Turkey and Cheesecake

Evidently, it used to be A Thing to photograph Hollywood starlets in silly holiday-themed scenarios involving oversized, seasonally appropriate props — giant jack-o-lanterns for Halloween, giant fireworks rockets for the Fourth of July, etc. And this practice was evidently A Thing for a very long time, as I’ve seen examples of it from the Silent Era up through the 1960s or thereabouts. (Barbara Eden of I Dream of Jeannie fame did a lot of these.) For today, allow me to share with you one of my favorites from this genre, featuring the lovely Mary Philbin.

Philbin was a busy actress during the 1920s and is best-known today for playing Christine in the original Lon Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Although her career mostly ended with the coming of talking pictures, she dubbed her own voice for a special 1930 reissue of Phantom, when it was given a synchronized score, sound effects, and some limited dialog scenes. She died in 1993, at the age of 90.

I have no idea when this photo was taken, but at a guess I’d say it was around the same time she appeared in Phantom, the mid-1920s. It always makes me smile. Hope it does the same for you.

thanksgiving_mary-philbin+turkeyHappy Thanksgiving to my Loyal Readers everywhere!


Seriously, I HATE the 21st Century

I recently read someplace that you can supposedly tell what a new century will ultimately be about by the time you reach the fifteenth year of that century. In other words, the issues and overarching trends that will define the century are, according to this theory, already shaping up in that first decade and a half. If that’s true… if the past fifteen years are any sort of guide to the 21st century as a whole…

Is it any wonder I’ve practically made nostalgia into my own personal religion?

I’m going to go home and watch The Rockford Files now.


Don’t Believe These Crackpot Lies…

Superman wasn’t the only Eisenhower-era hero who had something to say about the American ideal. Here’s Batman saying essentially the same thing in somewhat blunter terms… as Batman does, of course:


Like I said yesterday, these old PSAs look quaint and preachy, even laughable, to our jaded modern eyes, like those 16mm educational films that people, ahem, of a certain age will remember drowsing through in school. You know, those much-spliced, color-faded, warbly-sounding propaganda pieces that showed little Billy becoming a better citizen by getting to his box-boy job on time every afternoon, or whatever. In all their simplistic earnestness, though, these comic-book messages deliver a powerful signal-to-noise ratio. Of course, they were created as a response to the rampant bigotry and xenophobia of their day — the 1950s really weren’t some perfect age of grace that we fell from with the coming of the sexual revolution, no matter what conservatives like to imagine. And how sad is it that they are still so brutally relevant today, nearly 70 years after the fact?

But I like to think that’s as much because of the timelessness of their values as the tenacity of the ills they address. Remember, kids: “Don’t believe those crackpot lies about people who worship differently, or whose skin is of a different color, or whose parents come from another country.  Remember our American heritage of freedom and equality!


Keep Your School All-American!

I shared this on Facebook earlier, so apologies if you’ve already seen it, but it touches me pretty deeply, and I feel honor-bound to spread it as far as I can. This cartoon (which I believe was also produced as a poster in the 1950s) encapsulates the ideal of America that I grew up believing in, an ideal that feels pretty quaint and naive in light of many of the things being said at the moment. But it’s an ideal I still cling to:

superman_all-americanLike I’ve said before, “They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be… they only lack the light to show them the way…”


The Quality of a Nation

And now a selection from the “Inspiring Quotations that Shouldn’t Be Controversial But Probably Will Be in Today’s Political Climate” file:

The quality of a nation isn’t determined by how well the people at the top are living — no, the true quality of a nation is determined by how well the people at the bottom are treated. We will be judged by the way we treat the sick, the poor, the elderly, children, animals, and even the world we live upon.


If we want to pride ourselves as good people, as rational people, as compassionate people — then we must not give in to our own darker impulses.


And as angry as we might feel about the criminal act of any perpetrator, that will never be a justification for abandoning our own morality.

David Gerrold, science-fiction writer


It Was a Lovely Weekend

It was a lovely weekend.

It wasn’t cold out, and the valley was domed by one of those crystal-clear skies that hurt to look at directly but lift your spirits when you catch them out the corner of your eye.

