Saturday, December 31, 2011

By Popular Request: Drunken Black Eyed Peas

My approach to black eyed peas is to treat them much like the rock in your favorite Stone Soup recipe. In order to make them work, you have to cook 'em with just about everything but a gym sock. So, this recipe is less a "follow the instructions" job, and more of a "go with whatever you have" kind of thing. For example, all men know that you can add bacon to this recipe. Just cook five or six strips until the fat is rendered, and then chop up the bacon and add it AND the drippings to your peas. If you didn't know that you could do that, then just step back slowly out of the kitchen. Everyone else, follow along and make your own modifications as we go.

Okay, you need:
1 package of dried black eyed peas
1 pound of sausage (sage is a nice touch)
1 medium onion, nicely diced
1 bell pepper, cored and seeded, also nicely diced
2-5 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
1 box of chicken stock
1 bottle of your favorite beer (and use a real beer, okay? Something with flavor. Shiner Bock, or darker. Killian's Red or better. Get crazy. It's New Year's. Ditch Bud Light. You can't cook with it.)
1 bay leaf
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons of butter or evoo

Prep: Soak the beans overnight in water. Do it. It's not hard. Just cover the beans with water, about 1 inch over. If you're one of those busy bodies in the kitchen, you can go ahead and do your dicing and chopping.

Start with a medium sized skillet. Add butter or evoo and heat over low to medium.

Add diced onions and bell peppers and get them sweating. when the veggies have become clear and tender, add the garlic and the sausage. Moosh up the sausage so that it browns evenly and break up all of the big clumps. You want browned sausage crumbles, here.

While that's browning, drain your peas, which should have doubled in size overnight. Make sure you've got no dirt or debris in the peas. Drop them into a stock pot or other large cooking vessel. Add the chicken stock, about 1/2 of the bottle of beer, the contents of the skillet, and bring to a boil.

Taste your broth. You should be able to taste the beer and the chicken stock. Salt and pepper the hell out of peas. Add a bay leaf and any other herbs or spices you might want to throw in. Rosemary and Thyme are great, especially fresh. Just chop up a couple of table spoons worth and add 'em in. If you like your BEP spicy, drop a chopped jalapeno or a cup of your favorite salsa in. Do it now, give it a good stirring to make sure that the peas and the stuff you really want to eat are all evenly dispersed and coated. Cover, and reduce heat to a simmer.

Keep this simmering for an hour. After one hour, lift the lid, take a whiff, and give it a taste. Are the peas tender? They should be firm, but not hard. Easily mushed. Get a couple of peas with the broth, some sausage, and some veggies. What does it need? More salt? Are you nuts? You put the Sargasso Sea in there earlier--okay, go for it, it's your dish. Put your final seasonings in (Chipotle Tabasco sauce, for the win)...and then continue to simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for another thirty minutes. If the liquid gets low, add the rest of the beer. If the broth is too strong, cut it with water, a little at a time, until you get the consistency you like.

These peas can be served over white rice, as it is basically a Hoppin' John Recipe. They will keep overnight, and taste even better the next day because of science and chemistry.

You're welcome, America. Merry New Year!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

On the Subject of the World Fantasy Award Statue…

 
I’ve been watching the recent discussions over redoing the World Fantasy Award statue, scrapping the iconic Gahan Wilson-designed bust of H.P. Lovecraft for something or someone less…controversial. Less bad. Less racist-y.

Nnedi Okorafor got the ball rolling with this blog post wherein she states:
 Do I want “The Howard” (the nickname for the World Fantasy Award statuette.   Lovecraft’s full name is “Howard Phillips Lovecraft”) replaced with the head of   some other great writer? Maybe. Maybe it’s about that time. Maybe not. What I  know I want it to face the history of this leg of literature rather than put it aside or  bury it. If this is how some of the great minds of speculative fiction felt, then let’s  deal with that... as opposed to never mention it or explain it away. If Lovecraft’s  likeness and name are to be used in connection to the World Fantasy Award, I think there should be some discourse about what it means to honor a talented  racist.

The Outer Alliance had some prescient thoughts here as well. And while both of the above seem to be calling for some sort of moderated discussion, the majority of the responses seem to be of the “Yeah, I never liked this guy because he’s a racist and a misogynist anyway!” variety. It feels like a lot of people in the SF/F community want to tar and feather Lovecraft, and moreover, have wanted to do so for some time. And changing the design of the statue is exactly the right message to send to all racists…or something…

I’m not here to pile on, and I’m also not here to throw stones. I truly don’t have a horse in this particular race. But I am confused especially when so many of my fellow authors and colleagues seem to be of one mind on the subject. I cannot help but wonder aloud if Lovecraft’s views on race are really what you take away from a reading of his works?

I mean, seriously: when you read “The Dunwich Horror,” do you put the book down and think, “Man, Lovecraft hated black people”? Is that the take-away message from reading his Cthulhu Mythos stories? Wait, before you answer that, consider a couple of recent opinions by people not necessarily so mired in the F/SF world. A few years ago, when Lovecraft finally cracked the Library of America series with a collection of stories selected by Peter Straub (and curiously, he chose not to include the poem "On the Creation of Niggers" in his book), a couple of reviewers weighed in on Lovecraft in the most recent round of criticism and commentary.

Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, wrote a review of the book wherein he said:
While the notion of an unseen world is hardly unique to Lovecraft -- fantasists from Coleridge to Rowling have enjoyed peeking under earthly rocks -- one can hardly imagine a universe more removed from our own than that of Cthulhu. Biologically impossible, logistically unplumbable and linguistically unpronounceable, it's a world that makes you want to lock up all the wardrobes rather than venturing inside them. It is little wonder that the scarred witnesses of Cthulhan excursions talk to us in language as unspeakably florid as the universe they're attempting to describe. Lovecraft's narrators are all desperate with misery, and it is worth quoting several of these hysterics as they begin their tales, to approximate the accumulated tone of so much hand-wringing.
Around the same time, Slate.com's Laura Miller dropped this little nugget of wisdom on the site:
There are two camps on the subject of the haunted bard of Providence, R.I., and his strange tales of cosmic terror. One, led by the late genre skeptic Edmund Wilson, dismisses him as an overwriting “hack” who purveyed “bad taste and bad art.” The other, led by Lovecraft scholar and biographer S.T. Joshi, hotly rises to Lovecraft’s defense as an artist of “philosophical and literary substance.”
 Miller goes on to say:
Perhaps the most curious thing about Lovecraft is that much of what aficionados love about his work is exactly those things his detractors list as faults. Take, for example, the fact that while Lovecraft is usually described as a forefather of modern horror fiction, his stories are, to put it bluntly, not very scary. 
I’m not saying that Lovecraft didn’t have his problems, and I’m sure not saying that Lovecraft’s own fears and prejudices weren’t consciously or unconsciously included in his Weird Tale fiction. I’m just suggesting that we’ve moved away from being a culture that allows other—and even repellent—points of view a place in the greater discourse to being a culture that wants to label anyone who ever said the word “nigger” a racist and then quickly bury them in a forgotten tomb so that their poison cannot infect other people.

This, to me, is socially retarded thinking. It’s this kind of thinking that would have the unmitigated gall to censure the word “nigger” from Huckleberry Finn. If ever there was a book that merited the use of the word for no other reason than the discussion it brings forth (never mind the fact that you’re love-knifing Mark Twain), it’s Huckleberry Finn. And yet, earlier this year, that blasphemous tome hit the shelves, no doubt to the delight of people who genuinely felt that they made the world a better place.

But back to Lovecraft. I first read him when I was 13 years old—and may I suggest that the best time to first read Lovecraft is during your teenage years? At a time when you cannot contemplate a world past what Sally Jo Finklestein thinks of the joke you made in math class today, having an author get into your head who’s message is one of entropy, decay, and the fact that humanity is so much a flyspeck in an uncaring universe can be both terrifying and liberating.

