Saturday, July 14, 2018

The House With A Clock In Its Walls

First, it must be understood that even when I was a very small child, I was quite convinced that my next-door neighbour, Mrs. Ireland, was a witch. She lived in a large house in the middle of a large piece of property in the middle of the city, a creaky, drafty place with more history to it than any couple could actually need, she could make macaroni and cheese sauce with cheese, milk and flour and no orange powder whatsoever and, oh, yes, she could read minds.

How do I know this? Well, as soon as I concluded that she was a witch, she gave a box of books to my parents that just happened to include The Witch Family, a children's book about a crazy old hag of a witch whose nasty temper is mollified by being around a young child. I got the message. I got the other part of the message, too, that while she might be a crazy old hag of a witch some of the time, it was my solemn duty to be near enough to her that she didn't turn me, or anyone in my family, into a toad. This was made easier by the fact that, at least when I was around, she was a very nice witch indeed.

Nevertheless, it was with some trepidation that I went up to her cottage, just our family and the two of them alone for a weekend in the middle of Northern Ontario where, I imagined, one could boil an entire family alive and no one would ever know. Still, I would be there, after all, so she was likely to be a very nice witch still. And she was, mostly, except for that first night.

My dad read books to me a lot when I was a child, and that weekend was no different, but the drive up to the cottage, hefting everything into the house, and dealing with my sister's whinging - I was a perfectly obedient child, of course - had left him rather obviously exhausted, and so Mrs. Ireland volunteered to read a chapter of one of her favourite books. We vanished upstairs, me taking the steps at as rapid a pace as I could manage as Mrs. Ireland did have excellent taste in books and had read books to me before, her smooth pleasant tones wrapping around into various voices that varied from comedic to serious.

She read the first chapter of The House With A Clock In Its Walls and it was quite unlike anything I'd ever heard. The story was old-fashioned, taking place in the late 40s, but it still felt very modern and I identified with the main character, pudgy Lewis, unlike anyone else then or since, but it was the language of the book that attracted me. I understood every image and phrase, but they were so mature and confident, so refined and grown-up sounding, and they rolled around in my head like rolling a luscious bite of ice cream in one's mouth.

I loved it. And the first chapter was over in about fifteen minutes. She snapped the book shut with authority and put it down on the dresser, just out of reach.

"Did you like that, Jimmy?" she asked. The light of the bedside lamp reflected off of her glasses, hiding her eyes behind the shine, and so I didn't dare risk anything more than a nod and a quiet, "Yes." She smiled broadly.

"Well, that's enough for tonight at any rate. Perhaps another couple of chapters tomorrow. It's time for you bed." And, with a shake of her finger, she admonished, "No more reading tonight."

Her feet had just fallen upon the stairs when I turned the bedside lamp back on and started in with chapter two. Several hours later I was nearly finished when I heard feet hitting the bottom steps and rushed to turn out my light, hiding the book under my pillow. If my mother knew that I wasn't asleep, I didn't notice as I lay there, trying to look at beatific and asleep as possible while willing all the grown-ups to get to bed already.

I finished the book somewhere around midnight. I know because the cuckoo clock on the mantel downstairs let out twelve mournful whistles.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky

About three years ago, I read Anne Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy, followed by the entirety of Seanan McGuire's October Daye series, followed by her Wayward Children books. About halfway through this exercise, I realized that it had been some time since I'd read a female author, and that it was something I really missed. I followed this up by reading Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy, during which I picked up a few other books by lady authors including, at the recommendation of Levar Burton's fantastic podcast, Lesley Nneka Arimah's "What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky."

It's a pretty short book, with 12 stories, averaging about 20 pages each, and I read it ... well, today. This Saturday. I started in the morning and finished it up as the chicken breasts I'd prepared for dinner slowly smoked in the Weber grill. One of the best compliments I can give this books is that it distracted me such that the smaller of the breasts dried out a bit, and I had to butterfly the largest of them as I didn't move them in and out of hotzones as I should have.

