Monday, April 26, 2004

Leftover Spam

Last month, I wrote about the junk mail that piles up in my mailbox like leaves on an autumn lawn, though not nearly so picturesque or colorful.

And still the spam keeps coming in ever-increasing volume and even less entertaining forms:

Prescription Drugs. Now, I realize that Americans are thoroughly screwed when it comes to prescription drugs. The companies that manufacture said drugs charge premium prices for them, with their stated reasoning being that since they spent the cash to research and develope the drugs, they're entitled to charge whatever they want to in order to recoup their expenses. Okay. I get that. But when the choice for some Americans--especially seniors whose sole income is likely their Social Security check--is between paying for drugs they need to survive or, say, rent and food, something is way out of whack. The funny thing, though, is that these same drugs are available for a lot less in other countries. And when one of those countries is as tantilizingly close as right over our northern border--yeah, Canada, I'm talking about you--who can blame anyone for taking a little trip to save a good chunk of change? Even as expensive as gas is these days (and will increasingly become over the impending summer months), you'd still save money driving to Toronto or Montreal for your prescriptions than if you walked to your neighborhood Walgreens or CVS.

All that said, would I buy prescription drugs from a site that clogged up my mailbox with blind solicitations? Two words: Fuck. No.

Software/Hardware. I'm an old-fashioned sort in many ways, but one of the most prominent manifestations of this personality trait (flaw?) is that there are certain things I won't buy online. DVDs? Sure. Books? Why not? Porn? Not so much anymore--"When masturbation's lost its charm, you're fuckin' lazy," or so Green Day sang--but when I did buy, I did quite a bit of it via e-mail. But a printer for Polly Jean? Or software that I can't be certain would be compatible with her delicate innards? I'd be more likely to walk down my crumbling back porch, pile up what little paper money I have, douse it with lighter fluid (which I do have, despite the fact that I don't smoke much more than three cigarettes a year) and light the pile up.

Hi. Oh, but this fascinates--and infuriates--me to no end. My e-mailbox has been crammed to capacity lately with messages from addresses I've never heard from--all of them with attachments that they want me to pop open. Now, I may be an idiot in many ways--spending money recklessly, falling in love unwisely, working at a dead-end job eons longer than I ever should have--but even I am not addled enough to double-click a ZIP or EXE file from someone I don't know. Shit, I won't even do that from someone I do know unless I'm expecting an attachment from a friend. Once, Sailor J sent me a scan of Richard Roeper (said by far too many to be my celebrity twin) with his arm around a woman who was a dead ringer for a mutual friend and former co-worker. But she had titled her e-mail "Hi" and I had to to ask her, "What the bloody hell are you thinking? Don't you know that assholes are sending e-mails like that to spread viruses?" She confessed that she didn't know, and I felt bad for going off, especially since she's one of the few readers I have left.

But the sheer volume of these infected e-mails--sometimes as many as a dozen a day--surprised me. So I asked out tech at work what the blue fuck was going on. "The virus-writing community..." Wait...there's a virus-writing community? Do they get together for coffee or have conventions? " having a competition to see who can write the nastiest virus and cause the most damage on the Net." How absolutely darling. It's hard enough to maintain a site on the Web without these evil rat bastards trying to take me and Polly Jean down for the count. And to make things extra special, it appears that some of this dicksmacks have appropriated's address to send some of these infected e-mails (or so I'm lead to believe, from the "mail delivery failure" notices I get from places like Canada, Great Britain and Hungary).

There's little more disheartening these days than seeing that my e-mailbox has a dozen messages in it, but not one of them is from a friend I haven't heard from in a bit, a close associate who's read the latest update and enjoyed, or some random stranger passing along a rare compliment. When only spammers are paying attention to you--and scant attention at that--it might just be time to pull the plug once and for all.

