Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Halloween treat by Richard Matheson

For Halloween I present a short and shuddery tale by master storyteller Richard Matheson. Matheson, born in 1926, died this year, and in his long career produced such classic books as I Am Legend and The Shrinking Man, but is also known for his screenwriting credits for television (The Twilight Zone), his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations for Roger Corman, and numerous books and stories produced over a long career.

In “Drink My Red Blood...” we have a poignant tale of a boy, told as only Matheson could tell it. It is scanned from its appearance in Imagination Volume 2 Number 2, 1951.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Damned by YouTube

A Tourism Department photo of the alien landscape of Goblin Valley.

You might have seen the YouTube video showing some jerks destroying a natural rock formation in Goblin Valley, a state park in Utah. The video has been taken down, and all that’s left is a notice of copyright by the idiot who took the cellphone video.

Like many before them, these guys found out that when something goes viral on YouTube it can give instant fame, either for bad or for good. In the case of these two it wasn’t good. They both lost their positions as scout leaders, and are facing state felony charges for vandalism. Besides a photographic record, what got them in trouble was their celebration after the vandalism. Guys doing good deeds don’t need to high-five each other.

 “Slip me some skin, fellow moron!”

They claimed they thought they were doing a good thing. They thought the rock was ready to tumble over onto a passing family. Their excuse sounds fishy. To me the whole incident dovetails into something else.

The goblin-toppling incident can be seen as metaphor for events that came before. Two other vandals, Senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, caused major damage during the government shutdown. They offered flimsy reasons when called on their misbehavior. Both the former scout leaders in Goblin Valley and the senators in Washington D.C. said they were doing damage in order to save people. Obviously most people saw through those excuses and they will be held accountable. The goblin guys will have their day in court, the senators will have to answer to their constituents come election day. Let’s hope all four get the justice they, and the public, deserve.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Up on the roof

Yesterday I completed the second half of a ritual I have performed each year since 1975. I climb a ladder to the roof of my suburban split-entry house, and I prepare the evaporative cooler for winter.

There are all makes and models of this type of cooling unit. This is as close a picture as I could find online to one that looks like mine. 

The ritual of the cooler usually begins in May, when the weather starts to get hot, or as I have learned, as soon as the weather person on television says it will be getting hot. I go to Lowe’s, buy some cooler pads, climb the roof, install the pads, make sure everything is working and my water line isn’t leaking, and then I switch on my cooler for a summer full of hot temperatures outside, cool temperatures inside. That’s the theory, anyway. What usually happens is the cooler, which is above the main hallway, really only cools the living room, so I also have to set up fans in the various rooms in a vain hope of circulating air.

The cooler, which works on a principle discovered during the 18th century by Napoleon’s soldiers when they kept food in wet burlap bags, depends on low humidity to work at peak efficiency. Typical summer humidity in our area is about 10% or less until the season of thunderstorms, so-called “monsoonal moisture” which sets itself up above us for at least a couple of weeks in late July-early August. If the humidity gets to 25% or higher I might as well not have the cooler on, because the humidity is cancelling out the evaporation.

My house is the proverbial oven, located in the proverbial desert hell. This past summer the temperatures were hotter than any summer before, over 95º F for almost two months, and inside the house with the swamp cooler working it was kept at a relatively reasonable 75º in the living room, but in all other upstairs rooms it was more like 80º. I have lived with this so long I should be used to it, but I still do my fair share of kvetching and complaining about the heat.

When we bought our house in 1975 swamp coolers were preferred for home air conditioning. I read once that about 75% of homes in my area used the evaporative cooler, but now it has flip-flopped, and more people use a central air conditioner with their furnace than use a swamp cooler. The central air is much more expensive to run, because people have a tendency to want it cooler than necessary in summer, just like they want to be warmer than necessary in winter. There’s a comfort zone in there somewhere, which I have found to be about 72º. The other thing I read is that running all of these central air conditioners is actually making it hotter outside. The good thing about my rooftop cooler is that it is no more expensive to use than a light bulb, and it doesn’t really contribute to outside pollution.

