Good times at Little Lake

I was at the opening night of the 66th season of Little Lake Theatre in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, last night. The rain had cleared out  temporarily, the dusk sky was brilliant, and the air was crisp. It was May 1, and May is a happy month.

I hadn’t planned to go. But I am on the theater’s email list, and in the middle of the afternoon I got email saying that the play that kicks off the season is based on a 1910 German farce about a young bride whose life is changed when she experiences a wardrobe malfunction during a parade for the king.

It was written by Steve Martin (yeah, that guy).

What kind of fool would turn that down? Not me.

As I waited for the play to start, in a seat  about four feet from the stage, I thought that  theater must be one of the driving passions of humanity. Food, shelter, sex, theater.Screen shot 2014-05-02 at 9.00.11 AM

I can imagine our cave-dwelling ancestors gathering together to watch a show or hear a story. They  might have been tired, or sick, or cold.  But at the end of the day, they want someone to connect the dots and touch the heart. So do we.

At the end of the day, the people who put on plays could be doing something else. They have jobs, they have lives. They could watch cable or play computer games, or do dozens of other things that do not involve putting themselves out on the line. Their audience could be elsewhere, too.

From the playbill:

The playwrights now how to capture our attention and, for two+ hours,  transport us to places that connect the dots, engage our hearts, nourish the spirit and prompt us to laugh out loud when we least expect it.

“We are hard wired for story,” writes Jonathan Gottschall, a Washington and Jefferson professor and author of a terrific book:  The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Storytelling, he says, is one of our survival skills.

Little Lake’s 2014 season includes eleven plays.



MST3K gets the press it deserves

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Definitive Oral History of a TV Masterpiece in Wired is a long treat. MST3k’s major players start at the beginning and cover everything about the show’s rise and fall, and possible resurrection:

Joel Hodgson Wants To Resurrect Mystery Science Theater 3000 In 2014

(Netflix, are you listening?)

MST3K came slightly in advance of the personal computer revolution, which was just underway in the mid-1990s. I remember the admonition at the end of every episode of this great show:

“Keep circulating the tapes.”

It is time to perform my own minor resurrection—of a superlatively odd  blog I wrote about MST3K. Although I posted it in 2013, I actually wrote it in the late 1990s.

Titled “I channel Pauline Kael,” it is a rave review of the show as the New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael might have written it.

There is a link to a second blog: “The funniest show in the world.” Clicking on it will provide an unexpected reward: a card signed and sent to me by members of the MST3K cast, back in the day.

Here it is, slightly edited:


Back in the mid or late 1990s, when Mystery Science Theater 3000 (aka, the funniest show in the world)  was on Comedy Central, I wrote a rave review of MST3K in the style of movie critic Pauline Kael. I do not remember why I did this—to see whether I could, probably.

Not long ago, I found the review in a box of MST3K memorabilia. When I re-read it,  I thought it was pretty good. The key elements are there—the flying semicolon half-halts, the parenthetical asides, the dashes that sent one thought banging into another, and above all, the over-the-top enthusiasm. When Kael liked a movie, she liked it A LOT.

Well, I thought, a review of MST3K in the style of Pauline Kael would not be the weirdest thing I’ve ever put up on Writer’s Rest.

So, for your entertainment, here it is.



Do You Want to Go Faster?

Most TV works like a belt of scotch; it anesthetizes you. The hot cable television hit Mystery Science Theater 3000 works like a shot of adrenalin; watching it, you can feel your brain cells waking up. It’s got a great, nutball premise: Joel Robinson, a too-smart-for-his-own-good janitor at something called the Gizmonic Institute, is shot into space by his evil boss and made to watch bad movies forever.

In self-defense, Joel and his robot companions heckle the movies without mercy. This isn’t a new concept (Mel Brooks’s short film The Critic comes to mind), but it is the funniest, most completely realized vision of the idea ever put on screen.

Joel Hodgson, the preternaturally gifted young comedian who created MST3K, plays Joel Robinson as a saintly smartass; he has a mild demeanor but a smile that says, “I see through you.” (That smile was probably what got him shot into space.) His bosses are a loony named Dr Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) and his dim assistant, TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff). They check in every week with taunts, bad inventions, and worse movies. They want Joel’s anger. They can’t have it.

