Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Beauty of Everyday Objects; and Beautiful Monsters

Red-haired Karla practices ministry and magic, disguised as cosmetology. She cut my hair today, reward for housesitting her big, white, furry boy cat a while ago, the mirror image of the big, black, furry boy cat I am housesitting now.

Amidst the salon's swirl of cinnabar scent, I was telling Karla I want to learn to blow things up, in a small way, and she said she loved that stuff--had gone through two chemistry sets when she was a kid.
When I told her I was inspired by what I imagine to be Blake's 7's special-effects budget of $3.79, she exclaimed,
"You should make your own project--go to Steeple People and buy some odds and ends--and call it Spaceship 379!"

I practically leapt out of her chair and ran out into today's snowstorm and falling temperatures to go to the Steeple People thrift store with my 379 pennies to spend.
I lucked out: not only were there lots of unidentifiable objects in the Miscellaneous Hardware bins but there were 4 boxes of FREE broken and obscure objects.
I picked out anything that looked like it might be alien technology on a spaceship. (Funny how Jello-o molds fit in that category.)

My favorite find was these 3 springy bronze things, pictured here. They were 25 cents altogether; but what are they? (I pulled the rubber tips off, so you maybe couldn't tell either, here.) The volunteer lady cashier and I didn't know, but the guy behind me identified them as door stops.
(Men are so great!)

The other objects in this picture are a hockey puck (also 25 cents) and the outer ring of a spring-form pan (free).
Aren't they beautiful?
Makes me weep.

Beautiful Monsters

These everyday objects--and Karla--pulled me out of an emotional tailspin. See, distrust and betrayal of love are central themes in Blake's 7. And last night, I had accidentally watched the devastating end of the series on youTube (it was tucked into a fan video).
Even though I'd read about the dénouement, seeing it was like being punched in the solar plexus.
Just a wee bit too close to home, someone shooting the one they love.

(The only thing I could come up with as comfort was the thought that surely the betrayer and the betrayed are Time Lords, like Dr Who, who will regenerate and have a laugh later over a pint.)

When I was young, sexy stories about pain attracted me.
I loved Interview with the Vampire, for instance. If I was twenty, I would run out to see Twilight, this season's vampire romance.

But I am old. OK, forty-seven. Not young, anyway.
A few years ago a young acquaintance told me she couldn't be a writer because, she said regretfully, she hadn't "suffered enough."
Well. Fuck me.
But I have to admit there was a time when I felt something similar.

When I was a teenager vampires looked so cool. I wanted to feel intensely, and suffering looked like it would do the job.
I was suffering plenty; I just didn't recognize it because it didn't look romantic.
And that's because suffering isn't romantic. Only its depiction in art is.

Now I have witnessed plenty of suffering and partaken of my fair share and here's what I have to say:
Suffering is a bore.

Mostly it just reduces people--makes us small.
It is art, the creative transformation of experience, that makes us larger, which is interesting.
And you can apply it to anything.
The remarkable resemblance a Jello-o mold holds to a starship, for instance.

And the other thing I'd say is the opposite:
There is something about suffering--if it doesn't break us apart--that breaks us open to the possibility of transformation.

It's just that I seem to want to transform household items, these days.
Beautiful monsters doling out their beautiful pain...
You can have them.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Research: Household Stuff That Blows Up

The cat and I have now watched the entire first season (13 episodes) of Blake's 7.

B7 is an inspiration to me. It looks like the show's special effects budget was ... maybe $3.79 per effect? But that didn't stop them raising big issues, like free will and telepathy and where do you get your hair permed in outer space?
And there are lots of lovely explosions of things that seem to be put together from the kind of bits and pieces you have in your junk drawer that you were saving in case you needed just such a thing but now you've forgotten what purpose they ever could have possibly served.

So, while I'm waiting for my Orestes to be available so I can finish shooting that film, I'm inspired to try my hand at Special Effects on a Budget; or, How to Blow Up Stuff with Household Items You Never Knew Exploded.

I missed that chapter of childhood, being busy reading books while other more physically oriented children were figuring out that when you set little green army men on fire, they drip flaming plastic.
But it's never too late for a happy childhood. I have found a site Science Toys with instructions for "A simple rocket engine you can build in your kitchen."

A box of matches, a little tin foil, a can of hair spray, and a slight grasp of physics and I too could create a science fiction show.
Not, of course, when I'm housesitting someone else's pets though.

Funeral Punch

Today's Church Basement Post-Funeral Prandial Buffet
On long tables at the front:
puffy bread rolls, white and brown
cold slices of ham, turkey, and roast beef
Swiss and Cheddar cheese, sliced
packets of mayonnaise and yellow mustard
bowl of rippled potato chips
cole slaw, cold
baked beans, warm
selection of dessert bars (chocolate, seven layers, cheesecake, etc.)
glasses of ice water
trays of pink punch
(pots of coffee on tables )

Cathy lent me her iPhone to record the beauty of the punch.

This is the perfect meal, in my opinion, to follow up a very, very cold stint in a cemetery, listening to a bugler play Taps for a dear friend's father, who served in Patton's tank corps.
There's nothing that says life goes on like trying to serve yourself potato chips with plastic tongs.
Ben, r.i.p.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Kitty Litter

Here's the kitty who's keeping me company as I watch Blakes 7 [post below], enjoying the torn wrapping paper from Christmas Eve. I should caption the photo in LOLspeak, but I can never figure out what cats are thinking, beyond "feed me" and "scratch behind my ears," both of which orders I understand ...and obey.

Blakes 7: A Mirror Trek

Friends who shall remain nameless copied all 52 episodes (1978-1981) of Blakes 7 onto DVDs for me, (why isn't this available in US-compatible DVD-format?) and risked their lives smuggling them through international airports so I can finally watch this British sci-fi show I have read about.

(If you live in town, I'd be happy to share.)

Last night I watched the first four episodes, with the cat I am housesitting. He rated them highly, as they kept me on the couch where he could sleep companionably.

