Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Sisterhood of the Black Crow

While on my recent cemetery adventures, my cohorts and I noticed that the ground seemed oddly sunken in some areas. Possibly related to the loss of all those trees, from areas where they were torn out? That's a theory. Whatever caused it, there were patches of earth, some very near graves, that looked like the ground wanted to cave in. My sister spotted one of them, went around to the other side of a tombstone to investigate, and got a startle.

This is what she found:

Our first thought was that the bird was fake: after all, it was close to Halloween, and that's when you can actually buy artificial crows in retail establishments. However, getting as close as we could without actually poking it, three things became clear. It was a real bird. It was freshly dead. And it was extremely oddly placed.

Here's a closeup:

On the bottom of the tombstone, the bottom of the cross and the words "Rest in Peace" were directly over the bird.

Could this have been some kind of "natural causes"? It seems unlikely. It seems more likely that someone put the bird under the "Rest in Peace." But who? Why?

We decided that someday we should start a group called the Coven of the Black Crow. Then we realized that "Sisterhood of the Black Crow" would be more apt, so I'm staking my claim on the internet, just in case. Since I've supposedly been included in the "Brotherhood of Man" all my life, I'm sure it wouldn't be a problem for us to eventually welcome in men to the Sisterhood.

I suppose that saying "Black Crow" is kinda redundant. However, "Sisterhood of the Crow" just sounds a little too plain and unvarnished to get the idea across.

And in all honesty, "Sisterhood of the DEAD Crow" is actually more accurate. But I don't know what people would make of that!

The preliminary mandate of the Sisterhood is that we go places, we keep our eyes open, and we see things. That's all you need to do to have some unlikely experiences.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween '13

FYI, I was on the radio today, on Prairie Public's Main Street show, which is listenable here. The host, Doug Hamilton, said the selection I read was "chilling. But a warm, poignant chilling."


Here's a select photo from last weekend's trip to our hometown cemetery. The overview pictures don't show how weird and uncanny it was, because without the "before" you can't appreciate the "after." A few years back, there was a big tornado, and there's hardly a tree left. It's like going to visit someone you loved and not even recognizing them. It used to be that you felt completely enclosed, but now it's barren and wide open, so all the houses you never saw before are right there.

Trust me -- it did not look like this before.

I used to think that the trees growing in the cemetery would take on the spirits of the people buried there. Animistic from an early age! And now that the trees and shrubs are all gone, it seems doubly sad.

We also had a very peculiar experience will deserves its own blog post, so, there'll be a few more creeps to come!

In the meantime, Happy Halloween, and keep your pumpkins lit!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Cakes from HELL: the Pessimistic Baker Makes Skulls

Learning to bake has been on my to-do list for ages -- as I discovered when I picked up some of that fancy cooking spray, with the flour in it, and discovered two other cans that had expired over two years ago. Oops! But with Halloween upon us, I was determined to use the occasion to bake a cake in my skull cake pan, along with the skull and jack-o-lantern cupcake pans I've picked up along the way.

What I really need with baking (and cooking) at this point is familiarity. I've been looking for a book to help learn baking, and what I really want is something that starts with the rock-bottom basics, has you make something, and then slowly increases in complexity, building on skills used in things you've already made. The recipes need to use few ingredients, and appear simple and reassuring. There are lots of gorgeous and inspiring books out there, but they're all starting from too advanced of a place for me. Some of us are intimidated just by mixing the ingredients in a bowl!

So I started in the easiest place I could find: a box of cake mix. My specific tasks to conquer were: finding the hand mixer; using the hand mixer; turning on the oven; transferring batter into a pan; and not burning anything.

In those terms, it's a success!

The mixer was actually where I thought it would be, and I considered it a good omen when I found its doo-hickeys(see, I just had to Google to find out they're called "beaters").

The cake mix in question was a Pillsbury Moist Supreme Premium Cake Mix in "Classic White." It was quite yellow, though,and came out looking nothing whatsoever like the cake on the box. I did use the whole egg recipe rather than the egg white recipe -- because please -- which might be the difference, but it does make me wonder what's different about yellow cake.

(The numbering scheme of the following steps has been done by me, in summary of the relevant box instructions).

1. Set your oven to 350 degrees. On my oven, I can push a button for a particular function, set a temperature, and then it'll beep when it pre-heats to the temp. Fortunately, one of these functions is "Bake," so I knew to pick that instead of, say, "Broil." If I were cooking something, I might have some problems just turning on the oven, although I think I just always use "Bake," because what, the heat knows the difference? In any case, the oven pre-heated to 350 degrees before I even got blending. Does it make any difference? It seems to me, based on communal Christmas cookie baking, that the longer the oven is on, the hotter it gets, and thus, the less time you need to bake later batches. Will that be relevant? I have no idea.

2. Either use shortening and flour (Good lord! Is this the 1930s?) or "lightly coat" with no-stick cooking spray. As stated, I bought the fancy baking spray, so I used that. It came out in an uncontrollable futz of white spray, so I don't know about "lightly coating" anything. Also, the box said to use liners for cupcakes. That would normally make sense, even to me, but I was using special molded cupcake pans, that are supposed to be "non-stick."

3. Add ingredients. Fortunately, I'm an overachiever with the liquid measurements. AND I can crack an egg with one hand.

By the way, I totally Single White Female-ed this Pyrex bowl from a friend: I saw hers and went straight to eBay. But who can blame me? 

4. Blend ingredients until moistened. It took me a second to realize that meant separately from using the mixer, and blending is not the same as beating.

