In Which I Watch Soccer and Greatly Enjoy It

Until yesterday I had played, but never watched, soccer. Like several other kids growing up in the 80s I was part of a parks and rec league, and when I lived in the hippie theme park that is also sometimes called Eugene, Oregon I played the game with my Ultimate Frisbee team when we weren’t playing Ultimate Frisbee. So, I’d kicked balls plenty. I’d run around plenty. I knew the basics of the game, but I’d never been a fan. Yesterday I watched my first soccer game. I watched the US take on Portugal and play to a tragic, last-minute draw. It was amazing, invigorating, and I think I might be a soccer fan now. A few observations:

-Soccer’s low-scoring nature is a feature, not a bug. When the ball does finally go in, it’s either a triumph or tragedy, depending on circumstances, and every single goal matters. When the ball grazes near the goal an air of suspense (either for something good or bad) takes over the watcher and soccer, moreso than many other sports, becomes a game of suspense.

-I saw the US game in a soccer bar and unironically chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A” with a collection of strangers after a goal is, dare I say it, fun. It’s always fun to be part of something larger than yourself. The cynical part of me knows that that feeling is also where nationalism and all of its ugliness comes from, but it’s great in a contained space.

-It’s kind of great to see the US as the underdog. We win at all kinds of things on a regular basis like, you know, Cold Wars and defeating facism and going to the moon. Being in a position where the US is just one team among many and really has to earn its seat at the table is new, interesting, and probably mentally good for a country which tends to be fairly arrogant about basically everything.

-Soccer players are really, really handsome. These are guys who run around all the time, so naturally they’re fit, and they’re not bulky like football players or gangly like basketball players. They’re toned, proportional, and tend to have fashionable haircuts. They are by far the most good-looking of sports guys.

-The World Cup’s ranking system is interesting. Instead of being knocked out of a game due to a loss, teams advancement or nonadvancement depends on their relative status within a group. That seems like a far more dynamic way to rank and quantify teams than just single elimination.

-Soccer scarves make fans look like Harry Potters or Doctor Whos and I’m fine with that.

-Given how great watching soccer can be I’m now extra-distraught that FIFA is kind of evil.

-Seeing a team you support tie is weird. I’m used to watching teams I like win or lose, but when I saw the US tie I really didn’t know what to think. It was new and weird and a fairly interesting emotional place to be.

-I really want to go to a Portland Timbers game now.

I will definitely be watching again, and will probably feel appropriately crushed when the US inevitably loses. In the meantime, I’ll be squinting at 538′s World Cup coverage and hoping that the improbable happens.

Theater Geek Karaoke

This past Sunday I found myself portraying Frank Hardy in a short play called The Hardy Boys and the Mystery of Where Babies Come From. I had never heard of this play until about an hour before I was on stage, and during performance I and the three other actors had to read from scripts. We had no sets, virtually no props, and had not rehearsed in any meaningful way. It was loads of fun.

Play|Date is a new project from the Misfit Academy and is hosted by The Steep and Thorny Way to Heaven, a small venue in Portland’s SE Industrial District, and it can best be thought of as dramatic karaoke. Participants have a list of short plays they can choose from, put in their names and, just like at a karaoke they’re called up to the stage to read through the scene with other performers.

Unlike other art events, it’s participatory. Portland has no shortage of plays, concerts, comedy shows, gallery openings, or the like, but there are far fewer arts events that encourage the general public to make art or actually flex their artistic muscles. They do exist, but not in numbers. Play|Date offers depth to the Portland art scene by expanding the field of who can do art and be a performer. It’s a catalyst for creation. I know that sounds sort of hokey, but it’s true.

Just like how karaoke isn’t a concert, Play|Date isn’t an actual performance. However, there’s a certain pleasure to seeing average people sing at karaoke, and there’s also a specific enjoyment that one can get from seeing unrehearsed nonactors read through a scene. You’re watching other humans, just like you, spontaneously attempt to make art. Having an active, vibrant, and interesting art scene in this town can mean more than just having a lot of good performance spaces. It also can mean that this is a place where people (you, me, everyone) can actually go places and attempt, just a little, to create.

The Legend of Polybius. Now on YouTube!

Just today I found out that someone put my Polybius talk on Youtube. So, if you want to watch me talk about a killer fake video game, here it is.

More Shows Like Gotham That Fox Can Do!

Fox recently announced Gotham, a Batman show that does not have Batman in it. In that show, Batman and Penguin and Catwoman will be kids, and all of the cool crime-fighting and crime-doing will be done by other people. It’s all of your favorite things about Batman, kind of! I think it’s a great idea for a show. Here are some other shows that Fox can do:

Summers

Scotty summers and his brother Alex like to hang out with their friends Jean, Bobby and Hank. They play pirates sometimes. Every so often they go over to their friend Warren’s house. Warren’s house is really big, and it has a lot of rooms where they can play pirates. Every so often the TV news says something about “mutants.” Scotty and his friends don’t know what mutants are because they are small children.

