Friday, 28 September 2012

The Mighty Hercules: a case study in lazy cartoons (a rant)

There are some childhood memories that should never, EVER be revisited.  Things are rarely as rosy as your fun-dip and sweet-tarts fueled childhood remembrances would lead you to believe.

You remember that beautiful, rustic cabin that your family used to visit when you were in elementary school, on the shores of a prisine lake?  Yeah, when you revisit that cabin as an adult, you realize its a total crapshack with holes in the walls, no bathroom and no heating, and that gorgeous lake is actually a blue-green algae infested swamp at best.

Your favorite childhood cartoons should be handled in the same fashion.  It is just better not to watch them, despite how many warm and fuzzy feelings you have about spending Saturday mornings in feety-pajamas, eating Cookie Crisp cereal while watching Teddy Ruxpin, trust me when I tell you he is not the same bear that he was twenty years ago!

Say what?!
I am well aware that revisiting a childhood cartoon can ruin that memory forever.  Yet, I have Teletoon Retro and Cartoon Network and these two channels have combined to ruin my memories of a childhood spent in front of the television.  But they can't help but rebroadcast the crap from our childhoods.  Twenty and thirty somethings have ridiculous amounts of disposable income and big appetites for nostalgia, which is why we not only have rebroadcasts of the old crap, but new versions of old shows taking over a whole new generation of childhoods (Ponies, anyone?).  And we watch it.  And then we get disenchanted, and die a little bit inside because it will never be as good as it was when we were six.

Current case in point... The Mighty Hercules:

Hercules!  Hero of song and story!
 Now, the Mighty Hercules (hereafter referred to just as Hercules) is not actually a cartoon from my childhood.  It's really a cartoon from my PARENTS' childhood, which has been mercilessly rebroadcast for almost fifty years, despite it's incredible craptitude.  When I was watching it in the 80's, it was on re-runs for like the bajillionth time.  And it was still awful.  Even five year old me knew that it was awful.  But I still watched it.  And so when Teletoon Retro pulled this very dusty (and apparently unkillable) rabbit out of it's hat late on a uneventful Sunday night, I couldn't help but watch.

And watch I did.  I cheerily enjoyed the theme song, remembering the words to an alternate version we used to sing as kids (Hercules, he's a big fat phony, Hercules, made of cheese and baloney...), until the episode started.

And let me tell you, while television may be the bastion of crap, I may have to make the unqualified judgement that this cartoon is perhaps the crappiest crap that ever crapped.  Aside from the memorable theme, there is not a single redeeming quality to this show.  Ok, I lied, there is another good thing about it, the episodes are only like 10 minutes long.  That is good.  But the rest of it is garbage.
It is awful.  And possibly pedophilic? And OMG where the hell are the rest of his clothes?!
There are several reasons why this cartoon is the black hole of suck.  Basically, it exemplifies everything that was wrong with animation between the 1950's and 1980's.  With the exceptions of some quality cartoons (e.g.- Looney Toons), most cartoons from this time period suffer from the same horrific, brutal animation style that is the hallmark of this era.  Put simply, this type of animation is cheap.

Firstly, the cell rate per second on these cartoons is embarassingly low.  Cartoons usually run at 24 frames per second, with 12 drawings taking up 2 frames a piece in your average quality animation. This allows for fluidity of movement.  Choppy, crappy movements that you see in Hercules and, most stereotypical to the Hanna-Barbera bullshit parade, are using only about six drawings per second.  And that is why they look like a total disaster.  Couple this with animation loops (where you use the same frames, usually backgrounds, over and over and over in the same episode, think The Flintstones for this one), and the overall effect is embarrassingly poor animation.  And it isn't even as if we can forgive these cartoons for being "old".  Gertie the Dinosaur, (1914) one of the very first cartoons, had a higher frame rate and actually looks a lot better than Hercules!  Not to mention the WWII Superman cartoons, whose large budgets allowed for exceptional fluidity of movement and quality in animation.  Here is an example on Youtube (don't mind the casual wartime racism...):

So studios basically cheaped out on animation after it was no longer useful as a propaganda tool.  And while there are exceptions, animation stayed pretty bad until the end of the 1970's when it was discovered that you could, like with so many other things, export your drawing duties to the third world and have them do it for you for next to nothing.

