Wednesday, December 17, 2008

While driving this morning

I passed a car abandoned between the two lanes of the highway, its derailment undoubtedly the result of last night's storm.  The lonely vehicle was door handle-deep in snow, and wrapped twice around its metal frame was a strip of yellow DO NOT CROSS police tape.

Perched upon the roof was an orange traffic cone, the car's personal dunce cap.

My Corolla snickered, but only slightly.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Uncle Stitch's Music Roundup: 2008

Like drinking too much mulled wine and telling the inlaws what you really think, my musical best-of list is back by December tradition.  My top ten, presented in reverse order for great suspense:

Top Ten
  • 10. Death Cab for Cutie, Narrow Stairs - Reigning indie pop darlings of the OC set return with their bleakest yet most compelling disc so far.
  • 9. No Age, Nouns - These two kids from LA may sound like a box of bees falling down a flight of stairs but underneath the grime and distortion and occasional ambient interludes are real songs with winning--if gradually revealed--hooks.
  • 8. Black Keys, Attack & Release - Raw bluesters stretch out of their comfort zone by partnering with Danger Mouse and the brilliant results sprawl stylistically while remaining easily recognizable.
  • 7.  MGMT, Oracular Spectacular - Nobody else better converted your morning commute into tripping balls while dancing naked on the beach.
  • 6.  Hot Chip, Made in the Dark - While Made in the Dark's first half nails the electro dance pleasure principle perfectly, it's the ballads that forge new territory while quietly stealing the show.
  • 5.  Crystal Castles, Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles may sound limited in concept, but their debut disc proves that there is a time for broken glass vocals over abrasive Nintendo beats and that time is fucking now.  The full album is a few subtracted songs away from perfection, yeah, but Crystal Castles establishes its importance with sheer visceral intensity.  The digital sugar punch of 2008.
  • 4.  Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes - You are wandering lost in the mountains, your stomach aching with hunger as the temperature drops.  Just as you begin contemplating curling in the snow and giving in, you barely make out a faint melody whistling through distant passages.  Hope renewed, you follow the sound, traversing the frosty terrain as the singing grows louder and closer.  Just as the four-part harmonies kick in, you turn a corner and find a group of musicians playing around a campfire glowing with generous warmth, the sound so inviting you wordlessly join and so nourishing your hunger disappears.  This is Fleet Foxes.
  • 3.  Wolf Parade, At Mount Zoomer - Worried about repeating themselves, Wolf Parade dropped the Modest Mouse-ish indie stomp of their debut and struck out into darker, murkier territory for their sophomore disc.  At Mount Zoomer finds two cracking songwriters operating at the top of their game, oscillating from the sublimely loopy ("Bang Your Drum") to outstanding torch-bearing rock ("Fine Young Cannibals").  Wolf Parade have recorded a rewarding disc that grows with each listen and firmly promotes them beyond "indie blog sensation of the month" territory.  My personal soundtrack to 2008.
  • 2.  TV on the Radio, Dear Science - After a debut that was more promise than delivery and a sophomore disc that crackled with ideas but lacked memorable songwriting, TV on the Radio finally got it all right with Dear Science, an ear-twisting and exuberant album exploding with equal parts joy, anger, and lust.  Dear Science is jaw-dropping enough to easily earn the status of album of the year, if only it weren't for a welcome return of one dormant veteran, which brings us to...
  • 1.  Portishead, Third - Who really expected this?  On paper the return of Portishead sounds about as relevant as a new wave of hypercolor shirts, and yet these veterans deliver a suffocated, fractured masterpiece.  By jettisoning the languid hiphop beats that made them famous but now sound like cologne ads, Portishead have crafted a timeless study of alienation and heartbreak that remains recognizable while sounding nothing like their previous material.  Third pushes against the listener relentlessly, ending songs prematurely and squeezing moments into uncomfortable dissonance, creating a tense and jarring atmosphere of dread that reflects the lyrical content but--here's the kicker--somehow manages to be compulsively listenable and addicting.  Portishead's Third certainly isn't for everyone--you can't have international spy sex to it, after all--but its uncompromising brilliance makes this one for the ages.

Honorable Mentions
  • Beck, Modern Guilt
  • The Raconteurs, Consolers of the Lonely
  • Vampire Weekend, Vampire weekend

  • Sigur Rós, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust
  • Cold War Kids, Loyalty to Loyalty
  • Weezer, Red Album

Single of the Year
  • Hot Chip, "Ready for the Floor"

A solid year overall, with two incredibly strong contenders for album of the year.  Still to pick up: the Deer bands (-hunter, -hoof) as well as whatever I discover on other year-end lists.

Roll on 2009.

On second thought: You know what, screw that. "Single of the Year" category is typically where disposable pop has its opportunity to shine, but Flo Rida's "In the Ayer" never attained more than "kicks ass with alcohol" status, so consider its title RESCINDED. Instead please find good sirs Hot Chip's "Ready for the Floor," which rocked my shit all summer long.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

There and back again

For awhile, my guitar made a daily trip from my closet door to the bed and back.

It's like this: after a few mishaps, I discovered that the nook where my closed closet door meets the door frame is ideal for leaning my guitar.  Via this method the guitar touched only carpet (down below!) and indented wood (way up top!) so there was no danger of the guitar sliding loose and scratching arcs of black paint into the walls.  Closed closet doors must be opened, of course, so a small daily commuting cycle was born in which I'd move the guitar from the door to my bed each morning when I needed my closet, and then each evening the guitar would make it back to the closet when I needed my bed.

Back and forth, each day.  It's no trip across Europe while on tour with the Stones, but many a guitar has achieved less.

All of which came to a close a few months ago when I decided I didn't really need another sleep-delaying procrastination device in the bedroom.  Down to the basement went my guitar, and the daily commute ended.

Except that now I find that another long, unwieldy device has resumed this daily trip between by bed and closet door.  Yes, the commuting mantle has been passed from my electric guitar to a new item and that new item is this:

A full-size replica of Aragorn's sword.

I purchased it for a Halloween costume, you see.


Yeah, I'm not exactly comfortable with the direction my life seems to be taking.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Two Weeks in Australia: a trip told in lists


I took the following flights during the two weeks that made up my trip:
  • Madison to St Louis
  • St Louis to Los Angeles
  • Los Angeles to Sydney*
  • Sydney to Brisbane
  • Brisbane to Sydney*
  • Sydney to Los Angeles
  • Los Angeles to Dallas*
  • Dallas to Madison
Running total: 8 flights

An asterisk (*) indicates a flight in which there was a crying baby.

Related note:  I used to like flying.


I watched the following bad movie while in transit via airplane:
  • The Happening
I watched the following mediocre movie while in transit via airplane:
  • Hancock
I watched the following good movie while in transit via airplane:
  • Speed Racer
I don't exactly believe it either.


Here is a partial list of things Australia does better than the States:
  • Public transportation
  • Toilets
  • Bacon (!)
  • Food in general
  • Chocolate
  • The level of dress among the general populace, flipflops and sandals notwithstanding
  • Ovens
  • Currency
  • Radio personalities (Hamish and Andy are actually pretty funny)
  • Spectrum of popular music
  • Outlook on life
  • Slang


Here is a partial list of things the States do better than Australia:
  • Price tags
  • Coffee
  • Soda
  • Hamburgers
  • Cheese
  • Highways
  • The availability of garbage cans
  • Baby carrots
  • Incorporation of the indiginous people (although to be honest the US has a ways to go as well)
  • Keeping a lid on Kings of Leon
  • Black people
  • Volume


I observed the existence of following the fast food chains during my stay in Australia:
  • McDonald's
  • Subway
  • Hungry Jacks (Burger King)
  • KFC

It should be noted that KFCs are more popular than they are in the States.  Australians are absolutely crazy about KFC, comparatively speaking.

Soul-crushingly absent:
  • Taco Bell


I had the following conversation many times while in Australia.

Aussie: So where are you from?
Me: The States.
Aussie: Yeah, but which state?
Me: Wisconsin.
Aussie: ...uh...
Me: Dairy state.
Aussie:  ...erm...
Me: Midwest, right under Canada.
Aussie: Oh, right!  wisconsin!
Me: Yeah, Wisconsin.



