Thursday, May 26, 2011

Tasp or Taze?

In The Ringworld Engineers Larry Niven posits a pleasure Taser. Imagine you are a cop and you are faced with a man brandishing a weapon, maybe holding somebody hostage. The man is clearly in pain, angry, anguished. But also dangerous. And you have to neutralize that. So you point your Tasp at the man and remotely stimulate the pleasure center of his brain. The tension goes out of him. He relaxes, smiles. He laughs at the gun in his hand and lays it gently on the ground.

Or, in Niven’s more innocent scenario: “A dour stranger wanders past, rage or misery written in the sour lines of his face. From behind a tree you make his day. Plink! His face lights up. For a moment he’s got no worries at all.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Chris Palmer has been involved in producing nature documentaries since the early 80s. In his history of the genre Disney’s wildlife films come in for praise and criticism. I know I saw Disney stuff growing up, some of the movies staples of the classroom. My mother’s criticism: Disney cuted up the animals, making up stories and putting words in the animals’ mouths. Palmer agrees with that. He also discusses instances where the Disney filmmakers forced or tricked animals into performing for the camera.

The most infamous example of misleading information in a Disney film involves that scene from White Wilderness in which the lemmings jump off a cliff en masse – or so it appears. … So memorable were these images that even today many people believe that lemmings engage in blindly self-destructive behavior. But the whole scene was fabricated. A 1982 investigation by reporter Brian Vallee of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation revealed that Disney filmmakers had forced a few dozen lemmings to run on a snow-covered turntable and even threw some into the sea to create the dramatic scene. … Some species of lemmings do become overpopulated, do migrate in swarms, and sometimes do drown crossing streams, but they never jump off cliffs suicidally.

Lemmings. The narrator of White Wilderness claims that there has long been a legend of suicidal lemmings. Having read the debunking of the Disney version of the “truth,” I wonder how ancient this legend is. Did the Disney filmmakers create it out of whole cloth?

The Urban Dictionary includes a very contemporary definition of lemming, “A lemming refers to a purchase/wished-for-item which results from reading an enthusiastic post about a new fabulous product. Overcome by compulsion, readers follow like lemmings diving off a cliff.”

That gibes with other definitions. Lemmings are creatures who, without thought for themselves, will follow a leader right over the cliff. It ain’t true?

There’s also a Snopes article on White Wilderness, which backs up Chris Palmer and adds a few details. The film’s narration claims the rodents are swimming out to sea, for instance. Snopes says no, the footage was grabbed “in Alberta, Canada, which … has no outlet to the sea. Lemmings were imported …” The water the poor wee critters are bobbing in? A river.

You can watch (or rewatch for the umpteenth time), the lemmings snippet from White Wilderness on youtube.

Let me conclude with a couple lines from a poem I wrote in high school:

Where did you go?
The edge of the world where the sea falls off and the lemmings stop to ponder their fate before plunging.

source: Shooting in the Wild: an insider’s account of making movies in the animal kingdom by Chris Palmer

Monday, May 23, 2011

remember to write your memoirs

Three memoirs I’ve lately liked:

A Round-Heeled Woman by Jane Juska.

Chasing the Sea: lost among the ghosts of empire in Central Asia by Tom Bissell.

The Blue Bear by Lynn Schooler.

I suppose I should say something to convince you each is worth a try. A capsule review. A summary sentence even. I started to. I swear.

Instead let’s wish my brother many happy returns of the day:

Happy Birthday, David!

Almost six and a half years of Dare I Read, too.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Ode to Joy

Kirk Read’s account (from his How I Learned to Snap: a small-town coming-of-age coming-out story) of acquiring a copy of The Joy of Gay Sex by Edmund White and Charles Silverstein:

I feverishly ripped the bar codes out of the book so that I wouldn’t trigger the sensor gates on the way out of the library. I’d seen library clerks demagnetize books before by rubbing the spine across a black metal slab. The spine, too, had to go. It was full of alarms. I ripped the cover off altogether and shoved it into the trash can, then covered the evidence with handfuls of paper towels. I stuffed the book under my jacket and into the waistband of my pants. A friend and I had shoplifted hundreds of dollars worth of cassettes in the pockets of our camouflage pants, the covers of tennis rackets, and long shirt sleeves. [Yet] I’d never stolen anything that mattered so much.

… What can I say?

I’m appalled? I can identify with the desperation, though, and the terror of being suspected. If suicide is a way to escape the opprobrium society (even our loved ones) heap on the gay, theft is a minor transgression if it means survival?

