Sick at home, watching the Towering Inferno

Since Arlo and I started watching old episodes of Lost in Space before going to bed each night, I’ve become obsessed with the show’s creator, Irwin “The Master of Disaster” Allen, and, today, as I was home sick from work with a nasty stomach bug, I got to indulge by watching Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen fighting for their lives in The Towering Inferno. I’ll write more when I’m feeling better, but, here, in the meantime, is the trailer from 1974.

Posted in Art and Culture | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

You no longer have to take the word of the textbooks, this is what Prehensile Monkey-tailed Skink was actually like

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Remember how, several months ago, I told you that a 25 year old video of my Ann Arbor noise band, Prehensile Monkey-tailed Skink, had surfaced in Oregon, and how music journalist Dustin Krcatovich had made it his mission in life to track it down? Well, he was apparently successful. After teasing me with a few still shots, and a provocative clip of me licking the sweat from a fellow bandmate’s brow, Mr. Krcatovich finally come though with the entire video. This evening, upon arriving home from my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party in Kentucky, I found what could well be the only known copy of “Fears of Practice” waiting for me on my doorstep, along with the following story, which was signed “Dustin Krcatovich.” Before we get to his letter, though, here’s how the long lost video, which had been distributed on VHS through Blackjack Records back in the early ’90s, begins. The little boy at the beginning of the video, by the way, is Miles Larson, the now grown man who recently made headlines for interrupting Governor Rick Snyder’s dinner at Old Town by walking out and loudly saying, “You fucked up”.

A few months ago, a curiosities collector living in nearby Clackamas, whom I will refer to henceforth as “The Collector” in order to protect the innocent and to avoid coming up in Google searches, posted a photo of his bedroom on Craigslist. He wasn’t trying to sell anything in said room. Instead, he was looking for someone to do landscaping for his yard; the poorly-lit webcam photo was designed to illustrate the degree to which he was incapable of the job. You see, an unspecified illness had left him mostly bedridden, so he would only get up once every three days or so to check the mail and… well, you can imagine.

The room wasn’t a pleasant sight. Before I did the internet equivalent of running away screaming, though, I noticed something in the background, blurry but nonetheless unmistakable: the scrawled, black and white cover art of Prehensile Monkeytailed Skink’s sole video document, Fears of Practice. I’d only ever seen one copy before, at Peter Larson’s house in Adrian, Michigan in 2003; he’d quickly slid it under a chair when he thought I wasn’t looking, for fear that I’d pilfer it (damn it, Larson, I have scruples).

How could this be? Accounts vary on how many copies of Fears of Practice actually exist: former Blackjack Records CEO and Skink patron Scott Derr insists that he sold (well, carried) copies of the VHS tape through his mailorder distro in the ’90s, and thus that there must have been at least 25 made. Larson estimates less than 10. When evidence of the copy in question first came to light, this blog’s titular character speculated that it was the only copy in existence (he was wrong, of course). Regardless, it was definitely produced in miniscule numbers, so how the hell did The Collector come across it?

Finding the answer to this question was important to me, even enough to do physical labor, so I responded to the ad. I got the job mostly because I didn’t gag when I walked into his bedroom, and because I have a (landlord’s) lawnmower. How did I haul that mower in a Ford Focus, you ask? That, my friends, is another story…

Anyway, as insinuated, I did find myself in The Collector’s room, with the tape in arm’s reach. The guy had a lot of weird stuff. No other obscuro ’90s underground rock paraphernalia, though — not even the Big Chief and Some Velvet Sidewalk 7″s that people used to have sent to them with their voter registration cards — just bottlecaps for regional sodas, Christianity-themed pogs, commemorative plates of Jimmy Carter and Idi Amin, used Beatle wigs, etc. The mystery, then, was no closer to being solved. The Collector was none too keen on answering questions about his collection, and when I leaned in for a closer look, he slapped my forehead and told me that nobody touches his “precious goods” but him.

