Tuesday, January 12, 2010

This is getting fookin' ridiculous

At 2:30 a.m. on Thursday the 14th, it will have been exactly two months since my front door was partially kicked in as a result of what I'm pretty sure was an abortive attempt at home invasion (scroll down to older blog posts for details). Here's what looked like the night of the incident.


Here's what it looked like on the afternoon of Saturday, November 14th, 2009, after my landlord had taken "temporary" measures to fix it. That's a sheet of hurricane board he bolted over the smashed panels.


Well and good, as temporary solutions go. It's sturdy and secure and works as a door and, back in November, wasn't too drafty. Only problem; it's still like that. My landlord has claimed, several times, that he's having a local cabinet maker construct new panels, as it's an old and unusually tall door and he can't just go out and buy a replacement without spending "thousands" of dollars. I told him I understood that the process takes time, and didn't worry about it for a while, but TWO MONTHS? It's especially outrageous now that we're in a major cold spell and the door is got to be leaking heat.

My landlord is Charles H. "Skipper" West, of West Realty at 843 W. Market Street, Greensboro, NC 27401. I like Skipper. He can be forgetful and negligent when it comes to non-essential repairs, but in the past, he's always responded quickly to essential ones. Plus he's told me wonderful stories about my great-uncle Olan Barnes, who owned the "haunted" house at the corner of Friendly and Holden that I wrote about in the Halloween issue of Yes! Weekly two years ago. If not for Skipper, I would never have known that my great-uncle was infamous for "moonshine and chicken fight Saturday nights" that would draw folks from miles around back in the 1950s, as none of my relatives ever told me about that.

Despite what sometimes seems like laxity on his part, I wouldn't call Skipper a slumlord like the Agapians and he's never demonstrated a Chaney Properties style contempt for his tenants . I like his daughter Kathryn and his wife Pat and his business manager Ruby. But this is getting inexcusable.

I've reminded Skipper about the door on several occasions. I've mentioned it to Ruby, who's promised to "light a fire" under him. At the beginning of this month, I wrote him a letter stressing my complaints and saying that some adjustment was going to have to be made to the rent if this problem wasn't fixed, but he has yet to respond to it.

I really like the neighborhood in which I live, despite the sometimes annoying students, which (along with my own financial fecklessness) is why I've remained a renter all this time. I really like this apartment, despite its age and need for repairs. But this is testing my patience.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Any recommendations on Primary Care Providers in Greensboro?

I recently received a form letter saying that Dr. James Kindl, my physician for the past two decades, is joining MDVIP, "a national network of physicians who focus on personalized preventative healthcare." His letter goes on to say "In order to provide enhanced proactive care, I will be reducing the size of my practice to no more than 600 patients who may join on a first-come, first-served basis."

What his letter doesn't say, and what doesn't become apparent until one goes to his new website and actually tries to sign up for his new practice, is that this members-only service has an annual fee of $1,500, and that this fee only pays for membership; all the usual charges will still apply, billed to your insurance company.

His form letter says that he decided to take this step after he "recently commissioned an extensive telephone survey" and discovered that his patients had the following complaints about his practice:

"The staff is good but since my practice is so large, there are times when patients feel rushed or they may have to wait for an appointment."


"Patients do not like the telephone system and are frustrated that they have difficulty reaching a live person."

A cursory google search suggests that this boilerplate is on all the form letters sent out by doctors who are signing up with MDVIP. It certainly doesn't jibe with my own experience of Dr. Kindl's practice. I've never had a problem reaching a real person when I called his office. The one time I called it for an after-hours emergency, when I had a food bollus stuck in my esophagus after attempting to swallow an insufficiently masticated piece of prime rib at M'Couls, I was immediately transferred to an after-hours physician. I've never had to book an appointment particulary far in advance, and when it was something that needed prompt attention, they scheduled me for either that afternoon or the next morning. And Dr. Kindl himself has always been friendly and attentive and has always seemed to take plenty of time with me. So what gives?

That's a rhetorical question. I assume he wants to earn more money for less work. That's his right, but I have no interest in helping him do so. So now I need to find a new goddam doctor n this town.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

My door was kicked in at 3 a.m.

I was here. Heard the first kick from the kitchen, but it didn't register what it was. Indeed, I wasn't aware that I'd actually heard it until I heard the second. After the third kick, the person trying to kick down the door ran away. I'd run into the living room, shouting "what the fuck" (perhaps not the wisest move), but until I heard the guy (if it was a woman, it was a damn big one) I didn't really process what had occurred. I'm embarassed to admit that I never thought to snatch up the Scots claymore that hangs beside the door, and didn't call 911 until a minute or so had passed.




As you can see, it wasn't actually completely kicked in. Indeed, it stayed shut, albeit with a big hole where the panel was (the door was only opened afterwards, and then my upstairs neighbor had to work the deadbolt from the outside, as I couldn't turn it from the inside). Thank goodness for old houses in the College Hill neighborhood with sturdy doors and deadbolts.

Cops have come and gone. Took them twenty minutes to arrive, and then they drove past the building twice. CSI has come and gone. "CSI" being one lady cop with a flashlight and camera, who said the footprint on the door panel was too blurry to tell anything. The first cop tried to call the K-9 unit, but they told him the dog had gone to bed.

Was it a home invasion? An attempted burglary? I don't know. The lights were off in the front of my apartment, and on the front porch outside. Don't know about the rest of the building.

Two possible suspects. There's Stuttering Willie, a local panhandler/crackhead whom I've had arrested on numerous occasions over the years. But Willie is rail thin and no taller than me, although he can run like a deer, and he's not this kind of crazy. Plus, ever since he got out of prison for the last time, it's been Jim at the Tate Street Laundromat who's been calling the cops on him, not me.

Then there's my stalker. I know his name, although I don't know him, but won't post it here. Back in February of 2008, when I was more active on MySpace than I am now, I got this message from a stranger, whose anonymous profile (since deleted) was full of photos of corpses and carcasses, photos of Nazis, and clips of Death Metal bands, plus racist/antisemitic ramblings.

"hey faggot, harris teeter (dec. '07), - shopping with three others (one a child), the impersonation (accent, yahhhh) you did wasn't respected /// a schizophrenic egde can read through subtlety easier than one could imagine,,, so, if you encounter me again, I ask of you to almight-ily and completely Fuck off, alright? dork"

No, I don't know what he's referring to. He sems to be accusing me of mocking/imitating him when he was shopping at Harris Teeter in 2007, in the company of a two other people and a child.

Before that profile was deleted, I noticed that a mutual friend, a member of the Tremors, was on my "fan's" friends list. I wrote him, asking who the Hell this guy was. He (the member of the Tremors) said "oh, that's ___________, he comes in my store all the time. Yeah, he thinks you mocked him at Harris Teeter. He's always imagining stuff like that when he goes off his meds. He tends to obsess on people for really crazy reasons."

I got a couple of other messages from this guy, whose first name is apparently Jason. It turned out that other people I know had worked with him, or had dealt with him as a customer. A friend and former neighbor of mine said she knew him, that he'd stalked her for a while. Perhaps coincidentally, his first abusive email came not long after she and I went out on a date. She and other people all said he was crazy, on various anti-psychotics. Finally, in April of 2008, Jason came by my workplace at 7:30 in the morning, telling the girl there that he wanted to talk to me about my allegedly "making fun" of him.

I talked to a local cop, who said I didn't have grounds for a restraining order, but pulled up info on him. Jason used to work at a porn store on High Point Road. He's had multiple arrests for Drunk and Disorderly and Disturbing the Peace and Resisting Arrest and Assault on a Government Official. He's a little over six feet tall, beefy, ZZ Top beard, red-faced, covered in tattoos.