The spammers would have plenty of other, more tasty targets--they wouldn't miss me at all.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The Coldest Stare

Tonight, I sat out on the top stair of my building's back porch--a gray, decaying thing that shakes violently whenever I cart a load of laundry up it or a load of trash down and has somehow escaped the notice of city inspectors, despite an allegedly stepped-up effort by the city to check out such structures in the wake of a porch collapse last summer that killer 13 partygoers in Lincoln Park--and looked up at the stars.

You can't see very many stars in the city. Only the brightest ones can cut through the haze of street and alley lights that hovers over Chicago like a permanent cloud. When I worked in Evanston at the Evil Publishing Company, I could stand on the El platform, waiting for the southbound Purple Line train, and look south to the metropolis, covered in yellow-gray gauze. Not that Evanston was that much better for star-gazing; its proximity to Chicago virtually makes it as difficult to study constellations as it would be standing at State and Madison, even on the most crisp winter night.

I never realized how little I could see above until I got away from the city.

A decade ago, my girlfriend at the time had an invitation to go to a wedding in Livonia, Michigan, just outside of Detroit. We took the South Shore electric train to South Bend, were picked up by her parents (who lived--and live--in Berrien Springs), had dinner, then drove off across the state. Or maybe we spent the night and drove the next day. My memory--sometimes a remarkable thing, sometimes a Rubik's Cube of images that never quite fit onto one side--doesn't have that one in order. But she drove her parents' Ford Taurus across the state of her birth and fiddled with the radio dial, desperate to find something only moderately awful in the air.

And I? Just. Stared.

The night sky had slid over Michigan and brought friends with it. Burning white points of light. Thousands of them. You couldn't properly make out constellations, because they brought the rest of their galaxies with them. I'd been to the Adler Planetarium and read about the stars, but this was the very first time I'd actually seen how many I couldn't see at home. Upon a subsequent visit to my girlfriend's parents' home, I walked out after dinner and stretched out in their gravel driveway. Once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I couldn't count all the stars I saw--the arc of the whole Milky Way lay before me, revealing points of light as they looked before the hundred or more light years it took them to travel to this little, angry world, to my wide brown eyes, and no amount of time spent flat on that gravel would have let me take it all in.

Tonight, it's pretty clear in Chicago. And like I said, the brightest stars still do cut through the city lights, and I've spent many a night out here. Sometimes with a Red Dog dangling from between fore and middle fingers, getting killed too quickly for the good of my body or my mind. Sometimes with a cigarette or two, when the burning of my lungs and nostrils was welcome distraction from the rest of my life. Sometimes just listening to the brass windchimes I bought at a Pier 1 years ago and kept wrapped in red paper, waiting for the day when I'd hang them outside my first house. But I never bought a house--never had that kind of scratch, and likely never will--so I gave up, cast away the red paper and let the windchimes sing. The past couple night have been breezy indeed, so they've had a lot to sing about.

Last September, I was sitting out here, staring up at the evening sky or out at the pear tree a couple yards north or down at my bowling shoes, when the wooden storm door behind me rattled. Without getting up, I leaned back, turned my body halfway, and yanked the door open. Lottie was standing in the doorway, eyes wide, meowing to come out. Most nights, I'd just shag her back in and tell her she was being silly. I'd done that with the Girlish Girls ever since Ms. Christophee managed to sneak out and spent the night on the street, only to be found the next morning, huddled against the mottled brick of our apartment building, shaken and dirty but otherwise unharmed.

That September night, though, I didn't shag her back in. Instead, I patted the peeling surface of the porch, beckoning her out.

On all of the other occasions lottie had taken to explore the porch, she'd stalked every inch of the landing, sniffing out rival cats or squirrels or possums on the prowl for my next-door neighbor's discards. But on this night, she walked right up next to me, sat down beside me, and watched the stars with me. Maybe because she didn't search the porch because she was sick, hadn't eaten in a couple of days, and just didn't have the energy for it. Or maybe she knew what the vet would find the next day. Maybe she knew she was dying. Maybe I knew it, too.