Saturday morning, Anne and I ate breakfast at a favorite greasy spoon, then did a little shopping. We delivered a few items to a Toys for Tots charity drive organized by some local cosplayers we know from Salt Lake Comic Con. Later, we raked leaves and laughed at the antics of our kitty-boy Evinrude, and later still we watched Ian McKellan’s latest film, Mr. Holmes. (Highly recommended, if you’ve not seen it.) The following morning, we slept late, then I spent several hours tagging and Photoshopping our photos from Scotland. That evening, we went to dinner with a friend and coworker of Anne’s. We shared a hot fudge brownie for dessert.

Meanwhile, in Paris and Beirut and Kenya, people were mopping up blood and tallying the dead.

It feels uncomfortably like 2002 all over again. The shouts of the fearful and the xenophobic are drowning out everybody else. Cynical politicians are trying to figure out how they can use the situation to their advantage, or at least to score some snarky hits on the despised President Obama. There’s a chill of hysteria in the air, and even people I personally know to be rational and decent human beings are hardening their hearts toward those who have no place to go — those we should be helping if we were true to our ideals of what America is supposed to be. And underlying it all, I can hear the drums pounding again, those drums that have always been there, somewhere off in the distance, since that sunny September morning all those years ago, urging us to stop thinking and just fall into step and march off to… where exactly? Does it matter? Will this tiresome shit never end, or is the rest of my lifetime going to be just rinse and repeat, one step forward and three goose-steps back?

Last Friday, on the day of the Paris attacks, a good friend of mine said, “Days like these really make me wonder if we as a species are even worth saving.” I don’t blame him for thinking that way, I really don’t. Not when you get a good look at all the ugly, wriggling, pale things from deep in our collective psyche that are so easily exposed with so little prompting. But I myself can’t give in to that kind of defeatism. I just can’t, for my own sanity, believe that humanity is doomed to always fall back on our own worst impulses.

I spent Friday thinking of Jor-El’s comment in Superman: The Movie: “They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be.”

Or the lines spoken by Danny Glover’s character Simon in Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon: “Man, the world ain’t supposed to work like this. I mean, maybe you don’t know that yet. I’m supposed to be able to do my job without having to ask you if I can. That dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you ripping him off. Everything is supposed to be different than it is.”

Or the earnest words of the great everyman hero of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Samwise Gamgee:

“It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something. … [the idea] that there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.”

Of course, the fearful and the xenophobic and the self-proclaimed strongmen have a different idea of what “some good” actually means, as do the men who shot up Paris and Beirut and Kenya. And that’s the really disheartening, depressing, frightening thing.

To me, the good that we need to hold onto is the idea that we can find a way through all this bullshit. That we can find a way to live together with all of our differences, to stop killing each other and to heal our wounded planet, and to become… better. You know, all that naive, idealistic, bleeding-heart Star Trek stuff. Not so long ago, it really felt like it was within our grasp. And sometimes, for brief, fleeting moments, it still does. Like, for instance, on a Saturday afternoon following a Friday of grim headlines, when you see a grown man dressed as the Incredible Hulk on a street corner, collecting toys for poor children…

It really was a lovely weekend.


A Few Thoughts About Airport Security

My recent travels have had me thinking about all the ways flying has devolved since my first big adventure, when I went to Cambridge, England, way back in 1993. Back then, there was still a tiny little hint of the old-school elegance to the whole thing, but not anymore. Flying these days is about as much fun as a do-it-yourself appendectomy with only a twelve-pack of 3.2% Utah beer to use for both anesthetic and disinfectant.

The airlines are as much to blame as anything for the grueling unpleasantness that is modern air travel, but the negative experience begins well before you ever set foot on a plane. I have certain, shall we say, strongly held opinions about post-9/11 airport security protocols. The short version is, I hate all that TSA nonsense with a white-hot passion.

I despise the inconvenience and the indignity of it, I don’t believe taking off my shoes or trashing my half-full water bottle really makes us safer, and I resent the implication that everyone who wants to travel is guilty until they prove themselves innocent, i.e., demonstrate that they’re not a terrorist. People are always fretting about the sanctity of the First and Second Amendments, but no one ever mentions the Fourth, which among other things guarantees that individual citizens can’t be molested by authority without probable cause. (If you disagree, please don’t start throwing case law at me; I’m not up on all of that, and I’m sure the TSA procedures are fully justified by some SCOTUS decision or other. Doesn’t mean I have to agree with it, even as I’m grudgingly exposing a roomful of people to my foot odor to demonstrate my lack of insane malevolence, or having my frickin’ ponytail frisked because the little bit of metal in the elastic triggered some overly sensitive detection device.)

