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Have a holly jolly Christmas,
It’s the best time of the year.
I don’t know if there’ll be snow,
But have a cup of cheer.
  –  Johnny Marks

Since y’all seemed to enjoy my Halloween favorites column, I thought a companion piece for Christmas would be in order.  Though it’s only my second favorite holiday, it’s my husband’s favorite and since it is the world’s most popular celebration the activities are extended for a much longer time and there’s a lot more “stuff” to choose from for this list.  For me, Halloween and Christmas are the two high points of a long festive season which begins with the autumnal equinox and ends with Mardi Gras, with a sort of encore at Easter.  But the stretch of time between Halloween and Christmas Eve, by virtue of being bookended by my two favorite days in all the year, is the best.

My Favorite Christmas Songs

Some people love Christmas music, and some hate it; I react to it as I react to nearly any music, loving some and hating some and tolerating the rest.  I don’t like sappy or overly sentimental songs, nor those in the “wink wink, nudge nudge” school such as “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”; bad and/or forced rhyming irritates me in any song, which is why I have a strong aversion for “Winter Wonderland” (bluebird/new bird and snowman/“No, man”; really?) And the only Beach Boys song I hate more than the grating “Little Saint Nick” is the truly execrable “Kokomo”.  Among traditional Christmas carols my favorites are those in minor keys:  “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” and “Carol of the Bells”  are especial favorites, as is the haunting “Veni, Veni”, (performed here in both English and the original Latin by one of my favorite artists, Enya).  Of modern Christmas songs, my hands-down favorite is “Holly Jolly Christmas” performed by the inimitable Burl Ives:

My Favorite Christmas Shows

The video above contains clips from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, one of the earliest Christmas specials from the “Golden Age” of such presentations in the 1960s and ‘70s.  It’s among my favorites, though it’s exceeded in my estimation by “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” from the same producers, an origin story which depicts the young Santa Claus as a libertarian who holds that people have the right and duty to disobey stupid laws:

But of all the stand-alone shows and special episodes of series, my absolute favorite has to be “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, as those of you who remember “My Favorite Short Films” had probably already guessed.  Chuck Jones was better at translating Dr. Seuss’ bizarre whimsy into animation than any other director, the choices of Boris Karloff as narrator and Thurl Ravenscroft  as singer of the Grinch song were nothing short of inspired, and Seuss’ words, silly as they are, presented the meaning and moral of the story without spelling it out in words of one syllable.

My Favorite Christmas Movies

There are probably hundreds of Christmas movies, a number of which are regarded as classics.  But while I do enjoy It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, there are only two without which my holiday season would be incomplete.  One of these, which we watch every Christmas Eve, is the Patrick Stewart version of A Christmas Carol; though it does have a few flaws it’s the only version of the story in which I can see Scrooge as a completely real person, and his conversion as both natural and believable.  The other is A Christmas Story, which I had never even heard of before I met my husband.  It’s one of his favorites and soon became one of mine; in fact, it’s usually the film which kicks off our Yuletide viewing season.  The plot is very simple: a young boy in the late 1930s schemes to get a BB gun for Christmas.  But that brief description does the film absolutely no justice; in fact, no description I could write could do so.  Do yourself a favor:  just see it.  Trust me.

My Yuletide Schedule

Regular readers know that I am a creature of habit, and like to do things on a very regular schedule (as long as I get to set that schedule myself).  I generally start thinking about Christmas presents in June or July, keeping my eyes open for fun little “stocking stuffers” and even for full presents; this year my husband found the perfect gift for one of our friends way back in March, and it sat in my secret gift stash until I wrapped it a few weeks ago.  Once Halloween is over the stores all put up their Christmas displays these days, completely ignoring Thanksgiving; I refuse to acknowledge this premature celebration, beginning only on the traditional American date, the day after Thanksgiving.  That’s the date on which we tromp off into the forest, find a suitable tree, and bring it home to decorate.  That day or the next we do our Christmas cards and I prepare soup stock:

Stock:  4 quarts (liters) water; 10 chicken bouillon cubes; ½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) each salt and pepper; ¼ teaspoon (1.25 ml) each thyme, sage and MSG; 1 teaspoon (5 ml) each tarragon, paprika and granulated garlic.  Combine all ingredients in large stock pot, add turkey carcass (after removing as much remaining meat as you can) plus neck and giblets.  Bring to boil over medium heat, then reduce heat and simmer until all the meat has fallen from the bones, stirring occasionally and pulling the bones out as they become clean (you’ll probably have to pick bits of meat from them by hand as you go).  Once all the bones are out remove from heat, allow stock to cool and ladle it into quart (liter)-sized containers.  If using glass jars, make sure you leave expansion space before freezing or else they will break.  It takes a few days for one of these to thaw in the refrigerator, a few hours at room temperature.

Soup:  1 jar stock; 2 quarts (liters) water; 5 chicken bouillon cubes; ¼ teaspoon (1.25 ml) each salt & pepper; 1/8  teaspoon (0.625 ml) each thyme, sage & MSG; ½ teaspoon (2.5 ml) each tarragon, paprika & granulated garlic.  Combine all ingredients in large stock pot, bring to boil over medium-high heat, then add 2 cups (500 ml) of egg noodles, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.

