Matt McHugh
Matt - Blog - December 2004


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Police Song "When the World Is Running Down"

Another fortuitous Police song on the CD I happen to be listening to as I'm catching up on blog entries: "When the World is Running Down (You Make the Best of What's Still Around"). Another song I always liked for the ideas it expresses about using older things for longer periods:

Turn on my VCR, same one I've had for years
James Brown on the Tammy show,
Same tape I've had for years
I sit in my old car, same one I've had for years
Old battery's running down, it ran for years and years

I wouldn't exactly call it "conservationist" in its sentiments--more like depressed miserliness--but it often pops into my head when I'm wrestling with some tool or gadget I have that doesn't quite work right and I think I should just get a new one. I've kind of come to pride myself on my efforts to keep old stuff in service, everything from the rickety bicycle I ride to the train station every morning (weather permitting) to pants so old the lining of the pockets are literally disintegrating. In many ways, it's less about any kind of social consciousness than sheer stubbornness. Hey, whatever gets you there.

-- mm

Police Song "Driven to Tears"

An interesting coincidence: when I sat down to type this, I popped in a CD to listen to. It's a compilation of songs from The Police, and something I haven't listened to in decades. As I'm looking over recent entries about the tsunami, the song "Driven to Tears" comes on. It's always resonated with me as an anthem about materially comfortable people distancing themselves from tragic events elsewhere in the world. No more so than now:

How can you say that you're not responsible
What does it have to do with me
What is my reaction, what should it be
Confronted by this latest atrocity

The Asian tsunami is a sudden, highly publicized, stunningly massive natural disaster that has nothing to do with political or moral complexities. It's very easy to find sympathy and the will to help in the form of monetary donations for such things, and the global outpouring of support is certainly evidence of that. However, before this (and long after) many ongoing crises of poverty and oppression could benefit from any fraction of such a spike of charity. A statement from UK-based international relief organization Oxfam pointed out how it is often the case that one large disaster overshadows others, drawing disproportionate funds and attention for a time. Specifically noted was how this was true of Afghanistan in 2002, and concern was expressed that tsunami relief might syphon off aid currently needed desperately in such places as Sudan and the Congo, for example. The article stated that large-scale disasters need long-term aid commitments, not simply a sudden rush of support that dies off in a few weeks or is suddenly diverted to a more current catastrophe.

Anyway, if anything good comes of this, perhaps it can be a reminder of the scope of global problems that need the sustained help of those in well-off nations, both from governments and individuals. I grouse about money as much as any human, but I can certainly spare a lot more than I do. I'll try to make that a point in 2005.

-- mm

Don't Forget Other Crises, Urges Oxfam on (please, no Ewan MacTeagle jokes)

SUBJECT: Tsunami Relief
December-29-2004 has a special Red Cross 1-Click donation link set up on their home page. I know the Red Cross/Red Crescent web servers were having a lot of trouble keeping up with the traffic, so it seems like an excellent idea for Amazon, with all it's substantial power to process credit card transactions, to pick up here. Note that Amazon states that your personal information will not be shared with the Red Cross unless your contribution is over $250--I suspect that's to help relieve administrative overhead on the Red Cross--so anything less than that and you won't get a receipt for tax purposes.

Interestingly, when you contribute, you get a confirmation e-mail saying:

All Amazon Honor System payments are voluntary--and you may refund yourself within 30 days for any Amazon Honor System payment, should you change your mind.

The "Amazon Honor System payments" system was apparently set up to allow people to donate to websites they liked (e.g., if you wanted to send me a couple bucks in appreciation of my blog.) They just seem to have quickly adapted it for this use. It may be rare in the case of charitable contributions, but there may well be valid reasons (you choose to give to another organization, you experience a sudden financial hardship, etc.) why someone might have to withdraw a donation. Anyway, it seems like a very honorable offer to make.

-- mm

Tsunami Relief Contributions

As I've absorbed the reports of the devastation of the tsunami I just don't know how to feel about. It's so massive that it almost transcends emotions as routine and saddness or empathy or even relief that it didn't happen to me. I think what I mostly have is a kind of dumbfounded survivor's guilt. I begin to imagine what I'd do if it were me and my family, and I have to shut it off.

In any event, my peculiar feelings are of no consequence. Here's a list of organizations accepting relief donations I lifted from Apple's home page. The links go directly to information about each group's tsunami relief efforts and online donation forms:

Google has a page set up with links to relief organizations and news:
           Google's Tsunami Relief page

Yahoo has a special Red Cross donation page:
           Yahoo's Red Cross Donation page

-- mm


I have nothing to say about the tsunami in Asia except to register my awe at all. I still can't wrap my head around it.