Joel Robinson is that rarest of science fiction heroes—a human who is as likable and interesting as his robots. (In science fiction films, it is usually the robots you fall in love with because they have fresh ideas, and are funny.) He has nothing to fight his fate with except a kind heart and a smart mouth, but in MST3K’s inspired mythology, those are killer weapons. Light sabers and proton phase torpedoes don’t work when the enemy is The Castle of Fu Manchu; a sharp sense of humor might deliver a death blow.

Trace Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy are the actor-writers who do the voices of the robots Crow and Tom Servo. They are wonders—jazz artists of language. Beaulieu seems to have a limitless number of voices at his command, and more incredibly, he seems to have no speciality; he does all of them well. He plays Crow in such as way that you hear what the robot says and you hear what he doesn’t say, too: Crow has depths (even if he is assembled out of old sporting equipment).

And in the days of radio, an entire empire could have been built around Murphy’s rich voice. Tom Servo has plenty of teriffic lines, but it almost doesn’t matter. You just want Murphy to keep talking forever (or better yet, to sing).

Watching whatever lousy movie, Joel, Crow, and Tom Servo fight back with parodies, quotations, puns, scathing observations, dirty jokes, disingenuous questions, memories, metaphors, moral instructions, sarcasm, safe driving tips—anything to put some distance between them and the godawfulness of what they are seeing. These guys use one-liners the way that science fiction heroes use souped-up starships: to blast their way out of a bad place.

The miracle is that they mostly succeed; like the beat-up freighter Millennium Falcon in Star Wars, MST3K may not look like much, but it can make the jump to lightspeed. The hapless movie of the week gets left far behind—possibly in another dimension.

The bad movie may really be stuck in another dimension. It is on television; the heckling happens in a place that strongly resembles radio. That is how it seems. You’re watching the film, but you’re listening to these three voices in the dark. Hodgson, Beaulieu, and Murphy are talking fast and brilliantly, and they are taking you away from the movie.

MST3K gives you more than you are used to getting from television. It is in-your-face alive, and it treats the viewers as if they are alive, too (no wonder its fans love it). The show gets you laughing helplessly not just because it is funny, but because it makes you so happy.

Destinies of rust – Gordon Bottomley and the early days of eco-poetry

Lindsay Edmunds:

A striking epigraph, a very early example of eco-poetry, and a memory of the great writer Russell Hoban.

Originally posted on what a lot of birds:

Destines of rustI came across this while archiving: an epigram to an unpublished work of the late Russell Hoban. It’s beautiful, and makes me want to read more of Bottomley’s work.

O, you are busied in the night,

Preparing destinies of rust;

Iron misused must turn to blight,

And dwindle to a tetter’d crust. 

It’s part of the poem “To Iron-Founders and Others”, an amazingly early piece of eco-poetry. I think it deserves posting in full. 

Can we also bring back the word tetter’d? Please?

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My New Year’s Resolution – To Get A Divorce

Lindsay Edmunds:

My phone is incredibly stupid — the kind that provokes sarcastic comments from total strangers. But I recently bought Antisocial, an application that prevents me from going onto social media sites, etc, when I have higher priorities such as work. What is the allure? I’m sure not immune to it.

Originally posted on Bucket List Publications:

Samsung Texting

I’ve been cheating on Darren for almost two years and it’s time I admit it to myself and the world. It’s with someone who’s a reliable, funny, genius and never leaves me feeling lost. But if you’re thinking, “What a ‘….'”, give me a minute to explain because I think you’ve been cheating too and it’s time we get a divorce.

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Where do the stories come from?

I am unqualified to deliver pronouncements about the future as it applies to machine technology, though I did it once with a novel about life in a future machine age, CEL & ANNA. I am about to do it again with a second, darker novel: WARNING: SOMETHING ELSE IS HAPPENING.

These novels are no good on a technological level. They have no technological level. So where did they come from?

Why choose me?

The only advantage I have as a teller of these tales—at least the only one I can think of—is that I have been using computers for a long time. By the mid-1990s I had owned a personal computer for 7-8 years and been using social media for about 3 years.

In 1988, my brother gave me a cast-off  Mac Plus. One day after I got it, I used MacPaint to do the drawing below. Since I can’t draw, I was impressed that MacPaint enabled me to create something recognizable.

Desert Moon, created in MacPaint

That  Mac Plus had a 9-inch black and white screen, a floppy drive, and an 8 MHz processor—it was not even a toy by today’s standards. Yet that little beige toaster was a meteor of the personal computer revolution.

I was living in Washington, DC, at the time and belonged to an Apple user group called Washington Apple Pi. It was a time of high excitement and the reason was simple: The world was about to change forever and everybody knew it. The “something’s coming” feeling was in the air.