The swamp cooler is a simple device: a motor turns a large drum inside the box, a pump moves water from the tank of the cooler to the pads to evaporate. The cool air is forced down into the house through a duct to a diffuser built into my ceiling. Every year I am forced to make repairs, which can be repairing a leak in the waterline to the cooler, or replacing the pump or cleaning out the tubes that pour the water onto the pads when they get clogged. I have had summers where I felt like I was on the roof sweating over keeping the cooler running more than I was in my living room being cooled. A typical summer I’d say means from five to ten trips up the ladder to the roof to get everything adjusted and to keep it that way. It’s usually a big relief to get the cooler ready for winter. The process takes about a half hour to an hour, and there is always a satisfaction of knowing that I’ve got about 7 or 8 months of not having to worry about my cooler. No, I just worry about my ancient furnace, but that’s a whole other story.

Getting the cooler winterized entails taking up a bag of supplies; a 6 x 8 foot tarpaulin (those blue things you buy at Walmart for $6.99), a 1/2” wrench to detach the water line to drain it, some strong string or twine to tie the tarpaulin onto the cooler to prevent it from blowing off in a strong wind (that has happened to me a time or two). 

Yesterday was a reiteration to me of the old cliché, “this shit is getting old.” It is getting old because I am getting old. When I moved into this house I was 28 years old, and now I’m 66. Making several trips up and down a ladder is getting harder every year. I know most guys don’t like to admit they can’t do this sort of thing after they reach a certain point of their biological clock, but I’m not afraid to admit it. Yeah, next year I should hire someone to do it for me. I don’t want to crawl up on that goddamn roof one more time in my life. But then, I’ve said that for at least the last five years.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Man in the Black Hat

Years ago I found the first edition of a 1941 anthology, The Other Worlds, in a Salvation Army thrift store in California. It reprints stories from magazines like Weird Tales that just weren’t getting much attention in their day. Being published in pulp magazines was something of a stigma. The editor, Phil Stong, although relying heavily on those pulps, went beyond them for his collection, including “Aunt Cassie,” a charming and interesting ghost story by his wife, Virginia Swain, and a true classic of the macabre, “The Graveyard Rats” by Henry Kuttner. So he went from gentle fantasy to gruesome horror in one volume. Good show!

As good as many of the stories are, one of my favorites is “The Man in the Black Hat," by Michael Fessier, reprinted from the February, 1934 issue of Esquire. It has been anthologized several times, (also adapted for radio and television) and for good reason. It presents a situation that is unusual, with a premise difficult to fathom. It leaves the reader wondering how it happened. I love that in a short story. A good story should have a punch, and keep the reader’s mind engaged after the story ends.

Copyright  © 1941 Wilfred Funk, Inc.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Anthony Hopkins enjoyed Breaking Bad with fava beans and a fine Chianti

Anthony Hopkins binge-watched the five seasons of Breaking Bad, and wrote star Bryan Cranston an e-mail to tell him what he thought of the acting.
Dear Mister Cranston.

I wanted to write you this email - so I am contacting you through Jeremy Barber - I take it we are both represented by UTA. Great agency.

I've just finished a marathon of watching "BREAKING BAD" - from episode one of the First Season - to the last eight episodes of the Sixth Season. [Ed note: There are in fact five seasons of Breaking Bad; this might have been wishful thinking.] (I downloaded the last season on AMAZON) A total of two weeks (addictive) viewing.

I have never watched anything like it. Brilliant!

Your performance as Walter White was the best acting I have seen - ever.

I know there is so much smoke blowing and sickening bullshit in this business, and I've sort of lost belief in anything really.

But this work of yours is spectacular - absolutely stunning. What is extraordinary, is the sheer power of everyone in the entire production. What was it? Five or six years in the making? How the producers (yourself being one of them), the writers, directors, cinematographers.... every department - casting etc. managed to keep the discipline and control from beginning to the end is (that over used word) awesome.

From what started as a black comedy, descended into a labyrinth of blood, destruction and hell. It was like a great Jacobean, Shakespearian or Greek Tragedy.