What it didn’t make me want to do was go beat up black people. Neither did Robert E. Howard, another writer frequently thrown under the bus for his beliefs. Ditto Edgar Rice Burroughs. Again, the take away for me was very different. Or maybe it wasn’t so different from everyone else. Once it was pointed out to me that Lovecraft was xenophobic, “The Horror at Red Hook” suddenly made perfect sense. Hand in hand with that was the more ubiquitous fear of miscenegation. Now the Deep Ones in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” had a more sinister undertone—from Lovecraft’s point of view, that is.

Lovecraft was trying to scare us. And he tried to scare us with what scared him. But in the end, it wasn’t how he felt about blacks or Jews that lives on after his death. Don’t believe me? Google “Cthulhu merchandise.” Go on, I’ll wait. Now click on the “Images” tab. What just popped up on your screen? Plush, stuffed dolls? Dice bags? Games? Hats? Bumper stickers? Look closely at all of that merchandise and see if you can find the word “Nigger” on any of it. No, let me save you the trouble. You won’t.

Lovecraft’s legacy is not his views of anyone who was different from him. It was his magnum opus, “The Call of Cthulhu” and the pop culture juggernaut that it spawned. The word “Lovcraftian” has become synonymous with “a myriad of tentacles.”  Sure, we can read something into that, too, I suppose…but really, I find all of this knee-jerk tar and feathering a bit tedious, and moreover, a little insulting.

Jack London is still taught in schools across the country. White Fang and The Call of the Wild are standards in middle school. His short stories about boxing are considered classics.  And yet, Jack London was vocally and verbally opposed to a black heavyweight boxing champion, and wrote a number of articles that ran in Hearst newspapers across the country urging Jim Jeffries to come out of retirement and “wipe the golden smile off of Johnson’s face.”

And yet, no one is calling for London’s works to be pulled from the shelves. Wasn’t he, too, a racist? Of course, he wasn’t the only one, and certainly not in the first two decades of the twentieth century. He was merely stating in print what the vast majority of white men in this country already thought. He was, inarguably, of his time and place.  

Bottom line: the writers who survived the pulp jungles did so because there was something in their work that would not let it die. There was something about what they wrote that spoke to, and continues to speak to, new generations of people. There are bound to be some rough edges to the work. After all, we’re talking about material written before World War II, before the Nuremberg trials, before the introduction of The Great Society in 1964, before the inauguration of Barak Obama in 2008. It can seem far removed from our modern world, but it’s not. It was only 50 years ago that the Civil Rights Movement brought the idea of equal rights for blacks into the mainstream. In other words, my dad’s generation. We are not so far along as people think. But my question to you is this: will condemning pulp authors for racism move us further down that path?

I don’t know if this will add anything to the debate, or if I’m suddenly going to be called a racist for not agreeing that the statue needs to be changed. But if anyone wants to pile on, do so in the comments.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A Christmas story for the holidays

Auld Acquaintance
By Mark Finn

Peter Crampus walked through the chaos and cacophony, his head down, his shoulders hunched. All around him clots of people swirled and eddied, their brows furrowed, their eyes dark and feral atop fixed smiles. Arms, elbows, and hips were thrown in a desperate attempt to make room, to gain purchase, to seize, to loot. Muttered curses, shouts of glee, howls of outrage, and maniacal laughter all conversed into a formless wall of sound that drowned out the meager strains of “Silent Night” being pumped through the department store’s intercom system. Nobody cared, anyway. There was nothing so distracting that could have captured the attention of any person present. It was Black Friday, and it was war.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Now taking Pre-Orders for Blood and Thunder second edition


The Spiffy-Looking Second Ed.

Hey folks, for those of you who are interested, you can now pre-order the signed and numbered limited edition of Blood & Thunder: The Life and Art of Robert E. Howard, second edition. Greatly expanded and updated, this handsome hardcover is published by the Robert E. Howard Foundation Press. To place your pre-order, follow this link here: http://www.rehfoundation.org/2011/12/10/pre-order-blood-thunder-revised-and-updated-edition/

There will most likely be a standard (that is to say non-signed and numbered) edition, but that comes later in 2012. If you are collecting the REH Foundation volumes, then you want to grab this copy to keep your numbering up.

I'm so happy this book is going to be available again to the legion of REH fans out there who are still indoctrinated by L. Sprague de Camp's various snarky asides in the introductions to the Lancer Conan books. And if anyone out there would like to buy a copy and send it to John Howe, you'd have my eternal admiration and respect.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Very Quick Sneak Peek at Blood & Thunder Second Edition

More details coming soon, but for now, here's a sneak peek at the cover, designed by the redoubtable team Jim and Ruth Keegan:



















Oh yes, that will do just fine, thanks!

Friday, November 25, 2011

The Finn’s Wake PlugTastic All-Geek Christmas List of Love

I know, I know. We’re hard to buy for. How many of us have been handed gift cards for bookstores with an apologetic shrug from some well-meaning friend or relative? It’s only slightly less difficult when geek buys for geek, because as you know, one cannot cross the streams of another geek’s interest without winding up buried in evil marshmallow fluff. So to speak.

Consider this, then, to be an idea-generating list, literally bristling with someone for everyone, and nothing too unreasonable in price, either. I know times are tough. As an added bonus, most of what’s listed here is either pimping my own work or touting the abilities of my friends and fellow creative types. Truth! 

One final note: I know that most of the links below go to Amazon.com. Please don’t consider that to be an endorsement, but rather where to click for more detailed information. Try to buy these things locally if you can, rather than lining the pockets of giant faceless corporations who may or may not be a front for some kind of Cthulhu cult. I’m just saying.

Cthulhu Gloom by Atlas Games
Speaking of Cthulhu cults...Are you kidding me? Take Gloom, one of my favorite card games ever, and make a fully-Cthulhu-ized version of it? You can be the Whately family? Argh! NEED-GAME-NOW!  Perfect for the Lovecraft fan that you know, and brand new so you know they don’t have it yet.

Whisky Stones from Think Geek
Cocktail culture is still an “in” thing, and so if you have a whisky or bourbon aficionado on your list, here’s a cool stocking stuffer for them—eternal ice! Yep, these things give new meaning to “on the rocks.”

Oh, my, this is the goods, folks. My buddy John Picacio is an award-winning artist and he trained his wonderfully-evocative eye on the characters you love to hate, and hate to love, in George R.R.Martin’s epic series. Let this calendar carry you over until A Game of Thrones starts up on HBO next April.

The Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer and S.J. Chambers
I’ve got friends all up in this book, from Rick Klaw to Jess Nevins. And they are all smarty-pants, too. This book has been really well received and makes a great companion or an introduction to the arts movement that is steampunk.

Dreams in the Fire edited by Mark Finn and Chris Gruber
This great collection of fiction and poetry, gathered from the members of the Robert E. Howard United Press Association, past and present, does double duty. It’s the perfect gift for any Robert E. Howard fan in your life, and also buying a copy helps support the care and upkeep of the Robert E. Howard house. A spectacular collection of fresh stories, written in the blood and thunder style that Howard pioneered, and in a wide variety of genres that Howard himself made popular.

iZombie  by Chris Roberson
Chris Roberson’s smash hit is available in trade paperback form for those of you with discriminating geeks in your life. Great for both geeks and geekettes! And if you don’t like zombies, Chris has written about a million other comics for you to check out, as well.

Midwinter & The Office of Shadow  by Matthew Sturges
Both of these novels are excellent and made me love elves again. Matt reinvented the idea of a fantasy novel and turned high-born epic fantasy into a ground-pounding adventure where the stakes purely political and no less dangerous.

King Kong Old Time Radio Drama by the Violet Crown Radio Players
This one hour program, done in the style of old time radio, makes a great gift for the Gorilla-phile in your life. Celebrate the return of Austin’s premiere old time radio troupe in 2012 with this great stocking stuffer! Includes the hit single “Don’t Shoot that Monkey Down.”

Raising Stony Mayhall by Daryl Gregory
Daryl Gregory is one of those writers that other writers want to throttle. He’s got fresh takes on familiar ideas and his prose is seemingly effortless. Raising Stony Mayhall takes a very familiar and popular horror trope and turns it on its ear. A wonderful book, like everything Daryl does.

Down the Mysterly River by Bill Willingham
Even if you’re not reading Bill’s hit series Fables (and why aren’t you? Do you not like things that are great?) you will love this book. It’s a grand old adventure, the kind you can only read for the first time at that impressionable age, and it’s also a glorious meditation on the nature of fictional characters. What happens when we close the covers of our favorite books?

