Dollar Store Halloween Roundup

Ah, the Dollar Store: that magical place where off-brand Cheetos are densely packed into bags three times larger than any reasonable person could ever consume, and name-brand shampoo costs more per ounce than at the grocery store. It’s a place where injection-molded plastic reigns supreme. They have three brands of crayons in Crayola-lookalike packaging that leave a colorless indentation when you drag them across the page, and the entire back wall contains an array of sketchy-looking drain and oven cleaners that are only a thin layer of non-recyclable plastic away from turning the place into a Superfund site. You can get cases for the latest smartphones from Huatomi and Nokiba, screen protectors that only fit an ePad, and a neoprene “tech sleeve” that’s exactly the wrong size for anything you own. If you’re lucky, you might stumble onto a zen garden pen, which is a pen topped by a plastic globe full of sand and pebbles just waiting to be stepped on and ground into your carpet, and if you’re really lucky the ink in the pen will still be wet.

In short, when you patronize the Dollar Store, the Dollar Store patronizes you.

But I do like their Halloween merchandise.

I like their Halloween merchandise because it’s exactly the sort of thing I coveted when I was a little kid. The local, independently-owned office supply store always had wax lips and vampire fangs for sale around Halloween, and they sold the stuff for considerably more than a dollar which meant that four-to-seven-year-old me couldn’t afford any of it. I recall saving my allowance for weeks, only to be told on November first that the googly eye glasses had gone into storage earlier an hour ago, and it was too much hassle to retrieve a pair from the basement—in spite of my willingness to pay the significant markup. Now that I’m an adult, I can afford many dollar’s worth of vampire fangs, which means I could roll in this stuff like Scrooge McDuck if I wanted to (I don’t). And the crazy thing about all of this is that the value of a dollar has more than halved since then, and the quality of these things has only gone up; when you adjust for inflation, I could purchase nine pairs of googly eye glasses at a modern Dollar Store for what the office supply store was asking.

So I did. Well, not googly eye glasses—those things are available year-round now. But I did make buy plenty of other fine pieces of spooky crap:

 

Vampire Teeth.  


You kids today have no idea how good you have it.  Back In My Day, your dollar only covered the cost of one set of vampire teeth, and they didn’t even glow in the dark.  Now you can get a dozen for a buck, and the only downside is that they’re too small to fit an adult mouth.  Back when I was in my early 20s, someone told me seriously that vampire teeth are a good way to pick up girls at goth clubs.  Whaddaya think, ladies?

 

 

Party Favors.  


That’s not a general category of items; that’s what these things are actually called: Party Favors.  Just take a moment to consider the mindset of a parent who, confronted with several dozen ideas for party favors, decides to go with this one. Next, take a moment to think about the sort of child who would be happy to receive this toy. That second scenario is a trick; the only possible reaction to this thing is indifference.

The lady running the checkout thought they should go on the bridge of your nose like a pair of glasses, but I assume they’re intended for your finger, which is exactly the rating I give them: 🖕 out of 🖐.

 

Blood Energy Potion IV Bags.  


Okay, this is cheating.  They sell these things as an alternative way to hold your Halloween beverages, but they’re really the re-purposed packaging from either an energy drink or liquid candy, depending on whose description you’re reading.  Why are they selling these things empty?  And how on earth do you fill them?  A regular kitchen funnel is slightly too big.  A Google search indicates that this is a real product whose website indicates that it has “similar nutritional makeup to real blood”, along with a small-print disclaimer at the bottom explaining that the FDA has not evaluated such statements.

 

Sticky Eyeballs. 


Quick, how many uses can you think of for a pack of eight sticky, glow-in-the-dark eyes?  If you’re the type of person who asks such questions before making a purchase, then these aren’t for you.  They have a texture similar to gummy bears but you probably shouldn’t eat ’em, and they’re reminiscent of the wall-walking octopus toys  you used to get at the bottom of a box of cereal, but they don’t so much walk down the wall as splat against it, and then drop anticlimactically to the floor.  Also, every pack in the store had at least one eye with a malformed pupil.  I’m not saying they’d be worth the dollar if they were shot through with red veins, but it would be an improvement.