Things I did in Australia that I couldn't do in Wisconsin:
  • Coughed salt water out of my nose
  • Ate a meat pie
  • Paid four dollars for a dixie cup of black coffee
  • Encouraged overeating in kangaroos
  • Been mistaken for a member of a surfing gang
  • Taken a ferry back after a couple drinks at a pub
  • Drank a little too much beneath the Sydney Opera House
  • Drew sideways glances from passing pedestrians everytime I opened my mouth
  • Earned free drinks on accent alone
  • Started the day with fresh caught shrimp
  • Real Aussie Tucker
  • Saw a beatific Steve Irwin statue
  • Purchased candy branded with blackface imagery
  • Slept with the windows open in October
  • Consumed sushi travelling via conveyor belt
  • Heard MGMT in a grocery store
  • Visited locations with names like Wagga Wagga and Mooloolaba
  • Got harrassed by a two-foot tall bird in a mall food court
  • Turned away paper-waving activists with the explanation that "I'm about to fall off the planet in a couple days"
  • Attempted to hold a reasonable conversation while a nearby television flashes network full frontal nudity
  • Scratched a stinky koala


Australian beer brands sampled, and ranked (from best to worst):
  • James T Squire
  • Cooper's
  • Carlton Draught
  • Pure Blonde
  • Vic Bitter

Noticably absent:
  • Fosters


People I miss now that I've returned home:
  • Chris
  • Dominica
  • Hugh
Note: not necessarily in that order

Friday, October 3, 2008

Two things

First off, my grandmother died, and at her funeral I read this:

When I was told that grandma had passed away, one of my first reactions, as odd as it may seem, was to want to bake a pie.

When I think of grandma, I think of food. I think of apple bars cooling on the counter as my sister and I entered the kitchen. I think of home-baked pies swollen with sugar and fruit, waiting to be consumed with little regard to portion control. I think of a surplus of daily meals more numerous than I had known to be possible, with the occasional intermittent tray of sandwiches in case you got hungry. I even think of a pantry full of the sweetest of multicolored breakfast cereal, the kind of which--and here's what made it really good--my mother strongly disapproved.

Simple stuff, perhaps, but I was a kid, and it is things like this that add up to legendary measures. Grandma wasn't just any grandma, she was the grandma, the kind of grandma you think of when you describe exactly how important a grandmother is. The grandma who always welcomes you in and encompasses you in love. The grandma who gives you support when needed, and plays a part of major milestones in your growth and maturity. A grandma who keeps you in line and yet isn't afraid to interpret the rules a little more loosely and spoil you from time to time.

It may seem shallow to remember grandma through the medium of food, but it runs much deeper than just eating things, as delicious as these things may have been. I was twenty or so the last time I tried to bake a pie, and I distinctly remember grandma assisting me in my mother's kitchen with warm authority. We operated as a team for a good half hour or so, and by the time we put the pie in the oven my black t-shirt was practically white with flour. She knew better, and wore an apron.

The pie, of course, was delicious.

Thank you grandma, I love you.


Secondly, I'm off to Australia for two weeks. Later.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Review: Hellboy

Hellboy, Take One:

I finally saw Hellboy, and this is what I thought of it:

Two months ago my car had a rather peculiar electrical issue caused by a faulty headlight trigger that had some bizarre manifestations.

One bizarre manifestation was the dashboard emergency brake light sometimes blinked in time to the left turn signal.

Another bizarre manifestation was the engine wouldn't run unless the headlights were on.

Understandably, two months ago I got this fixed.

Another thing that happened two months ago: my dehumidifier broke. A wave of typical summer weather hit hard and my basement was like a catbox floating down the Amazon.

Understandably, two months ago I also purchased a new dehumidifier.

Cut to two weeks ago, when I noticed the emergency brake light blinking again in time to the left turn signal. Two days later the car wouldn't start reliably unless the headlights were on.

Strike One.

Last week at some point I realized that the new dehumidifier had slid from working quite well to barely working to not remotely working at all. I took the time on Friday night to sit down with the manual and troubleshoot every possible cause, finally settling on kicking it twice and waiting to see if that made any difference.

During this waiting period, I decided to rent and watch Hellboy, so I flipped my headlights on and drove over to the local rental place, brake lights blinking with every turn.

Halfway through Hellboy, my televisions screen went blank, except for the small text indicating that the DVD signal had been interrupted. Thinking the DVD perhaps had a scratch on it, I walked to the DVD player and noticed that its lights weren't on.

I plugged it into a different jack.

The DVD player sat silent and dim.

I removed the DVD player entirely and plugged it into a different outlet entirely.

The DVD player sat silent and dim.

My DVD player was dead.

Strike Two.

I walked back into the basement to check on the dehumidifier and see if my kick had jolted the condenser back into operation.

The bucket was as barren as my faith in appliance reliability.

Strike Three.

Hellboy could have been better.

Hellboy, Take Two:

Watching Hellboy (in its entirety) is a bit like reading a stunningly imaginative and inspired book that has terrible punctuation and sentences arranged in the wrong order.

Considering the general level of competence on display in Pan's Labyrinth, I'm guessing that Hellboy 2 is worth a look.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Boom Blox

Yesterday I purchased a Wii game that involves throwing objects at towers of blocks in an attempt to inflict enough structural damage to cause collapse.

It wasn't until later that I saw the flags at half mast and realized the coincidence.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Well I never need to shop there again

Having searched through local CD stores for the better part of summer, it was with a certain degree of triumph that I extracted the Crystal Castles album yesterday from the racks of B-Side Records, an independent local music store. I had been listening to the disc for months via illegal download, and I was glad to finally be able own a physical copy.

Still, the $14 price tag made me pause momentarily. I wanted to support the band, yes, but I knew I could order the album for a good five dollars cheaper online. has free shipping, after all.

"To hell with that," I sad outloud. "B-Side Records is stocking the album I've been looking for all summer, I'll support the independent local music store."

The clerk/shop owner rang up my purchase and then asked, offhand, "Would you like a bag for that?"

While not a huge fan of unnecessary waste, I recognized I was going to be going in more shops and didn't want to be carrying a loose CD around. "Yes, please."

The clerk continued the paperwork for my purchase and shot me a glance, raising an eyebrow and exhaling with disapproval. Apparently his question had been a trap.

I said, "You disapprove of bags, I take it."

He shook his head as if explaining the obvious. "I just really like trees."

At this point in time he was counting my money and making change, for the record.

I laughed. "I like trees as well but right now I happen to need a bag more than I like trees."

He pursed his lips like a school marm and handed me my purchase. "Well there you go, then"

"Thanks for the bag," I said, leaving.

There is an irony to all this, I mused while departing, and it is this: what's the biggest side product of driving all future music purchases into the hands of

Lots of tree-shredding packaging.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Unfolding in Reverse: The Bigfoot Hoax of 2008

August 20th, 2008

What happens when an unlikely and incredible claim gains such momentum that the eventual ridiculous truth can't help but be insulting? The Bigfoot Hoax of 2008 answered this question for three distinct demographic groups.

If you're an average person, you laugh and acknowledge that while proof of bigfoot would have been cool, the writing was on the wall for this one from the start.

If you're a legitimate cryptozoologist--don't laugh--you shake your head and wince at yet another blow to the reputation of your profession.

If you're Matt Whitton, one of the two perpetrators of the hoax, you lose your job as a Clayton County Police officer.

"Once he perpetrated a fraud, that goes into his credibility and integrity," Police Chief Jeff Turner would go on to say. "He has violated the duty of a police officer."[1]

To be fair, it is unlikely that the Clayton County Police Department new hire handbook contains policy on mythical creatures, fabricated or otherwise.

August 19th , 2008

As the horrible truth behind the hoax becomes apparent, self-described “Real Bigfoot Hunter” and "35-year veteran of the Bigfoot business" Tom Biscardi[2] begins to rethink the wisdom of hitching his wagon to Matt Whitton and Rick Dyer, the two Georgia hikers who perpetuated the hoax by claiming to be in possession of a bigfoot corpse. Biscardi doesn't exactly have the most airtight of reputations in the bigfoot community--again, don't laugh--but Whitton and Dyer were little more than two amateurs selling questionable bigfoot tours from their dubious website. They were self-described "week end warriors" converted to bigfoot enthusiasts by a 2005 camping trip that turned into "something no body expected!"[3]

Finding himself the butt of a hoax, Biscardi calls Whitton and Dyer, who freely admit their duplicitous role in the affair. Biscardi sets up a meeting with the two at a hotel and upon arrival discovers that they have fled.[4]

It is entirely possible at this point that Biscardi tried reaching Whitton and Dyer via their long-running "24-Hour Sighting Hotline," which asks for tips related to "leprechauns, unicorns, large cats, dinosaurs," as well as "Jimmy Hoffa or Elvis."[5]

August 18th, 2008

Biscardi knows his current shot at proving the existence of bigfoot hinges entirely on the frozen (alleged) corpse stored in an undisclosed location. The block of ice initially weighed an estimated 1500 pounds when it had arrived, but two days of thawing at room temperature (to avoid decomposition[4]) had melted enough ice to expose hair.

Hair is extracted and tested. When burned, the hair sample "[melts] into a ball uncharacteristic of hair."[6]

Strike one.

Biscardi decides that speeding up the thawing via heat sources is perhaps in order.

Slowly the ice recedes enough to reveal a section of the head, which is "unusually hollow in one small section."[6]

Strike two.

An hour later, the ice melts enough to expose the feet adequately for testing. The unusual nature of the feet becomes immediately apparent.