We sat there together for a long time. I looked up at the stars as I had so many nights before, and spoke the words I'd spoken so many times before that I had ceased to be certain that I was speaking aloud at all: "Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight." On previous occasions, I'd wished for mundane things, like a new job or the love of a woman. But that night, with this large, loving tabby beside me purring hard enough to shake this old porch to splinters, I wished as hard as I'd ever wished for anything for her to get better. To be okay. To not suffer any more than she already had. And the stars looked back at me with the coldest stare and didn't answer.

Three days later, she she had to be put to sleep. There was nothing else to do.

Tonight, the door rattles behind me again. I stand, turn, open the door. Ms. Christopher looks up at me, pleading for the opportunity. No, the dimwit hasn't learned a thing from her experience with getting lost. But I don't shag her back. I open the door and welcome her to sit with me. And she does (after a lengthy search of the premises, of course). And we watch the stars together.

I still wish on stars from time to time, though maybe not with the same level of conviction displayed in wishes past. But I keep in mind a line of dialogue from an episode of M*A*S*H, in which a wounded soldier believes himself to be Jesus Christ and army psychiatrist Sydney Freedman asks him if it's true that God answers all prayers.

"Yes," the wounded soldier answers, tears streaming down his cheeks. "Sometimes, the answer is 'no.'"

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Review: The Hands of Orlac (1924)

The director (Robert Weine) and the star (Conrad Veidt) of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari reteam for this first film version of Maurice Renard's story of a concert pianist, Paul Orlac (Veidt), whose hands are destroyed in a horrific train wreck. Through experimental surgery, Orlac's hands are replaced with the hands of an executed knife-wielding killer named Vasser. (Such surgery wouldn't be possible in the "real" world for several decades.)

Orlac's father, who hates Paul and refuses to lend money when his wife begs for such, is later found murdered, and Vasser's prints are found at the scene. Is Paul the real killer? Do the transplanted hands have a mind of their own? And who is the mysterious stranger (Fritz Kortner) with steel hands, claiming to be Vasser returned from the dead and blackmailing Paul for his dead father's fortune?

Weine tries to add nightmarish touches throughout the film. And a couple of sequences--an actual nightmare, in which Kortner's face hovers above Veidt's bed, and a scene in which Veidt stumbles through darkness, with only his face and outstretched hands visible--are effectively spooky. Unfortunately, the conclusion of The Hands of Orlac, in which Kortner's character is revealed to be a common criminal engaged in an elaborate scheme to drive Veidt mad and steal his father's cash, is not only ridiculous, but it also severely undercuts whatever mood had been established before it.

Not there was any consistent tone to begin with. Relatively restrained sequences with the blackmailer (who also bullies Orlac's maid into aiding in the scheme) are side by side with scenes of a pallid, bug-eyed Veidt staring at his hands like they don't belong on his body (which, of course, they don't). And that conclusion plays like Weine trying--and failing--to do an imitation of Fritz Lang's bizarre crime films, like Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. The removal of even a hint of supernatural presence makes the whole film feel like a cheat and makes it more like American films of the time, in which the villain who seems like an otherworldly monster turns out to be a criminal, a lunatic or a mad scientist (and, sometimes, all three at the same time). Compare this approach with Lang's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1932), which is primarily a crime thriller, but maintains a supernatural subplot--hinting, at the very least, at madness, if not possession by the dead Mabuse--that it doesn't back off from or explain away.

The first Hands of Orlac may have been a misfire for its director and star, but ten years later, Renard's story was successfully remade as Mad Love, directed by cinematographer Karl Kreund (who also directed the Karloff version of The Mummy at Universal) and starring Colin Clive as Orlac and Peter Lorre as the mad, obsessed Doctor Gogol (who sews the murder's hands on). This silent version of the story--available only through independent video companies working with less-than-perfect prints--pales in comparison.