These aren't stories by a woman writer. These aren't stories by an African-American writer. These are stories by a woman who's an ex-pat Nigerian, and not from one of the better times in Nigeria's history. These pages bleed a particular culture, a specific period and time, and a particular set of characters. In the hands of a lesser author, 12 stories with these limitations could feel stale and unlived-in, but LNA is not a lesser author.

Her characters feel real, even when she's writing magical realism or straight-up afro-futurism. I honestly think that my favourite tale is "What Is A Volcano?", which has one human character. The rest of mythological characters, acting out a tale that resonates in a way that feels like it could've been told by grandmothers to their granddaughters for millennia.

So, what are the themes? Women and families, mostly, and especially how the latter screw-up the former. There are a lot of damaged women in these pages, and people who don't feel comfortable with stories of abuse - emotional, verbal or physical - should read this book with that in mind. I recommend this book to everyone else, though, and I do mean everyone.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Be More Kind

I unashamedly love Frank Turner. I mean, I like his music because it's amazing and sincere and driving and all the things that I want from pleasant ear-sounds, but I also love Frank Turner. Not in spite of him being an atheist and a punk, but because of those things, because what he is, is something I can learn a lot from and because those things make him sincere and open - what you hear when he talks and when he sings is what he is, and I like that.

His latest album is called "Be More Kind," the title taken from a phenomenal poem by the phenomenal Clive James. I like the album, as I've liked every previous album, and honestly the title track isn't my favourite*, but it is a great song, and has the distinction of encapsulating a thought that had been passing through my head for some time now.

This last Wednesday, June 27th, I took my son to a Frank Turner - my first concert with this artist, and my son's first concert in a club setting. It was a great night. The opening acts were amazing**, the crowd was active but not too rowdy and Frank Turner really knows how to put on a show.

And, yes, he did sing "Be More Kind." He introduced it with the admission that kindness won't actually solve the world's problems. I mean, not all of them, it will take more work and effort than just, "be more kind," but it's a place to start and perhaps the only place to start from. And I agree with that and have been posting up to Facebook, various message boards and other places examples of kindness and working in my own life to show more kindness to those around me. I don't expect massive dividends from that, but, well, it's something to do, and I've reached the conclusion lately that only doing things because they "pay off" in some giant way is another kind of bigotry.

See, I'm a Christian, and in the past year or so, that's become a statement that I have to defend. Not in the sense of defending my faith, but defending what people perceive Christians to be.

Don't try to defend this. Just don't.
"I'm a Christian, but not the kind that thinks it's cool to make fun of disabled people."

"I'm a Christian, but not the kind that thinks that abortion will stop if we just passed the right laws, but that public shootings can't be stopped by passing the right laws."

"I'm a Christian, but not the kind that enthusiastically supports the separation of families at the border because it's 'legal.'"

As the list of atrocities that my fellow believers willing associate with rises, I find myself frankly exhausted by it, but there's a distinct pattern I notice to the things that I find I have to defend myself against: they are, by default, rather passive.

Voting is a straightforward and simple process, the absolute basic minimum expected in a functioning democracy. Most anti-abortionists I know do absolutely nothing about their pet issue other than share memes on Facebook. And defending immigrants? That takes work. I know more about that than most, being an immigrant and all.

I was pondering this on the drive home as Graeme rifled through the radio stations, trying to find something he could listen to that wouldn't keep him from napping and settled on a Christian music station.

(Pause for laughter)

In total, we ended up listening to five songs, plus, of course, Oceans.*** Three of them were perfectly forgettable fluff, the sort of songs where you really could replace all of the names of God in the song with "baby" and end up with a treacly pop love song. Two of them stuck out in just how wrong they were. First, God Is On The Move by 7eventh Time Down which, first, let's pause about that name for a moment. Anyone else want to pronounce the first word there as "Seveneventh Time Down?" Anyhow, this is about things that make God move. It is, apparently anytime:
The modern Christian's protest sign.