Road Trip by Mark Finn
The stranger on the side of the road doesn't know much, but he's pretty sure he's not Elvis. The baby driving the car has his own set of problems, but that won't keep him from helping a fellow traveler out. Now they are on a journey of discovery in the only thing that makes sense to either of them: a 1963 pink Cadillac... Originally published in the now out of print Gods New and Used, this tenth anniversary edition has been updated and edited by the author and is now available as a stand-alone novella.

From the makers of Fluxx and Chrononauts comes this really elegant card game that completely captures the feel of the Back to the Future trilogy. Set up is minimal, and rules mastery only takes a few minutes. Best of all, it’s as replayable as the movies are rewatchable. Good for the movie buff and the games buff on your list.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

13 Things I'm Thankful For

This blog post is the epitome of cliches, except that I never do it. Oh, I toss out a little Thanksgiving sentiment now and again, but I'm usually too busy cooking food and navigating the politics of dinner with my in-laws to have the time to actually give thanks.

So, now I find myself with a small pocket of time, and I've been thinking lately about these things in some detail. Sounds like a perfect time to blog what I'm thankful for, here in 2011. Here we go in no particular order:

1. I'm thankful for the city of Vernon, Texas. You didn't have to take to us like you did, but you did, and I thank you. Wait, did I just riff on a ZZ Top lyric?

2. All of my friends, both near and far, who keep me engaged, thinking, and motivated. Some days, you are all that keeps me on an even keel.

3. Facebook and Twitter. See above.  I love the strange conversations that break out, the crystallized thought that borders on poetry, and the instant access to so many of your lives. It takes some of the sting out of being so far away from you all.

4. John Lucas, Weldon Adams, and Toby Heidel. Three guys who could not be more different, and yet, we share a brain in some of the most important ways. I love you guys, my brothers-in-arms.

5. Clockwork Storybook: Thank you, Bill Willingham, for resurrecting and expanding our writer's group into this most brilliant think-tank that inspires and challenges in equal parts. Our annual retreat is a high point in my calendar year.

6. My family, both near and extended, has always been a place where I can go be myself. We are a close-knit bunch of oddballs and lunatics, but from that nucleus sprang some amazing, talented, brilliant smart asses. I am grateful for growing up in that environment.

7. All my nieces and nephews, feral and otherwise. I do so love being "Uncle Monkey," and the best thing of all is that they like the same stuff that I like, whether it's mythology and superheroes or Scooby Doo cartoons and magic. It's never boring when we get together.

8. Over the years a number of people have plugged into what I write, whether it's comics, or Robert E. Howard studies, or my prose fiction, and have made the effort to buy my work when they see it. To all of the fans of my writing, thank you so very much.

9. I'm thankful that VCRP is getting back together.

10. Thanks also to Dark Horse Comics and Ape Entertainment for publishing my work. I appreciate the vote of confidence!

11. I'm thankful for my creative voice. Just because it's always come easily to me doesn't mean it's easy. It's a lot of work. And some folks don't have that ability, and they really want it. I'm thankful that one of my gifts is the ability to communicate and entertain with my words.

12. Cathy No Middle Name Day, my wife and partner, is the yin to my yang, the cream in my coffee. Literally and figuratively. I'm so thankful she's a part of my life.

13. I'm thankful for my dog, Sonya Louise Finn. She's become such a big part of my life with her sweet, goofy personality. She makes me be a better person, she really does.

There's a lot more, but against that list, it all seems fairly trivial. This is a lot. These are big gifts. Thanks so much, all of you, for everything.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Our Obsession with Simulacrum and How We Got There

The Kardashian family: portrait of a group of people
who represent literally no one you know, nor will you
ever know. Futureworld Androids, the lot of them.
Even as we all decry "reality television" (one of the most ironic oxymorons, ever) and the eternal parade of mediocre celebrities that are constantly on display through every single media outlet known to man, and even as we all secretly watch a handful of shows "because they are all so bad," and make remarks about the our nascent schadenfreude-ian tendencies...nothing ever changes. Ryan Seacrest continues to make more televsion that is rabidly consumed by sixteen year old girls, twenty four year old mothers, and thirty four year old gay men. I don't know when those groups became the dominent demographic of our culture in this country, but I think I know when it started.

What follows is an exploratory essay based on my life experience. I have no hard data to back this up. But I think I've got something, here, and I think that if I'm not a hundred percent right, I'm also not a hundred percent wrong, either. Feel free to disagree with me or educate me as needed.

When MTV first appeared in 1981, it was not allowed in our home. The reason, I was told, was that it was "communism." I didn't understand it. I thought my step father was being faceatious. After all, if he was suppressing it, wasn't THAT what Communism was about? It bothered me that there was a television channel I didn't have access to, but all was not lost. HBO had a show called "Friday Night Videos" that showed most of the cool videos I was missing out on, so I didn't feel too out of the loop. As a result, I learned to simply not mention the current musical trend, lest I be subjected to another diatribe about "propaganda." Inevitably, several years later, when MTV was added to our cable package, I became a regular consumer. This lasted through the rest of my teen years and right up to about 1990. More on that, later.

It's widely known that the first song played on MTV was "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles. It was played, without any trace of irony (because that didn't exist, either, until 1994 when Chandler Bing from Friends couldn't form a sentence without invoking it), and it was a doomsaying, of sorts. Video did, in fact, kill the radio star. If you don't believe me, then you need to hear the cautionary tale of Romeo Void.

The California-based band rode the New Wave crest with ease, and they got a lot of college airplay for a song called "Never Say Never." The combination of provocative lyrics and a catchy hook, delivered in a kind of "Come-hither Valley Girl" pout, was dynamite. For about three weeks, everyone was singing the song and chatting it up.

Until the video came out, that is.


The most flattering picture of Romeo Void ever taken.
Let me say up front that what happened to the band was wrong, so very wrong. But everyone took one look at the band and promptly, spitefully, lost interest. The lead singer did not look like how any of us pictured her looking. Instead of looking like Annebella Lwin from Bow Bow Bow, she was short, Ruebenesque, and apple-cheeked. I’m being nice now. Back then, no one was being nice. The video wasn’t on MTV more than three weeks. She just wasn’t what we wanted to look at. Not in the age of Madonna, the Go-Gos, and the other various waifs, trollops, and succubi that now regularly appeared in the midst of these new music videos.

These guys look like a Hall & Oates Cover Band.
And that’s how it all started. But it’s not really surprising when you consider that the network was founded on Beautiful People. The executives who built MTV wanted rock bands to host the shows on the channel, but none of the ones they asked wanted to come in from the road, touring, etc. and give up four to six hours a day for months on end. So, they did the next best thing. Instead of getting some rock stars who looked like regular people, they got some regular people who looked like rock stars.  And it changed the music industry forever.

 Meatloaf, circa 1978.
Before MTV, rock and roll didn’t have to be pretty (and it frequently wasn’t). It just had to be good. Musicianship and singing ability was all that was required to be a rock star. If you were pretty, it was a bonus. It helped. But it wasn’t a requirement. Sure, Fleetwood Mac had Stevie Nicks, but it also had Mick Fleetwood. Have you ever seen Steely Dan? Dire Straits? What about Meatloaf? I’m not talking about older Meatloaf, after he lost someweight for Bat Out of Hell II (and suddenly was making appearances on MTV). I’m talking about young, corpulent, 70’s heyday Meatloaf, singing “Paradise By the Dashboard Light.” Can you imagine seeing him tucked between Duran Duran and Adam Ant? Of course not, because it didn’t happen. Nor would it have.


Suddenly, in order to be a rock star, you had to have “the look,” too. You had to be a beautiful person, or at the very least, not ugly. The music took a back seat to the image. Look at the major bands of the 1980s. They are all gorgeous. Some of them were so pretty, we thought they were women. All of the headbangers wore make-up, for Pete’s sake. Boy George was so dolled up, he actually fooled a few young men for about a week. Whenever “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” came on, most of us thought to ourselves, “yes, yes we do,” and a small number of teenaged boys thought to themselves, “Hey, that tall chick is kinda cute.” Funny, when you think about it. I’m sure at least one of those easily confused boys is now a republican congressman.

