Preparing for a road trip

On the Road Again

I will be spending Friday, Saturday, and Sunday on the road, helping my sister-in-law and her family complete their move to the suburbs of Orlando.  They already sent a moving truck full of stuff, but we have two van loads, two cats, and a newborn to bring along.  The van I’ll be driving, along with Phil, my father in law, is so full that I had to do some serious thinking about it in order to confirm that we would have room for a small cooler.  Seriously.

A few other notes on our trip:

  • Both vans have stuff on the roof.  Ours has a “Travel Right” bag, packed to the brim with stuff that won’t get ruined if it gets wet, but lined with a tarp that will prevent the “getting wet” business if possible.  The other has two flat-pack clothes boxes and a dissasembled crib tied up in a secure bundle.
  • Given that both Phil and I work at colleges and I have class on Tuesday, we’re doing the trip in three days, with one spare built in just in case.
  • I’ve got audio books loaded up the on two iPods, so we should be set for listening enjoyment.
  • We are planning to stop for the night somewhere past Atlanta (hopefully).  Our ideal three day schedule will be: Friday- Chicago to a little past Atlanta, Saturday – finish the drive to Orlando, unload the van, return as far as the place we stayed Friday, Sunday – back to Chicago.
  • I offer sincere thanks to the genius who invented “Stow and Go” seating.

Oh, did I mention that a hurricane has recently swept through the area we’re driving through.  I’m sure that won’t affect our trip at all.  Watch my twitter feed for updates.

Artisanal … everything

On the always-awesome Judge John Hodgman podcast, his Honor often uses the adjective artisanal to send up the hipster DIY crafty local home-made home-brewed grow local trend that results in all sorts of strange representations of craft as quality.

When Alan Turing proposed the test to determine if a machine is intelligent, he suggested that if a judge cannot reliably tell the machine from a human, the machine has passed the test for intelligence.

On his remarkable photographs-of-toys Flickr stream, J. D. Hancock recently posted this remarkable Human Torch picture:

"Universal Human Torch" by JD Hancock
“Universal Human Torch” by JD Hancock (cc-licensed)

Below it, he described his process: This image is straight out of the camera: no tweaking, no color processing, no cropping, no nothing.

I’ve seen these proclamations at craft fairs, photographers who claim their photos are entirely analog: shot on film, printed in a dark room, framed by, uh, human hands.  And while those declarations, like the photo above, make me admire the skill it took to make the product, should it really make a difference in the product itself?

It’s long been clear that Benjamin was wrong when he said mass-produced commodity art couldn’t have an aura.  Witness the vast market for early printings, for mint condition objects, for the process of having seen it.  I saw Titanic in a test screening (the first test screening, actually) and lay claim to that movie a little bit more than can someone else.  Others attach experiences and stories to the objects they own, as with my DVD copy of The Wedding Singer, the movie I watched over the phone with Jenny many times while we were dating long distance.  There are innumerable jokes about how hipsters “liked X before it was cool.”

So in claiming to have produced this photo in the raw, Hancock claims a mastery of the art form that someone who did post-processing would not be able to claim.  But why not?  Wouldn’t a manipulated image dazzle my eyes just as brilliantly?  Perhaps moreso.

At the same time, I enjoy the meta-conversation about the production of the art we enjoy. On the Road still appeals to people because it was typed on a single long scroll.  The fact that they don’t read it on the scroll or that Kerouac may have written earlier drafts, belying the impromptu notion implied by the single scroll doesn’t seem to diminish the mythos surrounding it.

In some ways, that’s what the academic study of art is all about– the explicit layering of meaning around the texts we love.

This is an Altbewahrtes System!

Buffy could have used one of these
Buffy could have used one of these

I really have no idea what this thing is.  Any German speakers there have an idea?