I of course do this again on Boxing Day with the remains of the Christmas turkey; on New Years’ Day we generally have ham (saving the bone for split pea soup later in the week).  All of the feasts are accompanied by traditional side dishes and homemade bread, with seasonal desserts (and yes, I render my own pumpkin from the Halloween jack-o-lantern and make my own mince meat, too).  It’s a lot of work for one woman, but I take housewifery as seriously as I took harlotry.  Christmas Eve and New Years’ Eve meals vary, but the days after those feasts are always leftovers.  Sometimes we open one present each on Christmas Eve, but that varies; one thing that doesn’t is that the tree stands until King Day, when we have our first king cake of the season.

My Favorite Christmas Foods

panettoneBeside the stuffed turkey, candied yams, corn pudding, mince meat pie and plum pudding of the Christmas dinner, the season is full of delicious foods.  Just after Thanksgiving I make two fruitcakes so they’ll have time to age, and during Yuletide I generally prepare panettone several times (it’s an Italian brioche flavored with orange and nutmeg, which my husband loves); then in the week before the holiday I make cookies, fudge and other treats so as to make up tins for all the people we regularly do business with.  But none of these are my favorites, though I do enjoy all of them; of all the foods usually associated with the season I would have to say my own favorites are spiced Christmas teas, gingerbread (I sometimes make a house), fruit and chocolate combinations, those Danish butter cookies that come in tins and egg nog, especially that made by our local dairy.

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As a result of a general defect of nature, we are either more confident or more fearful of unusual and unknown things.  –  Julius Caesar

Some of you may have noticed that my tastes often run to the unusual and obscure; as you’ve read my previous “favorites” columns I’m sure I’ve mentioned a few things you’ve never even heard of before.  So today I thought it would be fun to do a column sharing some of those obscure things, and perhaps introducing you to some stuff you might not otherwise have ever discovered.  It’s a big internet, so I expect each of these things will be known to some of you, and each of you will probably be familiar with some of them; if, however, any of you are familiar with all of these, please speak up because I’d like to recognize a fellow explorer of the roads less travelled.  I also wouldn’t be surprised if some of these things are much better known in some areas than others, so if you know of such a situation please speak up.

My Favorite Movies You May Never Have Heard Of

This list has to start with Witch’s Sister (1979), which some of you may remember from the list of my favorite movies (but probably nowhere else); however, it’s obvious that somebody besides me remembers it because I discovered it’s available on YouTube, though broken into 8 parts:

I doubt very many of you were familiar with The Night Walker (1964) before I mentioned it as one of my favorite horror movies, despite the number of big names involved with it; likewise, a mention of the darkly satirical Lord Love a Duck (1966) rarely elicits any recognition even though it starred Roddy McDowell, Tuesday Weld and Ruth Gordon.  And how many of you had heard of The Monolith Monsters (1957) before I mentioned it last month?

My Favorite Actor You May Never Have Heard Of

I’m willing to bet you don’t recognize this face, and you probably don’t know his name, either.  But you certainly know Paul Frees’ voice, or more accurately voices; he was probably the second most talented voice actor in history after the demigod Mel Blanc, yet his name is much less well-known to the general public than that of the far less talented Daws Butler.  He was the narrator for many 1950s science fiction movies (including the aforementioned Night Walker and Monolith Monsters), played a radio announcer in countless other movies and TV shows, and was the never-seen John Beresford Tipton in the long-running TV show The Millionaire, but you probably know him best as the voice of Boris Badenov, Captain Peter Peachfuzz, Inspector Fenwick, Wally Walrus, Professor Ludwig von Drake,  Frosty the Snowman, the Burgermeister Meisterburger, innumerable extras and villains for Hanna-Barbera, and the original Pillsbury Dough Boy.

My Favorite TV Shows You May Never Have Heard Of

My American readers are probably less familiar with the oeuvre of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson than my British readers, so a quick introduction is in order:  the Andersons produced a number of adventure shows in the 1960s whose actors were all marionettes, the most famous being Thunderbirds.  With each successive show, their technology improved; the puppets became more lifelike and the directorial techniques increasingly better at hiding their deficiencies (most notably their inability to walk in a realistic manner).  Their very last puppet show before moving on to the live-action UFO was the little-remembered The Secret Service  from 1969, in which comedian Stanley Unwin not only provides the voice of a character named after him, but doubles for the puppet in long shots!  The show only ran for 13 episodes, which is a pity because it achieved the same mixture of science fiction, spy action and whimsical humor as the Mrs. Peel episodes of The Avengers.

Another favorite with which you’re probably unfamiliar is Thriller, an anthology series hosted by Boris Karloff which started out with stories of crime and mystery but eventually moved wholly into gothic horror.  Though not as good as The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents, it still deserves to be better-known than it is.