There are a lot of experiences in life I’d have been happy to miss but not that one.

Remembering before and after the Internet is useful, because someone who remembers will never, ever underestimate its influence. We are all different because of the internet: you, me, the people at the grocery store, and the grocery store, too. We take the internet for granted now. We should not.

I tried to explain what it was like to watch everything change in After This: Notes on the Computer Revolution.

I wrote about where stories come from before, in a post called The Circling Muse. That one was mainly about Nancy Stouffer, who created a character called Larry Potter and later tried  to claim a piece of the Potter pie from JK Rowling. (She didn’t get anywhere, but her story is weird.)

Below is a picture of my muse, drawn by the brilliant Edward Gorey

My muse: the Osbick Bird

My muse: the Osbick Bird

A little purchase

A few days ago I bought one of those sponge holders that attach to the side of the sink with suction cups. The old one was falling down a lot, not to mention looking a little worse for wear, and it was time.

I have free shipping  through Amazon Prime, and I bought it with a single i-click. I paid $7.44, which may or may not be a good price, but it is a price I could afford, and since I am not extravagant in my purchase of sponge holders, that $7.44 will be spread  over a good many years.

Here it is:

sponge holder

When I bought this thing from Amazon, I did not buy it from Miller’s ACE Hardware, which sent me this letter a few months ago:


They apologized for an inconvenience I didn’t know I experienced and refunded money I did not realize I was owed. They sent me a letter. With a stamp. I like them.

There was only an outside chance ACE would stock something as small and kitchen-ish as that sponge holder; they are not a big box warehouse. And there was Amazon with free shipping and the i-click option, and how much time did I want to spend thinking about a sponge holder, anyway?

(Apparently way more than the average person, because I am blogging about it.)

This little purchase is a big deal because I can remember a time without the internet. If you can’t, nothing about this transaction is notable at all. If you are not fortunate enough to live near a great hardware store, the transaction is doubly meaningless—it never would occur to you to think in terms of loyalty. And it was a trivial sale.

This hardware store in a shopping center with the wonderful name of Ruthfred. I blogged about it in 2009:

Shopping at Ruthfred (where?)

And in 2013:

Shopping at Ruthfred: an update

Being there

I was on vacation in western New York for not long enough.  It was so good that when I returned, rather than feeling comforted by the familiarity of being home, I felt as though I were moving into a sublet. How convenient that the place has laundry soap and food in the cupboards, and that I have a key that fits the lock on the front door. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with me, even though the mail has my name on it, and I have the mysterious ability to pay bills and do work.

Convenient. But not home. Home is the place where I was. (Why, yes, it was a great time.)

One of the best things about getting away is how it reorganizes priorities. Things that were routine go out the window. New things crowd it. In the time I was away I never turned on a television; for some reason, the idea made me flinch. I think it was because I was in the midst of the REAL. Doing things, being places—not watching electronic reproductions of all that.

I used the iPad to keep up with email—you have to—and uploaded a few photos to Facebook. Checked the local weather. That was it for the internet. My work and all the nonsense I use to distract myself from work fell away as if it were made of mist.

So I am here at this Pennsylvania sublet with my name on it. Mentally and spiritually I am still in western New York, by the lake.


Porch and parrot, Chautauqua, New York

People as product

Last week in the thread “Notable Quotes, Excerpts, and Profound Lines” over at Mobileread, I read this quotation:

“The people who use sites like Google and Facebook are not those companies’ customers. They are the products that those companies sell to their customers. In general, if you’re not paying for it, then you’re the product. Sometimes you’re the product even if you are paying for it.”

—Bruce Schneier, Liars & Outliers: Enabling the Trust that Society Needs to Thrive.

It got me thinking about the ways I am product: at Facebook, on Twitter, on Google. The thought that followed on the heels of that one was, “As product goes, I’m not worth much.” Sell my personal information, sure. But use it to sell me something? Not likely. The concept of me-as-dataset is not troubling. Think it is gold? It is not. It is not me either.

A pitch is like an invitation to a dance. To be sold, you have to first agree to be waltzed around by the ones doing the selling. When you are young, you lack experience and find it easy to say yes. By the time you grow up, you are more discriminating.

From the days of people barking their goods on city streets to the present when they bark their goods online, we have not come so very far. We pass by with our own agendas, hopes, worries, dreams, pain, distractions, likes, and dislikes. These characteristics are not stiff and static as they are when extracted as data. Instead they are like leaping all over the place, like popcorn in a machine.