-- mm

Toys Made for Grown-Ups

I like toys. Bright, shiny, minaturized objects that naturally draw young and old to them alike. However, so many commercially available playthings are just not made for children. Oh, ostensibly they are, but they're designed to attract the interest of adults with money. Slick packaging with characters imprinted on the collective memory by omnipresent media encasing a toy that performs a specialized action (walks, talks, dances, bumps into a wall and changes direction, etc.). Grown-ups see it and exclaim "Isn't that cute!" and buy it for their kids. The kids are excited to see it as well, but then quickly grow bored--and/or break it (accidentally and/or deliberately) when its limited repetoire doesn't keep up with their active and often opaque-to-adults imaginations. The toy manufacturers and marketers are mainly concerned with getting the toy bought; how much play value it has for the kid is, at best, a secondary consideration.

This isn't to say that all commercial toys are bad. Some are quite well-designed and, to be fair, most can entertain children for a time--but the old chestnut that kids play with the box more than the toy isn't so far off the mark. The simpler object that encourages imagination--and can be joyfully destroyed without fear of reprimand--is innately more fun for a small child than some highly detailed action figure that can't stand up on it's own. I recall once I was at a birthday party for a neighbor's kid. The boy was showered with such a massive quantity of expensive toys that he barely registered any pleasure in any of them. Later, when most of the adults retreated to other rooms (women to the kitchen, men to watch the ballgame) I was left mostly alone in a room of a half-a-dozen four-year olds. I amused them by making up games with the piles of shredded wrapping paper all around. They had a blast because they were being played with, not simply left alone to amuse themselves with complicated knick-knacks. Taught me a important lesson.

-- mm

Christmas Hope 2004

Just wanted to say that I had a very warm, safe, and comfortable Christmas day with my family. When I am warm, safe, and comfortable, I tend to think more about those that aren't (when I am cold, imperiled, and/or suffering, altruism--even in thought--doesn't stand a chance). This year, I was particuarly mindful of the situation of U.S. soldiers, and others, in Iraq. I know it's just a cosmic coin-toss that I'm here and they're there, and I am truly grateful to be so lucky.

I also truly, truly hope that lame-brained, overgrown frat boy in the White House--who pretends to be a follower of Christianity (oh, what I wouldn't give to ask him one or two pointed theological questions on national TV to prove how little thought he has ever given to his vote-garnering "faith" )--and the corporate war profiteers he colludes with have some similar pang of conscience as they enjoy their own warm, safe, and exceedingly comfortable holiday environs. Now that would be a real Christmas miracle.

Anyway, peace out, folks.

-- mm

Last Minute

Of course, I still have some last-minute shopping to do. I really dislike the whole commercialized aspect of Christmas. I know everyone says they do... but I really do. I'm the type of person who likes to give people gifts spontaneously if I happen across something I think they would like. I enjoy marrying a find with an opportunity like that--but I hate having to come up with presents for X number of people by Xmas regardless. The main reason is that I simply can not think of and/or find really good gifts for all those people in the allotted time, so convention forces me to just buy some mediocre thing and wrap it.

What's the point? Every single person I know has way more material stuff than they need. OK, maybe a new pair of gloves or a scarf or a bottle of wine won't hurt anybody, but the recipients neither need nor seriously desire those things. And the "gifty" trinkets (soap-and-cologne kits, wallet and key-chain set, cheese samplers, etc.) that people often buy when they feel they have to get you something yet have no idea what are little more than unwanted clutter. If I come across an obscure book that I think a friend would like, I want to give it to them. I could care less if it's June 8th or December 25th. If so-and-so collects shot glasses and I stumble over a bin of old casino-branded ones in a junk shop, I'm picking them up a dozen, calendar be damned.

What it all comes down to for me is quality. I like giving good gifts. I can't manage that on cue all the time. I'd like to skip some and only give to those for whom I've found an really good gift. But, of course, you can't ("Sorry... but I didn't see anything for you I thought was really good. Wish me better luck next year")--so to the mall I must go.

-- mm

Bob Rivers Mocks The Holidays

While Christmas shopping the other day, I heard a song over the PA in Spencer Gifts (note: I worked in one once over the holidays, so I always go in out of nostalgia... there's nothing anyone over 13 should buy in there). It was a note-for-note parody to the tune of Jethro Tull's "Aqualung" about a store Santa ("Sitting in a shopping mall! *DAH..da-DAH!* Hey-ey, San-ta CLAUS! *Dah-da-da-DAda-dah-DAH-duh-da-DAH!*"). It was hilarious.

