I'll go with thee to the lane's end... I am a kind of burr, I shall stick. Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

I write not to teach but to learn. Rebecca West

drew's writing:

  • "Always Forever Now," Ideomancer volume 13, issue 2
  • "Black Sun," Black Static # 32
  • "Bread or Cake" and "Pride/Shame,"2nd Annual Philadelphia One-Minute Play Festival
  • "Copper Heart," Polluto Magazine issue 5, A Steampunk Orange
  • "The Accomplished Birder's Guide to Overcoming Rejection," Last Drink Bird Head, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
  • "Another Night With the Henriksens," Player's Theater Halloween One-Act Festival NYC 2008
  • "Hating the Lovers," and "Pipe Down!" Geez Magazine: Thirty Sermons You Would Never Hear in Church
  • "Beth/slash/Nathan," Paper Fruit Blogiversary Contest

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

stopping by the Japanese House on a snowy morning

After dropping my camerado off at the airport and before delivering a holiday snow slug to a friend in West Philly, I stopped by Shofuso, the Japanese House and Garden in Fairmount Park.

It was dawn: colder than a warlock's perineum. I couldn't warm up the rest of the day after taking these photos--I was under a spell of coldness.

I thought the dawn light on the snow would be beautiful, but it's just sort of okay. I was too early. My favorite time to see Shofuso is the Cherry Blossom Festival. A few years ago we saw some Elegant Gothic Lolitas and Aristocrats there, which completely fascinated Matt, and which I thought were pretty cool, too. The martial arts demonstrations and the Taiko Drum and Dance were great. Also: my former scoutmaster and his wife were selling and demonstrating kites, which strikes me as a great way to spend your retirement!

This year Sakura Sunday is April 11. It's not too early to start thinking about cherry blossoms! Pay the admission to Shofuso so you can tour the grounds, search for a large but mysteriously hidden stone sage, walk the paths, and meet the fish. Inside, new paintings by Hiroshi Senju on the paper sliding walls evoke frozen cascades and inspire silent rapture. Then get coffee and apple cake at the nearby Ohio House, one of the few structures left in Fairmount Park from the 1876 Centennial Exhibition.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

2009's best concerts

The best photo I have of any concert this year is the shot you see above: that's the debonair Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips on the far left, and those are his soulful eyes on the screen behind him. I have compared the Lips to William Blake and the Who on this page so it pains me to say that this concert was bad. The Lips were off their game, and the confetti and theatrics seemed empty and sad. My dad is my concert buddy and I told him we should go to this and it would be great. The Lips at the Electric Factory during the Yoshimi tour is one of my best concerts ever. This time, my dad and his girlfriend stuck around as long as they could stand it and then split. It was painful. I felt like I had taken my dad to see Gallagher.

The new album is good, though. The apocalyptic party mania of the last three albums has dissipated, leaving a landscape of dull tyranny with the faint scent of betrayal on the wind. An Antonioni kind of album.

Anyway, I saw four truly amazing concerts this year. The first was:

THE DOVES at the Trocadero:

I know almost nothing about this band, except they are from the UK and two of the trio are fraternal twins. I bought their album The Last Broadcast after hearing it in a pub. The singer started dropping choruses late in the concert; eventually his voice gave out and he went behind the drum kit and the drummer went to the mike. The drummer's voice sounded identical to the singer's. It was eerie, like some weird feat of self-willed ventriloquism or a heartfelt imitation. Or do they just sound alike? The drummer sings a few songs on the albums and I don't think he ordinarily sounds like the singer at all.

The Dove's encore was There Goes the Fear, which I thought was one of the lighter weight songs on Last Broadcast, but was stunning live. Evidently this was a hit in the UK. The entire house became euphoric. I was so overwhelmed with positive feelings I did not shush the happy singing drunk next to me! The Doves played with Fear's video as a backdrop--the video is a collage of existing footage that manages to tell the story of an anxious man who finds peace and happiness only as the world is ending. The Troc felt like it was about to lift off like Charlie's Great Glass Elevator.

Strange, exhilarating moments like this are the reason I attend concerts.

