My haul from the April '16 Zine Machine Printed Matter Festival

[caption id=“” align=“alignnone” width=“2500.0”]My zine haul My zine haul[/caption]

My first exposure to zines was courtesy of The Paper Plant, a downtown Raleigh new & used bookstore and literary press in the late '80s that featured weekly open mic nights and lots of local and national zines. I was fascinated by the homemade, raw energy of these little paper pamphlets.

It was probably from there that I found Mike Gunderloy's sublime Factsheet Five. Before the Interwebz, kids, there were homemade zines printed on the office copying machine on the QT and a postal network that linked their makers. Factsheet Five was a paper-based record of the zine scene, with every issue containing literally hundreds of mini-reviews of all types of publications.

Send Mike Gunderloy $20 and a SASE and he would send back a random assortment of zines: humor, comics, opinion, music, collage, art, poetry, diary, politics -- the choice was overwhelming. As someone who had spent four years in a relatively isolated region of the Old South, I could not get enough of the color, energy, verve, and connection that the zine culture promised.

That promise was all around me in April 2016 at the second annual Zine Machine Festival. The Durham Armory hosted long tables of mainly artists selling their self-made paper goods -- posters, art, comics, zines, stationery -- and other art objects too, like jewelry, fabrics, and so on.

It was such a great scene -- so much color, so much liveliness, so much love for paper ephemera. And so different from the comic-book conventions I used to go to. Compared to those types of events, the Zine Machine was smaller, not flashy or gaudy, quiet enough for you to talk with the creators selling their creations, more homey and friendly.

The Zine Machine folks are citizen artists, if you will -- out there making art, studying, holding down day jobs, supportive of their fellow artists and makers (or so it seemed to me) and traveling to sell their zines on the weekends.

I was struck by how young so many of them were; I was definitely one of the oldsters wandering around. The Triangle Printed Matter Facebook group was represented by several of their publications, and they looked to be all glowing and energetic twenty-somethings.

It was so great and heartening to see young people making art and being part of a community. No one is getting rich off of this, and maybe not even covering their expenses. But going to zine and small-press conventions and gatherings is a rite of passage, and if you're a zinester, you gots to do it.

I took, I think, $50 in cash with me. When I spent it all, that was the signal it was time to leave.

I paused often, though, to just look around and soak up the atmosphere. I thought the same thought as when I pored over Factsheet Five 30+ years ago -- God, it'd be fun to do that.

Herewith, some quick takes on the stuff I got, with links to the artists' sites.

Caroline L. Smith: Monk (daily diary comics), it's all about CATS, A Picture of the Universe. Caroline produces diary comics, with "Monk" a record of most of 2015; "CATS" is a subset of the diary comics where her cats take center stage. I like reading diary comics and this is a solid collection. "Universe" is an ambitious blend of tech-writing and comics, rather like Larry Gonick's "Cartoon History of..." series, showing off what Caroline can do with more formal storytelling and design.

Filthy, Vol. 2: Self-Portraits from filthyzines at gmail dot com. Assemblage of stiffly hand-drawn stuff, photos, collage, hand-lettered pages, typed pages -- a real mish-mash that reminded me of the zines of old. It's so personal I can't make head or tail of it and I don't care. The need to communicate and get whatever was inside onto the page, is here.

Glittermeat Comix (Tumblr) (Etsy): Glittermeat Comics, Glittermeat Comics: Volume 2, Famous Meats in History. These standalone gag strips are the unacknowledged love child of The Oatmeal and Perry Bible Fellowship. The artist has a confident visual style and snarky attitude. I'd buy more of these sick and disturbing little puppies.

Evan McIntyre:I Scene't It! A colorful mini with each page devoted to a still-life, scene, or colorful detail, real or fantastical. My favorites: the ambulance in flames and the back of a guy's bald head and neck, covered with a huge band-aid.

Adam Meuse: White Cards, Drawing Is Hard. "White Cards" is Adam's collection of filthy, sexual (not sexy), and scatological drawings he sketched on little white cards used at his soul-killing job. The scenes often include his co-workers (a photo of them is on the endpaper) so they must have 1) gotten a kick out of them and 2) shared his rough humor. Physically and emotionally brutal and tedious jobs can do that to you. That said, the man is a damn good cartoonist and I'd kill to be able to sketch that well. "Drawing is Hard" is a more formal and professionally polished product as the artist protagonist discusses his and his work's worth with his walking talking brain and his walking talking heart. A nice little fable and pick-me-up for the creative zinester.

Desi Varsel: Emo Web Art: Self-Reflective Typography, #ABOUT The Artist. Loved the sweet little "ABOUT The Artist" mini. "Self-Reflective Typography" is a large-format mini, a short personal/journal zine of painful experience.

Barefoot Press: CMYK. This was a free mini showing off their pretty incredible color separations, design, and print quality. Stands on its own as a hand-held art gallery.

James McPherson: Let's Be Honest With Each Other For A Moment (A Total Let Down of a Story). Clown Kisses Press was represented by James and Rellie (see next item). "Let's Be Honest" is a mini that also looks like a formal experiment with pattern, design, and typography, telling an elliptical kind of first-person anecdote. I read, I frowned, I nodded, I moved on.