The Middle Temple Murder

Middle Temple Murder
Middle Temple Murder

by J. S. Fletcher; narrated by various Librivox readers

When Spargo, the reporter for the Watchman, happens upon a man who has just found a dead body, he stumbles into a shocking story of murder and intrigue in the heart of the wealthy (and presumed safe) Middle Temple neighborhood.  A few thoughts:

  • Unlike a lot of mysteries from this era, the inspector at New Scotland Yard (Rathburn) is neither excessively antagonistic toward the reporter/detective nor is he excessively incompetent.  Instead, he and Spargo work the case in tandem, sharing vital clues as they uncover them.  Of course Spargo, our intrepid protagonist, gets out ahead of most everyone on the case.
  • Also like many stories of the era, the connections between people grow fast and furious.  In particular, the book seems concerned with changed identities and the hauntings of the past.
  • My biggest complaint is how easy Spargo has it in his investigation.  Each time he goes somewhere to look for something, as with the rural town where he goes to learn the history of an object he finds, the exact person or object he needs is there waiting for him.  He also has a 100% success rate in seeding information in the paper and getting accurate results from it.
  • The mystery itself holds up throughout the book, neither too obvious nor outrageous.  Alas, like many such stories, the novel withholds the key piece of information until the end.  Fortunately, the narrative wasn’t contrived so that the hero uncovered the clue but hid it from us (as at the end of nearly every novel in the Hamish Macbeth series).
  • I can’t help but wonder if J.S. Fletcher inspired the writer who created Angela Lansbury’s famous English teacher turned novelist, J.B. Fletcher.  Seems likely!

The Librivox recording of this book is good, but not great.  Some of the readers are excellent, while some stumble a bit or have mediocre sound quality.  None of the accents was too overwhelming, but the multiple author format does take some getting used to.

Overall, a solid classic mystery.  Enjoyable but not amazing.

My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend has been Taken!

I use the semi-random sorting method of “the last two movies I watched” to decide what I should write about in my double reviews.  I find that forcing myself to consider two movies as though they were intended to be viewed together makes for interesting insight about storytelling and movie making as a whole.  That said, this is a challenging one to write.

Taken My Girlfriend's Boyfriend

Taken is an intense action film in which a seventeen year old girl is abducted by human traffickers while on vacation in Paris.  By lucky chance, she happens to be on the phone with her father when it happens, and his past as a CIA operative makes him just the right guy to fly over to Paris and kick the shit out of the bad guys.  And that’s what he does.  Meanwhile, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend is a cute romcom starring Alyssa Milano and Christopher Gorham, the latter of whom I’ll always think of as his creepy groom character from Harper’s Island.   Gorham plays a struggling author romancing a lovely but emotionally distant woman.  What he doesn’t know is that she started dating another man on the same day she started dating him, and neither relationship has ended. It’s a nice, even-handed story without the crazy hijinks of so many similar films.  A few thoughts:

  • Both Ethan (Gorham) and Brian (Neeson) have indefatigable hope about their quests.  Of course, one of them battles armies of awful men with guns while the other tackles minigolf and eBay.
  • The women in the films both have to deal with searing emotional trauma.  In Taken, nearly every female character has to deal with being shot, raped, kidnapped, or having their child kidnapped. My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend has a less dramatic reason for the emotional trauma haunting Jess (Milano), but gives much more screen time to it.
  • Both films center their narrative on rising tension.  My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend slowly ratchets up the tension by showing Jesse’s conflict over the continuing courtship of both men.  As each relationship becomes more serious, she gets further and further into a seemingly intractable dilemma.  Taken uses the plight of Brian’s missing daughter and the ticking clock estimate he got from his friend (played by actor Leland Orser, the actor who played the most memorable victim in the movie Se7en) to make the plot more and more tense, especially as Neeson takes on more and more adversaries in ever worsening circumstances.
  • Both Brian and Ethan are middle class men who must square off against wealthy adversaries.  In Taken, each round of villains is more wealthy than the last, until finally he’s attacking fortified buildings and private yachts bigger than my house.  When Brian bests the last two uber-villains, he brings the righteous fury the audience expects.   Ethan’s adversary, Troy, also embodies elite polish.  He’s a man both suave and wealthy, and while I suspect Ethan is a better fit for Jesse, Troy fits all the abstract categories better.  But Troy is also a great guy, if less likeable than Ethan, and so the audience is less clear who to cheer for, and the end isn’t quite so clear cut.

That’s all I have to say about the movies without spoiling them (which I’ll do below).  But I highly recommend Taken if you enjoy action movies.  I haven’t felt that tense since Children of Men.  The other movie is fine, a nice rainy Sunday kind of film, but probably not worth going out of your way to see.

