Our Daily Bird 34: A Very Dirty Bird

I love children's books.  While I have yet to have any children, I have a small but growing collection of books that will absolutely be read to any children that I might have one day. In the meantime, I enjoy these myself.

Norman Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, illustrated by acclaimed cartoonist Jules Feiffer, narrates  the journey of Milo, a bored young boy who is swept, after passing through the titular tollbooth, into a strange land where concepts of language and mathematics are ridiculously literalized.  He is quickly sent on a quest, accompanied by Tock (a Watchdog) and the Humbug, to rescue the lost Princesses Rhyme and Reason, who alone can restore peace between Dictionopolis and Digitopolis. Along the way he meets many strange creatures who obstruct his way including The Dirty Bird, a creature whose behaviour seems appropriate to recall as our American friends find themselves smack in the middle of election season:

     Clinging to one of the greasy rocks and blending almost perfectly with it was a large, unkempt and exceedingly soiled bird who looked more like a dirty floor mop than anything else.  He had a sharp, dangerous beak, and the one eye he chose to open stared down maliciously.

    "I don't think you understand," said Milo timidly as the watchdog growled a warning. "We're looking for a place to spend the night."

    "It's not yours to spend," the bird shrieked again, and followed it with the same horrible laugh.

    "That doesn't make any sense, you see----" he started to explain.

    "Dollars or cents, it's still not yours to spend," the bird replied haughtily.

    "But I didn't mean----" insisted Milo.

    "Of course you're mean," interrupted the bird, closing the one eye that had been open and opening the one eye that had been closed. "Anyone who'd spend a night that doesn't belong to him is very mean."


     "Let me try once more," Milo said in an effort to explain. "In other words----"

     "You mean you have other words?" cried the bird happily. "Well, by all means use them.  You're certainly not doing very well with the ones you have now."

     "Must you always interrupt like that?" said Tock irritably, for even he was becoming impatient.

     "Naturally," the bird cackled; "it's my job[...]I'm the Everpresent Wordsnatcher[...]"


    "Is everyone who lives in Ignorance like you?" asked Milo.

    "Much worse," [the bird] said longingly. "But I don't live here.  I'm from a place very far away called Context."

     "Don't you think you should be getting back?" suggested the bug, holding one arm up in front of him.

     "What a horrible thought." The bird shuddered.  "It's such an unpleasant place that I spend almost all my time out of it. Besides what could be nicer than these grimy mountains?"

     "Almost anything," thought Milo as he pulled his collar up.  And then he asked the bird, "Are you a demon?"

     "I'm afraid not," he replied sadly, as several filthy tears ran down his beak.  "I've tried, but the best I can manage to be is a nuisance," and before Milo could reply, he flapped his dingy wings and flew off in a cascade of dust and dirt and fuzz.

     "Wait!" shouted Milo, who'd thought of many more questions he wanted to ask.

     "Thirty-four pounds," shrieked the bird as he disappeared into the fog.


Our Daily Bird 33: The Innocence Mission

A song from the Innocence Mission's 1998 release, Birds of My Neighborhood:

As for her songwriting process, Karen says, "Often for me a melody and chords will spill out together.  The lyrics will take longer to finish - sometimes I'll work on them for weeks over even a month.  "The Lakes Of Canada' was written after driving through Canada on a tour with EmmyLou Harris.  I wonder a lot about the towns we're passing through, the shady side streets; who lives there and what their lives are like.  The song is about moments of sudden joy and how they glimmer the way fish do when you see them in a lake" (from Acoustic Guitar, Birds of a Feather).


Apparently I Support Interspecies Relationships

Here's one from the fruityfantastica archives:

This Christmas, we finally faced the dilemma that has become a rite of passage for thinking parents everywhere: to Barbie or not to Barbie. Our girl is not a true Girly-girl, and so we've had a pretty easy job of it these last eight years.

at soul-sucking department store:
"Hey mommy, what's down the next aisle?"  
(telltale pink glow searing my peripheral vision)  
 "Wow, look at this! Over here! Pretend bacon!"
at home:
"Did you know that Amber has 27 Barbies?"
"Whoa, that's a lot of Barbies. It must be a big job for her to clean them up all the time.  So if there was a fight between a Bengal tiger and a Komodo dragon, who would win?"