Rellie Brewer: Feeling Myself And You. An accordion zine. Loved the fluidity of her figure drawings and the hand-lettering of this paneled poem. I also bought her print "Dance Thru", a large color print of two entwined figures from the zine. A young woman at the Triangle Printed Matter table gushed when she saw me carrying it and I pointed her to where I'd got it. I love spreading the love.

Triangle Printed Matter Club: Conversations With Strangers. Anthology zine, with contributions from club members on the title theme. Comics, poetry, collage, and -- the most interesting things I read in any of the zines -- Jeff Stern's transcription (in teeny tiny type) of "The conversation among strangers ... recorded by hand 10/15/93 in an Amtrack 'club car' (the part of the train where smoking and drinking were allowed) in transit from New London, CT to Amherst, MA approx. 11pm-3am." Wired, loopy, rambling, hard to follow, and I couldn't stop reading it.

Eric Knisley: The Toaster, Denizens, Memory Murder Mystery, Fight Scene. Eric is a long-time denizen of the local comics scene and the stuff he draws and shows at the local Durham Comics Project meetups are jaw-droppingly good; I love the confident line and fluid anatomy, and the sometimes crazy level of detail in his bigger pieces. I bought four of Eric's zines that he's created over the years for 24-Hour Comics Day.

"Memory Murder Mystery" is stream-of-consciousness interior-noir while "The Toaster" is a dark parable of some kind, though I try to resist reading too many layers into a comic written and drawn over 24 hours.

"Fight Scene" is a fun and funny superhero/supervillain smackdown, where the banter between the foes takes an unexpected turn. My favorite is "Denizens," 24 full-page pictures of 24 unusual characters with a paragraph of character description for each. I enjoyed discovering the story that began to emerge and weave itself from those descriptions to tie these disparate characters together.

I got Eric to sign all 4, so I think I did all right.

Tales from The White Box

In my office, under a table, has been sitting a white cardboard banker's box for several years. It contains assorted comics, magazines, and graphic novels or collections that I want to get rid of but that I can't bear to throw out till I've read them first. Marie Kando would say, "If you haven't read them by now, you never will. You've already gotten enjoyment from them. If they're not bringing you joy now, then say good-bye to them."

But ... I just don't want to say good-bye to them yet. Since I don't have a reading project or writing project at this time, why not use this box and this blog to give myself both?

So, no order or theme to these reviews. Just taking them as they come out of the box, and as I finish reading them.

"Presto!" by Penn Jillette

Having been swayed by Critical Mas's post on the potato hack and read the (e)book on the subject, I wanted to see if I could strain Penn's book for ideas, tips, or just some new thinking. Presto! is Penn's memoir of losing 100 pounds in 3 months -- how he did it, why he did it the unusual way he did, and the physical, mental, and emotional changes it brought.

Penn's disclaimer in the book, interviews, and Q&As promoting the book, is if you take health advice from a magician, you're an asshole and deserve to die. Or put more delicately: his path was his path and it worked for him. So, take the book for what it is, sift it, and behave responsibly.

That said, it's still quite a story. Having lived a large life -- he weighed 320 pounds and was on high dosages of eight different blood pressure medications -- his doctor recommended a stomach sleeve following a health crisis that put him in the hospital.

To his credit, Jillette reports taking the news calmly and then pondering his next moves. The doctor said they needed to wait 3 months before doing the surgery, and Jillette saw this as his opportunity for an extreme challenge of the sort that has defined his life. If he could lower his weight by 100 pounds in 90 days, he could be taken off many of his medications and could avoid surgery for the stomach sleeve. I have to say, were I faced with that prospect, I'd have probably gone for the extreme choice myself.

Penn is an interesting guy, who does think differently from the herd and enjoys the company of others who think differently, so the book is full of his opinions on lots of things. That said, I skimmed many passages because his humor, such as it is, tends to the verbal smackdown and fast patter of his act. If he reads the audiobook version of this, it may be more enjoyable. But I doubt it. I don't think he's as funny as he thinks he is. But this is his personality, so I got used to filtering out the noise for the interesting detail underneath.

What, if anything, am I taking away from his book?

