Monday, November 30, 2009

And now, a word from my employer...

From our company newsletter:

Spread the industry news: FYI: and are accepting orders for the Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince DVD release on December 8th. COST under $10 - free shipping.

Blu-Ray is available for $20 - free shipping.
I haven't confirmed the "free shipping" part, but I have verified that these are the prices for the single-disc widescreen version. (Actually, it looks like Walmart has the Blu-Ray for $15.32, and Amazon for $15.99.) These prices are for the single-disc version. The two-disc version is $18.86 at Walmart and $19.99 at Amazon. And while the full-frame single-disc version is also $9.99 at Amazon, for some reason it is $14.86 at Walmart.

In the past I have argued for buying locally, even from big-box stores, because they provide jobs to people within your community. But money is tight, and if you can save more than a few dollars by buying online, do it. Besides, if everybody buys a copy (or several!), you'll be helping keep me gainfully employed!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Belgian Coma Guy: Miracle, or cruel hoax?

Last week the wires were ablaze with news about the man in Belgium who had apparently been in a coma for twenty-three years, only to emerge from it to tell the world that he had been conscious and aware of his surroundings the whole time!

How horrifying! How shocking! How shameful for the medical community! How...waitaminute.

I first heard about this story on the radio, on NPR, and it sounded pretty unbelievable. The next time I saw it it was accompanied by a photo showing the man in a chair and a woman holding his hand.

Uh-oh. Facilitated Communication. It's a hoax.

Facilitated Communication is one of those things like dowsing or Essiac that its proponents will swear up and down is real and legitimate, but which come circumscribed by so many caveats and restrictions that apparently only someone with highly specialized training - and someone who believes - is capable of doing it right. I don't have time to go into details right now, but some simple research will let you know both the brad strokes and the details.

Turns out I'm not the only one who got this impression. James Randi posted his analysis at the James Randi Educational Foundation website:

This Cruel Farce Has To Stop!

This story seems to have fallen off the radar. News cycles being what they are, this is more likely because the world has simply moved on, and not because people have seen through this hoax. So perhaps we will never know what will become of this man in Belgium and his family. I hope he continues to receive legitimate treatment, and no one is allowed to exploit him for their own selfish purposes.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Off to work...and then to the Courthouse

Well, I'm off to a holiday-shortened three-day workweek. I would've been glad for a little more time, but I'm also glad to be earning a little more money. For the record, for this week I will have earned twelve hours of "overtime" pay (paid at straight time), eight hours of holiday pay, and twelve hours of regular pay. For next week, assuming I'm not laid off at any point, I'll earn twelve hours each on Sunday and Monday nights, and then another twelve next Saturday.

But...starting Tuesday, unless I'm cancelled, I'll be on Jury Duty! Whoo-hoo! Making nine dollars a day! (What century was that pay rate established in, anyway?) My first day will be pretty interesting, seeing as how I'll be coming straight from having worked all night, probably by way of breakfast at Cracker Barrel.

Given the way things have been going at the Luzerne County Courthouse, I won't be surprised if some of us in the jury pool get tapped to be judges.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Big Picture: Mars

Nothing much to say today, so I decided to rummage around in the box of rainy-day post ideas. Here's one that I put in there waaaay back on the day before yesterday. It's from Alan Taylor's breathtaking Boston Globe photojournalism series The Big Picture, and was originally posted there on November 6 (while I was attending the Sideshow Gathering - and I still have to complete my posts on that!) This was found on the Livejournal of Chuck Anziulewicz, a native of Northeastern Pennsylvania who lives elsewhere but is linked through NEPA Blogs. Check out these astonishing Martian landscapes:

Martian landscapes - The Big Picture -
Since 2006, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has been orbiting Mars, currently circling approximately 300 km (187 mi) above the Martian surface. On board the MRO is HiRISE, the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera, which has been photographing the planet for several years now at resolutions as fine as mere inches per pixel. Collected here is a group of images from HiRISE over the past few years, in either false color or grayscale, showing intricate details of landscapes both familiar and alien, from the surface of our neighboring planet, Mars. I invite you to take your time looking through these, imagining the settings - very cold, dry and distant, yet real.

MARS! A whole other world! One that you can actually explore for yourself!

As the good Doctor said,

How lucky we are to live in this time
The first moment in human history
When we are in fact visiting other worlds

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

And remember, refrigerate all leftovers promptly, and freeze anything you won't be eating in a day or two. Don't want anybody coming down with a "stomach virus" next week!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Holiday reruns: The Littlest Turkey

Yes, it's that time of the year again! Time to do the repost of the complete version of The Littlest Turkey. Enjoy!

What's more traditional during the holidays than reruns of your favorite holiday specials? In that spirit, and the spirit of not having very much time this year, I present to you The Littlest Turkey complete in one post!

The Littlest Turkey was originally posted November 16 (Part 1) and 17 (Part 2 and Conclusion), 2005, and was originally posted complete in one post on November 24, 2005.