So it was that I mowed The Collector’s lawn every week for a month and a half, all the while trying to get closer to that Skink tape. Every time I got within two feet of it, I would see him eye his gun (a nonfunctional replica of a Revolution-era musket, but it was still intimidating). I know I’ve been making it sound like he had a right to be suspicious and all, like I was planning on gripping the thing from day one, but I swear it’s not true! I’m terrified of stealing. I once cried my eyes out after accidentally stealing one piece of Bazooka bubble gum. I just wanted to look at the thing, to hold it in my hands for a moment.

I’m pretty sure The Collector knew what was on my mind, a suspicion compounded when I came into his room one day and found him projecting the video onto a crusty bedsheet nailed to the ceiling. He let me stand and watch two separate five-minute intervals without demanding I get back to work, almost as if he was either taunting or testing or pitying me (I’m not sure which). I feigned disinterest, pretending to dick around on my phone so that I could snap a few clandestine pictures.

Two weeks later, I had my chance to really get up close and personal with the tape. As I mowed past his bedroom window, I noticed that The Collector was out of the bed and into the bathroom! Time and stealth were of the essence, so I left the mower running to mask my footsteps and bolted inside. The Collector did not take short bathroom breaks — his diet was mostly pizza rolls and Vicodin — so I knew I had a few minutes, though his suspicion would likely come quicker than his bowel relief.

Finally, the tape was in my hands. I held this glorious relic of ’90s junk rock sloppiness close and carefully like a newborn. I whispered, like an incantation: “Ann Arbor isn’t weird/your town is really weird”. Just then, I heard a grunt and the creaking of old knees.

Then, I heard an explosion.

It turns out lawnmowers don’t like being run in one spot unattended. Who knew? I bolted for the front door, tape still in hand. Massive, gas-fueled flames were rising in the front yard, and I didn’t know where to find a hose (I never said I was a competent landscaper) or fire extinguisher. Panicking, I ran to my car and sped off with the tape still in hand. The landlord’s lawnmower would have to come out of my security deposit.

Lest you think I’m a total scumbag, please know that I drove by The Collector’s house a couple weeks later to make sure that he was still alive and his house hadn’t burnt down. From what I could tell from the street, he was fine, or at least as fine as I’d left him. I thought about returning the tape, as I’d only kept it in the confusion of the moment. Y’know what, though? It deserves better than to sit idly a few feet from The Collector’s bedpan. So, after toying with holding it over Mark Maynard’s head for blackmail purposes, I decided that it was most important that it be shared with the world. It was too good to hide. I’m not proud of what I’ve done, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

As for how “Fears of Practice” came to be made in the first place, here’s a little something that I wrote a few months ago, when I first got news that a copy had been located… “Well, as I suspected, it looks as though my memory of events was a bit off. According to Linette, who was there at the time, and shot much of the footage that wound up being used in ‘Fears of Practice,’ Pete and I did not, in fact, make the video with the intention of adding it to the Bulb catalog. No, apparently Pete advertised the video in the Bulb catalog prior to its existence, and we only made it once someone actually did the unthinkable and ordered a copy. As for how many copies were made, I’m still not sure. Linette seems to think we only made the one, just to fill the order. I can’t imagine that we would have been that stupid, but I suppose, given other business decisions Pete and I have made over the past 25 years, it’s possible. [‘We’ll just get together and make another one if there’s another order,’ one of us probably said.] If I had to bet, I’d say that Linette is probably right, and it’s very possible that this copy which recently surfaced in Oregon is the only copy ever made. As for who ordered it, Linette seems to think that it was purchased by a young man who would then go on to form the band Wolf Eyes. As for how it made its way to Oregon, I have no idea. I’d like to think that he was murdered for it, but I suspect it’s more likely that it was taken from a garbage can in front of his house.” As for the quality of the songs, I’d like to say that what you see above doesn’t adequately reflect our work. The truth is, though, it’s probably pretty representative. In retrospect, we probably should have taken the time to have written better songs, and practiced, but neither of those things were really a priority for us at the time. We just wanted to get on stage and piss people off… Oh, and, yes, I did drop my bass during every song.