  • a heart turns from darkness to light
  • temptation comes and someone stands to fight
  • somebody lives to serve and not be served
  • in weakness someone falls upon their knee
  • [someone] dares to speak the truth that sets men free
  • the choice is made to stand upon the Word

So, the first two are completely internal and passive, with nothing about how they actual impact anything other than the nameless heart/someone feeling any effect of the change. The third is utterly undefined but it, indeed active. The fourth is, again, completely internal. The last two are nebulous Christian-speak that basically mean, "telling people about God." So, not entirely passive, but not what I'd call "sharing the gospel" because, well, there's a lot more to that then just saying stuff.

" It's like, how much more evangelical
George Michael could this be? And
the answer is none. None more evangelical
George Michael
The other song was literally just about people being unwilling to say "the truth." This truth was utterly undefined in the song, but it was clear, from the songwriter's perspective, that "the truth" was dangerous and people didn't like it.

Frankly both of these songs are worse than their bubblegum pop brethren because they're a call to passivity wrapped up in the package of a call to action. I should clarify, though, lest this be seen as my shaking my cane at the kids these days. My generation has no right to really complain about vapidity in our music. For every time Rich Mullins wrote "Hard To Get," Michael W. Smith wrote "Go West Young Man."

Which, let's talk more about songwriting and Christianity, shall we? That first song, by Seveneventh Time Down, leans heavily on the phrase, "God moves," which comes from the poetry of William Cowper, an 18th century English poet, hymnwriter, abolitionist and insane person. No, really, he was institutionalized a couple of times in life, for what we now think was bipolar disorder, and yet he wrote these poems excoriating the slave trade, and Britain's participation in it. Why does that matter? Let's go to verse four of God Moves In Mysterious Ways:

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Do you think that an abolitionist was writing to the white members of the congregation when he wrote that? Cowper's poetry was a call to action, not a back-pat for all the awesome stuff we've already done. So, act. Be more kind. All the time, every day, as much as we can. And, yes, some times, "be more kind," is going to mean, "stay at home and eat ice cream because you're exhausted," because self-care is a thing, but be there when you can. Don't stand. Don't speak, unless you need to. Be. Do. Move.

* That would be "Don't Worry," which is a fantastic reverse advice column where the writer is basically saying, "I have no advice, other than don't worry about not knowing what to do because none of us know either."

** I'd heard of The Restorations and caught one or two tracks, but they put on a fantastic live show. The other act, a vaguely reassembled version of Dead Rosenstock, was wonderful as well, with that same brutal honesty I love in a musician. I didn't buy anything from them but a sticker, though, being somewhat low on funds.

*** An extension of Godwin's Law - as you listen to a Christian music station, the probability of hearing Oceans approaches 1.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Fantastic Four Opener

There's so much else I need to do but, well, Facebook happened and now I'm writing the beginning to a Fantastic Four script.

[We open on shot of a young man's hand putting ridiculously sugary cereal, milk and bread onto a large serving tray.]

Voice from the other room: Johnny! It's about to start! This was your dumb idea, so get your butt in here!

[Pan up to Johnny Storm's face. He's grinning from ear to ear. Turn to over shoulder shot, showing Sue sitting on a couch in front of a giant TV. To her right is a giant figure made of orange stone, sitting in a massive-sized recliner that looks like it's seen better days.]

Johnny: One second, sis! You're the one who's suddenly too cool for Choco-Frosted Sugar Bombs.

Sue: Remember, I like it lightly toasted (Johnny's finger catches fire and he quickly colours the bread) and no powers, it makes the bread taste funny.

[Johnny picks up the tray and carries it into the other room.]

Johnny: Of course.

[Places the tray on the table. Ben, the rock man, reaches over and picks up a giant-sized bowl of cereal with an equally large spoon.]

Ben: I think this is a good idea, kid. Not often people get to see old Ben Grimm on the screen without screamin'.

Sue [reaches out and touches his arm with no small amount of kind affection]: Oh, Ben, the people LOVE you.