Our girl is both easily distracted and a good sport, and that has served us well for many years. But we are also not unreasonable parents, so when she recently started trying to make Barbies out of toilet paper rolls and dressing them in Kleenex, we decided that the time had come to end our unspoken boycott. What's the harm, really? She's eight and a half - surely past the most impressionable stage, and likely to outgrow the whole thing soon enough.

So we got the least skanky Barbies we could find, and a little house setup that I have to grudgingly admit is kind of cool (a foldup toilet!). And we held our breath.

I guess my objections to Ms. B follow the usual lines - unrealistic body issues, limited gender roles, the way plastic crap begets more plastic crap. But it's also more general than that. I think it's the way that toys like this somehow pasteurize natural kid weirdness:

It's Saturday morning, and Barbie has the
whole day to do whatever she wants! Should she...

  1. join her friends at the mall for a shopping spree
  2. surf the 'net, then have some friends over for pizza and a movie
  3. star in a rock video
  4. start a goat farm with Eggy and Roundy, then save a zebra that fell in the collapsible toilet

We just keep on praying that our girl will keep on choosing option #4, or some reasonable facsimile, over and over for the rest of her life.

So the other day she came up to me with Semi-Skanky Barbie (not that we call her that out loud! no!) and a little stuffed bear she has had for most of her life. His attire resembles the A&W Root Bear but he has no known corporate affiliation. And she said this:

"Mom, I've decided that these two aren't married anymore. Now they're in high school. But they still love each other." 

I love this unpasteurized girl.


Our Daily Bird(s) 32: Big and Little, Silly


Friday's Final Word

Illegitemus non carborundum est -

Don't let the bastards grind you down.


Our Daily Bird 31: How a Bird Becomes a Ghost

Jeff Hamada of Booooooom designed this nifty t-shirt for Crownfarmer last year:


24 Hours Alone

I was thinking the other day about how hard it is to spend 24 hours alone. It takes some real planning. It would take planning even for those without children or other live-in humans. If I counted up all the times I intentionally spent 24 hours in my own company, it wouldn't even take five fingers.

It is more difficult for women. We can't just step into the empty woods or take a 2 AM walk without extra considerations. This is a fact of life I find beyond irritating but there it is.

Still, there are all sorts of ways being alone can be done. The challenge of 24 hours alone should be taken at least once a life and more often if possible. Make a plan and include the word "No." Get some groceries. Turn off all the ringing and beeping things. See what happens in your own company.

And if you need to start slow, watch this:


Our Daily Bird 30: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird


by Wallace Stevens



Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.


I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.


The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.


A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.


I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.


Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.


O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?


I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.


When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.


At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.


He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.


The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.


It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.


Making the perfect cup of coffee

Aerobie Coffee MakerI grew up Methodist which means that I really have no vices that anyone admires. To overcompensate so I can fit in with those that have interesting vices, I tend to be elitist about coffee and hope no one really notices.  One thing that has really helped me with this is the Aerobie Coffee Maker. Yes, the same Aerobie that makes those flying disks that when you miss them go for another hundred yards. They also make an amazing coffee maker.

I am not a coffeetologist but even I know, you want the flavor from the coffee but none of the bitterness (although at work, the people I work with seem to feel the opposite is true).  I am told that in your average pot of coffee, there are compounds such as chlorogenic acids, trigonelline, furfuryl alcohol, and even caffeine itself which lend bitter flavors to a pot of fresh coffee.  Aerobie set out to solve this. Rumors are that the first coffee maker they made just went a really long distance and make a mess of the house and yard.  Later incarnations made better coffee and less mess (but don't travel as far when you throw it).

