Saturday, April 12, 2014


I love old man garages.  They are inevitably musty, eclectic, and full of treasures.  They are comfortable places for me, probably because I spent so much time in them as a kid.  

My brother and I visited my dad's house today.  I don't get over there very often, but every time I do, I'm struck by how funny and unusual his tastes and style are.  When I was a kid, it was normal to live in a house where the wall art was all antique guns and photos of classic cars he had owned at various times of his life.  There were by far more sentimental car photos than photos of people on the walls.

I learned to drive in the red '55 Ford.  I remember lamenting in the church parking lot we practiced in that the truck was so hard to handle.  "No power steering!" he cried.

The Hulk mask.  I can't believe he still has it.  I was so afraid of it as a small child.  Some of my earliest memories involve my dad wearing the mask, lunging out from behind doors with a growl to scare my mother.  She never thought it was funny.  He loved to scare her.  Later, after they were divorced, he gave me some giant rubber cockroaches and told me to place one in a cabinet in our kitchen for her to find.

This fucking dog.  He's one half of a set of massive matching pitbulls who ensure that the house, an excellent target for thieves, goes unmolested.  He's 110 lbs, the size of a pony, and has the loudest, deepest bark I have ever heard.  He's easily two or three times the size of a traditional pitbull, intentionally bred that way, possibly for fighting or for the sheer terror-value.  My dad's girlfriend took him in as a puppy from a shady acquaintance.  He is quite friendly, but his size and strength are a constant reminder that he is totally capable of killing you - quickly, and painfully.

Growing up, I spent a lot of Saturday nights playing alone in man garages while my dad and his friends hung out, drank, and talked all night.  We would visit his friend Big Don, whose garage was particularly epic, as he was not only a car & motorcycle guy, but a historian and outdoorsman.  There were animal heads, Civil War artifacts, guns, knives, bikes, car parts, everywhere.  They were all amateur bodybuilders, so each garage was also a miniature gym.  None of the guys had kids my age, and I was expected to entertain myself without being a pest.  So I would sit on a bench and flip through cabinet card photos, or peck out tunes on the hundred year old piano he had salvaged from the nunnery at the local Catholic church, or sit at the massive wood slab that was their kitchen table, playing with loose bullets that were rolling around or stacking playing cards into houses.  Once, I found a coffee can with severed deer legs sticking out of it, the butchered ends salted.  This didn't meet my approval.  I also recall finding a huge tortoise shell that still stank of bits of flesh that had been missed.  Big Don's house was totally fascinating.

My dad's garage was good too.  Exploring always felt risky because you never knew when you'd come upon the unfortunate discovery of and unwanted insect.  His garage was small, detached from the house and custom built by the house's first owner, who had had similar tastes.  Some of his possessions had been left behind, abandoned by family after he died.  Unlike Don's garage, ours was dark, and as much as I liked it, with the warped work table, the ancient pencil sharpener mounted to the wall that I'd use when doing homework, and the comforting smells of old wood and years of dirt, it was spooky and unwelcoming.  I didn't tend to linger in there.

I lived in that house alone after I turned 18.  My dad had moved in with his girlfriend, and rather than deal with renting it, he let me live there as long as I paid the utilities.  I had a roommate at first, my middle school best friend, but eventually had to kick her out for her intolerable habits and inability to pay the minimal costs of living there.

Once the house was mine alone, I didn't go in the garage much.  The mood was different after my dad took his things out.  I would work on my various projects in there, painting the furniture I'd drag home from thrift stores, but I really didn't like to hang out.  It didn't feel safe.  The whole house felt creepy and unpredictable once my dad had gone, and I started to adopt weird behaviors in there to adapt to the dark mood.  I'd avoid entering certain rooms or parts of the house after dark.  This was easy, as it was a long and rambling ranch style, so I could stay well away from the east side of the house if I wanted to.  If I stayed up late at night, I'd often become very uncomfortable around midnight or 1 am, sometimes to the point that I would leave the house and stay the night with my boyfriend instead.

