Author Archive

On Billy Joel

November 7, 2020 Leave a comment

It’s time to talk about Billy Joel.

I have a hard time with Billy Joel. On the one hand, he’s had a long career of writing and singing a lot of catchy songs that I find pleasant to listen to. And, for a lot of those songs, I can enjoy them unambivalently: “Downeaster Alexa”, “For the Longest Time”, “Storm Front”, and especially “River of Dreams”… nice job. No notes.

And it’s true that a lot of his songs are very Boomer. This is not a quality that I look for in a song, but I can’t deny that he comes by it honestly. We all belong to one generation or another, and if it shows up in our art, then it does, and there’s no point complaining about it. So when he gives us “We Didn’t Start the Fire” or “I Go to Extremes” or “My Life” or “Goodnight Saigon”, that’s all right, I can take it as it comes.

My big problem with Billy Joel is the misogyny that often shows up in his lyrics. His songs, in aggregate, suggest to me a specific kind of whore-madonna dichotomy in his portrayals of women, where women can be callous, man-eating bad girls who it’s dangerous to get involved with, as in the songs “She’s Always a Woman” or “Big Shot”. Or they can be innocent good girls who need to be kept on a pedestal until they’re ready for the dangerous love of notorious streetwise tough guy Billy Joel, as in “Only the Good Die Young”, “That’s Not Her Style”, “You May Be Right”, and “Uptown Girl”. Even “Tell Her About It”, which isn’t actually all that bad, participates in this to some extent: “A nice girl wouldn’t tell you what you should do”.

But even those aren’t the worst of it. I didn’t mention “An Innocent Man”, the #notallmen of rock songs. And I didn’t mention “Just the Way You Are”, in which the singer says *the most horrible things* to a woman whom he claims to love and we’re supposed to hear it as romantic. It’s just gross.

So that’s where I was with Billy Joel for a long time. But recently I figured out something else about him: Billy Joel is no damn nostalgist.

My time as a Legion of Super-Heroes fan has taught me to distrust and disdain nostalgism. It’s not a positive force. It eats creativity and blocks necessary progress. (Note that when I talk about nostalgia, I don’t mean appreciating things about the past, or having affection for the cultural artifacts of the past. I mean thinking things were better Back Then and that we should go back to that.)

One of Billy Joel’s biggest hits was “It’s Still Rock’n’Roll to Me”, a song which takes the position, so far as I can parse it, that, while the current music scene may be shallow and crass, it isn’t actually any different from what it used to be. “Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways / It’s still rock’n’roll to me.” This is around the same time that Bob Seger’s reaction to the same conditions was, “Don’t try to take me to a disco / You’ll never even get me out on the floor / In ten minutes I’d be late for the door / I like that old time rock’n’ roll.” Of the two attitudes, I’ll take Joel’s.

Or look at “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, which is obviously an easily mockable song, and certainly one in which Joel indulges in a lot of old memories. It’s easy to look at what gets listed and what doesn’t and conclude that Joel thinks that about seven times as many things happened from ’46-’69 as happened in the ’70s and ’80s. But let’s not forget the basic point of the song: yeah, there are problems now, but there were problems Back Then too, and it sure looks like there are going to continue being problems, so we’d better deal with it. Again: that’s not nostalgia.

And, finally, we have “Keeping the Faith”, which ties it all together. First, it’s an *extremely* Boomer song, one that describes teenage experience in the ’50s/’60s in detail, and gives them religious significance. Second, it manages to *not* participate in the misogyny mentioned above: the lyric “I thought I was the Duke of Earl / When I made it with a red-haired girl / In a Chevrolet / Oh yeah / We were keeping the faith” may have a rite-of-passage element to it that isn’t great, but it does cast the girl as an equal participant in the enterprise at least. And, most of all, Joel gives us the concluding thought that, no matter how good a time he had Back Then and how much he likes to think about it, “the good old days weren’t always good / And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”

In short, Billy Joel is a land of contrasts. Thank you very much.

On the Melendy Family

September 19, 2020 2 comments

Elizabeth Enright’s four books about the Melendy family are among my favourites of all time.

They’re kids books, written in the ’40s and ’50s, about the idyllic experiences of four kids (Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver) who live in New York City (in the first book, The Saturdays (TS)) and then move out to the country (in the second book, The Four-Story Mistake (4SM)), and about how their family changes over time (third and fourth books, Then There Were Five (TW5) and Spiderweb for Two: A Melendy Maze (S42)).

I recently conceived the idea of drawing a map of the area where the Melendys live in books 2-4. I just want to. Partly to see if I can; partly because as far as I can tell nobody else has done it. So I looked over the books and I don’t think it’s possible to do in a completely consistent way. There are some details that Enright provides that are… not *explicitly* contradictory, but close enough as to be unworkable as such. (Obviously, Enright’s priority was to tell good stories, not to enable my fanwankery.) But we’ll see what we can do. (I’ll try to avoid spoilers.)

Some context: the Melendys live in a big house called the Four-Story Mistake. It’s out in the countryside, near the towns of Carthage, Braxton, and Eldred, somewhere in New York State. There are real-life towns in New York named Carthage and Eldred, but they aren’t anywhere near each other, and real-life Carthage is too far away from New York City to make all this train travel they’re doing so casual. So I’m guessing this Carthage has nothing to do with that Carthage.

(I might want to do a smaller-scale map of the Four-Story Mistake grounds, and also a floor plan of the house itself. But for now let’s stick with the wider area.)

More details of these towns: Braxton is the biggest one, the most modern, impersonal and noisy. Mostly, for our purposes, it’s where the train station is. It’s close enough to bike to to see a movie. Carthage is the closest to the Four-Story Mistake; it’s a friendly kind of village. We know the most about it; it’s got two butchers and a jeweler and the school and the bank and a traffic cop and a bus. We never see Eldred; we only hear it being mentioned. Probably the smallest of the three.

One of the problems I run into when mapping this stuff is the issue of crossings. The Melendy kids are always wandering around in the woods. Fine. But there are roads in this part of the country, and Enright doesn’t describe the kids crossing these roads. Does that mean they didn’t, or does it mean she just didn’t mention it? Similarly: one of the most important features of the Four-Story Mistake property is the brook that runs through it. There are times where the kids go places and it’s not mentioned how, or whether, they cross the brook. Maybe they don’t! But if they don’t, then that has implications for where everything is in relation to the brook.

