• Corn is a healthy vegetable snack, right…?

    People from Chicago rave about their Garrett Mix special popcorn, with a mix of half caramel corn and half cheese flavor. At first that sounded to me like mixing Cracker Jack with Cheetos—ugh. But when I tried some, I learned that the odd-sounding combination makes a highly addictive blend. Somehow the powdery cheese popcorn provides the perfect umami + buttery flavor with the sweet, candy caramel corn. Plus, the cheese corn's puffy, soft texture is a great contrast to the hard, crunchy caramel corn. I found a very similar "Chicago Mix" popcorn available locally from Cretors. Warning: Costco has GIANT sized bags—way too easy to binge! A safe approach is to get the multi-packs of smaller bags: stays fresher and provides automatic portion control.

  • Follow the Music is a BIG book on the history of the music biz

    The 1960's was a heady time for the music biz and Follow the Music: The Life And High Times Of Elektra Records In The Great Years Of American Pop Culture is a huge 441-page book—and a fantastic history of industry pioneer and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jac Holzman. Sure, I loved the endless details on the famous artists on Elektra, like The Doors, Judy Collins, Carly Simon, and Jackson Browne, but just as interesting was the story of the business side of the early days record business.

    Jac Holzman started recording folk music when he was just 19 and time and again his instincts served him well as a clever record producer and businessman. I was reminded of the many Elektra LPs I have owned, from less famous folk music to the recordings of stereo sound effects and environments, which as Holzman explains, was a thrifty way to make royalty-free records. He also came up with the concept of producing sampler LPs with an assortment of Elektra artists on one LP—great promotion and low cost!

    Rather than a continuous narrative, the book is collection of interview snippets, edited and sequenced in chronological order to create a talking time line of various memories and points of view. I like how Jac Holzman's usually gets the last word.

  • Marbits for cats?

    Why should people have all the freeze-dried fun? Our two cats go CRAZY for these PureBites cat snacks made of chicken. No, I haven't tried them myself, but they have the same feel and crunchy texture as the little freeze dried marshmallows (called "marbits") in Lucky Charms cereal. I like that they have just ONE ingredient: chicken. So do our cats.

  • Masterful and Fun plein air painting demos

    My wife and I both to love to watch artist James Gurney's fantastic plein air demos. (He's the guy who did those great "Dinotopia" books!) We think he's a really talented painter and also a terrific video blogger. He chooses lots of different subjects (not just "pretty" outdoor scenes), and undertakes rather bold and brave approaches. He'll demonstrate crazy limited palates and color gamuts, but no matter the creative risk, he manages to pull it off. It's fun to watch him paint himself out of a corner! We joke: "we're watching paint dry" but he's really fun to watch. His videos have lots of creative touches in the production as well: creative audio drops of viewer comments, props and gizmos, and subtle video effects.

    image source: YouTube

  • Jimmy Messina and His Jesters' "The Dragsters"

    image source: YouTube

    Record Store Day never fails to unearth rare, sonic treasures and one of this year's offerings is a 1964 recording from a young Jim Messina (later of Buffalo Springfield, Poco, Loggins & Messina). This fun reissue LP of surf music is "full of fierce, fiery, and infectious surf rock instrumentals with just enough sounds from the strip to get your motor running!" Come for the guitar picking, stay for the sound effects of revving motors, squealing tires, and reverberated rhythms. Available as streaming, mp3's, audio CD, and best of all, pressed in cool, clear blue vinyl in the original graphic LP sleeve! (While you're there, check out the rest of the amazing Sundazed catalog–and by the way, please go support your local record store!)

  • "The Birth of Loud" by Ian S. Sport: R&R gear history book goes to 11

    I totally dug this wonderful book of the early days of rock and roll [Amazon], featuring the creators of the music and the gear. Even if you already know some of the history of Leo Fender and Les Paul, you'll enjoy this imaginative retelling of how Stratocasters, Fender amps, and Gibson Les Paul guitars came to be. It's like you're right there at Leo's backyard cook out with Paul Bigsby and Les Paul sharing—and stealing!– the latest cool guitar innovations. Sure, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix are included, but it's the lore of the early days that really comes to life, like guitar slinger Dick Dale and his wild man, loud style that fried amps and shredded speakers. Just for him, Leo birthed 'The Showman,' the first powerful "stack" amplifier with special heavy-duty JBL speaker–and instantly lost the hearing in one ear while doing it. That's LOUD!  Even non-musicians will enjoy reading this lively tale of the rock-and-roll arms race.

  • "To My Great Chagrin: The Unbelievable Story of Brother Theodore" is a fascinating look at a comic madman

    I remember a really odd guest on the Merv Griffin Show back when it was broadcast from NYC in the 60's. In the middle of the usual anodyne talk show chit chat came a most highly unusual dark and dour figure: a stout man with a Moe Howard haircut, mad flashing eyes, and permanent scowl.