Krypton

Jor-El is a respected scientist who does science things at the University of Science on Krypton. Lots of other people don’t like his science. Jor-El thinks bad things will happen. “Nah,” say the bad guys, “bad things won’t happen.” This goes on for eight seasons, and in the last episode Jor-El’s planet explodes.

Rogers

Steve Rogers is a short, underweight guy during WWII. He really wants to be a soldier, but he can’t because he is small. This is the plot of every episode for all seven season of the show, which lasts longer than actual WWII.

Paradise Island

Princess Diana and her friends grow up together on Paradise Island, which is a nice place. Every so often the adults fight cyclops’ and minotaurs, but Princess Diana and her friends don’t. They are kids and they stay at home during the monster fighting. Sometimes Princess Diana thinks about leaving the island, but then she doesn’t.

Air Jordan

Hal Jordan is a guy who wants to be a pilot. (See? You thought the title was about basketball, but it wasn’t!) He goes to airplane school, and in later seasons he becomes a real, actual pilot. The entire show is about airplanes. In the last scene of the last episode of season nine Hal Jordan gets a weird ring. He says “In brightest day…” and then the credits roll and then the show is over forever.

Stark

Tony Stark is a wealthy guy who likes to drink wine and date ladies. He is also secretly unhappy. Every so often, for six seasons, he looks wistfully at a robot arm.

Speedster

Barry “Speedster” Allen is a high school cross country runner, except in the spring when he’s a high school track and field runner. Barry Allen likes running. He has a coach and teammates. They are teenagers and the show is about how much they enjoy running together.

Those are my ideas for shows! Superheroes!

In Which I Find Plagiarism in a Portland History Book

Plagiarism is one of the worst things that a writer can be accused of doing. This is not simply because it is an act of theft (though it is precisely that) but also because it reveals a certain intellectual bankruptcy on the part of the offender. A plagiarist does not interpret, analyze, or even bring new personality to what they’re purportedly writing about. They do not provide a unique voice, interpretation, or perspective. They do not, to borrow a pop business term, add value.

Earlier this week I found out that a local author copied another, earlier book. I was at the Multnomah County Library looking at secondary sources for an upcoming feature on Vanport, and I cracked open this book for obvious reasons:

photo (2)Because Vanport was in North Portland, I figured that some of the regional neighborhood publications could also be handy. Maybe there were stories or citations in those that would provide interesting details or dramatic first-person accounts, or just a different spin or viewpoint that would be worth looking at. I grabbed a few of them, including this one:

photo

History of the Kenton Neighborhood did indeed have a chapter on Vanport. However, the text felt a tad familiar. Here’s the opening paragraph from Manly Maben’s book (click it to enlarge):
photo (3)

And here’s the Vanport section from the book on Kenton:photo (4)

History of the Kenton Neighborhood, published in the late 1990s, copied from Manly Maben’s Vanport, which preceded it by about a decade. I read the section a few times and found that pretty much all of it was just lifted from the other book. I was shocked to see something so blatant, shameless, and obvious.

I didn’t know what to do. I thought, for a ridiculous moment, that I should go up to a librarian and say “pardon me, but this book in your Portland history section contains plagiarism,” however I doubt that would yield any kind of results. It’s not like I can go to the Writing Police and report author Alta Mitchoff as a plagiarist. I can’t take away her writing license.

I can do this, though. Alta Mitchoff, if you happen to be reading this (for some reason), I want to address you directly.

You are not a writer. You are not a historian. You are not a journalist, a chronicler, an interpreter of history, or a steward of culture. You took someone else’s work and copy-pasted it into your own crappy little neighborhood history book, and put your name on the cover. You’re a thief, Alta Mitchoff, and I caught you.

Some Proposed New Locations For Portlandia, America’s Second-Largest Hammered Copper Statue

Portland’s beloved Portland building is in trouble! The postmodern structure (designed by renowned Target employee Michael Graves) needs $95 million in repairs according to the Oregonian. That’s a lot of money, guys! It’s very possible that the world’s first ever (FIRST EVER) postmodern office building is going to get wrecking ball’ed away sometime soon, and that’s a shame. But if it does, there’s an important part of it we really should save.

You probably already know this, but the Portland Building has a pretty cool statue on it.

Portlandia!

Portlandia!

Portlandia is made out of hammered copper (just like the Statue of Liberty!) she’s a lady statue (just like Liberty!) and is wearing a robe toga (remind you of any iconic American statuary? I think so). Also, just like Liberty is an iconic and instantly recognizable symbol of New York, freedom, and pretty good pizza, the mere sight of Portlandia reminds everyone of food carts and tasty coffee coffee. She is nationally known as a symbol of our town. She is our Space Needle, our Golden Gate, our Wall Drug. Everyone has taken the time to hang out on Fifth and go “ooh” at the big statue.

Everyone who moves to or visits Portland does that. Everyone.

We need to preserve this iconic, instantly-recognizable treasure even as the Portland building meets its end. Portlandia, my friends, needs a new home.

