Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Bloody Awful List (i.e. Put a Stake In It!)

Several years ago, I wrote an open letter in poetic form titled "Dearest Dracula", in which I lamented that our culture had marketed and commercialized Dracula and his kind to the point of unrecognizability in movies, books, etc. I told him that humans no longer feared him, but that I still knew the truth: that he's a cold-blooded, cursed, undead monster, who sees us as nothing more than lunch.

Things have not gotten any better in successive years. Case in point: one of my co-workers had the Life & Style section of the Arizona Republic sitting on her desk today, and the whole top section was covered with a photo montage of the latest "vampires" from Twilight, True Blood, and such. The title of the article was "Undead Dreamboats".

There are so many things wrong with that title... I don't even know where to begin.

Those of you who know me well, know that I'm a goth girl deep in my black little heart. (How that reconciles with my Christianity is another blog post for another time.) Those of you who know me especially well, know my interest in all things vampiric. Dearest friends of mine... I'm warning you in advance... make sure you're sitting down and brace yourself, as I hit you with the following revelation...

I'm really sick to death of vampires.

Have you picked yourselves up off the floor? Shocked? I guarantee you that wasn't a typo. Yep, it's true. I think vampires should crawl back into the dark grave they came out of... or at least the so-called "vampires" of our current culture. Vampires started out as monsters. Yes, there is an element of empathetic sadness one can feel for vampires and their plight, but on the whole they are not and should not be considered "dreamboats" or love interests. I'd like to borrow a quote from Berni Wrightson, horror comic book illustrator, who echoes my view so succinctly:

Funny thing about vampires: I don't especially like them. They're too cold, inhuman. I've always favored monsters who didn't want to be monsters. Frankenstein's monster, werewolves - I felt for those guys - but vampires... pfui! All we are to them is dinner. However, every time I sit down to draw one, at first I keep my distance, show them for what they are: filthy, bloodsucking devils. But little by little I find myself empathizing with them. What would it be like to be laid to rest but never resting, losing your taste for ice cream and hamburgers and everything, only to be replaced by a need for blood. Crawling up through the cold, wet mud every night, hunting, clawing back down to a moldy, rotting box before sunrise. It's horrible. Nobody wants to be a vampire!*

But today, everyone wants to be a vampire. I don't get it. Vampires are monsters. Even if they are tortured, sympathetic monsters, they are still monsters. I have always found the vampire/horror genre intriguing, because of the discussions of good and evil that are always contained within them, and how cursed vampires can reflect the dark side of the human condition. But I can't help but admit that I have a deep concern that our culture has blurred those lines so much, that we now find ourselves rooting for the monster, and no one wants to be the good guy. The evil of vampires has been stripped or lessened considerably, and all that's left is a cool sexy aloofness, the promise to live forever, superhuman strength, flight. Sounds great, right? I guess I shouldn't be surpised that our literature and movies reflect the morals (or lack of them) of our generation. We want to have all the carnal fun - sex, violence, whatever - and we strip it of any of the sin-implications so that we don't have to feel guilty and can sleep at night. But I digress...

I humbly suggest that anyone who is enamored with the recent crop of so-called vampires, go back and read Dracula by Bram Stoker. Dracula is what started it all. He is a corrupt, manipulative, unmerciful, unrelenting, diabolical predator. Not someone you'd want to date. Yes, evil can be attractive, but it is a lie wrapped in a pretty, deceptive package.

This blog post was prompted because friends of mine have asked me to comment on the Entertainment Weekly magazine's all-vampire issue that was just recently published and, more specifically, their list of Top 20 Greatest Vampires. I will close this post with a quick critique of that list, but I would hope you already know my stance, from what I just discussed. Read on, if you are curious. Otherwise, feel free to leave me a comment about the vampire genre, your favorite vampire movie, etc.

1. Lestat, Interview With the Vampire
Yes, Lestat is an egotistical, selfish, sometimes frightening and cruel, vampire. Yes, Anne Rice's first three novels were some of my favorites. But he should not be in the number one slot. I might even be tempted to suggest that Claudia should be on this list instead of Lestat, being the first fully-realized child vampire in literature. She was more frightening to me in some ways than Lestat was.

