Monday, January 30, 2012

The Ice Storm

Last week we had a real honest-to-gosh Ice Storm. There were heavy tree branches down everywhere, including in my driveway. A couple of my pine trees got hit hard. The good news is, this storm just lasted overnight. Back in 1998, the big ice storm that hit Maine lasted several days, piling ice upon ice, knocking out power lines as quickly as they were repaired.

That first morning, so many branches were snapping that it sounded like gunfire. From inside the house we watched a telephone pole across the street slowly bend from the ice that was piling up on it, until it broke in two on the third day.

We were without power, telephone or running water for fourteen days in the dead of winter. Our aged generator powered the heat, refrigerator and one kitchen light. It needed to be gassed up three times every day: first thing in the morning, mid-afternoon, and again just before bed. This meant daily trips to the China Store for gas. The store was a little bit of an oasis, surrounded at first by dark houses. For water to flush the toilets with, I filled buckets with snow and melted it in the basement.

I spent the days chopping up the huge branch -- really a small tree all by itself -- that had dropped off one of the maples in the front yard. I had nothing but a dull axe. I suppose that I could have borrowed my brother-in-law's chainsaw, but chainsaws give me the willies.

From my bedroom window at night, I could see all the people in the distance who had gotten their power back. We occupied a black spot on the landscape.

We took turns being the calm, rational one and the one who had had enough and was ready for their meltdown now.

Midway through the ordeal, we came to town and ate Chinese food. This was like going to heaven.

On the fourteenth day, the truck finally came along. It was a crew from New Jersey. They were very nice, but they could not reconnect our original underground line and had to string a new one over the road. This meant that we also had to call in an electrician to connect the house to the new line.

It was a horrible fourteen days, but once was over it became a badge to wear. There were people who had only lost their power for an hour or a day or so, which allowed me to think of them as pikers. "My Ice Storm was worse than your Ice Storm, so there!" Isn't that what hardships are for? To give you bragging rights when you come out the other side.

-- Freder.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Missing Music

It would be writerish of me to suggest that I lost the music at the same time that I lost everything else, but it wouldn't be true. This actually happened a few years before.

As the CD became the dominant form of delivering music, I stubbornly clung to vinyl. I liked everything about vinyl better, even the occasional ticks and pops. But soon enough it was phased out more or less completely, and I stopped buying music altogether. Friends sometimes made tapes for me when they discovered something that they thought I would like, but I didn't break down and buy a single CD until years later when I needed to research Goth music for a short story.

About eight or nine years ago, my stereo started going a bit wonky. Rasping, scratchy sounds from the speakers. I tried changing the needle, but that didn't help. Eventually, fearing that I was ruining my records by playing them, I gave up, and that was the end of music for me, done, finished, caput.

After my mother's death and the attack of the auctioneers I was faced with an empty, too-quiet house. Something needed to fill the space, and suddenly I had cravings to listen to my old music again. I broke down and ordered some CDs by Melanie and Herb Alpert, but it wasn't until I got to the new house and was forced to buy a better, faster computer that I began to replace my vinyl in a serious way.

And it wasn't until this past week that I realized something was missing. The stuff that I grew up with, the stuff that's in my bones, that was easy to remember. But the bands and music that got added on later in life, they were gone. How long had it been since I listened to Pat Benatar? Long enough that I'd forgotten she even existed.

I happily replaced what I needed of Pat, but there was something else I was drawing a blank on: a band. A band I used to listen to all the time. I couldn't remember their name. I couldn't remember any of their songs. They had been completely erased from my memory banks.

It turned out that I was actually thinking of two separate and unrelated bands. I had to google on things that I associated with them in my mind. It was odd. I kept feeling like I was getting closer, but I still couldn't say their names to save my soul.

Then the names appeared in the search results, and like anything that can't be remembered this one made me feel so stupid. Of course: 10,000 Maniacs! Natalie Merchant! The Cranberries! Delores O'Reardon! How could I possibly have forgotten them?

Remembering them triggered the memory of two other singers that I'd admired long ago, and also forgotten: Jane Olivor and Sinead O'Connor.

Listening to their music again after so many years is pleasing and strange. I'd forgotten what a great album In My Tribe is. I'd forgotten that The Cranberries, being Irish, are tortured, depressed and gloomy, which means they won't be getting much play in my house for the time being.

The years I spent without music were not happy ones, but getting it back after so long is a happy feeling. I don't think the quats know what to make of it. They've gotten used to a quiet house and to me being sedentary. Now that's changing, just a bit, they look at me with puzzlement.

-- Freder.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

I Hates Octopussies!

Like so many of the movies I've posted about on this blog, I'd seen 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea just once before, half a lifetime ago or more, and on telly -- which in those days meant cropped by nearly half of its screen image and cut by at least half an hour.