I looked it up on the web and found it was appropriately entitled "Aquaclaus" by a guy named Bob Rivers who has a show of some kind called Totally Twisted Radio. Christmas parody songs seem to be a specialty of his. Here's some of the titles of some of his songs, taken from a discussion list on

  • "There's A Santa Who Looks A Lot Like Elvis" (a parody of "It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas")
  • "Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem" (done to "House Of The Rising Sun")
  • "Chipmunks Roasting On An Open Fire"
  • "I Came Upon A Roadkill Deer"
  • "I Am Santa Claus" (a parody of Black Sabbath's "Iron Man")
  • "Grab Your Balls (Like Michael Jackson)" (a parody of "Deck The Halls")
  • "Going Up To Bethlehem" (a parody of CCR's "Going Up Around The Bend")
  • "Who Put The Stump (Up My Rump?)" (A parody of the 50's song "Who Put The Bomp (In The Bomp she-Bomp she-Bomp?)", from the point of view of an angel on top of a tree)

And here's a lyric snippet from "Walkin' 'Round in Women's Underwear" (to the tune of "Winter Wonderland"):

Lacy things -- the wife is missin',
Didn't ask -- her permission,
I'm wearin' her clothes,
Her silk pantyhose,
Walkin' 'round in women's underwear.

I got to pick up a CD of this.

-- mm

Bob Rivers' albums on

Funniest Christmas Song parodies discussion on

Dreaming of a Green Plastic Christmas

As I was singing the praises of my closeout find of a big artificial Christmas tree, I realize that there are plenty of real-tree snobs out there. Well, first off, I want to say my fake one looks very real. I defy anyone to tell the difference from ten feet away; only it's symmetry is a tip-off, though you can bend the wire branches to simulate natural lopsidedness. And the smell, too (there is none). It's easy to set up and take down, drops no needles, and is not a fire hazard. So there.

Also one should consider the negative ecological impact of real trees. They have to be grown, which is something of a wasteful use of land resources. They have to be cut down, which is habitat destruction for any creatures that have grown accustomed to the trees in the several years they take to mature--not to mention the roads and traffic required to remove and transport them. And the disposal is a real issue. Notice how you see trees littering curbsides, often in giant plastic bags (?!), for weeks after the holidays--especially in densely populated areas. You can bet sanitation engineers bear the prickly hulks of the Douglas fir and Scotch pine no love.

Now, I'm not going to lecture anybody who wants a real tree. I can understand the appeal, and there's a whole industry of tree farmers who make their living growing them in land that is often unfit for other agricultural uses. I just wanted to point out that, despite what some might think, real trees are much more wasteful and polluting--not to mention expensive--than a fake one you use year after year.

So remember: If you want to hug a tree, don't do it in your living room.

-- mm

Big Cheap Fake Tree

A chain of home and garden stores operating around Northern New Jersey named Frank's is going out of business. They're selling off stuff at up to 90%, so I couldn't resist checking it out. I picked up a 8.5-foot artificial Christmas tree for $39.99 (regular price $249.00) If I had wanted to spend $10-bucks more, I could have gotten either a 9.5-foot one (wouldn't have fit in my house), or a 7.5-foot pre-lighted one (what happens if one of the strands fails?). Anyway, I'm quite happy with the purchase. I also picked up 4 sets of Halloween pumpkin string-lights at $1.50 each (90% off original $15.00). I just love stuff like that--the price, that is, not necessarily the lights (which I guess begs the question of why I bought them... well, did I mention they were 90% off? what more do you need!).

Ten years ago my then-girlfriend, now-wife and I took the PATH train from NYC to the Newport Mall in Jersey City, where we picked up a 7-foot artificial tree for $50.00. I was quite pleased with the purchase then, and we have used it ever since. My only regret with the bigger, cheaper tree is that I have to retire my other beloved one. I'm keeping it though. I refuse to throw things out that are still useful, and you never know when a back up could come in handy. However, I always prefer to see perfectly serviceable stuff I don't need any more go to a good home. If there's somebody out there who wants it, send me 50-words or less on why you deserve my hand-me-down tree and I'll consider your suit. If I like anybody's essay enough, I'll might even cover the shipping costs.

-- mm

They Singular

Note that I espouse the use of forms of "they" as a singular, gender non-specific pronoun. This is already fairly common in everyday usage--e.g., "if you love someone, set them free." In a strictly grammatical sense, "them" should be "him" or "her" to agree with the singular antecedent "someone." You may still find some pretentious yahoos who put this in writing, or even complete nimrods who slash it "him/her"--but nobody says that. And if they do, they are a yahoo/nimrod of epic proportions.