2. Christopher Lee's Dracula (Movies)
Yes, I agree with this one. Not sure I'd rank him at two, but he definitely should be on the list.

3. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula (Movies)
Why is he number three? Bram introduced Dracula, but without Lugosi and this film, I'm tempted to say that the vampire genre wouldn't exist in our pop culture.

4. Edward Cullen, Twilight
Any so-called vampire who "sparkles" should not be allowed on this list. That's all I'm going to say. And no, I haven't read these books and I'm not going to, because I don't care for romance novels, let alone young adult romance novels. That's what the books are - romance novels dressed up in a vampire setting. And that's fine for those who enjoy them. I wouldn't presume to take that away from them. But they are not horror novels and they're not for me.

5. Bill and Eric, True Blood
I haven't read the Sookie Stackhouse mystery books that this TV show is based on, so I can't really comment on this one. One of the books has been loaned to me, I just haven't gotten around to reading it yet. I'm a little more willing to try these ones out, to see what the author does with the genre.

6. Asa Vajda, 1960’s Black Sunday
I concur.

7. Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Meh. See my comment about vampires not being something you would want to date.

8. Mr. Barlow, Salem’s Lot
This one needs to be higher than number eight. Stephen King re-imagined Dracula with bone-chilling success when he wrote Salem's Lot. I had to sleep with the lights on days after reading this book.

9. Schuyler Van Alen, Melissa de la Cruz’s Blue Bloods series
I've shied away from these books as well, because they also look like young adult romance novels.

10. Gary Oldman’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula)
No. No. No. Don't get me wrong; Gary Oldman is one of my favorite actors. But this movie was ridiculously awful. I was so jazzed about seeing this film, I stood in line for hours to get into the midnight premiere... only to find myself wanting to get up and walk out about 20 minutes into the film. Bad acting, bad dialog, just an overall bad interpretation of the book.

11. Klaus Kinski’s Dracula (Nosferatu the Vampire)

12. Zoey Redbird, in P.C. and Kristin Cast’s House of Night series
More vampire romance... set in a vampire finishing school... uh, no. I think I'll pass.

13. Jean-Claude, Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series
Yet still even more vampy romance, only with gratiuitous sex scenes. Whatever. Pass.

14. David, 1987’s The Lost Boys
This movie is near and dear to my heart. Even though this movie might have started the whole "vampires are cool" movement, David was cruel, manipulative and a monster to the end, so he deserves to be on this list. Even he knew there was a downside... "You'll never grow old, Michael, and you'll never die... but you must feed..."

15. Miriam Blaylock and Sarah Roberts, 1983’s The Hunger
Meh. This movie is mostly style and atmosphere. Not sure they are good examples of vampires. I suspect they only made this list because of the raunchy sex scene they have in the movie.

16. Blade, the Blade trilogy
He's technically not a full vampire, but I'll allow this one, because this comic book and series of films have done a lot of fun things with the vampire genre.

17. Eli, 2008’s Let the Right One In
YES! This one needs to be much higher on the list. This film haunted me for days after watching it. And Eli is a perfect portrayal of what it really means to live forever. Her manipulation of mortals is so subtle, so artistic... which makes it all the more sinister.

18. Countess Bathory, 1971’s Daughters of Darkness
Believe it or not, this is one vampire movie I haven't actually seen, so I can't comment on this one.

19. Selene, the Underworld trilogy
No. No. No. Wearing skin-tight black leather does not qualify you as a vampire, and that's pretty much all Selene does. Oh, and her eyes turn blue. The werewolves are much better than the vampires in these films. Even Marcus and Victor are more convincing, scary, intimidating vampires than Selene. She just runs around looking hot, shooting weapons. Whatever.