After I finally moved out, my dad spent some time prepping it for renters.  I stopped by to see the progress one day and he called me into the garage.  The large door was open, letting in the breeze and light of spring in Phoenix.  I had known for years that there had been a suicide in the house, but I never knew the details.  I thought no one did.  My dad pointed to the unfinished beams of the ceiling and said, "Ever notice that stain?"  I said no.  I guess I had never looked up.  The stain was more of a splatter of black blotches on the beams.  My dad explained that Vern, the old man and original owner of the house next door, had told him the details of the suicide years ago, and took him into the garage to show him.  The splatter was the final evidence of that suicide, leftover blood and brains that had been overlooked by whomever had had the unsavory task of cleaning the poor woman up.  I guess they hadn't looked up either.  She had done it in there to prevent messing up the house.  My dad had never told me because he didn't want me to be afraid of the house.

That might've been why our garage wasn't as cheery as others I've known.

Still, they are magic places and I'm always delighted when I visit people's houses and find that they have one, too - a crusty, dirty space full of weird junk.  Not everyone does this, of course - curate an unrefined ever-evolving museum of personal tastes and pasts.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Fragile

I used to think I was an insecure person.  I (secretly) adopted this errant self-description because I often questioned myself, and when I made mistakes, I dwelt on them at length in a self-abusing way.  Now I have realized that I am merely self-critical and probably too focused on my inner life.

Insecurity is so much worse.  I've been able to study it at length in my working career, and unfortunately have a close vantage on a particularly active specimen at work.  Their behaviors are all the same, and are so quickly recognizable: breathless, child-like bragging about regular shit, or untrue shit; constantly feeling threatened by trifling or non-existent "conflict," assuming everyone is after something they have, and generally being fearful, uncharitable bastards who never take accountability because they don't have the confidence to navigate potentially difficult situations.  I mean...right?

I went to a professional development session at a local foundation recently and ended up sitting next to an exec from another nonprofit.  She was acting just like our resident jerk does such that I felt helplessly bookended by these batshit assholes who can't keep their mouths shut because they have to bleat constantly about their extensive knowledge of everything.  What they don't realize is that their bragging sounds like a distress signal: No one respects me!  I am unsure of my abilities!  I don't feel important enough!  No one held me as a baby!  Save it for your husband, lady; it's grotesque in public.

I've got plenty of sympathy or patience for flawed people, but it dissipates completely when they couch their problems in a pantomime of superiority.  This act tends to go on forever because they have no idea how obvious they are, and no one around them wants to engage in a confrontation that feels cruel when you realize how pitiful and emotionally fragmented someone must be to act so consistently foolish.

It's disturbing when people take their routine problems and turn them into some sort of pathology.  I say pathology because the behavior is so deeply ingrained that it's sometimes impossible to see past it or see that it is a behavior at all.  Perhaps these people are so un-introspective that they can't see an outside perspective of themselves, and so unintuitive that they don't see the way other people react to them.  If people leave the room as soon as you enter, take heed.  If people immediately disengage when you start talking, there is a reason.

The most ironic part of this is that these people are so obsessed with their ranking in life and so fixated on bossing other people around that they don't realize how incompetent and wrong they often are, because they don't see themselves at all.  If you're going to behave in an imperious way, you had better be right ALL THE TIME.  Instead, at least with my work example, she's always wrong because she would rather have an answer every time than answer only when she knows she's right.  Probably fanning the flames of her crazy, I'm forced to question her and follow up like she is my child: Did you do the thing I asked you to do?  Why didn't you do it?  When do you plan to?  How about you do it right now while I watch you, because you can't be trusted.  I don't want to have to do this with someone twice my age. 

The woman at the session the other day displayed other typical actions that I find to be obnoxious, such as agreeing with everything a superior or speaker says, even when they contradict themselves mid-sentence, or before they've had a chance to make their point.  Or trying to finish the sentences of a speaker to show the people around her that she has a preternatural awareness of whatever is being discussed.  When she inevitably finished sentences incorrectly, even when wildly inaccurate about statistics, she didn't let it get her down.  She just kept on hysterically nodding her head and mumbling underneath the conversation.  Naturally this distracted me, as I had to start thinking about all of the snarky things I'd like to say to her.