    Image source: YouTube

    He'd make the wildest, non-sequitur pronouncements in a booming Germanic voice "Einstein is dead. Schopenhauer is dead… and I'm not feeling so well myself!" Many years later he turned up as frequent and agitated guest of David Letterman, who described Brother Theodore as "a noted philosopher, metaphysician, and podiatrist." Who was this wild character?

    This docu presents the life and career or Theodore Isidore Gottlieb: a Dachau survivor, chess master, actor, and comedian infamous for his dark, rambling, stream-of-consciousness monologues. Mesmerizing! Find it on Amazon Prime.

  • The longest running Japanese comedy series that you've never heard of

    Although largely unknown in the west, Otoko wa Tsurai yo (男はつらいよ, "It's tough being a man" but commonly referred to as Tora-san) was a hugely popular series of 48 (!) movies that were made in Japan from 1969 to 1995, earning a Guinness Book of Records entry as the longest-running single-actor film series. The main character is a endearingly blundering fool, who makes his meager living as an itinerate street peddler of cheap novelties. Nearly every installment finds the oblivious Tora-san dropping in unexpectedly on his family, causing chaos and hurting everyone's feelings (including his own), and always being "unlucky at love." Just as suddenly, he packs his sample case and slips away…until next time.

    There's also a Tora-san museum in Shibamata Tokyo with set recreations and Tora-san festivals with cosplay.

    image source: YouTube

    A few years ago we found an American market (DVD region 1!) box set of 4 of the Tora-san movies and loved the great slice of life look at Showa era Japan. The extra features and audio commentary was essential to understand the many cultural references, the kooky gags and slang, and the background of the character. We wanted to see more! Luckily we have Scarecrow Video nearby us in Seattle with their huge foreign film collection for rent. Many of the Japanese market DVDs had English subtitles—yea! We used an old DVD player–equipped Powerbook to play the region 2 discs.

    Good luck finding that American box-set. Last time I looked on Amazon it was over $250 from a few sellers but Netflix was offering all four excellent region 1 DVDs on their rental service.

  • Life and times of folk-blues trio

    In 1963, three musicians traveled from Minneapolis to Milwaukee for a stripped-down, one-day recording session in a church. What they laid down was a thumpin', jumpin', and jammin' acoustic country blues record that set the staid folk music community on its ear. John "Spider" Koerner played a modified 7-string guitar, Dave "Snaker" Ray picked a big-bodied 12 –string, and Tony "Little Sun" Glower blew harmonica. Hard to believe this authentic funky blues was played by three white kids from Minnesota.

    image source: YouTube

    Their raucous tunes, spirited singing, and foot-pounding rhythms were an unpretentious smash and a huge contrast to the milquetoast "Michael Row Your Boat Ashore" folkies. (Remember in the film "Animal House" when Blutarsky grabbed the annoying folk-singer's guitar and hilariously smashed it against the wall?—kinda like that but more musical and fun!)

    They reworked old country blues, field calls, rags, folk stories and did original tunes. KR&G went on to record more albums, as a trio, as duos, and solo projects, as well as appear at the famous 1964 Newport Folk Festival. This 2+ hour 1986 documentary tells KR&G's story with lots of great concert footage and interviews. (I recently rewatched the film for free via Access Video On Demand through my local library system. The DVD is also available thru Amazon.)

    "Blues, Rags, and Hollers, The Koerner, Ray & Glover Story" documentary:

  • Your new friend in Pamplona

    During these times of reduced travel my wife and I have really enjoyed the fun and free online tours from professional guide Francisco Gloria Baines. He lives in Pamplona, Spain where he shares his knowledge of all things Basque: sights, sounds, history, food, culture, and nature. He'll take you truffle hunting, behind the scenes in a private men's cooking club, out walking the Camino, and more. Every week it's a new adventure.

    And if that weren't enough, he and his wife also invite you to their home for Basque cuisine and cooking lessons. His English is excellent and he's funny as hell!

  • Kooky 1950's Japanese candy comedy
    Image: YouTube

    Yasuzo Masumura's "Giants and Toys" (1958, color) is a funny and satirical look at go-go, post WWII Japan. This unblinking look at corporate values and pop culture is colorful, kooky, and sardonically dark.

    Three caramel companies slug it out in the 1950's cut-throat world of candy selling. Who will win the loyalty of the fickle Japanese candy buyer? Will the industrial spies succeed in their deception—or be betrayed in a double cross? Will the innocent girl-spokesperson rise from obscurity intact or lose her soul?

    If you like films like "How To Succeed In Business (Without Really Trying),"  "A Face in the Crowd," and "Sweet Smell of Success," Masumura's "Giants and Toys" will be right up your alley, even if this version is told from the backstreets in Tokyo.

    This movie was double catnip for me, as a designer of cereal toy premiums and as a fan Japanese culture. I loved all the mid-Showa era details of robots and ray guns, period cars and costumes, and slice-of-life settings around Tokyo.

    Then, with your appetite whetted for more corporate espionage and Japanophile film noir, go watch Masumura's other dark and deadly looks at the car industry ("The Black Test Car"  1962), the legal profession ("The Black Report" 1963), and real estate swindles ("Black Super Express" 1964).