Unusual in that they are are made of rubber.[6]

Biscardi's prized bigfoot corpse is, in fact, a rubber gorilla costume full of animal innards.[5]

Strike three.

August 15th, 2008

While the block of ice was en route to an undisclosed location, Biscardi, Whitton, and Dyer hold a press conference. Biscardi had initially wanted to host the press conference after the (alleged) corpse had been examined by scientists, but Dyer and Whitton insisted addressing the press came first.

This is, presumably, because they wanted a press conference, which the discovery of a rubber gorilla costume full of animal innards doesn't typically merit.

Biscardi steps up to the podium and explains that while the (alleged) body won't be presented, he does have the results of tests done on DNA (allegedly) extracted from the (alleged) corpse.[7] The press had been hoping for an actual body but this would have to do.

Flanked by Whitton and Dyer, Biscardi reveals that the three DNA samples have been identified as follows: one human, one possum, and one inconclusive.[7]

Of note: none of the three belong to a strain of bigfoot.

Also of note: none of the three even belong to a rubber gorilla costume full of animal innards.

Biscardi suggests that perhaps the bigfoot specimen had eaten a possum shortly before death, which would account for the DNA. The proof is coming, though, and all skeptics will fall silent when Biscardi finally brandishes the corpse[7]--for real this time--which is currently en route to an undisclosed location.

When how much money he expects to make from this (alleged) discovery, Biscardi replies, "As much as I possibly can."[7]

On a perhaps unrelated note, it is around this time that Biscardi begins to charge for photos of the (alleged) corpse on his website.[5]

August 14th, 2008

Also perhaps unrelated: Searching for Bigfoot, Inc, the group that Biscardi founded and leads as CEO, pays Whitton and Dyer an undisclosed sum for the (alleged) corpse.

Undisclosed, perhaps, but reports indicate that the proven market rate for a rubber gorilla costume full of animal innards is $50,000, give or take a bill or two.[8]

August 1st, 2008

Biscardi travels to Georgia to inspect the alleged corpse. He meets Whitton and Dyer for the first time, having been placed in contact with them via Steve Kull, a fellow bigfoot enthusiast with a radio show.

Whitton and Dyer take Biscardi to the freezer where they've been storing their claim. Biscardi is impressed. "Be still my heart, I felt bad for the poor thing," Biscardi later said when recalling his first glimpse of the rubber gorilla costume full of animal innards. "After being in the industry for the past 30 years, I wondered: Was it diseased? Did it die of old age?"[2]

Three days later Biscardi's Searching for Bigfoot, Inc. would enter a contract with Whitton and Dyer.

July 28, 2008

Due to mounting notoriety over a series of youtube videos, Whitton and Dyer agree to a phone interview on Steve Kulls' Sasquatchdetective Radio show. The two field questions for an hour and express interest in handing over their investigation to bigfoot authority Tom Biscardi.

Why Tom Biscardi, a man with a reputation that can charitably be described as lacking?

Dyer credits the internet. "You type in 'Bigfoot' and that's the name that comes up."[2]

July 9th, 2008

Dyer and Whitton post a video on youtube claiming that they possess a bigfoot corpse and have been storing it for months in their freezer. They use this opportunity to boorishly boast to be "the best bigfoot trackers in the world."[9]

A followup video is posted in which a scientist discusses examining the body. The scientist is shortly outed as Whitton's brother, a photographer.[9]

The next video features a teddy bear doll with a can of nuts propped in its paws.

Why nuts?

So the teddy bear can goad bigfoot researchers into "play[ing] with them," of course.[9]

One wonders if Biscardi watched these videos before committing involvement.

Interesting fact: $50,000 can buy roughly 12,500 cans of nuts.

May/June 2008

During his non-bigfoot-related day job as Clayton County Police officer, Whitton is "wounded in the line of duty while apprehending a suspect that had allegedly shot a woman in the head".[8] Whitton is placed on temporary leave.

Whitton is faced with an uneventful summer containing entirely too much freetime.

Epilogue: August 19th, 2005

Tom Biscardi appears on the Coast to Coast AM radio show and announces a pay-per-view event in which people can view a captured bigfoot.

Refunds are announced five days later.[9]


[1] Clayton Cop Fired After Bigfoot Hoax
[2] Georgia Bigfoot Hunters Reveal 'Evidence' At Press Conference
[3] (now defunct)
[4]Searching for Bigfoot Discovers the Truth
[5]Fox News: Bigfoot Hoaxers Still On the Lam
[6]Chicago Tribune: Bigfoot revealed as big hoax
[7]Scientific American: Bigfoot Press Conference Yields Little Evidence, Lots of Scorn
[8]Fox News: Bigfoot Body Revealed to Be Halloween Costume
[9]Autumn Williams' Investigative Report: Anatomy of a Hoax

Note: all text quoted from sources is accurate at time of publishing, but I am not responsible for future changes by their parent news organizations.

Monday, August 4, 2008


The trees glowed green against the pink-yellow sky tonight, the air heavy and pregnant with tense possibility.

I hope it fucking explodes.

Who watches the Watchmen?

Warning: very minor Watchmen spoilers follow.

So how do you adapt the most celebrated graphic novel of all time, anyway?

Perhaps the definitive adult take on the superhero genre, Watchmen was the first comic to really deconstruct the concept of "people dressing up in tights to fight crime" and explore all the ramifications. If the various tropes of the costumed crimefighter/superhero genre existed in the real world, what would the results be?

Watchmen, that's what.

The problem with adapting Watchmen to film is that doing the source material justice would involve constructing the world's most expensive character-driven ensemble drama. Actors would walk from one budget-busting set to another, doing little more than, well, talking.

Occasionally in costume.

Judging from the preview, director Zack Snyder's approach to adapting Watchmen is to adhere fanboy-frothingly close to the source material while sexing each scene up as much as possible. The characters will spring directly from the pages and trace the well-familiar plot but with with explosions in slow motion and colors as saturated as possible.

Watchmen fanboys--a demographic that includes myself--have so far been pretty pleased with what promises to be a visually stirring faithful rendition of the most holy of comics, and as such I feel almost remiss in shitting on the party and reminding everyone that Watchmen really, really shouldn't be sexy.

Watchmen is a brutal, gritty book of characters either plagued with self doubt or driven by power to amorality. Characters fight, argue, and have sex, but to make them seductive is to place the audience too clearly on their side. Batman movies are about how cool it would be to be Batman--let's face it, for all the man-it's-tough-being-Batman shit you leave the theater wishing your parents had been gunned down in an alley--but Watchmen is about the self-conscious knowledge that dressing up to play vigilante is inherently kind of unhealthy. Watchmen is unflinching in its examination of the men behind the masks, and the need to dress up is constantly likened to a form of borderline-juvenile addiction. It is sexy, yes, but only to those weird enough to ignore the what-the-fuck of it all and feel the calling in the first place.

Not exactly helping matter is Zack Snyder himself. As he said in a recent piece published in Entertainment Weekly:
"In my movie, Superman doesn't care about humanity, Batman can't get it up, and the bad guy wants world peace," Snyder says with a smirk. "Will Watchmen be the end of superhero movies? Probably not. But it sure will kick them in the gut."

While everything Zack said is accurate in regards to the source material, his delivery promises badass transgressive entertainment, which is about as un-Watchmenlike as you can get. Superman doesn't care about humanity and it's cold and lonely. Batman can't get it up and it's linked to insecurity and addiction. The bad guy wants world peace, yes, but it's the introduction of a complex moral question.

Watchmen is a deconstruction of a genre. It is not "a kick in the gut."

Watchmen is not sexy.

Rorschach is debatably the Watchmen character that gains the most from his alias. His everyday life is pathetic and squalid, but there is a genuine power he derives from his alter-ego, and it's difficult not to sympathize with the nasty little shit's feelings of violation when he is unmasked.

And yet, even Rorschach eventually drops the alias and faces his fate as a man, not a superhero.

One wonders if such an action will make sense in Snyder's universe.

And in the end, who watches the Watchmen?

Me, whether it turns our good or not.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Review: The Dark Knight

Riding ridiculous waves of hype, The Dark Knight was dubbed the greatest movie ever by nerds the world over and Oscar talk circled the late Heath Ledger for his take on the Joker, all for a film that nobody had actually seen yet. As such, now that The Dark Knight is actually out it's difficult to resist the urge to lash back at the hyperbole and lean on the film's many real flaws. Unsurprisingly, it's not perfect. It's too long and I left the theater largely dissatisfied.

But is it any good?

I'm one of the few who found series predecessor Batman Begins to be awkward and boring, an attempt to reinvent the series in a style that didn't exactly play to the source material's strengths. The film was so intent on taking itself seriously that it jettisoned the weirdness and color of a good Batman movie, and its few comic-booky moments felt like they were grafted in from an entirely different (and more playful) film. Not a bad film, exactly, but dull and disjointed.