Okay, let’s get into it: the first we see of the Four-Story Mistake is when the family moves in. They arrive at the Braxton train station and take a cab to the new house. Father says the house is “miles away […] in a valley.” The road there is described as being straight, with no turns described. It is mentioned, later on, that the nearest village is three miles away. (4SM c1)

Next chapter: Rush explores and finds the brook. The important thing here is that none of the kids suspected the existence of the brook before this. (City kids. See a valley and don’t deduce a river.) Which means that they didn’t cross it on the way in; it’s on the other side of the house. Later, Father and Randy look out of the four windows of the cupola atop the house, and we get a description of the views in all four directions. It’s quite helpful, but it also causes us a problem, as we’ll see:

north: “the only long [view]”… faraway up the “shallow and wide” valley, trees, fences, the brook, and, eventually, a village, which Father says is “Carthage, three miles away”

south: “all you can see is spruce branches and the weather vane on the stable roof”

east: “all you can see is the brook and the woods on the hill”

west: “all you can see is the road winding back over another hill, through more woods”, “the road you traveled yesterday”

(4SM c2)

Okay, there’s some excellent stuff in here. First and most important: Carthage is three miles north and therefore is also the closest village. That’s tremendously helpful, and is repeated later in the book. No matter what other problems we run into, we will always be able to rely on the Four-Story Mistake being three miles south of Carthage. (Note also it says “up” the valley.)

Also, it’s confirmed that the brook is on the east side of the house. Which… it’s not the way I pictured it, but it’s unambiguous. And, finally, the road they traveled on yesterday is on the west. Sounds like it leads away to the west, doesn’t it? Not that it’s to their west, and parallel to the horizon, but rather leading west to the horizon? I’m going to suggest that what they see is the dirt road that they turned off onto from the main road, which is really more like what we’d think of as a driveway, however long, and that the main road isn’t visible from the cupola. Because it doesn’t really make sense the other way. (Enright does use the word “driveway” in the series, but is more likely to refer to such thoroughfares as “roads”.) This works, actually, because the description of the family driving in in the first chapter has them cresting a wooded hill before descending to the house. So, that’s fine: the hill blocks the view of the main road.

It does suggest to us that the road from Braxton is a north-south road, parallel to the brook. So is Braxton to the north or the south? Well, if it’s to the north, it must be pretty close to Carthage… but they didn’t see Carthage on the drive from Braxton. Let’s say, provisionally, that it’s to the south.

(I came into this exercise with no clear idea where Braxton is.)

A couple of chapters later, the Melendys get bikes, and Randy, Rush, and Mona take an experimental ride to Carthage. It’s described as a straight highway on which they swerve to the right at one point, and that puts them on Carthage’s main street, where Randy crashes her bike into the back of a parked bus. (Detail: Mr Wheelwright, the Carthage traffic cop, and his wife live in a house on that main street.) So that’s all right: Braxton could still be north on that highway and they could have missed Carthage on the drive in because you have to take that turnoff to see it. And I have the idea that it works better to have Braxton up that way.

(While we’re on the subject… how is Carthage big enough to have a traffic cop and a bus? It’s a village in rural New York in the early 1940s. My explanation: traffic cops are the 1940s equivalents of stoplights, and the bus is a like a Greyhound or something, not a local bus.)

A few chapters later, the Melendy kids put on a show, and some of their friends take a cab up from New York City to see it. One of the results of the show is that Mona auditions for, and eventually gets, a part in a radio drama in New York City, for which she’ll have to travel down there twice every week. This is one of the reasons why I don’t think the Carthage in the books is the real-life Carthage: the real-life Carthage is up by Syracuse and is about, like, five hours away by train. You’re not going to make that trip every few days for a radio show, and you’re not going to take a cab over all that distance to see some kids put on a play. The fictional Carthage must be closer to New York City. (4SM c7, 9)

Later on, the three eldest Melendys go for a skate on the brook. I was paying close attention to the prepositions here. Well, let me quote the passages: “‘What do you say we go exploring down the brook […]?'” “‘Why, you know perfectly well we’ll just end up in Carthage,'” “‘The other way, then,'” “They had to walk down the banks at the side of the frozen cascade, and then they took to the brook again.” It’s ambiguous, but it does seem like Carthage is upstream from the Four-Story Mistake. Anyway, the only thing they find downstream is a nice old couple called the Peppers, whose house is not so inaccessible that Father can’t come and drive the kids home from there. (4SM c9)

The only other detail from 4SM that we can pick out is that there’s a farmer named Peterson who lives “up the valley”, which seems to mean toward Carthage.

In the second chapter of TW5, Randy and Rush go on a scrap drive. They hook up the horse to the carriage and travel down the road in search of metal for the troops. They make three stops, and meet new friends at each one: the Addisons, Mr. Titus, and Mark Herron (and his mean cousin Oren).

The first question is, what road is this that they’re on and where does it go? Well, Mark and the Addison kids don’t go to school in Carthage; they go to the District School near Eldred. Okay, so, clearly they’re not on the road north to Carthage; maybe they’re going south on the same road. Or maybe there’s a turnoff or something. It’s not clear. (We do get more information on this later.)

But this stretch of road does open up quite a bit of the world to us. Mark knows lots of interesting spots in the woods where they can go and have adventures. Mr. Titus has lots of fishing holes where he and Oliver can go. Now, most of these places are just… places that are around there somewhere… that can populate a map, but that we don’t have explicit directions to. But there are some that have a bit of that kind of detail.

Originally I thought that this road they’re on led to Eldred. It would make some kind of sense. But I’m not sure it’s quite right. It might work, and it’s simple, but we also need to make room for all this wilderness; I wonder if it makes more sense to have Eldred further south, accessible by some side roads or something. I also thought of putting it south of the Four-Story Mistake on the highway. Near the Peppers! But this makes the whole question about where Mark and the Addisons go to school a little difficult, as it’s tough to figure out how that’s closer than Carthage. As for the scrap-drive road, I’ll spoil the surprise: there’s a chapter in S42 that establishes clearly that it leads west from the highway that goes north to Carthage. Good: let’s call it the Addisons’ road.