The show is an absolutely fascinating tour through 20th century political philosophy and pop culture sci-fi:
A Captain Kirk-type leader (Blake, who champions freedom and sports Starsky-like puffy hair) meets 1984 (a dystopian future), on a Dr Who budget (the prison spaceship seemed to be fueled by someone pouring vinegar into baking soda).
B7's creator, Terry Nation, also created the Daleks, so it's not surprising the show has that wonderful "we made these robots out of garbage cans" feel.

However, the special effects and costumes are about as far as the humor extends. This is not goofy, good-natured sci-fi.

Blake is a rebel against a Big Brother Federation of planets--not your Star Trek Friendly Father Federation--which controls its citizens by drugging their food and water with suppressants.
He and a ragtag band of criminals escape in an alien starship, the Liberator, and--for mixed motives--engage in a guerrilla war against the Federation.

A bit like Che Guevara and his scruffy band wandering around in the jungles of Bolivia, living off tapir meat (really, among other things)--and with the same ultimate success.
[Photo of Che Guevara's corpse, October 10, 1967, taken by photographer Freddy Alborta in Vallegrande, Bolivia.]

I suspect Joss Whedon was going for this morally ambiguous, gritty grain in Firefly; but he didn't succeed. That show, otherwise similar to Blakes 7, was fundamentally too romantic: you never really think in Serenity, for instance, that the good guys won't win in the end, even at a high price.

B7's far more disturbing.
Last night, after watching Blakes 7 for 3.5 hours, I dreamt about being a member of a resistance group, some of whom died, horribly, of starvation.
An odd subconscious choice, as I've been stuffed with holiday cookies and candy for four days; it came, I suppose, from the show's first episode, in which rebels fast to avoid the suppressants.

Firefly and Star Trek never gave me bad dreams.
But Blakes 7 is as if someone created a show about a group of rebels operating in the evil, alternate Star Trek universe of the "Mirror, Mirror" episode--one of that show's only ventures to the dark side.
In fact, in that episode, the "good" Kirk does encourages the "bad" Spock to lead such a rebellion:

Kirk: Be the captain of this Enterprise. What will it be? Past or future? Tyranny or freedom? It's up to you. In every revolution, there's one man with a vision.

Mirror Spock: Captain Kirk, I shall consider it.

What would that have looked like? Nothing like the optimistic, silly, gung-ho Star Trek I love; somewhat like B7.

P.S. Seems I've been writing about revolutions of various sorts lately, and I want to say that while I am interested in the arts, philosophies, and personalities involved, I am not a fan of violent revolution.
I regret, for instance, that my country didn't take the gradual route to freedom from colonial rule, like Canada did, instead of taking up arms, which left a national legacy of turning to violence as a "solution."

Of course, I speak from the privilege of safety:
if I were desperate, like Blake's compatriots, I probably would do what they do. But god spare me from tapir-eating purists.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Eve & Morn



After. (This morning.)

See? See? Bink got me the Star Trek PEZ!!!

If I didn't have to leave, I'd spend the morning lying on the couch, eating the Peeps C'mas candy (marshmallow snowmen) from Maura off the happy alien plate, drinking the dregs of wine, and listening to Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black" over and over.
No time for that now--I'm off into the 2 degrees outdoors, first to Barrett's, and then the Poodletails' for more general jollity.

Cheers to you all!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Oh! and Merry Christmas, btw!

Wait! Instead of spending three hours gathering bits and pieces about people making the most of a muddle, on film [post below] (how did I get started on that anyway?), I was supposed to be cooking Christmas Eve dinner for Bink & Maura, who are coming over to my cat-sitting home in 4.75 hours!

So... I better put on some carols (about daleks?), make a martini, and wash all those splendid losers out of my hair so I can put on my Santa cap.

I hope nice things happen to you and nobody comes at you with pointed sticks at all. Or toilet plungers or egg beaters either.

The Thrill of Defeat

General Gordon's Last Stand
by George William Joy

Who faces defeat and redeems bungling as splendidly as the Brits?
Or they used to do it splendidly, anyway.

There's the Charge of the Light Brigade, for instance, in which 600-plus British calvary soldiers charged the wrong way, which did not work out well for them--
the equivalent of scoring a goal for the other side, but a lot worse, and with horses. Let us say no more about the horses.
Wikipedia reports that French Marshal Pierre Bosquet said about it:
"C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre. C'est de la folie."
("It is magnificent, but it is not war. It is madness.")

But Tennyson in poetry immortalized this disaster--
"Into the Valley of Death rode the six hundred..." (even Americans know this line, though we don't know why).

That was at the Battle of Balaclava, 1854, (to which we owe the ski mask), during the Crimean War.

Mad, Magnificent Gordon

Thirty years later, General Gordon achieved another highlight in the history of splendid disasters.
The British sent him to withdraw the Egyptian troops at Khartoum, Sudan, (GB had just taken control of Egypt), but Gordon decided on his own that they could hold out against the Mahdi, the religious rebel leader.
He was wrong.

I vividly remember Gordon's death. I saw it in the movie Khartoum (1966) at the drive-in movie theater, when I was five.
Charleton Heston played Gordon, and the scene where he, magnificent, is speared to death was based on this famous painting, above.

It worked for me:
In the back of our family's Opel Kadett station wagon--[pale yellow, but something like the 1968 version, right, seemingly fit to take on Sudan itself]-- I sobbed hysterically.

What Gordon Said: Horrid

American schoolchildren of my generation did not study the British Empire, much less African history, and I did not meet Gordon again until I wrote the Sudan geography book a few years ago. By then I had forgotten, if I'd ever known (doubtful) that Khartoum was in ...well, in the real world at all.