Another friend mine, a very large man who goes by the nickname Big Dave, and who's been a bouncer and once trained for the UFC, got wind of Jason stalking me. He told the guy who knows Jason, who was also a friend of Dave's, that he wanted to talk to Jason. The guy who knows Jason allegedly told him "hey, you're starting to piss off some VERY dangerous people, you need to stop, or I'll kick your ass myself." This allegedly sobered Jason, who allegedly said "yeah, I need to be careful to stay on my meds, cuz I do really stupid-ass things when I don't, and now lots of people are mad at me." Since then, I hadn't heard a thing from him.

Do I think this was him? I don't know. I was up, but the lights were off in the living room. The light was off on the front porch. I expect this whole building (a house turned into four units) was dark. I guess it could have been a break in attempt.

Wish I could be sure whether the last kick came before or after I yelled and went running towards the sound. That would be a clue to my mystery guest's intentions.

I think it's time to buy a shotgun, though.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Nine Myths of the Ninja

In honor of this month's MIDNIGHT MADNESS II: NINJAFEST at Greensboro's Carousel Luxury Cinema, which kicked off tonight with the insane NINJA: THE FINAL DUEL, and continues next Friday with Chuck Norris in THE OCTAGON (with Sho Kosugi's REVENGE OF THE NINJA and the terrible but hilarious SAMURAI COP on subsequent Fridays), here are nine myths about Ninjas.

1) They were called ninjas.

The word "ninja" is derived from the Japanese Shinobi-no-mono, which is written with two kanji characters that can also be pronounced as nin-sha, but only if the Chinese pronunciation is used. In modern Japanese, they are usually referred to as Shinobi.

2) They wore those nifty black pyjamas.

Those costumes are actually relics of the 19th century Japanese stage, which helped form the modern image of the ninja, one that has little to do with the historical reality. In mythology, ninjas were supposed to be able to turn invisible, so actors portraying them adopted the same outfits as the stage hands and puppeteers who were supposed to be "unseen" by the audience. In reality, ninjas, if they ever really existed, dressed like peasants, or women, or soldiers in the enemy army.

3) They used a straight sword called a ninjato.

Another relic of the 19th century stage, where it was a useful way of distinguishing the good guys from the bad guys (ninjas were usually villains in the theater). There is evidence that some "ninjas" may have used a modified short (but curved) sword with the hilt and scabbard of a long sword, as this allowed them to draw it at very close range (and to hold it out with one hand as if it was being offered in surrender, then whip out the short blade with the other hand when the unwary opponent came within range), much like some Italian assassins may have used a dagger with a rapier's hilt that fit inside a scabbard. But even this claim is controversial.

4) That sword's scabbard could also be used as a breathing tube and blowgun.

Fun movie bullshit, but bullshit just the same. This is totally the invention of 20th Century practitioners of "ninjitsu," the LARPers of the martial arts world.

5) A shuriken could kill at great distances.

Generally speaking, a shuriken couldn't kill at all, unless one got very lucky or the victim later died from infection (always a possibility in those days). It's not meant to kill, it's meant as a distraction, to be used at fairly close range. For instance, when an armed opponent was closing in on a ninja, the ninja could throw a shuriken at his face. While the opponent was cursing and pulling the pointy metal star out of his face, the ninja could either attack with his own primary weapon or (more likely) attempt to escape.

6) Ninjas used smoked bombs and "black eggs" filled with esoteric powders.

Again, pure bullshido from the LARPers of the modern martial arts world. This myth also has its origin in the 19th century stage, where actors playing ninjas affected "disappearences" via the same kind of theatrical pyrotechnics used by European magicians (and actors playing Devils and magicians in stage melodramas).

7) Ninjas had special shoes that let them walk on water.

In reality, some ninjas MAY have used snowshoe-like footwear that allowed to walk on the surface of rice paddies and over mud without sinking in, but these contraptions don't work on actual water, as MYTHBUSTERS has shown. And while these are displayed in a couple of "ninja museums" in Japan, there are skeptics who feel they were actually used only by rice farmers, not by stealthy spies and assassins.

In Japanese, these shoes were called "water spiders." Apparently the Taiwanese makers of NINJA: THE FINAL DUEL took the metaphor literally!

8) Ninjas were master assassins.

Despite their prevalence in the mythology of many cultures, there have almost certainly never been any real world secret societies of master assassins. Throughout history, most assassinations have been performed by amateurs who happened to have special access to the person being assassinated. When feudal Japanese lords wanted to kill their rivals, they bribed the ministers, courtesans or personal bodyguards of those rivals to do the dirty deed, rather than dispatching teams of skulking black clad swordsmen.

Ninjas, as much as they ever existed, were primarily used for scouting and reconnaissance and in siege warfare. Any martial arts they practiced were to defend themselves if discovered, or when sneaking into castles and fortifications, to kill guards and soldiers in order to create a distraction from the main siege party outside.

9) There are modern schools of "Ninjitsu" that can actually trace their techniques back to those used by historical "ninjas."

In the 1970s, Masaaki Hatsumi founded the Bujinkan Association in Japan. Sensei Hatsumi claimed to have studied shinobi martial arts techniques under Toshitsugu Takamatsu, who in turn claimed actual ninja lineage.

These claims are dubious at best (rule of thumb: most martial arts schools are full of BS about their lineage). Masaaki Hatsumi is a formidable martial artist and his various schools teach some very effective techniques, but he is also a canny showman who is not above making bogus claims in order to sell books and entice students. How much he actually learned from Takamatsu, and how Takamatsu's own martial arts styles may have differed from mainstream jiu-jitsu and karate (i.e., possessed any uniquely "ninja" component) are highly disputed matters that are almost impossible to prove.

As for anyone else claiming to teach "ninjitsu" (or "ninjutsu" or "ninpo"), it's almost certainly pure bullshido. Some of these instructors may teach practical and effective self-defense techniques, but their actual historical "ninja content" is nil.

Note: some the above information comes from Peter Nepstad's excellent article at:


I already knew some of this stuff, such as the theatrical origin of the black outfits and the smoke bombs (Peter doesn't really get into the latter) and the less than deadly nature of the shuriken (something which should be obvious to anyone who's ever thrown one at a target), but it was from his old article that I learned the origin of the word "ninja" itself, and his comments about the historical record and its indication of ninja success (or lack thereof) are not to be missed.

My opinion of Masaaki Hatsumi is entirely my own (although one shared by many contributors to the forums at www.bullshido.net).

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Family Troubles and eBay Auction

Last Winter, my father had an amputation after his left foot became gangrenous. He'd undergone a graft back in the 90s to shore up his femoral artery and the doctors at the V.A. hospital told him that the graft would only last for 10-15 years, that it couldn't be repeated, and that, when it failed, he'd lose circulation in the leg and probably, the leg itself. Sure enough, 12 years later, that's what happened. Fortunately, there have been no major complications from the amputation, and Physical Therapists at the V.A. in Johnson City, TN, have been working with him to get him ready for a prosthetic, although that progress has been slowed by a more recent operation to remove his left kidney.

Unfortunately, once he became a uniped, his landlord became a douchebag, refusing to make a wheelchair ramp for the unit, or more outrageously, to put up a handicapped parking sign in front of it. His reasoning? "I don't want to encourage other handicapped retirees to move in to this complex." Or at least that's what he allegedly said to my stepmother.

The bastard claims to be within his rights, saying that the 1989 Amendment that extended the Fair Housing Act to cover handicapped accessibility only applies to multi-family dwellings that had their first use after 1991, and dad's apartment complex has been operated continually since the 50s. I wanted to at least publicize his landlord's behavior, with the hopes of shaming him into relenting, but Dad and my stepmother want to move out. They've lived there for 18 years, but don't want to stay on with such a bastard as their landlord. Can't say I blame them.

But moving out takes money, and they're on fixed incomes and I can only send them so much at a time. To raise them some additional funds, I'm holding an eBay auction of what may be the rarest and most collectible item I own.