But back to Hercules. Along with the sorry excuse for animation, you have terrible voice acting (which was also rife in cartoons from the cheap era, though I can't for the life of me tell you why), and the fact that the storylines are brutally simplistic.

i.e.: Every episode, ever: Hercules and friends are having fun/chilling out when villain/monster comes.  Hercules beats him/it up, puts on his ring, finishes saving the day.  Everyone celebrates and/or learns a valuable lesson.  And at multiple points in the episode, Newton and Tuet annoy the fuck out of us all.  The end.

And I know, you think I'm being too hard on poor Hercules.  But obviously, I'm not being hard enough because they are still playing this crap on TV fifty years after it should have been cancelled when there are perfectly good episodes of Looney Toons I could be watching.

A cartoon that is actually EVEN BETTER than you remember.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

William Styron’s “Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness” (review)

“For over seventy-five years the word has slithered innocuously through the language like a slug, leaving little trace of its intrinsic malevolence and preventing, by its very insipidity, a general awareness of the horrible intensity of the disease when out of control.”

So we pulled memoirs for book club this month.  I knew immediately which kind of memoir I didn’t want to read.  I wanted to avoid the memoir that is a rant of self-serving, narcissistic (practically masturbatory), overly exaggerated praises and adventures that probably never really happened.  Think along the lines of Anthony Kiedis’ Scar Tissue or something similar to that.  Too many people write memoirs like this.  In fact, I think too many people write memoirs, period.  Contrary to what an exceptionally over-exercised ego (the type usually possessed by the so-called “famous”) might contend, most of the world probably does not want or need to read about your life and all of the great adventures you had.  It’s like drunk stories.  The only time drunk stories are good are when you are on an even playing field because you are both swapping them and are both drunk.  Reading a memoir can be a lot like having middle aged uncle tell you all about that time he got smashed and had so much fun, when you’re like twelve years old.  Hearing all about his awesome inebriated fun time is completely unrelateable, and also somewhat doubtable in terms of whether or not the tale is in fact non-fiction.

So in selecting my memoir I steered clear of the Keith Richards and Chelsea Handlers.  I searched instead for a memoir on a subject I wanted to know more about.  In this case, I wanted to know what it’s like to be living with depression.  With my husband being subject to the disease, I’ve been reading many self-help works trying to get a handle not only on what is going on in his head most of the time, but also a better understanding of my own reactions to it.

So I selected what is considered to be one of the most well-written memoirs on the subject, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness  by William Styron (famous as the author of Sophie’s Choice).

At a mere 84 pages, Darkness Visible recounts Styron’s fall into depression and culminates with the night he nearly took his life before he was hospitalized and eventually recovered. There are no unnecessary words in this eloquent and short volume, Styron does not boast or make light of the situation, but presents his story with a brutal realism and an honest description of his experience with the disease.  There are awkward moments that make the reader squirm, such as when Styron describes an attempt to skip an awards luncheon in his honor, forcing him to explain that he is mentally ill to a room of intellectuals.  I found Styron’s brutal honesty in describing his feelings and actions to be simultaneously horrifying and fascinating.  The memoir is written not only as a tale of how he survived the disease, but also as a point of advocacy for people who suffer with this terrible condition in a world that still stigmatizes people with mental illnesses.  

Take for instance this passage:
“For in virtually any other sickness, a patient who felt similar devastation would be lying flat in bed, possibly sedated and hooked up to the tubes and wires of life-support systems, but at the very least in a posture of repose and in an isolated setting.  His invalidism would be necessary, unquestioned and honorably attained.  However, the sufferer from depression has no such option and therefore finds himself, like a walking casualty of war, thrust into the most intolerable social and family situations."

For myself, I feel that I have benefited greatly from William Styron’s Memoir, and that it is certainly one worth reading.  It has given me a glimpse into a condition to which I can’t relate, but need to understand as I experience it part of my day-to-day family life.  And that is one heck of a gift for a book to give.

Monday, 24 September 2012

The awkward stage lasts forever (a rant)

I am a fortunate vegbrarian in a lot of ways.  One of those ways is that my workplace has free lunch hour fitness classes for people who buy a (very cheap) yearly membership to our gym.  Like pretty much everyone else in the world, I hate getting up early to hit the gym before work, so the lunch hour the classes are a pretty nice feature that helps to keep me in some semblance of a shape.  They have a variety of different themes that repeat each week, so you can focus on your cardio or your glutes or whatever.