I read excerpts from Gordon's diary, and of course the reality wasn't all that splendid. It was hot and there were flies.
This is the sidebar I put in the book:

Trapped in Khartoum

General Charles Gordon of Great Britain kept a journal while he was under siege in Khartoum. During an attack of the Mahdi’s forces on November 12, 1884, Gordon recorded his feelings of dread at being awoken by the sound of the battle nearby:

“One tumbles at 3:00 A.M. into a troubled sleep; a drum beats––tup! tup! tup! It comes into a dream, but after a few moments one becomes more awake and it is revealed to the brain that one is in Khartoum…. Where is the tup, tupping going on? A hope arises it will die away. No, it goes on and increases in intensity….

“…up one must get and go on the roof of the palace; then telegrams, orders, swearing and cursing goes on till about 9:00 A.M.…
"Men may say what they like about the glories of war, but to me it is…horrid….”

--from The Journals of Major-General C. G. Gordon, at Khartoum (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885).

Two months later, the Mahdi’s forces took Khartoum, speared Gordon to death, and decapitated him. Two days later, a British relief expedition arrived in Khartoum, on January 28, 1885.

(It's been a long time since I read LOTR, but didn't Tolkein describe the Company of the Ring listening in dread to drums tup, tup, tupping? In Moria, was it?)

The Four Feathers

A modern (2002) movie worth seeing about the British in the Madhi War is The Four Feathers, starring Heath Ledger as Harry Faversham, in one of the many remakes of A. E. W. Mason's novel of 1902.
It's far more honest about how horrid war is, but it's still pretty splendid because how could it not be? Beautiful men running about in the desert...with camels!

So, this all is how I gleaned enough background finally to understand the utterly baffling Rudyard Kipling poem...


The Brits loved the splendid chap when he lost, even if he was the enemy.

I know, I know, this is dreadful imperialistic stuff--don't take my head off-- but I'm going to post a bit of Rudyard Kipling's imagined words of some poor British soldier of the Soudan Expeditionary Force saluting the Sudanese soldiers who supported the Mahdi and who "broke a British square"--that is, they broke up the supposedly impenetrable British fighting formation--pictured here, above, from The Four Feathers. (The British infantryman called the Sudanese warriors Fuzzy-Wuzzy because of their wild hairstyle.)
The British defeated them, eventually, but recognized them as worthy foes.

This happened at the Battle of Abu Klea, where Captain Frederick Burnaby [painting by Tissot in post below] met his death. I didn't know that until right now...

"Fuzzy-Wuzzy" [links to Kipling's soldier poems--scroll down]

Then 'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, an' the missis and the kid:
Our orders was to break you, an' of course we went an' did.
We sloshed you with Martinis, an' it wasn't 'ardly fair;
But for all the odds agin' you, Fuzzy-Wuz, you broke the square.

[The Martinis are machine guns, alas, not cocktails.] 

NOTE: Anonymous left a comment six years later, in 2014, correcting my above ignorant statement:
"Anonymous said...

I have to correct this The Martini was not a machine gun. It was the standard issue rifle called the Henry Martini it is a breech loading single shot rifle."
Background of the poem.

The verdict is still out on Sudan, of course, 120-some years later. In fact, one of the major players is the great-grandson of the Mahdi.

Meanwhile, in South Africa

While I'm on this bizarre tour of the British Empire in popular culture, let me throw Zulu (1964) in too. It features Micheal Caine's first starring role in a movie, and it's a surprisingly good movie, says someone who doesn't really care for war movies (though you'd hardly know it, here).
It's about a small group of British soldiers fighting off a Zulu attack at Rorke's Drift, in 1879, during the Zulu Wars. (Based on real events. I gather the director worked closely with the Zulu actors and incorporated their pov.) The two groups end up in a sort of draw, in a kind of mutual-admiration warriors club.

But Zulu's not a simplistic depiction of the splendid, spotless warrior. At the end Caine, whose character had not seen battle before, says, "I feel dirty."
And American portrayals of noble defeat?
I'll have to think about that.
If you can think of any, let me know.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Art History, II: Two Captains

Kirk, one of the Victorian/Steampunk Star Trek Wallpapers by Rabbit Tooth, who creates some very amusing photo manipulations ("manips").
Steampunk is.. um, well... like, Jules Verne imagined our world and now some of this world is turning around to imagine his.
I'm not very familiar with it, so here's the Wikipedia link.

(I really need to learn photoshop one of these days.)

While I'm in the era, here's the real thing--and my favorite pair of legs in art:
Captain Frederick Burnaby, in his 3rd Household Cavalry uniform, painted by Tissot in 1870.
Burnaby was an adventurer and writer who, among other things, went to Khartoum, Sudan (which I was just proof/reading about) to report on Charles Gordon's ill-fated undertakings there, for The Times.

[Kirk in Art History 101 here.]
[Kirk as Master and Commander here.]
[The Enterprise as a Ship of the Line here.]

Monday, December 22, 2008

Tina Modotti & The Tangled Web

Tina Modotti (1896-1942)
Mella’s Typewriter, 1928

Modotti was Italian but did most of her photography in Mexico in the 1920s, where she was friends with Frida Kahlo, among other interesting people.

This gorgeous photograph has a different impact now that I've just learned that "Mella" was Modotti's murdered comrade and lover Julio Antonio Mella, a Cuban Marxist revolutionary exiled to Mexico. On January 10, 1929, he was assassinated, in a murky political crime, possibly by agents of the Cuban government.

A political revolutionary, Modotti worked for social justice in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

Wondering if she met Robert Capa and Gerta Taro (post below) in Spain, I googled the trio.
I found that, according to Margaret Hooks' biography Tina Modotti, Modotti hung out with Constancia de la Mora, who was head of the Foreign Ministry's press censorhsip department, where Capa and Taro would have come, and that Modotti met many of the foreign correspondents.

Ah! Here. I asked Google to translated this [clicked on "translate this page"], so it reads something like LOLcat, but the author contends that Modotti and Taro's paths did cross, at least once, at a Communist Party function:

"In July 1937, at the 2nd Congress to defend the culture, in the midst of the war in Valencia and Madrid took place, there was an encounter between two photographers. One of them, Tina MODOTTI should die in 1942 in Mexico, the other, Gerta Taro - actually Gerta Pohorylle - would be a few days after this encounter, crushed by a tank in front of Brunete killed."