Posted in Ann Arbor, Art and Culture, History, Mark's Life, Special Projects, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Ypsi High students to honor the contributions of local women throughout history in new mural

As you may have noticed, a number of local high school students have been working on a new mural in downtown Ypsilanti these past few weeks. What follows is a brief conversation with their Ypsi High art teacher Lynne Settles about the project, how it came about, and the positive effect it’s having on her students.

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MARK: Since was last spoke, you’ve started work on yet another mural with your students. What can you tell us about this one?

LYNNE: This time the students wanted to create a mural on the topic of African American women in Ypsilanti.

MARK: How did you decide which women to include?

LYNNE: Local historian Matt Siegfried came to our class and gave a presentation on several historical women who called Ypsilanti home. Matt and the students then chose which women that they wanted to include, being careful to select individuals that represented different things… like voting rights, healthcare, education and sports.

MARK: And this one is on the side of a downtown building owned by the parents of one of your students, correct?

LYNNE: Yes, this mural is going up outside Finesse Salon, which is owned by Paris Green’s parents… Paris, as you might recall, is the young man who accompanied me on your radio show a few months ago… It’s a great location for us, right at the corner of Ballard and Congress… It’s very visible.

MARK: What did you learn from the first mural you did here in Ypsilanti, the one of HP Jacobs? And, given your experiences last time, are you doing anything differently this time?

LYNNE: It’s not so much something that we learned, but the students decided that, this time, they wanted it to look more realistic, and they wanted to incorporate more detail.

MARK: And you’re still collaborating with Doug Jones (artist), Matt Siegfried (historian) and Laura Bien (videographer)?

LYNNE: Yes, we all worked so well with each other last time, and with the students, we didn’t want to change anything.

MARK: And how many students are participating this time?

LYNNE: About 20 students have come out to paint, but not all on the same day. They come when they can. And we probably have a core group of about 10 that come more than the others, because they either drive or live within walking distance.

MARK: While the outline went up a little while ago, I suspect it will be some time before the entire piece is completed. When should we expect to see the whole thing done?

LYNNE: We will be working every weekend in May and some weekdays as needed to have it done by June 1st. Many of the students working on the mural are seniors, so we want it done before they graduate. Plus it has to be completed by June 3rd, as the unveiling will be part of Ypsilanti’s First Fridays festivities.

MARK: Are your students engaged in a different way this time? I’m curious to know if they’re taking on more leadership, for instance, having now done this once before.

LYNNE: They are definitely taking on more of a leadership role. They decided on the theme, asked more questions, etc. They started organizing for this back in January. At our community fundraiser this past April, they planned and led the program. They designed and printed the t-shirts that we’re selling to raise funds. And they’ll lead the unveiling on June 3rd too. [The unveiling will happen at 6:00 PM.] One of the girls, Asia Allen King, has written a poem asking the question, “Have We Forgotten Our Women?” And one of the boys will answer the question in a rap song.

MARK: It’s got to be a great feeling as a teacher to find a way to get your students to open up, realize their potential, and, perhaps for the first time ever, feel like a part of their community.

LYNNE: Yes, that’s the best part about the whole thing… It’s all about the children and what all of this has done for them, how it’s built up their confidence.

MARK: You received a grant from the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation to help make this happen. What will you be using your $1,000 grant for?

LYNNE: All the funds we received from the Awesome Foundation will go toward the purchase of supplies, materials, and food for the students doing the painting.

MARK: And you also just concluded a successful Patronicty campaign, right?

LYNNE: Yes, we just raised $5,136 through Patroinicty, surpassing our goal of $5,000. And it’s a matching grant, which means that Pure Michigan, MEDC and MSHDA will match our $5,000. These funds will go toward paint, paint brushes, rollers, aprons, gloves, and protective equipment. It will also help with documentation, consultation and the installation of signage at both mural sites. And any extra money will be put aside for our next mural in the fall.