20. Caleb and Mae, 1987’s Near Dark
I concur.

There are two glaring omissions on this list. One is Max Schrek as the vampire in the 1922 silent film, Nosferatu. That movie still gives me the creeps, even without sound, and it paved the way for Dracula and all the other movies to follow. The other one is Willem Dafoe as Max Schrek in Shadow of the Vampire, the movie that gives a fictionalized account of the making of Nosferatu. Dafoe should have been nominated for an Oscar for his performance.

*Quote taken from "The Stephen King Companion", Edited by George Beahm

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Resources for Bookworms

I thought I'd write a quick blog post and share some of my favorite resources, that help me with my daily obsession with books. If you are a hopeless bookworm like me, you know that we need all the help we can get with managing our addiction. :-)

Need to find a book? Before plunking down full price at your local Barnes & Noble, why not try looking at your local used bookstore? If you're in the Valley of the Sun, I recommend Thrifty Joe's Books & Music. If you're an online shopper, there's Alibris, an online used bookstore. However, you'll have to pay shipping, so I only use this site when I'm on a quest to find something really rare, or if I have a coupon that makes it worth it.

If you're looking to go cheaper than used, there's Paperback Swap, an online book club where you swap, trade and exchange books for free with other members (all you have to pay is shipping). Of course, there's always your local library, which has come along way since you were there as a kid. With an electronic database of all the books available in the library system, you can now reserve books, have them transferred from another branch, etc. and you can't get more "free" than the library. I'm not sure when I got out of the habit of utilizing the library, but I need to get back into it.

Lastly, if you do want to buy a new book instead of used, there is also an online movement, encouraging readers to support their local bookseller (instead of the big chain stores like Borders, Barnes & Noble, etc.) however, I've yet to find an adequate independent bookseller in my area. I've heard good things about the Changing Hands Bookstore but it is way over on the other side of town. Not convenient for me.

Okay, painful as it is for me to type that, I will admit that getting rid of books is a necessity, unless you want to wall up your home with books. Those of you who have been following my blog know that I'm currently going through a massive decluttering project in my house. The management of our book collection is a huge task. We made some hard choices, and decided to purge some of our books. There's more paring down to be done, but where do you take them to get rid of them?

Well, you can sell it back to a used bookstore, if it's in good condition. You can also sell it on Amazon, or swap it on Paperback Swap. If you're not interested in recouping some of your investment, you can donate them to a library. If you have children's books, you can donate them to a women's shelter or other charity that works with children. You can leave it in a random place for someone else to discover, a practice explained at Book Crossing. You can also donate them to soldiers, through Books for Soldiers.

When you have a large collection of books, and tend to loan things out to people, it's hard to keep track of it all. We use software called Delicious Monster to catalog our books and DVDs. All you do is hold the book up to your computer's webcam so it can "see" and scan the barcode. Once it's scanned, then it instantly adds it to your list, so no data entry is required. You can mark the status as "Checked Out" along with the name of who you loaned it to. Most importantly, you can store the database online, so if, heaven forbid, you have a fire or some other disaster and lose your collection, the database can be presented to your insurance company as proof of what you owned.

You can also put a book plate into the front of your books, or you can emboss the first page with a personal embosser. We have one of these, and it's pretty fun to use. Of course, we only use it on the books that we know for sure that we're going to keep in our permanent collection.

Just as I-Tunes and the I-Pod have changed how we purchase and store music, the digital age is slowly hitting the literary world as well. If the Kindle electronic readers weren't so expensive, I'd probably already have one. I still like the textile experience of reading a real book - the feel of the new pages under your fingers, the smell of the paper, the illustrations - however, I think the Kindle could really help us with our storage issues, especially for all of my husband's research and reference books. For those of you who have I-Phones, Amazon has an application for a Kindle reader that can be used on your phone. Of course, storage space on an I-Phone doesn't compare to the storage you'd have on the Kindle.

Booklovers are finding new and creative ways to marry technology with reading. One example is DailyLit, an online service that will e-mail you installments of a book, so that you can read it over time. Always wanted to read Oliver Twist? Just tell the service what you want to read, when you want the installment sent to you (daily, weekly) and to what location (computer, I-Phone, etc.) Another really cool online movement, is the posting of epistolary novels as blog installments. I'm currently re-reading Dracula this way. An epistolary novel is a novel written as a series of letters or diary entries. The blog owner publishes each diary entry as a blog post on the day that it was written by the narrator so that the audience can experience the drama as the characters would have. You experience the story in "real time." It's such a cool idea, and I'm enjoying Dracula in a fresh new way.