I got my own copy with an employee’s discount when I worked for a Christmas season at Books Inc in Santa Rosa’s Coddingtown Mall. 1985. The year I came out. I was twenty. Would I have had the nerve to buy the book over the counter? Maybe. Maybe not. I was checking out from the local library books on gay topics (though they hadn’t the pictures). I’m pretty sure I’d managed a couple gay magazines from a Santa Rosa magazine shop by this time. A couple of them of the pictorial sort …

Saturday, May 21, 2011

cowboys and pistols

From a capsule tour diary of the Sex Pistols 1978 U.S. tour, their final tour:

Jan 8: Randy’s Rodeo, San Antonio, Texas

… The band take the stage around 11pm, Lydon wearing a ripped tartan suit and his Tom of Finland gay cowboys T-shirt. The band are pelted with popcorn, beer cups, hot dogs, whipped cream, bottles and pies. Sid premieres his ‘Gimme A Fix’ DIY chest tattoo, shouts, ‘You cowboys are all a bunch of faggots!,’ has his nose bloodied by a beer can and brains a troublemaker with his bass.

Oh the irony! Sid Vicious calls the Texans faggots while his bandmate Johnny Rotten (Lydon) wears a tshirt of two affectionate cowboys with their gigantic cocks hanging out.

I snatched the image from That’s not the tshirt, which was sold in Malcolm McLaren’s shop SEX, McLaren being the Sex Pistols svengali, but the source image for the shirt’s design. It is not, says Mr Gormanis, a Tom of Finland drawing, but one by Jim French.

If you’re curious, there’s more to read at (“SEX specialised in transgression … selling fetish and bondage clothing, and with a variety of erotic material on its hand-made shirts.”) and (“’The whole drawing was simply jacked. … McLaren and [Vivienne] Westwood made a whole bunch of money … stealing it.’”)

You can spot the shirt itself in a 1980 image of Boy George, pre-fame.

source: Andrew Male, Mojo: the music magazine, July 2009

Friday, May 20, 2011

Kiss Me …

The Green Day tour has come to Osaka, Japan. Aaron Cometbus, old friend from the early days and longtime chronicler of the punk scene (& theorist), was invited to come along and write about the experience. Japan is the last country on the Asia tour. For the first time everybody parties together. It’s a small bar and musicians and crew fill the tiny dance floor. One of the Green Day guys takes over the DJ booth to play “scathing, straightforward punk.” The party gets a bit crazy with more than one injury, but the spirits, Aaron insists, remain high and friendly. There is a pause as a song winds down then:

Billie motioned me to join him on the dance floor. Over speakers came the notes that never fail to give me goosebumps: the opening chords of the greatest song of all time, ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ by Generation X.

Dancing in the middle of a maelstrom was different than with just one person in the middle of the room. I deferred, but Billie knew me better than that. ‘Please drag me out onto the dance floor’ is what I really meant.

He did, and everyone else gave us space.

I’d needed to shake off the self-consciousness and lethargy … Touring with Green Day had been great because I got to dance – but only to the band, not with them. Once upon a time, Billie and I had danced together at every show. …

Dancing together was sexy, it was sweet. It was everything that friendship – and being on tour – should be. It was the prom night I’d never had, done right. …

As the song concluded, [Billie] wrapped me in his arms, leaned over, and gave me a long and tender kiss.

Does it matter that Billie Joe Armstrong has a wife back home (does it matter when he kisses girl fans on the stage?) or that Aaron has a girlfriend?

Jon Ginoli of Pansy Division says that when they were invited to open for Green Day on the first tour after Green Day released its major label debut the Green Day boys all said they were bi. That doesn’t seem to manifest in a boyfriend for any of them, but it does say they are more healthily open than so many who lock down thoughts & feelings they think they’re not supposed to have. And in some cases, as in Aaron’s account, a man can demonstrate affection physically that’s tenderer far than the usual het boy punch on the arm.

source: Cometbus #54: In China with Green Day by Aaron Cometbus

Thursday, May 19, 2011

pile of reading

Because I can keep one book going for a long time I checked my last pile post to see if I was still working on one I’d listed then. I am. Another of them isn’t in the pile anymore but I’m not quite done with it. The 1000+ page anthology Voices Within the Ark: the modern Jewish poets edited by Howard Schwartz and Anthony Rudolf is leaning against my personal anthology binder, the poems I’ve copied out by hand over the years. There are still four or five placemarks where poems wait on my decision. Well, let’s get to the list:

Wishbone poems by Priscilla Lee
This was the fifth volume in an ambitious poetry series Heyday Books began back at the turn of the millennium. “The California Poetry Series celebrates the great diversity of aesthetics, culture, geography, and ethnicity of the state by publishing work by poets with strong ties to California. Books within this series are published quarterly.” I bought this copy at a slashed price from Joyce Jenkins, the editor of the series (& of Poetry Flash), when she had a table at last fall’s small press event at Berkeley City College. When I asked what killed the series Joyce said the publishers didn’t want to compete with themselves. Small press publishing often does not pay for itself. Poetry more rarely than most. Putting a book together often involves applying for grants, it seems. Joyce said Heyday Books wanted to apply for the same grants for other titles that Joyce was applying to for the poetry books. Despite all the gushing over poetry I remember at the series launch, when it came down to a book of poems or a book of something else – a guide to California trees? a memoir of Paris in the early years of the twentieth century? – the poems didn’t have the upper hand. Anyway. Wishbone is a mix of family & personal history and odd, fantastic characters. Lee doesn’t offer an easy dividing line between the real and the unreal. “There are stories / about people making love in empty houses, / but this isn’t about that. We stand awkward, / the emptiness all around us.”