MARK: I’m happy to hear that you’ll be incorporating signage at the mural sites. While the pieces themselves are great, I love the idea that people who just happen to stumble upon them will be able to know who the people are that they’re looking at, and how these pieces were painted by local high school students.

LYNNE: Yes, this project not only touches the lives of the students in the class, but it reaches back to the past to preserve it for future generations.

MARK: You mentioned a third mural. Are there already plans underway?

LYNNE: The third and last one in this project series will be on the Underground Railroad. We know where we would like to paint it, but the site has not yet been confirmed.

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[note: Ive requested an interview with Matt Siegfried about the women who are depicted. My hope is that this will happen soon. In the meantime, however, I received the following from Douglas Jones, the artist working with the students, who wanted to let us know that it’s not African American women who are depicted… “It also honors the history of remarkable caucasian women from Ypsilanti, including Dr. McAndrews. Dr. McAndrews was an immigrant from Scotland. She originally settled in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. McAndrews received social scrutiny for being a woman doctor, rather than a nurse, and for harboring runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. Dr. McAndrews set up a medical clinic, in Ypsilanti, to specifically care for African-Americans and impoverished European-Americans. She saved countless Ypsilanti women by offering women’s health, including prenatal care, as the State of Michigan’s first woman medical doctor. There are several others, but I’ll mention this ‘white lady’ here. Thank you, Mark!”]

Posted in Art and Culture, Awesome Foundation, History, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The ongoing influence of Ypsilanti’s Pleasuredome

berkowitztenderA few nights ago, Linette wanted show me something in the book that she was reading. “It’s the new book by poet Amy Berkowitz,” she said, “and it mentions the Pleasuredome.” She handed me the book, telling me how, among other things, the narrative centered around fibromyalgia, chronic pain, and noise music…

Here, for those of you who remember the old Pleasuredome, is the first page of Berkowitz’s book, Tender Points.

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I like when local things are memorialized, and attention is drawn to the efforts of people like Patrick Elkins [seen below outside the old Pleasuredome] and Thom Elliot, both of whom were instrumental in making interesting things happen at the little, nondescript house on River Street known as the Pleasuredome. A lot of times, people don’t realize the impact they have, but the little things that we do in life are important. And this, I think, is a great reminder of that. You don’t have to sell out the biggest venues in the largest cities to be impactful. House shows, even if just a few people are in the audience, can put out energy that radiates for generations, and in directions you could never have fathomed. I don’t know Berkowitz, so I can’t speak to the impact that discovering the Pleasuredome had on her as a young writer. Given the fact that she notes the time she spent there on the first page of her first book, however, my guess would be that her experiences there helped make her who she is today. And I think that’s something we’d all do well to keep in mind. You never know who you’re inspiring, and what they’ll go on to do. And that’s really one of the most beautiful things about life, isn’t it?

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So, who thinks it’s time to start working on a Pleasuredome display for the Ypsilanti Historical Museum?

[note: Berkowitz is also the woman behind the chap book press Mondo Bummer, which is well worth checking out.]

Posted in History, Uncategorized, Ypsilanti | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

How I abused my blender and saved my life

A few weeks ago, as you may remember, I suggested that a particularly horrific dream that I’d had involving Ted Cruz may have come to me because, just a few hours before going to sleep, I’d broken a “self-imposed, month-long ban on sugar, wheat, dairy, alcohol, caffeine, processed foods, fried foods, and everything else that makes life worth living.” Well, as a few of you have written to me since then, asking for details about this diet of mine, I thought that I’d share a bit more… Here, for those of you who might be interested, are a few of the highlights from my month without fun.

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As readers of this site may recall, I went to the hospital with chest pains about a year or so ago. After a day of tests, the doctors at the University of Michigan, satisfied that my heart was in good working order, came to the conclusion that my pain was most likely due to stomach acid making its way up, into my lungs. “It happens sometimes with stress,” they said, before suggesting that I start taking antacids and change my lifestyle.