Back in the 80s, I wrote CRAZY CREATIVE WRITING: STORY STARTERS AND WORD BANKS for Carson-Dellosa, a local publisher of educational workbook. "Story starters" are the beginnings of simple short stories, accompanied by a "Word Bank" of possible words to use in completing the story on the blank lines under the beginning paragraph. My book contained 30 of these, and was aimed at teachers of grades 1-4.


In the 90s, when I was going to a lot of science fiction and fantasy conventions and working on my first novel, I asked various professional writers I'd met to complete stories in the book, just like they were kids in an elementary school classroom. Neil Gaiman (SANDMAN, AMERICAN GODS, CORALINE), Poppy Z. Brite, Kelly Link, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Mehitobel Wilson and others complied.

Here's Neil's contribution (with some of it blocked off for the eBay auction, so that I'm not giving away the entire story).


At the time, a couple of contributors teased me about how I was pestering them into creating a unique and potentially very valuable collectible. I knew that was true, but I was mainly doing it for a lark, and over the years since then, I've felt guilty about trying to sell it, not so much because it has huge sentimental value but because it seemed like a mercenary response to their friendly generosity.

However, in lieu of my parents' circumstances, I've changed my mind. When I asked Neil if he thought this was mercenary of me, he replied no, not at all, "it's not like you're going to use the money to buy edible kittens or something." I've been giggling at that phrase ever since.

So I just listed it on eBay. Neil, Poppy and Caitlin have agreed to publicize it on their blogs. The item # is 280364723261

Here's the auction.

And yes, I know I misspelled my own damn name, leaving out an "l" in McDowell! Poppy kindly pointed this out to me, no doubt snickering to herself as she did so. It will have to stand, as I don't seem to be able to edit an item's description while the auction is active.

Wish me luck. I'm not posting it here because I think this blog is widely read that it will get me any more bids, but so I'll have a link that I can point other people in the fantasy and horror communities at, so they'll learn the story behind the auction and perhaps pass on information about it.

UPDATE: Up to $500 in 24 hours That's a good start, methinks.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Locally made kung fu action in DOGS OF CHINATOWN

This micro-budget martial arts film, written and directed by my friend Micah Moore (and produced by my friend Blake Faucette, who used to own College Hill Video) had what I guess was its theatrical premiere last night. It will be playing at 7:30 every night at the Carousel Luxury Cinema here in Greensboro for the next week. I know Blake and Micah have sold Thai and Latin American distribution rights to it, and believe they're close to a domestic deal of sort (presumably straight to video).

I can't give an unbiased review of something shot by and starring people I know and like, but I was more impressed than I expected to be. The digital video photography looked surprisingly good projected on the big screen. Local reviewers have compared the film's look to Sin City, but as my friend Tim remarked, in some ways it more resembles that of Pi. Micah and Blake originally wanted to release the film in black and white, but then realized no distributor would touch it if they did, and the burnished, sepia-with-bursts-of-color look they settled on is quite striking.

Eric Jacobus, of the San Francisco based Stunt People, stars (and did the choreography). He's not a polished actor and doesn't yet have oodles of charisma (he looks kind of a like a short David Boreanaz), but his cinematic fighting skills are pretty damn impressive and he knows how to stage a good brawl. Huyen Thi, who plays the heroine, isn't great but doesn't embarrass herself, and she's pretty damn hot, even if she doesn't look even slightly Chinese. But then, none of the Chinese characters other than Wei, the hero's kung fu teacher (played by writer/director Moore's real-life sifu Brian Lee) do, since they're cast with Vietnamese and Thai locals (Greensboro doesn't have a Chinatown, but does have the makings of its own Little Saigon or Thai Town).

Like Jet Li's American starring debut Romeo Must Die, this is a Romeo and Juliet story involving rival mobs (Chinese and Italian here, as in the original script for Romeo before it was rewritten to feature African-American gangsters). But despite some clunkers in the dialogue, I think it actually has a more interesting script (admittedly, that's not all that hard), one with a few surprises and some nuance, as well as characters who don't always do what you might expect. And while Jacobus doesn't have the screen presence of Jet Li, he gives himself better fight scenes than Jet got in that or any of his Western films other than Unleashed or Kiss of the Dragon. And these fights are better edited than those in the latter.

While those fight scenes suffer from director Moore's use of Gladiator-style step-printing (something I told Micah after the show tonight), they're still really impressive, with long takes, no cheating edits, and lots of real contact. As an imported-from-LA enforcer called The General, co-action-coordinator Ray Carbonel (also of The Stunt Boys and micro-budget film Contour) isn't a much better actor than Jacobus, but he's equally impressive in the brutal fights, taking on our hero, and before that, our hero's best friend (and sifu) Wei.

Wei, who's essentially the film's Mercutio, is actually the most interesting character, a drunken horndog and easy-going party boy who is both a kung fu master and a handsome young Chinese-American. Brian Lee, who teaches at the Triangle Arnis Kung Fu Academy here in NC, is a better martial artist than an actor and some of his comedy is too broad, but he has looks and charisma and would have made for an interesting lead himself (he had what was essentially the Romeo role in his student and friend Moore's viral internet video Ninjas Vs. Pirates a couple of years ago). When he and Carbonel square off, he gets to use Shaolin Long Fist and other traditional techniques against The General's mixture of MMA and Muay Thai, which adds some nice variety to the deadly brawl.

The best actor in the cast, and the one with the most professional credentials, is Bill Oberst Jr. as Mob lieutenant Vitorio. Oberst, who played William Tecumseh Sherman on the History Channel a couple of years ago, isn't given enough to do, but he has a hell of a lot of screen presence and looks like a combination of a younger, skinnier, redheaded Harvey Keitel and a sandblasted Daniel Craig.

The biggest casting mistake was writer/director Moore giving himself the role a scar-faced Russian hitman called in by the Italians. Micah is a pretty impressive martial artist on the screen and in the real world (a couple of years ago, I saw him kick the ass of a much bigger drunken frat boy who crashed one of his parties and who got confrontational after not winning the Limbo contest!) and he might be an effective actor if he played up the incongruity of his real-life image as a goofy, gangly hipster who happens to have some serious kung fu skills. But he doesn't look very intimidating (which has worked to his advantage in some real life fights), at least not unless you're standing beside him and notice the muscles in his forearms and the size of his fists (which I hope he doesn't use on me after reading this), and this role is simply out of his range, with him deploying an accent that made him sound like he was out to get Moose and Squirrel.

But he shows real promise as a director, and I'm not just saying that because he's a friend. As I've said, I wasn't fond of the step-printing, but he knows how to frame action and when NOT to cut, and many of his compositions are unexpectedly lovely. And despite some clunker lines, he also shows promise as a writer, with a couple of character moments that would have really stood out in a production with more polished actors with better timing.

As Joe Scott said in his blog review about this film, it's a much better way to spend your time and money than Transformers 2. And not just because you get to see some locals kicking ass and taking names. Ian-Bob says check it out. It's only playing for six more days at the Carousel (and for only one screening each night), so see it while you can. Plus, during each showing, they'll be selling $1 beers, and yes, you can take them into the screening room with you.

Official Trailer here

(Apologies to the other locals, including friends like the lovely Heather Meek, whom I've not mentioned in this review, but whom I really enjoyed seeing on the big screen).

Friday, June 12, 2009

My friend Luva's store is in the Sunday New York Times

I believe some form of this article will be in the Travel section of the Sunday New York Times. Luva owns Southern Swank, one of the stores in the Father and Sons Antiques collective on N. Hargett Street in Raleigh. That's Luu in the fourth photo of the New York Times listing (the last link).

I don't know what photographic genius at the Times decided on a side view that obscures one of North Carolina's most striking faces. Customers of Tate Street Coffee on (duh) Tate Street may recognize Luva as The Blood-Splattered Barista, one of my mock exploitation movie coffee posters on permanent display there (admittedly, my poster doesn't do justice to her 1960s European film goddess features, either -- I make her look like a combination of Liz Hurley and Penelope Cruz, but she's actually more beautiful than that).