 

Sticky Spider Webs.


INT. ACME NOVELTY CORPORATION BOARD ROOM – DAY

CLOSE SHOT – EXECUTIVE
A middle-aged, mousy-looking man in a conservative suit and wire-rimmed spectacles is addressing his remarks to someone offscreen.

EXECUTIVE
–whoopee cushions, and other flatulence-simulators. We’ve also seen strong growth in itching powder and a 33% year-over-year increase in the sale of smoke bombs…

TRACKING DOWN the LENGTH OF the board room table. Executives line either side. We are APPROACHING the man at the far end of the table, to whom the report is being directed. He is in late middle-age, and wears expensive, conservative dress. His attention smilingly fixed on the Executive who drones on, as he winds a set of plastic chattering teeth. This is WINCHESTER ACME III.

EXECUTIVE
X-ray specs? Don’t talk to me about x-ray specs. We’re making so much money on x-ray specs it isn’t even funny. Now for the bad news: sticky hand toy sales are down.

TRACK ENDS IN A CLOSEUP of ACME whose smile abruptly vanishes as he stops winding the teeth. There is an audibly sharp intake of breath from the other board members, and it is suddenly very quiet.

EXECUTIVE
Previously they’ve given us a big third quarter boost during the Halloween season, but this year the competition has been bringing out holiday themed shapes: hearts on Valentine’s Day, shamrocks for St. Paddy’s… They’re releasing Halloween bats on September first; the hands just haven’t been moving.

ACME
Bats, eh?

EXECUTIVE
B-bats, sir. Yes.

ACME
Let’s do spiderwebs. Less surface area, so they’ll be cheaper to produce.

This draws appreciative remarks and nods of assent from the other board members. ACME places the teeth on the table, and they begin chattering vigorously.

EXECUTIVE
Masterful stroke, sir. Spiderwebs.
 

Self-Inflating Balloons.  


These are small, Mylar bags which contain slightly larger Mylar bags which contain… well, as far as I can tell it’s a little baking soda and a third, smaller bag diluted vinegar.  You’re supposed to slap the bag, thereby releasing the vinegar, and the reaction with the baking soda causes the largest bag to inflate, which you’ve already figured out by now meaning that I could have ended this sentence after the first comma.  The outer bag pops violently open revealing a puffy, not-entirely-inflated balloon version of the same picture.  I can’t decide whether these are neat or not.

 

Sexy, Glow-in-the-Dark Pinup Skeleton.  


Actually, none of those words appears on the packaging; it just says “MADE IN CHINA”.  Poor guy was sitting on the shelf in pieces when I picked him up.  Or her; it’s hard to say because I’m not a forensic expert, and because whoever designed this thing wasn’t too concerned with detail.  Anyway, (to the tune of “Dem Dry Bones”:) the leg bone’s connected to the… hip bone.  The arm bone’s connected to the… torso bone.  You repeat the same process on the… other side and suddenly you have a skeleton which can be posed into all kinds of compromising positions.  Be thankful I only bought one.

 

“PUTTY”.  


Ah, the onward march of technology!  Back in the ’80s slime came in much bigger tubs, and you got a lot more of it.  Presumably the reason these are so small is that technology (or oozology, if you like) has improved to allow slime to be dispensed in less fun quantities, and the wicked awesome packaging of the past has gone the way of car fins and gull-wing doors.  Also, this stuff holds its shape surprisingly well, which is a selling point and definitely not the result of being last year’s stock which has been sitting in the back room for eleven months.

 

Fabulous Glitter Skull with Glowing Eyes. 