Thursday, April 1, 2004

This Sporting Life: Bad Sports

The National Hockey League (NHL) regular season ends Sunday. Of course, in Chicago, the NHL regular season ended quite some time ago, if it can honestly be said that it started at all. For our city's rumored representative in the NHL, the Blackhawks, never really showed any of verifiable evidence of having actually "played" any games this season.

Video footage is alleged to exist of individuals dressing in Blackhawks uniforms and skating in arenas in cities like Buffalo, Vancouver and Calgary, but dressing like hockey players and actually "playing" hockey are not the same thing. I can't say with any certainty that similar footage exists of these pretenders skating on United Center ice--the owner of the Blackhawks, William Wirtz, has refused for years to allow regular season home games to be telecast locally. Better for Chicago viewers in the long run, really, though not so good for local electronics stores, which surely would do fantastic business replacing the television sets of irrate hockey fans angered beyond reason at the athletic atrocities flitting across their soon-to-be-shattered screens.

Raise prices beyond reason. Deny local fans TV coverage of home games. Trade away any player that might be worth more than a nickel. I'm not sure you could come up with a more perfect way to destroy a fan base if you tried. Even if, as General-Manager for-the-umpteenth-time Bob Pulford claims, the draft picks acquired in trades over the past year are key to rebuilding the franchise, by the time this team is watchable again there may be no fans left to care.

I grew up as a hockey fan. Played the game in the alley behind the apartment building we lived in on Ohio Street. Took multiple pucks/puckballs to the head (explains a lot about about me, doesn't it?) while playing goalie in my brother's borrowed pads and mask. And most of my friends were big hockey fans, too. Why? Because even if we couldn't make it to the Chicago Stadium (long since razed) to catch a game, we could watch on TV--at least if we could point the rabbit ears on the back of the black-and-white portable set in the family room in the proper direction to get the signal to look like something other than a reenactment of the Blizzard of '67.

Hockey isn't entirely dead in Chicago, though. We also have an AHL (minor-league) team, the Wolves, and they have a nice little fan base of their own. In fact, on a couple of occasions this year, they've outdrawn the Blackhawks. And the Wolves televise all of their games. Coincidence? No such thing.

Oh, but if the Blackhawks were the only stupid sports franchise in this city, we could just ignore them and, eventually, they'd just go away. They might anyway, but we'll still have plenty to cringe at.

The Bulls had a grand stretch that ended six years ago--my God, has it really been that long?--but have been an embarassment to the sport of basketball ever since. You can argue forever whether or not the team's owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, was right to "break up the dynasty" (as he has often been accused of) or, at the very least, not make an effort to keep the team together for at least one more championship run, until all the hair on your head turns gray and falls out. But no one can argue about the quality of the team since that last banner was raised at the United Center--the Bulls have been, and are, dreadful.

And the most frustrating season of that horrid run has been the current one, in which the new general manager, John Paxson (replacing the much-loathed Jerry Krause) brought in new players and, when the team faltered, a new coach--and, amazingly, the team actually got worse. Even more amazing is the fact that attendance at the United Center has been excellent--among the NBA's best, in fact. Are these people masochists? Do they like burning money? If so, could they spare some from the fire and slide some to me? A fiver, even? No? Well, then. By going game after game, they're only ensuring that the product on the court will continue to reek.

There is hope for sport in this city, if one looks elsewhere. The Chicago Fire, our soccer team, is pretty bloody good. The Bears hired a new coach and have brought in new, experienced players, so next year might be different. The White Sox (also owned by Reinsdorf) lost several key players, but they happen to be in the weakest division in baseball, so they have a chance to succeed. And the Cubs? They almost made it to the World Series last year and spent some money in the off-season for the first time in a long time. If Mark Prior's elbow and Achilles tendon start to behave themselves, this baseball season could be, at the very least, entertaining.

At the United Center, though, it might be time to call the EPA in. There's something very toxic on Madison Street.