My Favorite Musicians You May Never Have Heard Of

In last month’s Halloween favorites column I mentioned a song by a band named Renaissance; though my British readers may well remember them, most of my American readers were probably wondering who the hell they were.  Renaissance was a progressive rock band of the late 1970s which, despite its popularity in Britain, never had a single hit on this side of the pond (probably because Americans were too busy rotting their brains with disco at the time).  The song I mentioned last month, “Jekyll and Hyde”, is fairly typical for them in its length, complexity and willingness to tackle subject matter more interesting and challenging than love, sex, drugs, partying or teen angst; my very favorite song of theirs, “Mother Russia”, is a tribute to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn with lyrics based on his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

My Favorite Candy You May Never Have Heard Of

Though I discussed my favorite Halloween candy last month, those were obviously the conventional sorts of things with which any child would be familiar.  But there is one sort of candy I like very much, yet don’t see very often; they’re called Violets and most people who know them at all tend to fall into two camps:  they either love them or hate them.  Obviously I’m in the former group, but my old friend Charlie declares that they “taste like soap”; I presume that’s because he thinks of flowers as something to smell rather than eat, but he’s not alone in the opinion.  I was very glad to discover they’re available online, because that means I’ll always be able to get them without having to find one of the rare stores that still carries them.

My Favorite Food You May Never Have Heard Of

Obviously, this is a much larger category than candy, and it’s likely that I cook a number of things with which many of you might be unfamiliar.  But there’s one dish I make often, yet have never heard anyone outside my family mention nor seen it on a restaurant menu; it’s the Hungarian version of a broad class of dishes in which chicken is cooked in some liquid in a skillet, and is thus related to coq au vin and chicken cacciatore.  This one is called chicken paprikash, and it’s very easy but delicious:

1)  Cook about 1 kilogram (2 to 2.5#) of chicken parts (leg quarters work best) in about 3 tablespoons (45 ml) of oil in a large skillet for 15 minutes, turning pieces to brown evenly.  Sprinkle pieces with salt and pepper, then remove them from the skillet and set them aside.

2)  Add 1 large onion, chopped up to the hot oil along with 1 heaping tablespoon (about 20 ml) paprika, and cook until the onion is tender.  Return the chicken to the skillet, turn the pieces to coat them with the paprika mixture, then add ¾ cup (180 ml) of chicken broth and ¼ cup (60 ml) of dry white wine (or just 240 ml of broth) and bring to boiling.  Reduce heat, cover and simmer for about 40 minutes, turning the pieces over every 15 minutes, until the chicken is done.  Remove it from the skillet again and keep it warm.

3)  Stir together 1 cup (240 ml) sour cream and 2 tablespoons (30 ml) flour, and add the mixture to the skillet; cook over medium heat until thickened and bubbly, then 1 minute more.  Serve sauce and chicken over hot cooked noodles, Hungarian dumplings or even rice.

Hungarian paprika is much hotter than the typical Spanish variety, so if you like your food spicy you may want to go out of your way to get some (though it’s still a treat either way).  Obviously, the best time to cook the noodles is while the chicken is simmering.

My Favorite Game You May Never Have Heard Of

I love board games, and have since I was old enough to play them; one of these days I’m going to do a column on my favorite games in general, and Switchboard  is one of them.  I’ll be very surprised if any of you who isn’t a die-hard game geek has ever played or even seen it, but it’s been one of my favorites ever since I bought it at a TG&Y store with birthday money when I was about 10.  Like all the best board games it is simple to learn, yet allows for strategic thinking; it starts out as a straightforward two-dice race game, but because the board is composed of moveable tiles the players can work to shorten their own paths to the finish while also trying to cut one another off.

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When witches go riding,
And black cats are seen,
The moon laughs and whispers,
‘Tis near Halloween.
 –  Author Unknown

Since Halloween is my favorite holiday, I thought it might be fun if this month’s “favorites” column were about all of my favorite things associated with it.  Now, I’ve already written a column about my favorite horror movies, and another which listed my picks for the scariest short stories (many of which I included in PDF form).  Furthermore, four of the selections in “My Favorite Books” would be considered horror:  The Illustrated Man, Conjure Wife, Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft and The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe.  Three of those, though, are anthologies; though I have often stated that I don’t like novels as much as short stories because it’s too difficult to maintain a mood for the whole of a long work (especially when it comes to horror), surely there must be some exceptions?  The answer is of course “yes”, so let’s start with that:

My Favorite Horror Novels

Conjure Wife would have to be my absolute favorite, because it’s the only horror novel (and one of the few novels of any kind) which made it into “My Favorite Books”.  But Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes is a very close second; in fact, it was on the short list when I was preparing that column, and I only cut it because my one-to-an-author rule resulted in its being elbowed out by The Illustrated Man.  Two other favorites are actually on that list as well, as part of larger books: H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (which contains one of the scariest passages in his entire oeuvre) starts on page 510 of Complete Fiction, and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket starts on page 708 of Complete Tales and Poems.  If you’re a Poe fan and have never read that one, you really ought to; though it starts out slowly and not very frighteningly, the pace and weirdness both gradually build to a shattering and horrific conclusion.  I don’t generally like modern horror novels, but Tanith Lee’s The Book of the Mad  is a notable exception, and the series it concludes (The Secret Books of Paradys)  was another that almost made the final cut for my favorite book column.

My Favorite Monsters

Of the classic Universal horror movie monsters, I’d have to say my favorite was the Mummy; interestingly, I also find he’s the one that loses the most in remakes.  Karloff’s Im-Ho-Tep was menacing, yet in a way sympathetic; he was a complex monster, unlike the automatons of ‘40s and ‘50s mummy movies or the unremittingly malevolent demigod of the recent ones.  Frankenstein’s monster as portrayed in the first two Universal movies has similar appeal, though he also degenerated into a zombie in later films.  The shape-shifting alien from The Thing is probably the most powerful of all movie monsters, and my vote for the most unique one would have to be the menace from The Monolith Monsters (1957), which is not any kind of creature but rather a chemical reaction.