MTV became arguably the most dominant influence on my generation, and also to the generation right behind me. I’m at the end of Generation X, and MTV dutifully courted us for most of the 80’s. They were the first network unafraid to change up what they were doing to appeal to the youth market, and it’s always been thus. In the 1990s, most of my peers tuned out, because we’d moved on, but not MTV. They were right there, still in the thick of it, perpetually adolescent in their tastes, and eager to sell to the teens whatever they thought we’d all buy.

Marketing to teens is, of course, nothing new. The tactics were invented in the wake of Elvis Presley and the Beatles and perfected with bands like The Monkees, the Partridge Family, Donnie and Marie, and even Leif Garrett. But that was always considered “teenybopper music.” As Elvis got older, so did Elvis’ fans, and his music changed and matured accordingly. Elvis never really made full use of television the way that MTV was able to drum youth culture and the things that matter to youth culture, incessantly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This was something new, and it was different, and it didn’t take long for it to transform from a privilege to a right.

More than a decade after they first came on-air, videos had ceased to be wildly inventive experiments in storytelling and become largely formulaic marketing tools. There were exceptions, of course, but why think when you can just pull a video template out of the “tried and true” handbook? Just make sure you get enough close-ups of the lead singer, and you’ve got a gold record on your hands. No, MTV needed to expand its offerings if they wanted to remain viable in the eyes of the kids. And that’s how we got to “The Real World.”

The Real World's First Cast. Beautiful and Void.
The show’s producers originally wanted to produce a soap opera aimed at their younger audience, featuring people in their twenties. When the cost of hiring actors proved to be too exorbitant, they did the next best thing: they hired ordinary, if beautiful, people, and shoved them into a giant loft that they could have never afforded on their own, and asked the pointed question, “What will happen?  Will these seven strangers get along?” And the answer, of course, was “Pretty much, yeah.”

I’m sure it must have been a bummer for the producers. They were expecting—well, I don’t know what they were expecting. But they initially sold the show to us as a kind of social experiment, and I admit it, I was just as interested as the rest of the world. But aside from a couple of minor dust-ups, such as the white girl from Georgia asking the black girl from Brooklyn if she was a drug dealer because she had a pager (a cultural gaff—hilarious!) and a half-captured argument between two roommates, everyone else got along, or at least, tried to, because it’s miserable living in a house with people you otherwise hate.

As it turned out, those two incidents were the audience’s favorite moments from the show. Mostly because they were the two episodes where something actually happened. You didn’t have to tell the producers twice. Starting with the second season, they deliberately tried to find the biggest, most disparate group of assholes possible, and by the third season, they were actively inveigling and fomenting discord and filming the inevitable slap fights that followed. NOW it was “real.” It was the birth of reality television. And it was aimed squarely at teenagers. 

It wasn't long before every would-be actor was vying to get on the show, and in fact, they did hire actors in later seasons. Even when they didn't have actors to help the "plots" along, the producers were able to stir up enough trouble to keep everyone fighting...because that's how real life would be, if it were a soap opera aimed at teenagers. But it's never billed as that, is it? It's always "reality tv." And so a generation of kids grew up thinking that life after high school was just as epic and angst-filled as life in high school. Especially when dealing with strangers.

Here they are: the fake people you love to hate.
You can draw a straight line from those early episodes of “The Real World” straight to “The Jersey Shore.” This latest cultural embarrassment is no less disturbing because it’s now being watched by adults who think it’s awful, demented fun, and they think the rest of the world is laughing right along with them. But even as Snooki and The Situation are fighting because they all went to the club together, but didn’t talk to one another, and spend the rest of the episode working it all out, we are culturally dying a little bit inside, because this is what we’re replacing Shakespeare with. Sure, there was backstabbing, deceit, and discord in the Bard’s plays, too, but at least there was more at stake than missing a tanning bed appointment. There was a commentary inherent to the material that spoke to the human condition. “The Jersey Shore” is just bread and circus fare. It’s feeding gladiators to the lions.  

We're living in it. Or at least watching it.
It's all fake. None of these geletin-heads are from New Jersey. They aren't real people. They are simulacrum, artificial constructs. They are really pretty Chucky Cheese robots to dance and sing for our amusement. The same goes for the "Real Housewives of Fill-in-the-Blank" and all of the other rich and famous people like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, who we'd never heard anything about until their sex tape got "leaked." And they didn't even do THAT convincingly, either. 

Think about it: do you know ANYONE who has anything close to approximating their lives? Pick a show, any show, and see if you can duplicate it with your friends and family. You can't. And it's not because you're not rich, famous, and spoiled rotten. It's because you're a real person with a job, hobbies, interests, and actual relationships. So many of those shows seem like they are put together by Martians trying to approximate our culture. When did ANY of this become any kind of standard for life, entertainment, or culture?

We're worshiping the androids from Westworld, who are programmed to fit a specific need and nothing else. 
It's not enough that we routinely reward mediocrity, but now with reality television, we celebrate it. These animated shells that perform for us, that get into fights, and dress like Barbie dolls, and do their level best to make their lives interesting, are what passes for celebrity in the 21st century. Famous for nothing except looking good (and not necessarily charismatic, either--just pretty), exalted for things like perfumes and clothing lines that they did nothing more than select, and of course, constant fodder for the 24-hour news cycle and endless spin-off tv shows. Who asked for this? The easy answer is, "We did," but I don't really think that's true. I suspect someone is pitching to the lowest common denominator in our society, and they are throwing strikes.

What can we do about it? I'm not sure. But I'm not done talking about this.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

If You're Upset by the Kardashian Divorce, Then the Problem is YOU

I've watched with wry amusement as the much-publicized Kardashian divorce has been co-opted by the Interwebs as a stick in the eye for the folks who argue for the sanctity of marriage being between a man and a woman. It's a conversation that the nation has needed to have for a while, and the politicized elements of that argument have little choice but to hunker down and take the body blows raining down on them right now. They have no defense for this.

Now that everything is televised, even the great and grand lie that is one of our most entrenched and enduring myths, that of a storybook romance, those that would claim that the people who can't legally marry are somehow cheapening the act for those who legally can is absurd. With the divorce rate at 50%, and with celebritiy's personal lives literally documented in closer detail than an average day in Congress, the message isn't so much mixed as it is garbled. If marriage is so bloody wonderful, how come no celebrity alive can keep one together for more than six months?

My short answer is this: we're oppressively conditioned by every romantic comedy, every romance novel, every story told to us by our mother and grandmother, every Barbie scenario, and now every single reality televsion show that's not on the Cooking Channel that marriage is the end of the story. It's the Taa-Daaah moment. And it may well be a great ending for a story, at that. It's the promise of a future in bliss, but also a closing ceremony, borne out of happiness at getting together, especially after all that's happened in the story.

Then, while America closes the book and picks up another story that will undoubtedly end the exact same way, those who got married have to figure out how to live together. Let me suggest to the shell-shocked teenagers of the world that ordinary people have a tough enough time of trying to figure out all of that stuff. If you put an entire television production crew in our living room and had producers try to steer everything you did in a certain direction, it's probably ten times more difficult.

Isn't it funny that all of the fans of people like, say, Sandra Bullock, and the media who labels her "America's Sweetheart," are waiting with baited breath to see and when she'll get married, when the reality is that one of the least-suited professions to the institutions of marriage is that of actors, celebrities, and other public figures. The reasons for this should be obvious. And yet, for the largest Christian religion in the world, the spiritual advisors whose job it is to council couples on love, marriage, and fidelity are actually forbidden to marry and have to take a vow of chastity. I've never understood that.

Studies have shown that people don't tend to engage their brains on new concepts and ideas when they can instead read, watch, and otherwise engage on concepts that reinforce their existing ideas. In other words, if you are a seventeen year old girl, and you've already got your wedding planned out, and you cannot WAIT for the NBA player of your choice to ask you for your hand in marriage, then you are not remotely interested in watching a documentary about the divorce rate. Or, if you do, you'll just think, "Well, that won't be ME. After all, I'll have a fairy tale romance. Those don't end in divorce."