Thankfully The Dark Knight is a massive step in the right direction on almost all fronts, in no small part due to the massive influx of color that his Heath Ledger's Joker. His comment that Gotham "needs a better class of criminal" holds true to the series as well, and his limping, lip-licking embodiment of chaos is the nerve center of the film. He isn't all that Joker, really--not prankish enough, and where's the twisted glee?--but just try to resist leaning forward in anticipation every time he appears on screen.

And yet part of the charm is his Joker is genuinely terrifying, a destructive nightmare of a villain. He isn't some likable antihero with plans to take over the world so much as an unhinged self-made terrorist. He's as repulsive as he is compelling, an uneasy wild card you wouldn't want in your backyard. He's not without a certain charisma, true, and he does draw laughs, but only of the most queasy and uncomfortable kind.

Ledger is a highlight, but the rest of the cast holds their own. Aaron Eckhart is great as Harvey Dent, all hard-nosed vulnerable bravado, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is the better Rachel Dawes in that unlike Katie Holmes she can actually act. Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Michael Caine all do their usual excellent work, despite being given some of the film's most awkward dialogue.

Yeah, about that: the script is largely rubbish, with far too many self-important monologues on being the hero the city needs or the nature of chaos and sixteen ways in which it can be presented. Even Ledger's seductive performance can't quite rescue some of the clunkers he's handed, all subtlety erased by the time he's done expounding on whatever the fuck. The film repeatedly swings for gravitas and utterly misses, hamstrung by ambition that frequently outstrips the writing.

And god is it too long, overstaying its welcome by at least a half hour. The last act is largely bungled, with Joker's arc unceremoniously dumped in favor of clumsily shoehorning in another villain. The offenses aren't on the level of Spider-man 3 but it's disheartening to see a film turn soggy and confused right when it should be soaring to a tidy conclusion.

Additionally, Nolan still can't quite nail the propulsive energy that defines truly infectious action sequences. Most of the big money scenes unfolded without cohesion and rhythm, getting enough right to squeak by but not exactly pulsing with infectious adrenaline. The climactic scene where Batman infiltrates a skyscraper with hostages, clowns, and a SWAT team (yes, you read that right) was passable, but I dare anyone to explain just what the hell was going on.

But in the end The Dark Knight is a success, an evil little mindfuck of a movie that settles in and refuses to leave. The movie is a study in chaos, with Ledger's Joker pushing the topic from lip service to vulgar display. There is a very real sense of society's safety net falling away, the situation spiraling out of control as the stakes keep escalating. Nolan's decision to de-sexify Gotham into a reskinned Chicago actually helps bring the chaos to a stage we can all relate to. We are the victims of the Joker, our friends and family nothing more than playthings for his violent whim. His reign of terror hits a little too close to home, which is why it just fucking gets under our skin.

The Dark Knight isn't a great movie by any stretch of the imagination. It certainly isn't film of the year material--hell, it wasn't even the best movie I saw this month. But it gets its hooks in you, growing spikes as it settles in. I left the theater largely glad it was over and yet I find myself increasingly thinking of chaos-ravaged Gotham and the depth of Ledger's madness. The Dark Knight wasn't up to the level of, say, Iron Man, and yet it struck a deep chord that only grows stronger over time.

I'm not exactly sure what to do with all this.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The trouble with cheese balls

One thing my two year old nephew discovered this past weekend is that he really likes cheese balls.

Not actual balls of cheese, mind you. We're talking puffy round crisps of toxic waste that come in a big plastic barrel and were available at a family picnic this past Saturday. Little orange terrors that exist to make room for baby carrots.

My nephew couldn't get enough.

The problem with all this is an afternoon spent eating cheese balls results in an afternoon spent shitting cheese balls and my poor nephew was no exception. By the end of the day his poor butt was so sore from crapping cheese balls that my brother-in-law decided to slather him with vaseline for relief.

A further complication, though, was the cheese ball farts, which descended upon my nephew at that very moment. I heard him giggling like a little boy and then regrettably turned to see what was so funny. There he was, hoisted up by his feet and beaming while he repeatedly farted vaseline out of his anus.

I saw this.

There is an identical plastic barrel of cheese balls three cubicles down at work.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Quick Reviews: What Is the What by Dave Eggers and God's Middle Finger by Richard Grant

What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng

Dave Eggers shelves his literary prankster aesthetic for What Is the What, the story of Valentino Achak Deng's perilous flight from his native Sudan and eventual rocky relocation to the States, split by a ten year stay in a bleak Kenyan refugee camp. While never less than readable, Eggers' decision to tell the tale in Deng's voice and bill it as an autobiography--perhaps Eggers hasn't quite shelved the prankster, after all--hamstrings the books; the events are extraordinary and heartrending but the storytelling is just too matter of fact and flat--this happened then that happened then this--for the prose to every really take flight. What Is the What provides a valuable education by presenting a true human story from war-torn Sudan, but one is left wishing Eggers had taken a little more initiative to arrange events into a compelling narrative. A book to read but not quite recommend.

God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre

British journalist Richard Grant makes clear his "unfortunate fascination" with the Sierra Madre, the mountain range in Mexico that produces most of the marijuana and cocaine that crosses the border into the United States. God's Middle Finger documents Grant's attempt to travel down the spine of the mountains, a network of largely lawless territories marked by dangerous suspicion of outsiders enforced by a proliferation of AK-47s. Grant as narrator is likable, slightly gonzo but generally evenhanded as he tours places with names like El Contrabando and rubs shoulders with corrupt cops and coked-up druglords. Grant manages to (mostly) keep sensationalism at bay and present things fairly, although he finds special glee in kiss offs to the American/European mindset, such as the indigenous Tarahumara who excel at two things: binge drinking and long-distance running. Grant's decision to start things with an explosive scene of being hunted for sport by drugged-out Mexican hillbillies does create a promise that the rest of the book can't quite live up to, but overall God's Middle Finger is a fascinating study of a stretch of land most gringos wouldn't last two hours in.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Dram is too tightly

I did something this past weekend that I swore I'd never do.

I've always built my personal computers from parts purchased individually. It was a point of pride, for one, and I also just liked the physical nature of laying one's computer on the operator table and rearranging its guts by hand. I enjoyed taking it apart, putting it back together again, and then finally powering it up.

Which transitions nicely to what i didn't like about assembling computers by hand: troubleshooting why it didn't power up successfully.

Let me relate to you a brief story.

Two years ago I was having problems starting up my computer. It would turn on but then hang before the BIOS options were even available. It would hang for several minutes until the following error message of tortured English appeared: "Dram timing is too tightly so reload timing"

I will never forget those words.

This problem was initially a minor inconvenience as the machine would power up after a false start or two, but eventually the situation got so bad that I once spent the better part of a Sunday evening trying to power up my computer.

As you can image, I was also relentlessly troubleshooting this issue. I did a bit of googling and decided to replace the RAM.

That didn't help.

I decided to replace the power supply.

That seemed to help a bit, but the problem still persisted enough to suggest the power supply to be little more than a red herring.

Running out of options, I decided to replace the motherboard.

This ended up being a multi-step process as it wasn't until I had completely disassembled my computer that I realized the motherboard wasn't compatible with my processor.

I was due for an upgrade anyway, so I replaced my processor.

That didn't help.

What did help, though, was the diagnostics light grid on my new motherboard. As I sat there, utterly dispirited as my computer whirred away while doing nothing, I noticed the lights blinking at me, and looking up the pattern in the manual I realized the motherboard was reporting graphics card problems.

The graphics card, incidentally, being the one part left that I hadn't replaced.

And so I replaced the graphics card.

Which did help.

And so it was--via new RAM, power supply, motherboard, processor, and finally graphics card--that my computer could finally be reliably powered up.

And on that topic: I did something this past weekend that I swore I'd never do.

I bought a Dell.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

I'm sorry mama, but tonight I'm cleaning out my *error: joke expired 2002*

It is done.

I have ripped out the old shelving. I have spackled over the various nail holes and plaster rips. I have taped the woodwork and ceiling. I have painted most of a base coat of white, and then made an emergency paint trip to Home Depot so I could finish. I have waited a day and then painted the walls with two coats of dark, shitty brown. I have briefly wondered if perhaps a different color would have been more prudent. I have waited a day and then removed the tape, wondering how paint got there, for the love of god. I have assembled $200 worth of shelving and mounted it all to the walls with carefully drilled holes and plug mounts, a feat which took four times my initial estimation.

I have, in other words, spent every non-working waking hour over the past week struggling to some degree in the non-ventilated endurance test that is my closet, my uniform but a pair of shorts and a thick coat of sweat, dirt, and plaster dust.

It is done. The holes are spackled, the walls are painted, the shelves are mounted, the dust is vacuumed, and the sweat and dirt has been showered.