Spelling and grammar--particularly in English, the ultimate language for growth through assimilation and bastardization--are always driven by usage. What is "correct" is simply a matter of what the greatest number thinks is correct at any given moment. From time to time, someone summarizes this in book form and people point to that for a generation or two as the repository of correctness. But these go out of date, and speech marches on, trampling old usage conventions obliviously en route to new ones. Currently, I'm pushing for the formal adoption of "they" a singular, gender non-specific pronoun. Like it or not, folks, it's going to happen.

That's my two bits... and after all, everybody is entitled to their own opinion.

-- mm

Blogger Book Deals

An item in the New York Times Book Review recently explored the phenomenon of bloggers who have gotten book deals from traditional print publishers. It gave several examples: someone with a book proposal that had been rejected by several publishers until they demonstrated that their blog readership indicated an audience for their idea; another who simply got a call from a publisher who stumbled upon their blog.

It's not surprising to me that traditional publishers have noticed the blogosphere as resource for finding saleable talent. What's more interesting is that bloggers are still seeking out traditional publishers. Simply put, any blog on the net is innately more accessible than any book in print. If your purpose is to put your work out there for others to read, ink on paper is dead, folks.

Of course, what traditional publishers bring to the equation is money. Getting a book printed, marketed, distributed, advertised, reviewed, licensed for subsidiary rights, etc., all costs money. And it's risky. You could invest your own (I'd estimate $20,000 - $50,000, depending on how much promotion you plan to do) in the old "vanity" press model (note: if you finance your own movie, you're an "independent filmmaker" but if you finance your own book you're a "vanity publisher" ... explain this one to me), but there's very slim likelihood you'd see return. A traditional publisher lays out that cash so you don't have to. In return, they give you a small percentage of the sales (6-8% is typical). That may not seem like much, but since you haven't invested anything (monetarily speaking), it's pure profit to you. Also, your book is likely to sell more when promoted by a profit-driven publisher. In an age where anyone can distribute their writing globally in an instant, you need money and resources to call attention to your stuff. Publishing is marketing... and it's tough to do that flying solo.

-- mm

Correction: Earthsea Only Sucked For 10 Minutes

After reading Ursula Le Guin's evisceration of the SciFi Channel's Earthsea movie based on her novels, I was emboldened enough to summarize my opinion of the film with all-purpose pejorative "sucked." While Le Guin's criticism of the production targeted almost exclusively the casting of predominantly white actors to play her racially diverse characters, my pronouncement was based on broader considerations of script, direction, and acting. However, I think we both may have erred in judging the movie by very narrow standards: Le Guin for seeing only color; myself for seeing only ten minutes.

I've always tried (and often failed) to resist the temptation to criticize something I'm not fully familiar with, to jump to conclusions based on prejudice or hearsay. For movies--the most innocuous and easiest test of that resistance--that means actually having watched the thing all the way through at least once before expressing an opinion. Alas, I did not do this with SciFi's Earthsea; as I said, I watched ten minutes and dismissed it to the suck category. To be fair, the ten minutes I saw were pretty bad... and I have watched several SciFi channel original movies all the way through, and they were bad. Bad in exactly the same way: the acting is clumsy (even with reputable actors in the cast), the sets and effects scream "made for TV", and the scripts are terrible, with dialog that sounds like it was overheard at an Orange County mall food court. Earthsea fit this bill to a T. This isn't to say it was abjectly awful; some of the location shots blended with CGI landscapes seemed decent--but such things are, quite frankly, the easy part of such an enterprise nowadays. The basics of cinematic storytelling were flawed in the ten minutes I watched. Maybe the other 190 minutes were better.

The SciFi channel has always annoyed me by taking good ideas--be they films of well-known novels or the general concept of a cable channel devoted to science-fiction--and ruining them with mediocre implementation. I keep hoping they'll improve, but apparently the channel is doing very well financially from what I've heard, so I guess they don't want to mess with success. In any event, I apologize if I jumped to a conclusion about their latest effort. I rescind my earlier assessment and now simply say that it is my belief that Earthsea, taken in aggregate, is highly likely to suck. Feel free to watch it in whole or in part and decide for yourself.

-- mm

Earthsea Mudsling

The SciFi Channel recently broadcast an original two-part movie entitled Earthsea, based on a series of classic fantasy novels by Ursula Le Guin. I read them years ago and enjoyed them for their vivid imaginings and strong characterizations. I tuned in to about 10 minutes of the SciFi channel movie. It sucked. Ridiculous script, laughable acting (from some decent actors), and clunky special effects.