  • It's winter now, so feel the cold more often. Penn's advisor, an odd and provocative fellow named Ray Cronise, prescribed contrasting showers of hot (10 seconds) and cold (20 seconds) for 5 minutes or so, ending with cold water for as long as he could stand it. Cronise maintains that the body will burn more calories trying to keep its trunk and brain warm than it will burn with exercise.
  • According to Penn, Cronise said the modern world has eliminated three things that all wild animals must deal with: darkness, cold, and hunger. Our bodies, he says, are built to survive a winter that never comes. Cronise's program for Penn introduced more cold and more hunger to encourage his body to burn its stored calories.
  • For the 90-day crash diet, Cronise prohibited any form of exercise. "You can't outrun your mouth." He focused on Penn eating only vegetables, no processed foods, no salt or sugar, and later on, only minimal seasoning. (Penn favored Tabasco.)
  • After the body has lost the fat, then Cronise permitted him to start exercising to restore the muscle; don't confuse the body by promoting two different processes at the same time, according to Cronise. Penn said that when he started lifting weights again, he was very weak. But the leaner muscle he gained felt "stronger" than the marbled fat-and-muscle he had before.
  • For his maintenance diet, Penn uses Dr. Joel Fuhrman's books and dietary program as a guide. He likes Fuhrman's uncompromising attitude to the subject: losing weight and eating right is hard. To paraphrase Fuhrman: I'm not here to make it easy, I'm here to tell you what you need to do.
  • Penn now eats only whole plants, with no animals or animal products. He will allow himself a "Rare and Appropriate" meal(s) once or twice a month, but only if someone else is paying or it's a special occasion.
  • He was monitored by his doctor throughout the 3 months and taken off blood pressure medications as appropriate, but this was a delicate process. The remaining medicines had to be balanced and tweaked to ensure he wouldn't have another health crisis. On Episode 233 of his podcast, Penn reported that he is still on some BP meds because his heart is still enlarged. After a few years, when his body has adjusted to the change, then the heart may reduce in size and he can go off more meds.
  • Penn wondered about the social awkwardness of not eating with others at a restaurant. What he found was that it was awkward for about 20 seconds, and then everyone else settled down to their eating while he drank decaf coffee and carbonated water (my favored dinner drinks for years now). A lot of the food we shovel into our mouths has to do with imagined social harmony rather than real hunger.
  • And fasting is also an option. I will fast 16-22 hours once or twice a week, or at least skip breakfast several times a week. Fasting is one of the few techniques that makes sense to me. It's binary -- you're either eating or you're not -- so it's hard for me to cheat; it's easy for me; and it always teaches me about the difference between cravings and real hunger.
  • At the end of the first two weeks, where he ate only potatoes, Penn broke his cravings to the salty/fatty/sugared food that had been a staple of his eating life for 60 years. He wondered if he would miss his favorite foods, and he didn't -- because he had lost his craving for them.
  • As an aside, Penn relates going on a celebrity cooking show and being quickly trained by a popular Las Vegas chef. The keys to winning are to pick 5 dishes and have a good story to go with each one; we're wired for stories and emotion, and telling the story as the dish is prepared lands with the judges more effectively than the food alone. (Training and association, folks.) Also, the way to make any food taste good? Fat, then salt to cover the fat, then sugar to cut the saltiness, then more salt to cut the sweetness, then more oil over everything, ad infinitum.
  • Losing weight made him lighter -- physically and emotionally. Losing the fat helped him also level his moods. I've found this to be the case for myself, also.

Update, 2017-01-19

Penn made it clear he was not writing a how-to book and that his advisor, Ray Cronise, was writing his own book (yet to be published), so Penn was deliberately vague on details. The CalorieLab site extracted from Penn's book all the details it could and subjected the book to the kind of skeptical (and somewhat sarcastic) appraisal that the ol' Penn Jillette of Bullshit! fame would admire. The comments to the CalorieLab post offer good discussion; some of the commenters support CalorieLab's view, some are skeptical of Penn, some support Penn. But as Penn said from the start: don't look to him for diet or medical advice. You have to look out for yourself.

To start with, the Second Law implies that misfortune may be no one’s fault. The biggest breakthrough of the scientific revolution was to nullify the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose: that everything happens for a reason. In this primitive understanding, when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine—someone or something must have wanted them to happen. This in turn impels people to find a defendant, demon, scapegoat, or witch to punish. Galileo and Newton replaced this cosmic morality play with a clockwork universe in which events are caused by conditions in the present, not goals for the future. The Second Law deepens that discovery: Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail.

The tipoff for me is somatic. Whenever a project comes to me, one that is right, that is genuine, I feel a kind of “shiver” in my body, and that tells me that it corresponds to something very deep in me, and that I need to pursue it. That has been my guide with literally every book I wrote. Trusting this kind of visceral reaction means that you are willing to let life “come and get you.” It means who you are is defined from the inside, not the outside. In terms of what’s really important, we don’t have much choice, and that’s as it should be. The decision is made by a larger energy or unconscious process, and when it’s right, you know it… Goethe wrote: “Man errs as long as he strives.” Sit still, meditate, just let the answer arise from the body. (It may take a while.)

In a 2004 New Yorker feature on the Farrelly Brothers’s attempt to write a script for a new Three Stooges movie, Peter Farrelly offered his theory of Stooge appreciation: “Growing up, first you watched Curly, then Moe, and then your eyes got to Larry. He’s the reactor, the most vulnerable. Five to fourteen, Curly; fourteen to twenty-one, Moe. Anyone out of college, if you’re not looking at Larry you don’t have a good brain.”

11 favorite Christmas albums

We have a strict rule: no playing of Christmas music until we're driving back from my Aunt Carolyn's Thanksgiving dinner. From then until the evening of December 25th, Christmas music plays pretty non-stop at home. The music we listen to may be good only to our ears; we've had some of these CDs for so long that they're old friends. It's hard to hear them anew. Still -- Christmas is a time for familiar, cozy comforts, and the music we enjoy reflects that. (Although streaming tons of new-to-us music off of Amazon Prime is tilting the balance these days...)