Powell’s

You know who goes to the Portland building on a regular basis? Water bureau employees! You know who goes to Powell’s on a regular basis? Water bureau employees and also everyone else. Right now only a few lucky civil servants get to look at Portlandia when they go to work, but if she was at Powell’s (like above the big sign on tenth and Burnside) everyone in town would see her when to go to pick up the new James Patterson novel.

On top of Big Pink

The U.S. Bancorp Tower (or “Big Pink”) is not the tallest building in Portland. The Wells Fargo Center is, by less than ten feet. That doesn’t seem right to me. Does it seem right to you? No. Okay then. But, a lot of people think it is and it’s a prettier building and it really should be taller. If we were to put Portlandia on top of Portland’s biggest, pinkest building, Big Pinkie would have a few extra feet of elevation and beat out the boring old Wells Fargo Center by a trident. One Portland icon would help out another! Everyone wins.

On stage at Mary’s Club

Mary’s Club is Portland’s oldest strip club. It’s an institution! Portlandia is a lady and she’s wearing a toga robe that is certainly not a complete set of clothes. She would fit right in with the other ladies who are also not wearing complete sets of clothes, and instead of a pole the dancers could use her trident. Everyone who dances at Mary’s would have a big, metallic dance partner! Don’t you want a big, metallic dance partner? I do.

In Front of The Original Hotcake House on Powell

So, this is a kind of private thing to admit here, but I’ve gone out with my friends and consumed alcohol one or two times. Sometimes when those evenings go really, really late we’ve ended up at the Original Hotcake House on Powell, because it’s open 24 hours and after you’ve had too many Old Crows a pancake or two can can totally hit the spot. Sometimes I get sort of moody on nights like that and wonder if going out and obliterating myself with Old Crow after Old Crow is really the best way to spend my life. I wonder if I could have just stayed in and read a book or knitted a cat sweater. Even though I’m with my friends on the nights when we end up at the Original Hotcake House on Powell, it’s lonely. Lonely on the inside. I’m having a really hard time with this idea, but I hope you sort of understand.

On nights like that nothing would comfort me more than a towering monument to civic pride. My friends and I would pull up to the Original Hotcake House on Powell, and Portlandia would be right there, a symbol of strength steadfastness. My life might be a mess, and I will always regret the books I didn’t read and the cat sweaters I didn’t knit, but Portlandia is there. She is strong. She is strong enough for all of us.

Above the main entrance of the SE Hawthorne New Season

This one time I was in the SE Hawthorne New Seasons and an employee talked to this lady who wasn’t wearing shoes. He was very polite and said that he was really sorry, but because New Seasons was a food place people had to wear shoes there. The lady said that was okay and no problem and she was just leaving anyway. Everything was totally cool a no one used bad words. That spirit of openness and communication is precisely the kind of thing represented by a giant statue reaching down and making a beckoning gesture, welcoming to Portland ships, travelers, and Californians who want to live here.

Kern Park

Kern Park is named after kerning, the practice spacing letters in fonts so they line up right when you turn them into words. Portland has a park named after kerning! Isn’t that quirky? Keep Portland Weird! I think we should put Portlandia here because Kern Park is near my house.

Those are my ideas! Where do you think we should put Portlandia?

2013: That Went Well

2013 was as good. Not life-alteringly amazing. Not transcendentally awesome. But good. At the end of every year I wish that I’d done more, but honestly this one was solid, both in terms of professional and personal events. Some highlights:

Genetic hybrids, everywhere!

Earlier this month I attended a party with several college friends whom I don’t get to see very often. It was nice catching up with people and I had an entirely pleasant time, but this gathering was different than previous meetups of its type. This time, most of the attendees had brought something extra with them, and virtually every surface of the house we were in was covered in babies. Tons of babies. Babies were everywhere. Walking ones. Nonwalking ones. Loud ones. Sleeping ones. Recently (but especially in the past year) several of my friends have created genetic hybrids of themselves. At the shindig in question, this reality was highly apparent, and felt that I had to look before stepping, lest I trod on someone’s offspring.

Not present at the gathering was the infant closest to me, my baby niece. Earlier this year my little sister gave birth to a baby girl, instantly turning my parents into old people and my brothers and I into uncles.

I do not have children, and the idea of parenthood frightens me. My peers who are now parents seem to prioritize their children’s happiness above most other things, and as much as I appreciate love and compassion, I’m very scared of that level of implied self-abnegation. Devotion to a child seems to entail giving up your own life. I do not dislike children, and it is probable that I will have one or two of my own. However, I would like to be slightly more established before that happens, especially financially. Even though I’m thirty-three, I’m still much too chaotic ungrownuplike to be a dad. Or maybe that’s what I tell myself to justify my continued nonreproduction.

I did on-the-street interviews. With street people.

Of all of the writing I did this year I was most proud of my September 25 Mercury feature where I interviewed panhandlers about their income, spending, and lifestyle habits. It was a difficult piece to research, and I learned a good deal about homelessness, poverty, and what daily life is like for people struggling with it. I would like to think that I have more empathy and understanding for poor people now than I did at the start of the year, and now more than ever I realize that the poor people are not a problem. Poverty is a problem. That important distinction seems avoided all too often.