  • Spoilers: A few lingering questions about Taken.  First, I wonder what he said to the other girl’s parents.  The film established that she was dead, but I doubt the authorities could easily have found her, and if they did, she wouldn’t have had ID.  Second, I wonder how he got out of France– perhaps the official government line couldn’t afford to draw attention to his actions for fear of the publicity.   I also imagine that perhaps the captain of the yacht wouldn’t have left the bridge during the alert.  He would have locked the door and kept going — maybe even speeding up.  Then, Brian and Katie could have taken a dinghy back to shore, leaving the captain sailing out to sea as fast as he could.  Later, he’d try the walkie talkie, then eventually venture out of the bridge to find everyone else on the boat, including his boss, dead.  I wonder what he’d do at that point?
  • Spoilers: My Boyfriend’s Girlfriend ends up being the romcom Sixth Sense, as it becomes clear that Jesse’s internal debate is not over dating two men, but rather the emotional problem that led to her earlier divorce.  When the end of the film finally gets revealed, it works well until you realize that, like almost all romcoms, everyone would have been saved some heartache if only someone had just said what they were feeling!  Ugh.

2012-08-26 Tweets

  • Started reading _Where the Sidewalk Ends_ 3 poems per night with Finn. Nostalgic and delightful. #
  • Watching a help video, the narrator just called the manilla folder icon 'a lovely yellow suitcase.' #
  • New ginger beer. Fentiman's. Not such a strong flavor, but powerful ginger. http://t.co/QRh1N6Rx #
  • Should the President of the United States imply that only white people seem like they were born here? http://t.co/DztuO1es #
  • "Mr. Mastadon Farm" by Cake makes at least some sense until the chorus, when suddenly it's about "cutting swatches out of all the material." #
  • exactly right. http://t.co/yW9BPPbG #
  • @columbophile @ragazzadicali When's the next #columbotv ? is there a web site where the time/ep are listed? Finally have a sat night free. in reply to columbophile #
  • Watching TAKEN. Holy cow this movie is intense. #LiamNeesonIsABadass #
  • #Taken I haven't been this jittery watching a movie since Children of Men. #LiamNeesonIsABadass #
  • Re: #TAKEN – my daughter shall not be allowed out of my sight. Also, I need to learn the deadly arts, just in case. #LiamNeesonIsABadass #

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Susan Swayne and the Bewildered Bride

Babes with Blades Theatre Company

Susan and Eric investigate
Eric(Yacono) and Susan(Hercog) investigate

When sophisticated lady detective Susan Swayne finds a distraught woman lamenting her ill use at the hands of Susan’s rival, it seems like a fait accompli to use these new developments to unmask Kate for what she is.  But things quickly get very complicated, leading to exposed jealousies, vicious betrayals, and even murder. A few thoughts:

  • The play rests on Lisa Herceg, the eponymous hero and narrator who channels both propriety and enthusiasm.  Like many proper lady detectives before her — from Miss Marple to Jessica Fletcher — Susan Swayne maintains an aloof, proper attitude and clean clothes.  But she also brings adventure to the stage, reminding me most favorably of Amelia Peabody Emerson, from Elizabeth Peters’ Egypt mysteries.  Herceg plays the part straightfaced with strong received pronounciation, which makes the punchlines work well.
  • The rest of the cast is admirable as well.  Kimberly Logan skillfully walks the fine line just shy of scenery chewing as the distraught–perhaps crazy?– jilted wife, and the pair of Kathryn Acosta and Megan Schemmel bring humor and energy to their roles as flighty teenage apprentice detectives, reminding me very much of the younger Bennett sisters.*
  • The theatre company certainly lives up to its name, with lots of great swordplay and fighting, made all the more effective by the intimacy of the stage.   The battle between Isabella and Adelaide in the beginning of the second act was especially vigorous and thrilling.   I also thought the sets were cleverly designed and the AV was great — the opening sequences were, in particular, stunning.
  • My only complaint is that the play is unnecessarily set against the Jack the Ripper killings, which play a part in the staging and the narrative, but only tangentially.  While I would not have liked the play to become Susan Swayne and Jack the Ripper, I felt like there wasn’t quite enough attention given to that case given its role in the play.
  • <grammar rant> Okay, one more complaint. At one point Susan says she can tell when someone is lying because they “smell differently when they lie.”  This is a grammar error, of course, because she means to say they “smell different.”  By saying they smell differently, she’s saying when they lie their noses function in an alternate way, not that they have a different odor about them.</grammar rant>

Susan Swayne and the Bewildered Bride is a funny, enjoyable romp with a great cast and an interesting story.  Well worth the modest ticket price.