Here's the "36 Hours in the Research Triangle" slide show that accompanies the main piece at the Times online.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The woman from the "Singles Over 40" ad stalked me last night

For some reason, I had a nightmare about the big-boobed brunette with the black bar over her eyes that's featured in a "Singles Over 40" ad that keeps popping up on my Facebook page. I was trying to negotiate the New York subway system, attempting to get to a production of King Lear starring my old neighbor Tom Savini (who created the original Jason makeup for Friday the 13th and who played the biker Sex Machine in From Dusk Till Dawn and had a part in Grindhouse) and the woman from the ad was suddenly chasing me. She was wearing a tight black sweater, just like in the ad, and the black bar that obscured her eyes seemed to float a couple of inches out from her face (rather than being pasted across it like a physical object). I don't really remember much of the dream other that that.

It's interesting how the subconscious works. That ad was one of the last things I'd seen before shutting off this computer and tumbling bedwards, and I'd seen it just after looking at Tom's profile (I'd only recently tracked him down on Facebook, after writing about him in a previous blog). I have no idea why the woman in the ad has the old-school-porn-style black bar over her eyes, as the other women I've seen in ads for that site do not. I don't think I was particularly traumatized by the ad itself (and Cthulhu knows, I'm generally something other than traumatized by big-boobed brunettes), as when I saw it, the ad mainly reminded me of browsing magazines at Tyler's News and Camera in Fayetteville, NC, when I was a kid and my grandfather would take me there before buying me dinner on Friday nights.

No, no, I wasn't looking at porn when I did that back then, even though I've already mentioned such black bars as being a feature of really old-school (i.e., before even my time) pornography. But back in the 70s, there were a lot of magazines on the stands devoted to professional wrestling, and along with the usual stuff about the big-name "wrasslers" (as my grandfather called them) of the day, such as Johnny Weaver and (of course) Nature Boy Rick Flair, they usually had a photo-feature about "Apartment Wrestling." In these photos and articles, hot girls in underwear (or sometimes less) would "wrestle" in "private sessions" for the benefit of "wrestling afficianados." Even then, I could tell that the photos were staged and that no actual wrestling had taken place, but my twelve-year-old-self was excited by them anyway, even though I was confused by why the women in the photos always had black bars over their eyes (and over their nipples when they tore off each other's bras). So that's what the Facebook ad reminded me of, and it wasn't a particularly traumatic childhood memory (indeed, for a moment it made me smell my grandfather's tobacco smoke and anticipate a meal of broiled chicken at the Greek restaurant he always took me to after buying me comics and monster magazines and Conan novels at that newsstand).

But in my subsequent dream, the woman was SCARY and I was desperately trying to get away from her. In a weird way, I think this is because I'd seen Coraline (which I recommend highly, whether you see in 2D or 3D) earlier in the evening, and the floating black bar over the pursuing woman's eyes was in some way a distorted id-reflection of the black button eyes in the movie (and in Neil Gaiman's original novel, his best work until The Graveyard Book).

Which, when you think about, is a really weird, and weirdly random, chain of associations. But that's the subconscious for you. Or at least that's mine. That's why so few dream sequences in films and TV shows are psychologically convincing; they're just never arbitrary enough.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Why I love the Super G Mart

Today I bought:

1 rabbit (2.8 lbs)
6 large quail
8 whole fresh drumsticks
8 split seasoned drumsticks
1 Dozen quail eggs
5 lb bag of Idaho potatoes
2 lbs turnip greens
8 tangerines
4 12-ounce Mexican Cokes (made with sugar cane, not corn syrup)
1 pint of green tea icecream

Total cost: $44.99.


Monday, January 26, 2009

Tom Savini’s Frankenstein Mask and Lisa Hill's Butt

Warning: the story you're about to read contains full-frontal nudity. Well, okay, it's just one drawing, a sketchy and not terribly detailed cartoon image, but it's of me taking a naked picture of myself when I was fourteen years old. That case of Ian-decent exposure is the central image of this sordid narrative of youthful folly, and it would be counter to my trademark "Egad, The Man Knows No Shame!" approach not to have included it. I considered drawing a little black square over the naughty bits, but that seems silly, especially when the "bits" in question are just a couple of squiggles with a Sharpie. R. Crumb and Chester Browne, both big influences on my autobiographiacl noodlings, have tackled similar material without censoring themselves.

So, with that caveat, forward, or rather, backward, to my degenerate adolescence. Seriously, folks, this may well be my most depraved story ever. I'm not actually sure that I want random strangers reading this, but I can't seem to help myself.

When I was fourteen years old, or maybe fifteen, I'm not sure which, I was greatly enamored of Lisa Hill (I’ve changed the name for obvious reasons), who sat in front of me in my algebra class. Lisa was a tall solidly-built redhead who scowled at the world through big hippie-chick glasses and who strode through the hallways with a loping Bigfoot stride. She was, in modern parlance, "thick." To put it another way, she looked like she'd been co-designed by R. Crumb and Russ Meyer.


Now, I must confess that, at that age, I wasn't the suave and sophisticated charmer I am now. To say I was socially maladroit, even by the norms of early adolescent geekdom, is a gross understatement. Truth to tell, I was utterly unsocialized and downright creepy. I didn't talk to very many people, and none of the few I did talk to were girls. As the character Jeff once remarked on the Britcom Coupling, it's very hard to talk to people when you're imagining them naked. Being a spotty little perv, that's what I was doing most of the time, my hormonal imagination fueled by fantasies about Pam Grier, Adrienne Barbeau and Frank Frazetta's cavegirls.


I never talked to Lisa. I never even smiled or made eye contact with her. But five days a week, I sat behind her, gazing straight into the inviting abyss of her butt prominent cleavage. It was hard not to. Although Lisa seemed nearly as introverted as me, she didn't dress in concealing nerdgirl clothes, but favored tight high-riding t-shirts and low-riding bell-bottoms that exposed her buttcrack when her ample freckled bottom was squeezed into the seat in front of me. Five days a week, I stared into that delicious strawberry abyss, and if the abyss didn't stare back, there were times when it seemed to be speaking to me.


"Iaaaaaan," it whispered, "Iaaaaaaaaaaaan! Here I am, just waiting for you. Go ahead and stick your finger in me. You know you want to."

Eventually, I obeyed.

I'll always remember the first time I touched her skin. It was not an insertion, just a glancing touch, the first knuckle on my right hand brushing against her right butt cheek. I expected her to protest, to at least shudder or gasp in muffled outrage, and God knows what I would have done if she'd whipped around given me that witheringly direct stare of hers (or, even more deservedly, a sound thrashing). But no, she just stolidly sat there. Not a sigh. Not a gasp. Not a quiver. I hand might have been as insubstantial as that of a ghost or The Vision in Marvel Comics’ The Avengers.

So, I did it again. Again, no reaction. From her, I mean. My own body reacted plenty, from heart-beat to hard-on.

I spent the last five minutes of Home Room with one knuckle pressed against the base of her spine, right above the deepening cleft of her butt, that quarter-inch of skin-to-skin contact a conduit for a heady rush of feelings I can't even begin to describe.

And then the bell rang, and I snatched my hand back, and she got up and walked past me without looking at me, head held high and massive chest thrust out, the same formidable loping stride as always. Nothing about her attitude suggested she was fleeing or even stalking out in an indignant mood, just going about her business. My eyes followed the stretched denim covering her bulging bifurcated backside out of the room, as I sat there waiting for my tumescence to subside.

I spent the next day's Home Room with my knuckle pressed against her butt the whole time. Once again, she didn't acknowledge the contact in any way. She shifted in her seat, as anyone does when sitting in one of those uncomfortable chairs, and sometimes her movement broke the contact, but at other times, it pressed her cleft back against my clenched digit.

After a week or so of this, I finally dared to extend my forefinger and actually insert it into the top of her exposed butt-cleavage. Not deeply, not a full oil check, and no, the experience never became proctological. Just to the first joint, which, considering that she was almost as voluptuous in the rear as she was in the front, wasn't all that far at all.