Probably my second favorite thing from this year was a piece way back in January about Portland’s street grid. Portland’s street platting was a nerdy obsession of mine, and I was pleased that my editors allowed me to spend 2,000 words of newsprint on it.

I yelled at people in bars. And at a game convention. And over the Internet.

I talk to people for a living. During my day job as a tour guide I dazzle visitors to Portland with interesting local facts, like how Portland was incorporated in 1851. Wasn’t that interesting? Yes it was. Now tip me. I’ve gotten very good at this whole “research a thing and then talk about it” deal, and I now have a regular gig as part of Stumptown Stories, a lecture series that focuses primarily on Portland and Oregon history. This past year I’ve done lectures on unsolved crimes, local booze, bad mayors, cool buildings, and labor agitators. In October I got to be a guest at the Portand Retro Gaming Expo to talk about Polybius (our fair city’s mythical killer video game), and I’m attempting to run a general-interest trivia podcast. That last project needs a bit more attention, but on the whole public speaking for fun and profit is going decently well.

Pain! Gain! Feeling of the burn!

My relationship with exercise has been a spotty one. I was a distance runner back in high school, did fencing and aikido in college, and I ride my bike every day, but I’ve never been all that obsessive or orderly about taking care of the hair-strewn meat robot that is my body. As of this year, though, I live with an amazonian kung-fu roller derby badass ninja woman who could kill me with her pinkie (I love you, Sarah!) and a bit of her enthusiasm for exercise has rubbed off on me. Because of Sarah I’ve been running, working out, and doing Healthy Person Things on a regular basis. This past September we did the Warrior Dash (which was a lot of fun, though not as difficult as it’s billed to be) and we’ll likely do some ridiculous fitness event again next year.

Exercise is not unpleasant. In fact, I’ve come to sort of enjoy the pain and aches that come with it. It is a good pain. It’s a pain that says “I accomplished something and am superficially similar to the Incredible Hulk.”

Sin! I live in it now.

Lastly, I moved in with my girlfriend Sarah this year. I was scared to do it. The only other time I’ve lived with a partner, it did not go well, and I was worried that if Sarah and I had to see each other on a regular basis we’d just start resenting each other and get bored. At the time, we’d been together for just over two very good years, and I was worried that cohabitation would make us boring. That has not happened. At all. In fact, living with her has been way better than what we had before insofar as we now don’t have to worry about the various logistics that come with dividing your time between two residences. Of everything that’s happened this year, moving in with someone I love has easily been the best development. Sarah, this past year with you has been wonderful. Here’s to many, many more.

Holidays With the Idiot Box: What I Learned From Watching Way Too Many 1980s Christmas Specials

This past Saturday a friend of mine hosted in a party with a simple conceit: We’d all gather ’round her television and watch Christmas specials from days of yore. Not the good ones. The terrible ones. The cheap ones. The ones specifically designed to fascinate credulous, stupid kids. For nearly eight hours a roomful of twenty- and thirtysomethings drank copious amounts of booze, stuffed ham into their faces, and consumed the stale remnants of TV past. This is what I gleaned from the experience.

The Jetsons’ Christmas Carol

I never felt one way or another about The Jetsons. I might have watched the show a bit when I was very, very young, but I discovered Star Trek and science fiction pretty early on, and TNG and Asimov were soon scratching my space itches. Cartoon space people didn’t seem all that interesting compared to Captain Picard. Based on their Christmas special it seems that Young Me made absolutely the right decision, because this show seemed extraordinarily dull. That made me a little sad, as the futuristic optimism that seems to pervade The Jetsons seems admirable. We’re awash in dystopias and apocalypses, and I’d love to see modern science fiction get back to flying cars and pet aliens, if only for a moment.

I liked the Jetsons in that one Kanye video, though.

Yogi Bear’s All-Star Comedy Christmas Caper

Yogi Bear is a bad character. I thought that as a kid, and I think that now. He’s an asshole who steals people’s lunches and always gets what he wants. He harasses a put-upon government employee who’s trying to keep our national parks system running, and jerks around his weary sidekick. He’s neither a character that the audience can root for, nor is he an interesting bad guy a la Walter White. He’s just a jerk we’re supposed to think is funny.

You know who’s way more cool than Yogi Bear? Winnie the Pooh. Pooh struggles, learns, and wrestles with the world around him. Despite being a Bear of Very Little Brain, Pooh puts that brain to use and attempts to grapple with challenges in a way that’s identifiable and sympathetic. We have all been Pooh. We have all had to deal with blustery days, been afraid of huffalumps, and eaten too much honey. Pooh is Job. He’s an everyman. He’s us. Yogi would probably steal Pooh’s lunch and just think it was funny.

Yogi’s Christmas special is garbage. Snagglepuss and some other people show up. Yogi dresses up as Santa. Woo.

The Cabbage Patch Kids Christmas Vacation

The Cabbage Patch Kids are effing creepy and if you think they’re cute it’s probably because you’re a serial killer with several lengths of stretched human skin drying in your basement. My personal theory is that they are not children at all, but demonic cabbage golems closely related to the goblins from Troll 2. I did not like this special.