Yeah, they do. Everything is susceptible to human frailty. If millions of dollars can't keep a functionally retarded NBA baskeball player and the world's hottest tulpa together for more than two and half months, then what chance does anyone have? 

Honestly, if we would just turn off the reality television, the romance novel, and tune out the overwhelming pressure to not only get married, but as soon as possible, then maybe we'd have a better shot at it. Maybe then we could all talk about the realities of how to make a marriage work, and not focus so much on how much the wedding dress cost.

But I'm not done talking about the Kardashians yet. Nor any of their fans. More on this later.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Thing on Thing Action

For Halloween, I watched The Thing (2011), followed immediately by The Thing (1982), which appears to be intuitively how the movies are meant to be watched. This new film has caught some flack because, people have argued, there was nothing wrong with Carpenter's film that it needed to be remade. I agree, of course. Carpenter's Thing is one of my favorite horror movies of all time, and one of my most memorable scares during my formative years.

I was 13 in 1982. Living in Abilene, Texas, I was as far away as it was possible to be from any kind of geek gathering place. We had a magic shop that had recently closed down, but no comic book store. Only the local hobby shop carried any Dungeons and Dragons stuff, and even then, it wasn't a place to gather and talk to other people. Anything you wanted to know about, or become knowledgeable about, you had to find for yourself. 

One of my sources for things like horror movies, special effects, and the like was the fledgling Fangoria magazine. It was literally a lifeline for me, keeping me abreast of upcoming movies, talking to directors about the film, showing special effects pictures, and all of the stuff we now get on the Bonus chapters of our DVDs. I had read about The Thing in Fangoria, and also about John W. Campbell's short story, "Who Goes There?" and Rob Bottin's insane, out of control make-up effects...well, I just HAD to see it, you see. Rated R? Not my problem. We had HBO, and oftimes, if I was lucky, I could get downstairs late at night and watch whatever I deemed essential to my education.
The Blood Test. One of the best things Carpenter and Bottin gave to the world.

So, I'm downstairs in our old, weird, and even haunted house. I'm in the last room, at the farthest end of a long hall that curved around to the staircase, which curved back around and led to my room. My door faced the stairs. Make a note of that. We'll come back to it. The second floor landing fed into a hallway with the bannister on one side and a bookshelf wall on the other. Anyone from the rest of the bedrooms could walk out into this hallway and look down the stairs from the railing. Anyway.

HBO decided to air The Thing at 10:35 late one Friday Night. I crept downstairs, stealthily turned on the television, and absorbed the movie the same way that the Thing absorbs other humans. It got under my skin; what can I say? Well, the movie is over now, and that Duhm Duhm soundtrack is throbbing, and I cannot BELIEVE they ended the movie like that. I mean, Childs could still be a Thing! Even though he probably wasn't...they were going to freeze to death, man! It was my first ambiguous ending, and as the possibilities rolled around my head, suddenly, my step-father, Paul, appeared in the doorway to the den.

"What in the hell are you doing up?" he demanded.

"Nothing!" I said quickly, trying to catch up with the heart attack he'd started from his sudden appearance.

"Get upstairs and go to bed."

"You go first," I shot back, with zero insolence in my voice. If anything was waiting, he'd get it first. It was pragmatism.

He sighed and stomped off. Only then did I realize my error. I could've had an escort back down the long, dark hallway, but instead I sent my safety net ahead of me and now he was snug in HIS bed, leaving me all alone...in the dark...

Mind you, I only did this once. I learned from it, to be sure. But let me say to you that it is possible to make that hallway, turning the lights on ahead of you and off behind you as you go, at a dead run.

Cornering the stairs was tricky, but the light switch at the landing was a three-panel, so it was no trouble to hit the two rightmost switched that cut the lights on the landing and popped the lights on at the stairs. I was literally running toward the light the whole time.

At the top of the stairs, I literally dove, John Woo-style, into my room, grazing the door knob as I jumped, allowing it to swing closed behind me. My reading light was on, and I had an instant to contemplate that my bed, to the right of me, was just the right size for, oh, I don't know, anything, to be under it.

I leapt up, straight up, and transversed horizontal space like a sixteen-bit character to land smack-dab in the middle of my bed. SAFE! I pulled covers up all around me, and kept the light on, and man, I was NOT moving out of that bed.

The next morning, at breakfast, with the scares over (well, mostly), I looked at my family as they munched on eggs and bacon and thought, how well do we really know anyone?

So, naturally, The Thing is one of my favorite horror movies. I've seen it dozens of times. Kurt Russell is still playing John Wayne for Carpenter. David Keith is awesome as Childs. Wilfred Brimley! Come on! What's not to like? The paranoia, the intrigue, and of course, that monster... In John Carpenter's now-very spotty ovure, this film is a stand out and one of the few things that keeps his reputation from being totally a washout.

You can imagine my distress (and I suspect some of yours) when I found out about the new movie. Why on Earth would you want to remake it? There's nothing wrong with it! What? Oh, it's a prequel? Well, that's kinda different...and yet, after watching them literally back to back, I find they are very much the same.

The NEW Thing starts out at the Norwegian Research Base that was the set piece in the 1982 movie. In other words, when Copper asks, "My God, what happened here?" well, now we get to see it. And see it all.

I won't ruin the film for you. If you liked Carpenter's film, you should go see thig. What I will do is give you a few tidbits to make your mind up for you. The biggest, most important one is this: yes, they use CGI, but it's all based on the design of the 1982 film. In a few cases, it looks deliberately as if they were dialing back the finesse, to better make it match up. This movie is kind of a love note to its predecessor.

I couldn't believe the attention to detail. Everything that we saw the remnants of in 1982, they reverse-engineered into the action of this film. And it is an action film, weirdly. Despite hitting a lot of the same notes, this movie makes a vailiant effort to stay out of the first film's sandbox. This mostly succeeds, but with the snow, the same buildings, the same fashions, as the first movie, the Deja-Vu factor is through the roof.

As I watched the end of the new Thing, I was struck by a realization. In the 1982 version, there's no sequel. We see that coming. No matter what happens next, when spring comes, MacReady and Childs are dead doornails. Trying to get a sequel out of that film would just suck. Too much contrived circumstances. No one would buy it. But...what if someone did make it out of the Norwegian camp? Ahhhh...suddently, there's now a tent-peg to hang a third movie on. And it's okay. I think the ending works, especially as the credits roll. You'll see what I mean.

What the new movie lacks in suspense, it makes up for in being a real monster romp. And it would seem that the thing itself is learning. By the end of the first movie, we can see just as well as the monster that the direct approach didn't work so well. But hiding out...that's the ticket. And so, to the next film we go...

The two movies work great together as chapters in a bigger story. If you're a fan of the first one, you just gotta try the new one out. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Monday, October 31, 2011

My Halloween Reading

I love short stories, and I always have. As a reader, I love anthologies for one simple reason: more bang for the buck. Finding an anthology with short stories from authors I like is like finding little gems in the rock pile. Many times, I've bought an anthology full of stories I already had, simply for the one or two stories I didn't have. Especially if the other stories in the book were good. Then you know you're in for a treat.

These two paperbacks were bought at the same time, but I cannot recall which used bookstore I found these in. Regardless, I was impressed with the contents, as well as Christopher Lee's cogent remarks about the authors and stories. It's pretty clear he at least contributed the commentary for the first book.

In honor of this year's Halloween, I broke the books out and worked my way through the stories. Check out the punch in these two slim volumes!

Volume 1

The Spider - Fritz Lieber
I, the Vampire - Henry Kuttner
Talent - Robert Bloch
The Gorgon - Clark Ashton Smith
The Kill - Peter Fleming
Blood Son - Richard Matheson
The Black Stone - Robert E. Howard
The Monster Maker - W.C. Morrow
The Judge's House - Bram Stoker

Volume 2

The Adventure of the Sussex vampire - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Lurking Fear - H.P. Lovecraft
Rope Enough - John Collier
Lost Face - Jack London
It - Theodore Sturgeon
The Rats of Dr. Picard - Henry Slesar
The Beast With Five Fingers - W.F. Harvey
Skelton - Ray Bradbury
The 17th Hole at Duncaster - H.R. Wakefield
Gabriel-Ernest - Saki
the Avenging Film -Massimo Bontempelli

I haven't bothered to look and see if there is a From the Archives of Evil #3 or not. I've read most of these stories in other books, but the few I hadn't read before were all excellent.

