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50 Mad Scientist Movies #9: The Head (1959)

March 22, 2022

Well. I am shocked, shocked! I tell you, to learn that The Brain That Wouldn’t Die might not have been the first headless-body-in-a-laboratory movie. Both films were shot in 1959. Although there are several notable differences, clearly one had to be source material for the other. In both, you have the mad doctor going down to the burlesque club to find a nice frame to put a girl’s head on. There’s no monster banging to get out of the closet in this one, though. Nor does the disembodied head sit in a bath of icky fluid, nor does it become telepathic. I’m inclined to think this German film came first, because if it hadn’t, they would surely have copped the best elements from The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, that glorious affront to all that is good and decent.

This ain’t bad, though. Well, I mean it is bad, but in the right way. Like many European schlock films of the postwar era, it features excellent cinematography, lighting, and sets, which is a little disorienting in such a ludicrous melodrama. The voice dubbing is of course terrible, but the acting is expressive and there are some great faces. Basically, you have a pretty high quality German production mangled by some shysters hoping to make a few bucks on the American B-movie circuit. The print is in remarkably good shape, like it was restored, which is very unusual for Mill Creek Entertainment. The sound is crap, but I think that’s the American dubbing.

This definitely checks all the boxes for a mad scientist movie. You have your obsessed doctor, your laboratory full of beakers & knobs & dials, (but where is the Tesla coil?!), your unwilling subjects, your leering at women, your monstrosity begging to be put out of its misery…

One thing I look for in these movies is strange anomalies of behavior. This had a moment where the unwitting female subject of the experiment, who has been horrified and struggling and resisting against the mad doctor’s advances, suddenly just sort of goes limp and gives in, looking like she’s in shock or some weird trance. I rewound it to see if I had missed something that might cause that to make any sense at all. Nope. So that’s a plus.

Poster for the original German film.

All in all, I would say this is quite a well-rounded & satisfying mad scientist experience. It doesn’t quite sink to the gloriously lurid & demented depths of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, but very few films do. Still worth watching.

50 Mad Scientist Movies #8: Man in the Attic (1953)

January 26, 2022

Calling this a mad scientist movie is a real stretch. Jack Palance plays Jack the Ripper, who takes up lodgings with Frances Bavier, (Aunt Bea from the Andy Griffith show); her frumpy, bloviating hubby; and her lovely niece, who is becoming a star in a rather risqué musical theater production. Aunt Bea frets and clucks about her odd lodger, but everyone tsks her. Vivacious Lilly the actress takes a shine to the strange young “medical researcher” who turns all the paintings of women in his room to face the wall, goes on a demented tirade about his mother, and comes and goes at all hours, carrying a black bag which he burns one night after it gets mentioned in the papers. Seems the sophisticated actress is less than astute in spotting relationship red flags.

“But he seemed like such a nice boy. Weird? Yes. Creepy? Yes. Sinister and secretive, okay, yeah… but so NICE.

This remake of several earlier films is in essence a moderately lurid melodrama. There are numerous implausibilities, and clichés to beat the band. As a Mad Scientist Movie, it’s a dud; there’s no mad science, no weird equipment, no beastly human experiments, not even a gorilla suit.

BUT Jack Palance is—in uncharacteristically restrained fashion—genuinely unnerving, all the way to the climax. It’s worth watching for his slow boil. The dude is scary. Like, I would be afraid to get in a car with the actor Jack Palance after watching this. That’s gotta be worth something.

50 Mad Scientist Movies #7: The Mad Monster (1942)

October 28, 2021

If by “mad” we mean petulant, haughty, and indignant, well then this is definitely a mad scientist movie. The doc (I have already forgotten his name) is motivated entirely by feelings of persecution. He’s going to use his werewolf to knock off his former colleagues one by one. “Oh, I will give you incontrovertible proof!” he huffs snidely to those who had the temerity to cost him his tenure, just for trying to turn human beings into rabid animals. (With an injection of evil serum, by the way, which makes five out of the first seven movies, I think.)