This thing only warrants a mention because while I was trying to decide whether or not to buy Frankenstein pencil toppers, a middle-aged woman popped up from the other side of the aisle and shouted “BOOGA BOOGA” as she thrust this thing into her husband’s face.  The husband ejaculated a loud stream of profanity and blasphemy which will not be reproduced here.  Another woman browsing with her young daughter said, “we’re in public.  This is… How old are you?  Who acts like that in public? In front of my [expletive] daughter?”  The middle-aged couple quickly retreated to a different part of the store where the man picked up a couple of toothbrushes and pretended they were antennas or rabbit years or something while the other woman looked at me as if you say, “why didn’t you do something?”

Oh, but what was my point?  I didn’t buy the pencil toppers after all.  I did buy this thing, and it’s neat that the jaw opens and closes, but it also sheds glitter like a stripper so I can’t recommend it.

Remembering John Henry

Today my phone popped up a reminder that it’s John Henry Day, the 24th anniversary of the release of the album John Henry by They Might Be Giants. Some years ago at the suggestion of another fan, I entered all of their album release dates into my calendar, but this blog post is the closest I’ve ever come to celebrating.

Like a lot of people my age, my familiarity with the band They Might Be Giants started in the early ’90s when an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures parodied MTV. Scattered among animated music videos for other, older songs (namely “Respect” and “Money (That’s What I Want)”) were Tiny Toons’ interpretations of “Particle Man” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”. I found them pretty amusing, but I didn’t give it a lot of thought until the summer of 1993. One of my parents’ friends had generously loaned me tapes of his Beatles collection; he had purchased original, vinyl pressings of the albums in England, and preserved them by copying them onto cassettes. I was flipping through his albums when I found myself face to face with Flood by They Might Be Giants. Remembering the name and the songs, I asked to borrow it. “Oh,” he said, “I don’t remember why I bought that.” I went home with a 90-minute tape that had Flood on both sides.

It took me awhile to warm up to Flood. At the time, I was most interested in the two songs I knew, but eventually I came around to the other songs, though maybe not the ones you’d expect. I remember being initially lukewarm to “Birdhouse in Your Soul” until learning that it had been a top-10 hit in Britain, a tidbit from the unofficial They Might Be Giants FAQ. Around this same time I remember getting my first taste of Internet access, and realizing that They Might Be Giants had a pretty substantial and rabid fanbase.

Gradually, I got more and more into TMBG, which required more active work in the ’90s than it does now. My parents had no specific interest in contemporary music and for some reason at that age I needed to hear a song several times before I liked it. I hadn’t figured that out yet so I assumed that none of the music on the radio was any good. TMBG caused me to work out how to interface with modern music and with pop culture in general. TMBG were not hugely popular enough to be in your face all the time, so I approached my fandom as a research project. I got their 1992 album Apollo 18 through interlibrary loan, and learned to use a microfiche reader in order to consume reviews and interviews in People Magazine and Stereo Review. One by one I collected the albums, and eventually sent a letter (never responded to) to the TMBG Info Club. This must have been in the early months of 1994, and I would have been thirteen years old.

That summer, I received my first issue of the Info Club’s magazine: a cheap, blue pamphlet containing answers to fan-submitted questions, an essay or two by the band members themselves, and the announcement that their fifth album, John Henry, would be released in September of 1994. After 12 years as a duo, John Henry would be TMBG’s first album with a six-piece band, including a horn section. The title, they explained, was a reference to the legendary black railroad builder and represented TMBG’s triumph over the tyranny of their drum machine. The announcement included a list of the songs on the album and (for some reason) each song’s tempo. At the time, I imagined that the beats per minute might be useful information to savvier music fans than myself. Now I wonder if one of the band members thought it would be funny.

I was terribly excited for the upcoming release of John Henry. In fact, I can’t remember having been excited about the release of a media property prior to that time, other than maybe an upcoming movie. In the interim, I remember placing my first call to They Might Be Giants’ Dial-A-Song Service (“Twenty five hours a day, six days a week, free when you call from work!”) and hearing a low-fidelity version of the song “Subliminal”, after which I went to the dictionary to look up the word subliminal.