The problem with the fitness classes is the GODDAMN FLOOR TO CEILING MIRROR that mercilessly taunts me.  Now you'd probably suspect this problem would be something bodily related, and you'd be right.  But it's not that I'm unhappy with my weight (I'm of skinny to average build), and it's not that my boobs are jumping around like toddlers hyped up on "go-go juice" (also don't suffer from that particular malady)... it is that I am mercilessly, brutally, embarassingly, horrifically CLUMSY and AWKWARD.

"Oh but silly vegbrarian, everyone has been there..." BLAH BLAH BLAH, etc.  Yeah, most people go through an awkward phase where their limbs are outrageously out of control when they are teenagers and still growing into their adult bodies.  My problem is that for some reason, my brain's ability to coordinate my over-long limbs never happened.  So there I am, attempting a step class, and all I see in that heinous floor to ceiling mirror is this horrific caricature and muppet-esque woman flailing her arms and legs wildly like Kermit the frog on ecstasy. 


Part of what makes this so awful, exacerbating the issue and making my lack of grace all the more obvious to onlookers, is the fact that I am a tall person.  Tall, thin people are supposed to be graceful, like gazelles or whatever.  They are not supposed to look like those wavvy-armed tube men that car dealerships put outside on weekends to draw in customers.  By the good graces of genetics and a healthy vegan diet, I should be a statuesque waif floating lightly down the halls with effortless grace.

But this is not to be, and oh yes, I do have theories as to why I won out on all these fronts only to lose when it comes to coordination.  None of which are particularly science-y. Part of it is a lack of depth perception, and part of it is the fact that I have absolutely no idea how big my own body is.  Which is weird, because I am really good at parallel parking because I am very aware of the exact dimensions of my car, and yet I can't figure out how far away my own knees are from my head.

And there is no cure.  I am tall and I am clumsy.  And the awkward stage lasts forever... 

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

For the love of amigurumi

Sometimes I get carried away with things.  Especially when it comes to hobbies.  I’m one of those people who finds a new hobby and completely throws themself into it at the expense of other important things like housekeeping and eating and basic personal hygiene.  A lot of these phases have come and gone, (including rec league hockey, button making, needlepoint, origami, the buying of bulk food then processing and freezing it, etc.) but other hobby obsessions have lingered (festered?!) and continually absorb huge amounts of my time.

One of these things is crochet.  Particularly, the making of amigurumi.

kawaii desu ne!
For the uninitiated, amigurumi are crochet stuffed toys which (as the Japanese nomenclature may imply), are anthropomorphic animals with giant heads, typically worked in the round.  Usually they are teensy-weensy, but this is not a requirement.  Now as someone who sells her crochet things at the farmer’s market, it might seem completely legitimate for me to make a lot of these toys.  But in reality, it is just unholy how much time I spend on these things.  Just to demonstrate, take for instance the proliferation of the zombie bunnies:

Zombie bunnehs!

moar zombie bunnehs!
OMG why can't I stop?!
Amigurumi have a certain appeal that other crochet projects just don’t have.  I think part of this has to do with repetition.  If for example you’re working on a blanket, you repeat the pattern a thousand times for 20 hours and blanket is done.  The zombie bunnies on the other hand, take only about 3 hours to make, and they are customizable and different each time I make them.  About halfway through I get to decide on a face, and I’m always able to switch out colours at random intervals.  It doesn’t matter that the yarn is the colour of vomit if it’s on a zombie bunny!  You just don’t have that kind of freedom with something like an afghan.
All of this potential for customization gives so much freedom to a craft that at times can be quite constraining.  I think even more freedom comes from the cartoonish nature of amigurumi, with their over-sized features.  If you think about so-called “realistic” looking crochet animals (which I would say are the Western school of toy making), you are restricted to certain dimensions, colour, etc.  With amigurumi it doesn’t matter if the kitty is pink or yellow, because it’s an amigurumi!!!