What these self-obsessed idiots never realize is that life is so much easier when you admit that you probably have no goddamned idea what is going to happen, and when you admit your mistakes.  I have no respect for or trust in any person who will not admit fault when they have made a mistake.  I find it to be disturbing and unnerving when people lie and build ridiculous barricades, anything to not be wrong in the open.  Not only do I write them off immediately, but I become inordinately offended that they actually think they may be tricking me with their dog-ate-homework excuses.  Admitting mistakes is so freeing and preserves your credibility with your peers.  How have these grown ass people gotten this far in life without realizing that?

So anyway, I have plenty of opinions and observations, but as yet I still have absolutely no idea how to deal with these people, because they are both aggressive and incredibly fragile at the same time.  In most cases, I see this blustering, sometimes cocksure behavior as a flimsy covering for a deeply flawed, confused, emotionally stunted person who has probably suffered some emotional trauma and will probably never improve.  You know, not to infer too much or anything.  But I assume that they are so poorly constructed psychologically that an open, plainly spoken confrontation of their behavior might cause a scene not worth dealing with.  Unfortunately, it's really hard for me to ignore annoying things.

Friday, April 4, 2014


You won't get this unless you've seen the ending of Shane, the classic 50s western, but you probably have.  I laughed.  Kate Beaton is the best.

Click through to see it in a normal size.  

Sunday, March 30, 2014

My grandmother's mom.

I'm convinced that modern civilization has overcorrected when it comes to time-saving improvements.  People are so idle now that even the un-introspective can fall into dark, existential quagmires and have mental disturbances that would never afflict someone who simply didn't have the time for it.

Something tells me that Ms. Rose Emma M. didn't have this problem.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

When I was young, I was only ever known as Britt.  No one called me by my full name except for teachers and my mother when I was in trouble.  Sometimes, my full name still sounds like a cringe-making admonition in the wrong mouth.  Some people thought my name was actually Brett.  Upon hearing that, my stepmother decided Brett was a cute name for a girl and called me that until my dad made her stop.

Going by Britt was fine because my mother actually named me after Britt Ekland, adorable Swedish babe, Bond girl, Sellers ex-wife.  I suppose people have been named after worse things, such as cars, clothing lines or inanimate objects.

Britt Ekland came out with an exercise video in the early 90s, called "Britt Fit".  I have a lot of cousins and am one of the younger ones, meaning I was teased regularly and could never quite get the upper hand with my older, cannier cousins on long summer days at our grandmother's house.  They'd either ditch me somewhere or taunt me until I was blustering and angry, at which point it was declared that I was having a Britt Fit.  Clever little assholes.

My whole family trades in uncharitable nicknames for each other, though.  I see one of my uncles only a couple of times per decade, and his greeting is inevitably, "Hey, Bratney."  Every kid had multiple nicknames, from cute, grandma-bestowed monikers ("Britlet") to far more offensive items dispensed by older kids.  My dad's friends all had nicknames as well, come to think of it.  The Doctor/Dr. Benz (my dad, not a medical professional), Mr. Danger, Big Don, Uncle Chili (my godfather).  I remember Big Don's tiny daughter answering the door once on a Saturday night, and screaming over her shoulder, "It's The Doctor! And Britt."  Wordplay is one of my favorite things.

Nothing was worse than being called Britney Spears in high school, though.  It happened for years, and annoyed me more than it should have.  No one has spelled my name correctly ever since.  I'm constantly referred to as "Britney" in emails at work despite the fact that the correctly spelled name is part of my email address, and in my goddamned signature.  HOW DID YOU TYPE IT CORRECTLY IN THE TO: FIELD BUT NOT IN THE BODY.  /brittfit

tl;dr: I'm going back to Britt.

The album cover for my forthcoming volume II of Songs for Squares: 1965

Monday, February 24, 2014

The little streams of the mountains

After he died, I enjoyed reading transcripts of Pete Seeger's "interviews" with the House of Un-American Activities in the 1950s.  He was so young and brave and gently defiant.

