flying apart in the not too distant future. I mean not merely starvation and riot—but all the rest of the bullshit—mass destruction that will leave a million dead and the mega-city in ruins. But Maybe I’m Wrong.  God I hope so. Even more amazing to me is the more of the same solutions being proposed to solve the problems, when they are perceived. Give the police more money and more power. Build more prisons. [Well, I sort of agree with the last, in view of the state of things as they are.] Look for more gas and oil. Strip mine more land [and what are we going to do when we start running out of food?]. Destroy more wilderness. More, more, more. And it’s already been shown that these “solutions” don’t work—they haven’t worked in the past and there’s no reason to show that they will work in the future. Are these people actually crazy? Screwed up? What is wrong with them? We are on the verge of imminent collapse, possibly even war (and not only us—so are the Soviets—look at Poland and Estonia and Afghanistan—events that aren’t being covered in the news either. Oh, yeah, for future reference, if there is a future, this is the time of the Israeli threat to take out Syrian missiles in Lebanon. Okay?).

17 June 2017

Cherries and Overripe Bananas


W
hile I was at the pet store today, buying food for wild birds and our domestic serpent, I stopped to look at a red iguana in one of the containers there. He (or she) seemed lively and alert, though not looking his best, as he was about to shed and his skin looked dull in consequence. Honestly, I would have liked to take him home with me, but I’m not up to taking care of another pet, and anyway, the way I’m feeling I worry that any creature that joins me may well outlive me.
It was forty-eight years ago today that my pet iguana Molly Bloom joined me. I had wanted an iguana for years, and in honor of my graduating from high school my father decided to give me one. I had a habitat already set up and ready to go, and we went to select my new pet together. The lizards were active and lively-looking, which was reassuring, in that it suggested they had been well-treated and not “damaged in shipment” as one pet supplier had described an episode that resulted in dead reptiles.
After looking at the bright-eyed little creatures in the container, I selected one that looked alert and healthy, and the lady in charge reached in to pick her up and place her in a container for me to take home with me. As she did so another iguana seized her chance. Running up the woman’s arm she made a wild leap into the center of the store and headed off at high speed for points unknown. My father, the saleswoman, and I then fanned out in a sort of circle surrounding the escapee, who was moving from point to point at blinding speed, visible to the unaided eye only when stationary.
Finally the woman crept up behind her while I stationed myself on the floor in front of her, my hand palm upward on the floor. The woman made a sudden grab for her, and the lizard vanished in a flash, shooting across the empty space and coming to a stop on my hand. I curled my palm around the small green creature, picked her up, and announced, I’m going to take this one too. And so it was that Molly became part of my life.
She was a surly creature, unlike my other iguana, my first pick. She was fond of bananas, so long as they were overripe and mushy, and when I gave her assorted fruit she would always pick the cherries out and eat them first. When I had to move her she would do serious damage to my skin, leaving me with scratches up my arm that refused to heal quickly, so I bought a thick glove to wear when I had to move her. She quickly identified the glove as her enemy, and would attack it on sight, biting it and whipping it with her tail. In later years, when she lived in my bathroom on a perch that ran a foot under the ceiling from one end of the room to the other, she managed to open the cupboard where I kept the glove, pull it out, and rip it apart. When I told my father about it he remarked, Well, at least she knew who her enemy was.
She eventually grew to be just under five feet long. She went through several containers as she grew, breaking out of the last one in a memorable moment. I was out in the backyard at the time, when I heard one of the dogs barking—I forget which one now. I came in to find that somebody—I’m not sure who, though I have my suspicions—had overturned the garbage and spread it out over the kitchen floor, and now my iguana was digging through it, while the dog virtuously called my attention to her misdeeds. At my appearance Molly took fright and ran for the bathroom, climbing up a towel rack and installing herself on top of a cabinet. She seemed to like it there, so I let her stay, and she made it her home for about a decade.
She lived over twenty years, a good life for an iguana I guess. One day I walked into the bathroom to find her posed in a position as if she were about to leap off the tall cabinet, her back feet on top of it and her front feet on its side, her head down. I thought at first she’d just frozen there for a moment, as she sometimes did when startled, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that whatever it was she had been doing, she wasn’t going to finish it. I buried her body alongside the north fence, and went on with my life without her. She had been a part of it throughout my twenties and most of my thirties, and I had enjoyed her presence.
Not everybody felt the same way. Visitors expressed their pleasure that I no longer had that creature living in my bathroom—but I missed her.

