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.

No Trouble at All: Why A Comedic Episode About Cooing Balls of Fur is the Heart and Soul of Star Trek

Last weekend I took in what’s become a cultural staple of Portland, Trek in the Park, an annual performance of an original series Star Trek episode in, well, a park. It’s become something of a massive cultural juggernaut and this year, regrettably, is the last time that theater group Atomic Arts is doing the performance. They went out with a bang, though, performing the Trouble with Tribbles, one of the best-known Trek episodes. It had been a while since I’d seen it, but watching it performed live this past weekend really drove home what Star Trek is about. Tribbles may not be the greatest Trek episode ever (that’s either The Best of Both Worlds or Balance of Terror) but it’s a fantastic episode that sums up what Star Trek‘s all about.

The episode is very much a slice-of-life portrait of what it means to live in space, deal with space problems, and have a space job where you have to do space things. Kirk tangles with an annoying Starfleet bureaucrat, is forced to be cordial with Klingons, disciplines a number of his subordinates for getting in a bar fight, and investigates a shifty merchant selling dubious merchandise. Kirk doesn’t give any inspiring speeches, call for a red alert, or ever command the Enterprise in combat. Throughout the Trouble With Tribbles Kirk (along with Spock) simply does his job, executing his duties as an administrator. That’s precisely what makes Tribbles such good television, though. We get to see the characters breathe and do things other than just dive into the kind of heavy situation that would be suitable for a movie plot. A big part of Trek’s appeal is its hugely detailed world, and in Tribbles we get to see people simply live in it. Along with Kirk we also get to see McCoy doing doctor things at the tribbles, Lurry (the manager of the station where much of the action takes place) dealing with the Federation and Klingons simultaneously visiting his station, and Cyrano Jones (the sleazy space merchant) trying to make a living by hustling exotic animals and artifacts. We also get to learn that Scotty reads technical journals for fun, which is kind of endearing.

The regular problems and issues of life in outer space are the heart of Star Trek. While the show has had its fair share of action sequences (I do love seeing Kirk fight a gorn) it’s really always been a show about problem solving. The crew gathers to discuss an issue, either on the bridge or in a conference room, susses out just what precisely is going on, and eventually come up with a course of action to deal with it, usually involving the application of technology, medicine, diplomacy, or lateral thinking. The motivations of the characters generally have very little to do with their own survival, avarice, emotional problems, or self-betterment. Most often, Trek‘s characters are grappling with the issues at hand either to pursue knowledge or make the galaxy a slightly better place.

If there is action, it’s usually to just show us the stakes. Torpedoes are firing, so it’s important to come to a solution quickly. People are dying, so it’s necessary to science or diplomatize as fast as possible. Action in Star Trek is generally auxiliary to the main plot, rather than something pursued in and of itself. Trek‘s usually at its most awkward when it attempts to be an action movie, rather than a thinky show. Probably my least favorite part of Trek is the string Next Generation movies which (with the kinda-sorta exception of First Contact) generally fell flat because they tried to turn Picard into John McClane. Insurrection and Nemesis were embarrassing failures not just because they were bad Star Trek, but because they seemingly forgot what Star Trek‘s about.

The emphasis on action and de-emphasis on problem solving is precisely what’s missing from J. J. Abrams’ current version of Trek. The two Star Trek movies that have come out so far have done a good job of re-creating the characters (especially Zachary Quinto as Spock) and are both perfectly fine action movies that happen in space. I want to emphasize, in no uncertain terms, that I enjoyed them as space adventure movies. However, Star Trek isn’t just about high-stakes movie action. Very often, it’s about put-upon administrators who just want their space station to work right, annoying interplanetary bureaucrats, and troublesome alien furballs that breed constantly. It’s about the weird stuff you find in the great unknown reaches, the unforeseen problems, big and small, that come with discovery, and the great panoply if life and phenomena that could be somewhere out there. The great unknown does not always need to threaten your life and limb, declare war upon you, or present an insurmountable menace. Sometimes it’s enough for that unknown to just grow fur, coo at you, and eat your chicken sandwich.