Even viewed under those conditions, it was a great picture, and easy to see why Chris Steinbrunner chose it as one of the handful of all-conquering classic films that he included in his book Cinema of the Fantastic.

I dislike the term "Steampunk" because it classifies and makes formulaic something that's been around for at least a century. But 20,000 Leagues is as steampunk as they come, baby, and probably the best filmed example of the genre. So much care went into it.

As per usual, Uncle Walt nearly bankrupted the studio making the thing. Uncle Walt didn't do things by halves. It must have driven his brother Roy completely bonkers, trying to keep the company financially sound while Walt was throwing money at (usually quite risky) ventures.

20,000 Leagues was already over budget by the time they got around to the squid scene. You all know this scene by heart, right? It's so very memorable, and holds up even today. But it was this scene that nearly brought down the whole company.

The DVD has, among its extra features, recently-discovered footage of the first, original squid fight, the one that was completely scrapped. Walt was embarrassed enough at its shocking ineptitude that he ordered all film and negatives of the scene to be destroyed, but it turns out that the entire production was being filmed on 16mm for use in a behind-the-scenes documentary on the Disneyland show, and this footage includes a glimpse at the original Giant Squid fight!

And oh, it is Gloriously, Comically Bad. It would have sunk the whole movie.

Against a red-orange sky, a bloated, tubby, orangey and very obviously fake squid is actually perched on the deck of the Nautilus, waving its tentacles manically, as if it has the DTs and is in need of its next dose of sailors. You can clearly see the wires at the ends of the tentacles. Poor James Mason looks mortified, as if this debacle might bring down his whole career. At one point he tosses the harpoon, and it bounces off the creature's ridiculously plastic eye. When Walt saw the rushes he came down to the director, Richard Fleischer, and said, "You're making a Keystone Kops movie here!" to which the frustrated son of Max basically said, "Yes, but look what I have to work with!"

Walt looked at the flooded set and the sodden squid and saw the problem at once. "We'll build you another one," he said. "We'll build you one that works."

When the bankers saw the revised scene as it was later finished, they had no qualms about coughing up another wad of money so that Walt could finish the movie and keep the studio afloat.

The Squid and The Octopus hereby receive my vote as the number one most repellant and scarifying creatures that inhabit this earth. Absolutely everything about them gives me the heebie-jeebies. I can NOT watch documentary footage of the things without covering my eyes and turning away from the screen. The way some people feel about spiders? Yah, that's the way I feel about octopussies an' squids! There's a scene in the original Flash Gordon serial that I can not watch. It wouldn't be allowed today. Basically, the second unit threw an octopus and a shark in a tank together and let them fight it out.

But the giant squid scene in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is great moviemaking, and the reason that it works is because Walt was purely matter-of-fact when it comes to mistakes: you don't wring your hands about it, you learn from it, regroup, do it again, and this time do it right.

-- Freder.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Beyond the Bubble

I'm going on three days now and beginning to wonder how long the streak can last.  It's hard to type with your fingers crossed.

I'm talking about the anxiety and panic attacks that, until two days ago, were a regular part of my life. Not always at the same time, but every day and lasting anywhere from two to six hours, my hands would start to shake, my pulse would go up, the smallest things of life would begin to hammer on my nerves, and the internal monologue would begin, begging and pleading with god for mercy, to please make it stop, to please stop making everything so hard to cope with.

Two days ago, it stopped. Period. I did have a little flash of panic this afternoon, but it came and went.

Is this how normal people experience life? Not to have everything feel like a battle? To feel calm and even relaxed all of the time? Because I'm liking it. I haven't felt like this in longer than I can remember.

There's still the depression and sadness that is pretty much a constant, but that's a lot easier to cope with when you aren't actually screaming on the inside.

And it makes life so much easier. Not to be shellshocked all the time.

In fact, I'm going to stop writing about it now, because even thinking about it makes me nervous.

I know this can't last forever, but I'm going to enjoy (and try to nurture it) while it does.

-- Freder.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Shock of the Old

It's that time of year again: time to start promoting our annual Kid's Character event at the bookstore, this year featuring Olivia. As part of getting the word out, I always drop off posters at a nearby Catholic School, and I look forward to that visit every year.

It's like stepping into a time bubble. Modernity has been barred admittance. I don't think that the school building itself has changed significantly or been renovated since the 1950s. The children still wear uniforms and travel in rows. The teachers are permitted to dress modern, if conservatively, but the ladies minding the front desk all look as if they stepped out of old photographs.

The doors are kept locked and every time I'm buzzed through them I genuinely feel like I'm stepping out of the Doctor's TARDIS and into a past that is somehow remarkably alive. It's reassuring to know that some things don't change. For all I know they could be the same children, doomed forever to remain in third grade.

Would I send my kid there, if I had one? I don't know. I'm not convinced that the past is the best place to raise a child, having lived through the past once myself. But then, not being a Catholic, I don't think any kid of mine would be welcome there anyway.