Yacono, Serino, Acosta, Schemmel, Logan
Yacono, Serino, Acosta, Schemmel, Logan

* Full disclosure — Kathryn Acosta graduated from Columbia College Chicago, where she took a class from me in the Spring of 2009.

The Big Burn

The Big Burn
The Big Burn

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America
By Timothy Egan; narrated by Robertson Dean

Egan’s new exhaustive history tells two stories.  It opens and closes with an enormous forest fire that swept big portions of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, using the tale of that fire as a framing device through which to discuss the fight over the creation of the national forests, the national forest service, and eventually the national parks.  It’s a great book.  A few thoughts:

  • Egan definitely frames the tale as good (conservationists) versus evil (timber interests).  The oligarchs who the West as a big smorgasbord at which the wealthy could gorge themselves were aided by a very corrupt congress who saw little value in saving the forests or maintaining them for future generations.
  • The book gives thorough biographies of two key men in the conservation movement: Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, both rugged outdoorsmen who liked a good tussle (physical or mental).  Pinchot was the founder and head of the forest service, Roosevelt’s right hand man who found himself betrayed by the wishy-washy Taft after Roosevelt left office.
  • The forest service did yeoman’s work while being starved by a contrary congress.  Then, when a fire threatened all that land, they were expected to handle the fires with the most meager resources.  Egan doesn’t make the connection, but I can’t help thinking about the current situation of the EPA, under-funded and expected to do more than is humanly possible.  Hell, public education in many places faces the same problem.
  • The tales of the fire itself are pretty dramatic as well.  Egan follows several threads: a homesteading woman who hopped the last train out of a burning town and walked back to her Ohio home two weeks later, some rangers who led brave piece-work amateurs into the fight against the fire, and many people who lost their lives for having made the wrong of two equally awful choices.
  • Many men were dubbed heroes during and after the fight, most notably rangers Pulaksi and Halm, both of whom fought the fire at great personal risk.  Also notable were a group of U.S. Soldiers sent to help fight the fire, these soldiers, an all-black battalion, performed heroically, and were recognized for having done so afterward.  (Though, given the awful racism endemic in the day, their courage was usually lauded with backhanded compliments like “white men at heart.”)

Like his previous book, The Worst Hard Time, Egan’s The Big Burn is a solid, well-told history.  It’s a fascinating read that will give you new insight into TR and the era.  It would be interesting to pair this book with Unfamiliar Fishes, which focuses on the Rooseveltian warmongering and desire for an empire.  Whereas Egan focuses on Roosevelt’s progressive philosophies, Vowell reminds us of his belligerent side.

As I was preparing this post, I discovered an exercise recording with the same title by walk-for-exercise guru Leslie Sansone.  Inspired, I’ve mashed up the two with this quick sketch of a workout regimen developed from Egan’s book. (Egan and Sansone, you’re welcome to embark on this joint publishing venture gratis.)

The Big Burn WorkoutThe Big Burn workout:

  • Start the day with wrestling and boxing, as Teddy Roosevelt was wont to do with visitors to the White House.
  • Embark on an all-natural diet, as Gifford Pinchot required of his Forest Service men, who had to pass a survival test in order to take their jobs as Foresters.
  • Practice digging trenches and hauling wood.  The most basic defense against forest fire was to dig fire stops, then…
  • Heat treatment.  Use a giant fire (preferably a back-fire designed to stop the larger conflagration) to get those sweat pores working.  For a more intense workout, let the fire burn past you and then run for it.
  • Treat yourself. At the end of your own Big Burn, lounge in a wretched hive of scum and villainy like Taft, a town of saloons and brothels built in the middle of a national forest and saved by the threat of being burned for its own good.

The Connecticut Problem

[youtube:http://youtu.be/EN2m5x4djaE?t=1m33s]

In the age of the Internet, the obligation not to write something stupid rises dramatically. I’ve decided to call this the Connecticut Problem.