I've always loved this version of Guantanamera by the Sandpipers.

Seeger recites part of the original poem by Jose Marti, saying, "My poems are a like a wounded fawn seeking refuge in the forest."

Guantanamera is one of my favorite songs ever, though, and I am convinced that in a past life, I was an old Cuban woman, fat and frumping in a housedress, yelling at kids and singing along to Guantanamera from a wavy record.

Guantanamera is a traditional Cuban song and is extremely popular there.  Jose Marti was a prolific writer and activist and subsequent Cuban national hero.  He traveled the world during his lifetime, and returned to Cuba in time to be killed in a battle for independence from Spain around the turn of the 20th century.  Now everything is named after him.

Anyway, I even love the hilarious 1980s Julio Iglesias version, un-ironically.  Got something to say?

Nothing is sweeter the Joan Baez's version, though, singing in her American-inflected Spanish.

And Celia Cruz

And Joe Dassin

Everything is so shitty in Cuba, but I've always kind of idealized it anyway.  The conflux of races and subsequent strange and heady blending of tradition is very romantic to me.  I'm also inspired by the constant low boil of protest happening among the citizenry, who, in response to the internet embargo, have been burning smuggled international and local news to cds, which are hand-delivered all over the country.  R. Castro's government is pretty powerless to combat this offline transmission of information, which trades hands like produce in a market, or drugs in an alley.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Best History Podcasts

With Mean Observations About Each.

I have culled the entire internet for good history podcasts, and have been shocked at the lack of them.  My only explanation for this is the way that historians often come to modernity only when forced, and often with tears and gnashing of teeth, rending of garments, etc.  Conduct an experiment: go to any children's museum in the world, and observe the technology.  Then go to any history museum.  At the children's museum, you will probably enter a room where you can test out an app that allows you to levitate while mentally texting your bff.  At the history museum, they'll hand you a walkman with foam-covered headphones that plays Wanda Landowska playing Dixie on her harpsichord.

I went to the Phoenix Art Museum with my grandma yesterday and asked if she remembered taking me to the massive exhibit of Egyptian art back in the mid 90s.  It might've been the highlight of my year, because I was still going to be an Egyptologist then.  I studied every item closely and read every line of text.  I still have the Eye of Horus pendant I bought at the gift shop.

Her memory of that day: "Remember when you wouldn't put on the headphones?"
Me: "No?"
Her: "You thought you'd get lice."


1. Backstory with the American History Guys

Covers topics in a conceptual way instead of event by event, with topics like how America came to standardize the concept of time, or how we arrived at our opinions about children.  Each of the three hosts specializes on a century: 18th, 19th or 20th.  Each has bonafide history credentials, and I think one is on the board at Monticello or something.  They are almost never annoying, which is amazing, and when their guests attempt to speak untruths, they are slapped down instantly and with vigor.  In the Civil War episode, some old Confederate enthusiast tries to explain that flying the Confederate flag is ok in contemporary times because freed slaves enlisted to fight for the south.  It's already a stupid fucking connection to make, but the guy implied that MANY freed black men did this when in reality, it was just a few, and this was made clear to him in a quietly ferocious and punctilious way.  In your face, idiot.

2. Civil War Series with Dr. James Robertson

Dr. Robertson tells short stories about the war in a familiar and sensitive way which is only made more adorable by his slight lisp.  He seems to have let the project lapse, but there are plenty of old episodes to listen to.  He covers little known topics in a way that is both brief and very interesting.  My mental image of him is a little more stylized than the reality - no muttonchops, no vest!  No replica "US" belt buckle.  Well, we like him anyway.

3. History Extra by BBC History Magazine

THEY ARE ALWAYS SELF-PROMOTING.  IT IS SO DISTRACTING.  Did you know the BBC History magazine is the best-selling history magazine in the UK and maybe the universe?  Did you know you can get it for $5?  Did you know you could learn more at the website, and buy a shirt, and subscribe, and make a donation?  Well you can.  That said, the topics and guests are very good and I have learned all sorts of interesting things that I didn't know, about things like the black plague, and Henry VIII's mom, and peasant casualwear of the 18th century.