My Favorite Horror Stars

When I think of horror actors, one name stands out above all others:  Vincent Price.  He is the only actor I can think of whose name alone is enough to get me to watch a movie, and his performances can make a poor movie watchable and a mediocre movie entertaining.  The first movie I can recall recognizing his name in was The Mad Magician (1954), and it’s still among my favorite of his films, but there are so many others there’s no way to list them all.  I’m also very fond of Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee, but I’m afraid they don’t quite reach the level of esteem I have for Vincent.

My Favorite “Horror” Songs

When it comes to setting a horror mood, there’s nothing like Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (I especially recommend the E. Power Biggs recording).  But for just plain Halloween fun, I would have to say my all-time favorite song is Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”:

Other favorites:  “Jekyll and Hyde” by Renaissance, “Godzilla” by Blue Oyster Cult, “Mr. Crowley” by Ozzy Osbourne and “The Phantom of the Opera” from the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

My Favorite Halloween Candy

When I was a child, people gave all sorts of things for trick or treat:  candy, cookies, popcorn balls; my husband says someone in his neighborhood even used to give comic books.  But since candy is the classic (and most common) treat, I’ll concentrate on that.  As I’ve aged my taste in candy has changed somewhat, but there are two kinds of chocolates I’ve loved since I was a child:  the kind with some sort of fruit or fruit gel inside, and the kind with crunchy stuff mixed in.  The former type was largely represented in trick or treat bags by Raisinets, and the latter by Nestle’s Crunch bars; I also like Kit Kats, but those weren’t available in Louisiana until I was in my early teens.  Other favorites included Sno-Caps (nonpareils) and Three Musketeers.  Alas, since I retired I just can’t eat chocolate candy any more; I no longer burn enough calories to keep it from going straight to my waistline.  C’est la vie.

My Favorite Way To Spend the Holiday

I’ve never been a Halloween party type of gal; I’ve been to a few over the years, but they were never really my preferred pastime on the night itself.  As a child I of course went trick-or-treating, but when I got into my teens that fell by the wayside.  Still, I found plenty to do:

If there was a “haunted house” fund-raiser in the planning I was involved, and while I was with Jack in the early ‘90s we always set up our house as one for the trick-or-treaters.  While I was working I usually costumed on Halloween; since many people in New Orleans do I didn’t even attract any undue attention, and the clients seemed to like it…Since we live in the country now we don’t get any trick-or-treaters, but we usually celebrate with a Jack o’ Lantern, a Halloween cake and a scary movie, and I read a horror story aloud at some point in the festivities.

Oh, and one other thing; those with sharp eyes have probably noticed that in all the pictures where my fingernails can be seen, they’re different colors; that’s because I get my nails done every three weeks, and always use a color which is appropriate for the season.  For Halloween, as you might expect, they’re always glossy black.

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Elmer Fudd:  Oh Bwunhiwda/You’re so wuvwy.
Bugs Bunny:  Yes I know it/I can’t help it.  –  “What’s Opera, Doc?”

Given that I prefer short stories to novels and have stated categorically that I feel quality is much more important than quantity, you probably could’ve guessed that I also like short films.  For purposes of this column I decided to define “short” as anything under half an hour, and as usual I established a few rules to narrow the field; the most important of those limits was that individual TV series episodes were excluded, because to allow them would produce far too wide a field to even consider.  Furthermore, since the short film genre is essentially dominated by two formats (the music video and the one-reel cinematic cartoon), I bit the bullet and limited myself to one specimen (and one honorable mention) of each.  Even so, there’s more repetition than I would like in two descriptor fields:  three of these (and one HM) were directed by the late, great Chuck Jones, and three were produced by grants from the National Film Board of Canada.  But it had to be; had I limited myself to one Jones selection and one NFBC selection the column would never have been done.  Because the time-scale here is so tight (most of these were made between 1966 and 1976) I’ve decided to list them in alphabetical order.

1)  Blackfly (1991)  This wickedly funny animated video for an infectious song (don’t say you weren’t warned) was, like so many amazing animated shorts, produced by a grant from the NFBC; I first saw it on the Cartoon Network’s anthology series O Canada in the late ‘90s.

2)  Don’t Come Around Here No More (1985)  Of all the hundreds of music videos I saw in the mid-‘80s, this one sticks in my mind more than any other; it was rare for a video to achieve this perfect a synthesis of music and visuals, and the fact that I really like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and love Alice in Wonderland didn’t hurt either.

Honorable MentionUnder Pressure (1981)  A striking video for a great song; it was directed by David Mallet (who was responsible for many memorable videos) and often shows up on “best video” lists.

3)  Feed the Kitty (1951)  Part of the genius of Chuck Jones lay in his realization that short cartoons were primarily a visual medium, and the greater the fraction of the story that could be told purely in images, the better.  The only words in this masterpiece are those spoken by the housewife, Violet; Marc Anthony and Pussyfoot make only animal noises, and Marc Anthony’s facial expressions are among the most evocative ever portrayed in ink and paint.