16 June 2017

Bloomsday


T
oday is Bloomsday. You know what that means. No, not that we’re going to have a special guest—that’s more like Talent Round-Up day anyway. No, it means that people are going to celebrate a novel (I guess you can call it a novel) that most of them have never read about a handful of characters who wander around aimlessly on 16 June 1904 and accomplish very little in a massive outpouring of words that chronicle their inner lives and (especially) the pre-war Irish world they lived in. It’s a hell of a book, and there’s nothing else out there quite like it. Like Pale Fire and Tristam Shandy it sits in a genre of its own—and like them it is all too often unread.

15 June 2017

Lemmings Lament [2009]


[Originally posted 15 June 2009]
Are you put upon by powers?
Are you restless for release?
Death just might be that final rush you crave.
We all believe in flowers
And we all believe in peace;
There’s endless peace and flowers in the grave.
Freud, Marx, Engles, and Jung
Somewhere during my high school years, the late sixties maybe, I had a vision of a sort of parody pop album, an anthology that would do for the excesses of the day’s music what Rejected Addresses had done for Wordsworth and Walter Scott. I called it something like Plastic Sole in my mind, and I wrote a Bob Dylan parody, a Simon and Garfunkel parody, a Doors parody, and a Rod McKuen parody for it. I think maybe I had a Bobbie Gentry-style ballad planned for it too. The Dylan was particularly mean-spirited, as I recall; I had him attacking a Mr. Jones-like character who (it becomes obvious) the singer is sponging on, the singer finally ordering him to get the hell out—but only after he’s forked over all his spare change.
Of course I never did anything with it; it was just something to occupy my mind when I should have been coloring maps for Contemporary World Problems. I would have loved it if somebody else had done something like that, however, especially if it was done well. But as far as I knew, nobody else even seemed to be thinking in that direction.
Had I but known a group of jokers at the Harvard Lampoon were thinking along the same lines, maybe a bit diagonally from my take. In June of 1969 an album appeared entitled The Surprising Sheep and Other Mind Excursions and it was an album at least superficially matching the general description of my own mind excursion, Plastic Sole. I wonder what I would have thought of it if I’d stumbled on it at the time.
I think I would have liked the Bob Dylan parody, “Seventeen Miles from Waukegan My Cantaloupe Died.” The takeoff focuses on the surreal aspects of Bob Dylan’s imagery; my main objection now would be that while it is surreal enough, it just isn’t that Dylanesque. “In the Palm of My Hand” is a very broad parody of the Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb,” though taking the imagery in quite another direction. “Little Miss Muffet” reworks the nursery rhyme as a Wilson Pickett track, with a touch of Otis Redding thrown in. (I doubt that this one would have meant anything to me at the time, to be honest—though years later when I first heard it on the National Lampoon Radio Hour box CD set I instantly got it.) “Recipe for Love” targets Dionne Warwick, and I see by it that that same instrumental riff that irritated me also irritated its composer. I might have got a kick out of it.
But the one piece I feel fairly confident I would have liked is something called “Welcome to the Club,” a Lovin’ Spoonful parody written by Christopher Cerf. This one took that ghastly scene that unfolded in 1968 Chicago and turned it into a light-hearted “Daydream” spoof, with pun-filled lyrics:
If your life is a bore
And you’d like to get more
Of a boot out of people you meet,
Well forget your self-pity
And come down to a city
Where the folks will positively knock you off of your feet
With the police riots in Daley’s Chicago fresh in our minds, the clubbings and stompings and gassings and all that, this piece would have had a special poignancy then, or so I imagine now.
On behalf of each judicial
And executive official
We promise you a smashing good time.
On the whole I think I would have been disappointed, though. Too many performers crying out for parody were missing, and the execution was distinctly on the sloppy side. And Bob Dylan—the guy is ripe for parody, and yet till this day the best efforts fall short. Maybe Paul Simon’s “Simple Desultory Philippic,” or John Lennon’s untitled takeoff come the closest, but, well, I’m sure it’s possible to do better. Well, the moment has passed, I suppose.
But Bob Dylan (played by Christopher Guest) was featured on the next major excursion in that direction, a record entitled simply Lemmings, featuring a show put on by the National Lampoon. The first act was a series of sketches somewhat in the style of the future Saturday Night Live, and none of that appeared on the album. But the second act was a stunning parody of Woodstock, complete with takeoffs on Wavy Gravy and Max Yasgur. This is what appeared on the album, slightly abridged. (A Joan Baez parody that had already appeared on the album Radio Dinner was omitted, for example. And later incarnations of the show featured parodies of Donovan and Joni Mitchell that had yet to be created at the time of this recording. Anyway.)
The opening track, “Lemmings Lament,” sets the stage by parodying Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” as performed by CSN&Y. It sets out the theme later made explicit by Farmer Yassir—“This here mass suicide of all you young people may just be the best goddamn thing ever happen to this country.” Next up Bob Dylan casually repudiates the protest movement he helped to launch:
You say I was your leader,
You say I turned you on,
You’re starting to suspect now
That it was all a con.
Then, after an excursion into early 1960s death rock that seems a bit out of place here, there’s the stunning John Denver takeoff, “Colorado.” Chevy Chase did Denver about as well as he did Ford, but the song is funny enough to survive even that, with lines that came back to haunt me when I did spend a winter or two in Colorado:
Oh, Colorado’s calling me
From her hillsides, to her canyons, and her rivers and her trees;
When blizzards snap the power lines, and all the toilets freeze
In December in the Colorado Rockies.
The song has moments of lyric intensity, usually followed by a thumping anticlimax:
The wind sang us a lullaby;
The snow was thick as cream,
And icicles were chandeliers
Like crystals in a dream,
And the streams were strips of diamonds,
And the hills were white as snow
And a bear ate all our soybeans in the night.
The James Taylor parody, “Highway Toes,” had previously appeared, at least as far as the lyrics went, as part of Sean Kelly’s “Swan Song of the Open Road,” which featured takeoffs on Walt Whitman, Richard Brautigan, and Pete Seeger (not “Well-Intentioned Blues”) as well. The music, by Christopher Guest, however, sounds more like Gordon Lightfoot than James Taylor. But the Joe Cocker (John Belushi) parody is dead on, if a little overlong.
The basic idea of linking musical parodies by framing them with a Woodstock satire was absolutely brilliant, and even if the “Festival of Death” thing is a bit over-obvious, the execution is solid. To quote Farmer Yassir again, “Long hair, short hair—what’s the difference once the head’s blowed off.”
If I still had my files and notes I probably would have pulled out my old high-school outline for Plastic Sole (or whatever I really called it) and looked it over one more time. There wasn’t anything in it worth saving, probably, but I did enjoy planning it so many years ago, and I probably would have enjoyed the recollection. The Rod McKuen parody, for example—I remember working on it gleefully (I detested Rod McKuen for whatever reason)—but I don’t remember anything else whatsoever about it. I imagine it was embarrassingly bad—but I don’t know, and now I’ll never know. It’s not important, but it’s irritating.
Bear with me folks; I’m having a difficult time adjusting. But I should be off this black nostalgia kick in a day or so. I hope so, anyway.