[Ben grumbles]

Johnny (shouting into an adjacent room): Hey, Reed, you coming in?

[Just Reed's head appears in the room.]

Reed: Yes. Just a moment.

[There is an explosion in the lab.]

Reed: Maybe a minute.

[His head disappears. No one moves. Everyone eats their breakfast as we hear the sound of fire extinguisher, a hint of smoke curls in the bottom of the shot.]

Sue: Need any help, Reed?

Reed [distant]: Ow ow ow, no, I've almost got it - [explosion] oh, dear.

Ben: Keep it down, stretch!

[Now at a view over the couch, we can see on the screen an anime style screen that reads, "The FantFastic Four.]

Sue: Oh, no, they went with that name.

Johnny (mockingly fricative): Fanfastic four. So stupid. Tested well with kids, I guess.

[On the screen, the characters are introduced. Ben appears as the thing and decks a robot.]

TV Ben: It's clobberin' time!

Ben: What? That's ... that ain't how I talk!

[Sue and Johnny snicker]

Ben: Aw, shaddup, you both get to look thing and purty.

[Johnny throws a pillow at Ben as Sue's phone rings. She answers.]

Sue: Hello, this is - oh, I see.

[She changes the channel to a news channel where The Wizard, The Trapster, Sandman and Medusa are holding hostages in Central Park. The camera shakes.]

The Wizard: You will bring 40 million dollars to Central Park at once, or I will activate the antigravity discs I've attached all of the city! Manhattan will truly have a "sky"line. [pauses] [licks lips]

Trapster (off-screen): I told you - don't try to make "sky"line happen.

The Wizard: Shut up you f-

[Sue shuts off the TV]

Sue: Sorry, boys, your cereal's getting soggy. The city needs us. (another look into the lab) Reed?

[Reed enters the room, a small cellphone in his hand.]

Reed: Here - Fantasticar's waiting for us.

Ben (muttering): Stupid name.

[The heroes run for the large bay windows to outside and leap through them - they shimmer, like a hologram, as they do so.]

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

13th Age: The Game

When I started writing this, I found that about half of what I was writing wasn't about the core game itself, but rather about the campaign I'd built around it, when the intent was to really review the game. As such, I'm shunting that information into a follow-up post about the campaign and sticking to talking about the actual mechanics of 13th Age here. I am, however, including a short run-down of my history in gaming.

I started when I was nine years old, at a friend's birthday party. He'd snuck into his older brother's room and made it out with some of his gaming books - namely, a copy of Expedition to Barrier Peaks and most of a Fiend Folio. All he knew was that it was some kind of game, and that his brother and his friends really liked it and yelled at him whenever he tried to get into the room if they were playing it. The books got passed around but, well, none of them actually told you how to play the game, so most everyone lost interest and walked away.

Everyone except me - I read through and, with my limited understanding of the rules and a set of Yahtzee dice, we set off for glory. It was, as you can guess, a complete and utter bodge of a game, with me making stuff up on the fly, and while I don't recall much of the sessions, I remember skipping whole rooms because I just didn't understand what they were telling me to do. At the third session, his brother found us playing and, rather than being angry, was elated and let me borrow his books for a weekend. I basically memorized them.

In the ensuing decades, I ran and played a bunch of games, but in the end, I've always come back to Dungeons and Dragons, and I've played every edition up to 4th edition, and until picking up 13th Age most often played 3.5 or Pathfinder.

A friend told me about 13th Age and loaned the book to me and after only a few pages I was pretty well hooked. It did a lot of things I wanted in an f20* game, while having a few flaws that seemed easy enough to file off. After playing for the better part of two years, here's my rundown. First are the things that 13th Age keeps from previous editions of the game. Second are the things that 13th Age doesn't do that some people might find integral to their gameplay. Third are things that 13th Age really innovates, either coming up with new mechanics whole-cloth, or incorporates from other games in a unique way. Last are positives and negatives.