Christmas Comes to Pac-Land

There was a whole slew of media layered onto Pac-Man (including a theme park) and in retrospect it all seems massively forced. There’s no real depth to Pac-Man. He eats things. Ghosts chase him. Sometimes he chases ghosts. That’s it. Any pursuit of a larger mythology is going to run into a wall eventually, because writers tasked with making a Pac-Man cartoon are going to have to constantly dream up a new adventure for him that involves chomping. Every plot, problem, solution, everything: It will all have to involve power pellets. That does not make for a compelling, deep story or fictional world.

In Christmas Comes to Pac-Land Santa’s Sleigh crashes, but Pac-Man and his friends fix it. Santa’s worried that he doesn’t have enough time for Christmas, but Pac-Man gives St. Nick and the reindeer some power pellets. Fueled by the most unadorned of video game power-ups, Kringle & Co. zoom through the air and deliver presents to the children of the world. As far as Pac-Man Christmas stories go, that’s pretty much the best you could probably do. It’s got Santa, there’s a central conflict, and then the problem is solved with glorified gluttony.

G.I. Joe, Cobra C.L.A.W.S. Are Coming to Town

G.I Joe was the one cartoon I wasn’t allowed to watch as a kid. My parents said that it was jingoistic and glorified militarism and, to be fair, they were absolutely right. Cobra C.L.A.W.S. Are Coming to Town prominently features a shrink ray that is also an embiggening ray, and at the end of it a giant parrot saves the day. This special wasn’t great, but given all the wackiness I kind of wish I had been allowed to watch G.I. Joe.

Pee-Wee’s Playhouse Chirstmas Special

Pee-Wee’s Playhouse is one of the only pieces of kid media that I’ve enjoyed more as an adult than as a kid. I didn’t get it as a kid. There was usually only the bare bones of a plot, I found Paul Reubens’ voice grating, and I was probably profoundly bored by the sever lack of dinosaurs, swords, and spaceships.

Now, though, I appreciate the gleeful maximalist surrealism of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and the Christmas special was utterly fabulous. The list of stars (Magic Johnson! Charo! Oprah!) is extensive to the point of ridiculous, and the show seems to know exactly what it’s doing. It knows that it’s a plotless, shiny mess, and it revels in its own weird nature. I don’t know if I really like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse now, but I certainly respect it.

Super Mario World, The Night Before Cave Christmas

Super Mario World does not (somewhat confusingly) take place in a world called “Super Mario World.” It take place in Dinosaur Land. There are no dinosaurs in Dinosaur Land. There are turtles, dragon turtles, piranha plants, and angry eye-having mushrooms, but there are no tyrannosaurs, triceratopses, or pachycephalosauruses. Sure, there’s Yoshi. Yoshi is, like, some kind of deinonychus thing (I guess) but she’s (I’m assuming the female pronoun is okay here, because egg-laying) is all cartoony and cute. Dinosaurs are not cute. Dinosaurs are prehistoric instruments of thunder and blood, and Yoshi is too scared to go into a ghost house. A real deinonychus would not be scared of ghosts, be they house-based or otherwise. A real deinonychus would find a way to hunt and eat an incorporeal being.

ANYWAY, Dinosaur Land is a place where there are no dinosaurs, but there is Yoshi, Mario, Luigi, Peach, and some cavemen. At least there are in the cartoon. There were no cavemen in the Super Mario World video game. As a kid, it made me really, really angry to see cavemen portrayed next to dinosaurs in popular culture. “CAVEMEN AND DINOSAURS DIDN’T LIVE TOGETHER” I would angrily shout at the Flintstones and other, similar things “THEY DIDN’T WHY ARE YOU WRONG I DON’T LIKE THIS CARTOON.” Maybe as a result of this I’ve never thought that cavemen are cool. Early humans are cool. I totally geeked out over Otzi the Iceman when they found him in 1991. That was amazing, and I learned all about how he might have lived from various TV specials and articles that came out at the time. I enjoyed anthropology classes. Early humans are alright.

As a cultural and genre concept, though, I’ve never liked cavemen. Cavemen are almost always portrayed with dinosaurs and as a trope they represent more than anything else pop culture being wrong about science. Bowser, for some reason, captures a caveman and then Mario and Luigi have to save him. Then something about Christmas. I don’t know. This show was awful.

Super Mario Super Show, Koopa Clause

No. No, no, no. NEXT!

The Smurfs Christmas Special

The Smurfs Chirstmas Special is all about Gargamel trying to sell children to Satan. Well, he’s not called “Satan” specifically, but he’s a bearded dude in a red cloak with magical powers who makes people sign contracts. So, Satan. Essentially. Gargamel sells kids to Satan in exchange for anti-Smurf magic, and then the Smurfs have to somehow save the kids from the Lord of Darkenss and the Father of Lies. Satan makes a big ring of flames that would look totally badass at a metal show, but the Smurfs defeat him with the power of love. This one wasn’t “good” or “watchable” but I admired it for being downright weird.