In other "school news," check out what's going on in Tucson right now. 1984 is here.

-- Freder.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Look Ahead Into the Past

My friend BC rode up on his white horse and offered me a real, cash-money, one-off writing job earlier in the week. My brief: to write about the Flash Gordon serials for the (I believe) second volume in The Library of American Comics' reprint of the original comic strip. 

You should check out their books, by the way. Not just first-class, but world-class, definitive editions of the great classics of the genre. 

Well, I was all over that offer, let me tell you. But my heart sank when I sat down to begin the research and discovered right away that such an article already exists, and is far better and more informed than anything I could produce.

So that was that. For the exact same reason I found myself unable to write about The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, which TCM ran on Thursday night. The following day I gave it the old college try, but my piece didn't begin to do the justice to the picture that Roger Ebert's article about it does on his website. I don't believe in retreading when something perfectly adequate already exists on the subject.

The only thing left that I could possibly do with Flash Gordon is filter it through my personal perspective, and I've already done that. Twelve years ago.

But it does give me an excuse to post that old piece here. So there you go. It appeared in my own online litmag Millennium right around Y2K.


We can think of no better way to greet the future than by hauling out our video copy of the original Flash Gordon movie serial. Directed by Frederick Stephani from Alex Raymond’s all-conquering classic of a comic strip, this is to movie serials what The Wizard of Oz is to features: packed with gorgeous Art Deco style, a breathless story about well-focused characters in need, and a veritable boatload of wonderful (if not necessarily wonderfully talented) character actors to portray them.

Episode 1 of the serial opens with the Ultimate Y2K menace of all time: a mysterious planet rushing headlong on a collision course with the earth, causing atmospheric disturbances and mass repentance from New York to Delhi. Whilst bailing out from a passenger plane driven down by the storms, star athlete Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) becomes — ehm — closely acquainted with the lovely Dale Arden (Jean “ee-urp” Rogers). On making a safe landing the two are menaced by a crazed scientist bearing a revolver: the eminent Dr. Zarkoff, who proposes a desperate plan to save the Earth.

That plan carries the trio via Rocketship to Mongo, where the Merciless Emperor Ming (stock villain player Charles Middleton in his greatest role) agrees to spare our planet — proposing instead to take it over lock stock and barrel. Fortunately for us all, lust takes precedence over global domination, and Ming drops his plans long enough to force Dale into marriage with him. Thanks to intervention from Flash, Zarkoff, Ming’s daughter Azura and practically everyone else in the movie, the nuptials of Dale and Ming are continually delayed, and Earth is saved through sheer unrequited lust as Ming’s army pursues Dale and Flash through fifteen chapters of encounters with Shark Men, Hawk Men and tortures of every conceivable sort (including one delightfully surreal sequence in which the scantily-clad Miss Rogers is forced to witness the Hawk King’s dreaded display of the art of Shadow Puppetry). It is all truly bizarre, and truly wonderful.

It’s hard to imagine, in our softer times, that so much open lust and violence — including a disturbing fight between a shark and an octopus and Crabbe’s frequent half-naked bouts with grotesquely fanged wrestlers — could ever have been intended for children. There is a raw edge to the film, and an open chauvinism that would make NOW and Action for Children’s Television squirm and spit. But heroes and villains never came this big, either before or after Flash Gordon, and there’s a quality of dreaminess and surrealism on display that raises this of all serials to the level of high art.

Fashionable people love to scoff at Flash Gordon’s special effects, at the sparkler-shooting exhaust of the spaceships, and if photo-realism is the aim then they’re right to scoff. But seen as Art Deco contrivance, as design in action, the effects in Flash more than stand their ground today. They are part of the Grand Opera that isFlash Gordon, sputtering and fuming across the screen, in a Neverland of Floating Cities where men have wings and Virtue is its own reward.

-- Freder.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

"Your Coping Strategy is Proving Ineffective. . ."

Yesterday my friend and co-worker C_____ said to me, "You haven't posted anything on your blog lately." I told her that I didn't have anything to say. It's quite easy for me to type when I have nothing of interest to say, but I do try to avoid it.

I can't even write about media stuff at the moment because all I've watched for the last couple of weeks has been Kitchen Nightmares and Doctor Who (oh, and a few Laurel and Hardys. I'm about to reach some of their break-out features, I'll surely post when that happens) and how often can you write about them? I mean, I could, because I'm a geek, but I also don't want the people who visit me here to walk away rolling their eyes.

For the same reasons, I don't like to overdue the personal posts, either. I'm sure everyone "gets" it by now that the Holidays didn't just hit me hard, they pummeled me into submission, and instead of bouncing back I've been slowly devolving into a sluglike creature, a Jabba the Hut without the ambition or the joy in what he does. How long can a person play Mahjong fer crine out loud? Apparently, as long as it takes.