14 June 2017

The Voices in My Head [2006]


[originally posted 14 June 2006]
M
y eyes are swollen and red and have been for the past several days—allergies I suppose, but it's difficult to focus on the screen. I’ve written nothing for the past several days, not that it matters I suppose, but it feels frustrating. Today I got one thing off my list of things to do—I got most of the front lawn and parking strip mowed, wh …ich makes the place look less abandoned, or at least so I fondly think. The internet runs sluggishly for me today. My head buzzes with random quotations—“It’s all very strange and mysterious and I’m sure it’s leading up to something,” (Mrs. Drudge in The Real Inspector Hound); “What’s the bird’s-eye lowdown on this caper, whatever that means?” (Nick Danger); “If you didn’t know the difference, you couldn’t tell the difference” (a long-forgotten advertisement); “There aint much you can do with a bag of shit except bury it” (Huck Finn’s pap according to Seelye)…. It’s like one of those scenes in old movies where voices from the past echo in some guy’s mind (or at least on the soundtrack) except that these voices mean nothing. Brusha brusha brusha, get the new Ipana … You can be sure if it’s Westinghouse … I can’t believe I ate the whole thing … You hate that cat, don’t you?
Do they even make Ipana any more? Then what is the point of having this loop stuck in my head? It’s talent round-up day, folks, or maybe we’re going to have a special guest.
Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear when Lucky Strikes brings you The Lone Ranger and his faithful Indian companion Tonto—or was it his Japanese valet Kato? Well, the Shadow knows. And the Death March of a Marionette means it’s time to go to bed.
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