My closet is so clean, in fact, that I'm now terrified of actually putting anything in it.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Closet Crisis of 2008

My condo has a problem and the problem is this: a disorganized slob moved in four years ago.

Generally my condo appear to be somewhat clean and neat, but it is but an illusion barely kept in check by the fact that certain doors and drawers can be closed. All one has to do is peek in a closet or enter the basement storage room to realize that items were unpacked and placed with the unmistakable hand of a disorganized slob.

This disorganized slob is me, you see.

Take this evidence into account: a recent search for guest bed sheets in the upstairs hallway closet turned up--no joke--board games, lighter fluid, empty CD cases, colored pencils, mix tapes, network cables, notebooks, broken phones, silverware (clean), comic books (mostly clean), discarded motherboards, one Casio keyboard, one beach towel (clean), one canteen, and a multitude of Tranformers toys purchased amidst hope that the 2007 movie wouldn't be terrible (wrong).

Noticeably absent from the above list: guest sheets.

And so I find myself at the beginning of the epic quest that is going through every last cubic foot of my condo and finding a place for everything I can and getting rid of everything I can't. I decided to start on my bedroom closet, a considerable task since my closet has a severe shelving issue caused by improper mounting. To take care of this issue--and give me lots of practical place in which to put stuff--I now own $200 worth of shelves and drawers and racks and shoe organizers and belt hooks and clothes rods. Every inch of available closet space is ready to be converted into a vast network of utilitarian splendor.

Before I could install this vast network of utilitarian splendor, however, I had to completely empty my closet of four years of accumulated debris, and my bedroom was unfortunately the only logical temporary storage spot.

Before I could vast install this vast network of utilitarian splendor, however, I needed to rip out the old shelving, which revealed architect wall scribbling and many, many holes, some small (from nails) and some large (from chunks of drywall lodged loose when the old shelves started to fail).

In other words, before I could install this vast network of utilitarian splendor and do it right, the closet needed to be spackled and repainted.

More specifically, the closet needs to be spackled an repainted, a project which is realistically going to take through the weekend.

Fair enough, but my bedroom now has a problem and the problem is this:

If I am somewhat remiss in my Dogs On Houses duties it will not be without good reason.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Battle of Bubble Bobble: May 31, 2008

I had no idea what I was getting into when I bought a Game Boy Advance Bubble Bobble port as a birthday present for my younger sister, Katie.

She sat there, dazed. "This is the worst birthday present I have ever received."

I held my heads in my hands. "Fuck Bubble Bobble."

Rewind twenty years.

The Atari ST version of Bubble Bobble was quite the fixture at the Salisbury family household. Many hours were spent playing co-op with my sister, seeing how far we could get before our lives ran out. Bereft of any sort of documentation, we devised our own names for the various enemies in the game, like "toasters" and "buttkins."

As such, it seemed like the ideal birthday present seventeen years later, when my sister and I were spending a fair amount of time during my visits engaging in GBA multiplayer gaming. Unfortunately, she promptly lost the game cartridge and as such co-op Bubble Bobble remained firmly in our childhood, my few singleplayer attempts accomplishing nostalgia and little else.

And so it went on, year after year, until the forgotten birthday present reared its head a week ago when I received the following loaded text message from Katie:

"found bubble bobble. bring home your gba"

And so is was at 9:00 PM last Saturday night that we finally managed to power up our connected GBAs and engage in multiplayer Bubble Bobble for the first time in over twenty years.

My god, the music alone brought me back, although Katie made it clear that my singing along wasn't necessary. The cute dinosaurs, the various powerups, it all returned me to my childhood in a dizzying rush.

We knocked off the easy intro levels and proceeded into the ones that actually require some skill. We killed toasters, we slaughtered buttkins. We ate giant cakes that fell from the sky. We collected letters that spelled out "EXTEND."

We actually managed to progress well beyond the levels familiar from childhood, as the GBA port allowed us to continue from death by plugging in virtual quarters. "PRESS START!" our little dinosaurs would implore, awarding us with new life and a "THANK YOU!" when we complied. Uncommonly polite for a dinosaur.

One sweaty, eye-straining hour later we had passed level 80.

"How many levels do you think this game has?" Katie asked me.

"I really have no idea. 100, maybe? 150?"

The answer came five levels later when yet another dino death resulted in us both being dumped unceremoniously onto a GAME OVER screen that said we had beat 85 out of 100 levels.

"What the hell?"

The defeat music was taunting in its jauntiness.

I stood up and stretched, a little dazed from staring at a small screen and existing via twitch reflexes for well over an hour.

"Did the game end because we both died at the same time?"

"No idea," she said. "Maybe we ran out of attempts?"

"I kind of doubt it. But at least we know now that there are 100 levels. We almost made it."

"Almost isn't good enough."

"Yeah," I said, arching my back to work out the kinks earned from an hour of hunching.

"No, I mean it. Almost isn't good enough."

I turned to look at her.

"You're not going to want to do this, but it's my birthday, and an hour from now we're going to join the ranks of people who have beaten Bubble bobble.

"Oh god."

"I won't lie to you, it isn't going to be fun."

"Oh god."

"The first few levels are going to be painful."

"Oh god."

"But this is about something bigger than fun. This is about being able to look the world in the face and saying that yes, we conquered Bubble Bobble at 11:30, May 31st."

"Oh god."

"So go and slap a little water on your face or do whatever you have to do, because we're about to beat Bubble Bobble."

"We're about to beat Bubble Bobble," I said.

And so there we were, gritting out teeth and heading back into the cave of monsters at 10:30 on a Saturday night. We didn't want this second session to meet the same abrupt end as the previous one, so we did a bit of testing and determined that the permadeath was caused by both players running out of lives at exactly the same time. We quickly developed a system: when both of us were near our last lives, one of us would commit suicide and restart while the other stayed safe. It served us well, and we found ourselves making good progress.

We cleared level ten.

"Ten town, ninety to go," I said.

"Jesus Christ."

Katie didn't lie, it wasn't fun, although we churned through the levels with a certain workmanlike efficiency. Any power-up that ended the level quickly was pursued at all costs. The level-skipping umbrella was the holy grail, and allowed us to bypass a decent portion of the mid-20's.

There was a hypnotic groove we settled in, the levels flying by in an eyeball-straining blur. Level 36 brought a massive popsicle that gave me a ridiculous amount of points. Katie grabbed a potion somewhere in the 40's that killed all the enemies and filled the screen with collectible music notes.

We knocked off level 50 and I said, "Halfway there."

She grunted.

Nine levels later (59 down, 41 to go) the platform blocks spelled out "BR10."

"I don't even know what that's supposed to mean," I said.

My sister replied, "I'm well past caring."

Somewhere around level 65 I checked my watch. Almost 11:30, we had already been at this for an hour. Somehow it seemed like this journey had already occupied well more than sixty minutes, its true toll not easily measured by time.

Level 72 took us awhile, as just getting out of the starting gates required a certain bubble/jump combination that only I seemed capable of. It took many tries, and several deaths via the time-limit enforcers--dubbed "mousers" by us as children--before I managed to defeat all the enemies.

Level 73 was another tough one that required bubble jumps to even get to the elevated platform where the enemies were. I managed to break through and was on a tear, trapping baddie after baddie in bubbles.

Katie's voice carried a bit of alarm when she said, "Hey, you have to commit suicide!"

I scoffed and popped a bubble, destroying the trapped enemy. "Kicking too much ass to die."

"Okay fine, I'll do it."

And then the buttkin killed me, my dinosaur mirroring the same death spiral currently being performed by Katie's.


We both hunched forward, rapidly pressing the Start button, everything hinging on some offset of syncopation in our deaths. We pressed, and pressed, and pressed, the rapid dual clicking of the button the only sound.

The only sound, that is, until the jaunty music of the GAME OVER screen Bubble bobble dumped us to.

We both screamed, Katie slamming her GBA down as I rolled off the couch onto the floor. I covered my face with my hands and either laughed or sobbed uncontrollably.

"I am so angry right now," Katie said.

"Oh my god," I said.

"We had a system," she said.

I just kept laughing and sobbing, my face still covered.

Katie shook her head, her voice deadpan. "You're my brother, and I love you, but right now I want so bad to kill you and carve onto your gravestone the words 'kicking too much ass to die'."

"Oh my god," I repeated. "I never want to see my GBA again."

She sat there, dazed. "This is the worst birthday present I have ever received."

I held my heads in my hands. "Fuck Bubble Bobble."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Revolt of the appliances!

At about 8:00 PM I decided to show a little neighborly mercy and turn down the music that was providing the backdrop to my Memorial Day cookout. I stepped inside and crouched down to the bookshelf stereo, its speakers leaning outward against the window screens.

I turned the dial to the left and watched the digital volume readout increase, from 23 to 24. This wasn't quite what I was looking for so I reversed tactics and rotated the dial clockwise, at which point the volume audibly and visibly increased to 25, 26, and 27.