The original, in German, is Kämpfer und Freunde der Spanischen Republik [Fighters and Friends the Spanish Republic]: Modotti und Taro, von Christiane Barckhausen.

I'm just rummaging around in history and images here, marveling at the threads that weave into and out of everybody's lives.

A mundane example of such interweaving is an emergency e-mail I got this afternoon from Momo, whom I only know because of blogging. She's leaving town tomorrow and at the last minute her cat-feeding arrangements fell through. So, it's not civil war, thank god, but I am pitching in to help.

Fly on the Wall, II

In 1936, two lovers, photojournalists, and Jewish émigrés in Paris––André Friedmann and Gerta Pohorylle––changed their names: his to Robert Capa, hers to Gerda Taro. Both documented the Spanish Civil War, from the front lines.
She died in 1937, at the age of twenty-six, when a tank ran into a car she was in. He died in 1954, at the age of forty, when he stepped on a landmine in Vietnam.

“If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough.”
--Robert Capa

Lipsmacking Goodness

Lori of Lori's Lipsmacking Goodness went looking for a tu tu cookie recipe and found mine--or, rather, the recipe from my Ama, my Sicilian grandmother. Lori made them and posted the results, photographed, here.

Ama also made SOS cookies, made with butter, almond essence, and cinnamon.

It's -11 (MINUS eleven!) here, so I think I should stay in and bake, while I finish proofing Sudan.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Music for Sagittarius

Having touched on the astronomy of Sagittarius last Sunday, here's my final chance to say something astrological about the Archer, before the "sun... to the Goat is run," as John Donne says. (The goat is Capricorn, the sign which the sun is just about to enter.)

Here's my take on Sagittarius: the qualities associated with the zodiac sign are much like Handel's Messiah. Handel wasn't a Sag himself, but his oratorio expresses the expansive energy of the season. (Though Handel originally composed it for Lent, it fits Advent a whole bunch better, as people recognized.)

Here's the gist of it:
Let's get together a whole bunch of people to have a jolly time, infused with hope for the future regarding Big Important Things, like salvation from sin or global warming. And to drink warm drinks. Hallelujah!

Other Sag music would be Gustav Holt's "Jupiter" section of "The Planets," with its energizing euphonium. Warm, brassy Jupiter, bearer of good things (like Saint Nick), rules Sagittarius.

Or the "Ode to Joy" from Symphony No. 9, by Beethoven (who was a Sag--born Dec. 16, 1770--though an uncharacteristically grumpy one; but then, he had other things going on). He wrote this choral work to the poem by Friedrich Schiller:

Joy, beautiful spark of God
Daughter of Elysium,
We enter drunk with fire,
Heavenly one, your sanctuary!

(Sagittarius is a mutable fire sign.)

If you can't quite bring that piece of music to mind, here's a performance of it by Beaker, my favorite Muppet.
He embodies another aspect of Sagittarius: the way all that booming good cheer and jollity can make some of us anxious and agitated, actually increasing our feelings of worthlessness and decreasing our interest in pleasure: i.e., all the stuff that has people singing the blues in December.

[Sorry, I don't know who to credit for the wonderful image at the top of this post.]

Saturday, December 20, 2008

"Strangers on this road we are on..."

Today a stranger left a lovely comment on the post about my mother's suicide. Her kindness reminded me of how much we affect each other, maybe without ever knowing it.

Then I read that Majel Barrett Roddenberry died December 18, 2008, two days ago. (The London Times obit, which is better than the NYT's. Now, if only the Economist will write one...) I shed a few tears in recognition of someone who'd been part of a Very Good Thing in my life.

Majel was one cool sci-fi dream as Number One (below, 1964), the Enterprise's original Vulcan-like first officer. She served with Captain Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) in the very first Star Trek pilot, "The Cage," which the network rejected. (Much of "The Cage" was later recycled in the two-part episode "The Menagerie," which you can watch here, along with the rest of the orginal series, free at CBS Classic Star Trek.)

"Get rid of the woman and the guy with the pointed ears," the network said.
The Satanic ears survived full strength, but the futuristic female got watered down and poured into a silly nurse outfit that never quite fit right.
I always hated Nurse Christine Chapel because I sensed that her smothering motherliness was the flip side of a Nurse Ratchet desire for domination. But come to think of it, maybe she was Number One, lobotomized.

Majel got her own back in later ST series, however, playing a brazen broad--and also the voice of the Federation starships' computers. She completed the latter job for the upcoming Star Trek XI before she died, so she has the last word, after all.

Godspeed, pretty lady.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Work and Whatnot

"Thinking Hat"
Did you know these deceptively little blog posts sometimes take hours to put together? The gooder ones, anyway. (Let's be honest... some of the non-shiny ones too.)

Well, I am sad that I haven't had hours open lately--though for a good reason:
It's the end of the publisher's fall season and that means it's time for stuff I do freelance--proofing and indexing, mostly, at this stage.
Normally I pick and choose among projects but due to financial considerations I have said yes to everything. So I'm sitting here with a pile of manuscripts (half of them are in the ether, actually, but they feel like a pile), all due in a couple weeks.
I have a hard time blogging much when my brain is full of other people's words.

But my brain has also been filling up with blogging oddments--collecting shiny stuff like a magpie has become a habit--so I'm downloading a few here.
And here's a chance to use up some of the delightful Spock icons I yoinked from lemonrocket.

What with the temps hovering around zero degrees F, I've been forcing myself to go back to the YW. Yesterday I discovered that the Y has moved certain of the exercise machines to a new area, where they are all facing a wall of new, high-def flat screen TVs.

I asked the nice young man at the desk if there were any not facing TVs, or if any of the TVs could be turned off.
"It's not very meditative, " I said.
"Don't other people say so too?"

He looked at me tenderly, as if I were a defective panda.
"Most people..." he explained slowly, "want nothing. to. do. with meditation."

So, that would be a no.