If you ever get a chance to - would you pass on my admiration to everyone - Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Aaron Paul, Betsy Brandt, R.J. Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Steven Michael Quezada - everyone - everyone gave master classes of performance ... The list is endless.

Thank you. That kind of work/artistry is rare, and when, once in a while, it occurs, as in this epic work, it restores confidence.

You and all the cast are the best actors I've ever seen.

That may sound like a good lung full of smoke blowing. But it is not. It's almost midnight out here in Malibu, and I felt compelled to write this email.

Congratulations and my deepest respect. You are truly a great, great actor.

Best regards

Tony Hopkins.

Now that's praise that has some teeth in it!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Three apocalypses: Zombie, climate and Republicans

The Walking Dead is back for its fourth season. It began its new story arc last Sunday night, attracting a huge viewing audience, and for all Walking Dead fans there was a lot of what they like to see: gore and guts.

In zombie movies, by the time we see the dead, whatever was once human is now gone. Zombies are walking shells that were once people. So of course that gives surviving humans the right (nay, the responsibility!) to blow them away, usually with high calibre bullets to the head, although anything that can be used to kill the brain is good. In the aforementioned Walking Dead episode the zombies are outside the fence of the prison where the good guys have taken refuge from enemies: bad guys, both alive and undead. But by being undead the zombies aren’t really bad guys, are they? Sure they’re trying to chow down on living flesh, but they can’t help it. Usually in fiction we try to kill the people who deserve to be killed. What makes the zombies the object of our subjective lust to kill is not their personalities — being dead they have none — or whether they deserve it. It’s just because they are what they are, scary and ugly as hell. The situation in the season opener of Walking Dead sets up a lot of camera shots where humans are on one side of a chainlink fence stabbing sharpened poles or knives into zombie heads, with big gouts of blood. We get all the visceral thrills of killing with none of the guilt. We can’t really kill dead people, can we? We can just stop them from shambling on over to where we are to try to bite us.

Something they don’t get too deep into in these shows is disposal of large piles of corpses, which mostly goes on off-camera. Corpses would stink the place up something awful, but even if they are walking they’re still dead, and I assume still decomposing. But I never hear anyone in one of these stories say, “I smell a bunch of decaying zombies! They’re heading our way!” Since they’re still decomposing it may explain why all zombies in movies have to have messed up faces. Unless they’ve been in a horrible accident most people don’t die with their faces looking like raw meat.

The zombie movies are part of fiction about the collapse of civilization. The best thing is, despite all of the things that can happen to crush a civilization including sneak attacks by enemy nations, hordes of barbarians sweeping over the land killing all in their path, natural disasters, hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes and such, the only apocalyptic vision we will never have to face is a zombie apocalypse.

Not so a Republican apocalypse. As I write this, and if nothing is done to avert it, we have about two days until there will be a crisis which has evolved out of Republican hard-headedness and general disregard for their fellow citizens.

Patience of correct-thinking Americans, who have watched tea party idiots work to scuttle the stability and government of our country and throw their fellow Americans off a fiscal cliff, has been seriously tested. It’s because of some blathering idiots on the radio (Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, to name a couple) who have created crises where there are none, and brought about a political party based on fear, ignorance and some sort of phony “patriotism.”

That’s an apocalyptic vision to scare normal folks.

Further on down the road is the climate change apocalypse, which is not only a subject of denial by those same right wingdings, but far enough down the road that their view of the impending apocalypse is blurred.

The latest apocalyptic scare is an article that came out the other day claiming that by 2047 (a mere 34 years) the coldest winter will be hotter than our hottest summer.

Yikes. Another apocalypse to dread. Not only will we have major seaboard cities under water from melted glaciers, but drought and the heat of hellfire in the middle of the country and the Southwest. I can’t imagine how much hotter it can get than it is already in cities that reach 115º in summer, but better get out the sunblock because by stepping out onto the street in 2047 your skin could catch fire. I should mention the likelihood is I won’t be here to see such a doom, because I would be 100-years-old in 2047, and the way I’m feeling now about Republicans I’m sure I’ll have a heart attack and die much sooner than that.