I could talk about books, my love of books, and anything related to books, all day long. How about you? What are some of your favorite places to find books? Do you have a large collection? Do you collect bookmarks? (I do!) What do you think of the movement into digital media? Do you have a hard time getting rid of books? Leave me a comment and let me know.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Great Purge of 2009 (Part 4)

I've been occupied over the last several available weekends with a huge de-cluttering, de-junking, and organizational project, which I like to refer to as The Great Purge of Ought Nine. In my last post, I discussed the de-cluttering of my living room, family room and linen closet. Today I’ll talk about how I conquered my two bathrooms and guest bedroom.

The front bathroom didn't really need much de-cluttering. Neither myself nor my husband use this bathroom to get ready every day. In fact, for the most part, it only gets used when company comes to visit. So the only thing I had to sort through was the medicine cabinet. I combined all the band-aids into one container, so we wouldn't have two or three boxes with only a couple of band-aids in each. I went through all the over-the-counter medicines and pitched anything that was either really old or we no longer needed. I also re-purposed some bath items from a gift basket I had received, and put them under the sink for our guests to use in case they forgot their shampoo, or soap, etc. All the other drawers and cabinets have remained empty, except for extra towels so, like I said, not much de-cluttering here. I did give it all a thorough cleaning though, and conditioned the wood on the cabinets. It was so sparkling and shiny when I was done!

Then I moved on to the master bathroom. The biggest problem here was all of our toiletries and my makeup. Let me just make something clear upfront; I've never been an uber girlie girl. I'm not into having makeup for every occasion or outfit or trend. I hardly ever paint my nails or give myself manicures. I keep my makeup routine down to a simple minimum. Yet when I actually stopped to evaluate the situation, I realized that there was a mountain of old makeup, lotions, and lipsticks everywhere in the cabinet under my sink. Where did all this stuff come from? (It wasn't the first time I'd asked that question during this Great Purge, and I'm sure it won't be the last.) Do they breed in the night? I wonder... The decluttering went quickly, as I threw out anything that was old, mostly empty or was something I had tried and just didn't like the scent or color, but couldn't bear to throw away. (So instead of throwing it away, I paid rent to store it, allowing it to take up useful space in my cabinet. Duh!) You can click here for some guidelines on the shelf life of makeup and when to throw things out. Just like the kitchen, it's amazing how much you will actually use the things you have if you can see them and easily get to them. I found a couple of my favorite lotions that I didn't even realize I had!

I went through the medicine cabinet and threw out all the old prescription medicines we had. (Did you know medicine - even pills/tablets - lose their effectiveness over time? So if you're not going to use it again in the next few months, it isn't worth it to keep it. In fact, you should probably just go to the doctor instead.) I thew out old brushes I no longer used, travel containers for toiletries that were broke and no longer worked, and all other kinds of assorted riffraff that had made its way into our bathroom cabinets. When I was all done, I lined the drawers with cabinet liners, to protect the wood from toothpaste, spilled makeup, etc. I also gave the place a thorough cleaning and conditioned the wood on the cabinets.

Next was the guest bedroom. I will be honest here *gulp* and admit that our guest bedroom had become a catch-all for junk, unfolded laundry, and all sorts of random things. I think most people have this problem. I cringe when I think of how many times I have said, "Let's just put it in the guest bedroom for now, to get it out of the way, and we'll decide what to do with it later." That's why there was a computer monitor, music equipment, books, stationary, wrapping paper, holiday decorations, wall art and luggage in this room. Plus, the clean laundry ends up on the guest bed too. Not so much because I hate folding laundry but because the closet and drawers in our bedroom are jammed with clothes we don't wear or that don't fit. (This is precisely why the master bedroom is my next stop on the decluttering journey.)