According to several coffee/nerd sites, the coffee is better because of the lower temperature and short brew time which means that the the acid level of the brew is much lower than conventional brewers.  According to coffee nerds who have actually tested it, lab pH testing measured the Aeropress' brew acid as less than one fifth that of regular drip brew.

As for French Press, people see some similarities as both use total immersion and pressure. But the similarities end there. The filter in the French Press is at the top of the mixture. Because coffee floats, the floating grounds clog the filter and makes pressing and cleaning very difficult. Users are instructed to use only coarse ground coffee. But this reduces the amount of flavor that can be extracted from the coffee and necessitates long steeping times which extract bitterness.

Here is the Aeropress in action


You can find them for around $25 all over the interweb.  While you are it, get yourself some Luwak coffee to have along with it.


Waving Under a June-Blue Sky

It's been a rainy few days and my mind wandered back to reading Johnny Cash's autobiography and  listening to June Carter Cash's last recording, Wildwood Flower, which traces a life that has its memories in seven decades of music. June's voice is very frail on this CD and I love the way it shows its wrinkles.

Rosanne Cash writes in the liner notes of Wildwood Flower:

This record 'Wildwood Flower', is the musical summation of an extraordinary life. I first heard it on May 10, 2003. My dad played it for me on a boom box while we took a short break from our vigil at June's beside during her last illness. Halfway through the record, I realized that I was listening to more than a collection of songs, I was hearing an autobiography, nearly cinematic in nature, and completely comprehensive in the scope of June's unique life. By the time we got to "Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone", I was wiping away tears, and chilled to the bone. I knew that it was her farewell and her mission statement, and that her soul, on some level that was greater than everyday conciousness, had directed its creation. The pain of imminent loss was like a mist surrounding my dad and me while we listened, and the poignancy of hearing a musical and cultural past that is now a part of history was, and is, so deeply moving.

I love biography of all kinds for this reason. It wipes away the illusion of fragmentation. We are not as separate as we think and we should not be as separate as we try to be.  When we are tempted to crawl into the corner and hold our heads over the immense and very real suffering around us, biography is a shouting reminder from the great crowd of witnesses. Beauty and hope continues to be deeply formed in every human life even when we can't see it because hurricane winds are blowing or leaders are lying and people perish for the lack of a few pennies worth of food or medicine.

Rosanne Cash also includes June's eulogy on the Wildwood Flower liner notes. The whole transcript can be found here and I highly recommend a careful reading of this tribute. This part will stay with me as I head out to look at the Fall colors:

June gave us so many gifts, some directly, some by example. She was so kind, so charming, and so funny. She made up crazy words that somehow everyone understood. She carried songs in her body the way other people carry red blood cells-she had thousands of them at her immediate disposal; she could recall to the last detail every word and note, and she shared them spontaneously. She loved a particular shade of blue so much that she named it after herself: "June-blue". She loved flowers and always had them around her. In fact, I don't ever recall seeing her in a room without flowers: not a dressing room, a hotel room, certainly not her home. It seemed as if flowers sprouted wherever she walked. John Carter suggested that the last line of her obituary read: "In lieu of donations, send flowers". We put it in. We thought she would get a kick out of that.

She treasured her friends and fawned over them. She made a great, silly girlfriend who would advise you about men and take you shopping and do comparison tastings of cheesecake. She made a lovely surrogate mother to all the sundry musicians who came to her with their craziness and heartaches. She called them her babies. She loved family and home fiercely. She inspired decades of unwavering loyalty in Peggy and her staff. She never sulked, was never rude, and went out of her way to make you feel at home. She had tremendous dignity and grace. I never heard her use coarse language, or even raise her voice. She treated the cashier at the supermarket with the same friendly respect that she treated the President of the United States.