  • Watch these mouth-watering street snack tours of Tokyo

    My wife and I really enjoy watching Satoshi and Shinichi of the YouTube channel TabiEats as they test and sample all kinds of foods from Japan. Fancy restaurants, take out food, prepackaged snacks from 7-11 and Lawsons, street foods in various cities around Japan—at any price point, these long-time 'Tubers always make it interesting and fun. They also do walk-arounds of different streets and neighborhoods and often find out-of-the-way, Showa era-looking shops and restaurants. During this time of COVID it's great to have this resource for vicarious travel…and snacking!

    (In a bit of culture vulture turn-about, there's also a fun episode of them traveling to NYC and trying the corned beef and pastrami at Katz's Deli. Native Japanese Satoshi's reaction to his very first taste of real pastrami is priceless: "…it has much beef UMAMI flavor!")

  • Build Your Own Mason Bee House

    mason-bee

    Instead of keeping honeybees, we're trying something else: Mason bees. They're very different from honeybees. They don't live together in a hive or make honey. No queens or colony of worker bees. Instead, they mate as pairs and lay their eggs in their own individual tubes. These docile, gentle bees are native to the US and Canada. You may have seen Mason bees but mistook them for flies. When young they are small and black. But look closely to notice their black furry legs and body and long antenna.

    After they mate in the spring, the female lays an egg inside a deep hole, adds some pollen (food for the larvae), and then seals it up with a bit of mud. The female repeats that, laying eggs, adding pollen and sealing with mud to create many chambers per hole. The larvae hatch in the summer, spin cocoons, and then hibernate all winter. They emerge next spring as adult bees and the cycle repeats.

    mason bee house.2

    You can buy pre-made mason bee houses at your local hardware or garden store, but making a Mason Bee house is easy. Here's a design I came up with that uses hardware cloth (like "chicken wire") for the main body. That allows easy access for the bees to go in and out but keeps out foraging critters, like birds and squirrels. The slanted wood top has enough overhang to keep them dry but with plenty of ventilation. The wood back holds it all together and provides an easy method to hang the house on a fence, tree or post. I used unfinished cedar for natural resistance to weather. When finished, hang your bee house on a fence or mount it on a sturdy cedar stake.

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  • Great Graphic Novels: The Cereal Killings by James Sturm

    GreatgraphicnovelsLast month I asked my friends to write about books they loved (you can read all the essays here). This month, I invited them to write about their favorite graphic novels, and they selected some excellent titles. I hope you enjoy them! (Read all the Great Graphic Novel essays here.) — Mark

    The Cereal Killings by James Sturm

    James Sturm is probably best known as the founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, a school dedicated to creating comics and as the artist and writer of Eisner — winning comics like The Golem’s Mighty Swing. But it was his first Fantagraphics title, The Cereal Killings, that knocked me out.

    Sturm created a parallel fantasy world populated by the beings that worked as kid cereal mascots. Sturm re-imagined beloved cereal mascots as anthropomorphized animal/humans who gather at the local bar to reminisce on the good old days of the cereal business. There’s Burt, a chain-smoking loudmouth rabbit, Snip, the ruthless elphin president of KelCog Cereal Company, and Carbunkle, the middle-aged agent who pitches new cereal ideas and represents his old friends. If you can picture a pugnacious fifty-year old Trix rabbit, an insulin-crashing Cuckoo Bird, and a DiggEm Frog with food issues, all with real-life problems of failing careers, petty jealousies and corporate intrigue, you’ve got the picture.

    Sturm cuts between the present-day story line of a “cereal killer” with flashbacks of the “cerealebrities” in their early glory days. His art has a personal, expressive line that works well to communicate the rough edges and tough breaks in the lives of the aging mascots. Slick cereal box art and tv commercial storyboards are used as an effective foil and contrast with the gritty realities of martial stress, alcoholism, and death.

    Says Sturm: “These characters function both as cultural icons and as individuals, real men and women with all the dreams, frailties and hungers that shape all our lives.”

    And the business aspects of kid’s cereals are woven throughout: new brands are proposed, designs for premiums are evaluated, and healthiness of kid cereals is questioned. Here’s Schmedly the elephant with Carbunkle at the bar:

    (By the way, think the story is exaggerating the “controversy” of a Crunch Berry? I refer you to a recent lawsuit: On May 21, a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California dismissed a complaint filed by a woman who said she had purchased "Cap'n Crunch with Crunch Berries" because she believed it contained real fruit. You can’t write this stuff!)

    Each issue of The Cereal Killings has a familiar comic book format with additional short stories; mock cereal ads, full-page portraits, and letters to the editor. Great stuff! The comic ran for nine issues, ending in 1995.

    Does Sturm ultimately pull it off, this parable of redemption in a cereal bowl? The fantastical conclusion uses dream imagery and leaves the final interpretation to the reader. I found it to be an engaging tale in an imaginative world.