Of course he has a saintly and long-suffering daughter, who always rushes to his defense, despite his “moods.” And of course she has a boyfriend, and of course the boyfriend is a newspaper reporter who comes snooping around the house. Spoiler alert, unless you’ve ever seen even one low budget mad scientist movie, in which case I don’t have to tell you that Dad hates the boyfriend and has to die in a fire before they can be together. All standard stuff.

Glenn Strange really steals the show when he’s the kindhearted but mentally slow gardener. When he turns into the werewolf, however, he’s not terribly convincing. It’s not entirely his fault. The werewolf get-up is not especially frightful. But he could have been a lot more physically menacing after his injections. His prowling through the woods is a bit relaxed and un-wolf-like. He looks more like someone mulling over paint swatches at Home Depot than a beast on the hunt for victims.

The werewolf attacks mostly happen off screen. All we see is some awkward struggling that looks a bit like high school wrestling. Later, detectives look down at a body on the floor (which we can’t see) and say things like, “Never seen one this bad.”

Which I suppose the uninitiated might say about this film, but not me; it wouldn’t be true. I’ve seen lots of worse ones. In fact, I would have liked this a lot better if it was a lot worse.

50 Mad Scientist Movies #6: Torture Ship (1939)

October 22, 2021

Director Victor Halperin is responsible for White Zombie, a 1932 classic, the first full length zombie film, which I heartily recommend. In a mere 7 years, however, it appears that he forgot everything he knew about making movies.

Glands, extracts, injections… this idea that there are weird fluids which, if transferred from one person or animal to another, cause strange changes… it wasn’t just in the movies. There were quite a few quacks in the real world doing the same thing.

But this is a movie, so the mad scientist is able to charter a yacht and populate it with criminals that he is going to turn into ordinary people with consciences. Of course the process is a bit fraught; after they get their injections, they wander around in a stupor for a while. One of them expires in his hospital bed. He just sort of goes to sleep and doesn’t wake up. That’s the torture mentioned in the title of the movie. It was a more innocent time, when torture could be alluded to by an anguished facial expression, rather than bloody special effects.

“If someone doesn’t explain the script to me, I’m going to start breaking props!”

I don’t know if the version of the film I saw was edited down, maybe for TV or something, but there were gaping holes in the story that I did not understand until I read the synopsis on wikipedia.

There are zero monsters in this. No special effects of any kind, not even a gorilla suit. It’s basically a melodrama about a bunch of criminals trying to stage a mutiny. If they can just get hold of those two revolvers!

How they are even held prisoner isn’t clear. Nobody is chained to anything or locked in. Well one guy is strapped to the bed, but he busts the straps with a bit of awkward straining. Before and after the experiments, they all seem to be free to wander about the ship like ordinary passengers, until the doctor’s two tough orderlies come and fetch them.

There is some typically unconvincing fist fighting, with that old-movie convention where somebody gets socked across the jaw and then immediately crumples into unconsciousness. You really have to wonder if the people who made all these movies had ever actually seen a fist fight.

The overall impression I get from this incoherent mess is that no one seems to have thought things through very much. No one asked any basic questions like, Is this plausible? Why would he do that? The acting is not bad, I guess, but they are all just sort of standard character sketches. The mad doctor has a blandly reassuring bedside manner, which never becomes sinister, just annoying.

So yeah, another winner… not. Have to pan through a lot of dust to find some gold, apparently.

50 Mad Scientist Movies #5: The Ape Man, with Bela Lugosi (1943)

October 19, 2021

Not the pinnacle of Bela Lugosi’s career. This was about as scary as a box of animal crackers.

Just as in The Ape, with Boris Karloff, there is a need for spinal fluid, for a special Mad Scientist injection, which involves killing the “donor,” only this time, instead of curing polio, the injection is supposed to alleviate Bela’s half man/half ape condition, which was caused by some earlier experiment gone horribly awry. Bela really doesn’t like being kind of hunched over and excessively hirsute and is willing to rack up quite a body count to get his posture back.

C’mon, little buddy, let’s go harvest some spinal fluid from hapless extras.