That's the Bob Dylan show at Temple University. People imagine Dylan will sound like his parodists. Only sometimes does he sound like his parodists. Dylan hit at least every third note when I saw him, and sounded earthy and powerful. His storytelling is fantastic; he isolates unnamed emotional states and encapsulates them in a song, like a better Poe. He is to REM as Ben Kenobi is to Luke. If you can't inure yourself to Dylan's voice, you should try harder, or read the prophets: Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, with Ecclesiastes thrown in. Dylan goes all the strange dark places the prophets go, and the beautiful places, and the surreal places. He has the grim wisdom of the prophets.

My family at the Dylan concert. I'm stage-managing the photograph, having put my camera in the hands of a semi-buzzed Dylan fan and already regretting it--as the man has sprinted away from us as if we are pachyderms and will not fit in the frame if he is nearer than twenty yards. When my aunt saw this picture, she said You're getting bossy in your old age. I said, Shut up!

Bob Dylan was good, but was not one of the top concerts of the year. Sorry Bob! My next two great concerts of 2009 are:

THE DECEMBERISTS and THE LOW ANTHEM at the Philly Folk Fest:

I saw the Decemberists and Low Anthem the same weekend. The Decemberists rocked like you hope and dream rock legends could rock (instead of being overproduced and bombastic). All kinds of mythological heavy metal folk art spooled through my brain as the Decemberists played. But why were they on in the afternoon? Why weren't they the headliners?

The Low Anthem is the only band I've seen twice this year: I sat in the swelter of the Folk Fest and saw them by myself in August, then dragged my dad and my camerado to see them last month when they opened for Josh Ritter at the TLA. Everyone should see the Low Anthem live. They are by turns surreal and sad, and can also rock out. They are all talented multi-instrumentalists, and cute baby Dylans. What I've heard of their lyrics suggests some seriously smart literary minds are lurking behind those sexy desperado mustaches.

My final amazing concert of the year is:

BLIND PILOT at World Cafe Live:

Driving up to see my camerado in Vermont this summer I heard Go On, Say It on the radio; it grabbed me with its urgent yet reticent lyrics. There's a self-possession to this song, an Emily Dickinson self-possession that may be stable and content, or rushing toward breakdown, or both at once. Blind Pilot's album is brilliant and moving, if at times glum. Live they were astounding: Every song was stirring, even startling in its force and freshness. The singer has an appealing way of closing his eyes and rising on his toes as if certain notes are airborne and he must poise himself to inhale them at just the right moment.

We were also awed by the trumpet player.

The crowd pleaded and pleaded for more songs. Blind Pilot played through their material, and had no songs for an encore. So they did a cover of MGMT's original, weird, harsh, and exquisite Kids, from last year. The Blind Pilot set was so lovely I had tears in my eyes at times, and when they launched into Kids I was overwhelmed. You go to concerts for these glorious, privileged moments: When they come they are sometimes more than you could have imagined--more than you can bear.

Blind Pilot's Kids was uncanny--sublime--alongside the Dove's encore, one of my best concert moments of the year.

Friday, December 25, 2009

keeping the weird in christmas

One of the things I like about Christmas is the hysteria. It's a bombastic, Phil Specter wall-of-sound kind of holiday--determined to flood your every sense--the manic phase of the year.

The pictures in this post come from the Pitman Grove, in Pitman NJ--where, three generations ago, my family had a summer home. Now people live there all year round. We always talk about moving back there. My grandmother was dreaming of it till she died.

Pitman was founded as a Methodist summer retreat--I am the great x 3 grandson of the Pitman patriarch whose birthday is being celebrated in this picture:

I'm a Philly boy, though, so even if I feel very warmly toward this town, I won't be buying back the family cottage.

The Pitman Grove is the home of the Hagerty family, who own a few houses adjacent to each other, and put up a spectacular holiday garden every year. It wanders through yards and creeps into sheds, infesting every square foot with Christmas madness.

I go see it every year when I cross the bridge to see my relatives. It's impressive. My favorite part of the Hagerty display is the shed, which I think I remember seeing and being fascinated by as a kid. It's filled with a miniature city of elves, dwarves, and angels, with villages and bridges and tall masted ships that proclaim Jesus and warn against drug use:

But who needs drugs?

