Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Basement Pictures

This is the suit of protection. Coupled with dishwashing gloves and heavy work boots I stood protected against the dirt and disease and unease caused by the nearness of bugs.

This is the dark and dank space we call the basement. It's actually an amped up crawlspace with room to stand in the front. It is dark and foreboding.

And this was the task set before me. Pump expanding insulation into all the open spaces I could find and reach. Below gives a sense of what I faced.

I'm still not done. Tomorrow I will finish the unfinished portion and revisit all that I've already done. There are bound to be spaces hidden in dark places that still need to be treated with the power of the "Big Gap Filler".

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bronx Zoo - A Preview in Video

So my wife, the luminous Hallie V., and I went to the Bronx Zoo this past week. The day was beautiful with gentle breezes and a bright azure sky. The crowds were not too bad and only a few groups of obnoxious teenagers felt the need to be annoying.

I have several pictures I intend to put up, but for now I've got a short video clip of a sea lion and her keeper (off camera) playing together.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Swords & Sorcery

UPDATE: Since posting this some long time ago, I've created a separate blog dedicated to the genre: Swords & Sorcery.  Check it out, read the old posts and make some comments and ask some question.

   I like Swords & Sorcery. I can't help it but swords, armor, mighty armed warriors, evil wizards, and ruined temples work for me. I mean I like the elfs and talking trees as much as the next fanboy but they can get pretty stale. Good Sword & Sorcery is like car battery jacked straight to the adrenal glands. Unfortunately, like with everything, most Swords & Sorcery stinks, and I mean really stinks. The bad books are really, really bad and the movies are even worse.

   There's great stuff that's as good as anything else out there between two disposable cardboard covers. The best, such as that by Karl Edward Wagner, Glen Cook, Michael Moorcock and Fritz Leiber, is dirty and messy and there's very few poems or cute little hobbit folk. The good stuff is also scattered far and wide between on shelves and shelves of rotten stuff. It's a long distance between The movies in the stinky wake of Schwarzenegger's "Conan the Barbarian" and its Nietzschean trappings are even worse. I dare you to watch Marc Singer in "The Beastmaster".

   I can definitely understand not liking the stuff. Robert E. Howard  had some definite ideas about the what important traits they saw as lost to civilized man: physical courage and endurance, honor. It's not quite the Rousseauean noble savage nonsense. Howard wrote that he knew "barbaric" life was short, bloody and miserable. He just believed it was preferable to the deadening comforts of civilization. That's part of the reason I get a kick out of his stuff - I know the philosophy underlying it is sometimes stupid, but I can't help but be carried along by the sword swinging sturm und drang of it all.  I don't think there's any contest in barbarism vs. civilization.  Still, there's a deep appeal to some atavistic element in me that still longs for some mythical, glorious and epic past.

   And I like the exotic locales. I like the stink of rotting jungles hiding cursed ruins inhabited by lost tribes and crumbling city slums teeming with thieves and cutthroats. There's a real sense of deep, buried past events still manipulating the present and dark forces moving their hands against civilization. Even the most lighthearted S&S (much of Leiber) is still infused with a deep melancholy. Conan rarely keeps the treasure or the girl and Wagner's Kane is essentially the Biblical Cain and nothing goes right for him ever. Perhaps the strongest theme running in the best S&S is about a man's effort to make meaning and take excitement out of life before it all crumbles down under the weight of time and decay.

   Of course it's also about the monsters. And the battles, and the damsels in distress and the great treasures to be gotten (often illy) and kingdoms to be seized.

   I can add all the deep thinking gloss to Swords & Sorcery that I want but if it's missing the excitement then what's the point of reading it? I don't want to know what Conan really thinks about the state of man in nature. If Fafhrd starts philosophizing about natural law and it's not supposed to be funny I'm not going to want to keep reading.