A Charlie Brown Christmas (Vince Guaraldi Trio, 1988) How can you not have this CD? A classic, of course, that stays listenable, always fresh, and with a children's chorus that sound like real children. Love that. "Christmas is Coming" always gets my attention. This is one of the few CDs Liz and I both had in our collections when we merged households.

Nomad Christmas (Various Artists, 1997) I remember buying this as a cassette from a music store on Ninth Street in the late '90s, I think. (Local bassist Robbie Link appears on it.) I love the more exotic and jazzy versions of some well-known carols, along with songs and melodies from other countries I'd not heard before. All instrumental, a great low-key sound when you're decorating the tree. This was one of our first forays into "world music" for the holidays.

A Very Reggae Christmas (Kofi, 1994) I remember we bought this from the gone but not forgotten Carrboro branch of Nice Price Books (secondhand books and records). He surrounds familiar old melodies with heavy beats and exciting arrangements so that I hear them fresh every year. Kofi transforms two of my most hated Christmas songs -- "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" -- into music that I actually enjoy. And, God, he makes "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" sound like a true celebration of joy and not a prim, tasteful dirge.

Holiday Songs and Lullabies (Shawn Colvin, 1998) This was an impulse purchase while I waited in line at the gone but not forgotten CD Superstore at Brightleaf Square, and one of the best I ever made. There are familiar Christmas songs alongside ballads, folk songs, and lullabies -- the cold night, the child in its crib -- plus several carols that were unfamiliar to me, such as "Little Road to Bethlehem" and "Love Came Down at Christmas". It's a record for winter that makes you want to sit in a dark room, watch the lights glint on the tree, and listen to the understated arrangements and Colvin's gentle voice.

Christmas Caravan (Squirrel Nut Zippers, 1998) The Zippers were a local band who flared brightly for a few years before burning out and disbanding. But not before making this CD, which we did not like at first, but that has grown on us over the years. (And isn't Christmas music all about familiarity?) More than any other CD on this list, Christmas Caravan is an acquired taste -- many of the songs are originals or tunes little known to me, Katherine Whalen's vocals take getting used to, and Jimbo Mathus' arrangements make each song so different the album as a whole lacks a unity. But tucked into this CD are some great one-of-a-kinds: "Christmas in Carolina," "I'm Coming Home for Christmas," "Hanging Up My Stockings,"  and a kick-ass "Sleigh Ride."

American Folk Songs for Christmas (Mike, Peggy, and Penny Seeger, 1989) We usually wait until we start our annual drive to Florida before listening to this 2-CD set. This is a respectful, lovely collection of folk and Appalachian hymns, carols, spirituals, shape-note, and songs clumped together to tell the Christmas story: the stars, the shepherds, the birth, the joy of Christmas day, and too the excitement the day brings to a poor household: jokey songs, counting songs, high spirits. The sound is of a family gathered with their instruments around the hearth -- almost painfully spare and austere, and beautiful in its directness to the ear and heart.

The Bells of Dublin (The Chieftains, 1991) A great smorgasbord of traditional and British Christmas tunes, with really great guest turns: the McGarrigle Sisters on "Il Est Ne/Ca Berger" and Nanci Griffith on "The Wexford Carol." But as comforting and charm-laden as Celtic-flavored Christmas music could be, the Chieftains keep their eyes on today and so the album layers in some tartness: Elvis Costello on "St. Stephen's Day Murders" and my favorite, Jackson Browne's "The Rebel Jesus."

Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity (John Rutter, The Cambridge Singers, The London Sinfonia, 1987) -- We have several of Rutter's Christmas CDs, but this is the first I bought (thank you, CD Superstore) and the one I like best. As with all his productions, the sound is crystal clear, the choral singing full and lush, and Rutter's arrangements restrained yet full of emotion. I like the selection of carols here, and the mood of it all -- faithful, in all senses of that word.

In the Christmas Spirit (Booker T. & the MG's, 2011) -- If you are of an age to have heard the first airings of David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries on NPR back in the late '80s-early '90s (produced by a young Ira Glass), then this music is what you heard in the background. Low-key, funky, and could have been recorded yesterday. It can play in eternal rotation.

A Putumayo World Christmas (Various Artists, 2000). As time goes by, I find myself favoring international holiday music over the American pop holiday standards. Part of it is the attraction of new sounds and songs, part of it the aliveness of other traditions. I always enjoy the Putumayo collections and this one is hot; I love every track on it. (The Putumayo's Cajun Christmas CD? Not so much. Hardly at all, in fact.) I cite the year for this CD, as a later reissue removed some of the tracks that were my favorites. Amazon has several Putumayo Christmas collections, but this one looks to be out of print.

A String Quartet Christmas (Arturo Delmoni, et al., 2010) When I'm making sausage balls or Liz is decorating the tree, then what's needed is some instrumental background music that sets a mood. This set of 3 CDs fits the bill. (They were originally released as individual CDs in the late '90s under the title Rejoice!) These short string quartet arrangements of carols, hymns, and traditional melodies stick to the classic selections; no secular guff like "Frosty" or "Rudolph" here, thank Festivus.



