Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Muley by the Christmas tree, 1962. Those were the days of Tinkertoys and tricycles.

Merry Christmas to you and yours, and may you be close to family and friends.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Thingmaker: Make Toys or Grilled Cheese Sandwiches!

This is the third in a series of trips down memory lane featuring Muley's favorite childhood Christmas toys.

This toy was a big favorite with me and my brothers. The foundation of the toy was Thingmaker, basically a heated metal plate that would take metal molds filled with liquid plastic and cook the plastic until the resulting shapes became hard and rubbery. But the product is commonly referred to as "Creepy Crawlers," which was the name given to the products of one of the most popular series of themed molds you could buy to work with Thingmaker.

If you go into a toy store nowadays, I believe they sell something under the Creepy Crawlers name. The idea is the same, but from what I have seen it is a pale imitation of the original Thingmaker system. The new one looks like a modified Easy Bake oven, with plastic parts and using the equivalent of a light bulb to bake the plastic. The original Thingmaker, by contrast, was like a little metal foundry in your home. The molds were made of thick metal, and the Thingmaker was able to heat that metal up so hot that you would burn the dickens out of your tiny, tender hands if you didn't remove the molds just right.

I would guess that Creepy Crawlers were probably the most popular things you could make with Thingmaker, but as you can see from the clipped advertisement here, you could also make other stuff like scary makeup items. I also remember that at our house we had molds that allowed us to create toy soldiers. One mold would make the front part of the soldier's body, a second mold would make the back half, and I guess you were supposed to fit the two halves together while the thing was still warm and sticky so that they'd dry into one figure. A third mold let you make rifles and grenades and such. The idea was that you could eventually create enough of the little guys to form your own army. But, unlike G.I. Joes, Thingmaker soldiers were as rubbery as the fake snakes and vampire teeth it also cooked up. It's as though some alien from space swooped down and removed all of the bones from a U.S. Army battalion.

Besides providing me hours of enjoyment being my own Dr. Frankenstein, I loved the sheer utilitarianism of the names Mattel gave to this toy and its components. The thing you made stuff in was called...the thing maker. The liquid goop you poured into the molds was called...goop.

When it comes to summing up Thingmaker, I believe radarmagazine does it best: "Nothing says safety like an open hot plate. And nothing says fun like using that open hot plate to create molten, rubbery insects you can throw at your sister while narrowly avoiding setting the house ablaze."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Major Matt Mason: Muy Molded Machismo!

In Part Two of what I guess is now a series of looks back at my favorite toys from childhood 1960s Christmases, I want to introduce you to Major Matt Mason (surprisingly, not a product of the 3M Corporation).

I think it was a bit unusual, even back in the groovy Sixties, to have television ad copy read in rhyme. I believe this poem, titled "The Misbegotten Moon of Major Matt Mason," was actually one of the lesser-known works of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Penn Warren, based on a short story by Chekhov.

My little brother and I spent many hours of pleasure taking Major Matt and Sergeant Storm (as an enlisted man, he didn't rate a first name) on adventures across the floor in our dad's study. We would have been green with envy, though, if we'd seen the swanky fantasy play area the boys in the TV commercial have their space station set up in. Not many parents would let their children bring in beach sand and move boulders into the living room, even if they did look like those cardboard imitation boulders used on the original Star Trek episodes.

I don't remember the Captain Laser character at all. Being a battery operated giant, he probably had a giant price tag, which might explain why my parents never saw fit to bring him home to join our crew. Besides, being raised on Mars and all, could you really trust him? Would Major Matt wake up one day in the space station to find one of his rubberized legs chewed off up to his hips, with Captain Laser just licking his lips, his red eyes pulsing rapidly?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It Wasn't Called "Vrroom!" for Nothing

If you were a red-blooded American boy in the 1960s, not old enough to drive and forced to settle for riding a bicycle or tricycle, this was something you wanted from Santa. I finally got one as a Christmas gift, and I can still remember our neighborhood in the days following, with me and other boys riding their bikes down the street, sounding like an invading army of locusts ready for a motocross race.

You just knew this was the coolest because you had your own special key to start the engine. It weren't no toy, you understand.

I love the commercial! Am I wrong, or can no kid have that many huge freckles on his nose? Do you think they painted them on with some sort of dye? And why do all little boys in 1960s commercials look as though their fathers cut their hair with a pair of pruning shears while drunk? Probably because, in many cases, they did.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Smattering of Quotes

"The trouble with specialists is that they tend to think in grooves."

--Elaine Morgan


"In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man's becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American...There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag, which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile...We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language...and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people."

--Theodore Roosevelt


"English was good enough for Jesus Christ and it's good enough for the children of Texas."

--Miriam "Ma" Ferguson, Texas governor 1925-1927


"In the final analysis, it's true that fame is unimportant. No matter how great a man is, the size of his funeral usually depends on the weather."

--Rosemary Clooney


"Haydn's sense of humor often came into play during his thirty-year tenure with Prince Esterhazy. The prince had become complacent when listening to Haydn's symphonies, even falling asleep at the performances. This was something that seared the feelings of the diligent composer, especially when the prince emitted a loud snore during a part of the symphony over which Haydn had especially labored. Haydn decided to create a new symphony for the prince, a symphony that he hoped would 'get Prince Esterhazy's attention.' This particular symphony was written with a long slow movement, designed to be so soothing that the prince would surely fall asleep. On the evening of the performance, the prince did indeed drift off. Then, suddenly, a loud chord shattered the serenity of the murmuring movement. The prince awoke with a start and almost fell off his chair! Haydn adeptly gave the piece the name 'Surprise Symphony.'"

--from the Haydn biography on essortment.com

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Friday, December 14, 2007

Random Observations and Trivial Events


Here's what kind of strange guy I am. Last night, walking the dogs in the neighborhood with my wife, we noticed a reindeer lawn ornament in someone's yard that had all of the lights in the reindeer's neck burned out. Seconds later, out of the blue, the following phrase was born in my brain:

"You can't wear a necklace if you're neck-less"


To continue the ever-increasing proofs of my weirdness, walking in the cold with my wife and the dogs last night I got to wondering about molecules. Heat is when molecules in the atmosphere move more quickly, cold is when molecules move more slowly, right? Theoretically then, would it be possible for it to get so incredibly cold that all of those molecules would slow to an atomic crawl and eventually stop moving altogether? At that point, would the Earth's atmosphere just fall down to the ground like a dead weight? And would my insurance cover this?


Do you ever really listen to the lyrics of the Christmas songs that play endlessly this time of year? If so, do some of the lyrics ever puzzle you? They do me. For example, in "Winter Wonderland," why do they sound so darn glad singing to announce that "Gone away is the bluebird/Here to stay is a new bird"? Why are people so tickled pink that the bluebird has hightailed it out of town? Aren't they the birds that are supposed to bring us happiness? It's not as if a grackle has left town -- now that I would gladly celebrate in song.

And what about that line in "Deck the Halls" where they say "Strike the harp and join the chorus"? What kind of choir is it that requires you to damage an expensive piece of musical equipment before joining? Not any that I'd want to be associated with.