Things 13th Age Keeps

The basic tropes
Y'know, elves, trolls, orcs, fighters, barbarians, druids, that kind of thing. You're definitely playing in a D&D world if you're playing from the resources in the 13th Age book.

You roll a 20-sided die for almost everything, adding or subtracting numbers and comparing them against a target number to determine success. More on this in the innovations section, but it's nice that they keep this basic mechanic in place because it's familiar and it works.

Of all the 4th edition mechanics, this was probably my favourite, from a player perspective. Instead of having healing spells that add some random number of hit points to your character and can be mechanized so hard that you can literally have practically infinite healing in a stick, you have a set number of times in a day that you can roll a few dice to get back hit points, and then you either rest or, well, die. There are spells and items that can effect this, but it sets a pretty hard limit on PC resources.

Simple stat blocks for monsters
Most monsters can be written up on the front of a 3 x 5 card and I've yet to find one that can't fit on both sides. This is similar to 4th edition monster presentation, although the mechanics are quite different.

Straightforward character abilities
Another adaptation of 4th edition design strategy, with the exception of a handful of highly narrative spells or abilities, most character abilities can be summed up in a single sentence on a character sheet or, again, a 3x5 card.

Things 13th Age Doesn't Do

Everything has a stat block
3.5 and Pathfinder have a lot to recommend them, but the feeling that I needed to know the Wisdom score of ever random peasant farmer wasn't one of the pluses.

The golf club effect
In 3.5 and, to a slightly lesser extent, Pathfinder, at a certain point a martial character could expect to keep three or four weapons on them at a time in order to actually be effective at attacking all enemy types. That isn't an issue in 13th Age - you can have the same weapon at the start of the game as at the end, without much effect on how difficult it is to hurt stuff.

Technically, this isn't true. Treasure, including gold, is still part of the game, but there are no rules for how to spend it or how expensive things are or any of that. My players are currently at epic level, and I think the richest of them has about a thousand gold pieces - it just doesn't come up that much in the game's mechanics and you can step right past it if you want.

Tactical map combat
There's no counting squares, no facing, no real need for miniatures. We still use them fairly often, because while you don't use an actual combat, whether you're in melee combat or not does matter for the use of some abilities, and moving around in combat can still create problems for your character, but it's not represented in blocks of formal movement around a map.

Things 13th Age Innovates

Instead of skills that are tied to a specific ability that may or may not ever be used (seriously, whose idea was it to have "Use Rope" as a discrete skill), 13th Age characters have backgrounds, descriptions of what they did before adventuring or the things that lead them to become adventurers. Backgrounds in my current campaign vary from the concrete, like "Seer" and "Bodyguard," to the more abstract, like "Pyrophile."

Escalation Die
In the first round of combat, nothing much special happens. In the second round, you get a +1 on all attacks. In round three, that's +2, scaling up to +6 by round seven, should things get that dire. This is best represented by having a six-sided die on the table, the escalation die. This has several effects. First, it discourages PCs from using their strongest attack in the first round. They'll usually only have one chance at that, and if they try it when they have the least chance of it succeeding a couple of times, they'll soon learn to wait a round or two. Second, it builds a nice sense of mania into the combat. By the time you get up to +4 on the escalation die, your PCs will hit so easily that they'll start coming up with crazy ideas for attacks and in-combat actions that really just make the game fun.

Game Mechanics
The mechanics are really a synthesis of several different f20 games, but in the end, you roll a 1d20 and determine the effect, and then maybe roll your damage dice. Which - get this - you get one damage die per level. Yes, a barbarian with greataxe is rolling 10d12 for damage at 10th level, but don't worry, the monsters keep up with you.

The game comes with 13 of them already written out for you, but there are various builds out there - basically, icons are characters, concepts or beings that your character is somehow connected to. It's essentially a mechanic that tells you when the big movers and shakers in the campaign world do something that impacts your character. I really like this because I tend to create these complex, deep campaign worlds and then forget to have the players actually interact with them. This mechanic takes that out of my hands and puts it in the PC's hands.