There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag — and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty — and vice-versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you.
Doris Lessing, 1971 introduction to The Golden Notebook (via austinkleon)

My quixotic smart Christmas playlist

In iTunes, I have assigned the genre “Christmas” to all my Yuletide music, albums and singletons alike. This makes it relatively easy to add them to my iPod or remove them at once with the click of a button. (Some sequester their Christmas music to a different iTunes library, but I haven’t gone that far yet.)

I have a few static playlists that group a series of albums together, for example, all of the Windham Hill Winter Solstice albums. My friend Bob has a static playlist containing only instrumental songs, for when he just wants background music.

My own quixotic contribution to the world of Christmas playlists is a smart playlist that collects and sorts all of my Christmas songs in alphabetical order.

Liz prefers hearing her Christmas music by album; each album has its own personality, sound, and emotion that she enjoys. For myself, I rather like the randomness and juxtaposition of so many different songs one after another or so many differently styled versions of the same song in one place.

I get a kick out of hearing nine different arrangements of “Joy to the World” – community chorale, solo vocal, piano instrumental, surf guitar – one after another. Or picking a letter of the alphabet and starting my listening there, just to see what comes next.

The settings for this playlist are in the screenshot, but here’s the recipe:

  • Match "music" for "all" of the following rules:
    • Genre contains "Christmas"
    • Rating is not [one star]
    • Live updating is enabled

As you can surmise, all the songs are tagged with the genre “Christmas.” I flag songs I want to delete from my library with a single star. I periodically display all one-star songs in a smart playlist and delete them.

When iTunes creates the playlist, click the Name column header so the songs are sorted alphabetically. Then sync the playlist to your iDevice. This will preserve the song order on your iDevice.

Xmas smart playlist

It’s so hard to forget pain, but it’s even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness. We learn so little from peace.
Chuck Palahniuk, Diary (via Tim Ferriss)

Globe Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice"


We saw the theatrical streaming of the Globe Theatre’s The Merchant of Venice recently, as that’s Liz’s favorite Shakespeare play. It’s a play that always raises more questions than it answers. There is no catharsis. The tragedies may be littered with bodies by their bloody ends, but there is the sense of an ending, of finality. Momentous things have happened, the world has changed. But in Merchant – a play where no one dies – the story stops, the world remains frustratingly unchanged, and the emotions that have been churned up have nowhere to settle. Jonathan Munby’s direction was swift and vigorous, the comic stuff was energetic and well-sold by sharp actors, the romantic moments well-paced. But we watch it for Shylock’s story, don’t we? To see what this production adds to the discussion, to see that tremendous courtroom scene, those glorious speeches.

Shylock is only in five scenes, but for modern viewers the character dominates The Merchant of Venice and its afterlife. There are damn few ways you can jazz up or reconceive the casket scenes, usually the most turgid scenes for me. Lancelot is Lancelot – what can be done? But there are seemingly endless variations on showing Shylock’s humiliation, and the hateful behavior of the Christians to the Jews.

On this viewing, Merchant struck me as a lumpy stew. Individual bits were strong but they didn’t blend well into a balanced whole. I view it as a characteristic of the play rather than the production. The play isn’t as poetic and language drunk as Romeo and Juliet, it doesn’t have the piercing personality of a Richard III. Merchant seems instead a mash-up by Shakespeare of old stories designed to give his repertory actors some good scenes to play – romance, comedy, high melodrama – while giving the audience something to keep their interest.

But Shakespeare being Shakespeare, I think that as he started working the plots to motivate the characters’ decisions, he could not help but introduce nuance, colors, and character details that likely had nothing to do with the original stories.

He also found motifs and themes that provide interesting rhyme and counterpoint throughout and help bond these disparate stories. There is the theme of fathers and daughters. Portia is as trapped by her father’s will as Jessica is physically by hers; Portia adheres to her father’s rules while Jessica doesn’t; both are rescued and rewarded by true love (perhaps); but Munby’s sharp view of wealth and Christian society make the point that Jessica dwells on the island at Portia’s pleasure.

Then, of course, the outsider theme. Shylock, obviously, but Antonio also. The young men buzz and fawn around Antonio, but it’s clear he has people who are indebted to him rather than friends. He begins the play melancholy (so he says) and ends it alive (yay) but melancholy still, one feels. He enabled Bassanio’s happiness at the potential cost of his life, but Bassanio’s happiness is for his life with Portia – Antonio remains on the outside.

Antonio is gracious and forgiving whenever Bassanio or his friends are around, but an arrogant SOB when dealing with Shylock. Antonio’s self-loathing finds release when he must deal with those lower on the social scale – someone to whom he is now indebted.

Shylock, of course, is the play’s ultimate outsider. John Barton, in the “Playing Shakespeare” episode where Patrick Stewart and David Suchet discuss their takes on Shylock, reminds us that – had Portia not intervened – Shylock would in fact have murdered Antonio. Even given what he’s suffered, can we excuse or sympathize with a murderer? Barton’s opinion is that Shylock is a bad human being and a bad Jew. I will add to this my unsupported theory, which is that Shakespeare by chance created a more human character whose actions and attitudes could not transcend a melodramatic and highly theatrical plot constructed to contain the two-dimensional characters that populate the rest of the play.