Boris’ sister is a kind of low-rent Madame Blavatsky and there’s a thinly sketched subplot about her being a ghost hunter. The experiments occur in a secret laboratory in the basement, where a gorilla rattles the bars of his cage a lot. Eventually the gorilla helps commit some murders. The police are baffled because the half man/half ape and his gorilla sidekick are apparently able to roam the city streets at night, killing people and then dragging their bodies back to the laboratory to drain their spinal fluid… without ever being noticed. The wise-cracking reporter and the pretty female photographer are the only ones who think to poke around the evil doctor’s house.

Have you ever listened to those really early wax cylinder recordings of people talking, where it’s kind of hard to tell what they’re saying underneath all that static? That’s what the sound of this movie is like, at least in the print Mill Creek Entertainment used to create this disc.

So yeah, this one is strictly for the Bela Lugosi completist. I assume there are such people, who wish to be able to say they have seen every one of his movies. Other than that, or perhaps due to an obstinate determination to watch an entire 50-movie Mill Creek Entertainment Mad Scientist Movie Collection, I can’t really imagine why one would sit all the way through this.

50 mad Scientist Movies! Dave’s Reviews!

September 14, 2021

I generally get my movies from the dollar store. And they’re usually creature features or low budget sci-fi from the 1950s or earlier, because I know what I like, and Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts are not in it. And I have noticed that the chief purveyor of this exquisite cinematic fromage is Mill Creek Entertainment, whose sole stock in trade seems to be putting out cheap & terrible prints of anything they can find in the public domain. Sometimes you can find a boxed set with 3 or 4 discs in it, holding a dozen movies. I think I may have all of those, or at least all the ones that have passed through the dollar stores here in this midwestern hamlet where I eke out a living doing music jobs over the internet.

ANYWAY, so I got a brainwave and thought to check ebay to see if there were any choice Mill Creek Entertainment ccollections I might have missed. And what did I find? 50, count ’em, 50! mad scientist movies in a 10 DVD boxed set for $14.98. DUDE. That is um, let me fire up the atomic calculation engine… under 30¢ a movie. Even by my standards, that is quite reasonable. And I consider Chef Boyardee the good stuff, what you splurge on when you get some extra dough.

Okay, first off we can see that we’ve got the girlfriend’s head in a tray from The Brain That Wouldn’t Die on the cover. Not that I need another copy of that, I have several, but it speaks well to the aesthetics of whoever curated this collection. Probably some guy in a seersucker suit calling people from a rotary phone in the back of some warehouse on a wharf somewhere. That’s how I like to picture the acquisitions wing of the operation. “Hey, baby, it’s me, Saul. Yeah, you know, Saul, we did that job for Max together, you remember, with the truckload of shovels? Yeah yeah, that Saul, always gets pastrami, right, that’s me. Listen, I cleaned up my act, I’m in the movie biz these days. Whaddaya got for me? I need something quick, on the cheap, like. I don’t give a shit what it is. Long as there’s no royalties and a monster threatening some dame on the poster.”

Well Saul, ya done good this time. This is the shit.

The Amazing Transparent Man (1960) 57 Min.
The Ape (1940) 62 Min.
The Ape Man (1943) 64 Min.
Atom Age Vampire (1960) 87 Min.
The Atomic Brain (1963) 65 Min.
The Bloodsuckers (1967) 88 Min.
The Boys From Brooklyn (1952) 74 Min.
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962) 82 Min.
The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920) 67 Min.
The Corpse Vanishes (1942) 64 Min.

Counterblast (1948) 90 Min.
Crimson (1973) 93 Min.
Dead Men Walk (1943) 64 Min.
Death Warmed Up (1984) 85 Min.
The Devil Bat (1940) 64 Min.
Don’t Look In The Basement (1973) 89 Min.
Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1920) 67 Min.
The Drums Of Jeopardy (1931) 75 Min.
Embryo (1976) 104 Min.
Frankenstein ’80 (1972) 85 Min.
Frozen Alive (1964) 75 Min.
The Head (1959) 97 Min.
Horror Express (1972) 90 Min.
House Of The Living Dead (1974) 87 Min.