I paused, and checked the dial. Yes, it was labeled as "Volume."

I turned the dial counter-clockwise again and the volume began to thankfully subside--26, 25, 24--before suddenly doubling back and getting louder, 25, 26, 27, 28.

I rotated the dial back and forth in a desperate attempt to establish some causal relationship, but the volume mocked me and accelerated madly, the number scrolling up illegibly fast--past 30, past 35, past 40--the music now a distorted, predatory roar.

Panicked, I pressed the power button, and after a threatening second--I wasn't aware my stereo could even reach 45--the volume mercifully cut out, the distant sound of outside laughter pouring in to fill the void.

I sat there, staring at the empty readout.

When I pass the stereo now I can feel it watching me.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Off the grid: take 1

I attended the farmer's market on Saturday, this time emboldened by purpose. I was a man of business, immune to the distracting frivolities of the goatee'd guy pushing cheese curds or the lady with the beehive hat.

It was the first step of my plan to start eating locally grown food. I had decided to remove myself from the national factory farm network and reduce the amount of resources my food consumes on its way to my plate.

I figured the resulting smarter-than-thou points would stack nicely with my NPR listening habits and utter disinterest in television.

So there I was, striding (with such purpose!) through the throng of like-minded individualistic sheep. Perusing the wares hawked in each stand revealed a snag in the grand plan, though, as I realized that a lifetime of supermarket shopping had caused a complete personal disconnect from the reality of seasonal crops. I was used to the convenience of buying red peppers and green beans at the drop of a hat, and yet neither were apparently in season.

What is actually in season, evidence suggested, is this:

Asparagus, asparagus, and asparagus.

I hope Madison pees behind closed windows this week.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Miscellaneous debris

Saturday night brought The Kills to Madison, a bluesy garage rock duo that makes heavy use of samples and drum machines. Bafflingly, they didn't augment their live show with other players, preferring instead to cue up each track and play along as a two piece. The problem with this approach is the show is only as good as the few performers' stage presence and showmanship, and The Kills proved that even an excess of this is no match for the electric chemistry of live musicians.

It turns out that dominating backing tracks are just as crippling to indie rock as they are to industrial and electro.


Two things political:

First, don't be surprised if the media starts second guessing Obama's nomination guarantee after he loses West Virginia tomorrow. Don't listen, it's still over, especially with Oregon looming on the horizon. We'll see if she bows out on Tuesday like I predicted.

And, on that topic, don't listen to the talking heads regarding Hillary being fused onto the ticket as Veep. Nobody except for the media actually thinks this is a good idea. Once Hillary withdraws and supports Obama--and she will--most of her supporters will fall in line, especially with Supreme Court Justice seats in play. As of that point, Hillary brings absolutely nothing to the ticket.


When I complain about disconnected junk piles of cinematic ejaculate like Transformers and people ask what I expect out of a summer action movie, my answer henceforth shall be the following:

"I expect Iron Man."


I shaved off my mustache and am now completely free of facial hair for the first time in nearly six months.

I look like I'm fourteen.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Overheard at Goodwill

Two teenage girls were digging through secondhand t-shirts in the rack adjacent to me.

One held up a white t-shirt that sported the Beijing Olympics 2008 logo. She popped her gum and said, "Hey, are the Olympics in Beijing this year?"

The other girl looked up and pointed to the shirt. "Well they totally are now, right?"

"Like, totally," the first girl replied as she put the shirt in her purchase pile.

That's one powerful shirt.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

History is a subject that often bears the charms of a box of saltines, a chore kids endure only because they know that recess is next. Unfortunate, really, because behind history's names and dates is a wealth of spellbinding stories that can enrich our perspective of the world via knowledge of what came before. As such, there is no better historian than the one who can sit down at the campfire and spin a fuckin' yarn, chief among them surely Erik Larson on the evidence of The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.

Yeah, that'll be abbreviated from here on out.

The Devil in the White City is historical nonfiction that relates three true stories. First, Larson details architect Daniel Burnham's struggle to orchestrate construction of the World's Columbian Expo held in Chicago in 1893. Secondly, the book delves into America's first serial killer, a certain H. H. Holmes who used the Expo as a preying ground for mostly female victims. Thirdly, The Devil in the White City tells the story of late 19th century Chicago, a filthy city bustling with equal parts vice and civic pride.

So, to tackle those in reverse order:

Larson paints the picture of turn of the century Chicago as an industrial giant of a city eager to prove its cultural capability to the rest of the world. Larson effectively captures the spirit of the city, its now-unthinkable civic pride that drove it to complete the impossible task of building the biggest world fair in record time. It's the details he provides, however, that lay bare the grim reality beneath it all: cholera outbreaks caused by tainted drinking water, corpses of horses and dogs rotting in the street, skies choked with coal dust. Chicago was a city booming, a city overwhelmed, a city whose growth had outstripped its morality.

As such, it offered the perfect environment in which a certain H. H. Holmes could murder a string of victims that may have numbered in the hundreds. The city was flush with visitors, so what's another missing person to the overworked Chicago police force? In handling Holmes Larson thankfully resists getting cheap and sensational, leaving the chilling facts to speak for themselves. What's perhaps most interesting about Holmes is not that he built a death-trap hotel and gave it a vigorous workout as much as the fact that he was an amoral charmer with an ungodly gift for manipulation. This was a man who borrowed $2500 from a great uncle-in-law and immediately forged a counterpart check. This was a man who registered his hotel's property to a fictitious name to facilitate deflecting debt collectors. This was a man who saw life insurance as a free paycheck to be invoked as often as he liked. The sheer audacity of this guy's evil chutzpah is staggering.

As for Daniel Burnham's role in building the expo, Larson tells the story of a group of people who pushed a mammoth project from concept to completion despite fires, storms, deaths, missed deadlines, and a bank-crushing financial crisis. It's the struggle to build an ambitious dream into reality, a story claimed bursting with universal appeal (despite ownership claims by America). Larson weaves the various threads of the tale with a novelist's penchant for storytelling, restructuring cold history into a compelling narrative. The flow of information is manipulated to build suspense for certain developments, case in point the night I couldn't stop reading until it was revealed what structural marvel Chicago built as a response to the Eiffel Tower, which I'll not spoil beyond saying it's only fitting that America's answer to Paris's landmark was a goddamn ride.

A ride in which some people died, by the way. In a fair in which other people died. In a fair that was built upon the occasional worker's death. Christ, there was a lot of death back then, wasn't there? One thing The Devil in the White City illustrates is just how less predictable death was back then. Practically every person in the book was touched by premature death, in either their own lives or the lives of loved ones, and if pneumonia and poor sanitation weren't enough there was a psychopathic animal like Holmes taking advantage of an inadequate criminal system. While modern medicine and current law enforcement certainly isn't perfect, it's difficult to walk away from The Devil in the White City without newfound appreciation for the last century of progress.

But what a place 1890's Chicago is to visit! Larson's enthusiasm for assembling a world out of historical documents yields a vivid landscape and his fascination with the time and its people is contagious. The Devil in the White City's paper trail of letters and news articles is even of interest, the lengthy bibliography a good read in and of itself. Larson operates completely transparently, tracing down the source of every last quote and providing his reasoning on the rare occurrence that he deviates from cold fact to make some educated guesses. Everything is either documented or fully justified.

So what is The Devil in the White City, anyway? It's nonfiction, yet it reads like a novel. It reads like a novel, and yet every quote can be traced to a direct source.

It's history, and it turns out that history kicks ass.

Who knew?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Adventures in solitude

Part of what made last weekend's walk on State Street so enjoyable was the fact that I did it alone.

This goes completely against 33 years of accumulated belief. Yes, there are certain things you do alone, like reading or shopping for socks or engaging in any form of cardiovascular exercise. But activities of a less purposeful sort--heading to the park or cruising a farmer's market or hanging out at the mall, you know, activities that can be best described as going places to walk around and see what's going on--well, aren't they best experienced with someone else? Someone with which to chat and joke and riff when something unintentionally amusing occurs?

Sunday was warm with a dawning summer, the sky cloudless. Without any concrete plans for the day, I decided just to spend a couple hours downtown. I admit I had a little shopping to do, but the main draw was just getting out of the house and seeing what was going on. The rest of Madison apparently had the same idea as State Street was packed shoulder-to-shoulder with students and families and couples and people all unified in the desire to get out and enjoy the sunshine.

I saw three guys and two girls perform an island-inspired drum and dance routine on Library Mall. I saw a washboard player of indeterminate gender provide rhythm for a weathered steel guitarist. I saw a trio of aggressively fashionable Asian men wearing scarves and elf shoes. I saw at least forty bickering cyclists lapping Capital Square in some extended endurance race. I saw an enormous dog mortify its owner by happily dropping a shit in the middle of State Street.

