December 24, 2014

(Re)Watch Jim Henson's "Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas," Appreciate the Subtle Narrative Trajectory

FULL DISCLOSURE: I have no idea if this TV special is actually enjoyable or not; it was made in 1977, and screened several years running when I was little, and so I watch it not as a fully-functional 21st Century human, but as a larval 1980s proto-being sitting rapt at the foot of the broadcast-only television set that largely raised him. I believe that, when I first saw Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas our television remote control was still literally a clicker, in that it actually clicked. This was certainly in the days before VCRs, consumer-grade satellite television, or the cable company reaching our heavily wooded Metro Detroit suburb. On re-viewing, I've discovered that this "special" (as we then called them, presumably because they were advertised as "special broadcasts" or "special programming" in the TV Guide) left deep traces in the folds of my forming brain--for example, I realized during this recent re-viewing that the cigar-box ukulele I've included in my upcoming DIY book is quite clearly modeled on the cigar-box banjo the muskrat plays in Emmet's band.

Anyway, maybe this show is only truly enjoyable through the lens of nostalgia, but watching it with my 21st Century children the other night, I realized that not only is this a weirdly inside-out "Gift of the Magi" (in that Emmet and his mother hock *each other's* prized possessions in order to get together the money to enter the contest to win some money to give each other presents--it's like O'Henry if it had been rewritten by Quentin Tarantino), but also really interestingly nuanced storycraft: Once the contest starts and Emmet and his mother realize they're competing against *each other,* there's only one outcome that *isn't* devilishly tragic, and that outcome is inherently a downer. Nonetheless, Henson pulls it off in a masterfully balanced way, making for a humane, moral, and powerful piece of storytelling.

But what *really* struck me was how much this story reminded me of O'Conner's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"--not in an obvious way, as with the echoes of "Gift of the Magi," but in its overall mood, its sense of rural down-in-the-holler isolation interfered with by a briefly glimmering, chaotic criminal element that comes careening into the scene from somewhere far out of their normal ken--hell, out of their goddamned orbit, like malignant meteorites--just to fuck shit up and then zoom away again.

And, of course, the thing that those chaotic, quasi-criminal "River Bottom Boys" do that fucks things up is insert actual rock into the prevailing old-timey folkery. I remember, as a kid, identifying with Emmet--who was the obvious Good Guy™--but also being uncomfortably drawn to and fascinated by the River Bottom Nightmare Band's music, which wasn't *good* music in the way that Emmet's and his mother's was (those are, in fact, perfectly sturdy little folk/bluegrass tunes), but was *powerful* music. I know that other folks my age had a similar experience back then, and was surprised when my wife looked up from her work as we all watched this (on our discarded dead-pixelated flat-panel TV that's hooked to no cable and can receive no broadcasts, but instead gets its signal from a half-broken laptop computer--a rig that is functionally a million times better than the TV I watched for, easily, 6-hours a day as a child, and which my children rarely even think to ask about turning on) and commented absently that she really liked the Nightmare Band's song and schtick.

The Nightmare Band is dressed as arena glam-rockers, but they really are, truly and at their core, punks. And, of course, that punk got into me and all the other little footie-pajama-clad proto-humans staring into their family TV sets back then, when "Winter Break" was still called "Christmas Break," and everyone was a little less guarded in their seasonal microaggression and microinvalidation . I doubt this was Henson's intent, but we rarely end up actually accomplishing what we set out to do--which I'm pretty sure is the motto *actually* written on Lady Liberty's tablet.

For those who aren't students of Hebrew or the Torah, I'l just note now that EMET translates to "truth." Just sayin'


OUTTAKE (via @dhelder):

December 19, 2014

Dear Internet: I Made You These Xmanukah Songs

I'm a mixed Jew who's lived in the American Midwest for his entire life. I think these songs, more than anything else I've ever written, are honest about that experience.


  • Another Dark Xmastime (FUN FACT: I wrote this during my first year as a fundamentally unemployable stay-at-home dad; my son believes it is an accepted part of the general Xmas Music Canon.)

  • Dreidel Bells (FUN FACT: The beat here is an original GameBoy running an early German Nanoloop cartridge. Both voices are obviously me, but the filters for the robot voice badly overburdened my iBook, causing significant lag--which is why Mr. Roboto struggles so badly to hit his marks.)

  • DreidelDreidelDreidel (FUN FACT: The beat here is a vintage analog Boss DR-55 once owned by POE, crammed through a heavy-metal distortion stompbox.)

  • December 18, 2014

    Get Yer Last-Minute e-Stocking Stuffers and Virtual Dreidel Loot!

    Maybe time has slipped past you, or you just need to get a little something different for someone a little different. These ebooks will put you back less than a cup of fancy coffee, won't languish in the US mails, and don't need gift-wrapping:

    The New Guys Always Work Overtime: An award winning time-portal short first published in Asimov’s last year. Taylor works for Just-in-Time Fabrication and Fulfillment. Instead of outsourcing production, his company is 100% MADE IN AMERICA—and keeps prices down by bringing in cheap labor through a time portal. Training these quaint temp workers seems like a good job—until Taylor meets the latest batch of New Guys. (Also available DRM-free, which might suit you better for gift giving.)