 Speaking of the kitties.  The above kitties are known as “Amineko” (a Japanese portmanteau for amigurumi-neko: neko is cat).  Amineko are a bit of a phenomenon around the crochet world (especially on Ravelry, where hundreds have made them, and there is even a book about them!), and are a bit bigger than your typical amigurumi.  They take a bit longer as a result, I can usually make one in about 5-6 hours if I’m focused.   But they yield such a nice result, even if they do take quite a bit of stuffing.

So, if you crochet at all, consider testing out an amigurumi pattern for fun.  And if you don’t crochet, and don’t have any friends who know or are willing to teach you, I’ve found youtube videos to be a great help when it comes to nailing down the basis.  And if you aren’t on Ravelry (I say why the hell not?), then EPL also has scads of books on basic crochet and on amigurumi too.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Shopping vegan at the Asian grocery

If you are a vegan like me, you are probably a “perimeter shopper” when you are at the grocery store.  That means that you stick to the outside edges of the store, you walk through the produce, bakery and other cooled food departments, and almost never venture into the middle parts.  There are a couple reasons for this.  Firstly, most vegans like fresh stuff, which generally speaking does not come out of the boxes and bags of “the middle”.  Secondly, if one actually does venture into “the middle”, you then have to read all the ingredients on the god-forsaken labels to find out if the product is in fact vegan before you drop it in your basket or cart.  Sucky.  (Actually, new labeling requirements in Canada are such that the major common allergens are soon required to be listed in great big bold font at the end of the ingredients list, including major vegan no-no’s like milk and eggs… no luck though on hidden assholery like carmine, lanoline, etc).

And that’s at the regular grocery store.  What do you do when you go to the Asian grocery store?  Unless you are lucky enough to have the language understanding, this can be even more intimidating and frustrating than visiting the regular grocery store.  But despair not!  There are many fabulous things to be found at the Asian grocery store for vegans, and most of them don’t require fluency in  Mandarin!

So, I present to you, a very humble vegan’s guide to shopping at the Asian grocery, based on my most recent trip to 99 Supermarket in Edmonton’s Chinatown.

Don’t let the weird root vegetables scare you!  The Asian grocery is a great place to pick up produce, often at a much lower price than the mainstream grocery store.  On the day I was there, bags of bean sprouts were on sale for 50 cents!  Many of your North American dietary favorites can be found in the produce department, along with a bevvy of exotic choices for the more outgoing.  My favorite unusual vegetable to pick up here is the nagaimo, a white root that is grated for use in making vegan okonomiyaki.

A nagaimo, and okonomiyaki with and without toppings.

 Canned produce!

Potential in a can
The next best thing to fresh produce is produce in a can.  Well, frozen might be the next best, but produce in a can is just so damn handy.  Already having been de-seeded/peeled/cored/whatever, canned produce is a great, affordable convenience food that is available in great variety and abundance at most Asian groceries.  On this particular visit, I picked up a couple of cans of jackfruit.  Jackfruit is what is known as a “tofu-vegetable”; it takes on the flavor of whatever you season it with.  As such, it makes a completely delicious and ingenious vegan pulled pork! (if you haven’t tried this, you really should, it is absolutely mindblowing.)  You could buy a whole jackfruit  (which they have in the produce department) and process it yourself, but I’ve found the cans are so easy and they make the perfect amount to serve 2-3 if you’re making the pulled pork recipe.


So many incarnations...
Obviously tofu.  This Asian and vegan dietary staple is available in so many varieties that I didn’t even know existed until I went to the Asian grocery store.  They often even have tofu made fresh!  The brands that Asian stores carry tend to be much cheaper than the ones carried by the bigbox competitors, and of better quality quite often as well.  On this particular trip, I was hoping to find some inari.  I couldn’t find anything specifically labeled as such (99 Supermarket is a Chinese grocery, and most foods are not labeled with their Japanese names), so these were the two things I picked up: frozen sheet of dried tofu and braised tofu in a can.  I’m hoping that when I open them up, they are inari pockets, but if they aren’t then I can always chop them up and put them in a stir fry anyway.  One has to be willing to be a bit brave and experimental in these cases!


I love this stuff.  Shichimi is Japanese seven pepper spice.  It is soooooo good when you add it to a bowl of udon noodle soup!  I use it to season a ton of Asian dishes, it has some sort of magical powers in the peppers and black sesame that makes absolutely everything taste spicy-good!