In fact, let’s skip to that chapter in Spiderweb for Two now. In it, Oliver is following a mysterious poem that leads him to a hidden secret. The poem tells him to head west from the Four-Story Mistake and describes the landmarks he’ll see on the way. The poem assumes he’s going to slog through some wilderness and come out on a road which (unknown to him) will take him past the Addisons’. Oliver gets off course a bit, though, and veers south and gets lost, and meets a kindly old lady, Miss Bishop, who puts him on the road and tells him how to get back home.

It’s a very problematic chapter for us. Some details:

– Oliver walks due west from the house and, as far as the description of his day is concerned, doesn’t encounter a road until he leaves Miss Bishop’s place

– Miss Bishop’s directions for how Oliver should get home are that he should walk east(ish) on the road in front of her house, and when that road meets another road, he should turn right and it’ll take him right there

– Oliver is surprised when he sees the Addisons’ mailbox (which must be the same one that Rush and Randy saw), because he’s used to coming to the Addisons’ by their back way, which is shorter to get to

– Miss Bishop lives in a place called Corn Hollow. Not sure what that is; if it’s a little hamlet or the name of Miss Bishop’s house. Let’s assume it’s her house; it’s not referred to any other time and we don’t see anything else around there. But it’s close enough to Carthage and Eldred that she refers to both of them to orient Oliver

Okay. So the first problem is, how does Oliver manage to get over to Miss Bishop’s without crossing a road? Because the Four-Story Mistake, as best we can tell, is between a road and a brook, both running north-south; it’s east of the road and west of the brook. You can’t go west from the place without crossing the road.

Unless! What if the road comes south from Carthage, passes the entrance to the Four-Story Mistake property, and then abruptly swings around to the northwest? Miss Bishop’s directions to Oliver still work. It means we have to come up with some kind of elaborate side roads to allow Father to drive to the Peppers’ to pick up Randy, Rush, and Mona, but it would work. (We might have to fudge things around to make it make sense that Mark and the Addison kids go to the school near Eldred instead of the one in Carthage, but that’s doable.)

Or we could just have the road go north-south like is sensible, and assume that Enright didn’t bother to describe Oliver crossing it. Or it didn’t occur to her that the road would be there.

The second problem is, if Miss Bishop lives on the Addisons’ road, why didn’t Randy and Rush stop there when they were collecting scrap? Explanation one: they just didn’t, that’s all, mostly because Enright hadn’t thought her up yet. Explanation two: Miss Bishop lives on a different fork of the Addisons’ road, such that Randy and Rush could get on the road without going past her house.

The third problem is that Oliver and Mr. Titus are great friends, and Oliver hangs out with Mr. Titus all the time. They’re always wandering all over the countryside fishing. And Mr. Titus lives on the Addisons’ road. So how come Oliver could be so unfamiliar with Miss Bishop’s part of the Addisons’ road?

That one we actually do have a partial solution for. Let’s say that the back lane that Oliver’s used to using to go to the Addisons’ place goes past them to Mr. Titus’s place too. That makes sense, doesn’t it? And we can also say that Mr. Titus’s favourite fishing spots are all further west, or, anyway, not near Corn Hollow (which has no nearby brook, as Oliver takes note of as he’s wandering around lost).

So let’s take stock of the roads we’re dealing with in the area. We’ve got the highway south from Carthage, which runs past the Four-Story Mistake and then either continues south or swings northwest after that. Then we also have

– the Addisons’ road, which runs west from that, and which has the Addisons’ and Mr. Titus’s front entrances on it (and, also, Meeker’s farm). Note that the Addisons’ front entrance must be basically due west from the Four-Story Mistake, but the Addisons’ road can’t start at that latitude; it must start north of there, or Oliver would have run into it too soon

– the back lane to the Addisons’, which probably also has an entrance to Mr. Titus’s property on it, and is easily accessible from the highway

– a fork off of the Addisons’ road, which has Miss Bishop’s house on it, and which intersects the highway somewhere north of the Four-Story Mistake

That’s a lot of roads to all come together at about the same place in the middle of the countryside, and I basically don’t believe it. There’s no occasion to have so many roads, and I prefer the simpler explanations for how it all works.

There’s another suggestive passage in TW5 where Rush and Randy go to Meeker’s farm to help with a fire. As they’re traveling, they are passed by the Eldred fire engine. This sounds helpful, as, if the fire engine has to come up behind them, it means that Eldred must be south of the Four-Story Mistake on the same road as Carthage and Braxton. But when it happens, Rush and Randy are on the lane into the farm, so it doesn’t really say anything about where Eldred is.

The last geographical description of consequence comes in the final chapter of S42. The directions Randy and Oliver get are to “follow Highway 22, proceed, and take the next turn right, beyond the cows of Herman Heidt. Travel a mile and you will see a Northern name and a tall tree.” They do so, starting in Carthage. It’s clear that they’re familiar with the roads involved: both Highway 22 and their turnoff to the right. For one thing, Randy refers to “the sight of Herman Heidt’s repulsive cows,” and since when does Randy think cows are gross? Must be some history here.

We haven’t heard of Highway 22 before. It’s not really satisfactory for it to be the road south to the Four-Story Mistake; for one thing, they know that road too well. I’d much rather have it be the road from Carthage to Braxton. (Which actually is the same road. But this is how country roads work: they change names as they go from place to place.) It’s one that the Melendys take a lot, but not all the time, and the modernity of Braxton goes along well with the modernity of the house that Randy and Oliver find there.

So, that’s simple; from Carthage, go out to the highway, go north, and take the first right. A mile east, and you’re at the house in the clue, Villa Borealis.

Most of what’s left is various spots in the wilderness that Mark or Mr. Titus introduce the kids to, and they can pretty much be fit in anywhere. Mr. Titus tells a story about a place called Abbot’s Slough, for instance, which is near the house where he lived when he was a child, and is also in this area somewhere; is it the same house he lives in now? We don’t know for sure, but it sure could be, and I think we might as well assume it. Other of his locales: Baggot’s Pasture, Squaw Dam, Powder Hill.