Most of the decluttering in this room just consisted of me finding the proper place for these items and putting them there, simply because I didn't take the time to do it in the first place. For example, I had bought some lovely wall art for the living room that I'd never taken the time to hang, so I finally took the time to hang it up. Sad, that I could have been enjoying it all this time, but instead it was leaning up against the wall in the guest room. *shakes head in shame* It's just silly, the things we humans do.

One of the problems with living in Arizona, is that you can't really store things in your attic or in the garage, especially delicate items. The summer heat bakes everything. It melts holiday candles, evaporates the water from snowglobes, warps plastic wall hangings, etc. So I have holiday decorations stashed away in almost every closet of the house - especially the guest bedroom closet. For now, I'm focusing on condensing all the decorations I come across during my decluttering to one central location, and then, once I can see everything I have, I'm going to go through it all to see what I want to keep, sell or toss. This means that sorting through my holiday stuff will be one of the last things I do. Hopefully I can pare it all down, so that it only takes up one side of the guest bedroom closet and the other side can be left free and open for guests to hang their clothes, etc. when they visit.

Life has been full of drama and has been very challenging for me lately, with other responsibilities taking precedent over this decluttering project. However, I think we are currently experiencing a calm between storms, so hopefully I can tackle the decluttering of the master bedroom, master closet and the office soon! Everything in its place, and a place for everything!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

My Dad's Stereo

From as far back as I can remember I have loved music.

One of the very first birthday presents I can remember, or at least that left an impression on me, was a small 45 record player. I thought it was so cool that I could play my own music on my very own record player – just like Mom and Dad played their music on the big record player in the living room. I would sit in my room by myself for hours, playing Disney records. My parents recognized this love of music and, during my early years, I received many music-themed gifts, such as toys that you could “play” music on. They even bought me a small electric keyboard at one point.

Even as a very small child, my favorite part of our church service was singing the hymns. My Dad would hold the hymn book to where I could see it and would point to the words as we sang so that I could follow along. Even today, when we sing one of those old hymns, which in these modern times is now projected onto a screen, in my mind, I'm following along in the hymn book, watching my dad's calloused finger following along with the music.

Music class was always one of my favorite classes growing up, right along with art class and English class. And my favorite part of being in Girl Scouts was that we regularly sang campfire songs. The very first symphony concert I attended was when I was 8 years old and it was Beethoven’s Fifth. I can even remember the very first cassette tape I ever bought (Welcome to the Real World by Mr. Mister), and of course, I can remember the first CD I ever owned (In Utero by Nirvana - my musical tastes had grown since that first cassette... ha ha).

When given the choice of attending my junior prom or going to a rock concert, I chose the concert without a second thought. In college, I took as many music classes one could possibly take as electives, without being a music major or minor. In fact, music brought my husband and I together. That, however, is another story for another time. The point is music has always been a love of mine, throughout my life.

When most people say they grew up “surrounded by music”, that usually refers to the fact that their parents or members of their family sang or played instruments. I grew up surrounded by music, but my parents, for the most part, did not play any instruments. They just loved listening to music.

I have fond memories of my mom putting on her favorite records as she cleaned the house and did chores. She loved top 40 rock and pop tunes and modern country western music. My mom took me to my first rock and roll concert when I was about 11 years old.

Dad actually did play a few instruments. He played the trombone when he was in high school and, when I was growing up, he played the ukulele (more as the occasional party trick than anything) and he played the harmonica.

What he played the most though, were records. He had a huge record collection: Elvis, classical guitar, the old country western music where they told cowboy stories, classical symphonies, jazz and swing, harpsichord and organ music, comedy records like Bill Cosby, 60s and 70s rock and roll, the Boston Pops – you name it, he had it. I used to love looking at all the different album covers. I’d sit on the floor and pull them out and admire the artwork, and then carefully put them back.