D.B. Echo

Once upon a time there was a farm where turkeys lived. All of them were young and plump, big and strong and proud. All of them except one. He was smaller than all the other turkeys. He was called the Littlest Turkey.

The Littlest Turkey wanted to run and play with the other turkeys, but they didn't want to play with him. "Go away, Littlest Turkey," they would say. "Come back when you've gotten bigger."

But the Littlest Turkey was sure he was as big as he was going to get. He tried to eat as much as he could, but he never seemed to get as big and plump as the other turkeys. And he knew that unless he got big and plump like the other turkeys, he would never get to go to the Laughter House.

The Laughter House was a wonderful place. The Littlest Turkey had never been in there. He knew that only the big and plump turkeys would get to go inside the Laughter House. He had seen them go in once, and had heard their squawks and gobbles of laughter for a little while. It must be wonderful in there, the Littlest Turkey thought. All those turkeys go in to laugh, and none of them had ever come out again. How much fun they must be having!

The Littlest Turkey decided that, big and plump or not, he would get into the Laughter House the next time they let the turkeys in.



Part 2
D.B. Echo

The weather started getting cooler, and the leaves on the trees started to change colors. All the turkeys knew that soon it would be time for the biggest holiday of the year, Turkey Day.
"Just before Turkey Day is when they take the big and plump turkeys into the Laughter House," thought the Littlest Turkey. "But this time I'm going to get in there, too!"

It wasn't long before the big day came. All of the big and plump turkeys lined up to go into the Laughter House. The Littlest Turkey waited near the entrance of the Laughter House, then squeezed in between two very big and plump turkeys. No one noticed him because he was so little.

The Laughter House was dark inside, and there was a sort of moving sidewalk there that was taking turkeys into another room, where he could hear gobbles and squawks of laughter. One by one the turkeys hopped up to ride the sidewalk. The Littlest Turkey hopped up, too.
The turkey in front of him, whose name was Tom, turned around. "Go away, Littlest Turkey," he said. "Come back when you are bigger."

"Yes, go away," said the turkey behind him, whose name was also Tom. "They do not want little turkeys at the Market. Only big and plump ones."

"No," said the Littlest Turkey. "I want to go to the Market with you." He had never heard of the Market, but he realized that it must be even better than the Laughter House.

A Man spotted the Littlest Turkey. "Go away, Littlest Turkey," he said. "Come back when you are bigger."

"Oh, please, Mr. Man," said the Littlest Turkey. "I do so want to go to the Market with the other turkeys."

"Very well," said the Man. "We've got a quota to meet, anyway."

The Littlest Turkey rode the sidewalk into the other room. He wondered what things would be like at the Market.


D.B. Echo

The Littlest Turkey was cold. He was colder than he ever remembered being before. But then again, it was hard to remember much since they had chopped his head off.

He was in a case with the other turkeys, the big and plump turkeys. Turkey Day was coming soon, and people were coming to the Market to pick turkeys to take home.

They always seemed to want the big and plump turkeys. One time a little girl had seen him in the case. "Mommy, mommy, look at the little turkey," she said. "I want to take home the littlest turkey."

"No, dear," her mother said. "We are having many people over for Thanksgiving. We need a big, plump turkey."

One by one the other turkeys left the Market to go home with people. Turkey Day was coming soon, and people were taking away more and more of the big and plump turkeys. But no one wanted the Littlest Turkey.
Finally, the day before Turkey Day came, and the Littlest Turkey found himself all alone in the case.

"How sad," he thought. "No one wants to take me home."

It was late in the day, and the Manager was about to close down the Market for the night. Suddenly a Man came into the store.

"I have a coupon," he said, "for a free turkey. Do you have any left?"

"You're in luck," said the Manager. "I have one left." He showed the Man the Littlest Turkey, all alone in the case.

"It's a little small," the Man said. "But I guess beggars can't be choosers. Besides, it's just me and my wife this year. A little turkey might be just what we need."

The Manager took the Littlest Turkey out of the case and traded him to the Man for the coupon he was holding. "Happy Thanksgiving!", he said to the Man.

"I'm not going to be left behind for Turkey Day," thought the Littlest Turkey happily as the Man put him in the trunk of his car. "I'm so happy. But I'm so cold." He rolled around a little as the car pulled out of the parking lot. "I sure hope I'm going someplace warm."


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Layoff interrupted

Well, I'm not technically on layoff today. I was laid off Saturday and Sunday, and expect to be on Friday...and maybe Saturday as well. My days off this week are Monday through Thursday. But today I'm going in on overtime. So my guaranteed pay this week will be one day of overtime (paid at straight time, since I'm currently at zero hours for the week) and one day of holiday pay. I need to reopen my claim with the unemployment office.

Had to get up early to go and pick up Bowie. She's doing fine after being spayed yesterday. She's happy to see the other cats, and they're all happy to see her.

Now I need to go back to sleep for a few hours. Tomorrow I have a blood donation scheduled. I wonder if my iron levels will be high enough? I've been making a conscious effort to eat more red meat lately. We'll see how it goes.