5. Beat with a mixer on medium speed for 2 minutes. My mixer has 4 numerical settings, so I assumed that 2 was "medium." That seems to have worked, since the result was something recognizable as cake batter.

I had some real concerns about whether the hand mixer was going to fling batter all over my kitchen, but it did not, even when I pulled the beaters out slightly to spin the batter off them. Fortunately, I have a vague memory of my mom doing that, so I didn't just stop mixing and leave them heavy with goop.

5a. They missed a step here, which is the part where you get the batter into the pans. Okay, yes, this is as rudimentary as it gets, but that's what I'm looking for!  I spooned into the cupcake pans, and poured into the bigger pan. The main thing I didn't really know was how much batter this was going to produce. The box said it made "24 cupcakes," but that wasn't helpful. Turns out, there was exactly enough batter for each of my pieces: one skull cake, 4 skull cupcakes, and 4 pumpkins. Kind of spooky.

6. Bake. "Follow the bake times below."

Here's where it gets tricky. Different bake times are given for 5 different cakish scenarios: One 13x9 inch pan; two 8-inch round pans; two 9-inch round pans; a Bundt pan; and 24 cupcakes (2/3rds full).

First of all: if you fill the cupcakes 2/34rds full, I imagine it's because it's going to rise. Does that mean a cake will rise also? With the cake pans, they don't say anything about how high to fill them. But it  seems that if cupcakes shouldn't be filled to the top, neither should cake pans.

My second confusion was about the relationship between the amount of cake in the oven at one time, as related to the bake time given. Maybe it's not even relevant, but who knows? Even a microwave will say to use more time if you're zapping two frozen enchiladas instead of one.

In my case, I had two pans with 4 cupcakes each, and a single cake pan, of unclear dimensions. We'll get to that troublesome skull in a minute; for now, I just don't know, even if I guess that cake pan is the equivalent of 8 inches, would I bake it at the time given for two 8-inch pans? How about if I want to put in the cake and one cupcake pan at the same time? (Which I did).

Questions like these are exactly why Betty Crocker was created in the first place!

I picked up some recycled aluminum cake pans for future reference, but when I got them home, I discovered they are 8 - 3/4ths round pans. So ... is that the bake time for 8 inches, or 9 inches?

In the meantime, despite not knowing enough to guesstimate, I totally did. With mixed results. I had the cupcakes in for a good 5+ minutes less than the suggested time, and they certainly didn't need any more.

However ...

7. Cake is done when a toothpick comes out clean.

Here's where we really had a problem, based on my wild guessing about proper times. To be fair, my skull cake pan is made of very thin metal and quite shallow, and it's neither a symmetrical shape, nor a consistent depth. So I definitely made this harder than it had to be. However, I did in fact skewer the cake, in different areas, and it came out clean.

So it had been cooling on the cookie rack for quite a while when I decided to turn 'er over and see how well the skull pattern had turned out. When, uh ... complete disaster! Although it was nice and golden baked around the edges, it was still soft and pudding-y in the middle. What a mess!

I announced that 8 cupcakes may be all we were going to get, but my honey helped me plop the whole mess onto a piece of aluminum foil, on a cookie sheet. We baked it for another ten minutes. What came out was more or less like a bread bowl cake. Hey, maybe that's a thing that should exist! Since it was yellowish, it looked very like it had some kind of cheesy stuff in the middle. So we ate it right out of there, fondue-style.

8. Clean up! The smartest thing I did was start putting dishes in the sink immediately. I put the egg shells in the measuring cup while I was blending. When I got to beating, I tossed them, and had the measuring cup handy to stash the sticky beaters in while I was pouring and putting in the oven. Once that was done, I squirted in some dish soap and let them soak, so the batter didn't dry on. Then, as soon as my second batch of cupcakes went in the oven, I immediately started soaking the mixing bowl. By the time those cupcakes were done, the first set of cupcakes were cool enough to remove from the pan, and I washed that along with the bowl, the measuring cup, the beaters, etc.

The verdict? Doable! Next time I'll try to use more normal cake pans and see if that makes a difference. Also, this mix was ironically a little sweet for my taste, so we'll have to see if I can darken it down in the future.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Swallowed Their Soul

Spoilers, all the way to the end:

Wow, who'd have ever thought that 1981s's The Evil Dead would ever come to seem subtle? But that's what I kept thinking during the many, many scenes of pain, suffering, and self-mutilation on display in 2013's Evil Dead (for a minor example: lingering close-ups of people pulling nails out of their flesh). Even more problematic, it is, like umpteen other remakes of horror classics, annoyingly over-determined.

I know it must be hard to make a cabin-in-the-woods fright flick after Cabin in the Woods, but oh, for the days when a group of friends could go on a weekend get-away, stumble across crazy-madness, and then, when they try to flee, discover that the bridge has been washed out!

In this film's overly complicated but needlessly opaque set-up, messed-up Mia has summoned friends and her estranged brother to their mom's old cabin to quit (heroin? I assume) cold turkey. This is the pretext that is supposed to prevent them from leaving; her two friends, who I thought were a couple, but then not -- they're all apparently childhood friends, with unclear resentments -- have made a pact to keep her prisoner if need be, to make sure she goes through with it this time.

I will add that star Jane Levy looks really pretty and well-groomed for a junkie, but as I said at the time, "Well, that's Hollywood."

It also seems to me that if her friends wanted to keep her locked up until it's all over, that's exactly what Detox is for, but again, never mind. They didn't say that she had insurance!