And so, day after day, and then week after week, I spent Home Room with my finger in her butt and neither one of us acknowledging it.

You'd think this would have been my cue to, you, TALK to her, to ask her on a date, to make eye contact and smile. But no, I couldn't bring myself to do that. Which, in retrospect, makes absolutely no sense. What kind of creepy perv finds it easier to stick a finger into a girl's butt than to talk to her?

Even then, I was more comfortable putting things in writing than saying them out loud. Clearly, I told myself, Lisa in some way welcomed my bizarro attentions, or at least didn't seem to mind them. Clearly, I needed to declare myself. Clearly, I needed to let her know that I wanted to know her. Yes, really. I wanted to know what she watched on TV, what movies she went to, what she read, what she did for fun. But I couldn't ask her these things out loud, even after I'd been putting my finger in her butt for almost a month.

Besides sitting behind her in Home Room, and occasionally passing her in the hall or seeing her from a distance in the cafeteria or library, there was another space that Lisa and I shared. We rode the same bus to and from school. Our stops were far apart, we never got on the bus at the same time, and she tended to sit in the back, with the only friends I ever saw her talk to (I can't even remember who they were or what they looked like), whereas I was always reading a Conan novel or a comic book up front. Even after a couple of weeks of physical contact in Home Room, this routine didn't change. Yes, I surely could have managed to "accidentally" end up sitting near her, or even beside her, but I never did. I never even tried. I didn't have the guts.

Instead, I decided to write her a note. For some deranged reason, I felt it should be an anonymous one. I'd write her, tell that I had an aching crush on her, ask her if she'd be willing to hang out with me after school. But I wouldn't sign it, and would instead give her instructions on how to reply if she was interested, how she should write me back and where she should leave her response. But that wasn't enough. I had to do something more than that.

So I decided to take a Polaroid photo of myself wearing nothing but a mask and wrap that the note around it and stick it through the vent in her locker. Clearly, this was a plan of genius, the masterwork of a master seducer. Don Juan and Casanova and the Fonz were looking down on me from Heaven in awe (well, not so much the Fonz, as he not only wasn't dead but had yet to jump that shark).

I know it makes no rational sense. What can I say? Fourteen-year-olds are fucked-up. I was more fucked-up than most. I truly am better now, I promise. Really. Please don’t be scared.

At the time I had a neighbor named Tom Savini. You may have heard of Tom. He's a veteran make-up and special effects technician who designed Jason for the original Friday the 13thand several sequels and did gore effects for dozens of slasher films in the 80s. He played the biker Sex Machine in From Dusk Till Dawn and a deputy in Planet Terror. To the readers of Fangoria and other such magazines, he is a god, or used to be.


At the time, though, he was an amateur actor who performed in plays with my father at the Fayetteville Little Theater and the Fort Bragg Playhouse, where he also did some very ambitious make-ups. His house was full of masks and costumes, some of which he'd built himself. I liked to borrow his gorilla suit and terrorize the younger kids in my neighborhood. At the time of my infatuation with Lisa, I had also borrowed his full over-the-head mask of the Frankenstein Monster, which he'd carefully constructed of molded latex and real human hair.


After some experimentation with lights and mirrors, I managed to take a Polaroid picture of myself wearing nothing but the Frankenstein mask. And Keds.


I took that picture, wrapped my long and passionate note around it, and slipped it into Lisa's locker. In the note, I told her that, if she was interested in meeting me, in finding out who her naked admirer was (because she'd NEVER guess it was the guy who'd been putting his finger in her butt in Home Room all these weeks!), she should call the phone number I included at the bottom of it between 4:30 and 6 p.m. in the week day afternoon (that is, after I'd gotten home but before my father had).
That day, I got on the bus, wishing I was already home, because I sure she was going to call. How could she not?

My reverie was interrupted by the fact that everyone was staring at me. Some were smiling. Some were laughing out loud. And they were passing something from hand to hand. Something that looked like a Polaroid photograph.

It was, of course, the picture of me in the Frankenstein mask.

Lisa sat with her cronies in the back. Hers was the only face that was expressionless. For what may have been the first time ever, our eyes actually met, but her expression didn't change a whit. She didn't smile. She didn't sneer. She didn't frown. She didn't wink. She looked at me exactly the same way she looked at everyone else, and seemed oblivious to the hilarity around her, even though she must have initiated it by sharing the photograph. And the note, which someone, I forget who, began to read aloud.

I backed off the bus, squeezing past scary Tyrone Gibbons, who told me to watch where the fuck I was going and to keep my fucking clothes on the next time I decided to take a picture of myself. In the back of the bus, someone continued to read my note aloud, mispronouncing several key words. My feet on the sidewalk, I continued to back up, and then I turned, and was walking, then running, away.

That was early Autumn. For the rest of that year, I walked the four miles to and from school. Even during the winter, which proved to be one of the coldest in Fayetteville's history.


Addendum: Since writing an earlier draft of the above, I think I may have found Lisa on MySpace, or at least a redheaded Lisa who went to the same school at about the same time I did. She appears to be gay and a professor of Women’s Studies at a major university in another state. I considered sending her a friend request, but thought better of it.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A warm delightful Chrimas treat!

The Greatest Gift:
A Tale for Christmas

by Ian Keith McDowell

Author of The Little Lame Angel,
The Tender Ducklings and other Yuletide favorites.

It was Christmas in the little village of Leaking Festers, and snow was falling from the sky like cold down, to spread across the fields in soft white blankets and pile up against doors and shutters like bags of heavy laundry. It was a day for the roaring hearth and the wassail cup and the smell of goose and pudding and more than anything, it was a day for children. At least, that's what little Simon and Emily's mum had said, before taking the broom to them and driving them outside.

"Go play in the snow, then!" she'd snapped softly, "and for Christ's sake, give me a moment's bloody peace!" Not that she was likely to get that, with the baby screaming and carrying on so, like a cat dropped in a bag of hot coals.

"Not so nice of Mum to toss us out like that," said Simon, picking a particularly fine booger from his frosty nose, inserting it into a snowball, and throwing it at Emily, who ducked instinctively. "And us without good boots, even!"

"Ah, she's just wanting some, what'cher call it? . . . privacy, that's it, so she can drink her gin. You know how Mum is about her gin."

At this point, they met Mrs. Sheepshanks, who lived down the lane. "Why children, you shouldn't be out in this cold without proper boots," said Mrs. Sheepshanks.

"We ain't got none, you stupid cow," said Emily in the forthright manner that made her the darling of the village. "Mum spent all her money on gin."

"Well then, my little dears," said Mrs. Sheepshanks, "you must come and warm yourselves before my fire. My husband's gone to buy a goose for our dinner, and I'll be glad for the company, as the Good Lord has not seen fit to bless us with darling children of our own."

And with that, she took them back to her house. On the way, Simon leaned close and whispered to Emily. "A goose indeed; everyone knows the Sheepshanks haven't any money." "Quiet, you git," responded Emily, elbowing him sharply. "She's bein' nice to us. Besides, they might have something worth stealing."

As it turned out, the Sheepshanks did not, but the children still spent a pleasant hour before the fire, while Mrs. Sheepshanks told them marvelous stories of all the things she and her husband had seen during the Indian Mutiny. Simon especially like the part about tying mutineers to the mouths of cannons, and it made him laugh no end, as he tried to imagine the expressions on the faces of the Sepoys just before
the stout British soldiers blew them in half. Mrs. Sheepshanks, for her part, was charmed by the children's manners. "It's a shame," she said, "that a drunken slut like your mother should have such fine lambs, while John and myself
have remained childless."

"Goose-less too," said big bluff John Sheepshanks as he came tramping in the door. "Prices have gone up, and what few pennies I've saved couldn't fetch a scrawny chicken. It's turnips for Christmas, I'm afraid."