In Southern Light: trekking through Zaire and the Amazon by Alex Shoumatoff
Written in the early 80s. The author goes to the Amazon to try to track down the truth behind the story (& legend?) that gave the river its name. Was there really a tribe of female warriors? Probably not. But there seem to have been indigenous myths about women-rejecting men that came close enough to European legends that the two versions of the warrior woman story reinforced each other even across the cultual and language divides. In Zaire Shoumatoff visits a friend who is studying and living among African pygmies. Shoumatoff finds the pygmies so shy they won’t make eye contact, but when he records some of their singing they laugh, delighted, and will sing in response to the playback.

The World Split Open: four centuries of women poets in England and America, 1552-1950 edited by Louise Bernikow
The anthology was published in 1974 and Bernikow’s introductory essay partakes of the period’s angry feminist critique. Fine with me. I like that sort of unapologetic anger at injustice. The demand was that an educated lady be modest, Bernikow says of the English Renaissance. “Her virtue was to be praised and therein lies the problem, for more poets have been lost to ‘virtue’ than to death in childbirth or early starvation or disease in factories and mines. … Women knew quite well that if one woman signed her work … she opened herself to moral and social abuse.” I’m just to the poets who span the divide between the 17th and 18th centuries. This sort of strictly formed verse rarely interests me, unfortunately. Written by man or woman, it hardly matters. I want to expose myself to (force myself through) some older poetry in order to have a better grounding in the history of poetry. My favorite bit so far is probably this passage from a “A Nocturnal Reverie” by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720): “When the loos’d horse now, as his pasture leads, / Comes slowly grazing thro’ th’ adjoining meads, / Whose stealing pace, and lengthened shade we fear, / Till torn-up forage in his teeth we hear …” Stomping sounds in the dark, scary, until the listener identifies the horsy munching of weeds and feels relieved.

This Is Reggae Music: the story of Jamaica’s music by Lloyd Bradley
The book was originally published in the UK as Bass Culture: when reggae was king. This spring I went through several CDs of reggae music from the 60s and early 70s and really enjoyed the experience so I wanted to read more about what made the music. Bradley’s writing has a casual feel and I often lose interest. I can only make it through a few pages at a sitting.

The End of Major Combat Operations by Nick McDonell
Published by Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s Press, I was hoping McDonell would have something new to say a war that was winding down. If he does, I haven’t gotten to it. He pretty much offers up the usual depressing stuff – people telling you stories you’re not sure you can believe, the interpreters (“terps”) who were essential to the success of the mission (which is what?) but who the U.S. abandons, etc.

Kundalini: the evolutionary energy in man by Gopi Krishna
This is the book that was in the pile on January first. I’m now about halfway. Gopi Krishna meditated so much and so long he released the Kundalini energy coiled in the lowest chakra – and it almost drove him mad!

Quarterly Review of Literature, Poetry Series IV edited by T. & R. Weiss
This is a hardcover that contains book-length sections by five poets, including the Polish Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska, and the first book by Jane Hirshfield. I like both of those poets. I’ve gone on to the next, Christopher Bursk. “I was hurt deep back into history, / and timed my torture. / It took ten minutes to make Zarthor appear / in the body of Richard Ainsbruck, / a boy held back twice. / I borrowed the long brown hair / and merciful eyes of a girl … / I could make the pain from one lash / endure for twenty minutes …”

The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel
I started reading Bechdel’s self-syndicated Dykes to Watch Out for in a local gay free paper not long after it began, apparently. I’ve looked forward to being able to reread the whole thing. I think this collection includes all the strips since it became a narrative.

La Perdida a graphic novel by Jessica Abel
There are some library books that aren’t in today’s pile of reading because I’ve barely begun them or haven’t begun them at all. La Perdida is one I’m a few pages into. I like the idea of reading an American expat’s account of living in Mexico City.