I think it’s all ridiculous and more than a little cowardly, not at all in keeping with the America I grew up believing in, and I wish we’d all come to our collective senses, screw our courage to the sticking place, and roll back the screening process to pre-2001 levels. Not that I really expect that will ever happen when so many people are convinced that it’s actually accomplishing some good. But hey, I can hope, right? And I can speak out about it.

The problem is, whenever I start talking about this subject, I tend to get a bit worked up and a little wild-eyed, and then I’m all too easily dismissed as just another old man yelling at a cloud. So how about if I present my arguments in the form of a humorous video clip?

That pretty much covers all my thinking on the subject. But if that’s not enough to convince you we’ve meekly submitted to an ineffective and absurd Gilliam-esque bureaucracy, here’s an international (and very NSFW!) perspective offered by the Australian comedian Jim Jefferies:

Incidentally, the UK airports I passed through have similar screening procedures as here, but the British equivalent of the TSA was better organized, more efficient, and — most notably — far more courteous than the American version. While I still thought the situation was absurd, it was a lot easier to stomach when I was being treated with a modicum of respect…


So, About Scotland…

I did say I wanted to have an adventure, didn’t I?

Things went south the moment Anne and I arrived in Newcastle and our luggage… did not. Our trans-Atlantic flight had been late arriving in Amsterdam, where our connection was already tight, resulting in one of those “mad dash across the terminal” scenes that look so exciting in movies but are a total drag in real life. You can guess what happened next: Anne and I made it to the plane; our bags remained behind and probably had a grand old time checking out the red-light district and a couple of those, ahem, “coffee shops” you hear about.

Our itinerary was such that we didn’t have the luxury of hanging out in our arrival city until our bags turned up, so, bagless, without toothbrushes and wearing the same stinking clothes we’d had on for about 24 hours at that point, we picked up our rental car and set off for our next destination. Whereupon we learned that driving in the UK was going to be a much bigger challenge than either of us expected.

It wasn’t the driving-on-the-left thing, like everyone assumes. You actually get used to that pretty quickly. No, the problem was that the roads there are so bloody small. Seriously, a two-lane road with traffic running in both directions, supposedly a “major” roadway, is only about as wide as one-and-a-third of the spacious traffic lanes we enjoy here in the wide-open western US. And there’s no shoulder or breakdown lane over there, either, only occasional wide spots called “lay-bys” where you can pull over if you need to.

And if that wasn’t challenging enough, the roads are bounded in most places by a short curb, unless you’re really far out in the countryside, and it was that curb that gave us the most stress. I was so conscious of keeping to the left, away from the oncoming traffic that seemed to be only inches away from my face, that I kept brushing against the stupid curb. And so it was that late in the afternoon of our first day, as the sky was growing purple with twilight and the only thing we wanted was to reach our B&B and sleep for the next 15 hours or so, I hit one of those stupid curbs while moving about 60 mph and blew a tire.

This meant we were obliged to spend a good part of the next day discovering what an English tire shop is like. (“English” rather than “Scottish” because we hadn’t actually crossed into Scotland yet.) FYI, they’re just like American ones: the smell of new rubber in the air, a waiting area with vinyl couches and free coffee, a flat-screen TV tuned to some kind of sporting event… hell, the manager’s name was even “Dave,” just like every Big-O I’ve ever set foot in here at home. But even after getting the tire — excuse me, tyre — replaced, we were still dead in the water, waiting around in a small Northumberland town for a missing suitcase to catch up to us. And then, just to put a cherry on top of this sundae, Anne came down with a case of traveler’s tummy (i.e., she got sick).

This was definitely not the way I’d hoped to introduce her to the wonders of world travel. In fact, for the first several days we were over there, I think if she could have stepped through a Stargate and been magically, instantly home but only at the price of never leaving again, she would have done it. Things got better, though, once we started up into the Highlands.