"How unfortunate that we once were wealthy," said Mrs. Sheepshanks, "and could dine on goose and oysters and suckling pig. But the Lord moves in mysterious ways. Would you dear children like to take some turnips back to your mother?"

"No thank you, m'am," said Simon. "We have plenty of those."
Casting one furtive look around the small cottage, the children departed for home.

When they got there, they found their mother sprawled drunkenly in her chair, smelling of gin and snoring, while the baby wailed in his cradle. "Oh, be quiet, Algie," said Simon crossly.

"I think we should do something Christmas-like for the Sheepshanks," said Emily thoughtfully. "Give 'em a nice present."

"Like what?" asked Simon. "We've not got much."

"Well, how about Algie here? He ain't good for much, is he, except bawling and peeing in his diaper. And Mrs. Sheepshanks was all sad they don't have children."

"Wizard!" said Simon. "We can leave him on their doorstep with a note pinned to him, like he was from Father Christmas."

Emily got a pencil and laboriously wrote "Fer you, frum Father Christmaz" on a piece of paper, which she deftly pinned to Algernon. Unfortunately, she pinned it to his little chest rather than his diaper, and he began to bawl even more fiercely
than before.

"Crikey," said Emily as she handed her squalling bundle to Simon. "Can't you shut him up? They won't want him if he's all loud and nasty. We got any of that laudanum stuff?"

"No," said Simon, "but maybe I can stun him a bit." Saying
that, he took Algernon by the heels and swung his little noggin sharply against the stones of the hearth. Unfortunately, he swung a bit too hard.

"Now you've done it, clumsy," said Emily. "His head's all bashed in. What will they want with a dead baby?"

Simon, who was good at thinking quickly, looked about the cottage. "Well, let's see. Mum will be out for a while, and the stove is still hot. We have turnips and such for dressing, and a little of that cranberry sauce you nicked from the
Sexton's house. I bet we could dress him out like a goose and cook him, and the Sheepshanks would never know the difference. They're a bit thick, I think."

And that, dear reader, is exactly what they did. Mr. and Mrs. Sheepshanks opined that it was the best goose they'd ever eaten, although Mrs. Sheepshanks wondered what the children had done to it to make it taste so much like suckling pig.

Little Simon and Emily just smiled bashfully, and Mr. Sheepshanks was so moved, he immediately declared that such clever children should live with him and his wife forthwith, and not with their drunken slut of a mother. And that is what happened, and they lived very happily ever after, or at least until the next winter, when they all died of the Small Pox.
Nothing says "Merry Christmas" like a sadistic child-abusing man-goat!

Those wacky Germans gave Saint Nicholas a hairy demon famliar who beats bad children with sticks, stuffs them in barrels or sacks, and drops them in streams. And no, Der Krampus isn't just some half-forgotten Medieval tradition; he (or they, as in some cases there are roving mobs of them) takes an active in of Xmas festivities in modern Germany, where revelers lovingly make their own costumes, complete with real goat horns and real goat ears. That's so completely awesome.

I don't know who this woman is, but she's cute.

Krampus revelers:

Krampus parade in Graz

A Krampus attack on noplused American tourists in Austria:

Krampuses (Krampii?) outside Salzburg.

Some really impressive horns on these guys!

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Fire up that Damn Grill!

It's almost a heartbreakingly beautiful day in this part of North Carolina. For no particular reason, other than a way of taking my mind off heavier and more foreboding matters, here are some recipes. First off, one for the unabashed carnivores.

Get you some goddam pig ribs! Open a can of PBR. Drink it. Open another can and pour it into a big bowl. Pour in a can of chicken broth. Pour in 1-2 cans of water. Boil that shit. Once it gets all bubbly like, throw in the pig ribs. Let 'em boil for about a minute.

Mix up some salt, pepper, apple butter, molasses, vinegar and Worcestershire sauce. Now, I don't hold with that "proportions" shit and don't get all pansy-ass with measuring cups and table spoons, so all I can tell you is to mix it till it tastes right.

Paint it on the ribs and put them suckers on the grill. Turn 'em regular, and slather on more of the sauce as they dry out. The beauty of boiling them in the beer and chicken broth first is you don't have to worry yourself so much about them not being cooked all the way the through and giving you some god-awful disease, so you can pretty much take them off the grill at the first sign that they're done.

That's some damn fine eating. An ex of mine, a little Jewish gal who despite having grown up all Hebrewsky was fine with the swine, said it was the best bone-in pig she ever did eat.

Okay, for you pesky pescadaria, here's another recipe.

Go to your local carnaceria and get some whole tilapia. Don't be a pussy and get all worried about not speaking Spanish, or, if you do, that you don't know the Spanish for tilapia. Look for whole fish that resemble Oscars from the aquarium section of a pet shop (they may actually be Oscars, since "tilapia" is not a species but a broad term that covers a range of cichlids). When he or she sees that you're a gringo, the butcher or fish monger may ask you if you want them filleted or otherwise cut up. You don't. That is to say, you want them gutted and scaled, but you want to leave the tails, and particularly the heads, attached. It's okay to cut off the fins (other than the tail) , though.

Now, you or the people you're planning to serve may be the sort of candy-ass separated-from-nature middle-class whitebread Americans who get all knicker-twisted at the sight of food with a face on it. If so, you can always cut the heads off after you've cooked the fish. But as Latinos, Asians and Europeans already know, fish tastes better when it's cooked with the head still on it. That's because the head contains 60% of the fat.

Once you're back home with your fish, mix some apple butter (or, if you prefer, honey), soy sauce, lemon juice and minced garlic in a pan. As I said above in the colorful whiskey-tango patois of my people, I don't generally hold with exact portions, I just mix the stuff until it tastes interesting. Rub it into the fish, inside and out, and then soak some tortillas in it. Sprinkle the fish with sea salt, basil, cilantro and freshly ground pepper. Put some lemon slices in the fish's body cavity. Wrap the soggy tortillas around the fish, covering them completely in a mummy-like wrap. If the tilapia are of any size, you'll need several tortillas per fish.

Put either a banana leaf or a sheet of tin foil on the hot grill. If you opt to use a banana leaf, you can get these at many Asian and Latino markets. They're usually sold frozen, so be sure you've thawed it out in warm water. The banana leaf or tinfoil keeps the fish and its soggy tortilla cocoon from sticking to your grill. The advantage of the banana leaf is that it adds a nice smoky flavor as it cooks. If the fish weigh less than a pound each, grill for about 4-8 minutes per side. If they weigh more than pound each, grill for 8-10 minutes per side. When the fish is done, you can serve it in its crispy tortilla cocoon as though it were en papillote, or you can pry off the tortilla casing and cut off the heads for more your squeamish guests.

You want some vegetables, you say? Sweet white corn is particularly easy. Don't take it out of the husk. Put a cup of sugar in a large pan of water and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Put in the ears of corn, but only after the water has cooled a bit, as you're not trying to cook it. Soak it for about twenty minutes, then put it on the hot grill. Turn it every few minutes until the outer husk starts to get a bit black and crispy. Peel off the husk and sprinkle the ear of corn with sea salt and black pepper. Add a little butter if you're feeling decadent.

Goddam, now I'm hungry.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

I didn't mean to join the crowd that had come chanting down Tate Street

There maybe five hundred of them, maybe even more, fists pounding the air, shouting "O-bam-a" and "U-S-A" and "Yes we can!" I didn't mean to suddenly feel, not like I was watching history, but I was part of it. I thought I'd stand on the sidelines, like the cops who'd come roaring up sirens blaring, and who only recently had still been debating amongst themselves whether to disperse the crowd so cars could pass or block the street so that the cars couldn't attempt to drive through the throng.

I'd come down to Tate Street, a block and a half from where I live, because I thought a drink and the company of engaged and enthusiastic friends, acquaintances and quasi-strangers would keep me from getting too depressed. An hour earlier, I'd found out that doctors are most likely going to be cutting off my father's foot this weekend, or maybe even his whole leg, that the femoral graft he'd had some years ago had failed, as he and I had been warned it eventually would, and that gangrene had set in.