Shakespeare’s dialogue does not refer to any other Jews in the courtroom, so Shylock appears to be on his own. That interested me. The practical-theatre side of me says this is because all the members of the company are on stage for the Big Scene and so no one else was left to don the costume and makeup. So why not make a virtue of that absence? The in-play answer to this situation could then be that Shylock’s fellow Jews wanted no part of his bloody bargain and so left him to fend for himself. Their absence from the courtroom could emphasize just how far outside the pale Shylock has placed himself, even by the standards of his own community. (Tubal, depending on how he’s played, does not encourage or join in with Shylock on his tirades against the Christians.)

[Aside: when I saw the courtroom scene where the Christians turn the tables on Shylock, my mind flashed to the scene in “Oklahoma” where Judd bids on Laurie’s picnic basket. All the other cowboys come to Curly’s aid to help him outbid Judd. Even though Judd is playing by their rules, the community excludes him and refuses to let him win. Shylock had too much faith in the law to look after his interests when he sought revenge on Antonio, and didn’t calculate just how far the community would go to protect itself from him.]

Shakespeare and this production don’t make it easy to sympathize with any character. Shylock may see himself as protecting his daughter, yet he treats her shabbily. One is sympathetic to Jessica’s plight, but she also steals her father’s money and the ring given to him by Jessica’s mother – a keepsake and memory he appears to hold dear. What makes Portia think she’s a better lawyer than a lawyer? Portia puts Bassanio through the ethical wringer – why? Does she think he loves Antonio more than her? He reasoned his way to the correct casket – why does he need to be tested again? Bassanio wins Portia’s hand fair and square with his humble perspective, yet he is always in debt, changeable, and tries the patience of those who love him. Will Portia be covering his debts in future?

Patrick Stewart said that Barton’s first words to him about Shylock were, “Think of how you’ll get off stage.” Shylock’s exit can be slow, fast, defeated, dignified – it’s a way actors can stamp the part as theirs. Olivier’s offstage scream was said to be chilling. Stewart’s demonstration of his exit showed a scarily manic figure who has lost his mind. Pryce leaves the courtroom humiliated, yet Munby adds a final scene of Shylock’s baptism, with Jessica off to the side singing a Jewish lament. It’s thrillingly theatrical while its formal restraint makes the emotions underneath threaten to burst and overflow the stage. The pomp and spectacle, the Latin ritual, Pryce’s devastation  – can the play really support this? I respect the scene’s power, but it is so unlike any other scene or moment in this play it seems to belong elsewhere. I think this play, hobbled by its melodramatic roots, cannot help an audience process the emotion that the director and cast fan into a righteous flame.

But…Liz and I left the screening staggered and could not stop talking about it for hours. Show me the last movie where we were able to do that.

Miscellaneous links, because it’s what I do

"More Fool Me" by Stephen Fry (audiobook)

Cover of

More Fool Me is Fry’s third book of memoirs, and covers roughly the years 1986-2001, when he was professionally and personally flying high, not least due to incredible quantities of cocaine and vodka that fueled his addictive, rather needy personality. I listened to the audiobook version, as read by Fry, and it’s a far better experience than reading it would have been, I’m sad to say.

The recording starts with an hour of him recapping the events of his first two memoirs (and mock-apologizing for it frequently) and ends with almost three hours of him reading his daily diary entries from three typically busy months in 1993. Had I read this on paper, I’d have been furious about reading a book that seemed assembled from parts rather than written. But hearing it performed took a bit of the sting out of it. When he tells his stories, he acts out the characters, takes on the voices (his impersonation of John Cleese, if impersonation it was, was spot on), and it feels as if one is sitting across from him as he expertly paces and tells his stories.

That said, three months of daily diary entries is asking a bit much of the casual reader.1 Fry includes the passages as an example of how fast and frenetic his life had become and how, looking back, he could see that a breakdown was inevitable. But it does not avoid becoming a long recitation of name-dropping, self-indulgence, and snobbery. Trey Graham’s review sums it up this way:

In barely three months of diary entries, from August to November of 1993, Bad Stephen writes a novel; sits for a portrait; attends the London premiere of The Fugitive and is embarrassed to be seated with the B-list celebs; attempts [writing] the book for an Elton John jukebox musical; races about England benevolently signing books and meeting blushingly with personal bankers; does a speechy thing or two for Prince Charles; tries out a new bespoke tailor; dines with Dennis (aka Mr. Margaret) Thatcher at the Garrick Club and pronounces him, with a blithe arrogance worthy of any Cambridge grad, “better read than I had ever imagined.” Eventually he purchases at auction two letters in Oscar Wilde’s hand — but not without both citing and complaining of the price, and not before dropping roughly as many names, familiar and obscure, as he does pounds sterling. Fear not, he footnotes the obscure ones so as to evoke suitable awe.