(I started writing this post because I thought Lawrence Block had gotten the question of Kipling’s anti-Semitism wrong, but the issue may not be as simply resolved as I’d originally hoped.  When Lawrence Block was doing research forThe Burglar Who Liked to Quote Kipling (review scheduled to appear on 4 Sept) in 1979, he probably researched Kipling by going to the library and perusing a couple biographies.  As a result, he had no ability to cross reference and use the meta-resources that are so commonly available today.  It turns out this was a bad example because the various sources discussing Kipling and anti-Semitism seem to disagree somewhat, as it isn’t about something easily looked up. )

Second try.  In Small Time Crooks, Woody Allen’s character says “I’ve always wanted to learn how to spell Connecticut.”  Not only is this funny as the highest aspiration of a “small time crook,” but it stands in for a bigger kind of laziness to me — the desire to know something combined with the lack of motivation to look it up.  While this made some sense before 1995, today it’s downright ridiculous to have a conundrum like this.  For example, when Jenny and I were watching the Columbo episode “Murder in Malibu,” we noticed that the victim’s sister seemed a lot like Patricia Richardson from Home Improvement.  There’s no excuse for letting this sort of thing bother you for more than a minute, because of the Internet.  (In case you were wondering, the sister is played by Brenda Vaccaro, who did a couple episodes of Murder, She Wrote, and one each of Ally McBeal and Friends, but never Home Improvement. (To add to the confusion, I thought Jenny said Patricia Heaton, the mom from Everybody Loves Raymond.)  It’s a fair cop, as Vaccaro and Richardson look similar, to my eyes.

Brenda Vaccaro Patricia Richardson

All this just goes to say that I’m introducing a new phrase, the Connecticut Problem, to describe something someone wants to know, doesn’t know, or should know that they could have resolved in fewer than two minutes’ web searching.  Expect to see this phrase again.

 

 

G German Germeson

That damn web-slinger!
That damn web-slinger!

I suspect this man to be the German version of the newspaper editor who hates Spider-Man.

The Trials of Rumpole

The Trials of Rumpole
The Trials of Rumpole

By John Mortimer; narrated by Leo McKern

Rumpole is a grumpy but quick-witted old barrister who defends clients mostly accused of petty crime, though sometimes accused of much worse.  He does so with a wry grin and a glass of port to follow.  A few thoughts:

  • It’s weird to learn that John Mortimer’s Rumpole books are actually adaptations of a television series by the same name.  I’m sure the show is good–in fact, I watched two episodes on DVD and discovered that they are not bad, if very dated in the way that 1970s and 1980s British television is dated–but I encountered the books first, and have come to love the way that John Mortimer crafts Rumpole’s voice and Leo McKern embodies it.
  • The cases in this edition are much of the same: humorous events, often accompanied by a sympathetic event in Rumpole’s life itself.  My favorite such story is the last, when a family of petty thieves tried to get rid of an aging uncle by framing him for an art theft and at the same time, Rumpole’s wife and son conspire to force him into retirement.
  • The most strange aspect of Rumpole’s life is his attitude of put-upon-husband to Hilda, the wife he refers to as She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, a reference to H. Rider Haggard.  (I knew a professor at Florida who used the same affectionate monicker for his wife, and I’ve since longed to know whether he was referring to Rumpole or Haggard.)  But as much as Rumpole complains about Hilda, there’s a deep affection there that seems to flow underneath, in the way that bickering old couples have in fiction.
  • I like the way narrative threads develop over the course of the stories, even though each story stands on its own.  Particularly amusing is the way two of the barristers in Rumpole’s chambers have a child and discover that the man (shocking!) enjoys staying home and taking care of the child more than the woman does.  Those wacky Brits!
  • The most interesting follows a client who is accused of having an affair with a girl under his tutelage (a 23 year old with a 15-and-11 months-old girl; 16 is the age of consent in Britain, or was when the story was written).  The teacher insists it didn’t happen, but also doesn’t want to take the case to trial so that he can spare her feelings.  Rumpole believes he has an “in” with the judge and tries to get a plea deal, but when that falls through, he discovers a plot to make the teacher look bad by two conniving children.  Ultimately, the jury isn’t convinced and the man goes to jail.   What’s interesting about the story is the way Rumpole handles it — and the insight it gives us into how he thinks about defense itself.

I like these a lot, and have several more borrowed from the library for future listening.  I will try to parcel them out, but we shall see.

See also: Rumpole Rests His Case

This semester’s text books

Speedball Text Book cover
All my courses also use the Speedball Text Book, of course
(photo cc-licensed by Nick Sherman)

I’m teaching three classes this semester, Writing for New Media, Detective Fiction, and Game Culture.  This is going to be a rollicking good time.  Here are the books we’re reading.