I Eat Your Skin (1971) 84 Min.
Invasion Of The Bee Girls (1973) 86 Min.
Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966) 88 Min.
The Killer Shrews (1959) 69 Min.
King Of The Zombies (1941) 67 Min.

Kong Island (1968) 85 Min.
Lady Frankenstein (1971) 84 Min.
The Lucifer Complex (1978) 91 Min.
The Mad Monster (1942) 76 Min.
Man In The Attic (1953) 82 Min.
Maniac (1934) 51 Min.
The Manster (1959) 72 Min.
Mesa Of Lost Women (1953) 69 Min.
Metamorphosis (1990) 90 Min.
Metropolis (1927) 119 Min.
The Monster Maker (1944) 64 Min.
Nightmare Castle (1965) 96 Min.

Panic (1982) 90 Min.
The Phantom Creeps (1939) 78 Min.
The Phantom From 10,000 Leagues (1955) 81 Min.
The Revenge Of Doctor X (1970) 94 Min.
Shadow Of Chinatown (1936) 65 Min.
Son Of Ingagi (1940) 61 Min.
Teenage Zombies (1960) 73 Min.
Torture Ship (1939) 57 Min.
The Wasp Woman (1959) 73 Min.

The ones I know I’ve seen are in bold; there are 18. I’ve probably seen several more and just don’t connect them with the titles. Doesn’t matter; I am going to watch them all. In order. And I am going to review each and every one. You’re welcome.

In fact, I have already begun. I have seen the first 4! (They are not in alphabetical order, as in the list above.) Let us begin.

#1 – Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1920)

The only thing that got me through this, aside from my determination not to fail right out of the starting gate, was the fact that it’s 100 years old. I mean, that in itself makes it kind of interesting. Kind of. It’s pretty dreary. Ludicrous make-up, lukewarm melodrama, preposterous overacting, glacial pacing… it has everything that makes most silent films really hard to pay attention to. It feels like 99% of the movie is people standing around in a parlor, moving their mouths, except you can’t hear what they’re saying. And believe me, you have never seen less convincing evil behavior. Mr. Hyde’s riotous offenses consist almost entirely of waving his claws like he’s waiting for his nails to dry, and nuzzling prostitute’s necks.

This murder was the best part of the movie by a mile.

The scenes with Millicent, Dr. Jekyll’s long-suffering, fair, maiden-in-waiting, are more boring than any church service you have ever sat through. The only scene that packs any punch is when Hyde kills Jekyll’s friend Carew, the libertine (who looks like a banker) who led Jekyll astray by taking him to see a dancer. He really lays into him with that cane. Carew is off-screen during the beating, of course. I think cinema at this time was so new that directors (Americans, at least) were afraid to portray any convincing violence or “immorality.” The whole thing feels like someone went back in time and filmed some (justly) forgotten 19th-century stage melodrama. I say this as someone who actually loves the novel.

I did come across one curious fact, though. Edgard Varèse, the great avant garde composer (who was a major influence on Frank Zappa) had an uncredited cameo as a policeman. Very odd.

#2 – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (German, 1920)

Another silent film, but this one I had no trouble sitting through; it held my attention. I had seen it long ago but forgotten the plot. All I remembered was the expressionist set design, the strange tilt of everything.

It’s symbolic or allegorical… dreamlike. Madness is its theme, but who exactly is mad? Let’s just say Shutter Island was not an original script idea. (Not to knock Shutter Island, which I found surprisingly good.) Unlike in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, things actually happen. Scenes are short & to the point. And the theme of delusion resonates with me. I often have nightmares in which I come to realize that I have been living in a world of extreme mental distortion. There’s some interesting speculation online about what this film says about Germany after World War I. Probably valid, but it also functions as something more universal, some strange mirror of unconscious processes we all have.

#3 Metropolis (German. 1927, directed by Fritz Lang.)