The Scottish Highlands have occupied our imaginations for years, thanks to the movies Highlander and Rob Roy, and Diana Gabaldon’s novel Outlander, and I’m very happy to report that neither of us were disappointed by them. The landscape northwest of Glasgow is quite simply majestic: rolling hills and rocky crags, all painted in soft greens and yellows with an overlay of purple heather, dotted with quaint towns and picturesque ruins, and with thick forests and lochs and rivers and waterfalls around every turn. Curiously, parts of the Highlands reminded me of home, of the high valleys in the mountains above Salt Lake City, which, perhaps not coincidentally, were often settled by Scots and feature borrowed Scottish names. (We have our own version of Ben Lomond in Utah, for example.) The rugged beauty and relatively sparse population of the Highlands seemed to draw a lot of the anxiety and stress out of us, like some kind of psychic poultice; I even started to become more comfortable behind the wheel. A little, anyhow.

In the 15 days Anne and I spent in the UK. I drove a little over 1,100 miles, from Newcastle in the north of England to Glasgow, then northwest to the Isle of Skye, then east and north to Inverness and finally back south to Stirling, Falkirk, and Edinburgh. We slept in seven different locations ranging from major cities to somewhere in the boondocks, staying in everything from a working farm’s outbuilding to a Victorian-era home to a former school that’d been converted into a hotel to a honest-to-god castle.

Problems with the luggage and the car aside, Anne and I had some wonderful experiences together. We stood on the shores of Loch Shiel at a place called Glenfinnan, not far from the spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie began his ill-fated revolution against the English in 1745, and there we watched a red-deer stag wade out into the water for a drink. (This was also the place where the immortal Connor MacLeod claimed to have been born in the movie Highlander, in the year 1518.) A few days later, wrapped in a grey drizzle of rain, we walked the battlefield at Culloden Moor, where the English crushed the Highlanders in April 1746 and sent Charlie running for his life. We toured castles and cathedrals and museums and recreated homes of the centuries past. We touched standing stones that had been placed a thousand years before the Romans stepped onto British soil. And we had our hearts broken by the golden light of the setting sun washing over the sandstone buildings of Old Town Edinburgh on our final night in Scotland.

On my own, I climbed a mountain to watch a vintage steam train chuff its way across the arched trestle made famous in the Harry Potter movies. I walked along Hadrian’s Wall to Sycamore Gap, where Kevin Costner first bested Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. In Stirling, I wandered through a medieval graveyard after dark, with my only tether to the present being the sound of a Backstreet Boys song echoing down a cobbled alleyway. At Loch Ness, I gazed out across the dark waters and spotted a long, tubular shape among the whitecaps; it turned out to be a line of fishing-net floats, but for just a second, I believed. In Inverness, I rented a kilt for a half-hour just to see what it was like. (Quite comfortable, actually, and I looked great!)

Yes, I did try haggis. I had it for breakfast, served in a big crumbled heap with a couple fried eggs on top. It reminded me somewhat of corned beef hash, and I quite liked it. Black pudding, on the other hand… well, it wasn’t repulsive, and I finished the portion I was served, but I don’t think it’s anything I need to ever order again.

However, the best thing we experienced over there, as corny as it sounds, was the people. The Scots are wonderful, possibly the most wonderful people I’ve ever encountered in my travels. Not that I expected them to be dicks, of course, but I was surprised to cross paths with so many genuinely kind people, starting with Dave, the tyre-shop manager, who offered to drive us to a grocery store that was all of a two-minute walk away so we could get some lunch while he fixed our car.

There there was the hotel desk clerk in Glasgow, whom I asked to tell the maids not to bother Anne while she was feeling under the weather, and who then inquired about her every time I walked past on my way in and out of the place.

Craig, the owner of the B&B where we stayed on Skye, told us in all seriousness that he didn’t want to be there when we left, because he gets attached to his guests and hates to tell them goodbye.

On a street corner in Edinburgh, a scruffy man in a Hawkwind t-shirt — Hawkwind, of all things! — asked Anne if he could help her figure out which bus she needed. Here in the U.S., my reaction would’ve been a defensive “Mind your own business, pal!”, but there was nothing skeevy or threatening about this guy at all. He just saw someone studying a schedule and wanted to help.