At any rate, after all that angst to explain why they didn't just leave in the first place, and the demon-possessed Mia is spitting white fluid, they discover that the bridge is freakin' washed out anyway! So they would have been legitimately trapped in place with the evil spirits anyway, if they'd acted like sane people, without all the rigamarole.

Her friend the nurse insists to brother David that Mia's getting the same treatment she would in a hospital, which seems slightly disingenuous, since the place is filthy, with barely flickering electricity. One would also think that if you discover the family cabin has been trashed, and the basement is full of strung-up dead animals, along with a mysterious occult book emblazoned with warnings not to open it under any circumstances -- even if you didn't believe in said occult forces, you might be concerned about whoever's been coming over and doing really creepy things in your house.

Speaking of which -- apparently that prologue, with the father burning his Deadite daughter alive in the cellar to save her soul -- must have happened relatively recently, since Mia and David's family photos are still stuck to the walls. So that group of people who know all about the the demons and the Book of the Dead were in the area, and just left the book sitting on a table for the first idiot who comes along? Because buddy Eric (a teacher, thanks very much) immediately busts the book open and sets about reciting passages aloud, despite the blood-red warnings -- and then spends the rest of the movie being kind of smug about his superior demon-knowledge.

Line in the sand, people!

Next time I feel a cold chill down my spine, I'm going to have to go around checking with all my friends that they didn't incant anything.

In a nutshell: my favorite part of the movie? I was feeling disappointed that the Bruce Campbell cameo must have been a rumor I misheard, when he turned up in profile after the credits. "Groovy," indeed.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Happy October to Me!

It's my wedding anniversary and the name of my blog, so I'm celebrating with coffee ice cream full of fudgy espresso beans! Because it's always good to stay up late once it's nice and dark and autumnal outside.

This morning before work I did a quick reading with the New Orleans Voodoo Tarot, and drew, I think for the first time, Papa Legba: roads opened, obstacles removed.  Depicted in the card specifically as a storyteller. I'm going out on a limb and calling that a good omen.

Then I changed my calendar at work, a souvenir from the Balaji Temple, which I toured with Sita-ji from the Bollywood Food Club (hey, if you'd done it, you'd namedrop too), and the new picture had two -- count 'em, two! -- different versions of Durga, each astride a beautiful lion. So nobody had better mess with my cubbyhole, boyo!

And with that, my honey walked in the door, so it's time to celebrate another year of year-round spookiness and general oddity.

My song for the day:  


Saturday, September 28, 2013

All Hallow's Read

With all the cool stuff on the internet to keep track of, it still surprises me when I come across something I totally should have known about, but somehow got lost in my shuffle! In this case, I cannot believe that I've never heard of the the All Hallow's Read until now.

Of course, if I were just reading Neil Gaiman's blog, I wouldn't be so out of the loop ... so let that be a lesson to me!

There are some free downloadable posters at Introverted Wife.

Unfortunately, I don't know of anyone locally who's doing anything with this, but I'm definitely willing to promote the giving away of scary books. I recommend Arthur Machen, E. F. Benson (of Mapp and Lucia fame!), and, let's see, how about my old and dear friend J. Sheridan Le Fanu, as some good starting points. For kids, there's always Something Wicked This Way Comes, or Zilpha Keatley Snyder's The Egypt Game, which I can't believe I've never properly blogged about. Sometimes I just don't know what I've been doing with my life!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

My first proper publicity, from the fine folks at Church of Halloween!

It totally warms my ghoulish little heart!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Tom Welling Shirtless, with evil limb

I just looked over my stats, and apparently "Tom Welling Shirtless" is the Number One Search that brings people to my site. It's not inaccurate: Tom Welling can in fact be found shirtless here, briefly. It seemed like an oddly circuitous route for folks to take, so I did a Google Image search, and discovered that my screenshot was the 27th picture to come up. I find this baffling, but that's Internet fame for ya.

However, if you do a Google Image search for Rock Dancer, one of my pics is the first to come up, so that's a claim to fame. Not too many people must be looking for one, though, and that's everything wrong with the world in a nutshell.

But now that you Tom Welling fans are here, let's talk about 1962's The Devil's Hand, which we drew more or less at random from a set of "Drive-In Classics," in a dangerous game of B-Movie Roulette. If you grew up on the psychedelia of the 1960s Batman, as I did, I can guarantee it'll be strange to see Commissioner Gordon as the head of a cult that worships the "Devil-God of Evil." Especially since his day job is running the creepy doll shoppe on the corner. Gary Oldman, sure ... but not mild-mannered Neil Hamilton.
After he helps a customer, the Commissioner goes down to his basement temple, and there's a drummer (obviously voodoo-inspired) standing by to immediately start the atmospheric beats.  It's as if we had someone hanging out all day in our break room at work, just in case someone popped in for a quick sacrifice. And wouldn't that be awesome? I wonder where that job would fall on the pay scale.

The crux of the film was a struggle over the dull leading man (Alan Alda's father!), who didn't seem worth fighting over by gals either Satanic or pure of heart, although I got a kick out of the fact that he barely tried to resist the temptation of the hot but stalkery blonde stranger who'd projected herself mentally into his dreams. When his first visit to her cult involved his oath to be faithful to the death, and witnessing another member's loyalty tested with the possibility of a gruesome impaling, at least they were refreshingly up-front about it all!

Really, the whole initiation was like an evil reversal of one of my all-time favorite movie moments, from Ed Wood, when the minister asks during a baptism, "Will you reject Satan and all his evils?" and Bill Murray languidly murmurs, "Sure."