I'm not the only one who thinks so: Le Guin wrote a rather scathing letter about how the SciFi channel "whitewashed" her books. The lead character, a wizard named Ged, is pointedly described as red-brown skinned; decidedly pale-skinned Anglo Shawn Ashmore played him in the movie. Le Guin rips this casting choice six-ways-to-Sunday in her letter, yet only briefly mentions the mediocrity of the film. She expends a good bit of energy describing how she always filled her imaginary worlds--fantastic or futuristic--with peoples of many skin colors, deliberately avoiding a white-centric vision of the universe. OK, that's interesting, and even laudable--but, in itself, doesn't necessarily make good fiction. Identity, ethnicity, or background of your characters are components that need to contribute to a coherent whole. Le Guin does that in her work. The SciFi channel doesn't.

The SciFi channel version of Earthsea sucked--like all SciFi Channel productions (save for their promos, some of the most imaginative and visually inventive 15-second spots on ever put TV)--because it was scripted by an arrested adolescent who had no grasp of its source material and directed by some hack making his big break from commercials (note that these are my only impressions... though I'd bet money I'm pretty close). The lily-white cast never even had the chance to wreck it. I like good science fiction. I like the idea of a channel dedicated to good science fiction. The SciFi channel ain't it. Heck, I'd even forgive it if it were just campy--but it's simply inept. In any color.

-- mm

How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books, by Ursula K. Le Guin, on

Yeah, But Where Do You Have to Intake It?

While doing some searching for work, I came across a journal article involving beer, rats, and colon cancer. Basically, it involved an experiment where they took 344 rats, induced carcinogenesis with an injection, then fed them a regular dose of beer for a period of two to five weeks, with long-term cases of 42 weeks, to see if there was any effect on cancer development. The experimenters concluded that "intake of beer may contribute to a reduction in the risk of cancer susceptibility."

At last, a health regimen I can stick to.

-- mm

Intake of beer inhibits azoxymethane-induced colonic carcinogenesis in male Fischer 344 rats
Article abstract on

America and Company on Amazon

Out of a sudden burst of curiosity (blown by a mighty wind?), I checked for the 1975 Greatest Hits album entitled History from folk-pop trio America on It's there. Only $10.99. There's also a "complete" greatest hits record of theirs for $9.99 that includes more songs (?), such as their sole hit from the 80's. Both collections include "Muskrat Love" caveat emptor.

One of the fun things on Amazon is the "Customers who bought this title also bought" lists. For this album, they had:

  • Seals & Crofts - Greatest Hits
  • Eagles - Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975
  • Best of The Doobie Brothers
  • Elton John - Greatest Hits
  • Fleetwood Mac: Greatest Hits
  • Steve Miller Band - Greatest Hits 1974-1978
  • Cat Stevens - Greatest Hits
  • The Very Best of Chicago

Yep... that's pretty much dead on.

Out of morbid curiosity, I also hopped over to see if they had The Captain and Tenille's Greatest Hits (they do), which includes their saccharine-beyond-endurance rendition of the already-offensive "Muskrat Love." I must confess, I did take a moment to listen to the free audio snippet of "Love Will Keep Us Together."

Oh, go ahead. You know you want to.

-- mm

America Would Be Better Without Muskrats

The folk-pop, hippie-wannbe group America was huge in the mid 70's. I (my sisters, actually) had their greatest hits and I listened to it constantly. "Ventura Highway" ... "Sister Golden Hair" ... "Horse With No Name" ... "Tin Man" ... "Lonely People" ... -- classic stuff from the era I still enjoy listening to. They had a hit in the 80's--"(You Can Do) Magic"--but it's not at the level of their older stuff.

As I said, I can remember listening to that 331/3 LP a hundred times when I was 12 or so. Lying under the dining room table in the dark on a bean bag chair wearing those padded headphones the size of half-grapefruits. I loved those songs. I connected with the yearning melancholy sound of them and the evocative (if mostly gibberish) lyrics. One of the first songs I learned to play and sing on the piano was "Daisy Jane" (Cmaj7 - Gmaj7, strike the chord once, then again, up an octave). It's a great album.

Save for one serious clinker: Muskrat Love. "Muskrat Susie, Muskrat Sam, do the jitter bug in Muskrat Land." Who friggin' thought up this one? Who let it on the album? Was the producer on drugs? (In 1975, in the music industry? Nah...) I scratched the crap out of the record perpetually lifting the needle over the track (first song, second side). I remember once seeing The Captain and Tenille do it on their variety show, complete with choreographed costumed characters. That's about the song's ideal performance setting. Don't pollute America with "Muskrats"!

-- mm

America - History: Greatest Hits on

Ventura Nonsense

I'm listening to the song "Ventura Highway" by the '70's folk-pop group America. You know it, with that famous twelve-string guitar lick like a cascade of metallic foil leaves in a wintery moonbeam.