Graham concludes: “A misguided, misspent early midlife is one thing to recount and repent. The blithe snobbery, the casual cruelty, the condescension to those less gifted that’s on such vulgar display in this all-too-dense diary of excess — they all demand more examination, more reflection, more humanity than Fry provides.”

During the period described in this book, Fry was enjoying immense visibility from appearing in “Blackadder,” “Jeeves and Wooster,” “A Bit of Fry and Laurie,” and the movie Peter’s Friends. It was entirely unforeseen for the schoolboy described in his first memoir, Moab is My Washpot. There, Fry felt like an outsider due to his increasing awareness of his homosexuality, being Jewish, and whatever other unknowable demons drove him to skip school, steal from fellow students to feed his cravings for sweets and cigarettes, take advantage of everyone around him, attempt suicide, and otherwise transgress shamelessly.

His second memoir, The Fry Chronicles, sees him begin to explore relationships, act, write and perform, and become addicted to applause and attention. Though clearly an intelligent and self-aware man, that knowledge doesn’t stop him getting addicted to cocaine as chronicled in More Fool Me and indulging himself by snorting the stuff not just in the private clubs that became his second home but also in the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and Buckingham Palace. Though he never snorted at Hugh Laurie’s house, knowing Laurie and his wife disapproved; even Fry’s inner demons respected Laurie and his friendship too much to transgress there.

Fry makes no bones about it: he enjoyed himself tremendously and did not see himself as an addict. He details the little kit he assembled to carry and snort 3-5 grams of coke with him whenever he went and is pleased to describe in detail its compact stylishness. (When I smoked a pipe in my 20s, I also happily indulged in all the paraphernalia that goes with that pastime. There is pleasure in the fetish of the ritual.)

Fry throughout feels himself to be the outsider still, even when the evidence of being a tremendous insider explodes all around him – the private clubs, the celebrities, the parties, Lady Di telling him a secret: he loves every drop of it. Cocaine is the thick icing atop a very yummy cake, the soundtrack to the exclusive A-list parties.

Moab is My Washpot remains his best book-length narrative to date because he was able to see young Stephen in toto, forgive him, see him from his childhood into young adulthood and a new beginning, and thus shape the story into a satisfying whole. It’s a touching and affectionate book.

A key reason for the weakness of More Fool Me is that Fry’s larger story has yet to come to an ending. The book is reportorial, brimming with surface details, bright anecdotes, and, as said, an entertaining vocal performance. But not enough time has passed for Fry to really understand who he was and what happened so that he could shape the material into a story that could stand on its own. Fry begins the story bewildered and beleaguered, and ends the same way; there is no change or transformation, just incident after incident.

Much waits in Fry’s future after this book ends: a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, a continued and apparently unquenchable thirst for vodka, and several suicide attempts, including a very close call from 2012. Fry’s demons are still in there. Maybe one day, Fry (if he is still in there as well) will be able to tell the whole story.

To his credit, he doesn’t ask for forgiveness or understanding, just a chance to tell his side of the story. I don’t demand an answer to the mystery of his behavior but I do need more than a raconteur’s dinner stories.

Stray observations

  • Fry lists his early literary heroes as Wilde, Wodehouse, Waugh, and Doyle. You see their influence in his sometimes baroque, ornamental style. I wouldn’t say he loves the sound of his own voice so much as he loves the music he can make from his words.
  • Fry is stung by Alice Faye Cleese’s remark that she and John prefer his shorter pieces, such as the Telegraph and Listener columns and essays he wrote that were collected in Paperweight, over his comic novels. Fry thinks they’re wrong, that Cleese believes comic novels cannot treat serious topics. But Cleese is right: the shorter length tamps down Fry’s natural discursive style and forces him to focus. In that smaller container, he says a lot more. I stopped reading his fiction after his third novel; they were OK but not memorable.

(originally posted 2016-10-29, updated for

  1. If this book had been billed as Fry’s journal entries for these years, I would react differently. I love reading collections of diaries, letters, and journals. I object when verbatim diary entries take up room in what should be a shaped narrative, as this memoir purports to be. [return]

Denver, October 2016

Liz presented at the AMWA conference, so I tagged along and cavorted at will. From the mental grab-bag:

  1. I stayed pretty much in the 16th Street mall area, since we didn’t have a car. That’s OK – plenty to walk to from there, though like most malls, chain stores dominate the landscape.
  2. We stayed at the downtown Sheraton, the largest hotel in Colorado, we were told. Also, kind of staid. Nothing special here.
  3. We ate all our evening meals in the Yard House, a sports bar attached to the Sheraton. Loud and expensive, it nonetheless served excellent food and we were never disappointed. (I favored the Cobb salad and chicken tortilla soup.) Liz also liked their sour beer. We never could figure out what the phrase “yard house” meant.
  4. Thank God for the Peet’s Coffee just off the lobby – a life-giving Americano started my busy days.
  5. I spent almost my entire travel budget just buying meals on this trip. I settled on two meals for the day, with the occasional protein bar as a pick me up, and that did me fine.
  6. The Tattered Cover Book Shop is housed in an old railway warehouse and is a marvelous place to browse. City Stacks is a cozier, brighter bookshop where I had a very good peppermint tea and browsed the art books.
  7. Denver struck Liz as heavily male: young men in groups of three and more, bushy beards, tattoos, ear gauges. Lots of young men. Joe told us that Denver is in a tech boom and can’t hire programmers fast enough; that also answered the question of how all these young people could afford to hang out in this expensive area. Joe also said that “LoDo” (Lower Downtown) has become so infested with packs of guys and bros that the area is now called “BroDo.”
  8. The History Colorado Center had the Awkward Family Photos show alongside its own photos of turn of the 20th century Denver and Colorado. Interesting to note the similarities, differences, and reactions between the two shows. I did laugh a lot at the Awkward Family Photos, but I’d love to have a book of the older photos and just stare at them for long periods of time.
  9. Always take free walking tours. The free downtown tour took two hours and showed me places, like Larimer Square and the Blue Bear, that I’d overlooked wandering on my own.
  10. I spent a few hours in the Denver Art Museum. With exhibits in two buildings spread among 11 floors, I couldn’t hope to see it all. And besides, after a couple hours, I’m museum’d out. I went to the Glory of Venice exhibit, wished for more of the poster art exhibit, looked at the English and American art collections, the Western and Native American collections, and called it a day. Good for the soul.
  11. I walked miles and miles every day, and came back 1.5 pounds lighter.
  12. Was it the altitude or the desert environment that aggravated my allergies? I thought I was coming down with another cold before I hit on the right allergy meds that let me sleep without dying of post-nasal drip strangulation. Also: water (and lots of it), chapstick, and sunscreen!
  13. We totally missed the bizarre murals that decorate the Denver Airport and apparently form an apocalyptic story. Search on “Denver Airport murals” and a door opens to a new room of the internet that you didn’t know was there.
  14. We had a wonderful dinner and evening catching up with our friends Heather and Joe, the highlight for me of the trip.

Who's Working for Who?

I traveled with Liz to Denver CO for a few days while she attended a conference while I cavorted. For this brief trip, I carried a Chromebook, a Kindle Paperwhite, an iPod Touch 5g, a retro Tracfone-powered flip phone, a digital camera, multiple chargers, and 2 paperbacks.

This agglomeration of tech accumulated bit by bit over the years. It all works, it doesn't take up much room in the suitcase, it all does what I need it to do. I wish I didn't need a separate checklist to help me remember whether I've packed everything!

Am I on the road to being one of those old duffers who has drawers and closets full of perfectly good stuff that all sensible consumers have discarded? If this blog is still trundling on in 20 years, I hope to let you know.

Google Me This: "The Lost Art of *"

I was cleaning out my Evernote inbox and saw two topics side by side: "The Lost Art of Memorizing Poetry" and the "The Lost Art of Illustrating Your Favorite Books." How many Lost Arts could there be? Are they really lost, were they superseded, or are they underground? Have the practitioners and teachers died out? Did that many people really practice it? And when we say "art" we really mean "skill," right? Or do we mean a craft that elevated both the user and the practice? There's a rather weary head-shake and heavy sigh of regret that seems to go with the phrase "lost art."

As always, when faced with an odd little eyeworm like that, I feed it into Google to see what other pages out there are using, re-using, and wearing out those specific words in that specific order. I tweaked this search a bit and decided dropping the quotation marks netted a few good articles I missed otherwise; I also removed lyrics from the search. Try it yourself.

What do we learn from this? I have no idea. I just find it interesting to see what others consider a necessary skill or behavior that no one in their self-identified peer group seems to find relevant anymore.

From the NC State Fair Food Labs

From a GO magazine article on what to expect at this year's state fairs in the Carolinas:

North Carolina's lineup never fails with offerings like Fry Me to the Moon -- a deep-fried chocolate Moon Pie stuffed with Ho Hos, peanut butter cups, and Oreos, topped with cream cheese, chocolate syrup, and powdered sugar. Need more energy? Try the Bacon S'more -- a quarter-pound of maple-syrup grilled bacon on a stick dipped in chocolate, marshmallow fluff, and graham cracker crumbles...

The mind, the mouth, the gut flora tremble, as if on a knife's edge...


Two people with languages unknown to each other met, and tried to communicate.

One said, “I want to do but cannot for some reason” and then did not, while the second said “do” and did for any reason and many reasons.

There was little to say between them. After all was said and done. Or not done.

The two people went their ways.

In museums, libraries, concert halls and theaters, markets and all across the land there was that which those who did had done. Those who could not fathom how all this had been done shook their heads, thinking they would like to have done what these had done. And then they went their ways, as before not doing as they had not done.

Time passed, as it does. As it will do. People pass as they do, and none don’t.

In 1911, Delafield was accepted as a postulant by a French religious order established in Belgium. Her account of the experience, The Brides of Heaven, was written in 1931 and eventually published in her biography. “The motives which led me, as soon as I was 21, to enter a French Religious Order are worthy of little discussion, and less respect” she begins. This account includes being told by the Superior that if a doctor advised a surgical operation “your Superiors will decide whether your life is of sufficient value to the community to justify the expense. If it is not, you will either get better without the operation or die. In either case you will be doing the will of God and nothing else matters.”