It's Halloween. Go read something spooky!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

My Top Five Scariest Scenes in Movies

Hey, why not? Let's call it a Halloween treat. Most of you know I'm an unapologetic SF/F/Horror fan, and I've been interested in same for, well, most of my life. I got interested in film at an early age and obsessed over monster movies until I was about thirty five. And while I was watching a ton of scary movies, both old and new, there were a few that stuck with me long after the initial shock, after the long night's tossing and turning, trying to get the images out of my mind. These five films, or rather, these scenes in particular, became the benchmark for what I consider to be truly effective movie horror.

Now, a word of caution: this is my list, not your list. Be careful what movies you pooh-pooh, or can't believe I didn't include. These are part of my difinable criteria, and your own mileage will definitely vary. Also, and I really shouldn't have to say this, but Spoilers Abound. We're talking about movies that all of you should have had ample time to see. Don't blame me if you read something you'd rather not have read.

Number Five: American Werewolf in London--the attack on the moors.
This movie gets major props from other creative people, but very little slack from die-hard fans. The reason? "It was funny. Horror isn't supposed to be funny." Well, they are all just wrong about that. The first twenty minutes of the movie establish very quickly how much you like Jack and David, played by Griffin Dunne and David Naughton. That's what makes the attack, when it happens, so suspenseful, so creepy, and after that tension breaking laugh, so horrifyingly violent. One of the best werewolf attacks ever filmed, because it was actually filmed.

4. The Ring--the creepy dead girl crawling out of the well.
Oh, those wacky Japanese. I've said it before and I'll say it again: culturally, there's something very wrong with them. The whole idea of a videotape that kills you if you watch it is ludicrous, but leave it for the Japanese to come up with a weird and strangely effective way for it to work. First off, their idea of Ghosts and M. Nyght Shamalan's idea of Ghosts are miles apart. Japanese ghosts can, and do, hurt you. And when the come up out of wells, backwards, walking inbetween the ticks of time because they are not of the living, that will make you want to butt-walk right out of your chair.

3. The Thing--the Blood Test Scene
The first time I saw this, I nearly crapped my pants. "I thought you'd feel that way, Gary. You were the only person who could've gotten to that blood. We'll do you last." SCHREEEEEEEE!! I didn't see it coming, and neither did you. That whole movie really holds up, and in a film known more for its grotesqueries, the Thing-Blood jumping away from the needle is one of the best jump-scares of all time.

2. The Shining--the creepy twins
In a movie chock full of disturbing imagery, those two weird-looking little girls that keep messing with Danny the super psychic do it for me. First off, twin girls are always creepy, okay? And when they dress alike, and speak at the same time, and oh, yeah, are also ghosts, then I'm covering my eyes too, until they go away. Or until the elevator dumps blood into the hall. Whichever. Is there anyone not adversely affected by watching the Shining? I have to concentrate on Nicholson and not think about the rest of it, or I can't sleep at night. That movie makes every house a haunted one.

1. The Exorcist--the final exorcism
Holy crap. What an intense, scary, gross, freaked-out finale. That sweet little girl, covered in sores, swearing like a sailor one minute, and then sounding like the priest's dying mother the next. The baleful look in her eyes as she regards the priests. This movie bothers me because one thing I really fear is a loss of personal control. There hasn't yet been a movie about demonic possession that could topple The Exorcist for sheer awfulness.

Since I can't stop you from disagreeing with me, go ahead an gnash your teeth in the comments section. If you think I'm overlooking a movie or two, speak up!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

My New Business Idea

Me: So, I've been thinking...

Cathy: Oh, no.

Me: What? You always do that when I start to tell you my great ideas!

Cathy: Honey, it's not that you're...okay, go ahead.

Me: No, forget it. I'll just do it without you, now.

Cathy: Noooo, now you'd better tell me.

Me: Okay. Fine. So, I've been thinking...

Cathy: We got that part already.

Me: I've been thinking about going into business as a wedding planner.

Cathy: (stunned silence)

Me: See, the way I figure it--

Cathy: (interrupting) What on EARTH makes you think up this stuff?

Me: It's simple, really. I see the women of the world as being divided into two camps: those who have had their wedding planned out since they were thirteen years old, down to the tux color and the cake flavor...and those who haven't.

Cathy: Uh huh.

Me: Well, clearly, I've got zero interest in dealing with Bridezillas. That's not something I want to deal with when it's someone I know, much less a stranger.

Cathy: Yeah, that's not your strength.

Me: Buuuuuut...on the other hand...I've got serious planning skills when it comes to doing weddingly things. Which is perfect for the woman who doesn't know and/or doesn't really care, she just wants to be married.

Cathy: Um, Honey...

Me: Or what about those nerd girls who want a Star Trek wedding? I'd be perfect for that! I speak their language.

Cathy: I'm not so sure that's ever the woman's idea...

Me: Think about it! 'Custom-designed wedding ceremonies that reflect your true selves.' I'm telling you, I think I can do this.

Cathy: Okay, do you have any idea how much that--or the time--*sigh* you know what? Sure. Sounds great.

Me: Of course, I'll need a website. Maybe a picture of me, only with six arms, like an aspect of Shiva.

Cathy: What?

Me: Yeah! In the palm of each hand will be something you can click on. Writing, consulting, Wedding Planning...

Cathy: Okay, now I need a drink.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Obligatory Birthday Post -- And Thanks for All the Fish

This is a weird milestone, one that only you guys will understand: today is my Douglas Adams Birthday. That's right, today I am 42. And as you might expect, not only do I NOT have the answer, but I'm pretty sure one isn't coming anytime soon. I know less now than I ever did. While it's a really liberating feeling, it's also a little frustrating, too. And the things that I DO know, I kinda wish I didn't.

I used to love my birthday, but as I've gotten older, it's become more of a timebomb. Worse, it's become a yardstick to measure myself against my peers, my expectations, you name it. There's no cake and parties anymore. Not really. And I really don't want that, either, to be honest. My needs are many, but they are all pretty simple.

Despite this year being one of generalized suckage for everyone I know vis a vis the economy, it's been a pretty good year for me. I've gained some publishing traction in the comics world, and also got some prose goodness finally cooking. I'm ready to do more of both.

Over in the world of Robert E. Howard, I rewrote Blood & Thunder and it will be out by Christmas. I also wrote a rebuttal to a longstanding article about REH and racism, and penned a new Howard Manifesto in a vain attempt to keep everyone's preconceived notions about REH at bay and write something new and original. I also presented a paper on Howard at a national academic conference. Not bad, considering I'm trying to scale back.

What will 2012 bring? More publishing. I've got a couple of long-standing projects that I will conclude and push out next year. Also, some backlist will be re-published, starting with the two Con-Dorks books. After that, maybe the Sam Bowen stuff.

Also, the Violet Crown Radio Players are relaunching in 2012, and I'm going to be writing some new old time radio scripts for them. I love doing that. Scouts! the comic book I'm doing for Ape Entertainment, will debut. And, if all goes well, I'll land a manuscript at a publisher. Cross your fingers.

In the "It sure would be nice" column, I've participated in two documentaries about REH now, and both have yet to be released commercially or otherwise. Hopefully they can land a spot at a festival. Maybe even South By Southwest. Who knows? But I want them out. I'm tired of waiting on them.

In all other things, I am a work in progress. Health, Business, Husband, Friend, and Priest of Elvis. My gift to myself next year is to read more, and for pleasure. A fitting gift, I think, for so literary a milestone. My thanks to all of you, friends, family, and folks who like reading my stuff. You really are the best, and I appreciate you being involved in my life. Who needs presents and a cake? I've got y'all.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Not My Best Moment, I'll Admit...

One Brief moment of normal, before I opened my
mouth and started speaking...
...but it wasn't my fault, honest. I gave them every opportunity to intervene. Let me 'splain. No, there is no time. I sum up.