Monday, November 23, 2009


I spent enormous amounts of money today. But what do you expect when you get three cats neutered* in one day? On top of that I ordered two wire compost bins from Ace Hardware, and took my mom to an eye appointment and then to Walmart, where we spent some money on cat items and gifts for my nephews - and then went back and spent way more money on a very cool Lego set for my nephew's birthday.

Credit card debt, I have said, is an expression of faith in the future.

I'm tired. I think I'm stuck in night-shift mode, so when I'm up during the day I have a few slumps in the afternoon. I had to get up early this morning. My alarms went off at 6:00** and 6:01, but I stayed in bed until 6:30. I had to get the kitties up to the vet's by 8:30

Thor and BlueBear are fine. Bowie, as had been planned all along, is being kept overnight because of the more traumatic nature of her surgical procedure. But I may be scheduled to work tomorrow - I'm on the list for overtime. I won't know for sure until 8:00 tomorrow morning. Whether I'm working or not, I must pick up Bowie tomorrow. If I am working, it will make for an interesting sleep schedule.

*As my friend Melinda pointed out, "spaying" is also neutering. The male form of neutering is more correctly referred to as "castration."

**To the song "45" by Lauren Malone, who (currently) blogs here. Here is the video, because I just spent a hell of a lot of time searching through the archives of Lauren's many, many blogs to find it. (It's #85 on this list.) NOTE: YouTube videos posted to my blog won't show up on Facebook, so go here to view it. But, seriously, you know you want to be reading my blog, Another Monkey, and not just the reposted posts on Facebook! Besides, Facebook appears to be broken once again today...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Neutered in the morning

Tomorrow morning I am taking Bowie, Thor, and BlueBear to the vet's to be spayed (Bowie) and neutered (Thor and BlueBear.)

While I'm there I will make an appointment for "Rachel", who is about a month younger than these three. We've taken to calling "her" Rachel/Ray, after this pretty little girl developed some clearly male characteristics (such as testicles that I would swear were not there before.) And while my skill at determining a cat's sex is admittedly limited, I'm still pretty sure "she" has some of the characteristics of a girl cat. Either we were very wrong about her sex for the first few months of her life, or she has changed sex completely since she was a kitten, or she is a genuine hermaphroditic cat. So, there may be a double charge for her, as she may need to get spayed and neutered.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Animals make us human

No dead cats today, but I just came back from taking my aunt to the emergency vet with her dog. The dog was quite old, and had developed a condition which was causing her pain and would eventually kill her - after considerable pain. The only option was surgery, which she might not survive and would probably never fully recover from. She was put to sleep.

I am watching Thor, one of the new kittens - well, basically a young adult now -, interact with Nicky, the Senior Cat of the house. Nicky is lounging atop a pile of boxes, and Thor was standing on his hind lags. Nicky had wrapped his arms around Thor's head and was grooming him, licking his ears. I thought Thor was about to make a power play and jump up on the boxes to try to push Nicky aside like he did a few days ago, but I was wrong. After Nicky groomed Thor, Thor took his leave and went on his way.

I just received some books from my book club. One of them is the latest by Temple Grandin called Animals Make Us Human. I remember hearing her talk about certain stress-related behaviors in animals - maybe it was when she was on Fresh Air when the book first came out - and I was surprised at how many of these I observed without even trying during a visit to a local zoo this summer. I can't wait to read it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

A glorious dawn: Dark Sun Setting

This requires some explanation.

What you are seeing are rays of sunlight - sunbeams, crepuscular rays (well, in this case, anticrepuscular rays) - whatever you choose to call them - as they appeared at sunrise.

The picture was taken facing north-by-northwest. Away from the rising sun.

As I drove home from work this morning I noticed the first light of dawn breaking to my left. It was pretty. There was some vague pink glow above the position of the sun, too diffuse to be a sun pillar, though it may have consolidated into one later. But I had a long commute ahead of me, and I had to focus on the road, the traffic, and not falling asleep along the way.

Many grapes, two apples, and two cans of soda later I took the exit for Nanticoke. This puts me on Route 29, a road that runs north-by-northwest. As I merged onto the road at about 6:40 I noticed pink streamers in the sky above me. Then I noticed purplish-blue rays between these pink streamers, converging on a point somewhere near the horizon.

I have seen this sort of thing before, but only rarely, as it is in fact a rare event. Atmospheric conditions have to be just right: just enough moisture in the air to light it up, just enough clouds in the right places at the right times.

I tried to pull out my phone to get a picture on the fly, but each time I tried to raise it the emergency brake light came on. I realized that one of the cords must have been wrapped around the brake. The only way I could get the picture safely was to pull over. Which I did.

And now I'm sharing it with you.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The beauty of mathematics

Once upon a time I was a Physics graduate student. It didn't last long, only a single semester. I was in the wrong place; the place where I wanted to be, where I should have been, had stopped taking any graduate students that year - shortly after I had been accepted into their graduate program. I was in the wrong time; if it had been twenty years later, or even ten years later, and the Internet had been in something more than the embryonic state it was in in 1990, I might have bounced back and straight into another graduate program. But that's a story for another time.