Honorable MentionWhat’s Opera, Doc? (1957), also directed by Jones, was the first cartoon ever selected for the National Film Registry, and is widely considered among animators, directors and critics to be the single greatest animated short ever made.  It is nothing short of amazing, and only my love for “Feed the Kitty” kept it off of the main list.

4)  Horton Hears a Who! (1970) is the first of two TV specials on this list directed by Chuck Jones; this one was his second with Dr. Seuss.  Even as a child I recognized that the moral and philosophical implications of the story were far beyond those in most kiddie fare, and the spectacular Maurice Noble design is a feast for the eyes.

5)  Icarus (1974)  I first saw this odd, haunting claymation film as a filler short between shows on our local public television station in the late 1970s, and I never forgot it (though until the advent of the internet I despaired of ever seeing it again).  Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to get a good copy of it despite the fact that it was included in Fantastic Animation Festival (1977).

6)  Lady Fishbourne’s Complete Guide to Better Table Manners (1976) is one of the funniest things I have ever seen, and it rewards repeated watching with little details that one might not catch the first time around.  Be prepared for “A thousand pardons, I was most revolting” to become a permanent part of your vocabulary.  I apologize for the huge, ugly logo some moronic Philistine encumbered this YouTube copy with.

7)  Number Three Ball (1970)  This short film was produced for Sesame Street by Jim Henson and directed by Frank Oz.  Though it’s extremely short, Oz had to build the complicated props by hand, a process that took months; the result is well worth it, because this is probably the most memorable of the many clever and often beautiful shorts which appeared on the show during the early 1970s.

Honorable MentionE-magination (1969)  Here’s another outstanding Sesame Street short, a lovely and surreal pastel animation with a unique, wistful score.

Honorable MentionThis Lollipop is Following Me (1971)  Sesame Street’s sister show, The Electric Company, also had some incredible animated shorts, of which my favorite was this inexplicable nightmare in miniature.  I still occasionally find myself singing this song out loud.

8)  Rikki-Tikki-Tavi (1975)  Chuck Jones adapted a number of stories from Kipling’s Jungle Book as TV specials, but this was in my opinion the best.  The first time I saw it I disliked the way Jones depicted the mongoose’s motion, and also a few silly bits of “business” near the beginning, because I felt they detracted from the serious tone of the story (Orson Welles is the  narrator; ‘nuff said).  But eventually the rest of it won me over, and it’s now one of my favorite films of any length.

9)  What On Earth! (1966)  This clever satire from the NFBC was obviously not directed by Jones, but I owe my discovery of it to him because it was featured on his groundbreaking kids’ show Curiosity Shop, which I am still waiting for on DVD.  No YouTube video of it is available, but you can watch it on the NFBC website by clicking on the title.

10)  Winnie-the-Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968)  This is IMHO the funniest and most entertaining of the Walt Disney Pooh adaptations; every time I watch it I get the giggles for days over “Well I say now.  Someone has pasted Piglet on my window.”  Unfortunately, Disney being its usual greedy corporate self, the film isn’t available online, but at least I can show you the heffalump song:

Honorable MentionThe Wizard of Speed and Time (1979)  Since “Blustery Day” wasn’t available I figured I would give you one more for the road (so to speak).  Keep in mind this was all done with stop-motion animation, without any help from computers whatsoever.

Please feel free to include your own favorites in the comments!

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An author who speaks about his own books is almost as bad as a mother who talks about her own children.  –  Benjamin Disraeli

Just over a year ago in “Top Ten” I listed the most popular posts at that time by number of visits and number of comments, and also shared those I thought deserved more attention.  I’ll do an update on the top columns in my annual summary in January, but today I’d like to discuss the ten columns with which I’m most pleased.  As is my custom with these lists, I’m going to restrict it to only one representative per column type; I’m also going to exclude all miscellanea-type columns, list columns and those built around large extracts from others’ writings (such as news stories).  With those rules in place, it was a little easier to whittle 779 posts down to this list, arranged in chronological order.

1)  Painted Devil  (August 23rd, 2010)

It was really difficult to choose a favorite “fictional interlude”, and the two runners-up are mentioned as honorable mentions below.  But this one, the second I wrote, was very special to me because of the way it came into being.  The idea first occurred to me in the late ‘80s, but I was very dissatisfied with the resulting story and it rattled around in my brain for over two decades; though I tried many times to put it together it just never quite jelled.  But once I realized the missing ingredient was that the heroine had to be a courtesan, it came together in just a few hours; the result made me realize that I really could write a story every month, as long as I continued to employ that common factor.

Honorable mentions:  “Concubine” (July 19th, 2011) and “Pearls Before Swine” (October 13th, 2011)

2)  Amazingly Stupid Statements (October 10th, 2010)

What makes this one a favorite is very simple:  it contains the most concise responses I have ever written to a number of common prohibitionist arguments, all of which have been addressed at greater length in other columns.  But for simplicity and convenience, I think this column deserves greater exposure.

3)  Plaçage (November 22nd, 2010)

I’m very happy with most of my historical columns, but since I can only choose one it would have to be this treatment of the system of concubinage which was so prevalent in early New Orleans that it actually gave rise to an entire culture which survived until very recently.  Several of my historical columns cast light on obscure aspects of history, but this one seems to have become an important internet reference on the subject.