I have many, many cherished images of her. I can see her cooing to her beloved hummingbirds on the terrace at Cinnamon Hill in Jamaica, and those hummingbirds would come, unbelievably, and hang suspended a few inches in front of her face to listen to her sing to them. I can see her laying flat on her back on the floor and laughing as she let her little granddaughters brush her hair out all around her head. I can see her come into the room with her hands held out, a ring on every finger, and say to the girls, "Pick one!" I can see her dancing with her leg out sideways and her fist thrust forward, or cradling her autoharp, or working in her gardens. But the memory I hold most dear is of her, two summers ago on her birthday in Virginia.

Dad had orchestrated a reunion and called it 'Grandchildren's Week'. The whole week was in honor of June. Every day the grandchildren read tributes to her, and we played songs for her and did crazy things to amuse her. One day, she sent all of us children and grandchildren out on canoes with her Virginia relations steering us down the Holston River. It was a gorgeous, magical day. Some of the more urban members of the family had never even been in a canoe. We drifted for a couple of hours and as we rounded the last bend in the river to the place where we would dock, there was June, standing on the shore in the little clearing between the trees. She had gone ahead in a car to surprise us and welcome us at the end of the journey. She was wearing one of her big flowered hats and long white skirt, and she was waving her scarf and calling, 'helloooo!' I have never seen her so happy.

So, today, from a bereft husband, seven grieving children, sixteen grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, we wave to her from THIS shore, as she drifts out of our lives. What a legacy she leaves, what a mother she was. I know she has gone ahead of us to the far side bank. I have faith that when we all round the last bend in the river, she will be standing there on the shore in her big flowered hat and long white skirt, under a June-blue sky, waving her scarf to greet us.


I enjoyed reading David Beronä’s book, Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels (2008), which describes (with select examples) the work of early-20th century woodcut storytellers such as Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward. Beronä makes glancing suggestions that these initially small publications (descended from block-books and playing cards) are the missing link between the cinema and modern day graphic novels. “When Thomas Mann,” he writes, “winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, was asked what movie had made the greatest impression on him, Mann replied, ‘Passionate Journey.’ Although Mann’s reply sounds like the title of a film by D. W. Griffith, it was, in fact, a novel in woodcuts by Frans Masereel.”

Beronä contends that the prevalence of German expressionist woodcuts, the popularity of silent film (in particular its heroes like Chaplin, and visual achievements like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Last Laugh), and the rise of political cartoons in newspapers set the stage for the woodcut novel. Beronä writes: “For a public already familiar with black-and-white pictures that told a story, worldess books offered the public, in one sense, silent cinema in a portable book that they could ‘watch’ at their leisure.”

Fittingly, the German publisher of Masereel’s 1920 The Idea (83 woodcuts visualizing an idea as a naked woman enraging elites but inspiring the masses) commissioned an animated adaptation. He turned to Berthold Bartosch, the Czech-born Berlin filmmaker who created many of the atmospheric effects in the world’s first animated feature, Lotte Reiniger’s brilliant The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926). Bartosch was not only a perfect artistic and technical choice, like Masereel (who was a member of the Red Cross and the international pacifist movement during World War I) he was a leftist who counted among his friends Reiniger, Carl Koch, Jean Tedesco, and Jean Renoir.

Bartosch emigrated to Paris in 1930, where he created his 25-minute adaptation, also entitled The Idea (1932), which his future friend and colleague (and brilliant animator in his own right) Alexander Alexieiff called “the first serious, poetic, tragic work in animation.” (The film is also noted for Arthur Honegger’s score, which is thought to be the first to utilize an electronic instrument, the ondes Martenot.) Alexieiff’s statement is no hyperbole: Bartosch’s film, with its adagio pacing, multiple layers of foggy (actually soapy) luminescence, and evocative urban detail, is a stunning achievement even today. Not content with simply animating the woodcuts (even if that were possible), Bartosch constructed an original vision that draws directly from Masereel’s imagery but re-envisions it as moving graphic illustrations extracted into deep space, its detailed cityscapes, swirling atmosphere, and dramatic superimpositions fusing together fantasy and reality. Appropriately for a film based on a “worldless book,” Bartosch shuns the use of intertitles except for a brief prologue extolling the durability of ideas.