What? That line makes no sense? Have you listened to the lyrics of the song recently:

Ventura highway, in the sunshine
Where the days are longer, the nights are stronger than moonshine

Um... OK. I guess I can follow that.

'Cause the free wind is blowing through your hair
And the days surround your daylight there

You lose me there--but we'll chalk it up to poetic license.

Seasons crying no despair
Alligator lizards in the air

WTF?! Now that's pure gibberish.

The more I listen to the song, the more I realize it's complete nonsense. But then, I can sort of imagine some meaning to it (the second verse seems to have several Jimi Hendrix references). Granted, this is a product of a drug-addled hippie era, so maybe that's all the explanation required for the song. And don't get me started on "Horse With No Name."

Maybe it's a mystery of folded time
Where oceans rise under to tow the line
Sweet dappled starlight always tastes sublime
That's a tough one to rhyme.

Damn. That's harder than it looks.

-- mm

Returning Portable DVD Player

My Memorex-branded, Mintek-manufactured 7" screen portable DVD player recently purchased for $199... is crap. Hasn't gotten through a single movie without locking up and needing to be shut down. We've tried five different discs and none have made it much past the hour mark. At first, I just thought it was the battery cutting out, but we've had the same result with the thing plugged in. The drive mechanism seems to just get stuck after a while no matter what.

So... those shiny little DVD players that keep showing up at ever-dropping prices that tempt you to give them a try: don't. They're crap. They're not worth it. They fail to perform the most basic function (i.e., playing a movie all the way through without incident). All the reviews says that. Every person who bought one I spoke to said that. I didn't listen. Don't you not listen. Don't buy them. Wait a few years till the manufacturing technology catches up with the marketing.

One more thing: Memorex--a company whose brand I actually thought might have represented some degree of quality control--should be ashamed to put their name on these things. Polaroid does the same. I guess film and tape companies are in pretty dire straits today and will partner with anybody they think might help them survive. Well, Memorex and Polaroid... you picked lemons on this deal.

-- mm

Boy Says Dammit

Today, I was taking some stuff out the back door and I knocked over a baby-proofing gate near the cellar steps. I fell to the floor with a clatter that set of the burglar alarm and knocked over several wine bottles recently acquired for a holiday party. I snarled "Arrrrggghh!" and my almost-four son said, right on cue, "Dammit!"

Now I'm a great blurter of intricate obscenities. I consider myself something of a wordsmith, and the essential characteristic of the craft is the ability to choose the right word for the right situation. An elaborate oath sworn to the blackest pits of foul Hades just don't cut it like a well-placed dammit sometimes. The boy nailed it. I was proud of him.

Of course, you can't have your pre-schoolers indulging in such vocabulary, so I told him it wasn't a nice word (which he knows, which only makes it more potent, of course) and gave him some quasi-humorous alternatives. He probably won't be sent home from kindergarten with a note if he yells "Monkey Puddles!" when his block tower falls. Eventually, the power of dammit will out--but it's not a bad thing to stave it off until at least, say, elementary school.

-- mm

Mercy Killing in War

A U.S. soldier in Iraq has pleaded guilty to a "mercy killing" of a severely wounded 16-year old Iraqi. It seems that the civilian boy was a collateral casualty during combat in Baghdad's Sadr City on August 16. He was burned and bleeding from the abdomen and apparently a group of soldiers decided to put him out of his misery.

I'm on the fence about this one. On one level, it strikes me as perfectly reasonable--in as much as the term can apply in a war zone--that soldiers cleaning up after a firefight might do this. After all, I'm sure it ain't the first time in history for such a thing. On the other, even in war, you do want your forces to act within certain bounds--though nowadays, with cameras and reporters everywhere, that's more about the power of PR than the rules of engagement. But prosecuting soldiers in combat for murder, even the "unpremeditated" kind, just seems this side of ludicrous to me. Some guy who signed up to get money for college finds himself in urban guerilla war zone and makes an error in judgement about whom he should shoot... and he's court-martialed. Frankly, it seems little more than scapegoating.

Kill one person, you go to the stockade. Kill tens of thousands, you get re-elected. Go fig-ure.