I married my youngest brother last weekend. To his fiancee. Don't be goofy. As an ordained minister (with the credentials to boot), this was my second such wedding. And it was for my brother! Nice! Cathy would rather I call myself an "officiant" but that sounds like a robot that is released into an office to sweep up dead employees who go missing in their cubicles in some weird dystopian science-fiction movie directed by Michael Bey. Besides, they are ministerial credentials, so what else WOULD I call myself? A Priest of Elvis? Anyway...

Early on, when I found about his pending nuptials, I called to tell him congrats and offer any help I could give. "Including, you know, if you need someone to marry you--I'm legal," I said, chuckling, thinking that there was no way they would want me to perform the service. Well, laa dee daa. Shows what I know.

Josh called me back and said, "we talked it over, and we'd love for you to be the minister."

Cool beans. It's a gig. And it was one I took seriously. I insisted on meeting with them to talk to them about the service, what they wanted, and how they wanted me to do it. I should have known there would be trouble, when, early on, Josh said to me, "We just want you to get up and do your thing. You know, be yourself." Heh, really, Josh? We grew up in the same house. You know what I'm capable of. Here's a recent example of the shennanigans I can get up to.

"Dude, that's too wide open. You've got to give me something to work with," I told him.

"Well, I don't know," he said. "We're not reallysure what we want to do."

So, I made a point of lending him one of my clerical books. It's a wedding planning guide, one that shows the basic structure of the ceremony, and then includes sample weddings for virtually every circumstance. Really. All religions, non-religious, half-and-half, ceremonies for blending bilingual families...it's the works. I told my brother, who has about ten years of college under his belt, to look through, and find some pieces and parts of a ceremony or two that you like, or even kinda like. If you don't like a particular quote, we can substitute Rumi for First Corinthians. It's all good. But give me something to start working with."

"You got it, Markie," he said. He took the book away and kept it for six weeks. Problem solved, I thought.

So, I get the book back, and I said to him, "What did you pick out?"

He said, "Ehh, we couldn't decide. You just come up with something, okay?"

If we weren't in public, I probably would have thrown something at him. A shoe, like when we were kids. Or put a Star Wars figure up his nose. You can still do that to kid brothers. I looked it up.

I got them together a few weeks later and begged them to give me something, anything. Turns out, they had, in fact, been working on some stuff. A few quotes. Nice sentiments. Thoughtful bits that I took and worked into the larger service. Okay, that was four sentences. And while they are nice sentences, I'm going to need a little more.

I started carving a basic ceremony. And as I'm doing it, I can hear Josh, all echo-y and flashback-y, saying, "Just be yourself, Markie..." Well, before I knew it, the Impressive Clergyman from The Princess Bride was just, I dunno, in there. It just happened.

They were getting married in a recreated medieval setting, so I already knew I was going to pop in some He-Man Masters of the Universe jokes (something Josh was obsessed with when he was a wee lad). And I had made a point to address both of them individually with advice for the marriage. Funny stuff in there, too. Appropriate to the setting, of course. Gentle humor.

No, what was missing was a quote. Something to get us into the vows, which they themselves will be reading to one another. Hey, why not, already this thing couldn't be any less traditional if we had killed a fatted calf and put it on an altar.

There are a metric ton of love and marriage quotes online. Whilst I was perusing twenty pages of them, I came across a great quote by Helen Keller: The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.”

Perfect. Just the thing to lead into the vows. I typed out, "Helen Keller said...

Then my brain kicked in. Well, no, she probably didn't SAY it. I mean, come on. She wrote it. Or she signed it. Or maybe she dictated it. But if she said it, it would have come out like this: "ARAAAARAAGH." And then her dog would have come over, because he thought she was calling him.

Go on. Hate me. Especially all of you out there who've never told nor laughed at a Helen Keller joke in your life. Throw the first stone, if you must.

Now, I'm not proud of what happened next, but this is what I used to get us to the wedding vows last Saturday:

Helen Keller once said, “ARARAHRAHRHA!” Then, much later, she said this: "The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” I want to remind you that marriage is a precious gift; a lifelong dedication to love and a daily challenge to love one another more fully and more freely. Bear this in mind as we now exchange the vows you have written to one another.

You may well be wondering how the wedding turned out. No blows were exchanged, if that's what you're really curious about. My side of the family, Josh, his best man Colby, and even Jillian, were pretty prepared for just about everything that came out of my mouth. Her family? Not so much. I don't know what they were expecting. First Corinthians, most likely, but they sure did not get it. But that's okay. It wasn't their day. It was my brother's and his wife's day. And they liked it just fine. We are nothing if not irreverent.

I think the blessing from Elvis was maybe a little much. At least, my mother thought so. Not the Helen Keller joke, oh no. The Elvis blessing. Hey, I told everyone to bow their head in an ATTITUDE of prayer. No actual praying was ever asked for, nor fully expected.

Personally, I think I stuck the dismount. You be the judge:

Joshua and Jillian having witnessed your vows for marriage with all who are assembled here, by the authority vested in me by the Universal Life Church, and BY THE POWER OF GREYSKULL! I now pronounce you husband and wife. And what you two hath put together, let no one, not even Skeletor, tear asunder.

Kinda brings a tear to my eye, it does...

Sunday, October 16, 2011

My thoughts on Occupy Wall Street

I don't know if I've ever liked the big banks. I'm talking Bank of America and so forth. Despite all of their warm, professionally printed and market-researched signage in the lobby, I always did, in fact, feel like a number and not a name. And while we're at it, I've never fully understood why Wall Street is the backbone of our economy. I'll be the first to admit that I don't fully understand all of the ins and outs of it, but my gut reaction is that anything that is designed to spike wildly up and down, and actually CRASH from time to time cannot possibly be a good and stable thing to base an economy on. A side-venture? Sure, okay, if you've got the money to lose. Maybe at one time, we did. We certainly don't now.

It's taken me a while to educate myself  on the bailouts in 2008, and all of the fallout that followed. It's not light reading, but it is stomach-churning. Not just because of how much money we gave these financial institutions and what they in turn did with that cash, but mostly the shennanigans that led up to the crash just made me so angry. I nearly ran out into the street and protested, myself, but I thought, Nah, no one cares what I think. I'm just the one guy, over here, whose concerns are never ever addressed by national political candidates of any kind.

How little did I know.

Maybe you're not following the OWS movement, because it's already white noise in the media--check that--the corporate-controlled media. Maybe you've already seen pictures of unwashed youngsters in hemp clothing playing the bongo drums. Yeah, I know, it's not exactly the best foot forward to be taken seriously, but I submit to you that neither was that guy with teabags hanging off his tricorn hat at the Tea Party rallies, either. That's never the norm. It's always the nuts on the fringe that the news guys just love to cover. It's so much easier to shoot the freaks than it is to try and break down a complex issue for people who are just wanting to watch the weather and get the sports scores.

Yeah, I'm having problems with TV news, too.

OWS and the Tea Party have--or had--one thing in common, at least initially: they all came together and fairly calmly rioted over the amount of money we just handed the big banks, with no accountability, no reprisals, no strings attached. I got the distinct impression that the Powers That Be didn't know what they were going to do with the money, either.  It was just, "Um, do what you need to do, okay? And hurry!"

Now there's riots, and police are herding people away, and everyone is in an uproar, and they are even allegedly arresting protesters who are closing their CitiBank accounts. Wow. I don't like sounding like one of those conspiracy theory guys, but what else does it sound like to you? Big Brother? Oh, it's way past that, now.

I've read some of the demands of the protestors, and I've heard some of the statements, and while I am not questioning the moral and ethical truth of what they are saying, this isn't something that can happen overnight. These issues have GOT to be folded into the political process. And if a candidate isn't willing to talk about them, then guess what? He doesn't get our vote. It's that simple. It's pretty clear to me that we've all been focusing on the wrong stuff for the past couple of decades.

In the midst of all this bumper sticker political canvassing that has gone on across FaceBook and the blogosphere these last couple of weeks, I want to put forth my two demands. These aren't simple things. Lots has to happen, and I know that. But unless we start asking for what we really want from a politician, and unless we start prioritizing what's most important to us as Americans and demanding it from our public servents, then the debate over gay marriage will continue, and corporations and banks will run amok all over us.