Honorable mentions: “Honolulu Harlots” (July 5th, 2011) and “The Ouled Nail” (September 11th, 2011)

4)  Harm Reduction (January 13th, 2011)

Though the topic of harm reduction often arises with respect to the way society treats prostitution, few of those who talk about it acknowledge that the trade is itself a harm reduction mechanism.  This essay explains what is meant by “harm reduction”, gives a brief history of the concept and explains how whores practice it.

5)  Numerology (January 24th, 2011

This column’s place on this list was a given because it was the one which first “put me on the map” by capturing the attention of many people outside the sex worker rights ghetto.  But even if that had not been the case, it deserves the position as the most important exercise in applied math I’ve done here to date.

6)  Godwin’s Law (March 5th, 2011)

I’ve written a number of essays on why police states are a moral abomination, but I’m so proud of this one I even reposted it on The Agitator during my guest blogging there last month.  In it, I discuss the titular internet principle, point out the danger of the pretense that nothing like Nazi Germany could ever happen again and argue that “sometimes Nazi analogies are entirely appropriate.”

Honorable mentions:  “Creating Criminals” (January 15th, 2011) and its sequel “Universal Criminality” (January 15th, 2012), and the Star Trek-themed “The Fourth of July” (July 4th, 2012)

7)  A False Dichotomy (June 22nd, 2011)

Prohibitionists and sex worker rights advocates alike often subscribe to the fallacious belief that all whores are either free-willed “happy hookers” or “trafficked slaves”; this essay explains why that idea is incorrect and how belief in it is harmful to the cause of human rights and dismissive of the experiences of most of the world’s prostitutes.

Honorable mention:  “Thought Experiment” (December 16th, 2011)

8)  Frightful Films (October 28th, 2011)

At the time it was published this was the farthest off-topic I had ever wandered; it also had more pictures than any other, and some of them are the largest ones I ever uploaded to the blog.  It also took longer to post than any other column before or since (due to formatting issues), but it was worth it as a labor of love on a topic near and dear to my heart.

9)  Objectification Overruled (January 31st, 2012)

Of all the numerous criticisms of feminist theory I’ve written, this is my favorite.  That’s partly because I find “objectification” the most absurd, indefensible, offensive and pie-in-the-sky of all feminist notions, yet it’s achieved widespread acceptance in popular discourse and is almost never questioned despite the fact that its asininity should be obvious to anyone with two brain cells to rub together.  So as you might imagine, I took particular pleasure in demolishing it with the help of Rene Magritte and Captain Kirk.

Honorable mention:  “My Body, My Choice” (November 19th, 2010)

10)  Imagination Pinned Down (June 12th, 2012)

It’s bad enough that the Great Unwashed accept lurid and unproven anecdotes as valid arguments against demonstrable facts, well-supported statistics and a very large number of anecdotes which contradict the lurid ones.  But when those stories strongly resemble other outrageous “survivor” tales, and violate both common sense and physical laws, somebody needs to stand up and call a trafficking victim a UFO abductee; this essay does exactly that.

New readers will probably find these an excellent introduction to my back-catalog, and even regular readers may find some titles they don’t recognize.  But I hope even those of you who remember all of these appreciated this month’s look into my own aesthetic sensibilities.

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Goblets they carved there for themselves,
And harps of gold where no man delves.
There lay they long, and many a song
Was sung unheard by Man or Elves.
  –  J.R.R. Tolkien

Show of hands:  how many saw this one coming?  It was inevitable, really.  Though I’m not obsessed with them like some people, I do like a good musical now and again (and I include rock operas and revues in that classification).  However, I tend to be pretty particular; I don’t care for songs that seem shoehorned in, or that throw off the pacing or tone.  Furthermore, I’m far more forgiving of dramatic inadequacies than I am of musical ones; since the very idea of people bursting spontaneously into song and crowds of strangers performing perfectly-choreographed dances together is completely absurd in the first place I’m willing to suspend my disbelief much more than usual, but too many uninteresting numbers kills it for me.  Keep that in mind when looking over this list, which I’ve illustrated (like last month) with embedded videos; in each case I tried to choose what I considered the most representative musical number rather than the best, though in some cases I was constrained by the poor variety and/or quality of available selections.  These are listed alphabetically by title, with a short list of three honorable mentions thereafter.

1)  Aladdin (1992)  The first of the revived Disney studio’s films to employ intentional anachronism, and the only one to do it well.  I chose this song rather than the marvelous “Friend Like Me” because I just love the dancing and the use of counterpoint, especially the three girls on the balcony (starting at 1:45).

2)  Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968)  I have no idea why so many film critics dislike this wonderful movie, why they praise the Sherman Brothers’ work with Disney but pan it here, and why they insist on obsessing about minutiae like Dick Van Dyke’s lack of an English accent (see comment about absurdity of musicals above).  In fact, this musical number plays with the convention in that Van Dyke’s character, who is not part of the song-and-dance troupe but merely using it to hide from a pursuer, is totally out of sync with the others.