The release date came and went because none of the stores in town carried something as exotic (read: unpopular) as the new They Might Be Giants album. A couple of weeks later, I picked it up while running errands with my parents. I remember reading the liner notes in the car and trying to guess based on the lyrics how the songs would sound.

At last, we got home and I went up to my room to listen to John Henry through headphones. It was not what I was expecting. TMBG albums had previously been loaded with a large number of short songs which wasted no time on instrumental breaks or long intros. By contrast, John Henry put musical virtuosity in the spotlight, and featured longer, jammier songs that rocked harder than their previous output. Predictably, it took me a few listens to like John Henry, during which time I started actually thinking about and appreciating the lyrics, which I had previously failed to do. I kept listening, the weather got colder, and I started growing up.

In my mind, John Henry represents the nexus point of several different influences on my life, and a clear break with the past. It was the beginning of my freshman year of high school. I began several long-term friendships during the fall of 1994, and a lot of my current interests firmly solidified at that time. My maternal grandfather, whom I’d been close with passed away.

I also think of John Henry as the official division between early-period TMBG and late-period TMBG. That’s not actually true but it seems that way because those neurons fired so many times in my young mind. TMBG was formed in the summer of 1982, which means that as of today John Henry came out at almost exactly a third of the way through their career (a fact which I’m using to justify this arbitrary 24th Anniversary post, rather than waiting until next year). I couldn’t see that at the time, though. In fact, it felt like the beginning of the end. The reviews I read at the time were good, but it didn’t chart very long or terribly well. Behind the scenes, Elektra Records was going through some management changes and dropped most of their support for TMBG. The album received one music video (the visually disappointing “Snail Shell”) where previous albums had several. The marketing budget for their next album, 1996’s Factory Showroom, was too small to accommodate a music video. At that point, TMBG parted ways with Elektra. Without the backing of a label to make them visible and in light of the constant personnel changes, it felt like TMBG were slowly sinking during the latter half of the ’90s.

In retrospect, it was exactly the opposite but I couldn’t see it at the time. The immediacy of the Internet made it possible for TMBG to increase the amount of material they were releasing, and the speed at which they were releasing it. By the year 2000, They’d released the first MP3-only album (1999’s Long Tall Weekend), and contributed the theme song “Boss of Me” to Malcolm in the Middle which probably earned them more exposure than any other single part of Their career. If anything, John Henry was the moment where Their momentum took over. If They Might Be Giants were a hobbyist’s experimental aircraft, John Henry would be the moment in the movie where the music swells as the wheels leave the ground and the craft stays up. The protagonist’s doubting assistant would take off his cap, wipe his brow and say “by God, it will fly.”

Anyway, TMBG have generously uploaded all of their albums to YouTube, including John Henry, which you can listen to below.

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Last week “back to the salt mines!” (a favorite phrase of my grandfather’s) popped into my mind in conjunction with John Linnell of They Might Be Giants. I’ve been trying to figure out what the connection was until this morning when I had the good sense to Google it and found this feature from 2008 in which various New Yorkers briefly detail how they’ve spent their summer. Here’s how I would answer that question:

One of the nice things about working in downtown Madison, Wisconsin is that the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center is a short walk from my office. The convention center, which overlooks Lake Monona, opened in 1997 and I had the pleasure of singing at the Grand Opening with one of the choral groups to which I belonged in high school. I had no intention of including that fact in this post, but I just remembered it as I was typing this. I can’t remember what we sang, and I’m not 100% sure which group it was—either the Madrigal Singers or the Men’s Ensemble.

Anyway, I’ve only been inside Monona Terrace a couple of times, but I spend as many lunchbreaks there as I can during the temperate months of the year. The rooftop has a large seating area and a promenade facing the lake. I usually eschew the tables and chairs for the little garden area on the west end of the roof where I sit DIRECTLY ON THE GRASS to the horror of out-of-towners who have come to look out across the lake and snap pictures that they will never look at again. I’m not the only person who does this, and it’s extremely annoying when I round the corner only to find somebody else doing reading or doing yoga or just sprawled out on the grass sleeping. How dare they!