Cometbus #54: In China with Green Day by Aaron Cometbus
Aaron Cometbus knew the Green Day boys when he was an elder – he was 24? And they were just pushing out of their teens? One notes that his daughter is the same age he was when he met Aaron. Having just reread Jon Ginoli’s Deflowered: my life in Pansy Division which includes tour diaries from the time PD supported Green Day, just as Green Day’s major label debut is making them Big, I was curious to read more about where GD was today. Aaron is a cranky purist and had a falling out with Green Day over their stardom (“selling out” in punk DIY parlance). But they recently reconnected and Green Day invited Cometbus along on their Asia tour. Aaron seems to have gained some perspective over the difference between pursuing your dreams (and stepping over some ethical lines) and giving up your dreams altogether (is it really better to be so uncompromising you stop creating?) …

The New Yorker, November 19, 2007.
Just finished an article about how low birthweight predicts heart disease later in life. Makes me wonder how skinny a baby I was.

Mojo, August 2009
A music magazine out of Britain. Comes with a free compilation CD, usually thematic. I’ve been working my way through the issues the library owns. Just finished an interview with Bob Dylan, the last pages of which have been torn out. “The land created me. I’m wild and lonesome. Even as I travel the cities, I’m more at home in the vacant lots.”

The Best American Comics 2007 edited by Chris Ware
Most of the work in this is excerpted from longer stories. Which is not entirely satisfying. Not that different, I suppose, from the ever unfinished story you get when you read a regular comic series. I’ve even read some of this before, the pages from Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, the Adrian Tomine. Still, it’s a handsome book and it was remaindered so I feel like I got a deal.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

be your own DJ

I played DJ for myself, picking songs from around a thousand cassettes and five hundred records. I’d dubbed hundreds of albums from friends and padded my collection by repeatedly sending in fake names to record clubs. When I received the twelve free albums or tapes, I’d write the company a letter saying no one by that name lived at this address.

I don’t suppose playing DJ for oneself is unusual. As a teen I didn’t have very many records to choose from but I found songs that went together, I thought, and played them in my preferred sequence so often, lunging for the stereo’s needle arm to catch it before it could touch the next track in order to put on the exact song that should follow, that when I hear certain songs by one artist I frequently think of the song by another artist that it went with. “Medicine Show” by Big Audio Dynamite going into Martini Ranch’s “Reach,” for instance.

The quote above is from Kirk Read’s How I Learned to Snap: a small-town coming-of-age coming-out story. I never could have or would have engaged in such subterfuge – theft, isn’t it? Not that I didn’t think I ought to take advantage of the 12 records for a penny that the record clubs always claimed you could keep after canceling your membership – no obligation! I suspected I would not be on top of it enough to get the cancellation in on time.

Now that it is far easier to grab your free digital musical files via the internet or rip songs from cheap or borrowed CDs, is it ethical to do so, ethical in a way that it wasn’t when it was 12 heavy vinyl record albums that came in the mail?

Monday, May 16, 2011

notes toward an autobiography by others, part 10


this afternoon
i thought of the acid
that has been festering
in the fridge for months
but instead
i took a nap

when I woke,
i had one of those headaches
creeping up the back of my skull
which you only get from sleeping
too much in the middle of the day

-- Heidi E. Cooper

Late last year I attended a small press gathering at Berkeley City College. After I’d walked around the tables and bought a few wares, I sat to chat with a friend, my back to the table where people had put out giveaways. A small young woman with a pixie cut came in and dropped a stack of a tiny photocopied chapbook. I saw this out of the corner of my eye. When she stepped away I scooped up a copy and dropped it in my bag.

When I read the poems I nodded along to “untitled // this afternoon / i thought of the acid …” Totally, I thought to myself. This is so me.

I wrote to Ms Cooper, asking her if I could put the poem up on my blog. She said I could. “I had that small free pile sitting out for about 10 minutes before snatching them all up myself to hand out directly to folks,” she wrote me. “I am almost certain you are the only person who snagged one while they were sitting on the freebie table.”

Well. Happy happenstance!

source: A Collection of Poetry & Prose & Photos, a self-published chapbook by Heidi E. Cooper

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Where are you on the tongue?

It is only in the past decade that the redoubtable ‘map of the tongue’ has begun to fall out of circulation. The diagram, which dates to the early twentieth century and can still be found in some medical textbooks, places the taste buds for sweetness on the tip of the tongue, those for bitterness at the back, the ability to taste salt on the top edges, and sourness on the bottom edges. … In fact, all the regions of the tongue are capable of recognizing sweet, salty, bitter, and sour flavors, as well as savory tastes, which had been left off the original map altogether.

I remember that silly tongue map from the grade school science textbook. I remember thinking it was absurd the second I laid eyes on it. It’s easy enough to test. Point your tongue and touch a bit of salt to it. Do you taste the salt? Bet you do! I recall pointing this out and being given some amazing nonsense about how the molecules of salt flavor must have instantaneously been transported to the edges of my tongue.

The quote above is from The New Yorker, May 12, 2008, D.T. Max’s profile of the chef Grant Achatz.