Superstore keeps the tamari in the gluten-free aisle, and charges a small fortune for it as a result.  Stop paying high prices and pick it up next time you’re at the Asian grocery store.  I saved about $2 on this bottle alone.  I use a lot of tamari in place of salt in recipes, and it is a key ingredient in my favorite miso gravy too!

Unusual juices!
Refreshingly different!
Ever wanted to take a slug of red bean juice?  Lychee juice?  The varieties are seemingly endless.  There are so many different types of juice to try at the Asian grocery.  Often you can buy single cans or tetra packs if you want to try it out before committing to a larger amount.  And if you like coconut water, it is massively cheaper at the Asian grocery too!  On this visit I went pretty tame and tried out a mango juice, it was totally delicious.

Interesting vegan “meats”!

No picture because I didn’t buy any this time, but the store had a huge selection of really interesting vegan meats, including a “ham” and “ribs”.  The only thing that sort of worried me was the “chicken ham” (????).   You can also find canned seitan as well.

So that is just a sample of some of the vegan foods you can find at the Asian grocery store without too much label reading prowess.  Consider taking a trip to your local Asian grocery the next time you go shopping.  Give yourself a bit of time to wander the aisles, you might be surprised to find so many interested vegan things to eat.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

"Veganomicon" (Review)

I've pretty much sworn off buying cookbooks.  I have a shelf in my tiny kitchen that's full of them.  Actually, the shelf is one of those cheap Ikea metal frame shelves that typically goes above a toilet.  But in my case it is in the kitchen, and it goes above the trashcan.  Anyway.  No more cookbooks.  My reasons for the cease-spending are price, the lack of space, and the fact that I have the Veganomicon to keep me warm.

I borrowed Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero’s Veganomicon from the library a few years ago, and was initially quite intimidated by it.  I was a brand new vegan at the time, and while my cooking had taken leaps and bounds in terms of variety and skill level after a few years of cooking vegetarian, I still had (and still do today!) a long way to go.  Ingredients like pine nuts just seemed too exotic at the time, and I couldn’t possibly fathom a recipe that took two hours to make!  A lifetime of freezer-to-baking-tray food had deprived me of any culinary hubris.  And so I returned Veganomicon to the library, and forgot about it for a time.

I decided to give it another try about a year and a half ago, and picked up my own copy at Chapters.  I had decided that I was finally going to try to challenge myself a bit more to make a greater variety of recipes with more so-called exotic ingredients (like quinoa!  Oh my!).  I was also fed up with mediocre vegan cookbooks that were strictly tomes of salad and tofu recipes.  

Not that there is anything wrong with tofu.  Especially Apricot BBQ Sauce Tofu!
and/or Chile Cornmeal Crusted Tofu!

Veganomicon’s recipes are actually good.  And I’m not just talking vegan good (because we will pretty much eat anything that doesn’t come from an animal or it’s orifices), but really REALLY good.  The recipes I was cooking from the Veganomicon instructions formed the impetus for my Facebook recipe suggestion photo album (for those of you who follow me there), and inspired me to push myself a bit harder when it came to making meals that were delicious, healthy, and full of variety. 

Eggplant Moussaka with Pine Nut Cream.  Isn't it PRETTY?!

Let's take for example the delicious Eggplant Rollatini recipe.  It is quite a bit of work, I'm not going to lie.  You gotta chop up the eggplant and salt it and rinse it and bread it and fry it and then make the sauce and make the filling and then roll it up and then cook it and then drink some wine.  Obviously, I don't make this everyday, I do have a day job after all.  This is maybe a special occasion or weekend meal though, several of the more complicated Veganomicon recipes may not be for everyday, but the Chile Cornmeal Crusted Tofu above takes like 10 minutes.  So there is a bit of range in terms of how long the recipes take to prep.

And it was so good I kinda forgot to take the picture before I started eating it.

And the best thing of all about Veganomicon?  It is the home of some of my DH's all time favorite recipes.  And it is a nice married-person thing to do to make your hubby's favorite food for them sometimes.  :)

DH's favorite thing.  Acorn Squash Empanadas.

 So, Vegbrarian says if you are looking for a great cookbook that is full of yummy recipes that I can pretty much guarantee are uniquely awesome, then go get yourself a copy of Veganomicon. And in the meantime... here are some more gratuitous food shots:

And the coup d'grace, Chickpea Cutlets!