   The best Swords & Sorcery, or Heroic Fantasy if you prefer, combines hair raising adventure and excitement with enough character and setting to leave the reader satisfied. It avoids the cookie cutter stuff spawned following the Conan boomed sparked by Sprague deCamp and Lin Carter's compilations in the sixties and the repugnant sexism and sadism of authors like John Norman. Sometimes even the best goes over the top but its SWORDS AND SORCERY. Like Meatloaf, that's pretty much the whole point.

UPDATE:  Now I have a fully dedicated S&S site.  Check it out, follow it and join in the conversations.

{This is a reworking and condensation of a e-mail conversation with Evan D. about Robert E. Howard, pulps and S&S)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Greatest Invention Possibly Ever

The holy grail of gizmos in my book - the comfortable and easy to use e-text reader. They make it look so alluring - flexible, easy on the eye, and all the functions of reading on your computer (searchable, compact, etc.). Imagine having all of Dickens or Terry Pratchett in something no bigger than a pad of paper. It would make publishing on demand truly feasible. You'd be able to read the things on Project Gutenberg. Think of the shelf space you could save. I want it now.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Bugs in the Dark (with picture to follow)

As a new homeowner and the man of the house it is my duty to fight the bug invasions. There have been occasional spiders and lately the tiniest and blackest of ants. But way beyond either of those two critters on the scale of general creepiness are the low slung and quick footed house centipedes. For the sake of the squeamish I will not post a picture. Suffice it to say that they are disturbing beyond mortal ken and with their multiple and multi-use legs they are the small things of big nightmares.

My old apartment suffered from them and I dealt with them by spraying poisons into the gaps and cracks and sealing off any entrance points I could find. Since my new home was a gut job I asked my contractor to make sure all such centipede ingress points were sealed before the walls were put up. He assured me they would be.

Little did we know that that was not the whole case. Where baseboard heaters were installed there were large gaps in the walls. Where pipes came through the floors there were large gaps. Within the first week in the house my wife and I began seeing the evil little beasts.

So I broke out the poison again. Despite my insane fear of all heights I climbed a ladder to spray around the dryer vent on the second floor. Soon we were unscrewing the heaters from the baseboard and spraying sealant into the cracks. And it was not enough. They still appeared on a semi-regular basis.

They seem to gravitate to the high walls and ceilings. With their evil little multi-faceted eyes they can see you coming from across the room armed with bug squashing tissue in hand and then, running at speeds of up to ten miles and hour, they high tail it towards their sanctuaries behind furniture and large appliances. They are swift and clever and we weren't sufficiently killing or driving them out.

This lost battle was followed by several days of regrouping and research. I learned more things than I wish to recall about our little monstrous intruders (for the nightmares they already generated were amplified). More importantly, I learned how to kill them. With impunity and ferocity.

Dressed in paper suit and armed with many cans of sealant and boric acid I ventured into our "basement". Once past the first six feet and the knee wall there's the crawlspace. it is littered with the debris of present and past construction, bits of coal and all sorts of reminders of past inhabitants of the house. Stringing up lights along the way, I climbed the wall and crouched and crawled my way into the dark and filth.

On my back and with arms upraised I set about sealing any holes I encountered. Around every pipe and drain and in the black spaces where the floor failed to meet the foundation I sprayed ounces and ounces of Great Stuff's "Big Gap Filler". Sometimes I had to battle great cascading sheets of debris and carcass filled spiderwebs or broken bottles hidden in the earth under my knees. My house is only 20' by 30' and it took me an hour and a half to make my way around the perimeter (and truth be told I rand out of Big Gap Filler before I quite finished). Then I made my way back around and laced the earth and debris with boric acid (a nasty little substance that damages their exoskeleton and causes them to dehydrate and DIE). Later I'm coming back with diatomaceous earth and spreading that around like Agent Orange on a Vietnamese jungle.

I don't know if I'll prevail. I'm only human and the centipedes are some sort of Perdition raised monstrosity. But I'm only human so I won't give up, ever.