I guess my mind's been in the toilet lately, seeing as how this is the second restroom-related posting in the past week. You know those new automatic flushing toilets and urinals? Why do they each have that little slowly blinking red light? When I see that red light silently turning on and off, it reminds me of HAL, the evil supercomputer in the movie "2001." I'm half expecting the urinal to start talking to me in a soothing but menacing voice: "Is that all, Muley? Are you suuure you don't have anything more? You don't want to be coming back here in a few minutes, do you? Did you aim well, Muley? If not, I am programmed to spray water on you when I flush..."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Secret of "P"

Having not read this classic Raymond Chandler mystery, I am quite confused. Just why do you brand an otherwise attractive woman with the letter "P"? What descriptive personality or physical trait is it supposed to warn others away from? Preppiness? Persnicketyness? Phoniness? Pettiness? Permissiveness? Prissiness? Pit odor?

Or does it refer to some sort of unwanted or controversial medical condition? Psoriasis? Psychotic episodes? Periodontal disease? Plantar's warts? Pigeon toes? Perforated ear drums? Plastic surgery?

Could it refer to her somewhat unorthodox choice of career? Podiatrist? Pundit? Parking lot attendant? Pit boss? Pearl diver? Praline maker?

Just maybe, considering my discussion here, it identifies the wearer as one of the new century's most scorned home improvement show characters: popcorn ceiling owner!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Random Observations and Trivial Events


I passed by a display in my local grocery store the other day which I assume was meant to suggest possible Christmas gift ideas. On a table there were all sorts of objects that had been "personalized" with a photograph. A photo of an attractive woman was used in each example, her smiling face wrapped around coffee mugs and pencil holders and placed atop calendars and mouse pads. The idea, I guess, is that anyone can take a picture of a loved one and get that picture put on the object of their choice.

This is not anything new, of course, but I was a bit taken aback when I saw what one of the items available for personalization was. At first I thought it might be a super-sized mouse pad, but on closer inspection I discovered that the woman's face was now smiling from the surface of a cutting board. You know, like the ones you cut meat or chop carrots on.

I still have not been able to figure this one out. Why in the world would someone want to personalize a cutting board? And if they do, what kind of message is that sending? I love my kids and would never want to see them hurt, but if I send their grandmothers cutting boards with their cute little faces on them, am I not, in effect, asking them to stab and hack their darling little sweeties every time they chop celery for the soup? Could someone do this in good conscience?

And, if I send someone a cutting board with their own photo on it, am I not asking them to regularly simulate hari-kiri? Will they they get the idea that I want them to commit suicide?

I guess that if you had a bad breakup, you could order one of these adorned with the photo of your ex-spouse or ex-partner (chop, chop, HACK, HACK), but is there a huge market for that? Maybe so.


Content alert: the following paragraphs will be discussing toilets and their functions. You have been warned.

I have not done the scientific testing on this (and I never will), but I have come up with a theory involving toilets and their relative flushing power, based on elevation above sea level. This comes as a result of many years of personal experience in the field.

Can you relate to this? If I am in an office building of multiple stories, and if I go to a restroom on an upper floor and ask a toilet to do just what it is designed to do, more often than not, it fails. A toilet needs a certain, shall we say, hydraulic power to carry away what it is designed to carry away, but when I'm in a fifth floor restroom and flush a toilet, it disappoints. A toilet on a high floor seems to think it is a washing machine, content to just swirl water around the bowl a bit in an effort to clean its contents instead of carrying them far away.

By contrast, if I go down to the ground floor of that very same building and flush a toilet in a restroom there, I am met with a sound like that made by a 1962 model TWA jet. The toilet water will circle around and around with the ferocity of a whirlpool at the bottom of Niagra Falls, and if I make the mistake of covering every square inch of surface around the seat with my posterior, creating a seal of sorts, I will be in danger of getting sucked down into the churning bowl like a bird sucked into a jet engine. When the titanic suction ends, I will then be lodged somewhere down into the pipes until a janitor hears my frantic cries for help and rescues me.

Why does this happen? Can physics account for the difference? I will leave this for future scientific researchers to figure out.

Monday, December 10, 2007

What I Learned from HGTV

I have a confession to make, a confession that probably tells you more about my age and social status than I care to admit. I don't get the chance to watch much television these days, but when I do watch, there's a good chance that the show I'm watching is one of the many home improvement shows on HGTV or The Learning Channel.

I'm not sure why I end up watching so many of these shows. I tell myself, of course, that I am picking up ideas for future projects around my own house, but after years of passive viewing I have yet to transfer one project from the TV screen to the inside of my home. Maybe I watch because, as television shows go, the do-it-yourself programs on HGTV and TLC are relatively family friendly, and I can watch one with my daughters sitting nearby and not worry that the host will begin cursing or initiate a discussion of home design for deviant sexual practictioners featuring a lot of whips and torture equipment hanging from the walls.

Even though I don't seem to be practicing what they're preaching at me, my many hours of home improvement TV watching over the years has built up an impressive trove of remodeling wisdom in my brain. The tips and tactics given out by the hosts of these shows tend to revolve around the same dos and don'ts. As a public service for those of you who don't want to devote the same amount of time to watching home improvement shows as I have, I offer these lessons I have learned.


1. The most exciting and satisfying part of remodeling a home is not dreaming about possible changes, or buying new furnishings and fixtures, or watching new things being built and installed, or surveying the completed remodel with the satisfaction of a job well done. The most exciting and satisfying part, by far, is being able to take a sledgehammer and viciously pound all of that old, tacky wood and plaster and tile and laminates and sheetrock to a dusty pulp as part of the initial demolition progress (the “demo,” in HGTV-speak). It never fails – when mild-mannered homeowners are handed a sledgehammer and told to go to town, their eyes begin to glow and their resulting cheek-to-cheek Joker grins make them look as if they were being given the keys to Fort Knox. Their utter delight in completely demolishing everything in their path is palpable.

2. Textured ceilings, known derisively on home improvement shows as “popcorn” or “cottage cheese” ceilings, are considered the spawn of the devil, and must be removed immediately by any homeowner with a mite of good taste. If Joan Crawford was still alive, her maniacal admonition to her terrified children would no longer be “No wire hangers!,” but instead, “No popcorn ceilings!” If you are unlucky enough to still have popcorn ceilings in your home (as I am), you might as well also have red shag carpeting, inflatable furniture and a disco ball hanging in the living room, since nothing apparently identifies you as a taste-deficient 1970s holdout loser as those little pebbles on your ceilings.

3. Wallpaper is so 70s and 80s. The textured and mirrored kind is the tackiest, but even the more benign stuff is now patterned poison. You must rip it off the walls wherever it exists or risk social ruin.

4. Once looked upon as the flooring of poor people who couldn’t afford wall-to-wall carpeting, hardwood floors are now tres chic. If you don’t already have hardwood floors or can’t afford to install them, you must at least install cheaper modern laminates that mimic hardwood flooring. Carpet, while not totally out of style, must be used very sparingly, in back rooms only if possible, and must never be in any color brighter than beige or tan. Carpet in any colors used by an NFL team on their jerseys or by the Wiggles are definitely out.

5. Countertops must either be made of rock, or be cleverly designed to resemble rock. Granite or marble is preferred, quartz or even concrete is okay, but formica and wood are definitely out. Your kitchen and bathroom counters should be as hard and cold as those slabs in the morgue you put dead bodies on, as a general rule.