Well, I started taking an antacid every morning, and it helped some, but, given my work schedule and other commitments, I never really followed through on the sleep, diet and exercise side of the equation. I just took my medicine and hoped for the best, and I kept right on going the same as before, spending up to 14 hours in front of an illuminated screen every day, exhausted, and totally stressed. And, on top of everything else, I also took on the additional stress of borrowing a lot of money and buying a largely vacant building in downtown Ypsi with the intention of redeveloping it. And, by the start of 2016, things had started to take a toll. Not only was I perpetually tired and sickly feeling, but I’d somehow developed a really terrible, deep and persistent cough.

Several times a day, I’d literally have to stand up, hold onto something for support, and cough to the point where I felt lightheaded. I was not only having to wake up several times a night to cough, but the people around me, as you might expect, were becoming concerned. [Some of my coworkers, I’m sure, thought that I had tuberculosis.] And, at some point, I just decided that it had to stop.

I made the decisions just after a coughing fit behind the wheel of my car had sent me veering off of Huron River Drive with my daughter in the backseat. I only blacked out for a moment, but it was enough to scare the hell out of me.

The next morning, I just got up and said, “I’m going to change my diet and see what happens.” I figured that, while I couldn’t really make time for exercise or sleep, I had some control over what I ate during the day. So I got out of bed that morning with the intention of eating only fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and lean meats. I gave up everything made with wheat, sugar, and dairy. I gave everything that I felt could be even remotely bad for me. I gave up alcohol. I gave up processed foods. I gave up fried foods. [I’d already given up caffeine about six years ago because of what it did to my anxiety, so I didn’t have to give that up.] I dusted off the expensive blender, filled it with beets, kale, some frozen berries and a handful of chia seeds I found in the cupboard, and I was on my way.

My cough was gone in three days. Completely gone…

And I started losing weight. While I don’t know exactly how much weight I lost, as I didn’t know how much I weighed at the beginning, I did begin to periodically weigh myself at some point during the first week, and I know that, by the time the first month was over, I’d lost at least 12 pounds. It wasn’t my objective to lose weight when I started, but it’s a nice side benefit, and I suspect that other health benefits will likely be had as a result. [I’m thinking that if I can keep off some of the weight, maybe I’ll get backaches less often, for instance.]

Well, as I alluded to that post referenced above, I then slowly started tapering off a few weeks ago, when I went out for a beer and some pulled pork nachos at Red Rock. I was about a month in at that point, and I could feel the pull of cheese, calling to me from the street outside… While I’ve had a few pieces of pizza since then, and a few more beers, I’ve still kept pretty true to the new diet for the most part. I still make a big smoothie every night and put it in the fridge for the next morning. And I still do my best to stay away from wheat, sweets and processed foods. I wouldn’t say that I feel great… I still need to work on the sleep and exercise… but it’s been nice to see the “whites” of my eyes actually beginning to turn white again, and sleep through the night without getting up several times to cough phlegm into a towel by my bed like a 90 year old man.

Like I said, I just started on a whim to see what would happen. I didn’t really have a plan. I’ve heard since then, however, that there are real programs that do pretty much the same thing. There’s something, for instance, called Whole 30, where you essentially give up all the same stuff that I gave up for 30 days. [There’s a book that you can get that’s full of recipes and the like.] So, if you should want to give it a shot, but think that you’d tire of grilled chicken breasts and beet smoothies, there are resources out there. All you really need is access to a lot of vegetables, a powerful blender and some willpower.

Speaking of the blender, I didn’t really kill the one pictured above. While it’s true that I’ve been abusing it, by forcing it to grind down bags of carrots each a day, that’s not what caused the explosion above. I didn’t burn out the motor by jamming it too full of produce. I just accidentally caught my sleeve on the lid while it was running, causing beet juice to fly everywhere. I don’t think the blender has much life life left in it, though. I’ve really put some miles on it these past few months. And I think it’s just a matter of time before it gives up.

Posted in Health, Mark's Life, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

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