Roman Solstice
My Latin-teaching friend Amy writes:

"The Romans called the winter solstice bruma. It's short for brevissima since it's the shortest day. I love the fact that there's a shortened version of the word 'shortest'.
They didn't call it a solstice because that means the sun seems to stand in the sky so they only used that term in the summer.
During bruma it races across. "

Flight Patterns
I ran into a man from my church days on the bus yesterday. He's one of those guys who pin you to the wall and relate facts stunning in their factualness until you slump to the floor, and then they tell you some more. (Very pleasant fellow, just entirely socially clueless.)

But for once, during our bus ride, he told me something weirdly interesting:
For fun, he follows airplane flight patterns--like, flight towers broadcast them on the web? (sorry, I'm vague on these details though he told me ALL ABOUT THEM).

Normally, he said, there are about 50 or 60 other people tracking the flight take offs and landings too.
But during the last visit of the pope, when he was landing and taking off at JFK, the numbers of on-line observers of the pope's plane were "in the three digits."

Occasionally I am stunned to realize that there are whole human worlds out there I am unaware of. These was one of those moments.
Now I am going to proof a book on Sudan, whose idiocies are, alas, all too familiar.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Pink Cookies and Black Books

Ann D. brought pink meringue cookies--made with raspberry jello!-- to a holiday party, and I thought they were of cultural significance, coming from the Land of Food Far Removed from Nature, so I am sharing her recipe here (at end of post).

The cookies are from Ann's childhood, in a suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where my auntie now lives. It was on a trip to visit her that I photographed the Cheese Cows
The drink of choice in that region is beer, of course, but these pink puffs would nicely complement your Wisconsin plonk. (You can get a fine cranberry wine at the Cheese Haus, next to the gas station where I-94 divides.)

For Christmas, I plan to sit with a plate of pink food and a bottle of red liquid and watch the third season of Black Books [links to clips on Channel 4], my latest discovery that makes me laugh out loud.

Bernard Black (Irish comic Dylan Moran, far right, the only good thing in this year's Run, Fat Boy, Run) is a bookshop owner who wants everyone to piss off and leave him alone to drink bottles of cheap Spanish wine, smoke cigarettes, and read books. (It's worth watching just to see a television character reading--very odd.)
His friends (?) are Fran (Tamsin Greig) and Manny (Bill Bailey).

Black Books reminded me a bit of Father Ted, which also made me laugh out loud. Turns out Moran cowrote B.B. with Father Ted creator Graham Linehan.

Would I like these shows about nasty and/or bumbling people if I weren't American? I can't stand American TV comedies, but I have a high tolerance for Brit-coms. I suppose they are more amusing to me, not just because they're better written (though could that be said of Father Ted? I think not) but because the mad, idiotic characters don't seem real to me, whereas I recognize the idiots on U.S. comedies as all too real.

Pink Cookies

3 egg whites
1/8 tsp salt
3 1/2 T raspberry jello (1/2 of small box)
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp vinegar
1 cup mini chocolate chips

Beat egg whites with salt until foamy.
Add raspberry jello and sugar gradually.
Beat until soft peaks form and sugar is dissolved.
Mix in vinegar. Fold in chocolate chips.
Drop from teaspoons onto ungreased cookie sheets covered in parchment paper.
Bake at 250 degrees for 25 minutes.
Turn off oven and leave cookies in for another 20 minutes longer.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Winter Moon

Today I helped my friend Laura set up Laura Borealis, Artist, a blog for her art. (I'm like a pusher when it comes to blogging--always trying to get friends to start their own blog.)
Laura is one of my oldest, dearest friends. She is an artist who works, these days, mostly in polymer clay (aka Fimo, one of its brand names). She creates her miniature scenes on light-switch covers, among other surfaces.

This one, Winter Moon, has elements that glow in the dark, including the moon caught in the tree branches. I bought it to keep my glow-in-the-dark Kirk and Spock company.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sagittarius: Messier than Most

Putting together these almost-monthly astrology reports (I missed a few, but no one of those zodiac signs clamored for a report, unlike Gemini) has taught me a lot about the science of astronomy. Relatively speaking. I started out knowing pretty much nothing, so it doesn't take much to add up to "a lot." By comparison, I've learned only a smidge about astrology.

These images, left, are icons of Messier objects; that is, the 110 nebulae, star clusters, galaxies--objects known as "deep sky objects"--which French astronomer Charles Messier cataloged in the 18th century.
From the SEDS Messier Database.

It's so cool to me how science and stories bump along together, sometimes happily, sometimes not. (Oh, that's my Pisces speaking: I love things that move in opposite directions but are tied together with a ribbon.) And I never get over how gorgeous the Universe looks from here.

Lucky Sagittarius!
Not only do astrologers says the sign is ruled by benevolent Jupiter, but astronomers say its constellation contains the high number of 15 Messier objects in "its rich milky way starfields" (as All the Sky puts it)-- because the dense center of our galaxy lies in its field. They include star-forming nebulae, a "breathtaking" star cloud, star clusters, an asterism...and two minor galaxies!
The Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy (Sag DEG) orbits the Milky Way and is its second-closest neighboring galaxy.

provided this image, right, of M54 [Messier 54] and notes "in 1994, the exciting discovery was made that M54 was probably not a member of our Milky Way at all, but of a newly discovered dwarf galaxy [Sag DEG]!"

Now don't go confusing Sag DEG with the other minor galaxy, Sag DIG, the Sagittarius Dwarf Irregular Galaxy.
DEG is only about 60,000 light-years from Earth.
DIG is 4.2 million light-years away.

P.S. Happy birthday, Matt!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bink Sends Forth Light Squibs

bink (Lucinda) hates the nickname Lucy and has never used it.
I always associate her with Santa Lucia anyway, whose Feast Day is today, December 13.
And never more than this year, as she paints her wall for the season.

As John Donne [almost] said:

'Tis the year's midnight, and Lucy
...Sends forth light squibs ;
[Daleks are] every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.