6. If you are to have any chance to sell your current house in this tough housing market (it’s always a tough housing market, no matter where or in what price range you are), you must “stage” your house first to make it attractive to potential buyers. In a nutshell, staging a house involves removing enough of the stuff inside as possible to make it look as if no one actually lives there. Any hints of personality (dismissed as “clutter” by house stagers) must be removed and either thrown away or stored temporarily somewhere off-site. What items must go? Any personal photos or mementoes, books and magazines, souvenirs, collectibles, DVD or CD collections, toys and games, excess or out-of-season clothing, pet feeders, pet beds and chew toys, wall hangings and anything else that looks as if someone might actually pick it up and use it. This will leave furniture (which will be weeded out as well) and possibly a potted fern or two. The goal should be to make the public rooms of your house look like the lobby of a nice hotel that isn’t visited very much.

7. When it comes to fixtures, shiny polished brass and aluminum are out. The preferred finishes are pewter or nickel, with bronze or antique brass running a distant second.

8. Wall-to-wall paneling is great, if your goal is to emulate the lifestyle of Archie Bunker. Otherwise, it is the second generation to popcorn ceilings as spawn of the devil. You must either remove it (preferable), or, if that is impractical, you must paint over it to hide its wood-panel-ness. The only type of paneling ever allowed is that very expensive stuff found in the libraries of big castles in Europe. If you can’t afford that, then don’t even consider buying or keeping paneling.

9. It might force you to sell one of your children to slave traders, but if you haven't already you must switch out all of your current kitchen appliances for stainless steel ones. Kitchens and bathrooms sell a house, we are told over and over again, and nothing will make a potential buyer begin drooling (or make your friends begin drooling in envy) than to spy a kitchen that looks somewhat like an industrial meat locker. If you can’t afford stainless steel, then your appliances must be either black (the preferred second choice) or white (just barely an acceptable wild card). Appliances must never, ever, ever be any other color, or you might as well move to Hooterville.

There's one final thing these TV shows have taught me, and it concerns either selling your house or buying another one. If you live in many parts of the Midwest or the South, you can still buy a fairly nice home with a reasonable amount of room for a reasonable price, say, under $200,000. If you live in New England, a big city on the East Coast or anywhere on the West Coast, even a two-bedroom, one-bath shack with termites, a bad foundation and a backyard that looks like a trash heap will cost at least half a million dollars – or more, if the popcorn ceilings have already been removed.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Technology Quotes to Eat Crow By

"Man will never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances."

--Dr. Lee DeForest, "Father of radio and grandfather of television"

"The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?"

--Broadcasting mogul David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s

"Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons."

--Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."

--Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

"I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year."

--The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957

"But what is it good for?"

--Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, commenting on the microchip, 1968

"640K ought to be enough for anybody."

--Bill Gates, 1981

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

May I Borrow a Battery? My Book is Dead

I went on Amazon.com one day recently to check out something or other, and the opening page, instead of giving me the usual recommendations by categories, was almost completely given over to introducing me to a new product called the Amazon.com "Kindle." It's basically the company's version of an electronic book reader, which they say they've been working on for three years to perfect.

Explaining the genesis of his company's new product, Amazon.com CEO and founder Jeff Bezos said, "The booklover in me often has asked the nerd in me, 'Is there a way to get the emotions and experiences I love from books, but combined with the possibilities of advanced technology? Can something as evolved as the book be improved?"

Now, maybe I'm just hopelessly mired in the technological mud, but when I sit down in a nice chair with a good book (the pulpy-paged type), one thing I surely never think about is how to transform the book in my hands into another electronic gizmo, which I must pamper and recharge and repair when it gets broken. I'm quite happy, thank you, to just let The Brothers Karamazov be The Brothers Karamazov, and not lament the fact that any book I flip the pages of can't also get me stock quotes, show YouTube videos or allow me to spend more money with Amazon.com. This ability may represent an "improvement" to Mr. Bezos, but I beg to differ.

I'm glad that books have not really "evolved" since their invention, despite Mr. Bezos's claim. Yes, they're a bit smaller and made of different materials than they were in Gutenberg's day, and we no longer have to fashion them entirely by hand or crank them out one at a time on a crude press, but the essence of a book is still the same -- pages of text between two covers, pages turned one at a time and enjoyed at the leisure and pace of the reader.

I don't know how many times I've seen people come out with these "electronic book" gizmos, announcing (or implying) that the printed book is on its long-overdue deathbed, only to have the gizmo, and not books, soon bite the dust.

Then again, maybe an electronic book is inevitable. Maybe there's so many people these days whose attention spans have been worn down to the nub by a steady dose of TV and DVDs and video games that they won't -- or can't -- read a book without some sort of electronic diversion handy. But then again, I don't think those people are the ones truly longing for a good book to savor. Let's face it, the target audience for any new electronic book is not likely to go out and download Dostoevsky or Dickens or Joyce to read on it.

I am content to get drenched as I leave my finger in the dike. Invent what you will, and while I applaud your technical genius and even let out a "hey, cool!" every now and then, I'm happy to keep my books just as they've always been.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Hail to the Elf

Since the Western White House down in Crawford is just a few miles away from my home, I end up getting invited over there whenever George W. is in town. I'll be sitting at home spending quality time with the wife and kids when the special red phone in our living room begins to blink and blares like an air raid siren. I will pick up the line, where each time I only hear these three words: "He wants you." This is the signal for me to get in the car and drive down to the ranch, where the Secret Service agents just wave me through without a second glance.

When I arrive in the house (where I invariably forget the "no shoes on the carpet" rule), I never know what the President will require of me. Sometimes he wants us to bake Tollhouse cookies, other times we share laughs watching DVDs of old SCTV episodes, and one time I even found myself playing "Risk" into the wee hours with the President and Vladamir Putin (I won,by the way, with my sneaky takeover of Europe). But even I was a bit nonplussed by the request made of me on my last visit to Crawford just a few weeks ago.

When I arrived, the President asked me, his wife Laura and Condoleeza Rice to put on special costumes provided for us and head outside, where a rare Texas snowfall had left the landscape covered in white. As the White House videographer taped away, we were asked to frolic for the camera. To see the result, click here to watch the video, recently declassified for public viewing.

(Note: if you use Safari as your browser, for some reason this probably won't play)

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Random Observations and Trivial Events


I was reading an article in the Nov. 30, 2007, edition of the New York Times, a review of the new SciFi Network miniseries "Tin Man," described as a modern-day "high-tech refashioning" of L. Frank Baum's book The Wizard of Oz. About midway into the article, I ran across this paragraph:
Baum said that he sought simply to produce a modern fairy tale, but his symbolism was hardly subtle. The novel came to be understood as an allegory for debates about turn-of-the-century monetary policy stemming from outrage over the subjugation of agricultural interests to the imperialism of bankers on the East Coast. (In the book, unlike in the 1939 film, Dorothy's shoes are made of silver, not rubies. The notion of silver shoes ambling on a yellow brick road is thought to stand for Baum's advocacy of bimetallism, a shift from the gold standard that would have given farmers access to cheaper money).
At first I though the writer of the piece was joking, but then I realized he was dead serious. Do you mean that L. Frank Baum sat down and dreamed up Dorothy and Toto and tornadoes and munchkins and flying monkeys because his heart was aching to cry out about bimetallism?