Bonus! My wonderfully multitalented girlfriend, Sarah, was tasked with taking the official photograph of the cast. Check it out.

A List

Bucket lists tend to be big things (“see the Taj Mahal” “go diving in the Great Barrier Reef”) and tend to betray a desire for the list maker to want to achieve greatness, or be connected to greatness. This is not a bucket list. These are not great or lofty goals. These are small things to achieve, dumb little flourishes I’d like to add to my persona and portfolio of experience for no other reason than to be mildly more interesting to myself and others.

-Learn to juggle four balls, not just three.

-Completely memorize Yakko’s World (despite it being out of date) and perform it flawlessly.

-Actually read Finnegan’s Wake.

-Learn to crack an egg one-handed.

-Beat Super Mario Bros. 3 in one sitting without using a warp whistle.

-Get a perfect score at a pub trivia night.

-Run one of those goofy obstacle course runs like the Warrior Dash or Tough Mudder.

-Reliably be able to make risotto.

-Memorize the order of U.S. presidents. (I’m good on the twentieth century, and the early ones, but the late 1800s always messes me up.)

-Learn to say the alphabet backwards.

-Appear as an extra in a movie. (I’ve already done so with TV. It was interesting.)

-Successfully perform a handstand.

-Successfully perform a kip-up.

-Get an okay grasp of physics so I can talk about it without sounding like an idiot.

-Participate in some kind of fun run, perhaps while wearing an impractical outfit not suitable for jogging.

-Actually eat frog legs and then attempt to evaluate them as fairly as I can, taste-wise.

-Learn to juggle five balls, not just four.

-Achieve existential fulfillment.

Rocket Punch International: Go See Pacific Rim

245941id1b_PacRim_1sided_120x180_2p_400.inddOne of the best parts of the Toy Story trilogy is the opening sequence of the third movie, in which Andy imagines fanciful scenarios wherein his plastic friends do battle. The piggy bank isn’t just a bank, it’s an evil scientist with a spaceship. Woody and Buzz have to stop him from causing a train wreck. There’s a dinosaur. Aliens. Action. Hijinks. We see inside the head of a kid thwaking his disparate toys together and imagining scenarios where they all go “PEW, PEW, PEW,” spout cornball dialogue, and team up to save the day. The sequence works beautifully. Just about every kid has played with their toys in exactly that fashion.

Pacific Rim is like watching a big version of Andy play with his toys in the best way possible. Throughout the whole robots-versus-monsters slugfest, I kept imagining Guillermo del Toro as a hypercreative kid playing with his various action figures. He picks them up, gives them whimsical names, and then provides shape and narration to the imagined conflict. This toy robot? Its name is Gypsy Danger. It used to be a big deal, but then one its pilots died and now no one knows if its up for the fight. This plastic monster? Its name is Otachi, and is one of the largest monsters ever to attack human civilization. Oh no! Otachi is attacking Hong Kong! Can Gypsy Danger save the day? Keep talking, kid. We want to see where this is going.

For a movie ostensibly about death, destruction, and the potential doom of Earthly civilizaton, Pacific Rim is a refreshingly bright movie. It’s bright in its colors, tone, and, most of all, in the feeling of togetherness and cooperation that pervades it. For humanity, repelling the Kaiju is an international effort that takes a diverse array of Russians, Chinese, Australians, Americans, Japanese, and, well, everybody. Nations seem to exist in Pacific Rim, but nationalism and jingoism don’t, really. Cooperation, both international and interpersonal, is ultimately humanity’s key to combating the monstrous kaiju. It takes two mind-melded pilots to operate the gigantic robotic jaegers. It takes a gigantic crew of diverse people to keep them up and running. One more than one occasion, characters say “let’s do this together,” and they mean it. It’s hokey in a Benetton or Captain Planet kind of way, but compared to jingoistic, racist movies like the Transformers series, its refreshing to see a film mainly set in Not America where people of differing races, nationalities, and native languages all get together and be awesome together.