Monster Mechanics
This is a frickin' DM's paradise. You roll 1d20 and you rarely, if ever roll damage or really make a decision on what the monster does, mechanically. Damage happens, status effects happen, and as a DM you're free to build up cool and interesting characters without worrying about whether the dice will let you do it. It's really quite wonderful. (My favourite is building encounters that degrade as they go on - someone uses a fire attack, the environment gradually burns down around them inflicting damage, causing issues with ranged attacks due to smoke, collapsing floors to make movement difficult, etc.)

One Unique Thing
This might be my favourite thing about the game - every single PC has something about them that makes them special, different from everyone else in the game. This can seem sort of silly, like my rainbow-coloured half-orc, but even then, it has utility in the game. Gorvak, the rainbow-colored half-orc is kind of a legend at this point, and specifically because he stands out in a crowd. You never have to question whether or not he's in a fight, and tons of people know him because of it. Everyone else has their own special thing, too, and all of them get use in the game, some more than others.

Positives and Negatives

+ Fantastic bestiary - It is, quite simply, the bestiary by which I judge all other bestiaries, with sections on ecology and use in game that just make them sing.
+ Fights are simple - I like theater of the mind combat, and the lack of a combat map can actually make fights more strategic, just in a different way.
+ Improvisation - In the last session, I improvised an epic-level fight on the fly. Try that in 4th edition.
+ Light narrative structure - With Backgrounds, Icons and the One Unique Thing, I can tell stories with my players without requiring them to take a writing course.
+ Straightforward play - We've never taken more than a minute and a half to look up a rule.

- DMs can roll a lot of dice - While you only roll a single die for each monster, you can easily have 15 different monsters in a fight - using an online dice roller evens this out, though.
- Fights can take a lot of creativity - Where the monster mechanics are so simple, unless you do something really interesting with the encounters, they can feel kind of same-y.
- Treasure doesn't matter - I grew up basing my games off of the information in a module, and playing lots of Final Fantasy, and not having long lists of game-impacting magic items feels wrong somehow.

* This is the term some people use to refer to games that operate off of the rolling of a 20-sided die, but may not use the actual Wizards of the Coast d20 mechanics.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Weird Al's Ill-Advised Vanity Tour: My Impressions

Weird Al is known for, well, quite a few things. At the most basic, though, he’s known
as a parody artist, for talking the most popular songs of an era and reworking the
lyrics and the sound with hilarious results. Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” becomes “Like
A Surgeon,” Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” become “Eat It,” and so on, and over time
most artists came to regard it as a sign that they’d “made it,” if Weird Al did a parody
of one of their songs (with the notable exception of the artists behind “Gangster’s
Paradise” who were …not please with Al’s version, “Amish Paradise,” at least initially.

He was also known for his high-energy concerts, featuring elaborate costumes and
stage sets and videos between songs. Because of their complexity, his concert tour
appearances tended to be basically the same at each stop.

The thing is, only about half the songs on each album are parodies, and fans, the
kind of fans who pay tickets for concerts, love those original songs. Added to that,
his concerts are, by his own report, kind of exhausting. So, this time around, he
decided to do a very different kind of concert. He’d have an opening act, followed by
Al and his band sitting down and playing a bunch of their originals. He was up front
that only those who are really into his music would be up for it, an audience that
includes my wife and I, and so we bought each other tickets for Christmas and, on a
chilly night in March, headed to the Music Hall in Portsmouth.

The opening act was Emo Phillips, who was significantly funnier than I remembered
from his appearances on Night At The Improv and Caroline’s Comedy Hour, and I
remember him being the funny. After he had finished making us all laugh, there was a
quick break while the stage hands set up for the concert, and then the guys walked
out and sat down. Al’s guitarist to his left, bassist to the right, drummer behind and to
the left, keyboardists behind and to the right, and after a bit of banter, they got into their
set list.