    The Giant Squid presents A Tahitian Tale: Chronicles of the Giant Squid – Volume 1: The first in a series of autobiographical two-fisted tales narrated by Poor Mojo’s Giant Squid–a sorta sinister, sorta steampunk squid just trying to get along in a world not of his making (and also recover Tycho Brahe’s cursed golden nose for his Nazi masters).


    Tucker Teaches the Clockies to Copulate (Clockie American Steampunk Book 1): In this celebrated steampunk novella, a lonely veterinarian recounts a crippled, alcoholic, Confederate infantryman’s attempts to teach decommissioned clockwork soldiers to make nice (*wink, wink*) with their Mormon neighbors. (Also available in a pick-what-you-pay DRM-free bundle.)


    Need something more substantial? Check out this DIY toy book or celebrated steampunk novella.

    December 17, 2014

    Wanna Review My Forthcoming book: JUNKYARD JAM BAND: DIY MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS AND NOISEMAKERS? Drop Me a Line! #diy #maker

    Are you a READER OF THINGS? Are you interested in the MAKER Movement and DIY? Do you like FREE BOOKS? I'm wrapping up my second DIY book for No Starch Press: Junkyard Jam Band: DIY Musical Instruments and Noisemakers. This new book is focused entirely on musical instruments and noise toys (both traditional and odd-as-hell--see a few early prototypes in the videos below). If you're interested in a review copy, hit me with your contact info and a link to your venue (or blog, Tumblr, Twitter, Goodreads, Amazon account, etc.)

    Wondering what my books are like? There are SNEAK PEEKS and FREE SAMPLES from my first book at the No Starch Press website and on Amazon.

    Please feel free to pass this on to others you know who might be interested! Thanks!


    December 15, 2014

    Give the Gift of Bawdy SF! #scifi

    Looking for a little something extra-special for the the literate pervert in your life? May I suggest a copy of my celebrated novella Tucker Teaches the Clockies to Copulate? Thumbnail blurb: "A lonely veterinarian recounts a crippled, alcoholic, Confederate infantryman’s attempts to teach decommissioned clockwork soldiers to make nice (*wink, wink*) with their Mormon neighbors."

  • Reviewers have lauded it as: "dark comedy, wonderfully absurd, riotously bawdy, populated by a full set of fantastically flawed characters . . . . Yet also a poignant tale of wanting to belong, wanting to be counted as a human among humans."
  • While readers say stuff like: "reading this was like reading sci-fi from the Golden Age, the mind stretching shit that challenged your idea of the world, and what it means to be human" and "Highly recommended for people who like intelligent fiction that isn't afraid to get dirty and weird."

    Big spenders can drop some coin one one of the *two* remaining hand-made, letter-pressed chapbooks (the so-called "Patron edition," shown above). Folks looking for a virtual stocking stuffer can pick-what-they-pay for DRM-Free digital editions. (Or, as always, you can buy it on Amazon.)

    P.S.: Need something for your nearest-dearest crafty DIY makers? Consider a copy of my first DIY book, Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred.

  • December 10, 2014

    Give the Gift of Getting Crafty! #DIY

    The Holiday of Your Choosing is fast approaching! My first DIY book, Snip, Burn, Solder, Shred: Seriously Geeky Stuff to Make with Your Kids, is a popular gift for inquisitive kids and their hands-on family and friends--but it's not generally super-well stocked in stores (i.e., after Cyber Monday [*shudders*], Amazon was down to just three copies). Amazon *has* been restocked, and *can* have it for you by Xmas or Xanukah. Act fast!

    If you'd prefer an autographed and personalized copy, I again have a few left over from my summer events, and will gladly oblige: Click for details!

    What do you build in this book? Stuff like this $10 guitar:

    And these water rockets:


    December 08, 2014

    HISTORY: A HISTORY OF HISTORIES IN 10 HISTORIES

    If you've set foot in a physical bookstore in the last several years, you're no doubt familiar with the A History of X in N Ys nonfiction subgenre (e.g., A History of the World in 100 Objects, A History of the World in 6 Glasses, A History of the World in 12 Maps, etc.). It's not a terrible scaffolding to build a non-fiction work around, but the gimmick is certainly getting played out, and descending into self-parody.

    A while back I spotted one of these "History of X in Ten Whatevers" snowclones on a "New Releases!" shelf in our local B&N while wandering around, waiting for my boy to pick out another Pokemon desk reference. I can't even recall the history's actual title or topic now, just that it had the format, and so goaded me into snarking the above-embedded tweets.