A Most Depressing Thing

More than the large book collection of my dad and his encouragement, it was Norma Herz, children's librarian of the NYPL Stapleton Branch that turned me on to reading and books. Starting when I was little (4 or so) my mother would take me and my sister into Stapleton to go shopping and we'd spend several hours in the library.

Ms. Herz did so much to encourage me to read and fall in love with books. If she read a story aloud and I said I liked it she'd put two or three books she thought I'd like in my own hands. From then until I was 14 I took out hundreds of books and participated in programs at the library. There was the Military History of World War II by Trevor Dupuy and collections of myths and fairy tales. I played with my first VCR and video camera at Stapleton Library in 1979.

When I turned 14 and got my working papers I went to work at Stapleton as a page. That meant I shelved returned books, straightened the shelves, put covers on newly arrived books and ran the movie projector. I was in heaven. I discovered and read more books that I might never have picked up if I hadn't worked there. Stapleton actually had all the sixties run of Arkahm House's Lovecraft hardcovers with the crazy covers by Lee Brown Coye. And there were so many other things. It was book heaven.

Then in 1984 things changed. For several months the branch was shut down for renovations. It was going to be turned into a "commuter branch" geared towards people coming in quick after work. Tall wooden shelves would be replaced with spinning shelves and there'd be a shift in emphasis from a deep collection of new as well as older books to just newer ones and a few classics. It didn't bode well.

For most of the period of the remodeling I was sent to work in the St. George Branch. At the time it was the crown of Staten Island's library system as well as the main branch. The entire second floor was dedicated to children's books and the main floor to adult books and the reference section. Records and cassette tapes were kept in a smaller section on the top floor. It was a beautiful library with endless books surprises hidden on its shelves.

I first read the Finnish myths when I worked there and I listened to Lenny Bruce (hated him) and Bert Lahr in "Waiting for Godot" (like it). There were mysteries and histories and all sorts of thing in between.

Then I went back to Stapleton and it was shameful. There were several booksales and large chunks of the branch's collection were sold off at tables on the sidewalk. Whole shelves had been ripped out. Shelves with hundreds of books had been replaced with spinners with dozens. The heart of Stapleton Library's collection had be ripped out. When I stopped working there in August of 1984 to start college at Baruch I stopped going there.

Since then I've only been in Staten Island libraries a few times. St. George was destroyed soon after by the same wise folks who'd desecrated Stapleton. All the lending books were shoehorned into the second floor and the main floor was given over entirely to research. Again, thousands of books were replaced with hundreds. It was despicable. What little bit of a collection they maintained was thing and shallow. Most of the classics of history had been displaced by topical bestsellers and celebrity biographies.

I've only been in a few other libraries since the early nineties and it's mostly been abysmal. I've done some research in the NYPL and that's good but as a lending institution it's just sad.

So this past Wednesday I went into the Stapleton Library and almost cried. I was unable to stay beyond a few minutes. The outside's the same but the inside is dead.

As I walked up the steps of the library and between the two columns I was amazed at how familiar it all was. I was transported back twenty five years to when I went there four times a week. The green doors and smoothed brass handles seemed unchanged. I could see the place where my mother's group, "Friends of Stapleton Library" installed an old mailbox for book dropoffs (a failure due to the people tossing junk inside with the boooks). I felt like I was on the edge of reentering a n important part of my past.

Then I passed through the doors and abandoned hope. Where there had been eighteen shelves or so in the children's section there were five. All the sections had been gutted equally. They hadn't even been replaced with the DVD's and CD's that have displaced books in so much of today's cultural wasteland. There's just nothing but empty space and a few extra tables and chairs. Even the large painting of Andrew Carnegie, the provider of the funding for the creation of Stapleton and so many other NYPL facilities, is gone. In it's place is an undistinguished painting of little beauty and no significance to the very wall it occupies.

I love libraries and the idea of them. When I lived in Albany one of the first things I did was get a library card. I spent many hours in the Albany Main Branch Library and read dozens of books. It was the first place I came across Manly Wade Wellman's John Thunstone novels and Chirstopher Hill's "The World Turned Upside Down". It was great.