My chosen field of study was Non-Linear Dynamics. Chaos. The physics of complex systems. Very cool stuff. Not many places were specializing in that back then. My first-choice school was. My second-choice school had a single professor who was, which is why they were my second choice. I never really got to develop much of a relationship with him. As I have said before, my entire experience was something like getting mugged while drowning. Not very good.

Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy has done a post that reminded me of the beauty that underlies non-linear dynamics. If you're a fan of complex math, or if you like seeing beautiful things, check out his post and follow the links. It's reminding me of who I once was, and what I once loved. Go and see why.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Yeah. I'm in a black mood again, for various reasons.

Mainly the dead stray cats. Not just the fact that someone is going out of his way to kill these animals. Not just because my mom and I are completely overextended rescuing the ones we have, and we're still leaving several outside at the mercy of the elements - and the poisoner. But also because burying a cat is a pain in the ass. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of time, time and energy I could have - should have - been spending in other ways.

I looked at the leaves today on the tree lawn of the widow across the street, leaves that came from our Oak tree and that I have always raked up. The tree lawn is clean for a long stretch, and then, abruptly, the leaves start again. This indicates where I stopped raking on Tuesday. After I filled a bag and carried it across the street and onto our lawn to place with the others. Right before I found the first of the day's two dead stray cats.

At some point, I need to finish raking the leaves. And by then, maybe we will have a few more dead stray cats to deal with.

One of my friends has disappeared from the Internet. She was the first blogger I read on a regular basis, starting about seven years ago. Her creativity and style inspired me to start thinking about creating my own little online journal. I have kept up with her through many life changes, even the shutdown of all of her active blogs a while ago. But now she's gone from Facebook, too, and I'm concerned. Her last update was a disturbing pop-culture reference that many people wouldn't get. I still have a few ways left to try to get in touch with her. But I don't know if I should try.

Another friend has stopped talking to me. I don't know if I should take this personally, because it seems like she's stopped talking to pretty much everybody, including her blog readers. But I think I did something which was well-intentioned (and done at great effort and personal cost) that may have embarrassed her or creeped her out. Until she starts talking to me again, I won't know for sure.

And now it's time to go back to work. I feel like I haven't accomplished much, though I know I have. I raked some (but not all) of the leaves. I gave a couple of cats a decent burial, rather than tossing them in the trash as other people might have done. I took my mom grocery shopping for most of the things we'll need through the holidays, and we saved 43% overall through a combination of a 20% promotional discount, a 5% senor citizen discount, and using coupons on items that were already on sale. I took my mom for a medical procedure today, and then out for a late breakfast, and then filled up her tank with gas, and set her up for a 15% discount on groceries next Tuesday. (Not that I can imagine she will be needing much next week.)

I hope this passes soon. I don't like feeling like this.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Sideshow Gathering Day 3 preview

I had intended to wrap up my coverage of the Sideshow Gathering by now, but events have conspired to keep me from finishing it. So for a small taste of what's in store, here are a few photos offered without explanation!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Two more in the ground

Why do we tell children that Santa Claus exists and monsters don't, when the opposite is clearly true?

I buried two more of the neighborhood stray cats today.

That wasn't my plan. My plan was to rake leaves, maybe mow the lawn one last time for the season. I had filled three bags of leaves from our front yard and from the tree lawn of the widow across the street. I could probably have filled two more, and mowed the lawn. I was making good time.

As I was dragging up the third bag to position it behind our house, I happened to glance into one of the shelters that my mom has set up to provide the strays protection from the rain and the snow. I saw a tabby tail in there, and a tabby leg. Getting closer I saw the whole tabby stretched out in the back of the shelter. Its eyes were closed but its mouth looked slightly opened.

I reached out and touched its foot with my leather-gloved hand. Stiff. No reaction.

I shook the shelter slightly, said something like "Hey, get up." No reaction.


This wasn't a "named" cat. It was one of the almost-identical gray tabbies, maybe one of the ones born last October. I didn't see it much, but when I did I thought of it as the Ocicat, because its tabby stripes were broken up into something more like spots.

Much like Squiggles two weeks ago, it appeared to be healthy overall, aside from the fact that it was dead.

I was done raking for the day.

I decided to have lunch. I didn't want to deal with burying a dead cat on an empty stomach. Lunch was more involved than it should have been, considering it was just leftovers. Then my mom told me that the lady for whom we save aluminum cans would be coming by "shortly" to pick them up. I was glad, because we had accumulated more than a few bags.

After a few more delays, it was time to get myself together and go out to do the unpleasant task of burying a cat.

Naturally, this was followed by another delay: I couldn't find my boots, which I had last worn two weeks ago when I dug a grave for Squiggles. What the hell? Did our cats carry one of them off? In the end I wore one boot from one pair and another boot from a completely different pair.

As I dragged myself and my grave-digging spade and my stone-lifting iron bar outside, my mom told me she had found another dead cat.