One thing about this movie though: it provides an explanation for why cars in movies are always crashing and then blowing up! When the leader discovers that a reporter has infiltrated the group, he puts a pin through the man's voodoo doll, causing a heart attack that crashes his car. Then the cultist throws the doll onto the fire, and the car bursts into flames.

MythBusters be damned!

"Well, that explains it," I said.

The next night, when a car went off a cliff and then exploded in the course of The Crater Lake Monster, I was like, wow, someone had a voodoo doll for that guy, too!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Back in Orange

I've been out of the loop for a while -- making stick puppets, go-go dancing in a Godzilla outfit, getting swept up in a zombie apocalypse, etc. Mainly, though, I've been writing, but doing it off-line. I've finally taken the plunge and published a novella, and am deep at work on a more full-length novel.

Since I've written so much here about jantelogen and related concepts, it's probably no surprise that I'm not wildly comfortable with the self-promotional aspects of all this. When I started this blog, it was with the idea that it wouldn't contain anything that gave away my identity, unless people came here because they already knew me. And now that I'm in a position where I could make use of it for real-life purposes, I certainly feel like mocking my ideals.

However, I have always agreed with Auden that "private faces in public places are wiser and nicer than public faces in private places." So what the hell.

Oh, and about this book. There's a picture on the side of the screen. I tried to get a proper widget, I really did, but we'll have to do this the old-fashioned way: with hyperlinks.

It's called The Jack-o-Lantern Box, and it's available in print and ebook formats. It's about kids in a small town in the '70s who are planning for Halloween, telling ghost stories, and generally creeping each other out. Even though it’s never openly stated, the book partly exists to answer the question I often get in life: “What’s your deal with Halloween? Why do you love it so much?”

Of course, the correct answer is: “Because it’s awesome!” But along with the self-evidentness, there's the joy of being scared, and the combination of the holiday’s sense of freedom, forums for creativity, and even surface silliness, with an underlying seriousness that comes with the reality of death.

Plus candy!

So go buy it. See how smooth I am at this?

At any rate, I'm hoping to post more regularly, with some Retro Halloween-themed goodness, my backlog of reviews, and the usual random. Fingers crossed.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Nerds, Posters, and Hipsters Trilogy, Part Three: O, the Irony!

Besides posers, "hipsters" are another much-condemned group. My particular observations on the subject were spurred by an article called "How to Live Without Irony," which I felt completely missed the point of just about everything.


The author asks: "Do you surround yourself with things you really like or things you like only because they are absurd?" This statement is in itself aburd. It's not either/or. It's possible for something to be absurd, but also for people to really like it, and even to sincerely like something only because it's absurd. She mocks the giving of a plastic Mexican wrestler figurine as a gift, but I would love to get one! To be perfectly honest, much of my affection for the human race is based primarily on its penchant for absurdity.

"What parts of your wardrobe could be described as costume-like, derivative or reminiscent of some specific style archetype (the secretary, the hobo, the flapper, yourself as a child)? In other words, do your clothes refer to something else or only to themselves." Umm ... everything people can possibly wear is a costume. Have you ever been to a clothing store? Do you have a job? Are you aware that there's such a thing as gender roles, which are both nonsensical and torturous to a good proportion of the population?

This is personal for me, because I've been accused many times of liking things only because they were obscure.

In fact, I learned irony from people who lived during World War II. I learned it far away from any city, in a small town where there was, for much of my childhood, only one television channel. Or is it actually irony at all? My parents, conservative and outwardly "normal" members of society, had a large collection of bizarre and obscure novelty records, which I still listen to with delight. My dad has been laughing at bad B-movies since at least the 1950s. White elephant gift-giving has a long and distinguished history in my family: we still speak with fondness about the heady Christmases when we were attempting to outdo each other with Princess Diana memorabilia. When my young nephews presented me proudly with a Paris Hilton Princess Diary a few years back, I felt very proud that our work was continuing.

My parents, with almost none of the advantages we take for granted today, in a time of binding social constraints and extremely limited access, were nonetheless huge readers, with a great curiosity about the world and a willingness to question and make up their own minds about thing. They had their own individual tastes, and bought the records they liked, because they liked them. That is what they taught me.

People can sincerely enjoy things which are considered by other people to be unusual or obscure. If that happens to be your situation, what do the judgments of other people have to do with your innocent amusements, that are none of their business?

Some basics:

1. Things are trendy. So what? Hobbies, music, pop culture of all kinds: new things come along, and are often inexplicably popular. I don't get why mustaches and fixie bikes are big among "hipsters," but nor did I understand the mainstream Atkins diet craze, or why people are obsessed with talking about their cell phones. It's fun to theorize, but I don't think hipster trends are fundamentally different from any other trends. People need things to occupy their minds, they think things are interesting, and they get carried away. That's perfectly normal.

2. Some trends you'll like, others you'll hate, others will baffle you. Again, this is self-evident. In the '70s I hated Laverne and Shirley; in the '80s I loathed John Hughes. (Well, I still do). These were not hipster trends, but things that were hugely popular in the mainstream of America. But I still wanted to watch TV and go to movies, like every other human being in the country. So I discovered PBS and, later, oddball cult films. Who's that hurting? The current example is that one person watches Dancing With the Stars, and another watches Portlandia. Is one of them right (or normal), and the other wrong (or an annoying hipster)? Maybe they just like different things, and that's okay.

One of the benefits of being a nerd is that it makes you not expect that everyone will have the same taste that you do.