4.  Lapham's Quarterly Podcast

I don't know.  One of the editors narrates this podcast and he has the most incredibly horrible, annoying voice.  I listened to one in which Dick Cavett was interviewed by Lewis Lapham himself, so that one was fine, but I don't know if I can listen to the others if that hideous guy is on all of them.  Lapham's is a pretty good magazine, though, so I am keeping the hope alive.  Why doesn't someone tell him his voice is so bad?  Dealbreaker material.

5. The Bowery Boys

NYC history.  These guys aren't annoying at all.  Topics are interesting and well-researched.  They make me want to go back and tour "George Washington's New York," which is something I think I made up, but is probably an actual tour.  I'm currently reading a book about GW, and all of the talk about Manhattan spots that are still there, and what a hideous little shithole he thought it was, makes me want to go stand in the same places and pretend to be a 6'7 gentle giant who can't have any fun because everyone admires him too much.

6. BBC In Our Time: History

Pretty entertaining because the host/guests are all very invested in their comments and ready to get into a heated match of words at any time.  The problem is that they do, constantly, and it starts to sound like the Jerry Springer version of a history podcast as they bicker away unintelligibly.  The topics are very intense and they get into them instantly, leaving no time for laypeople to catch up.  If you are not at least semi-familiar with the incident they'll be discussing, then forget it.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Downton Abbey always reminds me of the Channel 4 reality shows in which modern people are made to live for a few months in a perfect replication of some other period of time.

My favorite is 1900 House.  A family moves into a Victorian rowhouse which has been impeccably restored to its original era.  There is not a trace of modern convenience except a secret room which contains a phone, in case of emergencies.  Otherwise, the house is arranged and decorated in strict compliance with the day.  My favorite was one of the set historians who admitted (resentfully?) that they used modern paint for the walls and adhesive for the wallpaper, because he supposed it wouldn't be appropriate to use materials containing lead and arsenic.  Ugh!  The patronizing society we live in.

The family also has to dress in strictly Victorian attire and use only products that would have been available at the time.  Incidentally, the Victorians didn't have shampoo as we know it now, which was of greatest concern to the women of the family.  I don't exactly blame them.  There's a reason hair often looks so limp and waxen in historic portraiture.  Not only was there no shampoo, there was hardly any proper soap at all that you could use on your body, because the only soap in the house was the lye for the laundry.  Unless you were a rich French woman, for whom fancy soaps were made as a cosmetic, but this was generally seen as a ridiculous frivolity of the rich.  So it was recommended to just rinse the shit out every few weeks, or maybe put an egg yolk on it, or to use a little castile soap if you had it.  Too dreadful.  Eventually (spoiler alert) the mother and daughter steal into a modern shop and buy some Suave, but they feel like cheaters about it and go back to using the hideous period concoction they probably found in Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861) to be good sports.

Another incredible hardship is keeping the coal stove on.  This house had upstairs plumbing, but to get any hot water in the bathroom, someone had to be stoking the coals all the bloody time, including through the night.  If you don't have servants, this pretty much sucks, and you can begin to imagine why people were so economical with the bathing.

Come to think of it, everything you do is harder when you're a Victorian, and if you're a woman, just give up now.  It's hard to cook, because the stove doesn't heat evenly.  The recipes are very complicated and some of the terminology is different, so you don't know what the hell the ingredients even are.  If you're a fancy or even an upper middle class lady, you have to change your clothes and re-do your hair several times a day, and the rest of the time you just spend sitting around, looking out a window.  If you're poor or a servant, you have to go grocery shopping every damned day, because you don't have an icebox, or if you do, it's very small.  Cleaning is hard because the house is very dark and you have no Swiffer.  Some people had those roller vacuums, which only function by way of slavish, vigorous rolling motions done over the carpet.  There are no paper towels, so you have to do the laundry all the time too, which takes the entire day and is exhausting and terrible even with your crew of forced labor (children), and you can be burned by the soap.  This helps us to understand why standards of household cleanliness back then were considerably lower than ours are now.  It was just too hard.  Also, no trash pickup.  If you live in the hood, then the streets are actually comprised of compacted horse manure mixed with the trash that people just throw on the street and sidewalk.  Old school and poor people still use chamber pots, which they just empty any old place.  The hems of your skirts are quite foul.