I am reassured as I tour the Hagerty Christmas garden, that we are no different from our Viking and Saxon and Celtic ancestors, lighting the woods of Northern Europe to keep away the terrible darkness. Only now we have electricity, and our gods have names like Snoopy and Sponge Bob.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

weirding Christmas with snow slugs and Martha Graham Cracker

The official start of this year's weird Christmas season was Thursday a week ago when I saw a jockey climb onto the back of Philly's beloved 6'5" drag queen Martha Graham Cracker. That was so weird I was actually speechless. It was my first time at Martha's show and I felt like I was seeing some legendary evening of entertainment unfold before me. I kept thinking how Orson Welles raved about Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis when they were a live act in Vegas. It was that good.

Regulars said Martha wasn't at her best, which means, she gets better? I'm definitely coming back. Martha did a cover of Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" that was actually enjoyable, and that's a first.

Seeing Martha was a great way to start getting my Christmas weird-on. I'm not crazy about the holidays, but decided a few years ago to seize the reindeer by the antlers and remake Christmas into something I would actually enjoy. This means bringing back some traditions that have a savor of the old pagan darkness, burning things, and generally getting creative and DIY.

What you see at the top of the post are this year's snow slugs, which are an adaptation of the Easter slugs my mother used to make. The slug cakes started when a local bakery made an Easter rabbit cake that bore an inadvertent resemblance to a slug. The bakery got new owners and discontinued the cake, so my mother started making her own Easter slugs. Here she is clowning around wearing the Easter slug's eyes:

She discovered you can make your own slug cake by using one layer cake pan, cutting the finished cake in two and sticking the halves back to back.

That's her method on the right; in back is a smaller, proto-slug I made from a loaf pan this year. You can do it either way depending on what hardware you have around and what size slug you want to make. I shaved off the pointy edges of both slug bodies and fed them to my camerado. Then I iced the slugs and stuck coconut all over them, and added raisin mouths, carrot noses, and malt ball eyes.

Without its nose, the holiday slug bears a resemblance to a rat creature from one of my favorite comics. Jeff Smith's Bone. Compare and contrast:

The holiday slug cakes are very popular with my New Jersey cousins:

I eat the slug cake with my New Jersey cousins, and we smash the Christmas pig. With my Pennsylvania cousins I burn plum pudding, and, this year, glögg, which is a flammable Swedish beverage with Heavy Metal umlauts that my aunt is learning to make.

Next year I want to burn a Yule Goat, but I don't think I can get it together in time for this year.

Here's last year's snow slug--the very first! --swaddled in plastic wrap like Laura Palmer's body in Twin Peaks.

Watch the salt, please!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

remember and be sad

My friend is a furious yardsaler, always dredging up treasures. Recently she found me a poetry anthology.

I opened it to a poem by Christina Rossetti, which I post here for anyone who grieves a loss at this time of year--

Or who has an elegiac temperament, like me.


Remember me when I am gone away,

Gone far away into the silent land;

When you can no more hold me by the hand,

Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.

Remember when no more, day by day,
You tell me of our future that you plann'd;

Only remember me; you understand

It will be late to counsel then or pray.

Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave

A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,

Better by far you should forget and smile,
Then that you should remember and be sad.

Christina Rossetti

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

weirding christmas with flaming plum pudding

Plum pudding should really be called Pudding Made From Rubbish You Had Lying Around Anyway, because traditionally it's just dried-up stuff, crumbs, animal parts, and booze.

A year's end, let's-clean-the-kitchen-by-making-a-pudding pudding.

I made my first flaming plum pudding last year using this recipe by Cait Johnson, but I substituted apricots and lemon-flavored prunes for the citron and currants, walnuts for almonds, and Baileys and rum instead of Guinness.

I had never steamed a pudding, so I improvised by setting my pudding mold (a mixing bowl) in the bottom of a large soup pot on top of some apple corers. It worked! I was so excited when my pudding congealed, I felt like Victor Frankenstein!

The finished product was the medium-sandy color of construction site mud, but tasted terrific. I was pleasantly surprised. Not that it mattered, because the chief purpose in making this pudding was to find a safe and appropriate outlet for my seasonal pyromania.