When I came back to Staten Island I found the St. George Library turning into the poor thing it is today and I stopped going to the library. In recent years I've gone back and last year I got a NYPL card for the first time in over a decade. I went to Staten Island's West Brighton Branch and Port Richmond Branch. Both were small, community libraries and neither was that good. Housed in beautiful early 20th Century buildings with columns and beautiful interior woodwork they were empty things with only the barest of book collections.

So I'm saddened that Staten Island's libraries aren't about books. They're about bestsellers and multimedia. Since they don't concentrate on either exclusively the result is junk for both. So I buy books for a buck through dealers on Amazon and I abandon the place that served me and millions of New Yorkers so magnificently over the past century. Welcome to the new millennium.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Halloween Poems - updated

I've added some captions that aren't that funny and don't provide any new insight into their composition.


I stand by the hardy defense I've made for genre fiction in the past but even I've got to admit that the close up of the books in the first photo of "I'm back(ish)" is pretty geeky.

Sure there's Goncharov and Gardner as well as Hawthorne and Hoffman. But then there's even bigger collections of Glen Cook, Terry Brooks and, above all, my vast collection of Robert E. Howard. Maybe it's just the geekiest section of my collection but it's sure noticeable.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

What I've Read

Chabon, Michael Maps and Legends - Fun essays on literature, comics and writing. It has the best book cover I've ever seen.
Williams, Tad Shadowplay Second tome of a fun but unoriginal series
Rothfuss, Patrick The Name of the Wind Debut novel and up there with "Godstalk" for turning old tropes around
Keyes, Greg The Briar King A quartet - Interesting, but ultimately familiar, fantasy series.
Keyes, Greg The Charnel Prince
Keyes, Greg The Blood Knight
Keyes, Greg The Born Queen
O'Flynn, Catherine What Was Lost Excellent mystery and study of boredom, consumerism and deadening employment
Ketchum, Jack Red OK book about about the confrontation between an old man and the family of the teenager who kills his dog.
Blaylock, James The Elfin Ship Debut novel by one of the best. Homage to Kenneth Grahame, RL Stevenson and a dozen other good, comfortable storytellers.
Blaylock, James The Disappearing Dwarf - Sequel to above
Stark, Richard The Hunter The best hardboiled crime thriller. Everything is drilled down to their essences - Parker, the man of the title, cuts through everything standing in the way of his revenge like a buzzsaw.

Halloween Poems

When I was in the fourth grade at Trinity Lutheran School back in 1975 I wrote a series of Halloween themed poems. With my mother's prompting (because it was an art project and she always wanted to instigate things like that) I illustrated the poems and made a little booklet. I was so proud I took it to school and my teacher, Ms. Smith put it into the class bookshelf.

Twelve years later I was working at Trinity as the assistant sexton when I came across the book still sitting on the shelf. I promptly took it home and put it in a box.

Moving out of my apartment last month I came across the book in a box of junk. It was in worse shape after twenty one years of my careful stewardship than twelve on a dusty fourth grade bookshelf. Figures.

I like the poems (though I admit the use of the word "boss" in the last two lines of "Wise Witch" is inexcusable even for a nine year old) and happy with the pictures. Unfortunately the cover and the poem, "Zing the Thing" are missing. Perhaps they'll turn up as I finish unpacking but considering my track record at not losing things I kind of doubt it.

I know, "morgue" is misspelled

Is that a ghost or a midget in a sheet and does that zombie have sciatica?

I like the spaceship and the Martian sigil on its fin

Who tied the bib on the shark?

I seriously like the effect caused by no outline around the cross. It sort of glows more brightly.

The Church Project

So I didn't get the slightest chance to work on my vaunted church project. Between moving into the new homestead, unpacking, and dealing with a contractor and his subcontracting minions the church project has been put on hold. With some luck and careful planning (and those who know me know how likely that's to happen) I should be able to get started this fall.