-- mm

Story on

Play-Doh Technique

Here's the benefit of a good bit of recent experience with Play-Doh:

  • When lumps of different colors get mixed, just knead them together for a few minutes and they will blend. Pink-beige seems to be the most common result--a perfectly serviceable, if not very exciting, shade.
  • When using the one-sided molds, don't press the clay into them. Rather, put a lump on the table and push the mold down onto it. The clay will stick to the table enough to allow you to lift the mold off and leave a fairly intact shaping.
  • Keep an old toothbrush in storage with the accessories. It works well to scrub dried bits from the molds and forms--most particularly the stapler-looking pump thing... a bitch to clean any other way.
  • If possible, store lidded canisters in a larger, air-tight container, such as a Tupperware bucket. Very helpful to double-seal like that to keep it from drying out.

-- mm

Limbo-Leaping Lottery Lady

A woman in California recently won a state lottery jackpot of $27 million ($9 million after taxes, which seems profoundly wrong somehow... I mean, why not give less prize money tax free? Same effect, isn't it?). The woman has said she plans to use a portion of the money to support efforts she has led over the years to lobby for laws to allow women to legally abandon newborn babies--that is, leave them at the hospital... not in baskets on doorsteps, or worse. I think such laws are a good thing, and I applaud this woman's involvement in one of the few "compassionate conservative" initiatives that actually seems to merit the label.

The newspaper article about her also described how for years she has been giving Christian burials to abandoned newborns. The Los Angeles city morgues call when they have one. She retrieves the body, wraps it in a handmade blanket, chooses a name, and buries the child with prayers and an engraved cross as a headstone. She articulated her belief that "the little kids up there are dancing in heaven and are happy for us." Here's where I stop applauding.

There's a fine, often blurry, line between faith and delusion. This one's way in the gray area for me. Does the woman actually believe her actions affect these children's destinies in eternity? If these kids die as infants, who teaches them to dance in heaven? Do they grow up in the afterlife, becoming precocious toddlers grateful for the boost up the rungs of Paradise bestowed upon them by this lady's loving handling of their carcasses?

One who believes as this woman does might say I'm judging Heaven by human standards--though, describing dead babies as "dancing up there" strikes me as some pretty egregious anthropomorphizing of the realm of the Almighty. The bottom line is that all religious rituals are innately tied to the needs and prejudices of the living participants. This lady's swaddling funerals are for her benefit, just as is her belief that they're for babies'.

-- mm

Living in Infamy

Pearl Harbor: 63 years ago today. A single, culpable nation--minutes before officially declaring war--launched a surprise attack on a major American military installation. The build-up to the attack had been going on for months and the U.S. president definitely knew something was coming (whether he knew exactly when and where is still debated among historians).

Amazing to think that December 7, 1941, actually seems like the "good old days" by comparison.

-- mm

Red and Blue Channels

I read an article in the NY Times about the use of commercial time in the 2004 presidential campaign. It claimed that Democrats watch 15% more TV than Republicans. The most dominantly Republican-viewed channel was The Golf Channel; for Democrats, it was Court TV. A surprising number of both were cited as regular Will & Grace viewers, notably lesbian Republicans (both of them?). The Bush campaign ran about 400 ads during Will & Grace, while Kerry ran almost double that. Republicans tend to watch Jay Leno; Democrats, David Letterman. The vast majority of Porsche drivers are Republicans; Volvo drivers are Democrats.

If half the friggin' research and energy went into developing policy as devising campaign strategies, this world would be a much, much better place.

-- mm

Blue Tang Christmas

My wife and I took an after-dinner stroll with the kids to look at Christmas lights in the neighborhood. One house a few blocks away had entirely blue lights. My wife said she believed this was popular with Italians, though I find it hard to believe they would choose Christmas as a sole occasion to abandon red and green.

Anyway, inspired by the color, I started crooning my best Elvis Presley "Blue Christmas," complete with exaggerated warbles and a-wooey-woo-woo's. After I finished, my four-year-old son commented:

"Daddy, you sing like Dory speaks whale."

A week or so ago, I said that letting the boy watch Finding Nemo one more time wasn't going to hurt anything. Except my pride, so it now seems.

-- mm

Putting Up The Lights

Put up the Christmas lights for the first time at the new house (we moved here last February). Took me about two hours--and we're only talking four strands of hanging star lights. At the old place, I had a system where I could do it in about 15 minutes; took me about four years to get that system worked out.

Higher eaves and wire mesh gutter covers have proven quite a setback in my strategy. But don't worry... in another four years, I'll be acing this one, too.