Maybe this is true, but it only served to remind me of all those cruel, horrific English literature classes I endured in high school and college where every seemingly straightforward sentence had to be analyzed for its "deeper meaning." The old man in the sea wasn't really after a fish, he was after fame, or youth, or whatever the heck that astronaut in 2001 was looking for. I was asked to believe that authors NEVER wrote simply because they wanted to tell a good story, or wanted to make a pile of money and become famous. They always fashioned some piece of fiction as just a tricky smokescreen to hide their real messages about the alienation of man, the search for significance and their own repressed sexual desires.

Speaking of sex, I once made the mistake of taking an English class in college which combined study of Shakespeare with a study of Freud (I would kill two bards -- I mean birds -- with one stone, I thought). Boy, talk about digging up innuendo and hidden messages. All things in the text that were pointed or straight (like swords, castle towers or trees) were supposedly "male symbols," while all things rounded, or at least not pointed (like pillows, bowls and heads of cabbage) were "female symbols." Everything any character did in any Shakespeare play, according to this professor, had to do in some way with S-E-X. Sheesh, what a load of psychobabbling rubbish. I felt both angry and slimy after each class, and I considered thwacking my professsor on his rounded head with my Bic pen to relieve my frustration, but I was afraid he would interpret this act as some sort of a bisexual assault, or possibly an attempt at conception.


I think the feeling of being so busy as to be almost overwhelmed is a universal one in today's world. I guess we're just on the same wavelength, or at the same place in our lives, but If I was ever forced to accuse someone of sneaking into my brain and stealing my own thoughts about the issue, it would be Rod Dreher in this spot-on post on his Crunchy Con blog.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Bite Into These Beans

The Harry Potter phenomenon has given birth to any number of products spun off from the original novels by J.K. Rowling, including movies, calendars, mugs, bed linens, pajamas, board games and too many others to list here.

One of the most popular products to come on the market as a Harry Potter tie-in is Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, which of course are one of the treats enjoyed by Harry and his friends in the books. One of the unique things about Bott’s Beans is their unusual flavor palette. When you bite into one of these jellybeans, you might be welcomed by a traditional sweet flavor, such as cherry or licorice, but you also might find (to your horror or pleasure, depending on your bent) that you have bitten into a jellybean featuring flavors such as pickle, sausage, booger, vomit, rotten egg, earwax or dirt.

From what I hear, kids love the “nasty” flavors, even if they say they are disgusted by them. I’m sure that the shock value of biting into earwax and vomit has probably subsided a bit by now, since so many kids have experienced that, so I am proposing some new “gross” flavors that the manufacturers might want to consider.

Proposed New Flavors of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans:

Theater seat gum
Chinese toy factory
Liquid paper
Ship channel spume
Witch hazel
Dog breath
Taxi seat
Nursing bra
Charismatic preacher sweat
Baby burp
Grandpa’s mustache

Thursday, November 29, 2007

If a Blogger Posts in the Forest, and No One Reads Him, Did He Really Have Anything To Say?

Well, it finally happened. Less than a week after I started posting to Muley's World again (after an eight-month hiatus), one of my old blogger friends, for some inexplicable reason, dropped by and discovered my return.

I told her in answering her kind comment that I wasn't sure how long I would be "back" because I wasn't exactly sure why I resumed blogging in the first place. I still am not, so I'm going to try and figure that out by writing this.

I started Muley's World and wrote my first tentative post way back in May 2005. It was done totally on a whim, after a friend who had a Xanga told me how easy it was and I found out that she was correct. It was easy and fun, and didn't require lots of expensive equipment, leave stains on the carpet or lead to social diseases or flatulence.

When I began Muley's World, I knew almost nothing about the blogosphere. The only blog I visited on any sort of regular basis was Dawn Eden's, and I didn't have a good idea of just who made up the blogosphere and why they had signed on.

I got into blogging for what I now see were wrong reasons, at least given the prevailing two-way, social, chatting-over-the-back-fence nature of the blogosphere. I have been a writer since my earliest days, and writing -- whether the result was a story, a column, a poem, a song lyric or a play -- was always an invigorating and challenging activity for me. I wasn't one of those strictly discipined and motivated people who can make themselves write every single day and always keep a significant long-range goal in mind for what they produce. I just like to write. In the same way some people love to work crosswords or fashion a gourmet meal from scratch, I enjoy the challenge of stringing random words together to make something greater than the whole. It's a puzzle I enjoy solving over and over again -- can I take this one absurdly simple idea, or this somewhat humorous picture in my mind, and expand it well enough to make a cogent, readable and (hopefully) humorous piece of prose out of it?

It was in this mindset, then, that I began Muley's World. I saw this blog as a wonderful new toy. Somehow, for absolutely no cost, I had been offered my own newspaper or magazine, to do with whatever I wanted. There were no boundaries at all! I could write essays, short stories, poetry, critiques, autobiographical memoirs -- heck, I could even type out my grocery lists -- and then publish them for an audience that conceivably could include readers in every country in the world. Wow! I was brimming with ideas and couldn't wait to get my words pixelated on the page.

Of course, I hoped that people would somehow find their way to my site and read what I had written. They soon did, thanks in part to a gracious, totally unexpected and wildly ego-stroking promo by Dawn Eden on her blog, and I was most pleased with the way things were working out. In the space of a few short weeks I had gone from being a somewhat frustrated wannabe writer to the owner and editor of an online publication that was attracting notice across the country. (In a small sense, of course -- no need to cue the John WIlliams orchestral score to begin here).

It didn't take me long, however, before I discovered that the blogosphere was a bit different than I'd first imagined it to be. I learned that blogs are expected to be quite communal little creatures. By blogging, you are in effect asking people -- strangers -- not only to read what you write, but to give you feedback on what you write through comments left after each post. If you simply read those comments, but do not return the favor by visiting the blogs written by the commentors and leaving comments of your own, you stand accused of being a (gasp) "lurker," a person who is considered to be as slimy and creepy and downright nasty as that ominous term implies.

In other words, if someone writes a column in a print publication and you read it without immediately mailing off a letter to the editor, you are considered normal. However, if you read that same author's columns online without once leaving a comment, you are considered a lurker who might just as well be peeping into the shutters of adolescent girls' bedrooms around bathtime.

Now, I am as social as the next person (well, almost), but I also have a huge shy, private streak. I didn't get into blogging as the means to a social end -- to meet women (I'm married) or to find a publisher (not actively, at least) or to discover new soulmates or beer buddies. I just wanted to write, and, as a secondary goal, to see if what I wrote might by some wonderful luck be interesting to anyone else. That's all.

I think of myself as a kind, caring and fair person, however, and I could understand why neglecting to even visit the sites of people who regularly visited mine, much less neglecting to read their pieces and leave comments in turn, could be viewed as selfish and unfair. I mean, after all, if I want you to visit my site, shouldn't I return the favor? Isn't that the Monroe Doctrine? Or is that the Geneva Convention?

And so I did visit. Often. As more and more people visited Muley's World, my blogroll got larger and larger, and I began rolling up into the driveway of the sites of my newfound cyberfriends on a regular basis. I learned a lot and laughed a lot, and got to enjoy stopping in for chatty, witty téte-a-tétes.