Mark knows the woods for miles around his place, and takes the Melendys to a place where blackberries grow, an old graveyard back of his farm near a burned-down church that was struck by lightning, a hill where arrowheads can be found, a quarry where one can swim, a cave that’s not too far from Steinkraus’ farm and the house of Mr. Cutmold the auctioneer, and a backwoods still frequented by several villains of the region.

So that’s all the information, and we can start putting the map together now. This is what I came up with; it may not be exactly right, but I think any map based on these books has to end up looking something like this:

On Donald Trump and Placing the Blame

December 31, 2016 Leave a comment

Donald Trump is set to become President of the United States in a couple of weeks. This, obviously, is a problem (isn’t the whole point of politics supposed to be to keep guys like Trump out of power?), and it may be one without an acceptable solution.

There are any number of articles out there containing excellent advice for how to politically resist a Trump presidency and all of its attendant outrages. I recommend them all. The only problem with them is this: their efficacy depends on Trump’s whim. (A scary thought in and of itself.) Tactics like protesting and pressuring Congress and organizing for the next elections… they can be effective if the United States is still a democracy, with elected officials who have to pay attention to the voters. But if Trump is confident in the support of the armed forces and the various law enforcement services across the country, then he doesn’t have to worry about that. He can just have protestors or Congresspeople jailed or shot, and elections cancelled.

I know this is the kind of thing that the opponents of an incoming president always say. But it’s different this time, because a) all previous presidents were politicians who understood the nature of the presidency and the context in which it operates, and Trump neither knows nor cares about any of that; b) Trump has a famous disregard for law; and c) Trump’s supporters clearly don’t plan on holding him to any standards. Seriously: when was the last time Trump let the law stop him from doing something that he wanted to do? When was the last time that the Republican Party stopped him from doing something that he wanted to do?

During Trump’s time in office, however long that turns out to be, the USA is in danger of turning into a fascist dictatorship. It just depends on the degree to which Trump feels like colouring outside the lines, and the degree to which everybody else can summon the courage to refuse to follow evil orders. I’m not comfortable relying on either of those things.

So I’m not saying that people shouldn’t protest and organize. I think they should; I think it’s worth doing. I’m just saying that it might get you killed.

This is all tricky for me to talk about, because I’m Canadian. It might seem like I’m sitting up here in relative safety and perceived superiority, snarking on you poor dumb Americans for screwing everything up. I assure you that’s not at all what I’m doing. Everything I have to say about the USA is equally true of Canada; you guys elected your Trump and we have yet to face ours, whoever he or she turns out to be. (Harper wasn’t great but he had some good points, and was pretty much Abraham Lincoln compared to Trump.) Whatever I have to say about you, it’s true of us too. Including the part about how it may already be too late.

Anyway. Another kind of article I’ve seen many examples of has been the ones that try to pin the blame for Trump’s victory on this person or that group. In general I don’t like to dig into whose fault something was, but I will in this case because I think there’s a point to be made.

Here’s whose fault it is that Trump won the election:


Okay, not everybody. There are certainly people in the world who had no power to affect the election in the long or short term. And there’s a specific group of people who did have some power to affect the outcome whom I acquit of any blame; I’ll speak more about them later. But here are some of the groups and individuals who are to blame, in no particular order:

1. Donald Trump himself. He didn’t have to be the worst possible person one could imagine ever becoming president. He’s a human being with agency and resources. He could have been different. He still can! He can change. I don’t expect him to, but if he doesn’t, it’s on him.

2. The other Republican candidates. None of them are any prizes either, but why couldn’t they beat him? Why weren’t they better candidates?

3. The Republican Party as an institution. It’s not really a political party anymore so much as a ruination machine.

4. Trump’s own inner circle. They couldn’t have stopped him? Physically, if necessary?

5. Hillary Clinton. She could have been a better candidate. She could have campaigned differently. She could have done any number of things to make the election turn out the other way.

6. Bernie Sanders. If Clinton was so terrible a candidate, why couldn’t he beat her? Maybe if he had spent more of his career building connections to African-American communities more people would have supported him.

7. The Democratic Party. They preferred Clinton to Sanders and put their thumb on the scale. They’ve spent decades not paying enough attention to the people who were counting on them.

8. Russia. Not that it’s Vladimir Putin’s job to make sure the USA has good leadership. It’s not. But is it in Russia’s best interests to have Donald Trump in charge of nuclear weapons? I say that it is not. However much Putin might think Trump is his tool. Trump is not reliable and is the kind of tool that will turn in your hand.

9. The media. Gave Trump all kinds of free publicity and let him get away with everything. Too attached to their equal-time, both-sides-do-it paradigm to point out the real difference between the two candidates. Or, really, the real difference between Trump and all the other candidates.

10. The electoral college. It is literally their job to stop this kind of thing from happening. Yeah, I know, nobody really expected them to do it, but still: it’s their job, and they didn’t.

11. The voters. Half of them stayed home and almost a quarter of them voted for Trump. It’s the job of the voters to look over the candidates, to evaluate the available information about them, and to pick the one who would make the best president. And about three-quarters of them didn’t. They didn’t care, or they valued their own racism over the good of the country, or they preferred to listen to lies.

“But, Matthew, you can’t expect–”

No. I guess I can’t. And now Donald Trump is going to be the president. Good job all around!

Liberal democracy is a pretty good system. It’s got some redundancy built in: if one component underperforms, the other components can compensate. But the people who designed it didn’t envision a situation where _all_ the components failed. (Or maybe they did and just figured, oh well, if that happens then you get what you deserve.)

There are people out there who are politically active. They vote (and voted for Clinton in this election), they make sure they are informed on the issues, they do things to help out in their community, they fight injustice. These are the people whose fault Trump’s election is not. The rest of us all have work to do.

Which I hate as much as everyone else does. I don’t want to volunteer or protest or annoy politicians and corporations and media companies. It isn’t any fun. But this is where we are. The only thing we have the power to fix is us. It’s boring uncomfortable work that, these days, may carry with it the risk of being locked up or shot. But we have to do it anyway, because now we know what happens when nobody eats their vegetables for decades: Donald Trump gets elected.