-- mm

Super Heroes v. Axes of Evil

I keep thinking about this idea of comic book characters being depicted in fictionalized real-world political situations (e.g., Superman and Bugs Bunny fighting Japanese and Germans in 1940's cartoons; Spider-Man and Captain America pitching in at Ground Zero in a fund-raising 9/11 special issue). While I'm not an avid comic reader (the stories are generally too thin to be really interesting), I have picked up a couple super hero-themed graphic novels over the years and enjoyed them. I specifically recall a couple of Batman ones that had these shockers:

Batman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin (1988) - Already having murdered Robin with a finality rare for the genre, the Joker plots with Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini to gas the United Nations General Assembly.
The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller (1986) - An aging Batman confronts Superman, who has been charged with arresting him. Superman now works largely as an agent of the federal government, even to the point of covertly fighting in U.S.-led wars; the implication is that it involves Soviet forces in Afghanistan. (The idea intrigued me so much, I eventually wrote my own little take on it in Mr. Kent and Mr. Wayne.)

This nexus of politically motivated cartoon heroes is nothing new; Uncle Sam and Rosie the Riveter are essentially that. I guess I just find it interesting now that I'm old enough to have a body of memory both about world events and the comic heroes I grew up with to realize it's just as prevalent in my era as the greatest generation's.

-- mm

Spider-Man Two Towers

Having recently discovered a bargain bin DVD of WWII-era Superman cartoons with a distinctly pro-Allies / anti-Axis agenda, I've been pondering the connections between comic book heroes and real world events. One recent item always sticks in my mind:

Supposedly made before the director was hired or the script finalized, a promotional trailer for the first (2002) Spider-Man movie showed high-tech bank robbers escaping via a helicopter roaring through the skyscraper canyons of the lower Manhattan financial district. Suddenly, the helicopter stops dead in mid-air. The camera pulls back to reveal that it has been caught like a fly in a web strung between the World Trade Center towers. The original lobby posters even had the twin towers reflected in Spider-Man's mirrored eye lenses.

This brilliant trailer--which was never intended to be in the film itself--promptly vanished after 9/11, and the WTC was Photoshopped from Spidey's eyes. I can understand why from a commercial perspective, but it's a shame from an historic one. I have a Quicktime of the trailer and a JPEG of the poster, but I don't know if either is available officially in the DVD extras. I hope so.

Even more interestingly, I know that Marvel comics published a special 9/11 issue featuring Spider-Man--who has always been based in a very realistic New York city--and other Marvel characters witnessing the fallen towers and helping in rescue efforts (profits from the sale of it were donated to 9/11 relief funds). Again, our myths come to our aid, like Superman fighting Nazis. And why shouldn't they?

-- mm


I was shopping in WalMart (yeah, I know... how do you think I feel about it? I had to take two showers afterward) and I picked up a DVD (my buying kick rolls on!). It was right in the checkout line and only $1.00--not 99cents, but actually marked 1-0-0. I'm a sucker for that. I seem to think it's a kind of full disclosure, and I like to reward such honesty with my business.

Anyway, the DVD is a "Cartoon Classic" featuring select Superman theatrical shorts made in the late 30's and early 40's by animation legend Max Fleischer. I've only seen bits of these before, but they are widely acclaimed not only as brilliant examples of sophisticated, early animation (the first superhero cartoons ever), but also as unambiguous American World War II propaganda. There's an episode on the disc called "Japoteurs"... doesn't take much imagination to picture what that's about in 1942. If on some level it seems inappropriate to have a cartoon hero surrounded by wartime stereotypes (imagine Spider-Man fighting "Towelheaderists"), on another, it's perfectly logical. Our fictional heroes are part of our national mythology, our collective cultural unconscious. Why wouldn't they come to our aid in a time of need to affirm our hopes and confront our enemies? While prejudice toward that enemy may not be our noblest quality, if our heroes don't reflect our consciousness they wouldn't be our heroes for very long.

It's easy to say such un-PC cartoons were wrong and should be buried--and many do. Disney excised racist imagery from its re-released Fantasia (anybody ever see the "pickaninny centaur"? never will), and Warner Brothers has all but eradicated a number of Bugs and Daffy WWII-era cartoons with lunatic Germans and buck-toothed Japanese (illegal downloads are about the only way to see these now). While I can certainly understand why commercial studios would choose to take such potentially offensive material out of circulation, I think it's wrong to simply pretend it never existed. It's a those-who-forget-the-past-are-doomed-to-repeat-it kind of thing. These pop-culture icons were born of a national need to buoy our hopes by ridiculing our fears. Again, if that is a less-than-enlightened perspective, it is an all-too-human one. We do ourselves a disservice if we think we have moved beyond that. Ever see the South Park with Cartman and Osama bin Laden? It's f***ing hilarious.

Still, I'm not in favor of willfully perpetuating stereotypes. I'm definitely not planning on letting my son watch these cartoons till he's old enough to understand the context.

-- mm

P.S. - Interestingly, my text editor's spell checker knows the word "pickaninny" whereas my e-mail and word processor's dictionary do not.

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