--A Nocturnal upon Saint Lucy's Day

Friday, December 12, 2008


My mother (24 y.o.) and my sister (2 mos.)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bless you, all.

Photo op from the church summer block party.
Need I say I am not, in fact, a fan of the man? But the wish for blessing is sincere.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

After My Mother Killed Herself

On Winter Solstice Eve, 2002, the longest, darkest night, I'd gone to see the movie About Schmidt with Bink and Maura. I was sitting on the edge of my bed in the dark about 10 p.m. when the phone rang.

It was a conference call from my brother and sister--a first. My sister lives here, my brother on the east coast. Obviously something was wrong. Because I'd just watched a dreadful movie about an old man, I thought our father had had a heart attack.

My brother said, "The coroner called to inform us that our mother has shot herself dead. This is not a joke."

Oh, right. Our mother had talked about suicide for so long, I'd skipped over the obvious. Even though I knew she'd bought a gun that fall. (Not for the first time.)

"Good for her," I said.

Really, she'd wanted to do it since I was fourteen, at least that's when she first told me.

We talked about what we were going to do. Brother and his wife would fly here the next day, and we'd all drive down in two cars; Sister was going to call our father who lived in the same town (our parents had not remained friends after their divorce in 1974). Stuff like that.

I said, "We didn't do anything wrong, you guys."

We hung up.

I immediately called my old traveling pal Allan. We're not very close, at home. But you learn a lot about a person, sharing a Naples hotel room that had a non-working toilet.

"I know your mother did something good with her life," he said on the phone, "because I know you."

Good call.

Then I called Bink. She said she was coming over.

I stood in the middle of the room.
I looked at the liter of duty-free Bushmills Irish whiskey my father had brought me from a trip. It'd been there more than a year and I'd barely touched it. It seemed a good idea to drink some now. Using a glass seemed superfluous.

Bink picked me up and we drove over to Sister's. In high school, I'd seen my dog suffer a glancing blow from a car. Sister's eyes looked like his did before he died.

There wasn't anything to do except confirm plans for tomorrow (pick up Brother and Sister-in-Law, etc.), so Bink drove me home.

I went to bed and lay there.
I got up a few hours later.
I called Oliver's office phone--my former lover who was always saying his kids would be better off if he killed himself--and left a message saying they wouldn't be.

I put on Mozart's Requiem, turned it up loud, and hit "repeat." Oh yeah, I told my house-neighbors, who left me alone. I think it was a Saturday.
I had Bushmills for breakfast.

Bink called. She'd begun to notify people, a brilliant move because I wasn't really tracking.

I told her I was fine and she should come over later. I had to make plans for a memorial Mass at the church where I was working part-time as sacristan. My mother wasn't Catholic or any religion, but I wanted it.

I called the priest I loved, and he said he would be honored to celebrate the Mass. I made plans to meet him at church later. I told him I was fine.

Lots of people started to call.
I loved it that they called, but I felt fine. 
I'm fine, I told them.

I should take a shower and get dressed, I thought.
In the shower I thought, Hey! I should cut off my hair, like the guy in Smoke Signals did when his father died.

I got out of the shower and knelt on the floor with the kitchen scissors, flopped my long hair forward, and lopped chunks off.

Then I got dressed. I decided to rip my black turtleneck over my heart, like in Jewish tradition. I had to make a little cut in the cotton with the scissors to start the tear.
What about this "tearing your face" you read about? I tried it, but my nails weren't really sharp enough.

Sister called. Did I have a certain photo of our mother for her obituary?
I did. I would pack it to bring along.

My apartment is very small, and the photo was on a bottom shelf, behind a dining room table. Holding the bottle of Bushmills, I crawled under the table to get to it. Lying on the floor under the table, holding the photo, whiskey next to me, hair wet, this thought came to me, clearly:
I don't think I am OK.

I called the priest and left a message saying I was not, in fact, fine, and that I would not be coming down but would talk to him later.

I got out beeswax candle ends I'd saved from off the high altar (part of my job as sacristan was tending the candles) and lit them. I closed the curtains.

Barrett showed up. It wasn't in me by then to get up off the bed. She made me toast, which I couldn't swallow, but I liked that she'd made it.

The priest showed up, which surprised me.
"That's good whiskey," he, a recovering alcoholic, said, looking at the bottle next to my bed.
There wasn't anywhere for him to sit so he sat on the bed. He was uncomfortable and I was uncomfortable, but it was comforting that he held my hand for an hour and a half.

He left, and Bink arrived. Deb too, who was unsure if she should come in.
Yes. Come in. Be uncomfortable.

What helped: physical things.

Annette brought a wrapped present--a reindeer pin with bouncy springs for antlers. That sounds wrong, doesn't it? But it was great. Laura climbed onto the bed and lay down next to me, which was perfect. Kate G. brought me some of her anti-anxiety medication. I didn't want any (whiskey sufficed), but the gesture touched me. Bink trimmed up my hair, which ended up looking kind of cute.

People kept calling. Cathy said, "I would do anything for you." Joe said, "We're all thinking of you." It was good, like putting a blanket on someone in shock.

It got dark.
It was solstice.

Brother and Sister-in-Law had arrived in town. Time to go to Sister's for dinner. SJG had made chicken soup. Eating was a foreign concept, so I didn't.

We were like three zombies and their keepers. I have no idea what we said. I know I declared that I would not stay in our father's house, and everyone said I couldn't stay alone, but Bink was coming too, so that was all right.
My father made arrangements for us to stay at a B&B nearby.
He was great.
The whole badly splintered family was kind to each other. [For several weeks, which is a lot.]

We three siblings agreed this was the worst day of our lives.

I went home and lay on the bed some more.

The next day was the second-worst day of our lives.

When we got into town, we met with Lance, the cut-rate undertaker our father had dug up. He looked like a benign Jabba the Hut in a stretched-out, stained cardigan.
I'd briefly studied mortuary science, so it was interesting to watch him work. He didn't inspire confidence.
Sister-in-Law, a businesswoman, asked him to read back the pertinent numbers. He'd written down our mother's social security number wrong.