3)  The Hobbit (1977)  When this first appeared on television I strongly disliked the heavily stylized animation, but it grew on me over the years and now barely misses being on the list of my favorite movies.  I’ve actually read some ignoramuses complaining about the lyrics to the songs, not realizing that they’re all straight from Tolkien’s text.  I’m especially fond of John Huston’s recitation of the ballad of the Coming of Smaug, starting at exactly 5:00.  And because it was available, I decided to include the whole movie.

4)  Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)  This has been among my favorites since the first time I heard it in 8th grade; I’ve already mentioned it a number of times in a number of places on this blog, so we’ll just leave it at that.

5)  Man of La Mancha (1972)  The fact that the lead female character is a whore has nothing to do with its place on this list, though I fully admit it helped to get my attention the first time I heard the album in my early teens (which actually predated my seeing the movie by several years).  I picked it out of a budget record bin for “The Impossible Dream”, a song I still love but have chosen not to feature today in favor of the less-overexposed “Dulcinea”.

6)  The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)  What can I say?  The subject matter would’ve predisposed me to like it even if it hadn’t had such an infectious libretto, catchy tunes and fun characters.  This one is a regular at our house every autumn.

7)  1776 (1972)  Another one I’ve loved since high school, and as you can probably guess we watch it every July 4th; though it takes dramatic license with some of the details, it still adheres more closely to the facts than is typical for Hollywood.  I would’ve preferred to feature “But Mr. Adams”, but there was no available movie clip for it so this one will do (sorry for the poor picture).

8)  Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)  I know Roald Dahl didn’t like this adaptation of his book, but I do; in fact there’s very little about it I don’t like from the sets to the casting to Wonka’s weird, quotation-heavy dialog.  This is a perfect introductory clip not merely because it’s a great song, but because it presents virtually the whole cast to Wonka’s world and demonstrates a bit of his eccentric style as well.

9)  The Wizard of Oz (1939)  Most Americans of my generation or thereabouts will remember that for many years this movie was played annually on broadcast television, but I’ve never grown tired of it.  One of the true greats.

10) Yellow Submarine (1968)  I first saw this on television as a child and was absolutely blown away; though I knew and liked several Beatles songs already, I can probably trace my real love for the group to that viewing (which also affected my drawing style for months).  I love animation, and I love the Beatles, so naturally this is on the list.  Of the available clips, I thought the theatrical trailer gives the best feel for the show.

Honorable Mentions

Musically, these three are up there with the others, but in each case the rest of the film outside the songs doesn’t quite measure up.

1)  All That Jazz (1979)  Great songs and fantastic choreography by director Bob Fosse make this semi-autobiographical picture watchable, but the story is slow, repetitive and ultimately a bit depressing.  But the musical numbers…well, judge for yourself:

Fun fact:  Paula Abdul’s video for “Cold Hearted” was intentionally patterned after this one; it was obvious to me the first time I saw it and I’m sure it will be to you as well.

2)  Godspell  (1973)  The only thing that keeps this one out of the top 10 is that I have to be in the right frame of mind for it; the fact that all the songs are based on sayings, parables and incidents from the Gospel of Matthew is not so much the issue as the fact that I have to be in a sort of nostalgic mood to watch early ‘70s hippie-flavored stuff.  I really wanted to share “Turn Back, O Man” with you since that was the number I did in our little CYO production when I was 15, but alas that one’s only available in poorly-recorded stage videos.  This was my second choice, though, and you may recognize the setting of the finale.

3)  Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (1975)  What I said for Godpell is also true here; it’s a sequence of vignettes which were visually very avant-garde and unusual at the time, but seven years later could easily have been shown as music videos.  Jacques Brel’s music, however, I can listen to almost any time; I linked a couple of examples in “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody”.

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…and now for something completely different.  –  John Cleese

Yesterday I shared my favorite TV dramas with you, and today I’d like to do the same with my favorite TV comedies; at the end there’s a bonus list of my two favorite documentary series, which obviously wasn’t long enough for a column of its own.  Just as I did yesterday I’ve embedded videos of each show, with one exception (as you’ll see below).  Like yesterday’s, this list is arranged alphabetically.

1)  The Addams Family  Charles Addams had been doing his macabre cartoons for The New Yorker for over twenty years when a television producer decided they would make a clever television show.  Unlike the characters in the rival show The Munsters, the Addams family (named for the cartoonist) were not comical takeoffs on Universal movie monsters, but rather oddballs who were just plain weird rather than monstrous; that weirdness allowed them to get away with a great deal that other contemporary shows could not.  For example, Mr. and Mrs. Addams were the very first TV couple who were not only sexually interested in one another on-camera, but passionately interested.  It’s been one of my favorites since I first encountered it in afternoon reruns in the mid-1970s.

2)  The Adventures of Pete and Pete  Like the Addams family, the Wrigleys are just a little bent, but unlike the Addams most of their neighbors (many played by unexpected celebrities like Iggy Pop or Patty Hearst) are equally strange.  The show was originally a series of one-minute shorts which aired between shows on children’s cable network Nickelodeon in 1989 (here are the first two, “What Would You Do for a Dollar?” and “Freeze Tag”); they proved so popular the creators were asked to create a series of 30-minute specials and later a whole series.  The stories, especially in the first two regular seasons, achieve a rare mixture of hilarity and poignant sweetness that isn’t quite like anything else.