After a while, though, all of that cyber surfing started to feel less like an enjoyable hobby and more like a job with lots of overtime. Checking my site, reading any comments left, leaving responding comments on my site, then visiting the sites of the commenters, reading their new posts, leaving new comments, checking on my previous day's comments to see if those had been replied to and leaving a set of follow-up comments if necessary -- as that routine grew to encompass more than 20 blogs a day, I started having to steal time from work and family to keep up with it all. And, like it never had before, writing began feeling like a chore, an obligation, something I had to do or else I would let people down.

So I stopped. Cold. Twice.

Now I'm back, wondering why. Am I like an alcoholic who has been sober for months, wanting to test whether he can have a few teensy weensy sips of light wine each day without ending up in the gutter again? I haven't even told my wife or my friends that I've begun posting again at Muley's World -- that's how unsure I still am about all of this.

I do know one thing. I can't get back to that incredibly time-consuming whirl of blog-checking and drive-by commenting that I was on before. I don't think that means I never want to trade thoughts with my wonderfully sharp and funny cyber friends. Why deny myself that pleasure? But I don't think I can let that aspect of blogging guide what I do. To keep writing (and to keep sane) I think I need to adopt the philosophy that I will best serve my friends by hopefully writing things they might read to add a laugh or a provocative thought to their day. Period. Anything that I might be able to do beyond that will be gravy.


I'm reading back over what I've just written and it all sounds so smug, so incredibly selfish. "I am such a writing talent that you should feel honored and lucky just to have the chance to read what I deem you are worthy to read." But I assure you that is not my intention.

You know what this blog is for me? Above all, it's not a vehicle to allow me to attract praise, but a tool that motivates me to get off my butt and do what I know I really want to do down deep inside, which is write.

If I get what I think is a great idea or a funny scenario in my head, and all I do is chuckle to myself about it and then resume my daily drudgery, then it's gone forever, and I've remained a lazy and flabby writer wannabe. If, however, I know that I have a blog that hasn't been updated in a while, I am motivated to take that small idea, chew on it, ruminate on it, let it spur my imagination to flex its muscles, and then let it lead me running to the keyboard to see if I can somehow corral all the wild thoughts flying around my mind into something cohesive and understandable. It's an incredibly fun test of skill that I never get tired of.

Then, after I have completed whatever piece I have written, if I think it's something worth sharing, if I think it's something that might be of value to someone else, then I have this wonderfully convenient thing called Muley's World where I can throw it in and let whomever wishes look at it. They can like it, they can hate it, but either way, it now exists in tangible form and I've had fun creating it.

This, as you see, is not at all the traditional model of most blogs, which seems to be basically "tell me about your day and I'll tell you about mine." Frankly, recounting most of my days would probably bore even your dullest friends and relatives, but maybe I can conjure up enough goofiness in my imagination to make all of you smile.

If there is anyone still reading this (and that is a highly doubtful proposition) I apologize for this very atypical Oprah-like confessional from me. I don't as a rule like to make my navel-gazing public. But more than anything, I wanted to wrestle with the issue of why I am blogging again to try and find the answer in my own mind, and if sharing some of that process with you in print has left you cold (or approaching REM sleep), I apologize.

I am glad to be back -- whatever that may mean. I thank Emma and any other longtime Muley readers who want to stop by, and I look forward to doing my best to return the favor from time to time. Above all, I am grateful for the opportunity to be able to stop talking to myself in public places and once again have a socially approved outlet for my malady.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Turning a Page in Life

Isn’t it entirely possible that each of us harbors some sort of fantasy involving “leaving it all behind,” “it” being the secure job, the 9-to-5 existence, the totally tethered life, and heading out for unknown places as a romantic, risk-taking, free-spirited vagabond?

I think so, and recently I met someone who not only acknowledges those fantasies, but is doing something tangible to make them happen. It was at our public library’s used book sale, where I was working. I was in the “Hold” area, where people who fill bags full of dog-eared books they want to buy can temporarily stash them so that they can go out on the floor again, arms free, to buy even more.

When I got to the Hold area to begin my shift, I noticed about 20 bags full of books marked “T.Baker,” and wondered who this person was. I finally met her when she came to drop off another bag, and over the next few hours (as she dropped off probably 10 more bags) I got to know a bit more about why she was seemingly so book-crazy. She was in her late 20s or early 30s, and had driven in from a city more than three hours away to attend the sale.

When I first spoke to her, I told her I had come up with three possible theories to explain her mounting pile of bags:

1. She was preparing to move to an incredibly remote part of Alaska, where the nearest library, post office or Fedex station was a two-week journey by kayak and dogsled;

2. She was an insatiable reader, a literary nymphomaniac, devouring books like a drug addict pops pills; or

3. She was buying stock for a bookstore.

It turns out that the third scenario was correct, but the woman was not just dutifully buying stock to throw on the shelves of some dusty strip center bookstore. No, she has a full-time day job in a big city at a big corporation (which she despises) and knows that she is scheduled to get laid off in 2008. I’ve never met someone so happy (and eager!) to get canned.

Preparing for unemployment, she has started an online used bookselling business in her spare time, selling books through both eBay and amazon.com. That’s why she was buying all these books (more than a thousand dollar’s worth by the end). When she finally loses her steady job, she intends to sell used books full time, traveling across the country, hitting library used book sales, thrift stores and garage sales to buy new stock. She won’t get rich, she knows, but she says she loves books, and travel, and this is a dream of hers to combine those two. And, in her new career, every Ding Dong or Whopper or convenience store munchie she buys while traveling will be tax deductible.

I have to say, the idea of being able to head out on the road, at your own pace and on your own timetable, and go wherever your heart leads you, is a tempting one for me. Of course, if I tried to imagine the details of her situation at all, the picture gets a bit less rosy – the bad food, the smelly stores and rude people, living lean when sales are down, sleeping in cheap motels or even the back seat of the car to save money, being alone at night in yet another small town – some or all of that might indeed be ahead of her, but she isn’t worried about that now. She’s gloriously happy and excited by life, and it shows.

Given the chance, and even forced to do so by circumstance, wouldn’t we all be willing to leave behind the computer screen and the telephone and day planner and interoffice memos, and just fly away singing? At least on some days I think we just might, and damn the odds.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The World On Ice

I just heard that there is now a version of "High School Musical" on ice. This confirms my belief that, eventually, all forms of entertainment, art and human expression will strap on skates and move onto the rink. Here's just a few shows we should be seeing advertised before we know it:

Citizen Kane On Ice
WWF Smackdown On Ice
Glengarry Glen Ross On Ice
The Christie Brinkley/Chuck Norris Infomercial On Ice
"Don't Tase Me, Bro" On Ice
The Battle of Midway On Ice (reenactment)
Dark Side of the Moon On Ice
The O.J. Simpson Kidnapping Trial, Live, On Ice
The Daytona 500 On Ice
TLC's What Not to Wear On Ice
Ken Burns' The Civil War On Ice

and, in a final ironic twist,

Al Gore's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, On Ice

Friday, March 02, 2007

Dem Bones, Dem Bones

Here is Muley himself on a recent visit to a medical facility in Dallas, posing with someone he met there. Is this new friend of Muley's:

A) Tiffany Torso, the famous runway model, visiting the diet lab;

B) Tooten Myohn Horn, famed Egyptian pharoah whose tomb was recently pilfered; or

C) Bones McPhalanges, veteran Halloween costume model?

You tell me.

Somewhat Germane Quote of the Day:

"When in doubt, make a fool of yourself. There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth. So what the hell, leap."