From 1935 to ‘39, Bartosch worked on an epic anti-war film, but according to Robert Russett and Cecile Starr (who shares the copyright with Bartosch’s widow on The Idea’s 1976 print) in their seminal book, Experimental Animation, “about 2,000 feet of film had been shot when Bartosch and his wife were forced to flee Paris at the time of the Nazi occupation. All negative and positive material of the uncut film was deposited in a vault of the Cinémathèque Française; none of it was found again. Only a few test strips were saved…”

Alexeieff picks up the story in an interview reprinted in the book:

“When I had to leave Paris in 1941, I gave Bartosch up for lost. The occupation of the Sudentenland had made him a German. The Nazis were aware that Bartosch had refused their passport, that during his Viennese period he had worked on films on Thomas Masaryk’s theses, and that he had begun an anti-Nazi film as propaganda against Hitler (1938). [Physically] lame as he was, not knowing how to speak French, he was far too distinctive and vulnerable to escape being quickly spotted.

When I saw him again in 1947 on the Boulevard St. Germain, and when I greeted him in German, with my Russian accent, he answered me in French: ‘Now I don’t spik Cherman anymore, I spik Franch.’ I asked about his film. ‘When they came to look for me,’ he told me, ‘they didn’t find me, but they found my film and they destroyed it.’

He planned to make a third film, a film still more grandiose, on the Cosmos. During the twenty last years of his life, he set about putting together all the details of this new film, whose secret he carried to his grave, November 13, 1968. . . . The destruction of the second film had been too hard a blow, even for Bartosch’s will of iron. He never complained about it, but I think that for the rest of his life he merely played with the idea of resuming his creative film work, while doubting his power to bring back to life what the war had crushed.”

* * * *

One final note: in searching for an online version of Bartosch’s film, I came across Short Animated World, an excellent website that links many online versions of the titles chosen for Annecy Festival’s 2006 “100 Films for a Century of Animation” created by a worldwide poll of thirty specialists. Some of the links have been removed, but most of them remain, and are well-worth clicking through. The Idea comes in at ninth place. As you might expect, the films get less canonical the further down the list they appear, but most are still worth your time. The links tend to be unsubtitled versions of the films, but in many cases this is only a minor hurdle.

Among my personal (and available) favorites:

004 Crac! (Frederic Back)
005 The Man Who Planted Trees (Frederic Back)
006 Tale of Tales (Yuri Norstein)
008 A Color Box (Len Lye)
010 The Street (Caroline Leaf)
018 Tango (Zbigniew Rybczynski)
020 Begone Dull Care (Norman McLaren)
023 Father and Daughter (Michael Dudok de Wit)
025 The Hand (Jiri Trnka)
027 The Nose (Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker)
031 The Cameraman’s Revenge (Ladislaw Starewicz)
036 Composition in Blue (Oskar Fischinger)
041 Free Radicals (Len Lye)
042 The Ride to the Abyss (Georges Schwizgebel)
044 Franz Kafka (Piotr Dumala) . . . although I definitely prefer Dumala’s Crime and Punishment
046 Two Sisters (Caroline Leaf)
048 Balance (Christoph and Wolfgang Lauenstein)
049 Hedgehog in the Fog (Yuri Norstein)
050 When the Day Breaks (Wendy Tilby and Amanda Forbis)
051 Rooty toot toot (John Hubley)
054 Frank Film (Frank Mouris)
057 Mindscape (Jacques Drouin)
058 Jumping (Osamu Tezuka)
060 The Wrong Trousers (Nick Park)
063 Fast Film (Virgil Widrich)
066 Ryan (Chris Landreth)
070 Mt. Head (Koji Yamamura)
073 The Sinking of the Lousitania (Winsor McCay) . . . in spite of its flagrant warmongering

. . . the Kentridge and Borowczyk films should be seen in better quality . . .

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