There was a pile up of dead folks needing cremating before Christmas, Lance told us, so his usual place was booked. We could drive out to Cowsville to a defunct funeral home he knew of the next day, and use their retort oven.

We went to our mother's apartment.
She'd been dead about a week before Sheila, the neighbor in the rooming house who'd kept her eye out for our mother, finally called the police.

Sister had been talking to the coroner, who advised that if the place smelled bad--it might smell sweetish, like creamed corn, he said--it helped to heat coffee grounds in a frying pan.
The police had left the window cracked and the body'd been gone by then 48 hours, and it didn't smell. They'd thrown the mattress out too, so really it was OK. No mess, either.

My mother loved the right tool for the right job--our kitchen when I was a kid was full of copper-bottomed double-boilers, quail tongs, and other implements she'd gone to great trouble to find, in those pre-Internet days.

She'd taken care with her suicide implements too. She'd used a hollow-tipped bullet in a handgun. The kind that mushroom on contact, so the bullet hadn't even exited her brain. Death would have been instantaneous.

Sister asked the coroner, "Would you say our mother did a good job?" 
He replied, "She did a very good job."
Our mother would have puffed up with pride, hearing that.

There were lots of details to attend to in a short time: writing the obituary, faxing the photo, choosing the coffin (an "alternate container," I think it's called--basically a refrigerator box); not to mention legal stuff. 

Brother is a lawyer, so he carried file folders around, full of papers. The bank wrote us out a check on the spot for four thousand dollars. I didn't know they could do that, but our mother stayed on top of financial details, though she couldn't even wash her hair toward the end, she was so down.

Sister liked the coroner and the police, so she took care of the morgue side of things--police photos, claiming the gun, etc. I was in my high church days, so I oversaw, besides the funeral back home, a sort of send-off at the crematorium.

Where we drove the next day, somewhere out in the country.
The winter fields were beautiful, brown hillocks with furrows of snow.

A "For Sale" sign graced the colonial-style funeral home. But Lance was there, waiting in a big garage by the retort, with our mother in her box. Pale winter sun came in through an attached greenhouse on one end.

Bink and I had bought a pot of orchids in bloom. Pale purple cymbidium, my mother had grown them when I was little. We set them on the box, along with some altar candle ends I lit.

We'd brought things to send into the fire with our mother's body: dried French lavender, buckeyes from Missouri. We children each cut a lock of our hair. Our father added an origami crane from Manzanar.

I read something from the Bible. Everyone else said formal good-byes. I didn't have anything to say, so I walked up to the head of the cardboard box. It bulged a little, and I could see the black plastic body bag inside. The coroner had talked Sister out of looking at the body, but she had insisted on looking at least at the hands. They were our mother's hands. Our mother had played the piano.
The sun was warm on my shoulders, where I bent over to hold her.

Then we were done.
I was so relieved, I was almost giddy.

That night I was more violently sick than I've ever been in my life.

Sister, Brother, and I still had to clean out our dead mother's apartment. It was small, but it was full.
She'd crammed her bathroom cupboards with expensive soaps and lotions. Back issues of the New Yorker filled her bathtub.

We rented a little truck. Brother took a Persian carpet and a salt shaker shaped like a hen. "Miss Jones," my mother had called her.
Sister took the Limoges china and the pale green Manolo Blahnik shoes.
I took the writing desk Cousin Fern had bought in Damascus in 1919, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, rosewood, and camel bone. I took back the 2003 calendar I'd sent.

We drove carloads to the Saint Vincent de Paul thrift store. But what do you do with the half-used tube of toothpaste?

The nice neighbor brought us pots of coffee.

After, I wandered through my mother's neighborhood, where I'd grown up. I ended up at a beach where we used to swim. The frozen surface of the lake reflected the late afternoon sky, grey and pink.
A flock of Canada geese came in for a landing. When they hit the ice, they slid all over the place.
I laughed. I got up, and walked on.

For more info on suicide prevention or help if you are struggling:

"The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals."
Outside of the United States, please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Ur Model Is Belong to Me (+ Netspeak)

I. I Can Has Toyz

My father just sent me a generous Christmas check, allowing me to continue my quest for a Happy Childhood by buying this model kit ($30): it's the same model he gave me for Christmas, 1975.

I put it together all jolly-whompered back then; but I have already wrested a promise from Bink, she of the little careful hands, that she will help me.

By the way, the "All Your [X] are belong to me" is lolcat netspeak that comes from a rushed translation of a Japanese animation into English, which rendered "all your bases now belong to us" into "all your base are belong to us."

I've been reading up on lolcat and other netspeak because Krista and I have a plan (cunning, but dependent on her academic job-hunt and therefore highly theoretical) to translate the ur-K/S "Pon Farr in a Cave" romance story into kitteh. 
(Hm. That's "ur" as in "original," of course, not as in lolspeak "you're/your." Isn't life complicated.)

Lolspeak's perfect since Spock is obviously a cat, and cats go into heat.

It was Krista who introduced me to the lolcats at I Can Has Cheezburger
People make zillions of lolcats--my favorites are ones in which the maker really gets inside cat think--interpreting almost any event as an opportunity to be fed, for instance.

^ Here's my translation of Spock thinking "...and like two ivory eggs his buttocks seem" from my Virgil vid (which in turn comes from the Rude Person stories).

I learned the origin of some of the classic phrases from the Wikipedia lolcat entry.

Another classic, "Do not want," comes from a Chinese bootleg copy of Star Wars: The Revenge of the Sith, which thus mistranslated Darth Vader's "Noooooo!" 

This lolTrek use of it, right> 
is from the wonderful and now-famous "We Has Tribbles and Also Troubles" from the blog Live Granades.

II. Non-lolcat Netspeak

So, while I'm at it, here are a few other odds and ends of "netspeak" I looked up recently.

Here's George W. Bush, lolcat style. 