This one was in among the bags of leaves. It was another tabby, another adult. My mom thinks it was Daddy, who she believed was the father of Bowie and Thor and BlueBear and their two outdoor siblings.

I would have to dig the hole a little deeper.

Digging a grave isn't easy. It never is. Our yard has a lot of fill in it, mainly in the form of boulders, most of which are located under about six to twelve inches of topsoil. You can only dig so far before you need to pry out a boulder. Since the bottom of the boulder is usually twelve to eighteen inches below ground level, this is a bit of a trick. And the boulders are not always oriented in a way that makes them easy to pick up. I had one today about the size and shape of a loaf of bread, with its long dimension extending down into the ground. Sometimes the boulders are just too big to move, and you have to abandon the hole and move on to another location.

It took a while, but I got the grave dug. Not as deep as I would like, but there were some boulders at the very bottom, and I didn't want to abandon the hole. I did pull out two large stones, the loaf-stone and one other, which are now serving as headstones. The two cats are buried together, on the other side of Gretchen from Squiggles.

So what is killing these cats?

I don't know. I suspect a neighbor - the same evil, obnoxious neighbor I wrote about here, who had recently redirected all of the rainwater from his gutters to flow onto our property and into our cellar:

"Why not go talk to this guy and ask him not to do this?" you might ask. Well, this is the stereotypical "bad neighbor". He always has been. He will gleefully dump carcinogenic herbicides onto his property and let the runoff go into my gardens. He uses a noisy riding mower on Sunday afternoons, but complained when I used my reel mower in the early morning during a heat wave so that I might not die of a heat-induced heart attack like my other next-door neighbor. (He was whining that the noise of my mower - a faint click-click-click - had woken him up. I had to ask him to speak up several times as I could not hear him over the din of the early morning truck traffic on our street.) . He will cry blue murder if any leaves blow over from my yard into his, even leaves from trees several blocks away. He's a loudmouth and a lout and a bully. He's not the type who responds positively to being asked politely to stop doing something he obviously knows he shouldn't be doing.
Lately he has been complaining - loudly, belligerently - about the stray cats crapping in his yard. Fair enough. But is the proper response to such a thing poisoning the cats? Because that's what I think he's doing. Over the past two weeks or so - ever since another neighbor found the body of Squiggles - many, if not most, of the stray cats in the neighborhood have vanished. Tortoise, the mother of Peaches. Mommy, the mother of Bowie, Thor, and Bluebear. Most of the nameless lookalike tabbies. And now Squiggles and the Ocicat and Daddy have turned up dead.

But not long dead. These three cats have been dead only a few hours when they've been found mid-day. Could they have been poisoned in the morning? Could he be setting out bowls of antifreeze first thing in the morning?

The fact that Squiggles died two weeks ago and the Ocicat died today made me think that maybe this wasn't a case of poisoning. After all, if someone is setting out an attractive poison for these cats, I would expect to find several dead at once. And all I had to go on was one cat dead two weeks ago, one cat dead today, and at least two cats (Mommy and Tortoise) missing.

When Daddy turned up freshly dead this afternoon, suddenly poison seemed much more likely.

But I don't know. I don't know what the post-mortem signs of poisoning would be. I don't think these cats died quickly, but they didn't seem to be in agony. Squiggles died with a mouth full of pine needles. The Ocicat looked like it was asleep in a shelter. Daddy was nestled in a relatively warm and protected place among bags of leaves.

It could be something else. It could be someone else. Unless I actually see this guy setting out bowls of bright green liquid in the morning, I won't know for sure.

And if I knew, then what? There probably isn't even a law prohibiting poisoning stray animals. There probably is a law prohibiting feeding and sheltering stray animals.

Things like this make me hope and pray that there is some sort of cosmic or divine justice. No, I'm not about to shove a funnel in this guy's mouth and pour a gallon of Prestone down this throat - so if this should happen, it totally wasn't me. And I doubt he will have a minor but disabling stroke and find himself eaten alive in his bed by rodents whose population grew without check after he killed off all their predators. But if he were to collapse in front of me - well, I might find myself completely at a loss as to how to dial 911.

There's a special place in Hell for anyone who would poison stray animals.

Uncharitable, I know. Un-Christian. Well, as Eric Draven said in The Crow, you're just gonna have to forgive me for that.

I'll keep you informed of further developments. In the meantime, if there's anyone out there who could take in some stray juvenile kitten/cats, there are still a few left wandering around. That may not be true in a matter of days or weeks.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Leonids Monday night - Tuesday morning, November 16-17!

I'm off until Thursday night, which positions me pretty ideally to view this year's Leonid meteor shower.

Meteor shower this week as we cut through comet trails - space - 15 November 2009 - New Scientist

NASA - Leonids 2009

I witnessed the Leonid Meteor Storm of 1998, and that was just unbelievably amazing. Meteors left smoky glowing trails which became twisted and knotted in the atmosphere far above. This time around I'm not located in the best possible place to see the peak of the shower, but that won't stop me from bundling up and sitting out in an Adirondack chair in my backyard late Monday night and early Tuesday morning to see what I can see.