Usually I go to read. Sometimes I grab a coffee or a sandwich, or if it’s Wednesday I’ll spend too much money on cheese curds at the farmer’s market. I’m pretty happy with my reading progress over the summer; I’ve probably read an average number of books, but I’m trying to get through my backlog of physical books as opposed to reading them on my Kindle (which is what I usually do). The act of finishing one volume and starting another feels productive. It takes me too long to read novels because I only typically read during my ten-minute commute and on my lunchbreaks, and I’m sure that I actually read faster when I can see the end of the book approaching. It’s certainly more satisfying than gauging it as a percentage. Here’s an incomplete list of my summer reading, in the order I consumed them:

  • That Darn Squid God by Nick Pollotta and James Clay — I feel like I should have enjoyed this one more. A couple of Very British explorers keep a stiff upper lip in the face of world-ending madness. Might’ve been better in a shorter form.
  • The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole — Been planning to read this one for agrees, just because it felt like something I should have done by now. Otranto is the original Gothic novel and commits all the sins of the genre, but it helps to remember that they originated here. Notable in that it begins with a young Prince being crushed to death by a giant helmet which falls unexpectedly out of the sky, a bit like the 16-ton weights in all those Monty Python sketches.
  • Madwand by Roger Zelazny — This is actually the second book in Zelazny’s Wizardworld series, but that wasn’t immediately apparent from the edition I was reading, which is probably why new editions list the title as “Madwand: The Sequel to Changeling”. I dunno, I like Zelazny and I enjoyed this book, though I don’t think I could summarize it for you.
  • Changeling by Roger Zelazny — I was not, however, taken by Changeling, probably because the main points of the novel are either summarized or implied by Madwand. It’s probably better if you read them in the right order. Annoyingly, this was intended to be a trilogy, and the final chapter never happened.
  • Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier — After Otranto, I decided I should tackle another classic. I bought this one secondhand after having seen the Alfred Hitchcock film years ago, and should have read it sooner. An engaging, modern Gothic classic! Had a hard time recommending it to my coworkers who thought it was a romance novel. Well, it is, kind of, but it’s also a suspenseful thriller. I think I described it as “Jane Eyre but with more emotional abuse.”
  • The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge — I won this book in an online contest more than a year ago, and feel bad about letting it sit for so long. What if H.P. Lovecraft was gay? No wait, what if he wasn’t gay, but one of his friends forged a diary to make it look like he was? No wait, what if… and so on. I don’t usually like HPL as a fictional character because authors like to turn him into an action hero. In this case it’s a different kind of action and work about a fifth of the novel to go, I gave no idea where its headed. I expect to finish it tomorrow and will be recommending it to everybody.
  • …and various short stories because I read a lot more short fiction than novels. I tend to bounce back and forth between several anthologies at any given time, but in particular I’ve been crawling for months through Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe which have been surprisingly unsettling.
  • Honorable mention: Vathek by William Beckford is another one of the original Gothic novels, and I made an abortive attempt to read it (my second, actually) because I have it in the same volume as The Castle of Otranto. I get bogged down in the fact that the edition I have is probably 60% footnotes. One day I will just read the damn thing and ignore the footnotes, and I may miss some important context but I think that’s the only way I’ll get through it.

Sooner or later Monona Terrace will close for the fall and winter months during which time I will read less and less because sitting in the break room always makes me feel like I should be working.

* * *
“Are you done?” my editor would say

“What?”

“I asked you for a paragraph of text, not an autobiography.”

“Oh. W—”

“You know what? It’s fine. I’m an editor. This is what I do. ‘I wasted all summer reading books at Monona Terrace.’ Good enough.”