Just below Edinburgh Castle, there was a street performer dressed as William Wallace, blue facepaint and braids and all, who became my new best friend when it somehow came out that I liked the band KISS. Suddenly, playing a 13th century warrior was out the window and he just wanted to talk music.

And there was the waitress in a pub called Greyfriars Bobby, where we dined two nights in a row. On our way out on the second night, she asked when they’d be seeing us again, and when we told her it was our last night in Scotland so we wouldn’t be back, she seemed positively crestfallen. Then she stunned us both by throwing her arms around me for a big hug, and then doing the same to Anne along with a kiss on the cheek, after which she wished us a safe journey home and said she hoped that if we ever make it back, we’ll stop in again. We promised her we would… and we meant it. Because I think we will go back someday. Granted, we haven’t even been home a full two months yet, but I think we both feel a tug on our hearts nearly every day…

To wrap up this very long entry — finally! — I’ll leave you with my favorite photo from the trip, a complete accident that happened when I was trying to take a selfie with a Highland “coo” and got more than I bargained for: a cow tongue up the side of my head immediately after I clicked the shutter!

coo kiss


Review: No Tourists Allowed: Seeking Inner Peace and Sobriety in War-Torn Sudan

No Tourists Allowed: Seeking Inner Peace and Sobriety in War-Torn Sudan
No Tourists Allowed: Seeking Inner Peace and Sobriety in War-Torn Sudan by Shannon Egan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Growing up in Utah is hard enough when you’re not a member of the culturally predominant Mormon Church. It becomes an order of magnitude more difficult when you are a member but harbor doubts or long for something other than the officially sanctioned LDS lifestyle. In that respect, Shannon Egan’s story is a familiar one. I’ve known many people who experienced similar struggles to find themselves in the face of parental disapproval and an almost overwhelming institutional pressure to conform. Often, as in Shannon’s case, these struggles lead to self-destructive behavior and problems with drugs and/or alcohol. But what makes Shannon’s story unique is what she did to try and escape both her upbringing and her addiction: she took a teaching job in Sudan, a war-torn country about which she knew virtually nothing. As the situation in Sudan deteriorated, a chance encounter led her to a position as a fledgling journalist, and that, in turn, led her to witnessing the horrors of Darfur and a confrontation with her own demons. Even in a land ruled by strict Islamic law, a determined addict can find what she needs…

Shannon Egan is a fine storyteller who reveals herself with vivid imagery and a sometimes painful degree of honesty. Her account of getting lit up on the Sudanese version of bathtub gin — a noxious homebrewed spirit called aragy — and the events that led to the relapse is one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever read. But there are moments of real beauty in this story, too, as she describes the history, culture, and especially the people of a place few Americans really know anything about. No Tourists Allowed is as much a travelogue and an ethnography as it is a work of memoir, and I found the wide-angle story as fascinating as Shannon’s personal one.

If the book has any flaws, it is in the author’s habit of occasionally slipping into asides filled with the jargon of recovery and advocacy. I understand that’s where Shannon’s mind is these days, as she’s parlayed her own experiences into both a career and a noble cause, but these passages tend to feel like parentheticals that distract from the action of the story she’s telling. The book is powerful enough on its own terms, don’t misunderstand, but I think it could’ve been moreso if she’d stuck to the facts and saved some of the commentary.

Nevertheless, this is an engrossing and fast-moving read that plumbs the worst depths of human behavior to come up with a message of hope and resilience. I understand a sequel is in the works, and I look forward to reading it…

View all my reviews


Friday Evening Videos: “Crazy in the Night” (Fright Flicks Edition)

I’ve posted the official video for “Crazy in the Night” before, but if you’ll forgive a little repetition, I just stumbled across a really terrific variation put together by YouTuber CM Wournell, which lays Kim Carnes’ 1985 hymn to paranoia over imagery from some of the classic horror films of the 1980s. Wournell has an impressive talent for matching the right scene with the right lyric or emotional note, and I really enjoyed the hell out of this.

Hope y’all like it too… Happy Halloween!

(Incidentally, I’m ashamed to confess that I can’t identify all of the movies referenced in the video; if anybody watching this can, I’d love to see a list… )