“Midnight Star”
Off of “Weird Al In 3-D,” this paean to the supermarket tabloid has always been a favourite of mine. The
vibe of playing this in concert was fun, with the musicians interacting more and it was obvious they
genuinely found it as funny as we did.

“The Biggest Ball Of Twine In Minnesota”
Showing that sometimes art imitates life, Minnesota was actually the home to the biggest ball of twine in the
world prior to the release of this song but, whatever. This song’s a light mockery of weirdo Americana, and was
obviously familiar to the audience as we all sang along to the chorus, at least. The highlight, though, was the
guy in the center of the auditorium who stood up and held high his sign emblazoned with “Twine Ball Or

“Stuck In A Closet With Vanna White”
This was the first song of the concert that I’d really hoped I’d hear and I wasn’t disappointed. The acoustics
were still getting nailed down at this point, so I think people who didn’t know the song couldn’t understand
the lyrics, but I did, and it was magical.

“Let Me Be Your Hog”
Yep, he played all 16 seconds of this magical gem.

“Truck-Driving Song”
Probably my favourite original off of “Running With Scissors,” this was an excellent rendition of the song,
made better by Al trying and often failing to reach the low notes, and settling for a sort of buzzing baritone
that was kind of adorably frustrating to him. His vocals were still strong, though, and this is the first time
the band really got a chance to show off. Al’s the mad genius in the lab but, sincerely, they are a huge part
of his success, and here we got to see just how true that is.

“You Don’t Love Me Anymore”
This was his longest banter of the night, as he told the story of how his label forced him to do a video like
Extreme’s “More Than Words” even those this wasn’t, y’know, a parody of Extreme. At all. This was the
second song that I really wanted to hear that night and it did not disappoint, at all. While it might have been
hard to here, I think “Stuck In A Closet” and “Let Me Be Your Hog” got Al and band ramped up for the
remaining songs.

From the first guitar lick, you can tell that this cromulent and wonderful song is a Doors pastiche, and he
sells it here, going all Lizard King, especially as he narrates the open letter to the barista. The rest of it’s
excellent as well, though, and really showcases the range of the band.

“Dare To Be Stupid”
So, if they’re doing a stripped down, mostly acoustic set, how did they pull off this ode to Devo? Easy - they
reskinned it as a Grateful Dead pastiche and, dang it, it worked really, really well. Like, really well.
Thankfully, they didn’t go on as long as the father of all jam bands, and just let the song come to its
naturally conclusion, somewhat longer simply because of the more laid-back playing style.

“If That Isn’t Love”
No, not a cover of the Elvis song, but another Weird Al song, a Hansonesque song about the way that
you show love changes as a relationship goes on. It’s hilarious, and genuinely kind of touching. I didn’t
know I wanted to hear this song but, there you go.

“Don’t Download This Song”
Al was cruel here - he made us think he was going to do the Hamilton Polka, and then he gave us this.
Still, anything that sends up those weird fundraising songs from the 80s is all right by me. Still, because
of what he pretended to promise, this was my least favourite song of the night.

“Nature Trail To Hell”
This is a personal favourite of mine, and I agree with him that this really ought to be the title song of a movie,
but thankfully it isn’t so he was able to sing it for us without any complications. This is just a sweet little
ditty about, well, a nature trail to hell, shot in 3-D so it feels like the guts are really spilling out into your lap.
Just gruesome enough to appeal to a teenage me, and funny enough to continue appealing to me
decades later.

“Jackson Park Express”
Yeah, that mega-track from “Mandatory Fun.” Before the song, he told us it was the most challenging song
of the night for them and, yeah, it was. You could hear a few miscues with the musicians, but given the
difficulty of the arrangement, and the hilarity of the lyrics, we all pretty much agreed to overlook it. This
isn’t my favourite Weird Al mega-track, but it’s a good one, and they did it a good turn.


I feel like if you’ve read down to the point where you’re reading about this song, it needs no introduction or
explanation. For any of you whippersnappers asking, “What’s ‘UHF?’ Is that a sports team?”, ask your
parents. For everyone else, yeah, it was as good as you think.