--Cynthia Heimel

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Can They Do "The Scream" Next?

Muley has been walking softly and carrying a big bottle of Zicam, trying to bat away a nasty cold that has already toyed with most of the other members of the Muley family. I've got some decent post ideas backing up in my brain, but just haven't had the energy yet to sit down and do something thoughtful and cogent. So, here's something flippant and superfluous.

It's another story to bolster my belief that lots of computer geeks have way too much time on their hands. According to a story on the BBC website, the aforementioned geeks (from the University of Amsterdam, where they've most likely invented the world's first wooden basketball sneakers) have figured out a way to use a computer to answer the long-debated question, "Just what the heck is the Mona Lisa smiling about, anyway?" While we still don't know who or what caused her sly little crinkle of the lips, the experts have determined that, by analyzing her smile, Mona was "83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful and 2% angry." Personally, I think that the rationale behind that conclusion is 73% silly, 17% misdirected, 8% questionable and %2 somehow causing my big toe to itch.

Quote of the Day:

"My all time favorite similes … come from the hardboiled-detective fiction of the 40s and 50s, and the literary descendants of the dime-dreadful writers. These favorites include … 'I lit a cigarette [that] tasted like a plumber’s handkerchief' ( by Raymond Chandler)."

--Stephen King, in On Writing

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

It's a Clock. It's Cool.

I found this today on John Gushue's blog. It's called a timeline clock. Moving from right to left, it shows the movement of seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years...you get the idea. I guess you could use this as a screensaver if you wanted to, but I'd probably just sit there staring at it all day, getting nothing done.

Not that that's a bad thing, mind you.

Quote of the Day:

"I'm not going to vacuum 'til Sears makes one you can ride on."

--Rosanne Barr

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

1927 Blog-a-Thon: I'm In

As the years go by, I become more and more interested in learning about America during the 1920s. It seems that so many things I enjoy, or at least am intrigued by, either started or flowered during that time -- early jazz from artists like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, silent comedies featuring Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, commercial radio broadcasts, Babe Ruth...the list goes on and on.

That's why I was pleased, then, when I was browsing a great new blog I've found called The Sheila Variations and learned about something called the 1927 Blog-a-Thon. It's being hosted by a blog movie critic and old movie afficionado named "Goatdog" at his blog. Here, he explains the simple rules for the Blog-a-Thon:

You're invited to take part in a blogathonic celebration of the year that changed Hollywood: 1927 saw, among other things, the beginning of sync sound, the last great silents, and the birth of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Over the weekend of March 23-25, 2007, post something pertaining to film in 1927: a film released that year, a great performance, something historical—whatever strikes your fancy, as long as you can connect it to both film and 1927. All bloggers or writers are welcome, even if you don't normally write about film. During the blessed weekend, email me a link to your post, and I'll link to all of the entries as they come in.

My mind is already buzzing with possible 1927 film topics that I can research and write about. It should be fun.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Random Observations and Trivial Events

Blue Hawaii

If you think you’ve got it bad paying your rent or writing the mortgage check, it would be worse if you lived in Hawaii. I just read an article in the January 11 Wall Street Journal which says that median rents in Hawaii are the highest in the nation. How high? Well, the going monthly rate for a two-bedroom apartment is about $1,901. That means you’d be paying $22,812 a year for rent on what’s probably a little crackerbox apartment.

Considering that the average wage for Hawaiian workers is just $36,355 a year (before taxes), then you can see why more and more people in Hawaii are becoming homeless, despite the fact that they hold down full-time jobs. The article says that many of them are setting up tents on public beaches and living there, which sort of takes something away from the postcard pretty image of Hawaii most people have.

One big reason rents – and housing prices in general – are so high in Hawaii, of course, is that land is quite scarce, and very rich types from the U.S., Japan and elsewhere have been driving prices up by buying vacation homes, or buying normal apartment complexes and transforming them into super-pricey condos.

To a slightly lesser extent, I’ve heard this same sort of problem exists in high-rent parts of California, where land prices and rents are so dear that regular workers – even people like professors, who don’t make chump change – can’t even live in the cities they work in, and have to drive in many miles each day because they have to go all the way out into Hicksville to be able to find affordable housing.

Thank goodness that housing prices in Central Texas are still a very affordable bargain compared to the rest of the U.S.

Did These Guys Get Hit By a Pitch Too Often?

I wasn’t too surprised this week when the news came out that former St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire was soundly rejected by the baseball writers who voted for the newest inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame. McGwire’s name was included on just 128 of the 545 ballots cast, a 23.5 percent showing that wasn’t even close to the 75 percent needed to get him into the Hall.

I wasn’t surprised McGwire got left out, despite the fact that he broke Roger Maris’s season home run total of 61, because of all the doubts about whether he took steroids. What did surprise me – no, make that what did astound me – was what I read on the chart the papers printed of the baseball players with the all-time highest percentages of approving votes for the Hall of Fame.

What I couldn’t believe was not the names of the players who got the highest percentage of votes. I mean, they’re baseball legends - guys like Nolan Ryan and Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb and Hank Aaron. What is amazing to me is that none of these greats were voted in unanimously.

For example, take Babe Ruth, who arguably was the most famous American baseball player, if not the best player ever. When it came time for Ruth to be considered for the Hall of Fame, he was named on 215 of the 226 ballots, a 95.13 percentage. This means that there were 11 baseball writers (from Mars? Uranus?) who didn’t think Babe Ruth was worthy of being chosen for the Hall of Fame on his first eligibility. What sports writer, might I ask, could have been unconvinced that Babe Ruth deserved the Hall of Fame?

Ruth isn’t the only legend that’s been snubbed this way. Sixteen writers didn’t think Johnny Bench had the stuff for the Hall of Fame. Five writers snubbed Tom Seaver, six vetoed Nolan Ryan, four said no to Ty Cobb. Even Hank Aaron –– still the all-time career home run champion – was deemed unworthy of the Hall of Fame by nine professional sports writers.

I mean, what kind of nutcases are these guys? And what publications did they write for? Mad magazine?

Quote of the Day:

If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.

--James Goldsmith

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

My Checkout Lane Fantasies

I might have mentioned on this blog before that I do most of the grocery shopping for the Muley family. I know this is somewhat unusual for a married guy to admit, but since I like to cook, and I like to experiment with new recipes, and most of the time I really enjoy grocery shopping (or at least don't hate it as much as most guys do), I try to pull my weight and help Mrs Muley with the chores by offering to buy the groceries.

I tell you all this only as an introduction. During my frequent trips to buy groceries, at both a huge "Mart-type" store as well as a huge chain grocery store, I have noticed that all of the checkers ask each customer the same thing at the beginning of the checkout process: "Did you find everything that you need?"

Every single time, even when I have been unable to locate a number of items, either because they don't carry that brand, or are just temporarily out, I invariably smile (and lie) by responding, "Yes." And I have never heard another customer ever do anything else except say "Yes," too, when that question was asked.

I am sure that all of these checkers are not asking this same question by random chance. Undoubtedly, they have been instructed by the management to ask this of every poor sap who wheels his cart up to the line. But lately I have begun to wonder: WHY are these checkers told to ask this? What is the purpose?

I mean, let's say a customer approaches the checkout line, begins unloading groceries, is asked, "Did you find everything that you need?," and answers, "No, in fact, I was looking for the Porky Pie Farms 32-ounce jar of pickled pig's feet, and you're all out"? What would happen next?