Rain, rain, go away

My wife is a teacher, and returns to school tomorrow when classes resume.  We’re in southern Wisconsin where the weather has been alternately rainy with flooding, cold yet humid, or intensely hot and muggy.  I can only imagine that the kids returning to school are miserable.

Anyway, I was reflecting on the weather and my own childhood when Giant-Size Mini Comics #2 suddenly popped into my head.

I liked the daily comic strips as a kid (particularly Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side, which pretty much goes without saying for people around my age), but I was never much into comic books because I didn’t care for superheroes.  Sometime in middle school I made a deliberate effort to get into comics, but the stores in town that sold new books really only carried the big names (i.e., the ones ending in -Man), so I got my fix from used bookstores.  Somebody in town was buying, reading, and donating a lot of weird stuff on a consistent basis, and I tended to gravitate to books from the smaller publishers, particularly Aircel and Eclipse.

A lot of this stuff was completely inappropriate for an eleven-year-old; lots of violence, more sex than my parents would have approved of (but not as much as I’d have liked), and a level of defiant cynicism that made South Park seem trite when it premiered a few years later.  I developed an early appreciation for the works of R. Crumb and his creative descendants (particularly John Pound, whose book Ground Pound is out of print but definitely (in the opinion of both present-day and early-1990s me) worth your while to track down).

And then there was Giant-Sized Mini Comics, which introduced me to the concept and format of minicomics:  eight Xeroxed pages drawn on a single sheet of paper folded into quarters, then stapled and cut to make a book.  Each issue of G-SMC collected a sampling of minicomics in an attempt to bring them to a much larger audience than they’d otherwise reach.  I grabbed a copy of G-SMC #2 sometime during (I think) the summer between seventh and eighth grade, and was fascinated by the idea of self-publishing on a micro basis, which struck me as the sweet spot between the artwork your mom hangs on the fridge and the kind of Serious Professional Publishing that Demands Capital Letters.

I made a handful of minicomics my pre-college years.  I doubt that any still survive, and if they do they’re probably not worthy of even the humblest blog post (also, they’re probably embarrassing as hell).

I wanted very badly to complete my collection of G-SMC, and eventually I did come across the other three issues (there were, as far as I can tell, only four issues), and it’s amazing:  the one issue I found is the only one whose contents really appeal to me.  It’s not that the rest of them are without merit, but I’d have glanced over them in the shop and moved on to something else.

I bring all of this up because today I remembered a two-page spread from G-SMC #2, a mediatation on water of the running and falling varieties which bored me at the time.  It’s an issue of Walking Man Comics, and I probably haven’t thought about it in more than a decade, and I find that I like it better now.

Enjoy (at least until someone sends me a cease and desist). And click the images to expand them, obviously.

Walking Man Comics Page 1Walking Man Comics Page 2

Hello, World!

Well, this seems as good a time as any for this post. September first has always seemed a significant date; summer is over, school is right around the corner, the days are shorter and the nights are a little colder.

At least, that’s what it feels like. It’s still summer for the better part of the month, school starts at some ungodly early date in late August (at least, it did during my childhood), and the nights are warm enough that you can’t fall asleep without the fan on, but you have to creep across the frozen bedroom at 2:00 am to turn it off.

I had a point, but I can’t remember what it was.

At any rate, I’ve been planning the conversion of this website to WordPress for a long time (like, a long time; I installed it years ago, and haven’t really used it until now). Prior to that, it went through several different configurations, losing content each time. If you can believe it, SacredPotato.com used to be a well-maintained and frequently-updated site with regular features and a constant stream of new, downloadable music. At some point Real Life got in the way and I began updating less and less. So, I’m starting over and giving it another go, this time with WordPress because really, who does all their web design manually in a text editor anymore?

Anyway, welcome back. I promise there’ll be more content and regular updates. At the very least I should have replaced the bog-standard WordPress aesthetics by the time you see this (because trust me, nobody is going to notice this post when it first goes up).