I’m worried by the thoughts that my son and his family will be around in 2047 to bear what has been created by people of prior generations — including my own — who will have brought upon our descendents such an apocalypse out of denial, greed and stupidity.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Walt Disney and the American Dream

On a December day in 1966 I heard that Walt Disney had died. I thought it was the end of an era, that the Disney entertainment empire would probably fall apart after Walt’s death. It seemed to me that the person of Walt Disney and his company were the same thing.

It’s true that Disney did have the final say-so over the products released under his name. He was very hands-on that way. But despite losing Walt the Disney organization has survived and flourished and now it is much, much bigger than I think even Walt himself envisioned.

To consider the worth of the company bearing his name it’s easy to forget that it all had to start somewhere. Disney was once a poor cartoonist trying to start a company and sell his animated cartoons. Even when things got rock bottom he never gave up on his dream.

Disney was very down-and-out at one point in the early 1920s during his time in Kansas City trying to make his Laff-O-gram Films company a success. You’d think any other person would give up, then go out and get a job in a warehouse or the Post Office. Not Disney. He kept trying and trying and working harder and harder until he made his dream a reality.

The book, Walt Before Mickey, by Timothy S. Susanin, published by University Press of Mississippi in 2011, tells several stories of Walt’s poverty, including one anecdote that shows how bad it got:
       “As the end of 1922 loomed, Laugh-O-gram Films was . . . ‘down to its last penny . . .’ [But then] Walt was asked to make a live-action educational film. Dr. Thomas B. McCrum, forty-six, a dentist . . . asked Walt to produce a film that Dr. McCrum could use to educate children about dental care. Dr. McCrum offered to pay $500 for the film, but Walt’s dire financial straits prevented Walt from agreeing to meet with Dr. McCrum:
       “One night the doctor called [Walt] to say, ‘I’ve got the money. Come over and we’ll set the deal. ‘I can’t,’ Walt told him. ‘Why not?’ the doctor asked. ‘I haven’t got any shoes,’ [Walt] said. ‘They were falling apart. I left them at the shoemaker’s shop downstairs and he won’t let me have them until I dig up a dollar and a half.’ ‘I’ll be right over,’ Dr. McCrum said. He paid the shoemaker, took [Walt] back to his office, and together they worked out an agreement to make the film he had in mind.”
When Walt relocated (with shoes) to Hollywood he began to slowly build his new studio. Even if he couldn’t see exactly what a world renowned success he would become, I think he looked at everything he did as a step in the right direction. His employees, even when things were at their worst, described him as optimistic about the future.

Walt’s earliest employees included some of the real legends of the animation industry: Hugh Harman (and for a time, Hugh’s older brother Fred (Red Ryder) Harman), Rudy Ising, Ub Iwerks, and even Friz Freleng.

Disney did have a problem with keeping employees, who often moved on to better offers or just to get away with Walt. From descriptions of Walt’s single-minded vision and drive I believe he may have had a narcissistic personality disorder. Not disabling, but enough that he saw himself as the center of a self-contained universe. After having several arguments with Disney, Friz Freleng quit. Freleng had called in sick one day, but actually went to the movies. Disney saw him on top of a double-decker bus that Disney was driving behind. The next day Freleng’s desk was cleared out, another argument ensued, and Friz was out.

Freleng had said of his relationship with Walt, “Walt and I had personalities that clashed.” As a result, “I just couldn’t take him anymore . . .” Friz felt that, “Walt was just a hard person to work for. I think a lot of people have said the same thing, you had to please Walt, you couldn’t please yourself.”

From an historical point of view Freleng is vindicated in quitting because he went on to such fame as an animation director at Warner Bros.