For a moment, I felt horrible about not feeling horrible, and then, for a while, I didn't even feel bad about that. A cute little blond whom I'd only previously known by face came charging across the street to kiss me. People I knew and people I didn't know were clapping me on the back. The cops had gone from looking apprehensive or even annoyed to smiling.

Years ago, I'd sat in the bar that I was now standing outside of and watched the Berlin Wall come down. At the time, I'd idly wondered what it must feel like to be live that, to not just watch it but to be part of it.

And now, for however briefly, I knew, or thought I knew, and the rush was so powerful it was almost scary.

I don't know what I'll feel tomorrow. Probably, after I've called my father's hospital room and talked to him, the dreadful things he's facing will be real to me, realer than the crowd, realer than the history. But not yet, and if I'm lucky, as selfish as I feel for saying this, maybe not until I wake up.

Monday, October 27, 2008

While at Barnes and Noble this weekend, I picked up Neil Gaiman's new short novel for children The Graveyard Book and Kelly Link's new Young Adult collection Pretty Monsters. Despite the fact that most of my tattoos are from classic kid's books, I'm not a huge reader of contemporary children's or young adult literature (it may amaze some of you that I've never read Lemony Snickett or even J. K. Rowling), although my ex-girlfriend was, and my last published novella, "They are girls, green girls," had something of a Young Adult feel to it.

But Neil and Kelly are friends, albeit friends that I've not talked to in several years, and I think Kelly is one of the two best short story writers currently working in the English language (Neil agrees with me on that) and that Neil is hugely talented and deserves his huge success, even though I don't read him as much as I used to (I strongly disliked American Gods, which seems churlish of me to admit, as I'm one of the many people he thanks in the afterword).

Surprisingly, Kelly's book proved easier to find, as it was prominently displayed on the New Releases shelf at the front of the Young Readers section. Neil's I couldn't find at all, causing me to check the fantasy and the graphic novels sections, to see if it had been shelved where his older fans might notice it, but no, it wasn't there, and the bookfinder workstation claimed it was in "Juvenile Fiction." I finally asked a dottering old guy in a Barnes and Noble apron, but he couldn't find it either, and it took him asking a goth girl co-worker "have you seen the new book by that Neil Guy-man fella?" to turn it up. It actually had its own display rack, but one buried away at the very back corner of the Children's section.

At least I hadn't tried to find it at the local Borders, where I'm told by a former manager that their computer claims they don't have it yet, even though they really do, similarly buried in the back of the children's section where none of the staff knows to look. This seems odd, as the book has been getting a lot of press; a rave from Stephen Merritt of the Magnetic Fields in the New York Times Book Review, a rave at the Onion's AV Club, an NPR interview, etc.

I actually prefer Kelly as a writer to Neil (it's okay for me to say that, as he'd immediately agree with me), but I saved hers for last and am currently midway through his. It think it's the best thing he's written since Coraline (which I consider to be his most artistically succesful non-comics work). That it's essentially a riff on Kipling's The Jungle Book, with an orphaned boy being raised by ghosts (and a vampire who is essentially the Bagheera character) in a crumbling graveyard, only adds to the delight.

In the last couple of weeks I've seen Apaloosa and Tell No One in the theater. The first is a really fine old-school kickass Western that tweaks the traditional plots (there are several) in unusual ways, with exemplary work from Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen as gunslingers who are practically a platonic couple and some really well-staged shoot-outs, refreshingly nasty and quick. Plus, Lance Henricksen! The second is a terrific French thriller based on an American novel by Harlan Coben, the plot of which it actually improves considerably. I can't recommend it strongly enough; the performances are all first-rate, there's a scary female henchman (an Asian male in the book), a splendid tense foot chase through Parisian traffic, and a nice sense we're seeing the "real" Paris rather than the usual movie one. Plus, despite the pace, it gives its characters room to breathe and they aren't just there to serve the plot. For instance, Kristin Scott-Thomas (who's been working in France for years) plays the wife (yes, wife) of the hero's sister, who is also his best friend. In an American thriller, you know she would end up either the killer or a victim, but I think it's one of the film's virtues that neither happens, and that her friendship with the protaganist is treated as something that just IS, rather than a red herring.
Now to watch the season finale of Mad Men, once it pops up On Demand.

Friday, October 17, 2008

I Was Twelve Years Old: She Was Naked and Headless

The story you’re about to read is true. Nobody’s name is changed and nobody is innocent. And oy, did I just date myself with that Dragnet riff! You young whipper-snappers are probably thinking “what’s that duffer going on about, anyway?”

I’ve told this story before and will again. It formed the basis of the rather belated “Christmas” letter I mailed out to various friends since this last Spring. I've also sold a version of it to the local arts and politics tabloid Yes! Weekly, where it's the cover story of this week's issue. My editor there thought my title above too subtle and understated, and called it "A Haunting on Holden," even though the actual address is on Friendly Avenue.

When I was a kid growing up in the vibrant sin-filled metropolis of Fayetteville, NC, my grandfather would regularly bring me here on weekend trips to Greensboro, where his brother and sister-in-law lived on a poultry farm in the middle of the suburbs, at the intersection of Friendly Avenue and Holden Road.


My uncle (actually, my great-uncle) Olan had owned that farm since the surrounding land was countryside, and although the city had grown up around him, he was grandfathered in and allowed to keep chickens and geese and pigeons until he died in the mid 1980s


I loved the visits to the farm, even though I was a bit freaked out the first time my uncle deftly picked up a chicken, snapped its head off with a single twist, and dropped it, watching it stagger around in circles and chuckling at how "that damn fool thing still has more brains than most folks I know." Once the chicken collapsed (which might take some time), he would pick up the headless corpse, dip it in scalding water to loosen the feathers, and then it was my job to pluck it for our supper that night.

I wasn't disgusted or horrified by this. Even as a small child, I understood that the food we ate came from animals, and was fascinated rather than disturbed by the connection between a drumstick and the carcass it once came from. Whenever my mother cooked a turkey or a capon, she would always show me the liver and heart and giblets and explain how each functioned in the living fowl. She also liked to put Cornish game hens (a phrase, which she explained to me, was nothing more than a euphemism for “a little chicken barely out of grade school”) on her hands and make them “dance” on the tabletop for me.

That didn‘t bother me, and the plucking and cleaning of a recently living bird‘s carcass held no horrors for me. What did bother me was the way a decapitated chicken could still stagger around sans head, a spasmodic reflex that became downright terrifying the time one flapping victim came stumbling right at me and seemed to chase me no matter which way I turned, until it finally collapsed in a kicking heap..


Rather than being sympathetic to my terror, my usually taciturn uncle laughed, saying "don't be such a sissy-boy, Ian Keith, the damn thing can't exactly peck you any more, can it?"

Life was hard for the poor chickens on my uncle's farm, in more than just the usual ways. Olan owned a friendly (well, to me) drooly pitbull bitch named Ginger, who lived in a chain link run beside the chicken coop


Every so often an unlucky chicken would fly over the fence and into Ginger's territory. No, she wouldn't eat it or tear it to shreds, Instead, she buried it, taking apparent care not to injure it in the process, leaving behind a small mound of earth with the poor chicken's feet sticking out of it. My uncle liked to joke that Ginger was trying to grow herself a chicken patch. If he found one of Ginger's victim's while the smothered bird was still relatively fresh, we ate chicken stew that night.


Ginger and my uncle weren't the only chicken killers who lived on the farm. There was my Aunt Virginia's rangy black tomcat, who'd lost an eye and half an ear in his battles with chickens over the years (roosters are pretty damn tough).