My guess is that the sullen 18-year-old checker girl with the tattoos and the lip piercings would then just stare at the customer silently for a few seconds before replying, "Oh...bummer," before resuming dragging the food across the scanner. Or maybe she would ask one of the 18-year-old stockboys with the permanently attached blaring iPod to go look for the missing item, after which he would report back on its absence, followed by the checker replying,"Oh...bummer."

That's probably what would happen, but that's boring. My imagination has come up with some wonderful things that could happen when I said items were missing (if this were a perfect world):

1. A rotating light on the checkstand begins flashing, like the ones on Las Vegas slot machines, and the store manager comes up to me, gives me a crisp $100 bill, and explains it is the company's "Thanks For Telling the Truth" gift. He then takes my name and enters me in a drawing to win a dream home, a Hawaiian vacation and a guest starring role on "CSI."

2. The manager comes up, apologizes profusely for not having the item in stock, then pulls up his shirt and says, "Okay, look, hit me as hard as you want. I deserve it. No, come on, I can take it. Hit me a good one, right in the ol' gut."

3. The store manager comes out, apologizes profusely for not having the item, then offers me psychological counseling free of charge to help me deal with any feelings of distress or loss I might be experiencing. If I agree, I am guided to a small, plush room in back of the management offices, where a smiling psychologist has me lie on a couch while asking me to "share my pain" and "express my anger without fear of communal reprisal." If I seem to tear up a bit, I am offered my choice of day-old bakery items free of charge.

4. When the manager determines what department of the store the missing item is in, the supervisor of that department is quickly summoned to the front, and an announcement is made over the loudspeaker that "a punishment session will take place in five minutes next to the green vegetables." All the customers rush to where a portable stage has quickly been assembled. If this is the supervisor's first or second offense, he or she is let off with a light flogging, issued by a large woman dressed in a leather bustier and face mask, brandishing a thick bullwhip. If this is the department supervisor's third offense, a group of stockboys is issued loaded rifes and the offender is executed by firing squad (after punching out on the time clock, of course).

5. The last one is my ultimate fantasy. When I tell the checker about the item I could not find, she pushes a large red button under her register, and many things happen simultaneously: the doors into and out of the store automatically close tight, sirens begin to wail, primary lighting is shut off, and a voice over the loudspeaker blares, "This is an emergency product lockdown. I repeat, this is an emergency product lockdown. Everyone remain still until further notice."

At the same time, a message goes out to the company's main regional distribution center, listing the store number and the name and UPC product code of the missing item. Within seconds, the computer retrieval system drops the item on a conveyer belt and delivers it to a team of waiting store personnel dressed in emergency flight suits and survival gear. They hop into a helicopter waiting on a nearby helipad, and within minutes they fly to the store and land on the roof.

As I watch, amazed, a skylight opens above the checkout line where I still stand, a rope is dropped, and a man rappels down, landing directly in front of me. He bends down, kisses my feet repeatedly, then gets up and hands me my 32-ounce jar of pig's feet.

Before being pulled back up to his waiting helicopter, he looks me straight in the eyes and asks, "Sir, was there anything else you couldn't find today?"

And I say, "Well, there was this new brand of fat-free yogurt I'd heard about..."

Monday, January 08, 2007

Friday, January 05, 2007

Self-inflicted Book Meme

I imagine that taking the time and trouble to fill out a lengthy meme simply because you came across it yourself on someone else's site (and not because a friend tagged you with it, and you only complete it so that the guilt caused by your contemplation of ignoring it entirely will cease oozing out of your pores like pus) is considered bad form, or possibly a sign of lunacy, such as calling up a telemarketer and begging them (please! please!) to tell you about all the sweet deals they have to offer you.

However, when I was on my "Reacquaint Myself with the Blogosphere" tour today, I came across a book meme on Pages Turned called the Calvino Meme, and it intrigued me so much I decided to fill it out, as if it had been sent to me by a fellow blogger I owed money to.

And, in the same spirit in which I found it, I will not create any more bad karma in the world by tagging any of you with it. If you choose to answer it on your blog, it's your own pus. I mean fault.

Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages

The Divine Comedy by Dante

I want to read it, even though I’ve heard it’s not all that funny.

Bleak House by Dickens

I have made a life commitment to read all the novels of Charles Dickens, but for some anal retentive reason I am sticking to a resolve to read them in order of publication. I figure that if I don’t do this, I’ll never get around to finding the wherewithal to tackle such dull entries as Barnaby Rudge, which I’ve already slogged through. I’ve heard so much about what a great, entrancing masterpiece Bleak House is, but I’m only now reading Martin Chuzzlewit, so I’ve got a ways to go before I can tackle Bleak and not feel somewhat guilty.

The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Van Loon

When I was a young schoolboy, a couple of the other bookish kids I ran around with at Frostwood Elementary in Houston and I had a contest to see who could finish reading this tome, the thickest book we could find in the school library. It's not really all that long by adult standards (especially if you've read Tom Clancy or one of Dickens' doorstops), but for some reason I've never been able to get further than a few chapters into it.

Far from the Madding Crowd by Hardy
Ulysses by Joyce

The Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success

The Proven Way to Lose Weight, Have Great Sex and Make a Fortune By Doing Whatever You Fancy at the Moment, However Self-indulgent and Trivial

I can’t find this magical classic anywhere, no matter how hard I search.

The Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case

The Oxford Unabridged Dictionary

I want the real shelf-sagging McCoy, not the thing on compact disc. I want a dictionary you have to carry in a wheelbarrow.

The Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer

Does this mean that you put them aside because they're so dull you could wait six months to read them without any problem? Or are they so good and juicy that you're "saving" them for leisurely (ha!) vacation reading? I'm not sure, so I can't answer this.

The Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves

I'm collecting the entire All-American Ads series of books by Taschen. They each have hundreds of wonderful, full-color magazine ads from a decade or two of the 20th century, which offer a neat look at what kinds of things ordinary folks spent their time dreaming and partaking of. I own the ones for the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, but they're somewhat pricey, and I haven't bought more yet. I still need the ones for 1900-1919, the 1920s, the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. There's not one yet for the 1990s.

The Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified

Old books of etiquette, such as the ones by Emily Post. It's amazing how things taken entirely for granted today were considered weird or downright scandalous just a few decades ago. For example, in the edition released the year I was born (1960), it says that public airings of buttocks cleavage and multiple facial piercings were not acceptable at a cotillion.

Any kind of pop-up books, the more intricate and innovative the better.

Books Read Long Ago That It’s Now Time to Re-read

All the novels of Jane Austen, especially Pride and Prejudice

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, one of my all-time favorites and one of the few books that made me laugh so hard I hurt.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Many of the novels of Kurt Vonnegut

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Books That If You Had More Than One Life You’d Certainly Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered

The 11-volume, colorful and quite dusty railroad train of books on my top shelf known collectively as The Story of Civilization by the Durants, which I bought cheap at a Barnes and Noble sale many years ago and have yet to crack.

Quote of the Day:

"If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies. And if they will perish, let them perish with our arms around their knees, imploring them to stay. If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for.”

--Charles Spurgeon

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Is Book Browsing an Endangered Pastime?