People are quirky and unpredictable product. That is because they are alive.

As an actual living person, you look down on ads from a great height. If you stop to pat the ad on the head and say “cute,” you might buy what the cute little thing is selling.  But  a cautionary note: be yourself. You are not your dataset. You never will be.

The power of story

Last week  I found an old college notebook and on one of the pages was this quotation from Jean Paul Sartre’s Nausea:

A man is always a teller of tales. He lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others, he sees everything that happens to him through them; and he tries to live his own life as if he were telling a story.

Stories are nets we throw over reality to shape and tame it. Some stories have repeatable results: we call those stories “science.” Others make us see higher, deeper, and better than we could have seen on our own; we call those “art.” Others explain life, the universe, and everything else; we call those “religion.” Some stories give us respite and escape; those are entertainment. There are as many stories as there are people to tell them.

There was a scene in the movie Argo where some airport security thugs were enthralled for a few minutes by a man who used storyboards to tell them a tale that they wanted to hear. This scene surely was false to the reality of the escape, but it is true to the power of stories. They work that way.


I believe we are hardwired for story. Think of it. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a story. So is the 23rd Psalm. Every ad tells a story, the purpose of which is to get you to buy what the ad is selling. The adage “change your thoughts, change your life” is another way to say  “learn to tell yourself new stories.”

Stories and violence

Do violent stories cause violent behavior? Good lord, no. Imagine how we would live if they did, with nine guns for every ten US citizens and supersized portions of violence and cruelty dished up every day in entertainment and the news. We would have to abandon public life entirely.

Never mind schools—people would not gather in public anywhere. No libraries or town meetings, no malls, no businesses, no bars or restaurants, no grocery stores. No movies, no shows. What provisions we needed we would order online, and these would be delivered by people wearing body armor, with an armed guard always present (remember: they are afraid of you, too). We would work at home. We would put on armor like we put on coats, and carry weapons always when we went out. If we went out.

A few businesses might survive. They would have TSA-like security at the door, and patrons could shop or eat or be entertained in the shadow of a banner saying “This is what makes us free.” Think of a combination of a police state and a lunatic asylum.

No, violent stories don’t cause violent behavior. A steady diet of stories that glorify and sanitize destruction (by “sanitize” I mean that it is consequence free; the violence goes over a cliff into the ether) would never turn me into someone who murders innocent people. I’d kill myself first, not last. But suppose you are the kind of person for whom those stories do take. Suppose there is a cancer inside—never mind where it came from—that grows because it is fed these stories. Cancer cells need food, the same as anything else alive. They can be starved, too.

It’s a lock and key relationship, the one between who you are and the stories that shape you. Some take. Others do not. Two people see the same movie and have opposite reactions. What is thrilling for one is boring for another and vice versa. This is not news.

I think mass murderers almost always commit suicide afterward because they know that reality is coming fast. And they won’t like the story it has to tell.

Life stories

Do you think stories have no effect on you? Think again. When you watch television, what shows do you choose? What about movies? Books? Games? And don’t stop with fiction. Has a news story ever gotten to you? Why? What about the stories told by relatives, coworkers, bosses, neighbors, friends, and enemies?

When someone says “that’s the way I roll,” what are they talking about? We live and die by stories.

Little, Big

I know people who get tens of thousands of  hits a month on their blogs, but I am not one of them. Barring some freakish celebrity, this will not happen. Should I stop blogging, knowing this?

Sometimes it is claimed that numbers below a certain benchmark are equivalent to “nothing” or “nobody.” (This benchmark is determined arrogantly by those who have a stake in believing it.) But in blogs, as in so much else in life, small can be beautiful. The people I reach and who reach me through Writer’s Rest are—believe me—a very, very, VERY far cry from nobody. I learn from them and they from me. The campfire that is my blog has attracted some choice readers.

This is not nothing. It is not even small. Considering that every act reverberates forward, we don’t know (and often would not believe) the scope of our influence.

This came clear when I was thinking about, of all things, sewing. A woman from another time who sewed beautiful things for her family and friends would not be on board with the suggestion that she was sewing for “nobody.” She would not consider her numbers to be inadequate. Nor would they reflect on the quality of her work. The recipients of her gifts got to feel lucky. Especially lucky.

Everyone loves to discover something the greater world has not tuned in on yet. A little restaurant. A great store. An inn that flies under the radar. This is the world I live in, and it is a good place.


What small things make big differences in your life?