I saw a lot of things, and at some point I realized I was enjoying the experience in part because I didn't have anyone to share it with. Without a partner, the city and its people and its bustle of activity became my companion.

I was reminded of last summer when I travelled solo to San Francisco. It was my first trip alone, and while I enjoyed the point each day in which I met up with other vacationing friends, I found myself treasuring the mornings spent wandering the streets by myself. Much like Sunday it was just me and the city and its people, and I don't think I would have connected with San Francisco nearly as much had I experienced it entirely with a travelling companion.

There is a certain raw power in not having someone else with which to build a zone of defense--it's just you and the world around you. Without your own bubble of social activity, you're more attuned to the details of your environment. You're free to truly connect with your surroundings and let yourself be tugged in whatever direction most pulses with life.

Which isn't to say that shared experiences aren't rewarding in their own way--my mornings in San Francisco wouldn't have been nearly as enjoyable without the accompanying social periods in which the city was used as a launch pad for epic collaborative brilliance, after all. I am inherently a people person.

But I'm done assuming someone else is necessary for those moments when I want to get out of the house. I think I'll take myself to the farmer's market this Saturday just to walk around a bit and see what's going on, in fact. I'll wander without a plan and drift toward centers of activity.

I'll probably buy something, but I won't be disappointed if I don't.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A brief note from the management

Dogs On Houses isn't even two months old and yet I've written more entries than I managed during the past two years on my LiveJournal. Part of this is due to the allure of a shiny new toy, I'm sure, but I've also got to admit it is nice to have a platform large enough to encompass more than just scatological humor.

On the topic of my now defunct LiveJournal, I'm thinking of sifting through those archives and polishing some of the better stories for inclusion on Dogs On Houses. I'll probably do it once a month or so as a means of giving a permanent home to the entries I deem worthy.

Generally speaking, though, I am more interested in writing new things than trying to patch leaks in old posts, so we'll see if I ever actually get around to doing this.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Mist, Addendum

For both of you who actually care what I have to say about The Mist (beyond yesterday's already lengthy review), I have two more observations that are absolutely packed with film-shattering spoilers so for the love of god please proceed with extreme caution.



Observation The First:

I mentioned this in my review yesterday, but my god the people in this film are jaw-droppingly stupid. I can't quite stress how annoying it is to watch a two hour display of unrealistic decision making.

To wit:

Characters wrestle with alien tentacles coming through an open docking door for a good two minutes before someone decides to try closing the door.

Characters pile up bags of dog food to fortify the massive glass windows that make up the front wall of the store, despite the fact that everyone could be moved to the back docking room that is far less open and has doors that would be easy to barricade.

The protagonist's end plan involves piling everyone into his truck and driving until out of either gas or supernatural mist, whichever happens first. As opposed to, say, driving to a quarter of a tank and then siphoning gas from a stranded vehicle. As opposed to, say, trying to find enclosed suites of buildings like malls that might house other bands of survivors. As opposed to, say, any damn thing that makes sense.

Some may dismiss my complaints outright as expecting too much from a B movie, but the fact is everything hinges on the audience buying into the characters enough to experience the unfolding horror directly through them, and this illusion is shattered when characters earn loathing via a string of head-smacking decisions.


Observation the Second:

Yeah, the ending was great and all, but was it really the best ending for that particular film? The original novella had a slightly more ambiguous close featuring the protagonist heading for Hartford on vague indications of possible human activity. Darabont axes that in favor for the suicide-pact-gotcha, which completely changes the angle of the film by justifying the religious zealot's actions. She spilled the blood necessary to appease her god, and in the end her people are rescued while the disbelievers are damned to the darkest level of personal hell.

Far more satisfying, for me, would have been a compromise between the two, a vague ending that still suggests a bleak future for mankind. End directly after the protagonist and co. witness the massive, mountain-like alien crossing the highway, albeit punch it up slightly:

They near a major city in the search for civilization, truck suddenly sputtering on empty. Then the giant beast wanders over, the awed passengers visually following its path as it passes and--here's the money shot--the fog parts enough to reveal the first shots of the obviously empty city, another distant alien behemoth--this one even larger--carelessly knocking over a dark and dead skyscraper as it lumbers across the landscape.

The new management has arrived.



This, for the record, is probably the most I've ever written about a movie I couldn't stand.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Review: The Mist (2007 film)

Except for a spirited final five minutes, Frank Darabont's recent cinematic adaptation of Stephen King's novella The Mist is a complete loss.

Wait, back up.

Except for a spirited final five minutes and an earlier scene in which a bagboy is gorily eviscerated by an alien tentacle, Frank Darabont's recent cinematic adaptation of Stephen King's novella The Mist is a complete loss.

Let's try that one more time.

It's easy to see what Darabont is going for in The Mist: an urgent thriller about a group of people trapped in a supermarket surrounded by an ominous mist, the physical monsters spewing from the smoky depths outside reflecting the psychological monsters taking hold of the terrified people inside. Overgrown creepy crawlies will be gorily battled, terrified townfolk will be picked off one by one, and the building's four walls will begin to seem increasingly constricting as hysteria begins to boil with the rise of mob mentality.

So what went wrong? Well, including characters that behave and interact in a natural manner wouldn't have hurt. The first sign of trouble occurs early on as two local yokels lash out at Thomas Jane's everyman protagonist, deciding to belittle him and read class condescension into his cautious suggestions. It unfolds awkwardly and unearned, their words inexplicable. It's not that their behavior is impossible, just that the script, direction, and acting don't build enough to make the sale. The scene is reduced to a display of bizarro world behavior that destroys any suspension of disbelief.

Unfortunately, it wasn't a momentary gaffe as much as a template for things to come. Trapped townsfolk respond to a late-night invasion of giant insects by turning on all the lights. A tow-headed son tears from protective arms during a moment of danger for the express purpose of giving the protagonist someone to rescue. Characters saddle themselves with an elderly lady while walking as slowly as possible through the exposed parking lot during an expedition to an adjacent drug store. People repeatedly decide that the best way of reacting to life-threatening danger is to dancing around long enough to die, instead of, you know, getting the hell out.

The worst suspension of disbelief violation, however, is the third act that sees Marcia Gay Harden's religious old-testament crackpot reduce a store of normal townfolk to slathering cult fiends within a twelve hour period. It's a feasible plotline but the movie, again, fails to make the sale. Harden's cartoonish preacher is simply too nasty and crass, a shrill zealot bereft of any charisma whatsoever. Successful cult leaders berate and insult, yes, but don't they also occasionally tell you something you want to hear?

As if two hours of unbelievable people doing dumb things isn't bad enough, visually the movie is a clumsy, disorienting mess. Darabont seems to be attempting a cinéma-vérité style that unfolds like a true crime reality show, but the result is a disjointed television drama punctuated with mediocre CGI beasties. "Amateurish" isn't a word I would have previously associated with the man behind The Shawshank Redemption, but The Mist's numerous 180 degree rule violations and baffling crash zooms imply otherwise.

But then we get to the ending, a climax so relentlessly bleak that it deserves applause on some level. The previous two hours may be one misfire after another, but it takes true balls to foist such a soulcrusher on an unsuspecting audience. Advance warning had me waiting for it, but every time I thought we had reached the bottom Darabont yanked out the floor and tumbled things deeper. The black ending does carry a "gotcha!" that reduces the film somewhat to Twilight Zone episode territory, but ultimately the protagonist's fate is dark enough to graft itself to one's consciousness until it can be fully absorbed a few days later. As such, a success.

But imagine how much better that ending would have been had we actually cared.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

My mother, always one step ahead of me

A recent visit from my parents left me with a loaf of sourdough bread home-cooked in my mother's kitchen. A few nights ago I decided to toast a slice as an after-dinner snack.

I made a discovery when I tried to eat the first slice and the discovery was this: the crust of homemade bread operates as a conduit for heat in a manner completely unlike the mild-tempered variant found in supermarket aisles. Homemade bread crust could light cigarettes.

There was an audible sizzle as the crust fused to my upper lip.


I yanked the slice away but it tugged and broke in two, one piece dangling from my mouth.


I grabbed the crust directly and managed to peel it away from my lips, but not without losing some stowaway strips of burned skin.

And so.

I looked down and saw the bread burning a hole in the counter top, melting its way to the basement.


Friday, April 4, 2008

Things researched at work today

Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, mustaches and penstaches are, in fact, mutually exclusive.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Inventory of a misspent youth

I am sorting through boxes of leftovers from my childhood, piles and piles of evidence of how I spent my copious spare time before I started shaving and going on dates.

Just tonight, for example, I have seen the following:
  • Junior high skit scripts

  • Maps of imaginary continents with apostrophe-plagued city names

  • A manual for a video game I never got around to actually making

  • Character sheets for roleplaying games I would never actually play

  • An absolutely appalling 20 page prequel to an otherwise unwritten fantasy trilogy

  • Restaurant mat dinosaur artwork

  • A notebook drawing of Mt. Rushmore featuring the heads of famous cats

  • Recipes culled from the finest chefs of Mrs. Field's third grade class

  • Cinema titles parodies like "Indiana Jerk and the Pimple of Doom"

  • A drawing of a beach-loving gremlin in bermuda shorts with the caption "SURF'S UP!"