“Why Does This Always Happen To Me?”
While we were waiting for the concert hall to open up, we headed off to a local used music/DVD/video game
shop called the Bull Moose. If you’re in Portsmouth, check it out, because it’s fabulous. We found they had
“Poodle Hat” on sale, used, which includes this song. Christy wasn’t too familiar with the album, and neither
was I, but both of us remembered this title and joked that we hoped Al would play it to refresh our memories.
He did! Thanks, Al!

“One More Minute”
Should I have been nervous that as soon as he started playing a song in which the narrator says they’d rather
jump into a huge pile of thumbtacks than spend time with their lover, my wife little squealed with glee and
clapped her hands? Nah, nah, we’re probably fine. Anyhow, I was really hoping for this song, too, and it’s
even better in person than it is on the album, or in the video.

“I’ll Sue Ya!”
When I first heard this song, I really wasn’t impressed because it sounded like a kind of dumb joke being told by
a lousy comedian. So, when Al introduced this as a dumb joke being told by a lousy comedian, well, it was kinda
hard to hate it after that. Still not my favourite, but a decent amount of fun.

“Unplugged Medley”
This was the last official song of the night, although even Al joked, “Well, this is our last song unless, I dunno,
we come back for an encore, but who does THAT?” The answer, of course, is that Al always does an encore.
Anyhow, he actually dug into his parodies here but, like “Dare To Be Stupid,” restyled each of them. We got a
bluesy, Eric Clapton version of “Eat It,” a lounge singer’s interpretation of, “I Lost On Jeopardy,” a Santana
pastiche of “Amish Paradise,” Stan Getz’s “Smells Like Nirvana,” “White And Nerdy” a la Buddy Holly, and then
Ricky Valley’s version of “I Love Rock Road,” finishing off with an ear-shattering, triumphant, wailing Mariah Carey
cut of “Like A Surgeon.”

“Johnny B. Goode”
No tricks, no goofing around, no pretending, this was just a straight up cover of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode,
one that leaned into the song’s proto-Motown song and guitar licks. They didn’t overstay their welcome, though.

“The Saga Begins”
Okay, this made me tear up a little bit, because while the evening was great, there weren’t any songs so well-known
and popular that the entire audience could sing along, and part of the Weird Al concert experience is singing the
songs with him, when you can. The hall was packed, and about 900 people belted out the story of Obi Wan Kenobi
and The Phantom Menace for the duration, and so when the stagelights went out and the house lights came on, I
left rather satisfied.

I’ve been to two Weird Al concerts before, and neither were a bit like this one, and I think that’s a good thing. Maybe
Al will get back to his old way of performing, maybe he won’t, but I really feel like Christy and I got a chance to be
part of something special last night, and it’s a concert we’ll remember for a long time.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Micro-Horror: It's Not A Nighmare

It’s important for you to know that this didn’t start out like a nightmare. I made sure of that.

I made sure the spring sun was unclouded and at its peak so that you’d see a field of flowers like a cornucopia of reds and browns rather than the rust-red of dried blood, and sent a gentle breeze through so that you’d think that the susurrus of noise came from the trees blowing in the wind even though it came from the low hissing of the flowers.

The cirrus clouds, strewn across like the sky like so much cotton weaving, did not move, but I knew you would not stand still long enough for that to matter because the canopy swing I’d made was so beautiful. It looked like ivory in the sun, gleaming and bright.

It was only natural that you’d want to take a seat there, in that beautiful moment. I was worried you might have noticed something when for a moment a tendril of cloud reached across the sun and the lights dimmed enough you might see the swing was made of bone, but the dream reasserted itself well enough and you sat and were trapped.

You’re mine now. That probably scares you. Good. Fear is the first emotion I’ll drain from you. Then hatred, then sadness, then desire, then anger, and then onward, deeper. Oh, you may wonder what will happen to your hope. That’s easy: you’ll kill it yourself. Your kind always do.