If I Ran the Christmas Countdown

December 24, 2016 Leave a comment

A few years ago, I counted down my top 25 Christmas songs. I’ve expanded the list a lot since then, and changed it, and this is what it looks like now. It’ll probably change again next year.
Note that I’m not saying that these are definitively the best Christmas songs. I’m also not saying that they’re not. What I am saying is that if you set me to come up with a top 100 list, this is what I’d come up with. Artists specified if there’s a definitive version or a best version, not if there’s not.
I hope you see something on here you don’t know, but like!

100. We Wish You a Merry Christmas
99. Every Year so Different (Cornershop feat. Trwbador)
98. Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects (Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings)
97. Elf’s Lament (Barenaked Ladies)
96. The Snow Miser Song/The Heat Miser Song (The Year without a Santa Claus OST)
95. Here Comes Santa Claus
94. Hard Candy Christmas (Dolly Parton)
93. Underneath the Tree (Kelly Clarkson)
92. WTF AMP (Letters to Cleo)
91. You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch (How the Grinch Stole Christmas! OST)

90. Purple Snowflakes (Marvin Gaye)
89. Pretty Paper (Roy Orbison)
88. Away in a Manger
87. Angels We Have Heard on High
86. Snoopy’s Christmas (Royal Guardsmen)
85. Holiday Everything (Phil Marlowe)
84. Fairytale of New York (The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl)
83. O Christmas Tree
82. Do You Hear What I Hear
81. Christmas Vacation (Mavis Staples)

80. The Holly and the Ivy
79. It Came upon the Midnight Clear
78. There Are Much Worse Things to Believe In (Stephen Colbert and Elvis Costello)
77. Silent Night
76. Christmas Night in Harlem (Louis Armstrong)
75. Donna and Blitzen (Badly Drawn Boy)
74. Close Your Mouth It’s Christmas (the Free Design)
73. Do They Know It’s Christmas (Band Aid)
72. My Favorite Things (The Sound of Music OST)
71. My Little Snowflake (Prozzak)

70. White Christmas
69. Christmas is All Around (Billy Mack)
68. O Little Town of Bethlehem
67. Run Rudolph Run (Chuck Berry)
66. Joy to the World
65. O Come All Ye Faithful
64. Christmas in Hollis (Run-DMC)
63. The Christmas Song
62. Happy Xmas (War Is Over) (John Lennon and Yoko Ono)
61. Up on the Housetop

60. The Little Drummer Boy
59. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
58. The First Noel
57. Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree (Brenda Lee)
56. Winter Wonderland
55. We Three Kings
54. Green Christmas (Barenaked Ladies)
53. Father Christmas (the Kinks)
52. Christmas Wrapping (the Waitresses)
51. Huron Carol

50. Hallelujah Chorus
49. I Guess There Ain’t No Santa Claus (Barry Manilow)
48. Jolly Old St. Nicholas
47. It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
46. Santa Baby (Madonna)
45. Good King Wenceslas
44. 2000 Miles (Pretenders)
43. Holly Jolly Christmas
42. Christmastime (Oh Yeah) (Barenaked Ladies)
41. Lost Winter’s Dream (Lisa Mychols)

40. The Twelve Days of Christmas (John Denver and the Muppets)
39. I Saw Three Ships
38. Last Christmas (Wham!)
37. Another Christmas Song (Stephen Colbert)
36. Power Pop Santa (the Pointed Sticks)
35. Making Christmas (A Nightmare Before Christmas OST)
34. I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas (Gayla Peevey)
33. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen
32. Linus and Lucy (A Charlie Brown Christmas OST)
31. It Snowed (Meaghan Smith)

30. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
29. Silver Bells
28. Deck the Halls
27. Carolina Christmas (Squirrel Nut Zippers)
26. Blue Christmas
25. Christmastime Is Here (A Charlie Brown Christmas OST)
24. Cool Yule (Louis Armstrong)
23. Five Pound Box of Money (Pearl Bailey)
22. Christmas in Killarney (Barra MacNeils)
21. Oi! To the World

20. At Last I’m Ready for Christmas (Barra MacNeils)
19. Welcome Christmas (How the Grinch Stole Christmas! OST)
18. The Closing of the Year (Wendy & Lisa)
17. Sleigh Ride
16. What’s This? (A Nightmare Before Christmas OST)
15. F##k Christmas (Eric Idle)
14. Jingle Bells (Barenaked Ladies)
13. Jingle Bell Rock (Randy Travis)
12. Marshmallow World (Kim Stockwood)
11. We Need a Little Christmas (the Muppets)

10. White Wine in the Sun (Tim Minchin)
9. Christmas Comes But Once a Year (Christmas in Carrick) (Barra MacNeils)
8. Step into Christmas (Elton John)
7. I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday (Roy Wood and Wizzard)
6. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!/Count Your Blessings/We Wish You a Merry Christmas (Ray Conniff Singers)
5. O Holy Night
4. Carol of the Bells
3. All I Want for Christmas Is You (Olivia Olson)
2. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) (Darlene Love)
1. Christmas Dream (Mistletones)

On the Toronto Blue Jays: 2015

February 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Last year I wrote a few blogposts on the Toronto Blue Jays. I eventually stopped because I was so pessimistic about the team and I just didn’t want to be that guy. Since 2009 I’ve been so pessimistic about them that I believed that there was simply no way they would ever win anything of consequence again. As you may have heard, I was wrong: the Jays won their division handily, beat the Texas Rangers in a dramatic ALDS, and lost to the Kansas City Royals in a six-game ALCS. It was a great year, but here’s the thing: as late as early September, I was still of the belief that it was all going to fall apart. “Sure, they look good to win the division, but you know how this is going to end. This franchise doesn’t win stuff anymore.”

So I was wrong. I had to admit it, and change my thinking, and I did.

For 2016 I no longer believe that the Jays have simply no chance to win. Quite the opposite: they’ve still got most of the impressive talent that carried them so far last year. They’ve got a good shot at winning the division again, and I don’t see why they shouldn’t do it. So I can start writing about them again.

Not that everything is all sunshine and rainbows. The Jays are not a perfect team; they have some weaknesses and issues. Plus, they spent twenty-some years missing out on the postseason, and that wasn’t an accident: this franchise was bad at getting things done, and one great run doesn’t magically fix all of that. The team is under new management now (new president Mark Shapiro, late of the Cleveland Indians; new general manager Ross Atkins, late of the Cleveland Indians; new player development adviser Eric Wedge, formerly of the Cleveland Indians), which means they have an opportunity to stop doing things wrong and start doing them right. And I do like some of the things the new regime has done. But I’ve also heard from some Cleveland fans who were overjoyed to have Shapiro and his clique out of town. So we’ll see.