There's also a difference between honest criticism and taste-bashing. I dislike the Twilight phenomenon as an adult for the same reasons I despised the John Hughes movies of my youth: I think they're emotionally dishonest, and send terrible messages to young people. There are, of course, fans of these things who enjoy other aspects of them; people have gotten messages that are actually empowering or helpful to them in some extremely unlikely places. I have nothing against those fans.

A critic has the perfect right to review a band, or a movie, and explain why they don't like it. But that's not the same thing as saying that, because you don't like it, and you don't understand why other people like it, then those people don't really like it either, and are only being cool or ironic.

3. Part of the problem is that irony, and sincerity, are judged by others, who aren't all-seeing and all-knowing. As with the definition of kitsch -- gee, Milan Kundera, it must be nice to read the minds of everyone you meet and know who has honest sentiment and who doesn't. (The Unbearable Lightness of Being has also been annoying me for many years).

4. This point is made in the article, but not strong enough for me: our whole world actively militates against emotional sincerity. It's not as if the kids will stop drinking their craft beers and suddenly our lives will be filled with honest communication. In a world that discourages emotional sincerity, people need outlets to express their individuality.

5. Articles like this are actually are self-defeating. The more you just like what you like, and go with it, the more likely it is that other people are going to judge you. In my case, I actually do sincerely like the things I like. Because of that, I often like things which are novel or unusual to others. Which makes me more likely to be called a hipster, or accused of "only liking things because they're obscure." Because that's worse than liking things that are popular? Anyway, to me, that's completely irrelevant. If I stopped doing things I liked because other people question my motives, wouldn't that make me more insincere?

Similarly, if you're surrounded with things you don't like in the mainstream culture, what are you supposed to do? Insincerely go along with the crowd, lest anyone think you're an insincere hipster?

Conversely, if you like something just because, and it suddenly becomes popular, then what?

Example #1: I've been a Doctor Who fan since 1982, and now that it's enormously crazy big, if I were to not want to be a fan because it's so popular, then that would be the exact stereotype of a hipster: not liking something just because it's popular, because of being invested in its obscurity. However, I liked Doctor Who because I like Doctor Who. Other people are free to assume that I'm being all "I was into this thing before it was popular, so I have more cool points" about it; I can't stop them. It's just the truth, and I have the hand-knitted scarf to prove it. If different people assume that I'm watching Doctor Who because it's so popular (how mainstream!), I can't stop them either. It's all irrelevant.

Example #2: I've been collecting "mental hygiene" and exploitation films for decades. Suddenly, locally at least, this is kind of trendy in the college radio/local art crowd (the sort of people identified as hipsters; there are some goatees on display). If something I already like is identified with hipsters, what do I do then? If I stop liking it because it's popular, that proves I'm a hipster ("I liked it before it was cool!"). If I don't, then people feel free to write newspaper articles about how all of us like this stuff insincerely.

So I say: if people enjoy something and they're not hurting anyone, then mind your own business.

The Nerds, Posers, and Hipsters Trilogy, Part Two: A New Kind of Kick

A lot of people say a lot of negative things about posers, and, well, they always have. But where do posers come from? Why do people find them so annoying? Why don't I spell it properly?

Because I've always said that spelling or pronouncing it "poseur" is, in fact, the sign of a poser.

With any kind of pop culture genre, and within any kind of activity that could become a trend under the right circumstances, there are basically three groupings of people, all of which are, of course, wildly simplified.

1. The True Enthusiasts. These are the nerds. They are interested in subjects and activities without any external or trend-driven pressure for them to be interested in them. They think, what kind of music do I want to listen to? And they find it. They listen to the kind of music they like, and wear what they want to wear. When they come across something that's new to them, True Enthusiasts will decide if it seems interesting to them or not, and then proceed from there. The popularity of that new thing is mostly, if not totally, irrelevant.

2. The True Normals. They are normal people who are, by and large, satisfied with the pop culture materials and social events of the status quo. There's current music on the radio, and they listen to it. There are current TV shows, and they watch them. They wear whatever it's the style to wear. They don't question this very much, and why should they? Although individuals vary in their likes and dislikes, by and large they're not all that Enthused about the specifics. When faced with some weird new style they're never seen before, a True Normal will say, "Weird. I don't get it." And they won't start adopting it.

3. The Ambiguous Normals. Ambiguity is by nature not black or white, so it's no surprise that this includes a whole spectrum. They may start out with an Enthusiastic temperament that's been squelched, so they try to repress it. Or they may be mostly Normal, but have had little exposure to things out of the most main of the mainstream. In general, though an Ambiguous Normal, when faced with a weird new style, may say, "Weird." But still think it's kind of cool, or interesting, or worth trying out. In time, they may become Ambiguous Enthusiasts, or even morph into True Enthusiasts. But this is also the pool from whence the posers come.

The Ambiguous often seem particularly reactive to the status quo. For example, some people seem to be Enthusiasts, but deep down, they're driven by reactiveness: they're too angry with some aspect of society to be True Normals. They have begun to question True Normalcy. But they aren't self-directed. The classic case is people who are rebelling against their parents versus really doing something because it's what they want to do.

Among the True Enthusiasts, some of them may delve deeply into single areas of interest (ham radio, vintage Bollywood films, music from the British Invasion, underground comics), and some may have a perpetual desire for novelty, within a favorite given framework (new music, new studio arts, new experimental poetry). In other words, some are early adopters of new styles and areas of interest, while others have a narrower focus on a single area that will become an overriding obsession. Some may have started out as Ambiguous Normals who expanded their horizons and crossed over to become True Enthusiasts.