  • An uncompleted Ninja Turtles radio adaptation script that is nothing more than a direct transcription of dialogue from the comic book

  • Illustrations of bands I wanted to be in (complete with setlists of nonexistent songs)

  • Logo designs for "Monopoly III"

  • The worst lyrics ever fucking written

So many years of nerdy adolescent creativity stacked up in towers of graph paper and notebooks. What do I do with all this stuff?

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The reluctant souvenir

A coworker of mine recently brought in a collection of sea shells his family had picked during a recent cruise of St. Kitts.

He told me to keep one, if I wanted.

Later he sent me a photo of the St. Kitts beach from which the shells were selected. The sunlight poured down to warm the vast shores of sand, the surf white and gentle as it rolled in. Lush hills formed knuckles on a green finger curled around the bay, the peaks lost in distant, rolling clouds. A gull screeched somewhere, invisible in the endless sky.

I looked down at my transplanted sea shell, sitting on my desk in my cubicle in Madison, Wisconsin.

"This is bullshit," it said.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

A bumper concrete crop

So overwhelming was our winter that the beltline has multiple fallen exit ramp signs, all broken via icy car collision and then leaned against their supporting bases until summer construction can properly remount them.

The end result is a beltline garden of exit signs poking out of the ground, freshly planted and ready to grow with the assistance of a little water, sunshine, and time.

Exit 142 A has never looked so adorable.

Friday, March 28, 2008

A moment in time

Saturday, 9:16 AM: A craving for orange juice resulted in an unplanned stop at a Sauk City gas station, Sauk City being a town rural enough to render half its name a lie.

I paid for my beverage and headed out to the parking lot where a man was engaged in easy conversation with a fellow local. He leaned his dusty frame over the hood of his Chevy, his face framed with a trucker hat and thick mustache. His squinting eyes folded over me, taking in my black peacoat, fingerless gloves, and white-rimmed oversized sunglasses.

He paused, mumbled something between a grunt and a laugh, and said, "How far are we from Hollywood, anyway?"

I smiled and said, "Only a few blocks west, head down this road a bit and you can't miss it."

He laughed and adjusted his cap.

Love that guy.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Today I am operating at about 80% capacity, which is astounding in comparison to the 10% I was at yesterday, for yesterday I was SICK

Riding a white-knuckle night of fever dreams, punctuated by waking up in sweats every hour on the hour.


Donning clothes amounting to a two part endeavor with a much-needed nap in between.


Shivering uncontrollably even when buried in enough blankets to smother a polar bear.


Fighting for the retention of every last calorie, lest it shoot out like a geyser from either end.


Crossing just slightly into Too Much Information territory in one's blog.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Friday, March 14, 2008

March Lament

While I love the stretch of warm weather we're having, I could really do without the snow resembling piles of dirty, melting elephants.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

12:01 PM on Tuesday

While waiting for my lunch at Cousin's I noticed that the wall was adorned with certificates from the Board of Health denoting stunning achievements in cleanliness and sanitation.

Comforting, that.

I then noticed that the certificates were awarded on a yearly basis and arranged in chronological order, which merely drew attention to the fact that they were administered like clockwork up until a year ago.


"Your sub is ready," they shouted.

Monday, March 10, 2008

I hold with those who favor fire

I've been reading poetry lately.

This information, unfortunately, reads as if presented in a cursive font with a nice pastel background sporting some form of blooming flower.

Not so.

Returning to poetry after a ten year post-college lapse--if there's one thing that is easy to ignore outside the artificial bubble of academia, it is the existence of poetry--has shattered the popular misconception of poetry as a dreamy, feminine form of expression. Poetry isn't the cute, lovable VW Bug puttering through a meadow as much as it is a sports car running wild on a tankful of blood.

By its very nature poetry is the most immediate means of expressing something, be it a concept, emotion, moment, or story. Novelists have all the time imaginable to present their case, and short story writers have however many pages are granted by Playboy that month, but poets have to hit the ground running with the leanest prose possible in the race against the reader's attention span. Poets butcher their babies by carving off every ounce of fat, each individual word weighed and judged for inclusion. There is no form of communication with a higher blood-sweat-and-tears-to-words ratio than poetry.

What interests me most about poetry, however, is that there is also no other form of communication that so directly demands the participation of the reader. Good poetry doesn't just strip down to the compact essentials but instead goes one step further to eviscerate large chunks of content in the interest of forcing the listener to fill in the gaps. Explanation and exposition, who needs them? Or, more importantly, why pull the trigger when the reader is there to do it for you?

Take the following by Hemingway, which, while technically a short story, illustrates my point:

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

Taken at face value this is merely an ad for a pair of shoes, but once the reader jumps in the fray all sorts of staggeringly sad details begin to emerge.

Who created a situation in which a pair of baby shoes became prematurely unnecessary?

You did!

Who cursed someone with parental grief so deep another child seemed unbearable?

You did!

Who killed the poor infant in the first place?

You did!

Replace the cursive font with italicized urgency, backed with a pattern of mounting tension and headlines of bruised purple.

I've been reading poetry lately.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Justice was not being served

As I prepared for bed and took off my sweater, I couldn't help but feel it horribly unfair that the Batman shirt underneath didn't make an appearance all day.

Cold weather managing victories beyond the Joker's grasp.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Anyone know a 9th level cleric?

Gary Gygax, father of Dungeons and Dragons, dead as THAC0.

R.I.P. to the guy singlehandedly responsible for me spending my teenage years scribbling on graph paper instead of talking to girls.

Gary Gygax: 1938-2008. He pioneered new ways in which to pretend to be an elf.

Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

There is a certain genre of novels, call it Book Club Fiction, that sell well due to buzz, word of mouth, and occasionally Oprah. These books come as trade paperbacks bearing four hundred plus pages of character-driven artful prose. There will be passages so lovely you'll want to bob along in the prose's warm embrace, and there will be turns so emotionally grueling you'll feel gutted and drained. There will be love, there will be pain, there will quite possibly be rape, and in the end there will be redemption, and all of this will be tied up in multiple layers ripe for discussion.

Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants really wants to be the latest sensation in Book Club Fiction, and at a glance it certainly looks the part. It comes bearing book club buzz, and even contains an interview with the author and an accompanying discussion guide. Much like prior Book Club sensation The Kite Runner, Water for Elephants is a coming of age story set in a meticulously researched historical environment, a tale of one man's growth mixed with equal parts love and tragedy. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll recommend the book to everyone at the salon.

There certainly is much to love about Water for Elephants, to be sure. Gruen masterfully resuscitates depression-era traveling circus life from the footnotes of history, and the result is a seductive world of dirty glamor that pulses with sleazy life. Gruen thoroughly paints this historical setting with a stunning attention to detail, and I could easily have spent twice as long in her carefully crafted universe of rubes and roustabouts, of side shows and speakeasies.

Problem is, a stage is set only to tell a story, and that's exactly where the cracks begin to show. Gruen's prose is at best serviceable and at worst prone to cliché, and for a three-time author she has a surprising tendency to tell not show. All too often the book feels condensed, with certain passages reading like expository Cliffs Notes summaries for what should have been fully-written chapters. It's not uncommon for a week to artlessly pass in the blink of a paragraph, robbing readers of the chance to play bystander to unfolding events.

Similarly, Gruen doesn't seem interested in any of the characters that aren't encased in carny grease, which is problematic as the story hinges on a romance that we aren't entirely sold on. Why is the protagonist in love with the star performer, and what exactly is it that she sees in him in return? With every unearned romantic escalation I couldn't help but wish Gruen would get back to the Polish elephant and alcohol raids.

And murders, for that matter. Gruen certainly isn't afraid of cheap melodrama, which occasionally overwhelms what narrative momentum she otherwise accumulates through character development. Several major side characters meet ill ends to provide little more than gotcha moments, their existences forgotten once the string stabs fade. Her roustabouts deserve better.

And yet the books succeeds, due to Gruen's contagious affection for this tatty world and its occupying degenerates. It's the details that stick with you--the drunkard with jake foot, the lemonade-stealing elephant, the hobos tying shoes to their feet--long after the mediocre prose and surface-thin plot have faded. Additionally, it can't be stressed enough that the book is never less than compulsively readable, with easy hooks and brisk pacing that create so much momentum you'll be hard-pressed to resist topping it off with the author's interview and slight discussion guide simply because they're there.

Ultimately Gruen hits enough of the right notes to enable overlooking the few lurking just out of her range. The halls of Book Club Fiction may not be opening its doors for another inductee, but Water for Elephants is a cracking read, and sometimes that's more than enough.