3)  Bewitched  There were quite a few fantasy situation comedies in the 1960s, but this was the best and most enduring of them; I was five years old when it finally went off the air, and it’s been in nigh-constant syndication ever since.  The lovely Elizabeth Montgomery played a witch married to a mortal, and the friction between the two worlds (most often in the person of her interfering mother) created an endless number of comical situations which rarely fail to amuse and are often hilarious.  One of the show’s greatest strengths was its masterful use of character actors appearing as witches and other magical beings, animals or monsters in human form, or even historical personages summoned into the present by errant spells.

4)  The Bullwinkle Show  This show was originally named Rocky and His Friends, but after Rocky’s sidekick Bullwinkle became the more popular character, the title was changed for the fourth season and used for all the seasons in syndication.  The show aired in the evenings, and like the classic Warner Brothers theatrical cartoons was intended for adults.  But for some reason I’ve never quite understood Americans collectively decided in the mid-1960s that cartoons were “kid stuff”, and that attitude persisted until the advent of The Simpsons in 1989.  Bullwinkle’s producer, Jay Ward, was among the first to prove that by use of crude, limited animation held up by funny scripts and talented voice actors, a quality cartoon could be produced at a very reasonable cost; though it’s doubtful that any television show has ever been animated more crudely, it’s equally doubtful that any has ever been as funny, clever and sly.

5)  Fawlty Towers  John Cleese stars as Basil Fawlty, a rude, incompetent and self-important innkeeper whose schemes to improve his business, keep the riff-raff out and stay out of trouble with his shrewish wife lead to twelve of the funniest half-hours ever committed to videotape.  There aren’t many shows that can make me laugh so hard I literally cry, but this is one.

6)  The Good Life  This British sitcom premiered the same year (1975) as Fawlty Towers, but they’re not very much alike; though this series (which was broadcast in the US as The Good Neighbors) is very funny, its humor is cuter and more gentle than the manic hilarity of Fawlty.  The story follows an engineer who decides to get out of the rat race by quitting his job and taking up farming…in the upscale London suburb of Surbiton, much to the consternation of his good-natured but snobbish neighbors.

7)  Green Acres  No, I’m not obsessed with shows about successful men who quit the rat race to become farmers; honestly I’m not.  Besides, the hero of this show is a lawyer, and instead of farming in the suburbs he moves to a very weird rural town whose inhabitants make the eccentric population of Pete & Pete’s Wellsville look like models of sanity in comparison.  Even the laws of nature here seem to work in a more surreal fashion, and on more than one occasion characters are able to read credits, hear incidental music and otherwise break the fourth wall.

8)  Making Fiends  This is a web cartoon created by the astonishingly talented Amy Winfrey; it’s absolutely one of the funniest  things I’ve ever seen while still being 100% “clean” and incredibly charming.  She did six half-hour shows for Nickelodeon in 2008, but the originals are still online and pack more laughs into a few minutes than most sitcoms can generate in several episodes.

9)  Monty Python’s Flying Circus  As with Star Trek and Twilight Zone yesterday, I honestly don’t think I can say anything useful about this landmark series in the space I have to work with.  The influence of this bizarre, zany, irreverent, erudite and wholly original sketch comedy show on everything that has come after it is incalculable; even our use of the word “spam” to mean junk email derives from a Python sketch depicting a diner in which Spam (the meat) is served with every single dish whether one wants it or not.

10)  Red Dwarf   Imagine a science fiction show that totally succeeds as a comedy, or a hilarious comedy which is better science fiction than the majority of shows in that genre, and you’ve got Red Dwarf.  A perennial loser is placed in stasis for violating ship’s rules and emerges 3,000,000 years later to find the entire crew was killed in a radiation accident soon after he was frozen; his only companions are the ship’s computer, a hologram simulation of the dead bunkmate he couldn’t stand, and a humanoid creature who evolved from the ship’s cat.  Hijinks ensue.

My Favorite TV Documentaries

1)  Connections  Veteran journalist James Burke examines the interdependence of technology by demonstrating how each new discovery leads to wholly unpredictable effects that trigger change in apparently-unrelated areas; in each episode he takes one ancient or medieval development (such as the stirrup or the water wheel) and demonstrates how it set off a series of interlinked events leading to the development of a major technological device of the modern world (such as computers or nuclear weapons).  Sound interesting?  You can watch the first episode, “The Trigger Effect”, in its entirety right here.

2)  Cosmos  Three decades of cable TV networks wholly dedicated to documentaries still haven’t produced a science show as interesting or entertaining as Carl Sagan’s 1980 magnum opus, which is why it’s still highly regarded today despite the fact that a little (though not much) of its science is now dated.  In a way this show and Connections were inspirations for this blog, because both of them showed me it was possible to be informative and entertaining at the same time.  I also have Cosmos to thank for introducing me to the music of Vangelis, one of my favorite musicians.

Today’s puzzle:  One of today’s series and three of yesterday’s feature main characters who appear in every episode (or nearly so), despite the fact that they’re already dead by the end of the first episode.  How many more can you think of?

One Year Ago Today

In “A Decent Boldness” we make the acquaintance of Aella, an Amazon of the mythic past who finds herself stranded on the far side of the world, broke and unable to speak the language, and has to figure out how she’s going to survive.

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