So, True Normals will watch a TV show because it's on and other people they know are watching it. Because of their personal tastes, they will still watch things based on what they like -- they're not mindless automatons! But those things will all be things the majority of people have heard of.

True Enthusiasts will watch a TV show for reasons unrelated to its popularity. They are intrinsically interested in the subject matter, or it sounds interesting for whatever reason. Or they tune in by accident. If they like it, they'll keep watching. If they don't, they won't. They will shows that the majority of people have heard of, and they will watch shows that are painfully obscure. What other people watch is neither here nor there.

Ambiguous Normals, however, may go through life watching TV shows like True Normals. But one day they may come across something unfamiliar, and react to it the way a True Enthusiast would. That is, they just like something, or are interested in it, regardless of what other people think. For a person who's used to being Normal, this state of affairs can be unsettling. They may become self-conscious. Once that happens, if they don't automatically reject the new thing as "weird," and feel they are outside the realm of True Normals, Ambiguous Normals are often confused about the nature of Enthusiasm.

By this I mean: if the subject matter of their interest is outside of Normal, something that would normally be the playing ground of the Enthusiasts, they tend to continue reacting like Normals, instead of as Enthusiasts. They continue to use the cognitive tools they learned among Normal people. Their attraction to the subject matter might really BE self-directed, coming from within. But once it's there -- especially if this is a new or  unusual state of affairs -- they react the same way they would if their attraction to it were based on the desire to do what's Normal. The normal thing to do is to conform.

Only now, they are attempting to conform to a world of people whose interests aren't based on the interests of other people. Many Normals have a hard time adjusting to this. And that's where Punk Rock Conformists are born.

Some of these Ambiguous Normals may be trying out different things, to see if anything sticks and becomes a True Enthusiasm of their own. Some of them may be unconsciously driven by a desire for transgression or rebellion, and will happily turn their back on their one-time Enthusiasms, and even the idea of Enthusiasm, once it's out of their systems. Some of them may become the short-term fanatics who annoy everybody.

Only time will tell. 

The Nerds, Posers, and Hipsters Trilogy, Part One: In Praise of Nerds

I've spent much of my life watching bizarre trends and mysterious obsessions sweep over the populace and then disappear back into obscurity -- things and people and topics that only seem popular because they're popular. And most of the time, I have pondered the question of why I so often seem immune to the object under discussion, whatever it is. Yesterday, as the town was gripped by a sports-related mania, right on the heels of a furor over Conan O'Brien, it occurred to me: being a nerd is like taking a vaccination against obsession!

There's a certain amount of group psychology at work here. We know obsessions can be contagious: if everyone around you is interested in something, it can seem natural to pick up the interest. This can be as innocuous as hanging out with friends; they expose you to potential common interests, which they encourage through conversation, which focuses your attention. Or it can be a factor of the desire to fit in socially: once a TV show reaches a certain point of popularity, the popularity itself will draw more viewers in.

Another important aspect is that people often seem to be looking outside themselves for something to care about, to believe in, to get riled up about. They're not doing it consciously, but once something comes along, they'll grab it. Of course, everybody's different, and individuals react in different ways, to different degrees. But for many people, if they don't already have something external to care about that'll occupy their mind enough, then they're more susceptible to influence, and they become temporarily obsessed with whatever the people around them are obsessed with, or whatever the media is encouraging them with.

Nerds are known for their obsessiveness, but the truth is, they're no more obsessed than the general public. The general public just doesn't admit it, and they wander from one obsession to the next -- which is one of the ways the mass media makes its money. Whereas nerds tend to embrace their obsessions -- ones of their own choice -- which makes them less susceptible to transient obsessions. They already have something external to occupy their minds with, and to get riled up when the need arises. It can be science fiction, Bollywood films, obscure punk rock bands, any kind of technology.

Which leads to the question: are sports fans nerds? Many sports fans have chosen their obsession the same way a nerd has chosen theirs, and in that case, they are in fact nerds, whether they know it are not, and may well, like nerds, have more immunity to random emotional manipulation than the general public. However, many people jump in and out of an interest in sports when a local team is winning, thus more desirable as an object to identify with and get riled up about, or because of marketing/advertising factors. When people without personal obsessions see the team getting a lot of attention, that gives them something to focus their attention on.

Obviously, I'm not talking about unhealthy obsessions. Just channels for the human desire to be interested in things. People want something to care about, even if that makes them flash-in-the-pan fans. The people who are either making money, or successfully swaying people to an agenda, are the ones who offer them something to care about. Something outside themselves and what's perceived as mundane daily realities, to have an opinion about, to get angry about, even. People who pick their own obsessions are less profitable, except for those who are in niche businesses. Mass profits are made off mass interests.

A billion years ago, when I was in journalism school, there was a big advertising Coke Vs. Pepsi thing stirred up. They were talking about it as marketing in some intro class I was taking, and I mentioned that they were putting in all these billions of dollars for their ads, but it didn't make any difference to me, because I didn't drink or buy any sodas. That's when I learned that the term for me is "Statistically Insignificant." They know freaks like me are out there, but they don't care. I am profitable to the people who sell Bollywood and cult horror DVDs, out-of-print books, and obscure religious bric-a-brac; I am not profitable to the mainstream.

Most of us are unlikely to cultivate true objectivity and detachment, which would render us immune to obsession in general. That being true, often the best case scenario is that you can channel your obsession into something productive. Otherwise, you can either waste your energy caring passionately about something that you'll forget all about in a month. Or worse, you can focus that energy on some kind of ideology in which you're being manipulated for someone else's agenda.