But don't take my word for it. Hear what Jack Horkheimer, Star Hustler has to say!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Five skulls in a shopping bag

I took my mom to an appointment this past Tuesday. After she was done we decided to stop at Walmart to see what we could see. I had a few things in mind that I was looking for - mainly, the life-sized styrofoam skulls that had been selling in the Halloween section for $4 apiece. Long story short: they did have them, but they were not 90% off as the "ALL HALLOWEEN 90% OFF" label seemed to suggest. Maybe they covered by the "All Halloween 75% off" sign.

In any event, I purchased five of the skulls - just to have. Maybe to put them on display next Halloween. I don't know. At a dollar apiece this seemed like a good deal.

The problem is, I haven't taken the skulls out of my car and put them in the "storage" side of the house. So for much of the past week I have been driving around with five styrofoam skulls in a shopping bag.

The skulls are life-size. They are made in China, so there is a chance they were cast from an actual soon-to-be-deceased (or recently-deceased) Chinese prisoner. It's a little unnerving. During my upcoming four days off I will try to relocate them to long-term storage. Until then, I will do my darnedest to avoid being pulled over for any reason, lest someone think the five skulls in the shopping bag are actually the real deal. Don't want to have to explain what they are, or why they're there!

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Roses of Mid-November

I wrote a few weeks ago about not remembering roses blooming in the final week of October. (See this post for an example of just such a thing in the not-too-distant past.) But I definitely never remember having new rose blossoms opening in mid-November.

This may be related to the fact that I have been picking the roses fairly regularly. There are still quite a few unopened rosebuds on the bush. How many more will open? How much longer will they hold on?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A new record at the Sideshow Gathering 2009!

On November 7th, 2009, twenty people - both professional sideshow performers and amateurs from the audience - gathered onstage to set a record for the largest number of people to simultaneously perform the "human blockhead" trick developed by Melvin Burkhart. From the record citation:
Implements involved included nails, screwdrivers, ice picks, a switchblade, a fork, a spoon, the earpiece from a pair of glasses, and a pair of scissors.

Picture by Timothy Cridland, a.k.a. Zamora, the Torture King

*Note: There are several typos and inaccuracies in this list. A corrected list is being developed.
Block Head: most people to simultaneously perform: 20. Tyler Fyre, organizer. Included: Tyler Fyre, Colonel Hunsley, Prof. Fountain, Prof. John Sprocket, Gwyd The Unusual, Swami Yomahi, Crispy Knight, James Taylor, Harley Newman, Doc. Wilson, Casey Severen, John Shaw, Donny Boroneo, Wanda Von Dunajew, Michael Katner, James Mundie, Martin Ling, Jim Stilianos, Mace, and Johnny Mahem.*

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

We interrupt this blog...

After five glorious days off, three of which were spent at the Sideshow Gathering, I am heading back to work for four nights. Unfortunately, work days are so draining, and the Sideshow Gathering posts take so long to write, that I probably won't be able to do my Day 3 post until Sunday at the earliest.

Today is also Veteran's Day. I don't have anything clever or insightful to say about that, other than this: I wish we weren't so darned good at filling up our hospitals and cemeteries with veterans. Remember all those who have served, in whatever capacity.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Scenes from the Sideshow Gathering, Day 1

Note: My reports on the Sideshow Gathering began with the end of Day 3, and then covered all of Day 2. Now we move on to Day 1, at least as much of it as I was there for...

I missed the very start of the Sideshow Gathering. I don't even remember why; it just happened. Most of the acts I missed came back onstage later in the weekend, but I missed Professor Fountain's routine entirely. Next year for sure!

When I came in, Gwyd the Unusual and Sylver Fyre of the Knotty Bits Sideshow were onstage, and had just called for a volunteer from the audience to assist in a balloon-popping routine. Here, Sylver (as far as the blindfolded volunteer knows) is about to use a whip to pop the big blue balloon between her hapless victim's legs.

Sylver and Gwyd then prepared to move on to a fire act - but, since fire was forbidden within the building, they had to go to a backup - snake charming. Here Gwyd reads from the mail-order snake charming instruction manual while Sylver presents a cute, cuddly Boa Constrictor that is deemed insufficiently menacing for the routine.

So Sylver moved on to the next option - a huge Albino Burmese Python. Here she strikes a "sexy pose" while attempting to heft the charmed snake.

Next up was Professor Sprocket, who treated the crowd to a glimpse of P.T. Barnum's original Mermaid, and then regaled them with patter that gradually became more and more incoherent. A true man of science, the Professor quickly determined that he had a screw loose, and attempted to correct it via a screwdriver inserted nasally. It took a few tries, but he eventually got the setting just right. More or less.

Master of Ceremonies Tyler Fyre (no relation to Sylver) then took the stage to fill everyone in on the magnificence of the weekend ahead.