It’s not a perfect movie, by any means. Many of the story beats are mostly perfunctory, the characters are mostly flat (albeit very well-defined), and despite being a fairly diverse movie there are only two female characters, one of whom barely registers. The diversity can also be fairly superficial. The Russians and Chinese (who are portrayed in such a stereotypical way that they would look at home in a Street Fighter game) have barely anything to do, and the main character is a conventional white guy. But, at least the movie cares enough about pluralism to implicitly say that international cooperation is an awesome thing right up there with rocket punches and giant swords. The idealism behind Pacific Rim‘s vision of cooperation isn’t realistic, certainly, but it is heartfelt and endearing. Guillermo del Toro, playing with his toys, also imagines everyone getting along, which is pretty damn laudable. Most other action movies don’t bother.

Go see it. It’s fresh, energetic, fun, and isn’t another damn sequel, reboot, or adaptation. It’s enthusiasm writ large. It’s the most imaginative kid you know playing with his toys. It’s everyone on Earth getting together to kick Cthulhu’s ass. It’s zoomy and colorful and colossal, It is, in other words, pretty much everything a blockbuster should be.

Destroy all Consoles

Sony announced the PS4 yesterday, and it is a thing that should not be. Game consoles as we know them need to go extinct. They present system is clunky, inefficient, bad for the consumers, and frankly annoying. Below are a few of my cranky gripes about the state of gaming, why consoles should die, and what I’d like to see.

-All consoles should be able to play all games. Remember back when CDs were a thing? I know, it was a long time ago, but bear with me. Would you have bought a CD player that could only play discs from EMI? What about one that would only play albums by artists on Atlantic Records? How about some indie player that only ever played Kill Rock Stars? Would you accept that? Obviously not. Yet, that’s the system we accept for games. It’s mind boggling in how long it’s persisted, and kind of maddening that consumers aren’t more upset about it. In no other kind of media to buyers accept such limitations, but when it comes to video games people actually get fanboyish about their favorite consoles. That’s ridiculous.

-Physical disks should die. Why the hell do we still have physical disks? We have the Internet. Cutting out disks would mean that game companies would no longer have to worry about the manufacturing and distribution of disks or retail middleman taking a cut. That would (hopefully) drive down the costs of games. Hopefully. Maybe not EA or Activision’s games, as those companies are kind of shadowy and evil, but hopefully those of other companies.

-There needs to be an iTunes for old games. Yes, Nintendo had the Virtual Console, but that wasn’t enough. Far too many old games are fading away because the hardware that ran them has gone obsolete. I’d love to have a service where I could purchase classics like Planescape: Torment, Monkey Island, or the Sega X-Men games.

-Nintendo should just be a software company. The whole reason people buy Nintendo’s consoles anymore is to play Mario, Zelda, and Metroid games. I seriously doubt that anyone buys Nintendo’s consoles because they want to play games in general. No, they want to play Nintendo’s games specifically. As someone who grew up with Mario, Link, and Samus I’d be happy to sit down and revisit some of these old IPs for a game or two, but not so much that I want to actually buy the ridiculously clunky flop that is the WiiU.

-Consoles should be generic and upgradeable, like PCs. I replaced all manner of parts in my old desktop. I jammed more RAM into it, gave it a new graphics card, replaced the fan and the power source, swapped out all of the peripherals, and replaced just about everything except the motherboard and CPU. I’d appreciate that kind of screws-not-glue approach to consoles. Instead of things being upgraded in fits and starts with new generations of consoles coming every few years, we’d just have a gradual increase in what people’s machines were capable of.

-Fuck it, consoles should just be PCs. A PC that hooks up to your big TV where you can do stuff with a controller, and you’re not locked into a single company’s hardware, OS, game library, or anything like that. Can we have that? No?

Fine, I’ll just wait for the Steam Box.