If you're in the habit of following your own interests, and occupying your mind with what you like, regardless of what other people think, it's good training in thinking for yourself on all subjects, which makes you less susceptible to manipulation. That's why I know sci-fi nerds on all ends of the political spectrum, but (more often than in the general populace) they have reasonable reasons, which they can articulate, for what they think. They're not just knee-jerk reactors.

So it's probably for the best if you don't get any encouragement for your interests until AFTER you've already developed them.

Solving the World's Problems: Common Sense About Bullying

Do we want to get rid of bullying in the world, or just in school? If the former, then we need to look at a lot of adult behavior that generally gets ignored. If the latter, and the former is unaddressed, then nothing is going to work. That's the reality of the situation, and we should try to minimize the carnage.

1. The larger adult world that's mirrored to children is made up of hierarchical power structures. Levels of privilege depending on circumstances: age, money, position of authority. In fact, that may be intrinsic to human nature. As long as that's what children see, they will mimic it. And many will take the lesson that it's better to be in the position of power than of powerlessness, or even potential powerlessness, just like adults do.

2. The larger world is full of inside/outside, us/them thinking and behavior, so of course, children will learn that this is appropriate, and apply it to their own situations.

3. Children feel the weight of various oppressions that they are mostly completely unable to articulate. Parents, teachers, anyone in the world has legal and physical authority over them, even in many instances where there is no logical reason to prevent them from doing things they'd like to do. This is in fact worse than ever, as children are often slaves to schedules and to medical treatments. Thus, like all human beings, they suffer from angers, frustrations, and general angst, which they are unable to direct at the sources of these frustrations. It's not surprising that they will take the examples of #1 and #2, and take things out on weaker targets that present themselves.

4. The people who avoided becoming bullies, or bullied, through the elementary school years, may still fall into those categories during adolescence. (These are the famous Drowning Ophelia years). Differences that were ignored in childhood loom larger when people are trying to define their "adult" identities, their relationships with the opposite sex, etc. Suddenly there is more pressure to conform to standards (especially gender roles) sometimes more rigid than those of the culture at large. (Converts are the worst fanatics). As people "give up childish things," they resent others who don't; as they define their gender roles and standards of attractiveness, they become more intolerant of people outside their parameters.

If discourse among adults were respectful, if society at large was tolerant of differences and accepting of perceived outsiders, then we could realistically identify the motivations of bullying in children and teens. If what young bullies are doing is actually conforming to what they see as the values and the communication styles of the adult world, then they may just be learning how to succeed in that world.

And whose fault is that?

Solving the World's Problems: Cognitive Dissonance

To elaborate on the example of the media:

Starting in the '80s, fueled by Republican rhetoric, it seemed that the worldview in the United States began to be dominated by two equal and completely opposite positions:

1. There is absolutely no value higher than the profit motive. Making money is the only thing that matters.

And 2. The biggest problem in our country is the erosion of traditional values (loosely defined as family, religion, a work ethic, etc.)

So just to pick one example that isn't any kind of life-or-death situation: sex and violence in the media.

This shouldn't be news to anyone, but the American mass media is a corporate, profit-making entity. It is officially not their job to do anything but get viewers in front of sets, for the purpose of selling airtime to advertisers. The reason there is no American equivalent of Masterpiece Theatre is because it wouldn't be profitable enough. End of story. Any argument about perceived "value" to individuals or societies of anything is a completely moot point.

When radio and television broadcasting began, there was a strong idea in this country that the technologies should in fact be used primarily for educational and cultural purposes. We know who won that argument. And from the start of my adult life (Ronald Reagan was elected President when I was 15 years old), up to the present day, conservative pundits have consistently claimed that business interests should be free from government interference. Thus, if you think a public utility, like the airwaves, should be used for anything but naked, greedy money-making, the response is: What are you, a Socialist? (In the '80s, that would have been Communist, but it's the same idea).

Okay, fair enough.

However, the second a tv show adds a sympathetic gay character, then suddenly the same conservatives who want business to be unfettered by government regulation start making a fuss about community standards and traditional family values, and the need for them to be policed. If a breast is partially exposed by accident for a few seconds, then suddenly we need all the regulation in the world.

At the same time, during the last 20-some years, I have seen much of what used to be viewed as common goods eroded or openly bulldozed. Just think: how often have you heard about a free public service "losing money"? Schools, parks, libraries: these are all institutions which explicitly exist to serve higher purposes, which are important for the continuity of our society and, sometimes, our existence on the planet. (My latest sidenote musing has been that, if people want to fund K-12 education as little as possible, and think it makes sense that only the rich and/or lucky can go to college, regardless of ability, merit, or inclination: who do we think is going to maintain all those nuclear power plants 40 years from now? The sons of the wealthiest of the wealthy? Do people think temps will be able to do those jobs for minimum wage? We need to fund education, and we need to do it now).

Before the last few decades, nobody ever expected a public school to be profitable. The National Park System wasn't created as a cash cow. What do people think?

At a time like the Depression, when many people literally had nothing, and even a middle-class family would have very little in the way of the luxuries or material possessions we all take for granted, libraries, schools, and parks were funded because they were recognized as valuable public services. It's not that, in our time, these things have become unneeded, or that they're losing more money. It's just that it was once understood that some things served a function for society that wasn't based on clear-cut profitability.