And, of course, the women were doing all of this in corsets and tight, unsupportive leather shoes.  And the corsets weren't those stupid decorative things that goth kids wear to prom.  They were reinforced with steel, to keep you utterly in place.  I've read news clippings from the 1890s talking about women who died after falling off a horse or something, because they were impaled on their own corsets.  Also, the clothes were very heavy.  Dresses weighed many pounds, and your undergarments were voluminous to say the least.  And don't wear makeup unless you want people to think you are a prostitute.

God, even leisure time is potentially awful.  You have to sit in a room with your family and listen to someone read aloud.  If you're lucky, they're reading the latest novel, as long as it's not pornographic or written by a lady.  If you're unlucky, which you probably are, they are reading the bible.  There may be some piano playing or embroidering to get you through.  Perhaps you sing, or study at dancing a reel for a semi-annual dance.  Perhaps you are collecting your own hair to boil, wax, and form into small rosettes that you will frame or have set into a brooch for a loved one.  Oh, and you are supposed to have a whole raft of children, half of which will die as infants.  You just keep cranking them out (this is easy, because there is no reliable birth control other than non-compliance, which your husband can divorce you for which will then get you excommunicated and sent to hell) until a few stick it out through babyhood.  Or worse, they all live and you find yourself having to feed 14 unwashed people every day.  I'm just saying.  It was probably hard.

So anyway.  We don't envy our great-great-grandmothers much, even if they did have better furniture.  I would, however, definitely partake in an experiment like 1900 House, and I very much resent that doing so isn't available as some kind of themed vacation for historians, nerds and escapists.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

This is how all my genius ideas go

Like a bolt of lightning, it hit me: How much better would Urban Cowboy have been WITHOUT John Travolta?

It's almost depressing to think of how much better it could have been.  John Travolta has always been distasteful to me for a variety of obvious reasons (gross, a Scientologist, etc.), and while he does play Bud's stubborn hick machismo exceedingly well, he's just a little too unlikeable for the role.  We're supposed to care when he almost dies, right? (Spoilers!) And when he cheats on Sissy, you want to say, "Great! Now go find someone else!" to her.  Although Sissy is pretty much a douchebag herself.

Aaron Latham wrote the screenplay based on a factual Bud & Sissy of suburban Houston, who really were a couple of drunk 21 year old idiots who embarked on a tragiromance after meeting at Gilley's one night.  He also kept a diary during the filming of the movie, and it's a pretty fascinating look into how young stars like Winger and Travolta carried on at this time in their lives.  Hints: she's batshit and he is gay.  He is a gay man.  I keep telling my mother this and she won't hear me.  Ok, maybe he's bi, who even cares, he looks like John McCain now.

I'm not really sure who the other up and coming young actors of 1980 were, but I feel like they could have done so much better.  They only cast Travolta because he was on fire from Saturday Night Fever, and there was dancing.  He looks so utterly out of place otherwise.  Oh!  I've got it.  Sam Elliott.  Maybe he was a little too old for that role, but they should have started there, not with Travolta.

Such a missed opportunity, but at least we have that priceless soundtrack.  Seriously, I do love Mickey Gilley.

Poor quality, but that shirt.

Not from the movie, but still nice.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Rational Reasons

The Parsons version of this song is heartbreaking, but the Fonda version is not to be overlooked.  It's an interesting combination of GP genius mixed with nerdy vocals and mariachi.  And who can resist adorable gangly young Fonda with his Byronic sideburns?

One of the best things about late 60s fashion is that male hairstyles were distinctly Napoleonic in appearance.  Is that so much to ask?  Christ, give me a reason, dudes.