My dad would listen to music that he didn’t even especially like, in order to learn more about it and come to appreciate it. I remember he'd purchased a retrospective collection of big band and swing music and was listening to it, and reading the book that had come with it. I had asked him if it was some of his favorite music and he said, "No, not really. But I'm interested in how it came to be, and how it evolved into early rock and roll." He was a connoisseur of music, with a desire to explore every aspect of it, to taste and sample it all, instead of limiting himself to just the music he liked. No matter what type of music you liked, my dad could always strike up a conversation with you about it.

He was that way about a lot of things.

Our stereo system was in the living room, and my father would normally listen to his music in the evenings with headphones on, so as not to disturb anyone trying to watch TV in the nearby family room. One of my most vivid and cherished memories, centers around that stereo. I was very young, maybe 5 or 6 years old, and my dad called me into the living room and told me he had something he wanted me to listen to. I climbed up into the big blue chair and he helped me put on the gigantic black padded headphones with their spiraled cords. They were so heavy and I was so little, I remember feeling like they were going to topple me over so I rested my head back on the chair. They blocked out all sound completely, which was a little scary, but then they were filled with the most beautiful music I’d ever heard. To this day, I find that I am at a loss for words to describe how beautiful and magical that moment was. It was like my father had opened a secret door onto a wonderful world that I didn't even know existed. I was captivated.

Ater the song ended, my dad lifted up the headphones and told me the story about the composer, Beethoven. He told about how he had gone deaf but still made music, even though he couldn’t hear it. The piece he had played for me was called "Für Elise”, performed in all its beauty on piano with a full orchestra accompaniment. (To this day, I absolutely cringe every time I hear someone clobbering “Für Elise” on a piano. It's unfortunate that it has become such a common piano recital song, and is so very rarely heard or performed with a true understanding heart and master hand. But I digress...) I begged to hear more, so my dad played “Moonlight Sonata” for me. Again, there are no words to describe how the music moved me, or how vivid this memory is to me, to this day. When it was over, I remember asking my dad why it was so sad. He told me that some people thought Beethoven had written it for a girl he loved, but she rejected him and broke his heart.

I was hooked and found myself, more often than not, drifting into the living room and sharing the headphones with my dad in the big blue chair instead of playing with my toys in the other room.

My dad, among other things, was a skilled mechanic. He had turned one side of our garage into a shop and he was always outside tinkering on something or working on the neighbor’s car. He had a stereo in his shop, which was always tuned in to the oldies station. I used to love to sit on his stool by the workbench, listen to the music and watch him work. He would occasionally stop what he was doing and tell me stories about some of the songs, like how he was actually dating a girl named Cathy when the song “Cathy’s Clown” was popular, or he would tell me stories about the artists, like how Buddy Holly died in an airplane crash. I listened to oldies almost exclusively in my pre-teen years, shunning the current top 40 rock and pop tunes for oldies and doo-wop instead. If I was inside the house, and the radio station was playing one of my favorite songs, the door to the garage would pop open and my dad would call me outside: “Hey! They’re playing ‘Blue Moon’!” And I would drop everything and run outside to listen. I had a teacher in high school that was always whistling oldies tunes, and he was continually mystified that I could identify them.

Everyone has experienced that moment, when you hear a song and instantly you are transported to the summer you were 14 years old and hanging out by the pool, or some other vivid memory. Music is magical that way. For me, not only is music simply a reminder of fond memories and different times and places in my life, but most of all, music helps me remember and feel close to my dad, who has passed away, 11 years ago today. When I hear one of his songs, I’m instantly transported back to his shop in the garage, or to the blue chair in the living room and the big giant headphones, or to the passenger seat of his truck. I can’t eat at a “5 and Diner” restaurant or go to a symphony or concert without feeling like he’s nearby.

And it always makes me smile.

I started out writing this article to explain the importance of music to me, but I think I knew all the while what I really wanted to do was talk about my dad a little. And in some way, thank him again, for passing on his passion and love of music to me. It is truly a gift that I cherish.

And thanks to you, Loyal Readers, for taking this little musical biographical journey with me. If you like, leave me a comment with a song (and maybe a link to it on YouTube?) that brings back a vivid memory for you. Let's share some music today. My dad would have enjoyed that... :-)