From the book:
       “When he was eighty-four, Freleng gave an interview to the Kansas City Star in which he appeared to be at peace with his rocky relationship with Walt, saying, ‘Walt was a genius, and a genius does what he wants. He doesn’t do what you want.’”
Even Walt’s brother, Roy, whom he had joined in California, took the brunt of Walt’s ego. Walt had originally named the studio “Disney Brothers,” but one day declared to Roy that he thought it would be better just to have one name, so he re-named the studio after himself. Roy went along with it, although he was surprised at the demotion in status.

Since Walt’s death most of the people who helped build the Disney brand have received their recognition. Walt Before Mickey has certainly identified most, if not all, of the major players in Disney’s early career, especially with the amount of minutiae the author has presented. Much research has gone into Disney’s career. It appears that no surviving receipt or newspaper notice has been missed in the scholar’s zeal to document everything that concerned Disney and his companies, leading up to the major breakthrough that came about with the creation of Mickey Mouse.

Another excellent book on Walt’s early career is Walt in Wonderland (Johns-Hopkins University Press, 2000), about Disney’s silent films.

At some point, despite the characters the Disney studios had created and marketed successfully, the most interesting character to come along was Disney himself. In the mid-fifties after opening his Disneyland theme park and his Disneyland television program, Disney became the spokesperson for the studio.  He came out and did a bit of dialogue before each program, and created the role of the friendly “Uncle Walt” to his young audience. We all bought it. I thought for sure I could write Walt a personal note and he’d come to my home to speak to my scout troop! Luckily my mother didn’t let me send it, telling me, “Mister Disney is a very busy man, with a lot of important things to do.” I was a bit crushed, but that was the friendly image he projected. “Uncle Walt” was a CEO of a major company, with all of those attendant duties. Later in life I understood how Walt Disney created a company, memorable cartoon characters — and later live action, like Davy Crockett —  while creating himself for the Baby Boomer generation. By his clever use of television to cater to the largest group of youngsters to come along in the history of the United States, he had virtually ensured himself of immortality for that generation. The proof of that is in the Disney name, still known and revered around the world.


A day after posting the above I found this on my Peanuts page-a-day calendar. I believe I can tie it in to what I just said about Disney being his own greatest creation.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Tea party: traitors and treason

Tea party: more Benedict Arnold than Paul Revere.

It’s hard not to look upon the dysfunctional mess that is Congress in 2013 as being anything more than a body filled with traitors fomenting treason. What else would you call individuals within a group who try to derail a whole government and its functions for the goal of killing a law they don’t like?

Many people are blaming both Democrats and Republicans for being obstinate, not moving to compromise. But if I were President of the United States what would I do? I’d know that what the Republicans are trying to kill is a law that has already gone into effect, has already passed Constitutional muster by the United States Supreme Court, and is wanted by a great many citizens. So I’d stand my ground and force the traitors to cave to the will of the people.

Forget what you learned about in your high school civics classes about the three branches of government. The United States government has more than three branches. With the Citizens United ruling, ironically by the very Supreme Court that declared Obamacare constitutional, (so one good, one bad decision), we have added an unconstitutional “special interest” fourth branch of government, which covers multi-billionaires and corporations and lobbying groups, including the National Rifle Association. They have added a whole other level of sinister intentions with their own purposes in mind, rather than the common purposes of the populace.

And why? Well, fear for one thing. Fear of losing power, especially.

Add into this paranoid fear a president of color, and whooboy, the racist nuts are out in force. Tea party lawmakers may have left their burning crosses and white hoods at home, but I see those symbols of racial hatred superimposed on them. Electing a man of color not once, but twice, has fanned those flames of race hatred from the embers of the past to the firestorms of the present.

At the tea party center I see a racist organization, just a more sophisticated hate group than the Ku Klux Klan or American Nazis. And they will always find spokespeople, provided with money funneled in from those aforementioned special interest groups. That idiots like the tea party members can be elected says a lot about certain segments of the American electorate, but can such an organization continue to exist? As long as they are willing to sabotage everyone else’s rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness for their own treasonous purposes they can fool enough fools to go on for a time. Our country has weathered such groups before, and this is just one more group of disaffected radicals to deal with.

People who identify with the tea party may picture themselves as Paul Revere, but they are more like Benedict Arnold.