My demands for the movement:

1. Strip away all laws and legal rulings stating that corporations are people. Replace with a set of concrete guidelines for what corporations can and can't do, and what they are responsible for regarding their actions.

This should never have gotten to this level, and we should all be ashamed of ourselves for letting it. Mitt Romney actually said "corporations are people." And he was serious. Now, this is not to say that every corporation is bad. There are some really good, responible ones out there. But due to how they are currently structured, it's very easy for a not-so-scrupulous corporation to, say, anonymously fund political candidates, giving them literally millions of dollars that do not have to be disclosed. If I'm handing someone millions of dollars, how much do you want to bet that I have a list of conditions that goes along with that cash? Congratulations, we have just cut ourselves out of our own political process.

2. Reform banking, finance, and the stock market with a concrete set of rules as to what can and cannot be done with the people's money. Break up the monopolies so that the big banks cannot grow past a certain size. Set limits and caps on what they can do, and how.

Honestly, after all this time, after so many sayings such as "money is the root of all evil," you'd think that people would have learned. Jesus didn't even like these guys! Come on! It's our money, and we're just letting them play with it as if it wasn't.

Again, I don't presume to think that the above two things fixes everything. But it would fix alot. I'm in the 99%, as is literally everyone I know. We've all had to work our whole lives. Some of us are still working. I don't know of anyone who's doing super great right now. I only know of a few, maybe a dozen or more, who are actually sitting on Middle Class right now. And you know what? They keep their mouths shut and their heads down, because they don't want to crow about it. Yeah, it's gotten that bad. I'm not telling you anything you don't know already.

So, what are you gonna do about it? Are we going to keep letting ourselves be distracted by things like "the war on Christmas," if there ever really was such a thing? Or are we going to start looking for politicans who really want to change the system? Because that's what it's going to take. We need people who can change the system from within, gradually over time.

Of course, that would mean that everyone will have to work together. This whole two party system we have would need to...oh, wait, I'll finish this blog post later. Boardwalk Empire is on HBO right now...yeah, we'll just, um...

Viva El Revolution, OWS! You've got your work cut out for you.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Classic Rock Can Kiss My Ass

I'm not really one of those people that freaks out about my age. I don't think I act like I'm forty-one. I sure don't dress like I'm forty-one. Sometimes, I don't look forty-one. It doesn't bother me, aside from the normal concerns about my health now that I have crossed the threshhold into my 40s.

But every once in a while, I feel my age in an overly-dramatic way that only a born performer can. Today's culprit was the Grateful Dead and their song, "Touch of Gray." This one really got to me because I was, what, fifteen or sixteen when the song came out? You know, that time of life when you are bulletproof and rocket-powered, and the whole concept of fortyfive and fiftysomething guys singing about a touch of gray is just side-splitting.

And then YOU become a fortysomething, and guess what? The Stones are celebrating their 50th freaking anniversary next year. And you've got gray in your hair, and the kids still can't read at seventeen, and oh, lordy, I'm a cliche. I'm pretty sure this is how bourbon was invented,  but don't quote me on that.

I've got to take a break from classic rock anyway. Overexposure to Roger Daltrey trying to act in the 1980s has conditioned me to not like The Who, and overexposure to real life in general has conditioned me to never again listen to Pink Floyd for any reason, ever again. So, I've always got to be ready to flip from Classic Rock over to another, similarly programmed station on my XM radio, whenever one of the above offending bands comes on. Which happens about once an hour, give or take. Sometimes one station is playing The Who and the other station is playing Pink Floyd. This is what's known in baseball terminology as a 'pickle.' Usually I just turn the radio off and hum Nirvana for three minutes.

I've got other problems with Classic Rock (and what they now include as Classic Rock), and most of them are lyrical. As much as I love the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger needs a translator. Seriously. I've been listening to the Stones for years and I still can't figure out half the crap he says. It's like he speaks literal heiroglyphics. I've tried slowing him down and speeding him up. Backwards, he sounds exactly the same. It's a conundrum. And the potential to mis-hear what his says is infinite.

But that's his style, and kinda like Bob Dylan, if you're going to be a fan of that stuff, you just shrug and grin and bear it. Cathy's always asking me what that line is, and I have to say to her, "Honestly, honey, I think he says 'all that sickness, I can suck a duck.' And please don't ask me what that means. I don't think even Mick knows."

Sometimes the lyrics are just baffling. Clearly stated, but practically nonsensical. Jimi Hendrix is a great example. Inarguably one of the most influential guitarists of all time, and much of his stuff still holds up. But where did he come up with his songs? Mind you, they weren't all Jim Morrison weird. That is to say, he wasn't trying to be an obfuscating poet. Sometimes, little things just popped in there. Case in point: "Fire."

Great song, right? Fast, cool, covered more than once, always a great guitar solo, but just before that solo, he drops a lyric on us. Now, this whole time, the song has been about a guy, trying to convince a girl to let him stand next to her fire (and let's just go ahead and assume THAT'S a metaphor for sex, unlike so many other rock songs from the sixties). Just before the solo, he says, and I quote, "Aw, move over Rover...and let Jimi take over...yeah, you know what I'm talkin' about..."

Um, no, I don't. All of a sudden, there's a family dog in the picture? Was rover the one trying to get next to the fire this whole time? And did Hendrix just cock-block the dog? I don't know! I've never been able to figure it out. Come on! And then right after the solo, the girl tries to give (presumably Hendrix) some money! I love the song, but by the end of it, I'm just in a lather, trying to make sense of it all.

I'm ready to take some of the blame for myself. Sometimes in my weird little brain I'll just get it wrong, or have a different association. To this day, whenever I'm singing Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London," and we both get to the part about the 'hairy headed gent who ran amok in Kent..." and then shortly thereafter, "You'd better stay away from him, he'll rip your lungs out, Jim. Huh. I'd like to meet his tailor," I've got to stop myself from singing "I'd like to meet Liz Taylor," which is what I thought the song said for years. And what a non-sequitor that would have been. One second, we're talking about a well-dressed werewolf, and the next minute, Zevon's breaking the fourth wall to talk about Liz Taylor. It made no sense. Of course, I figured that one out on my own.

Not so with Manfred Mann. Ooh, God, that song. You know the one. The Springsteen cover. The one hit that everyone knows. I'm talking about "Blinded by the Light..." go on, finish the lyric. You know what comes next. "Wrapped up like a douche, another ruler in the night." Har-de-har-har-har. Of course, that's not the lyric. Manfred Mann, in his infinite wisdom, changed "Cut loose like a deuce" to "revved up like a deuce." I know, it still doesn't make any sense.

You have to know that a Deuce is a not-too-common nickname for a 1932 Ford--basically, a hot rod roadster. "Cut loose like a Deuce" now sounds like a drag race, or maybe even a joy ride. In the context of the song Bruce sung, it makes perfect sense. As for Manfred Mann...

Don't tell me that he clearly says "Deuce" in his version, because he doesn't. His over-produced, echo-y vocals are crystal clear until that one word, and then all of a sudden, he's got reverb on his voice, which gives it that CSHHHHHH sound that we have all sung a thousand times, even as we knew "that can't be right--douche? Really?" I've since heard the original Springsteen version, and you know what? It's infinitely superior in every way. For one thing, Springsteen isn't trying to sound like the Electric Light Orchestra. For another, his lyrics are audible and contextually correct. So, to sume up: Manfred Mann can go jump up a rope.

In my twenties, I started listening to the great American standards. Lyrically, they can't be beat. But best of all, I could hear everything clearly. Now, I'm over forty and while I don't feel old, I have the musical tastes of a 94 year old male. Seth MacFarlane, a guy whose television shows I don't watch, just released an album of standards, sung in vintage Rat-Pack-channelling style, and he really pulls it off, too. Now I tool around town in my Vibe and belt out "I've Got You Under My Skin" and sometimes, I wear a jaunty hat. I'm literally an inch away from wearing black dress socks with the garters to hold them up, along with Bermuda shorts and a floppy shirt.