Word to the wise: I had to pour a LOT of brandy on the pudding to get a good flame going when I lit it. The alcohol flame was a beautiful holy ghostly Pentecost blue flame that made everyone present feel quite magical and Hogwartsy.

Before I found Cait's I looked at a lot of other plum pudding recipes on line. One was a traditional English one with the menacing advice "It should not be suffered to stop boiling," which sounds like something you would overhear at an Inquisition. My favorite recipe was the unintentionally hilarious "Professor Plum's no-suet plum pudding," which contained this catchall explanation/disclaimer:

This does not have the suet but note that it has a lot of butter. Also, I do not have the recipe for Zabaglione Sauce but I am pretty sure the main ingredient is egg yolks. Because of the omission of all the citron and candied fruits, I don't think it will really have the traditional flavor, but it might actually go over better with kids who don't like those 'yucky green things' (candied citron). The use of bourbon is certainly not English but might appeal to Southerners. I have not tried this one at all.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Happy Root Beer Day, "Root" as steampunk beverage

Are you having a good International Root Beer Day? We are. This is Root, which imagines what root beer might have evolved into if Philadelphia pharmacist Charles Hires hadn't stripped the alcohol from it and marketed it as a temperance drink at the Centennial Exhibition. The way the story goes, colonists adopted root tea from the Indians, and fermented it a bit, making root beer. Imagine if Charles Hires had marketed his root beer to sinners and hellraisers instead of teetotalers and we might have had Root all our lives, and been the better for it, may my Methodist ancestors forgive me for saying so.

The picture above will school you in Root's ingredients, and lovely ingredients they are. I'm particularly impressed with the addition of smoky tea; that was a good choice. Having birch bark in Root is nice too, but spurs me to pedantry. Sassafras was once the chief ingredient in root beer, but is no longer, as sassafras root has been shown to cause heinous ailments over time. So if Root lacks sassafras, but contains birch, might it be regarded more accurately as a variant of birch beer than of root beer?

But let's not quibble. Instead, let's consider Root a harmonious marriage of two locally beloved beverages.

Because the makers of Root reengineered the past to produce an artifact from an alternate 19th century, I think Root qualifies as a steampunk beverage--by which I mean, it is not preexisting, like tea or phosphates or egg creams, but specifically created as the product of retrospective speculation. Is it the first?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Thaddeus Squire's glasses

Yes, his name really is Thaddeus Squire and these are really his glasses. Thaddeus is the impresario behind Peregrine Arts, which produced Philadelphia's first Hidden City Festival last spring. Check out Hidden City's beautiful and colorful 2009 report, which still has that new report smell. Hidden City Philadelphia paired little-known but significant and sometimes crumbling historic sites with artists and performers. It was great for the sites, for the artists, for the community--and for me! Woody Allen cannot love New York and Fellini cannot love Rome as much as I love Philadelphia.

I worked for Hidden City and got to know Thaddeus and his glasses a little then. Thaddeus claims he has never bought a pair of new frames in his life, but has always worn antiques and hand-me-downs. He takes advantage of the custom fitting services at Marchese Opticians. Above you see two pairs from his desk drawer and one I borrowed from his cherubic face for this photo. Clockwise from the top:

  • 1880s, nickel, purchased from a South Street antiquarian.
  • 1960s, formerly owned by a Philadelphia philanthropist, who, according to legend, was wearing them when her caricature was drawn by the great Hirschfeld.
  • 1920s, "three piece," i.e., just a nose and arms; purchased at a synagogue bazaar in the Bella Vista neighborhood.
Thaddeus also owns a pair from the 1790s, and a pair of 19th century "Chinese Coachman" glasses, which he says are made of shiny brass and enormous. From Thaddeus's description, the Chinese Coachman glasses sound pleasingly steampunk, but Thaddeus does not know why they are called that and neither does the internet.

Whenever I talk to Thaddeus I come away with a broader and more holistic view of the arts than I normally have in my little paddock on the fiction farm. When I showed him the book of flash fiction I'm in, he became fascinated and gave an impromptu discourse about current miniaturizing trends across disciplines and continents. Thaddeus is a far-sighted guy, a visionary; it is fitting that the glasses he sees the world through are art objects that contain narratives.

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