The Claymation Christmas Special

For a moment there in the eighties it seemed like claymation was an unstoppable juggernaut. The California Raisins were everywhere and movies like The Adventures of Mark Twain seemed to be the next big thing in artsy, trippy animation. And then it just went out. Gone. There’s a little bit here and there, but nothing like the juggernaut that used to exist.

The Claymation Christmas special is essentially plotless and it’s badly written. Two dinosaurs evocative of Siskel and Ebert introduce Christmas songs, and then a music video happens. The visuals are amazing, though, and the energy and enthusiasm of the animation almost makes up for the utter lack of story, character, or jokes that are not horrible.

It was all surface. It’s great surface, but still, that’s it. Maybe that’s why claymation fizzled out in favor of CGI. That’s a lot of surface, too, and probably a bit less messy to animate.

The Real Ghostbusters, Xmas Marks the Spot

The 1980s were awash in cartoons based on hit movies (like Rambo!) and I think it’s safe to say that most of them were cynical cash-grabs. The Real Ghostbusters (as opposed to the other Ghostbusters) probably started out as one of those, but it somehow rose above the rest and became actually good. I was legitimately surprised as to how good X-Mas Marks the Spot was. The Ghostbusters go back in time and end up busting the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, and bad things ensue. The solution they come up with involve both dressing in drag and a 2001 style journey into a weird non-space populated by angry supernatural creatures. It’s amazing.

I want to actually watch more of this show now. It was funny, well-plotted, and legitimately entertaining. It was also written by a pre-Babylon 5 J. Michael Stracynski, which was kind of neat to see.

The He-Man and She-Ra Christmas Special

I freely acknowledge that The Masters of the Universe was badly animated crap designed to sell toys. Of all the badly animated crap designed to sell toys, though, it was the best. The creators probably just assumed that kids liked lasers and space and monsters and pegacorns rockets and swords and robots and everything so it just all goes in there. If it’s cool, if kids like it, it’s in there. Don’t worry about how it works. Don’t worry about how He-Man can breath in space. Don’t worry about how She-Ra’s pegacorn can travel between planets. Don’t worry about any of that. Just let it all coexist. That’s what kids do when they play pretend, after all.

I kind of admire that commitment to absurdity and awesomeness. It’s still dumb, but it’s dumb in a lovable, almost earnest way that’s impossible to deeply hate. The Christmas special (in which two kids from Earth teach Orco and Skeletor about Christmas) isn’t great  but it’s satisfying. The two main characters team up, share screen time, and defeat a slew of robot monsters, Hordak, and Skeletor. I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with this bit of

She-Ra, by the way, is way cooler than He-Man. She has a better villain to contend with and (I cannot emphasize this enough) a pegacorn.

I hope that children’s television has improved, at least a little, since I was a kid. Most the junk that I and my friends beamed into our eyes this past Saturday was disposable tripe that had little to no respect for its audience, and I sort of hated the idea that any of this soulless crap ever worked on me. While some of the shows were definitely gems, they were hidden under the big pile of slag that comprises most of pop culture at any given time. For every bit of nostalgic wonder that we had, there were ten moments of hate and boredom, and I wondered what my parents must have thought when they saw me watching things that were so transparently bad decades ago.

Most of the media your remember from childhood was consumerist waste. Most of the stuff you liked as a kid and think fondly of is probably not anything that you’d want to affix your eyeballs to now. Most of it was made by people who probably didn’t have an iota of respect for the end-users, the kids who’d tune in every week. But, somehow, taking it in can be fun. It can be transporting. Against our better judgement we still spend time with things we know are not good, enriching, or valuable. That’s the devious power of nostalgia.

The Top Ten Christmas Songs That Are Not Awful

It’s that time of year again, where the background music of retail establishments goes from being merely bland and soulless to actively noticeable and soulless. Audiophonic muck seeps out of the PA systems of various kinds of public spaces, and offensive, grating “music” sears the ears of perfectly innocent citizens who only want to ambulate from one section of a shopping establishment to another. It’s the most musically awful time of year. It’s Christmas, and that means foul, foul music is getting blasted at you, me, and everybody until the 25th.

Jingle Bells, The Twelve Days of Christmas, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer are all terrible abominations that mock the laws of God, Nature, and Man. They are without value or merit. They offend the ears and make the listener long for silence. These oft-played Christmas songs suck, and they do so with vigor and persistence.

I hate them. You are advised to do likewise.

Believe it or not, though, there are a few Christmas songs that are not the aural equivalent of having your hand frozen with liquid nitrogen and then smashed with an impact hammer. Some seasonal tunes, though, are actually nonterrible. Some you can even tolerate. Some, even are actually good. Here are ten of them.

10: The Snow Miser and Heat Miser Songs

If either of these songs got the kind of exposure the Frost the Snowman got, they’d probably be insufferable, too, but they’re not, so they’re charming. My favorite part of these songs is that it’s just the Snow Miser and Heat Miser saying hi. They’re receiving Mrs. Clause and her pals in their climate-themed throne rooms, and immediately bust out the song and dance. The dialogue immediately after the songs makes it clear that both of them know Mrs. Clause decently well, so we can only assume that this is how these guys say hello every single time they meet someone. I kind of dig that.