But hey! Spring training has started, and I’m excited (as opposed to just generally pleased) about a baseball season for the first time since 2009: finally, a year in which I don’t think I know the ending before it’s even started. Watch this space.

Been a while, hasn’t it?

January 12, 2016 Leave a comment

Back with more soon.

Categories: Uncategorized

On Ngaio Marsh: Names

February 21, 2015 Leave a comment

Ngaio Marsh, if you haven’t read her stuff, was one of the great mystery novelists. She wrote detective novels featuring her great creation, Inspector Roderick Alleyn, from the ’30s through to the ’80s. She was more prolific than Sayers and more literary than Christie, though not as colourful as either.

One of the things I had always noticed about her books was the exotic names she’d give to her female characters. On the average, there’d be one female character per book with a name that you’d never expect to see any real person wear around. Of course, Marsh’s own name, “Ngaio”, is quite uncommon outside New Zealand; it’s a Maori word. It’s easy to imagine a connection between Marsh choosing an unusual name for herself (“Ngaio” was actually her middle name; her first name was “Edith”) and choosing unusual names for her characters.

Inspector Alleyn, for instance. I always have to look up how to pronounce it. Or his wife, Agatha Troy: a standard enough name, but she’s called “Troy”, not “Agatha”, which is unusual.

When I say a name is unusual, I might mean several things: a word not usually used as a name pressed into service, or some noticeable alliteration or rhyming, or simply a name that’s really rare or elaborate. Or sounds cooler than real-life names tend to sound. I don’t consider a name that originates in a language other than English to be unusual just because it’s not English, but, in a classic detective story set in England partway through the 20th century, it might be just unusual enough to be the most unusual one in that book. (Note that Marsh set quite a few of her mysteries in theatres, so some of these unusual names are stage names, which means they have an excuse for being larger-than-life.)

So I went through all the Inspector Alleyn novels and short stories, and picked out the most wild-ass women’s names from each book, and listed them below. But as I was doing so I noticed that a lot of the male characters had equally weird names, so I thought I’d list those too.

I’m not criticizing Marsh for giving her characters these names. I just find it interesting.

A Man Lay Dead (1934): Nothing of interest here. Angela North, Rosamund Grant, Marjorie Wilde. She hasn’t really found her rhythm yet.
Enter a Murderer (1935): It’s between Janet Emerald and Dulcie Deamer.
The Nursing Home Murder (1935): Still finding the range. The pick of this novel is either Cicely O’Callaghan or a hospital matron named Sister Marigold.
Death in Ecstasy (1936): Dagmar Candour.
Vintage Murder (1937): Pretty conventional again. Carolyn Dacres, Valerie Gaynes, Susan Max.
Artists in Crime (1938): First appearance of Agatha Troy, but the real standouts in this book are Valmai Seacliff, and, if you need more, Sonia Gluck and Phillida Lee.
Death in a White Tie (1938): I dunno. Lady Evelyn Carrados, I guess.
Overture to Death (1939): Idris Campanula. It was probably old Idris who inspired me to do this list in the first place.
Death at the Bar (1940): Decima Moore.
Surfeit of Lampreys (1941): The sisters Frid and Patch Lamprey. (Actually Friede and Patricia, but Marsh does use nicknames.)
Death and the Dancing Footman (1942): What would you rather: Sandra Compline, Chloris Wynne, Elise Lisse, or Lady Hersey Ablington? They’ll all do.
Colour Scheme (1943): Probably a maid named Huia. It’s a Maori name, and so not necessarily unusual, but I’d rather that than Barbara Claire.
Died in the Wool (1945): Ursula Harme.
Final Curtain (1947): Millamant Ancred. (But note also her relatives, Jenetta and Fenella Ancred, and young Panty Ancred (nicknamed for Patricia. What’s Marsh have against Patricias?).
Swing Brother Swing (1949): Several to choose from. Cecile de Fouteaux Pastern and Bagott (that’s all one name; “Pastern and Bagott” is the surname), Félicité de Suze, and Carlisle Wayne.
Opening Night (1951): Martyn Tarne, although there’s also Gay Gainsford.
Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954): Slim pickings here; Annabella Wells, I guess.
Scales of Justice (1955): Kitty Cartarette.
Off With His Head (1957): Camilla Campion.
Singing in the Shrouds (1959): You can have Jemima Carmichael, or possibly Mrs. Dillington-Blick.
False Scent (1960): Anelida Lee, or maybe Pinky Cavendish.
Hand in Glove (1962): Let’s say Nicola Maitland-Mayne. Or Moppett Ralston (nickname for Mary).
Dead Water (1964): Elspeth Cost.
Death at the Dolphin (1967): Destiny Meade.
Clutch of Constables (1968): Hazel Rickerby-Carrick.
When in Rome (1970): Not much here. Sophy Jason?
Tied Up in Tinsel (1972): Cressida Tottenham.
Black As He’s Painted (1974): Xenoclea Sanskrit.
Last Ditch (1977): No obvious winners, but you can have Julia, Selina, Julietta, or Carlotta Pharamond, or Dulcie Harkness, or Susie de Waite.
Grave Mistake (1978): Verity Preston or Prunella Foster.
Photo Finish (1980): Isabella Sommita.
Light Thickens (1982): There seems to be some kind of minor character named “Rangi”, which I can’t imagine what it’s short for.
“Death on the Air”: Phillipa Tonks.
“I Can Find My Way Out”: Coralie Bourne or Dendra Gay.
“Chapter and Verse: The Little Copplestone Mystery”: Nobody really. Fanny Wagstaff?