New Media

The Medium is the Massage
by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore
Ginko Press
ISBN: 1584230703 (link to Amazon)

Cognitive Surplus
by Clay Shirky
Penguin
ISBN: 9780143119586 (link to Amazon)

 

Detective Fiction

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
by Agatha Christie
ISBN: 0062073567

The Big Sleep
by Raymond Chandler
ISBN: 0394758285

The Manual of Detection
by Jedediah Berry
ISBN: 0143116517

 

Game Culture

Everything Bad is Good For You
by Stephen Johnson
Riverhead Trade
ISBN: 1594481946

Half-Real
by Jesper Juul
MIT press
ISBN: 0262516519

 

That’s all for now.

2012-08-19 Tweets

  • Back working on nonfiction this week: 797 words today. In last few weeks, Jenny and I have also hit 39,800 words on our novel. #750words #
  • Don't mess with Firefly. http://t.co/FnyERv3J #
  • Lots of great Dark Knight Rises humor, spoilery. http://t.co/SfPSHakX #
  • Doing a difficult super quiz this am, Avery laughingly claims "I guessed Marnie Van Dozen in my head." #CheekyKid #
  • To keep it from getting too hot in my office, working with just a desk lamp in a dark room. I feel like the Judge from The Natural. #
  • Lovin the picadilly circus in kane county. This dude tossed and balanced a huge clay pot on his forehead and danced. http://t.co/CS5P9XaA #
  • Avery at the park: I'm playing 'heroes' and my hero is Cat Hider. I hide in the bushes and turn into a cat when I shout "Cat Mode!" … #
  • Meanwhile, Finn barks and chases Avery around but also inexplicably shouts "Cat mode!" #

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The Body in the Gallery

Body in the Gallery
Body in the Gallery

by Katherine Hall Page

When caterer Faith Fairchild takes a job at a local art museum to help her friend find out who swiped a valuable painting, she never suspected she would end up in the midst of a murder inquiry.  But who could have imagined there would be a Body in the Gallery?  A few thoughts:

  • I don’t really go in for cozies that much, but when the character at the heart of the novels is particularly quirky or charismatic — as in the Amelia Peabody adventures — I’m usually game.  Alas, Faith Fairchild’s quirky or unique characteristics come from her situation as a caterer, which don’t really appeal to me.
  • That said, the mystery is well-crafted, intricate but not over-wrought, and peppered with enough characters that we’re kept guessing until the end.
  • Part of my ho-hum attitude about the book may come from the fact that it’s the first Faith Fairchild mystery I’ve read, but the nineteenth in the series.  As always, they’re written to be accessible to new readers, but the previous episodes probably add weight to the minor characters that I just don’t have access to.
  • I found Page’s focus on high end brand names irritating.  Faith is a fashion enthusiast, so she follows the trends and recognizes things instantly.  I was reminded, a bit, of my high school friend who could identify the make and model of pretty much any car on the road just from the way its headlights looked as they approached at night.  I don’t know why, but the constant references to specific fashion designers and labels got grating quickly.
  • Once again, a major problem with any amateur investigator story is how they relate to the police.  John Dunne seems to have taken a Sherrif Metsger approach to Fairchild, collaborating with her because she gets things done, but I couldn’t help thinking how she was tainting the chain of evidence and damaging the court prospects for the prosecution over and over again.

I read this for a book club and it was fine for that.  It’s good to keep an eye on parts of the genre I wouldn’t normally read otherwise.

Thoughts on the circus

The Piccadilly Circus visits St. Charles

Last night we drove to St. Charles, home of the always-enjoyable Scarecrow festival, to see the Piccadilly Circus on the Kane County Fairgrounds.  Jenny called it an “old fashioned circus,” by which she meant it embodied all the aspects of circus tradition that you’d expect without all the whiz and bang of the Ringling Bros supershow that we saw last year.

They all float down here.
— Pennywise the clown, IT

On our way to the circus, Avery says to me, “PLEASE tell me there aren’t going to be any … clowns there. I’m scaaaared of clowns.”  She’s never before expressed this idea, and I suspect it’s a remnant of Scooby Doo more than of any real experience.  She wasn’t scared of clowns last year.  Who knows, maybe being scared of clowns is a good thing.