And yes, that is the Snow Miser song that Mr. Freeze grooved to in that awful hunk of solidified bile that was marketed as a Batman movie.

9: I Believe in Father Christmas

You get the idea that Greg Lake doesn’t really believe in Father Christmas, or the ideas of Christmas, or God. He’s perplexed at the idea of having a season of peace when there’s so much obvious conflict around, and is obviously perturbed that folks can say “Merry Christmas” while still supporting war and belligerence. However, he seems to want to believe in Christmas and he finds it achingly painful that he can’t actually partake in that feeling that he remembers from childhood. As an atheist who still kind of likes this holiday, I find that touching and very easy to relate to.

8: The Boar’s Head Carol

This song is about food, and more specifically about eating a pig’s face, and how great it is to eat pork face. Okay, the song hearkens back to primal pre-Christian sacrifices and ceremonial feasts (and that’s neat) but food is easily one of the best things about Christmas or pretty much any holiday. The Boar’s Head Carol is about how awesome food is, and how excited people are to stuff a bunch of herb-bedecked pork into their face holes. That’s festive, and something that pretty much everyone can relate to.

7: O Holy Night

O Holy Night really does feel, well, holy. It’s the kind of thing that could ring through a clear, cold night inviting contemplation and peace. It’s a welcome antidote to the bombast and obnoxiousness that typifies, say, The Twelve Days of Christmas or its ilk.

6: The Holly and the Ivy

The Holly and the Ivy is of a piece with the Boar’s Head Carol in that it evokes a kind of old and even ancient European yule tradition, which is neat. Unlike a lot of other Christmas music, The Holly and the Ivy seems to have a sense of restraint to go along with its grandness. Most choral versions of it alternate between solo voices and the full rush of a choir. This restraint and return to individual voices during the verse makes the song conversational and communal, something lacking in

5: Good King Wenceslas

The song loses points for Wenceslas only helping a particular peasant at a singular point of need, rather than implementing systemic reforms that would help a broader class of people, but the idea of a king and a common person sharing a table together is still a nice image.

4: The Carol of the Bells

The Carol of the Bells, as good as it is, doesn’t seem to be much about or evocative of bells. A better image is one of a progressively building snow flurry, light dusting eventually building into an aural blizzard. It sounds like winter feels, cold and harsh and raging around you.

Also there are lots of metal versions, so that’s neat.

3: Adeste Fidelis

Also known as Oh Come All Ye Faithful, but really this song needs to be in Latin. Quid latine dictum sit altum viditur, after all. Latin is the language of soaring Gothic arches and stained-glass panoramas. It’s a language that evokes vistas of Heaven, Hell, and transcendent divinity. Sure you can sing it in English, but if you do it no longer sounds like the Celestial Vault is suddenly filled with Angelic Hosts who are proclaiming the presence of God on Earth. As someone raised Catholic, Adeste Fidelis is one of the songs most evocative of badass, thundering God glory, and its majesty stands in welcome contrast to how inane most other, lesser Christmas songs tend to be.

2: White Wine in the Sun

I was only recently introduced to this song, but it pretty much ticks all the boxes of the problems I have with Christmas, and but why I like it anyway. Tim Minchin’s ode to family togetherness is, more than any other song on this list, all about the True Meaning of Christmas. I almost put this in the number one spot, but the song doesn’t feel archetypically Christmassy enough for top honors. Call it Northern Hemisphere bias, because it is. No, the best Christmas song, the one that’s all about snow and cold and the one that sounds like the season feels is…

1: Fairytale of New York

Pretty much every person who has conflicted thoughts about Christmas is required to like this song, and I’m no exception. It’s all wind and snow and ringing bells, with a few bad words thrown in for good measure.

This one’s particularly endearing to me, though, because during my first Christmas in Japan, I was at karaoke with a number of my students and coworkers. An enthusiastic student of asked me to sing a Christmas song, so I and a female coworker (also a Westerner) cracked this one out. There was much bewilderment and confusion at the two of us joyously calling each other very bad words. We sang, we swayed back and forth, and then we probably drank a bunch of horrible beer because that’s what you do in a Japanese karaoke bar. Yeah, everyone likes this one. I like it because it will always remind of having Christmas in a weird foreign place, which I suppose is what the song is about to begin with.

In Which I’m a Zombie at a Haunted House

ZombieDr. Dre thrummed along in the background while I was being turned into a dead cop. The makeup artist told me to close my eyes while she worked, spraying paint of various colors on my face. The decades-old beats of The Chronic played away, and I refrained from bobbing my head. “Hold still,” said the makeup artist, “I’m going to splash blood on you.” I held still. She splashed blood on me. It tickled.

Last Friday evening I spent much of my afternoon and all of my evening at FrightTown, one of the largest haunted houses in Portland. A few of my friends had volunteered as monsters previously, had said it was fun, and convinced me to come out.