A Man Lay Dead (1934): Hubert Handesley.
Enter a Murderer (1935): Arthur Surbonadier.
The Nursing Home Murder (1935): Very ordinary names in this book. Derek O’Callaghan?
Death in Ecstasy (1936): Raoul de Ravigne, or maybe Jasper Garnette.
Vintage Murder (1937): Hailey Hambledon.
Artists in Crime (1938): Basil Pilgrim.
Death in a White Tie (1938): Colombo Dimitri.
Overture to Death (1939): Jocelyn Jernigham.
Death at the Bar (1940): Nobody really stands out. I’ll take Sebastian Parish.
Surfeit of Lampreys (1941): There’s a chauffeur named Giggle.
Death and the Dancing Footman (1942): Aubrey Mandrake.
Colour Scheme (1943): Dikon Bell or Septimus Falls.
Died in the Wool (1945): Fabian Losse.
Final Curtain (1947): Cedric Ancred.
Swing Brother Swing (1949): Breezy Bellairs, Happy Hart, or Sydney Skelton.
Opening Night (1951): Parry Percival.
Spinsters in Jeopardy (1954): Carbury Glande.
Scales of Justice (1955): Octavius Danberry-Phinn.
Off With His Head (1957): Nobody really. Ralph Stayne?
Singing in the Shrouds (1959): Aubyn Dale.
False Scent (1960): Bertie Saracen.
Hand in Glove (1962): Either Percival Pyke Period or Bimbo Dodds.
Dead Water (1964): Ives Nankivell.
Death at the Dolphin (1967): Peregrine Jay.
Clutch of Constables (1968): Mmm, maybe the Rev. J. de B. Lazenby. (Dunno what the J and B stand for.)
When in Rome (1970): Hamilton Sweet.
Tied Up in Tinsel (1972): Hilary Bill-Tasman or Frederick Fleaton Forrester.
Black As He’s Painted (1974): Not much to choose from. Samuel Whipplestone?
Last Ditch (1977): Jasper Pharamond or Cuthbert Harkness.
Grave Mistake (1978): Walter Cloudesley or Basil Schramm.
Photo Finish (1980): Montague V. Reece.
Light Thickens (1982): Dougal Macdougal.
“Death on the Air”: Septimus Tonks.
“I Can Find My Way Out”: Canning Cumberland.
“Chapter and Verse: The Little Copplestone Mystery”: Richard De’ath.

On the Toronto Blue Jays: the Starting Rotation

February 16, 2015 Leave a comment

Here’s a little chart showing some details of the Toronto Blue Jays starting rotation over the years.

First column: year.
Second column: where their runs/game ranked compared to the league. (I wanted to use ERA or ERA+ but R/G is what Baseball Reference had in easy-to-get form so that’s what I used.)
Third column: how many pitchers made starts for them.
Fourth column: how many starts their top five pitchers made for them.

1977 13th 11 131
1978 13th 8 132
1979 14th 13 112
1980 10th 11 118
1981 11th 8 90
1982 4th 9 147
1983 7th 8 150
1984 6th 8 153
1985 1st 10 141
1986 6th 9 140
1987 1st 11 139
1988 6th 8 133
1989 4th 12 145
1990 3rd 11 141
1991 1st 11 137
1992 8th 9 136
1993 5th 8 146
1994 6th 7 110
1995 12th 10 110
1996 6th 11 128
1997 3rd 10 135
1998 4th 9 140
1999 9th 8 140
2000 11th 12 124
2001 6th 9 123
2002 9th 13 111
2003 10th 10 134
2004 8th 11 121
2005 6th 9 135
2006 5th 12 119
2007 2nd 11 128
2008 1st 8 139
2009 11th 12 127
2010 9th 11 127
2011 11th 12 116
2012 11th 12 113
2013 13th 13 121
2014 9th 9 144

Here’s the point of this chart. Look at the 2014 team compared to the teams right before it. Obviously, it’s a big improvement. The top five guys started 144 games; that hadn’t happened since 1993. Only nine guys made starts; that’s not common for the Jays, especially these days.

Now, the pitchers who turned in this performance were mostly the same guys whom the Jays had been counting on for the past few years: R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Drew Hutchison, Brandon Morrow, J.A. Happ. The results hadn’t been good in 2011 or 2012 or 2013, but in 2014 they were. Once Gibbons settled on a rotation of Dickey, Buehrle, Hutchison, Marcus Stroman, and Happ, the same five guys took the ball every day and performed consistently all year. What we saw in 2014 is what it looks like when those guys pitch and everything goes according to plan.

…But it wasn’t actually that great, was it? 9th in the league in runs per game; that’s not terrible, but it’s nothing to write home about. If 9th in the league is the best you can do, then the starting rotation is not one of your team’s strong points.

Four of those guys are going to be back in the rotation this year: Dickey, Buehrle, Hutchison, and Stroman. Happ’s spot will be filled by either Daniel Norris or Aaron Sanchez, or at least that’s what it looks like right now. I think it’s quite likely that this rotation will turn in worse results than last year’s, and here’s why:
– Dickey and Buehrle are at an age when it is unreasonable to expect drastic improvements, but sudden dropoffs in performance are always a possibility
– Hutchison pitched a lot last year, after coming off an injury. He’ll be doing well just to stay healthy in 2015
– Stroman was a rookie in 2014, and was fantastic. It’s not reasonable to expect more of him than he delivered last year
– Sanchez and Norris are untried rookies. It’s possible that they could do better than Happ’s perfectly decent 2014 season, but you certainly can’t count on it
– the starting rotation was disgustingly healthy in 2014. It’s not reasonable to expect that to last
– Stroman, Hutchison, Sanchez, and Norris are all young pitchers, and young pitchers will break your heart

Now, they’re all talented pitchers, of course; I haven’t named anybody who’s not worth trying in a major league starting rotation. I wouldn’t want to point at any one of them and say, “That guy’s going to fail!” But chances are someone’s going to get hurt. Chances are someone else is going to have a disappointing year for no particular reason. And then where are the Jays going to be?

Most of the discussion this off-season about the changes the Blue Jays need to make has focused on second base and the bullpen. (And for good reason.) People haven’t mentioned the starting rotation much. But I think the rotation needs the help just as urgently.

On the Toronto Blue Jays: Garbage Clowns

February 13, 2015 Leave a comment

I’ll spill the beans now for those who haven’t already guessed it: I don’t think the Toronto Blue Jays are going to go to the playoffs this year. (My pessimism runs a lot deeper than that, actually, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Some notable commenters on the Blue Jays don’t think much of this character of opinion. It seems that, if I have a negative outlook on the Jays, then I am therefore a garbage clown, which means that I

a) am stupid,
b) am a jerk who wants to spoil other people’s good times, and/or
c) derive satisfaction from the Jays’ losing, or at least from being the first one off the bandwagon.