    But the more I've thought about it, the more it's begun to seem like a sort of a reasonable project, as a framework for picking apart what we really mean when we say "History," and what we've meant over time. Like, Shakespeare's RICHARD III is a "history," but is totally slanted. Most US branches of Xtianity take the OLD TESTAMENT as a history--and it meaningfully is, but not in the same way that BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE is a history, or THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK and Studs Turkel's WORKING are histories, or THE 9/11 COMMISSION REPORT is a history. Heck, the TORAH (i.e., that same OLD TESTAMENT) *isn't* considered a history by most of the Jews for whom it is the primary religious text--but the Talmudic and other commentaries on the TORAH *are* understood to be a very important history of the evolution of not just Jewish thought, but human ethical development.

    For that matter, there are distinctly different *kinds* of histories that have gone in and out of vogue over time; few true chronicles are produced any longer, but memoirs and biographies--especially those focused on folks previously ignored because of their race, gender, class, or general Otherness--have blossomed and multiplied.

    And all of which speaks to our evolving notion of what "history" means--and the possibility that HISTORY: A HISTORY OF HISTORIES IN 10 HISTORIES is actually not that bad of an idea. The question is: What 10 histories would go in? I kinda like the idea of having DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL in there, as well as Plains Indian winter counts, and Iceland's Islendingabok and subsequent Book of Icelanders database).

    What would you include?

    December 04, 2014

    Give the Gift of DIY Booze!

    Limoncello is a sweet, potent, ultra-citrusy liqueur popular in Southern Italy; think "lemon-drop schnapps." If you can get 100 proof vodka (or, even better, 151 proof grain alcohol) and organic lemons, you can make it at home with minimal effort and disproportionate results. Folks *love* a little limoncello on a dark cold night, and are absolutely *delighted* to receive a bottle as a gift.

    This 5-minute video and my no-frills recipe will tell you everything you need to know. BONUS: At the link you'll also find my homebrew lemonade recipe--great served warm (maybe with a shot of whiskey or two?) on these cold nights[*].

    Continue reading "Give the Gift of DIY Booze!" »

    December 03, 2014

    Happy Buy-Whatever-You-Want-We-Ain't-Judging Wednesday!

    You've survived Black Friday, Buy-Local Saturday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday-- congrats! You've safely made it to Buy-Yourself-Something-Without-Feeling-Like-You-Need-to-Justify-It-to-Anyone-'Cause-It's-Your-Damn-Money-and-You-Earned-It-DAMMIT! Wednesday. You've been a good enough boy or girl all year. You didn't stab anyone over the turkey, tofurky, or turdogducken this year. You didn't riot at Best Buy in order to snatch the last cut-rate flat-panel TV from the frail hands of a palsied child. You didn't systematically destroy the solvency of the middle class while larding corporate profits to an all-time high, or gut any semblance of regulation on corporate political spending, extra-Constitutionally track and analyze the communications of of hundreds of thousands--if not millions--of law-abiding US citizens.

    You deserve a tiny little something extra, a tiny treat that you don't have to justify to another living soul: A fancy cup o' coffee, an afternoon cookie, a new game for your phone, a couple MP3s, or perhaps . . .

    The New Guys Always Work Overtime: An award winning time-portal short (first published in Asimov's last year). Taylor works for Just-in-Time Fabrication and Fulfillment. Instead of outsourcing production, his company is 100% MADE IN AMERICA—and keeps prices down by bringing in cheap labor through a time portal. Training these quaint temp workers seems like a good job—until Taylor meets the latest batch of New Guys. (Also available from other ebook retailers and DRM-free, if that suits you better.)




    The Giant Squid presents A Tahitian Tale: Chronicles of the Giant Squid - Volume 1: The first in a series of autobiographical two-fisted tales narrated by Poor Mojo's Giant Squid--a sorta sinister, sorta steampunk squid just trying to get along in a world not of his making (and also recover Tycho Brahe's cursed golden nose for his Nazi masters).


    Tucker Teaches the Clockies to Copulate (Clockie American Steampunk Book 1): In this celebrated steampunk novella, a lonely veterinarian recounts a crippled, alcoholic, Confederate infantryman's attempts to teach decommissioned clockwork soldiers to make nice (*wink, wink*) with their Mormon neighbors. (Also available in a multi-format pick-what-you-pay DRM-free bundle.)

    Treat yourself!

    December 02, 2014

    This Is a Pretty Solid Little SciFi Short . . .

    . . . if you like sitting alone in your office and crying int he middle of the afternoon.[*]

    Watching this is getting me really, really pumped for HAPHEAD (starring the same actress, and also written by Jim Munroe)--which is on schedule to premier next month.

    Just Ella � No Media Kings

    Continue reading "This Is a Pretty Solid Little SciFi Short . . ." »

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    About the Author


    David Erik Nelson is an award-winning science-fiction author and essayist. His fiction has appeared in Asimov's, The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded.

  • Find him online at www.davideriknelson.com
  • Follow him on Twitter: @SquiDaveo
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  • Contact: dave[AT]davideriknelson[DOT]com
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    Make cool things (water rockets, cardboard boomerangs, a $10 electric guitar, a sock squid, etc.) while learning cool skills (basic soldering, sewing, carpentry, woodburning, etc.), and do it all on the cheap (most projects are under $10, many supplies are *FREE*).
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