Another problem of perception arises from that general wealth of material possession. We live in a time when people have much higher expectations, and those cost money to fulfill. What I mean is, the average school I see today is unfathomably more lavish than any school I ever saw when I was growing up in the '70s. At this point, the cognitive dissonance has become a disconnect so striking as to seem pathological. Nothing is more important than our children! They must have every possible advantage, the best of everything that ... money can buy. But we don't think we should have to pay for any this. We certainly don't want to pay much to the people we entrust their futures to, that is, the teachers, even while we want children to have the best of everything material to help their futures.

Anyway: the reason is that the general orientation of our society has changed, so anything that isn't a money-making proposition is intrinsically devalued. Because of that, even if libraries and parks see more use by the public than they ever did, that's not relevant, and any funding is grudged, even in an economy where billions continue to be spent on videogames.

Read a few books on everyday life during the Depression and then think about the disposable income children in our country have available for videogames. I'm not, by the way, saying people shouldn't buy videogames. Not at all! This example just makes it obvious that the average American is far wealthier in terms of material possessions and the ability to spend for leisure activities than in the majority of this country's history, even despite the recent economic turmoil.

One of the root problems here is that there are many ways to judge the value of something: like its contribution to a safe, sane, stable society. It is a lot faster and easier to judge it on dollars, though, even when that's completely irrelevant.

Which brings me to "traditional family values." I could -- and actually will! Am! -- arguing that nothing will erode traditional family values faster than a belief system that the only thing in life that means anything is making money at any cost. How do you teach your children honor, integrity, courage, all that Greatest Generation stuff, if really it's all down to the bottom line: you got yours and you don't care about anyone else?

So, in almost every aspect of life, the only thing that matters is making money. But sometimes, arbitrarily, a mention of sexuality, lifestyles that some people consider "non-traditional," or exposure to different religions or philosophies throw the same people, ones who align as conservatives, into a frenzy of arguing that the government should, in fact, be doing more to protect children from "secular humanism" or "anti-Christian propaganda" or whatever the buzzword of the moment is.

There's a lot of room for improvement everywhere. Much government spending is indeed wasteful: almost any bureaucracy is rife with inefficiencies and possibility for corruption. Corruption, though, is based on profit-value; only people who put making money first are really in danger of being corrupted. But as long as the cognitive dissonance within our world is so strong, we'll never be able to deal rationally with the real things that we're concerned about.

Solving the Workld's Problems: W. Edwards Deming in Everyday Life

Intro: I have various blog posts in various forms of disarray, all of them, in one way or the other, on the subject of solving the world's problems. I've decided they're unlikely to get much more "finished," so what the heck, let's infuse it with a good dose of wabi-sabi!

(Based on a reading of W. Edwards Deming, a really smart guy whose ideas helped make Japan an economic powerhouse, but who is almost completely ignored in the U.S. business world, for obvious reasons. His books are page-turners. Read 'em!)

One of the questions that Deming's management books continually bring up is: What is your job, what is your purpose, what do you want? 

Sometimes you have to face the basic logic that you are trying to do mutually exclusive things, and you need to decide. It may be that they aren't completely, unresolvably mutually exclusive. But in solving them, you have to look at how important the different elements/outcomes are, decide what you can and can't compromise on. If you had to pick one or the other, which is really more important? And how important is the other? Then you can start to wind your way to a possible solution.

Which I will illustrate with a few of the most controversial examples possible: for example, the sad story of the Catholic church's stand on abortion. Do they want to maintain the idea of human sexuality as shameful and wrong, or do they want to stop the killing of innocent babies? I'm using their terminology here, because if they really believe this is all about the need to stop killing babies, and they could do that by accepting the reality that people have always had sex outside of marriage, and will continue to do so -- wouldn't that be a no-brainer? Wouldn't they encourage sex ed and contraceptives? Condoms aren't even against their beliefs, so why not make them more accessible? If I could stop cats from being killed at shelters, and all I had to do was stop being an asshole to strangers in the world doing something I disapprove of that's none of my  business, of course I'd do it! And believe me, you have NO IDEA how many things I disapprove of.

A lot of people and groups who are opposed to abortion, though, keep carrying on as if they can have it both ways, without contradiction. But the truth is, like it or not, they need to pick, and if they don't, things are going to go on the way they have forever. If the shame were removed from sexuality, that would remove many of the stigmas, and people with unexpected pregnancies could deal with them in other ways ... as is in fact happening among more liberal neighborhoods of society. A girl doesn't need an abortion if she can have a baby in a supportive environment. Shame is never supportive.

Another example is the idea of the liberal media, which has been driving me crazy since the '80s. It isn't a conspiracy -- it's a business. I grew up in a time when the religion of business and commerce was developing, and I've heard decades of rhetoric about capitalism, free trade, free enterprise, supply and demand, giving the customer what they want, and keeping government out of business. (As if). Now, I'm a complete failure as a capitalist. I don't get it, and despite what self-help books sometimes say, it's not because I secretly long to be rich and lord it over lesser beings. This is where it becomes obvious that I am in fact a Christian, whatever I believe.

But that religion of capitalism is completely incompatible with the idea of society promoting higher values and ideals, be they the conservative Christian bring-back-family-values or anybody else's ... although those "Christian," "conservative" ones highlight the contradiction most strongly. The government is what's stopping your 12-year-old son from going to the dirty bookstore, and your 15-year-old daughter from going on the pill, and going to bars, and your 80-year-old mother from buying useless, potentially dangerous medicine that's supposed to cure whatever ails her. It's what protects people from being exploited by predators, physical or financial.

You want a free market economy or you don't. You want a society driven by traditional values or you don't. When the two are not compatible, people look at those of us pointing it out as if we're the problem. But what we see, clear as day, is that the refusal to face the contradiction is actually causing more problems than the problems!