At least it's better than the alternative. Last night I went over my limit, and whenever that happens I always come up with Seemingly Great Ideas -- and then implement them without consulting the rational part of my brain. This would be less of a problem if I could remember the next morning exactly what I'd done.

There, you see? I'm writing without anything meaningful to say. It's time I took a cue from Gordon Ramsay and hollered at myself: "Right, stop! Just STOP! Shut the place down! Shut it down!"

-- Freder.

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Knife in the Dark

My father called last night. We talked a few minutes about this, that, and the other thing. As usual, he was full of advice. Then he asked, "Are you writing anything?"

I thought, Ouch, Dad. Why did you have to bring THAT up? I said No.

He launched into one of his lectures and I fell silent. He went on and on. "You've been given this wonderful gift" and lah-de-dah and blah blah blah.

I thought, In the first place, it wasn't a "gift." It wasn't given to me by anyone. I worked for it. Years and years of work. That makes it mine.

"Well, what about that novel that I have three chapters of?" he said. "That was pretty good. I'd bet you stand a good chance of getting that published."

I disagreed. I'm intimately familiar with the kind of books that get published, and the sort of stuff I write isn't even in the ballpark. The novel in question is about a midget actor who finds one day that he can't remove the bunny suit that he's worn on a kid's TV show for twenty-five years. If I tried to pitch that in New York, they'd laugh me out of the office.

I won't write for the trunk anymore and I'm not into self-publishing. I know that the latter is gaining legitimacy in the digital age, but for me it's still not "real" publishing. It doesn't count as a validation of your work if you have to publish it yourself.

My father rambled on. I know that it was meant to be a pep talk but it was getting me down. I just don't have it in me anymore. There's one rule of writing that cannot be broken: you can't write if you have nothing to say. You can't write if you're empty inside.

Lecturing me about it won't help. I don't know what would.

I'm not whining, just stating fact. If it's not there, it's not there. I have a couple of ideas for different sorts of projects and I'm going to make an organized list of them, get them all down on paper so I can see what it looks like. I'm not completely washed up just yet. But I don't see the writing of fiction as coming back into my life anytime soon.

-- Freder.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Found. . . and Lost

An extensive search of the areas in the new house where I might have possibly stored Important and Sensitive Files did finally result in my finding my (expired) passport and a copy of my birth certificate.

But it also turned up my mother's Death Certificate, all the documents from the auction house and my lawyer, written notes from my mother, including a birthday greeting, and tears.

Earlier in the evening, I poked around in the oven enough to know that's not something I'll be able to fix on my own.

A Deficient Post, but there you are. Life is deficient by definition.

-- Freder.

Being Illegal

I tried to write a check at the stupidmarket the other day, and the cashier asked to see my I.D. "Probably because it's the new year," she said. "I've had three of them already today."

I dutifully handed over my driver's license and was logging the amount of the check in my checkbook when the cashier said, "This has expired."

I said, "What?" Driver's Licenses don't just expire. The state sends you a renewal notice long before that ever happens. I hadn't received anything. I snatched the card back and tried to make out the teeny little numbers. She was right, but how could that be?

"Oh, and when you go down to get it renewed?" she added. "They're going to ask for your birth certificate. Just so you know. It's a new rule they have."

I said, "What?" I used to know where my birth certificate was, but that was before the move. I couldn't find it now to save my life. I'll probably have to get a new one, but how in hell do you do that?

I have a little bit of time to launch a search. The BMV mobile unit won't be back in my town until next Friday, and I'm damned if I'm going to drive to Augusta just to sit on my ass in the DMV lobby for three hours,.

Why didn't I get a notification anyhow? It should have been forwarded to me with all my other mail.

Last night, my kitchen lamp, one of my mother's colorful creations, decided to fall apart for the umpteenth time. I managed to get it back together again, but the bulb wouldn't light, and when I changed it I realized that the fixture itself was broken. This is something that I can fix, but a means a special trip to the hardware store, buying a new socket, and then fiddling around with doodads and knickknacks and tiny little screws -- not my favorite activity in the world. I'll get frustrated and my hands will start to shake and I'll start dropping bits and pieces on the floor where they'll roll away into purgatory. Come to think of it, maybe I won't fix the damn lamp.

And just this morning, my oven decided not to light. It was working fine last night. This morning -- nothing! What am I going to do about that? Who fixes ovens? You can't just look in the phone book under "Oven Repair Guy." And even if I can find someone to do the work, it means I have to take time off from work to be there.

It's a True Fact of my life that Stuff seems to break down a lot at my touch, and it looks as though that curse has followed me into my Brave New World.

The big question is, what in hell am I going to have for dinner tonight? My options just got a lot thinner.

Some days I just deeply hate Being Alive.

-- Freder.
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