Soon he yielded the stage to the Crispy Family Carnival, whose current family members include the lovely Roxanne, the strongman Mace, and of course, the father and leader of the Family, Crispy Knight himself. Crispy recalled past adventures making the cross-country excursion from the wilds of Oklahoma to the mountainous woodlands of Pennsylvania. One disastrous experience with the Crispy Bus several years ago has led them to see the wisdom of travelling by Toyota subcompact. But how do they all fit into such a small vehicle? Simple: Space Saver bags. Here they demonstrate by placing the lovely Roxanne into one and vacuuming out all the air.

Tyler Fyre returned to the stage, but this time as half of the Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow. Here the lovely Thrill Kill Jill demonstrates the miracle of "birth in reverse". Walt Hudson, sitting front and center, is about to get splashed with amniotic fluid.

The Swami Yomahmi was up next and demonstrated a dramatically orchestrated "pins into thumb" routine. Real magicians never reveal their secrets, but as the Swami reminded the crowd, he isn't a real magician. Unfortunately, something went seriously wrong during the explanation. Here the Swami realizes he has missed a critical step.

Next was Dr. Wilson, who demonstrated Chung Ling Soo's "Defying the Boxers" routine, modified for use in venues where gunfire is frowned upon. Here he is about to get shot in the face - with a paintball.*

Then came Coney Island Chris, who amused the audience with his ineptitude, propensity for self-injury, and marked fondness for pretzel rods. Having demonstrated by use of pretzel rods the power of the leg hold trap that is really old and rusty, and totally not a new one painted black and yellow as Todd Robbins recommends, he then proceeded to get his right hand inextricably caught in it. He then demonstrated that it's really, really hard to perform the rest of his routine with one hand caught in a leg hold trap.

John Shaw was the only performer onstage for the entire weekend - or, at least, just off-stage. In addition to being the sound man for the entire Gathering, he is also a professional magician and the operator of the Headless Horseman Hayride in Ulster Park, New York. Here he performs a routine involving a can connected with chains to hooks inserted into his eye sockets - and a volunteer from the audience who is very close to throwing up as he directs her to pour water into the can. (I think John was a little disappointed that he didn't make her throw up onstage!)

In a change of pace, Chris McDaniel performed a one-man Wild West Show, wowing the crowd with gun-spinning, whip-cracking, and rope twirling.

Here he twirls a lasso over the heads of the audience while singing "Give a Man Enough Rope" from The Will Rogers Follies. Chris ended his performance to thundering applause and a standing ovation.

The last act of the night was the living legend Zamora, the Torture King. After a light snack - well, a lightbulb snack - he then thanked the audience for its fine appetite for liquor before smashing up a tub full of empty liquor bottles and walking and laying in them. Two volunteers from the audience assisted him in the next part of the act: one by standing on his chest, the other by stabilizing her. It took some trying, but eventually Zamora got her to understand that when he shouted "Jump!" he didn't want her to jump off of his chest, but rather up and down on it.

Finally came Zamora's signature piece: skewers through the forearm, bicep, and floor of his mouth.

And that was only Day 1!

For Day 2's festivities, go here.

*To see a full video of Dr. Wilson performing the routine at the 2009 Chung Ling Soo Stage Magic Competition on May 17, 2009, at the Alamo Theatre in Bucksport, Maine, go here.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Scenes from the Sideshow Gathering, Day 2

Thanks to the marvels of modern technology, I took nearly six hundred photos at this year's Sideshow Gathering. Many of these were rapid-fire "sports mode" sequences intended to capture fast action in situations where things were moving so quickly I couldn't count on getting a decent shot by conventional means. In all maybe one hundred of the photos are halfway decent, and I'll publish the best few here. (I may dump more of them to Facebook.)

So much happened in the three days of the Gathering that it would be exhausting to try to get it all down. But I'll take a shot at it....

First I must mention the crowd. I believe there were sixty chairs (give or take a few) arranged in three rows. More chairs were constantly being commandeered from various parts of the room, and still for the most part this was a standing-room-only event!

I ran into several people I knew from work. Based on their extensive body art I assumed they were there for the Tattoo Convention part of the show - but no, they were there for the Sideshow Gathering! One of them videotaped much of Day 1. Perhaps I can convince him to post it to YouTube!

I'm doing this a bit out of order. I've already written up much of what I have to say about Day 1 of the Gathering, but apparently I've never posted it to Blogger! I've spent so much time on Day 2, I'll have to cover Day 1 some other time!

Day 2 started off with a bang - or at least a clank, a whine, and a shower of sparks, as the lovely Roxanne of the Crispy Family Carnival took the stage clad in a plate mail bikini and carrying an angle grinder. She proceeded to do a sort of bump-and-grind striptease, as she bumped the grinder wheel up against the various pieces of metal plating protecting her modesty, which dropped away one clanking piece at a time. For those who might suspect this was all a trick, Roxanne demonstrated the real danger of this routine by briefly (and accidentally) touching her back just above her kidneys (you really, really don't want to get injured there) and leaving a brushburn that required medical attention, most likely delivered by one of the many men of science and/or arcane learning lurking in the wings.