"The Nets": You know how people refer to the Internet as "the nets". That backdates to our soon-to-be-dearly-departed prez:
"I hear there's rumors on the, uh, Internets [pause] that we're going to have a draft." --George W. Bush, in the second 2004 debate.

Other originally ironic slang terms include "interweb(s)" and the like.

"Captcha" is slang for "word verification," or "optical character recognition" (OCR)--those things you have to decipher to prove you are a human and not a mechanical spammer. It is a made-up acronym: "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart."

"FTW" = "for the win," or a good thing. I don't usually adopt netspeak like this one that I can't figure out on my own (e.g. obviously OMG = "oh my god"--I mean, even Augustine used this one, except he said, "meus deus," and quite a lot too; "LOL" is an exception--I expect that to turn up in Webster's any day). But when I meet one I can't figure out, I like to look it up.

The Urban Dictionary says "FTW" comes from the TV game show Hollywood Squares when , on the final move (expected to win the game), contestants would announce their move was "for the win."

"Embiggen." This is the sort of slang I like--the sort I can figure out. : ) I usually see it used next to photos: "click to embiggen [make bigger]." Wiktionary's entry ascribes its modern use to Lisa in The Simpsons in 1996, but notes its 1884 use in Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, Etc. (Gosh. I used to run into that journal, with a shortened title, studying Classics.)

But you knew all that.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Other People

Other People, Part I

"When I say...that I write for myself, one of the things I mean is that much of the general readership journalism I write––reviews or articles--I write for smart, verbally adventurous kids such as I was."
--"The Situation of American Writing Today" (interview), in Delany's About Writing, which I wrote about a few posts below

What a relief, a reality check, to read this. I've been fretting over whether yesterday's post sounded antisocial, declaring that I write for myself *as a reader*. (Here in the Lutheran Midwest, saying you do anything for yourself is as bad as saying you don't bother washing your dishes for days, so I flinch a lot and practice bravery). Then today I sat down with the above book again and came across this sentence. (This collection is so full of interesting things I may have to buy a copy, a rare event, and stop mauling the library's.)

Far from sounding antisocial, to this reader the statement sounds generous: if you write for your bright young self, you take care.

Other People, II

I went to church this morning, the second Sunday in Advent. Not to Mass, but to the building. I have barely been to church in several years. I was helping bink with her holiday art sale.

We arrived at 7 a.m., out of the dark and snow. When we walked into the social hall, about thirty quiet men looked up, like deer, from tables where they sat.
Homeless shelters round here require people to vacate by 7 a.m., even on Sundays when there aren't many jobs to go to. Since it was 4 degrees F (-15 C), these guys who usually hang out under the nearby highway overpass were inside, with their duffel bags and backpacks, drinking church coffee with creamer.

Bink and I started to set up at one end of the room, and one of the men, a sturdy guy, came and helped us move furniture. Did we know where he could get a free coat? He'd just come from Mexico and only had a couple jackets he was wearing, one inside the other, and no money.

I used to work at this church, so I know Sunday can be the worst day to come looking for help because the focus is on parishioners, who already have coats. Social service programs run on weekdays.
I walked him, Roberto, he told me, up to the receptionist. I cut through the nave instead of going round outside. Mass had started--a reader was in the pulpit--and Roberto hesitated to go in. It's OK, I said, we'll sneak along the side aisle. He took off his watch cap and followed me.
The receptionist gave Roberto a hand-out bologna sandwich for later. In the donations closet there was a coat that fit him.

Walking back, he told me he had blisters from walking eleven hours to the U.S. border. A church there gave him a bus ticket up here. He didn't have money even for the city bus, so he was on foot again. He'd walked to the shelter last night.
"I have a family at home," he said. "I will find work." He could install carpets or anything, and he was going to try K-Mart right away.

The men dispersed before the first Mass ended and parishioners came in for coffee. I gave Roberto a few bucks for the bus and he gave me a hug.

When I got home, I looked up the readings for the second Sunday of Advent.
I wanted to know what we'd heard as we walked through the church looking for a coat.

This is it, the second reading, from 2 Peter 3:

What sort of persons ought you to be,
conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion,
waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God,
because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames
and the elements melted by fire.
But according to his promise
we await new heavens and a new earth
in which righteousness dwells.
Therefore, beloved, since you await these things,
be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Reader Is Me

Jen left a comment on "Writing about Writing" a few posts back that got me thinking:
What does it mean to say, "I write for myself"?

I've never stopped writing for myself. (I think maybe I implied I did?)
What that means changed, however. At some point, the act of writing in itself, the basic act of turning the awful confusion of experience into words, was no longer the main event. I began to write for myself as a reader.
I started to try to write things I would want to read.

I don't write for myself alone, of course, or else I wouldn't be blogging, eh?
Believe me, I spin around like a top when someone is interested in something I wrote. So there's a sort of selfish selflessness at work?
A trust that if I write with some care about something I care about, it might sometimes connect with someone, which is the best thing.

I made a kind of choice about this, a few years back. I realized at that time I could write affecting pieces about spiritual experiences, and that if I pursued that kind of writing, it might meet with general acclaim.
But I didn't want to.
(No need either. Anne Lamott and Co. have the quirky, brave spiritual essay well covered.)
No, I want to write stuff like how William Shatner shares a sensual bloom with Shelley Winters.
So I do. If anyone likes it, there's a delightful specificity to that liking.
One year after quitting writing for money, I'm not sure where I am as a writer; but I do quite often have the place to myself.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Fly on the Wall

Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand--during the filming of Let's Make Love, 1960-- with their spouses Arthur Miller and Simone Signoret

What is Simone saying as she gestures, center? Arthur is leaning in with real interest.

I'm messing about with the bits and pieces of this blog.
For the first time, I changed my "interests" info on my profile.
It used to read:
"From this hour I ordain myself loos'd of limits and imaginary lines..." (Walt Whitman) "...to boldly go where no man has gone before."

Now it says:
"Separate each interest with a comma," Blogger instructs me. But like Flaubert, often I have “spent all morning putting a comma in and all afternoon taking it out.”