Since re-entering the blogosphere a few days ago after many months away, I’ve been busy checking through the blogs of some people I had read regularly back in the days. It’s been sort of like showing up at a high school reunion after many years – some people are exactly the same, while others have changed.

For one thing, there must be some kind of jammin', fertile electro-emissions coming from the computer screens when someone visits a blog site, because it seems at least half of the women whose sites I used to visit are now pregnant. In fact, most seem to be ready to deliver any day. There’s apparently been some very productive time spent away from the keyboard in the past half year or so. You rascals, you.

And I just about did one of those classic Oliver Hardy big-eyed double takes when I read the incredible news that Jeff was engaged. Man, people are getting together every which way around here! Did my mere absence cause all of this? (By the way, congratulations, Jeff).

My topic of the day, if I must have one, is books. Specifically, old, used, second-hand books, and the reading of them. In visiting my old cyber haunts, I came across this link to an essay by a Canadian, David Warren, lamenting the demise of antiquarian booksellers. An excerpt:
The Internet has been taking over their function -- inefficiently, since the main point of visiting a second-hand store is to discover books, not track them down. But the real cause lies deeper. Today, we have, especially among university graduates, a full generation of people who cannot read a book. This is especially true of graduates in the humanities, who have the additional disability of never having been exposed to one. They have learned only “theory,” from things that are not books. And their money is reserved for other “consumer durables.”
I also can relate to his description of his book acquisition habits, although I’m probably not as successful a winnower:
I once had a large library, of which I was inordinately proud. Thanks to accidents and vagaries of postmodern life, I now have a much smaller library, but one that has through the winnowing of necessity become more truly useful. So many books that I only piously hoped to read, went on to other pious hopers, leaving me only a core to which I cling, as to an identity.
If you’re like me, someone who actually enjoys spending hours wandering around a used bookstore or a large public or university library, just browsing the aisles to see what’s on them, then you’ve probably already gotten the feeling that this is an endangered pastime. More and more libraries are ditching their “physical” books, which take up space and must regularly be cleaned and re-bound, for “electronic” books that can be accessed so cleanly and easily in the four square feet of space it takes to support an Internet portal.

I work as a volunteer for my local public library’s used book sale. It’s our job throughout the year to sort and store all of the used books people donate. I was surprised to learn just how many of those discarded books are from the public library itself. Their only sin is that they’re not new or “hot” books, possibly covering subjects or by authors that are no longer in style, and I guess, therefore, irrelevant to the modern reader. It’s been eye-opening to me to see what librarians these days think isn’t worth saving shelf space for.

At the college where I work, long-range plans are being studied that would make indiscriminate browsing of the type I enjoy almost impossible. They’re thinking of one day going to an “off-site book retrieval system” of some sort. What that means is that they won’t actually get rid of the physical books, they’ll just store them where the public can’t get at them. To do so, we’ll have to fill out a request slip with the title, author and call number, and then some sort of mechanical Rube Goldberg contraption will reach into the bowels of the storage warehouse, put the book on a moving pathway and eventually deliver it to the circulation desk. That way, the library folks can get rid of those big shelves and have lots of extra room for more couches and computer terminals and espresso machines.

The main problem with this system, and with visiting electronic used booksellers on the Internet, is that it eliminates, or at least severely impairs, browsing with no specific end in mind. You pretty much have to know either the title of the book you’re looking for, or its author. There will be no more of, say, wanting to see what types of books the library or bookstore might have on one subject, and then getting completely captivated by books on another entirely different subject that were noticed along the way.

I have found some of my favorite books and authors by sheer indiscriminate browsing. I’ll go into the library looking for one certain book, find it, and then start looking at the books standing nearby on the shelves. If I notice an interesting title, or an attractive or exotic binding, I’ll pull out the book and start flipping through. Many times I’m disappointed, but I cherish those times when I find some author, possibly many years dead and unread for generations, who tickles my fancy.

I mean, how in the world are you supposed to pick out an attractive art book – or a book to read to your child before bedtime – unless you can phsyically pick them up and flip through them? Yes, yes, I know you can conceivably look at any book online, but how much time and trouble does that take? You can take down a book and decide quickly by looking into it if it’s not for you, then pick up the next and repeat the process. Imagine how much more complicated (and how less enjoyable) that task is online.

Of course, I know that you can go into a big chain bookstore like Barnes & Noble or Borders and browse to your heart's content. And if the book you're in the mood for is something recent, or something eternally popular, then you might very well be in luck. But you'll find none of the quirky, old, forgotten books that reside in libraries or used bookshops. And the selection will be a mile wide and an inch deep. Take the works of Charles Dickens. Sure, almost any chain bookstore will stock copies of Great Expectations or David Copperfield or Oliver Twist. But how many will stock every one of Dicken's novels? And will there be all those interesting books about Dickens and his life and times, and the other books analyzing Dickens' works, which a good library will have close at hand? Doubtful.

Oh, well. At least down here in Texas we have the Half Price Books chain, which is where I spend a sizeable amount of my disposable income each year (although I have to drive to either Austin or Dallas to visit one). They seem to be doing a boffo business, so I don’t see them disappearing anytime soon, even if the public libraries here go with one of these soulless retrieval systems.

Monday, January 01, 2007

...As I Was Saying Before I Was So Rudely Interrupted

Well, it was like this, see. We were in the drive-in lane of a Wendy's in Albuquerque, waiting on an order of Frostys and Biggie Fries, when an incredibly bright light filled our car, blinding us all. Next thing I knew, I'm strapped on some sort of table under a lot of blinking lights and whirring machinery. I'm covered in what feels like last week's spaghetti, and some huge creature with a face full of eybealls and tentacles is poking and prodding me and making noises like I'd never heard before.

Of course, at first I thought it was all a bad dream brought on by too little sleep and too many saturated fats and hydrogenated solids. But I soon realized that my worst fear was coming true -- my family and I had been abducted by aliens. Large, rude, flatulent aliens, at that.

It's been an incredible five months, I can tell you. We were poked, probed, examined and forced to do any number of nasty chores by our captors. And believe me, it's never fun to wash underwear, but try doing it for beings with 23 legs! And don't get me started about their fondness for watching bad television. We eventually understood enough of their language to discover that they were supposedly sent here from planet Qrxttblavn to study human behavior, but the only shows they seemed to watch were reruns of "ALF" and episodes of WIlliam Shatner's new game show.

We'd still be there, laundering Swiss cheese undies while hovering miles above the Earth behind an invisibility shield, if it hadn't been for the untimely death of soul singer James Brown on Christmas Day. Our alien captors revealed that the Godfather of Soul was actually their leader, in human disguise, and explained that they were required to return immediately to Qrxttblavn to report the death and prepare for a national year of mourning and daily public singings of "Papa's Got a Brand-New Bag." On their way out of the galaxy, they unceremonially dumped the Muley family in the parking lot of an abandoned K-Mart in Wheeling, West Virginia. After a bit of using our thumbs, we returned to Waco on New Year's Eve, just in time to ring in 2007.

Of course, one of the first things I wanted to do was check in on Muley's World with an account of my experiences. I sure didn't want anyone to think I was some sort of lazy, self-absorbed, disloyal, egg-sucking bum who would simply walk away and neglect his blog for five months or more. No, sirree.

So, I'm glad to be back. I hope all of you had a great Christmas and New Year's Eve. I'll try to check in with everyone and see what's been going on in my absence. Take care.