[youtube:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZuLkQMQBZA4]
Join the Circus
Join the Circus, See America

The clown at Piccadilly was more like a mime than a stage clown.  He wore very little makeup and, if you can conceive of it, subtle hilarious shoes.  His antics were more reminiscent of Harpo Marx than anything else, by my estimation.

My circus train pulls through the night
Full of lions and trapeze artists
I’m done with elephants and clowns
I want to run away and join the office
— Mike Doughty, “American Car”

At the front entrance, there was a sign offering to fulfill your wanderlust by inviting you to Join the Circus.  Jenny teased me that I spoke too highly of the idea, though I can understand the glamor and excitement the traveling carnival lifestyle might have.  Cinema and television have only amplified the idea that circus folk are different from you and me.  I told Avery she could join the circus and be an animal handler. “You could shovel elephant poop.” She and Finn busted up laughing; poo talk is a guaranteed winner with the under seven crowd.

Avery feeds a llama
This $2 dixie cup of animal food was the cheapest thing you could buy at the circus

<skinflint rant> What didn’t go over well was our unwillingness to pay for many of the extras on the Midway.  Thankfully, we aren’t in the habit of buying light up gizmos and we say “no” a lot, so we didn’t have any tantrums over missed fun times.  We got off relatively cheaply because Jenny found a living social deal that got us in the door for $35 for two adults and two kids on family pizza night, which meant we got a Papa John’s pizza too.  And we bit the bullet and bought two light up “souvenir” LED cups for $15 apiece.  These had unlimited free refills of lemonade and punch.  The other drink option was $6 for a 16 ounce paper cup with no refills.  The kids did not get to do the elephant rides or the camel rides or the bouncy slide thing because the activity tickets were $6 apiece, and the animal rides would have cost 2 tickets per kid.  So it would have been $24 for the kids to take a three minute ride on an animal.  Later, we bought a “giant” bag of cotton candy for $12.  Yikes.  Thank goodness Jenny found the Living Social deal, or it would have cost us $96 to get in the door (I think — it looked like it was $38 per adult and $10 per kid to get in at full price). </skinflint rant>

We recently watched an episode of Inspector Murdock Mysteries called “Blood and Circuses,” in which a series of deaths occur in a circus visiting Toronto.  The inspector detains the entire troupe as material witnesses lest they vanish in the night.  The episode highlighted the one thing missing from the Piccadilly Circus that traditional circuses kept as a mainstay — freaks.

They DID, however, have lots of skill acts.  They had an animal trainer, who wrangled two zebras into cute poses and six camels into hilarious ones, and another trainer who guided the three elephants.  They had a troupe of acrobats, a pair of tightrope walkers, a talented juggler with a stage persona like a cheesy Vegas magician (who managed a brief run with six juggling clubs), and a six year old contortionist who could balance on her hands and curl her feet over her body, pick up her hat with her feet, put it on her head, and then rest her feet on her own shoulders. No knife thrower, though.

My favorite act was the master of balance.  He was a relatively short man of Asian descent, with neatly trimmed black hair and a simple costume.  His act ran in three parts, starting with a vase the size of a basketball, which he tossed, rolled, and balanced in every conceivable way.  The kids behind us were so impressed, they declared he must be a Sensei! With each feat, they’d say “He is a Sensei!” or “Now he’s a Master Sensei.” It was innocent media-inspired racism presented as a compliment.  Having finished with the first vase, he shifted to one twice as big, about the size of a large watermelon.  More of the same.  Then, his closing feat involved a series of maneuvers with a gigantic porcelain pot that had to weigh at least thirty pounds, probably more.  He tossed it about, caught it on his head, spun underneath it, and more.  Fantastic.

The Master of Balance
The Master of Balance

Ultimately, I enjoyed this circus more than the Ringling Brothers because it was so intimate.  I’d been a bit hesitant when we approached, as the liminal space of the circus can suggest a dangerous transgression, and for a moment Joe Hill’s “Twittering from the circus of the Dead” flashed through my head.  But despite my initial worries, the LED toys, and the unbelievably expensive cost of everything inside the gate, this felt like a joyous piece of Americana one should experience up close.  Great fun was had by all.

If this post has you Jonesing for circus goodness, here are a few more circus-related posts you might want to check out: Ringling Brothers, Johannes Cabal, Necromancer, The Last Great Clown Hunt