When he was just a kitten, the cat had been named, ahem, "Niggerman,“ just like in H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls,“ but my mother told my great-aunt that she didn't want me hearing that word, and thus the cat was re-christened Tar Baby. My uncle hated Tar Baby for the way he kept killing chickens (oddly enough, he generally left the pigeons, which should have been much easier prey, alone) and continually threatened to shoot him or feed him to Ginger, but my Aunt Virginia would then sweetly say "Olan, anything happens to that cat, I'll invite my sister Margaret to come live with us." That always shut him up.

Now, Tar Bay may have hated chickens, but he loved me, and whenever I visited, he spent the night on the pillow beside my head, purring like an electric engine.

One weekend when I was maybe eleven or twelve years old, I'd come with my grandfather on one of his regular visits to Olan's and Virginia's. I forget what I'd done that day, but I'll always remember that night.

The house was very old and drafty and creaky, full of heirlooms and dust. The guest room I slept in was on the third floor (fourth if you count the basement, which was actually ground level around back, as the house was built on a steep incline). I was supposed to be sharing a bed with my grandfather, but he preferred to fall asleep in the big recliner in front of the floor-model Westinghouse television in the second-floor living room, while I'd go upstairs to read myself to sleep after Wrestling (or as my grandfather called it, "My Fights") was over (well, on Friday nights, I would; on Saturdays, I'd stay up to watch Shock Theater).

So there I was, alone in the wee hours in that high creaking room under the attic eaves, Tar Baby purring in my ear, drowsing off while reading a book of horror stories from Whitman Classics (a line of small, cheap children’s hardcovers that were sold in the toy sections of department stores) called More Tales to Tremble By. I still own this excellent little anthology of horror stories, which cost $.69 at Woolworths and which was my introduction to such classics as Saki’s “Srendi Vashtar,” H. R. Wakefield’s “The Red Lodge” and M. R. James’ “Casting the Runes.” I still own it.


When my eyelids got heavy, I put the book on the end table, laid my glasses beside it, and switched off the light. Sometime after that, I’m not sure how much later, I became aware that someone else was in the room with me.

For most of my life, I've been troubled by dreams, or apparent dreams, in which I'm lying in bed, apparently still awake, and a dark form enters the room. In my childhood days, the form was usually a menacing one, a monster or boogeyman, and I'd awaken with a shout or a scream. A few years later, it would be a female one, sometimes that of a girl I knew and had a crush on or lusted after. In those later waking dreams, the figure (which was generally a silhouette, but which I could "see" far more clearly that I would actually have been able to see anyone or anything in a dark room while not wearing my glasses) would remove articles of clothing as it approached., and I often felt more frustration than relief at the way I always woke up before she either got completely naked or actually climbed into the bed with me. This apparition may have been a harbinger of those hormonal adolescent fantasies, but it was not erotic or tantalizing.

The whole experience much clearer and detailed and more coherent than my usual dreams, and at no time did I think "oh, I must be dreaming." I could feel my beating heart, hear my own breath and the creaking of the ancient house around me. And the figure was more than just a silhouette.

That house, which still stands, is on the corner of Friendly Avenue and Holden Road, a busy intersection, and there was a street lamp on that corner. Filtered through the tall trees that surrounded the house, that light formed a pale rectangle on the bedroom wall. I "awoke" conscious of someone in the room with me and immediately knowing it was not my grandfather, and when that figure stepped in front of the pale rectangle of light, it was more than just a shadowy form.


It was a woman, dressed in a long dark old-fashioned dress with a high neck, and a pale apron with dark stains on it. The light illuminated her from the shoulders to just below the knees, so that I couldn't see her head or her feet.


Standing silently there, she began to undress. It wasn’t a striptease (not that I’d seen one at the time). There was nothing lascivious about it. She undressed like someone preparing for bed at the end of a long and draining day. First the stained apron came off, then layer after layer of clothing, including a girdle and bloomers, until at last she stood there nude.

She didn't look like any nude woman I'd ever seen or thought about. At that age I’d never actually viewed a naked woman in the flesh, but I imagined them a lot, and sometime sketched them in the secret drawing pad I kept behind my bookshelf. In doing this, my primary model was 1970 Playmate of the Year Marilyn Cole (yes, I was actually able to remember her name without looking her up in the delightfully named boobpedia.com). Her “hot librarian” photo spread in my father’s hidden magazine had been burned into my subconscious, and was invariably what appeared behind my eyelids whenever my hormonal imagination conjured up on undraped female form.


But that’s not what happened in this case.

The female figure that had begun undressing in the guest bedroom of that creaky old house nothing like a Playmate. She had wide hips, meaty thighs, small floppy breasts. Much like a typical nude in a late 19th century photograph, albeit even fleshier and somehow older and more careworn.


She began to walk towards me. As she padded closer to the bed, the rectangle of light from the window moved her up her body, illuminating the place where her head should have been. There wasn't even a stump, just a depression between her shoulder blades.


I did four things more or less at once. Woke up (assuming I'd been dreaming and this wasn't really happening). Hurled the cat curled up beside my head at where the headless apparition was standing. Switched on the light. Fumbled for my glasses.


There was nothing there. Just Tar Baby, crouched stiffly in the middle of the floor, glaring at me with his one eye in way that seemed to say "What the fuck is your problem?"


Then he sat down and began to lick his own balls (he was not a neutered tomcat), before stalking back to the bed, jumping up beside me, and sitting with his head pointing away from me and his ass in my face, which was his way of getting me back for throwing him like that. But he was a forgiving sort, at least with me, and in a few minutes he was curled up and purring again.

I never said anything about this dream, if it was a dream, to my aunt or uncle or my grandfather. Decades later, when my grandfather and my Uncle Olan were dead and my Aunt Virginia had sold the farm and moved into the Quaker Friends home, I attended a party in that house, which was owned by a local doctor and rented to a bunch of Guilford College students. One of the girls who lived there said that the house was haunted, and that the ghost was that of a woman. I asked her if the ghost had a head. She said she didn't know, that she herself had never seen it, and that those who claimed they had simply described brief glimpses of a female form in a long trailing dress disappearing around corners. On one of my last visits to my Aunt Virginia in the Friends Home, I asked her about this, but she was badly failing at that point and couldn't give me a coherent answer.

Do I actually think I saw a ghost? No, I do not, at least not in the daylight, or when I'm sober. I'm very much aware of the vagaries of memory, and of how our subconscious can lead us to construct coherent and detailed narratives from badly recollected and impressionistic scraps. Late last year I was reading the World Question Center website, where a variety of leading scientists and intellectuals were asked “What have you changed your mind about?” For Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, it was the fundamental nature of memory:

Like many scientists in the field of memory, I used to think that a memory is something stored in the brain and then accessed when used. Then, in 2000, a researcher in my lab, Karim Nader, did an experiment that convinced me, and many others, that our usual way of thinking was wrong. In a nutshell, what Karim showed was that each time a memory is used, it has to be restored as a new memory in order to be accessible later. The old memory is either not there or is inaccessible. In short, your memory about something is only as good as your last memory about it. This is why people who witness crimes testify about what they read in the paper rather than what they witnessed. Research on this topic, called reconsolidation, has become the basis of a possible treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addiction, and any other disorder that is based on learning.


It's true that, if my childhood self had been asked to sketch a naked woman, that mini-me would have drawn someone like a temptress from a Frank Frazetta paintin or a Playmate. So, no, the apparition didn’t have the kind of female body my eleven or twelve-year-old imagination would have conjured up. And before she disrobed, she was wearing a long dark dress of the sort that the students who later lived in that house described.

But this doesn‘t convince me. As LeDoux says, memories aren’t a digital video loop that plays back over and over again in the same form. Today, and ten years ago, upon thinking back to that night, I "see" the body I've sketched in here, but that doesn't mean I really "saw" it that way then. I have the writer's instinct to make stories detailed and convincing, and I suspect this "memory" has mutated quite a bit in the many years since it happened.

Still, I've found myself thinking about it in the last couple of years, and I think I'd like to find out who's living in that house now, and ask them what they've heard and seen and dreamed while under that creaking roof