(There is, by the way, little effort made to distinguish between someone who speaks their mind in a restrained and intelligent way and the dolts who tweet stuff like, “HAHA JAYS SUCK!!1! NICE BULLPEN GUYS LOLLLLL”.)

I’m not really interested in debating the first two points; there’s enough of my writing visible here and there on the internet that you can make up your own minds about them if you’re interested in putting in the time.

The third one I’ll touch on briefly. Yeah, there’s a little bit of satisfaction that you get when it turns out that you were right about something; I think we all know that. But I’d trade it in a second for a division title. (As for the bandwagon thing, I haven’t been on the bandwagon since 2009 at the latest, so it’s kind of an irrelevant charge at this point.)

The idea here seems to be that, if you’re an optimistic fan who is enthusiastic about his or her favourite team, you can shout that from the rooftops, but that if you have the bad taste to think it ain’t gonna happen, you should shut up and keep it to yourself.

What are the responsibilities of a baseball fan?

Legally, none; obviously. Just because you like baseball doesn’t mean you have to do anything.

But let’s say you want to take your fandom of your favourite team seriously. Is there a way to do that that you should take, as opposed to some other way? What would that involve? Maybe

– attending as many games in person as you can manage, and buying tickets from the team instead of from a scalper
– not booing the team’s players
– voting for the team’s players for the All-Star Game
– staying positive about the team’s chances
– buying and wearing team merchandise

…something like that?


I don’t really think there is even a hint of an obligation to do anything like that. Look: the one most valuable thing about baseball, the one thing that is at the base of all the billions of dollars that these teams are worth, is the fans’ interest in the game. Without that, everything else goes away. The Toronto Blue Jays depend entirely on the thousands or millions of people who take an interest in them, and they know it, or should.

So if you’re a baseball fan, your attention, your caring, is something that is very much in demand, and as such everybody wants to control it. The teams themselves want to control it, the media wants to control it, even other fans (for some reason) want to control it. But it’s yours. You control it. Nobody gets to tell you that this is what a baseball fan is and you have to be that; however you want to do it is the kind of baseball fan you are.


If, as a Blue Jays fan, I am unwilling to substitute anyone’s judgment for mine, then that’s that. And if, as a Blue Jays fan, I feel like voicing that opinion, then that also is that. And if you don’t like it, you should, because you can do the same.

So here we go: for the past 20 years, the Jays have had some talented players surrounded by enough mediocrities to hold them back from winning anything interesting. And they haven’t won anything interesting. In 2015, they will have some talented players surrounded by too many mediocrities. Why should we expect a different result?

On the Toronto Blue Jays: The Short Term

February 8, 2015 Leave a comment

Sometimes a baseball team is in a position where it should make moves for the short term. Sometimes it’s in a position where it should make moves for the long term. Sometimes it can do either or both.

Right now the Toronto Blue Jays should be making moves for the short term. See, most of their best players are getting up there in age. They’re going to be relying heavily on RF Jose Bautista (34), 1B Edwin Encarnacion (32), SS Jose Reyes (32), C Russell Martin (32), SP R.A. Dickey (40), and SP Mark Buehrle (36). That’s a lot of guys past their prime. They’re still good, mind you, or at least they were last year and there’s reason to believe they will be again this year. The point is not that these guys aren’t good.

But they won’t be good for too much longer. It’s a rare baseball player who’s still good at 33 years of age.*

So, if the Jays are going to win with these guys, it had better be pretty soon.

And the Jays do want to win with these guys.

So it had better be pretty soon. Like, this year, preferably.

Therefore they should be making some moves that will pay off this year, as opposed to a few years from now.

But that’s not what they’re doing.

– They’re turning centre field over to Dalton Pompey (22), who looks good, but who knows if he’s going to be able to put it together in 2015? He might need a year or two to acclimate to the major leagues.
– They solved their second base problem by trading for Devon Travis (24), who probably won’t be ready for the major leagues by the start of the 2015 season, and will get by as best they can with Maicer Izturis and Steve Tolleson and Munenori Kawasaki and Ryan Goins and Ramon Santiago until then.
– They’re going to be using some combination of Marcus Stroman (24), Drew Hutchison (24), Daniel Norris (22), and Aaron Sanchez (22) to play key roles on the pitching staff. They all looked good last year, but young pitchers will break your heart.

These are all long-term moves. They’re moves that you make because you expect them to work out well in a year or two, but not necessarily right away. But necessarily-right-away is exactly what the Jays need right now.

They need to win this year. Not because the manager and general manager are worried about their job security; that’s their problem. But because the clock is ticking on their strongest assets. This is not the year to try to get by with prospects and spare parts.

(Note: of course it’s true that veterans can let you down just as badly as young players. Their performances are somewhat more predictable in the short run, though, and you take what edges you can get.)

* Let me put it this way. Here’s a list of everybody who’s ever played for the Jays who’s going to be exactly 33 in the 2015 season (according to seasonal ages on Baseball Reference):

Jeremy Accardo
Taylor Buchholz
Buck Coats
Ben Francisco
*Aaron Hill
*Casey Janssen
*Kelly Johnson
Shaun Marcum
*Dustin McGowan
David Purcey
*Guillermo Quiroz
Mark Teahen
Merkin Valdez
Jamie Vermilyea

Only fourteen guys; I thought it would be more. Oh well. Anyway, of those fourteen, only five still have major league careers: Hill, still a regular but it looks like he’s on the downside; Janssen, still a closer but starting to show some cracks; Johnson, clearly on the downside; McGowan, who hasn’t signed with anyone at the moment and whose future is unclear; Quiroz, a bench player who had two major league at bats last year.

Of the rest, some of them are never-weres, but there are also some good players there. Guys who couldn’t make it to where Bautista, Dickey, and Buehrle are now. So, great for Bautista, Dickey, and Buehrle, but with every year it makes it a little more likely that they won’t be able to do it again the next year.

This is the club that Reyes, Encarnacion, and Martin are joining in 2016.