More skin was next on the menu, and it was provided in generous portions by the Crispy Family Carnival's resident strongman, Mace, who performed a traditional Dance of the Chippendales.

The merciless leader of the Family, Crispy Knight, then ordered Mace to earn the Family's gas money back to Oklahoma. Fiendish sideshow fans lined up for the opportunity to staple filthy, MRSA-laden currency to Mace's delicate flesh. (Crispy did this routine himself last year, but apparently his doctor has ordered him to cut back on staples.) One customer only had a five dollar bill, and asked Mace if he could make change.

The Swami Yomahmi took the stage for some delightfully educational entertainment. Here, in a bit he freely attributes to Todd Robbins, he demonstrates how balloon animals are made.

Next up was the always charming and delightful Dr. Wilson, winner of this year's Candlelight Award (which honors young performers that are keeping the circus and sideshow dreams alive in the present day) to pitch his Memory Elixir ("a wholesome blend of natural extracts of thirty different herbs and root vegetables that promotes and revitalizes the capacity for learning and memory, strengthens the nerves, and effectively wards off cataleptic neuroplexy.") I purchased a bottle and consumed it before beginning this post, to help renew the memories of the Gathering!

The Guest of Honor for this year's Gathering was Dick Johnson, who regaled the attendees of that night's Sideshow Auction with background stories on many of the objects up for auction and the people who once wore or used them. Here he "leather lungs it", addressing the gathered crowd without the aid of a microphone, before going into a series of magic tricks expertly performed with the simplest of props - and a borrowed pair of scissors.

I have read about Harley Newman, but didn't recognize him until he pulled out his four-spike bed of nails. After just a few moments of conversation in the parking lot on Day 3, I came to the conclusion that he is one of the nicest people I have ever met anywhere!

John Shaw is a magician who also ran the Headless Horseman Hayride in Ulster Park, New York for the Halloween season. He alone was onstage (or just off-stage) for every act each of the three days, since he was also tasked with being the sound man for every act, and doing on-the-fly microphone and radio transmitter/receiver repairs as needed. John did a Day 2 performance which was, remarkably, almost note-for-note and beat-for-beat identical to his performance on Day 1 - the only major difference being the volunteers he recruited from the audience. His Day 2 eye torture assistant was less squeamish than the one he had on Day 1, so there was less chance that she might vomit all over the stage (which, as John pointed out, would have been the coolest. thing. ever.)

Day 2 Part 1 ended with something very special - a Mass Blockhead Event. The "Blockhead", in which a foreign object like, say, a nail is inserted into the nose so it appears to be penetrating the skull, is one of the first tricks any sideshow performer learns, and is so simple that it could be taught to members of the audience in a few minutes. Several members of the audience joined the professionals onstage for a simultaneous insertion of nails, screwdrivers, icepicks, spoons, forks, the earpiece to a pair of glasses, a switchblade, a pair of scissors - twenty objects inserted into twenty noses all at the same time. Live on stage!

There then followed a brief intermission. the end of which, the Amazing Blazing Tyler Fyre and Thrill Kill Jill as the Lucky Daredevil Thrillshow took the stage! Showing that he is so much more than a slick-talking Master of Ceremonies, here Tyler Fyre demonstrates the single most dangerous act in the Sideshow: sword swallowing! No trick here, no roll-up fake blade or a blade that collapses into the handle - just cold steel down the throat and into the stomach.

Then on to another classic act involving deadly edged weapons: knife throwing! Here Tyler rains cold steel all around Jill's lovely body...

...and Jill returns the favor. Note the position of the knife in the shield/target Tyler is holding. Had it continued along its trajectory, Tyler might have been doing future pitches in a much higher voice!

The next part of the act: snake charming! Or snake handling. Big snakes. Big, beautiful, snakes. Two of them!

A little late for Halloween, but Tyler decided to carve a pumpkin. With a chainsaw. On Jill's stomach. Once again, Walt Hudson is right in the splatter zone, getting sprayed with pumpkin innards - and worse, if Tyler somehow screws this up!

As a finale, Tyler smashes a cinder block with a sledgehammer - again, on Jill's stomach! And this time, Walt has to dodge flying bits of cinder block! Sometimes, the best seat in the house isn't such a good deal!

And that was the end of the Sideshow Acts for Day 2. But the night wasn't officially over yet - there was still the Sideshow Auction to go. Many remarkable and historic items went up for auction, some snatched up by collectors, others claimed by sideshow performers themselves, many of whom had donated other items to the auction. Some items went for a song, and in some cases the bidding was furiously intense. The high bid of the night was for an object donated by a living legend who was present in the room - a whiskey decanter filled with piercing needles used by Zamora the Torture King!

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sideshow Gathering 2009: The Final Bow

There's so much to say about the 2009 Sideshow Gathering that I don't know where to begin. So I will begin at the end, when Master of Ceremonies Tyler Fyre called all performers still present up to the stage for a final bow, a final round of applause.

At some point I will list the names of all of these amazingly talented acts and performers, but I will leave you with this for now.