Based on my height, my looks, and the casting guy’s three second appraisal of my general demeanor, I was put in the role of Evidence Locker Zombie. “It’s high energy,” said the guy, “you think you can handle that?” I said that I could. He gave me a card and told me to report to the costume and makeup people. I was given a torn-up jumpsuit that said “POLICE” on the chest, and sat down to get turned into a blood-splattered corpse.

I was initially a little disappointed at being made a zombie. They’re pretty-much played out in popular culture. I’d hoped that FrightTown would make me a werewolf, what with being all hirsute and such. However, there were no werewolf roles. I decided, though, that I’d make the most of being a walking corpse. Zombies are solid, respectable horror antagonists, and at least I hadn’t been cast as a killer clown.

When I stepped out of makeup I was surrounded by a plethora of bizarre figures. Cultists. Fish people. A guy with a chicken for a head. A guy with a cooked chicken for a head. More zombies. A gigantic fat man with no shirt and gigantic shoulder armor. Killer clowns. A go-go dancer all of whose skin was green. Evil Santa. It was kind of like the Star Wars cantina, except an entirely different genre and no one was drinking.

I and my fellow zombies were given a brief acting lesson (we weren’t allowed to talk, for instance) and led into the playwood-and-props maze that was to be our haunt, a zombie apocalypse inspired by 28 Days Later, Resident Evil, and The Walking Dead. (FrightTown is actually three different haunted houses. There was also a Lovecraftian villiage and a haunted funhouse.) The sets were painted to look like desolate streets, bloody hospitals, and sinister decontamination chambers. As a zombie cop, I was to hang out in the destroyed police station, specifically in the evidence locker. It was, I think, the most physical job in the entire haunt.

The evidence locker contained several metal shelves behind a cyclone fence. The fence and shelves were bolted together in such a way that they were stable, and the zombie within could climb up and scare the passers-by. The following photo is of poor quality (and there was obviously much different lighting while the haunt was in full effect) but it gives you an idea of how I appeared to most people going through FrightTown.

photo

When the fluorescent lights went off and the music and sound effects started up, I paced nervously in my abandoned, post-apocalyptic police station. I was wondering if I’d actually be able to scare people, or if the public would find any of the sets and costumes at all convincing. As people came in, though, my worries died away.

The first people I saw were a teenage couple clutching each other tightly as they ran past my evidence locker. I didn’t even get a chance to jump out and scare them. As other people moved in, I got into a groove. I’d hide behind the metal shelves and wait for them to look into the evidence locker, wondering where the zombie was. I’d jump out, scare them, snarl, and then climb the shelves and fence like I meant to pursue them. Sometimes I hung out on top of the fence, draped over it like a dead-looking dummy and then went “RAWR!” as they looked up. If there were a lot of people passing through the room at once, I’d gnash and yell and scream from my perch. My habit of towering above the customers while screaming and rattling the fence got me nicknamed “King Kong” by the event management. I was fine with that.

It was effective.  There were some people, mostly young men, who acted too cool for the haunted house, but for the most part folks seemed to appreciate the show I was putting on for them. The most rewarding bit of my night was when a woman, after I jumped out, said “you’re behind a fence, you can’t get us.” I locked eyes with her, screamed in her face, and began climbing and yelling. A very loud “WHAT THE FUCK” left her mouth, and I was satisfied with a scare well done. Many other people seemed disquieted by my performance. “You can’t climb,” they said, “zombies aren’t allowed to climb.” But I did. I climbed up the fence like I was coming for them, and they ran away to the next room of horrors, a cadaver-strewn jungle populated by undead soldiers.

Kids were numerous and scared easily. To tell the truth, scaring kids almost felt like cheating. I got no end of amusement, though, at seeing the smiles on adults as their children screamed their heads off. Large groups of adolescents and twentysomethings came in, almost always clutching each other. One person would have their hands on the shoulders or about the waist of their friend in front of them, holding themselves against the monsters. The haunted house veterans called this formation a conga line, and I wondered how many people were using the scariness of the haunted house as an excuse to cop a feel. Probably a lot.

My gig as the evidence locker zombie is the most physically demanding thing I’ve done in a while. Constantly climbing up and down a thing, jumping, yelling, and generally being a rage zombie from 7:00 until 11:30 is, it turns out, fairly tiring. I also blew out my voice out from all the screaming and growling and I sounded sort of like Christian Bale’s Batman for the next 48 hours. My arms were cut up and bruised from places I’d hit myself on the fence, and my whole body was sore.

It was all worth it, though. As a lover of horror and someone who enjoys being freaked out and scared it was great to help create the sense of dread. I have no idea how many zombie movies I’ve watched or video games I’ve played. As much as I’m tired of them now (and I do think they’ll come back around) it was a wonderful feeling to finally be the thing I enjoyed, not just consume it. As I yelled and growled and pretended to hunger for flesh I felt more connected to the genre than every before. It wasn’t something I was watching or playing or reading. It was something I was embodying. Getting dressed up as a walking corpse was a fantastic reminder of how great it feels to imagine, to put on a show, and to create.