Three silent films in a row. I’m not a cineaste; I like shlock. But this one is also quite watchable. It is visually stunning. As far as I can tell, it features the first mad scientist’s laboratory in all of film, and also one of the best. The visuals in this movie are legendary, and for good reason. They are so far beyond anything film had produced up to that point, they must have changed how people saw the medium of film. Here was something new, a whole new visual language with tremendous impact. It’s still striking, almost 100 years later. How can we hope to imagine what it must have been like for audiences at that time? It must have been completely mind-blowing. Whereas Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde feels like a 19th century play, like the movie camera was used to record something old and stiff and lifeless, this feels like the unconscious mind of the audience was thrown up on the screen, where people were shocked to see the dark dreams they had been trying not to face within themselves. The anxiety over modernity & mechanization, particularly the mechanization of war… the divide between the ultra-rich and the beaten-down, worn-out factory workers…

There’s nothing I can say about this that hasn’t already been said. It’s an important event in 20th century cultural history. But it’s not stuffy or boring.

#4 The Ape (1940)

Now we’re getting into familiar mad scientist B-movie territory; I’m pretty sure this one did not set the intelligentsia chattering. Boris Karloff is a (slightly?) mad scientist trying to pass himself off as a simple country doctor, not too convincingly. The townsfolk are suspicious. He’s trying to cure a young woman’s paralysis of the legs, but he needs to draw spinal fluid from people to produce his serum, which unfortunately kills the “donor.” Meanwhile there’s a fire at the circus and a killer ape gets loose… Can’t say more than that without spoiling it for you, but I will say it’s considerably less lurid than it sounds. The funny thing is, Boris Karloff was a real actor. Even this rather thin character, he breathes a lot of life into him. There are some pretty good supporting performances among the townies, but really, it’s Boris’ show all the way. He’s just really good. You actually believe it.

Nikolai & the Vampire

February 19, 2018

Well, it’s been a couple-three years now since I forswore the life of an English teacher abroad, living out of a suitcase. I now dwell in a hundred year-old house in Missouri, where I work in a pharmacy and record music. Enough time has passed and, more importantly, my colleagues from Kazakhstan have all moved on to other postings, leaving me free to relate some tales I hesitated to share while they were still in country.

To refresh a bit: towards the end of my year in Kazakhstan, I shared a once-grand flat with high ceilings and peeling wallpaper in the center of town with Jonathan, who just happened to be from Iowa, where I also lived for a few years before venturing abroad. We became (and remain) fast friends. (The whiplash-inducing culture shock of phase-shifting between the American Midwest and Central Asia is something one probably has to experience to understand. It makes a grand start to a friendship with someone one likes anyway.) Jon’s marriage unravelled over there and I got the shit kicked out of me in the street (another story for later) so we were both a bit shell-shocked. We drank a lot of vodka, played cards, and counted the days until we could hopefully escape with our lives.

apt window

The view from our livingroom window.

Our last night in Karaganda, J-Moines & I were rather nervous. Why? because the school paid us in cash—no records of any kind, rather sketchy—which we had converted into American dollars. Although we hadn’t squirreled away fortunes in first world terms, still, we were holding what most locals would consider an obscene windfall for standing around pointing at dry erase boards for 9 months.  I had around $4000 in twenties. It was technically possible to get money transferred out of the country electronically, but it’s also technically possible to terraform Mars. My trips to the bank had convinced me that it wasn’t worth it; endless sitting, waiting, being glowered at, being told it couldn’t be done without this or that official stamp which had to be got across town, being informed of arbitrary limits and opaque procedures… just carrying the cash to the bank on public transit was enough to give me the fantods. I gave up and hid the money around the flat.

And of course, the night before we left, I couldn’t recollect exactly where I’d hid it, because I’d moved it several times. There were a couple of hours of frantic searching. It was almost as bad as that time I put my David Bowie concert tickets inside a book and forgot which book. I’d take a slug of vodka, wrack my brain, tear up the closet, then slump into the sagging couch with my head in my hands and Try. To. Think.


Jonathan, looking just like we felt.

We stayed up most of the night, talking, too nervous to sleep. You see, the Vampire had fired Nikolai… who knew what he was capable of?

Let me back up. The Vampire was our nickname for our lead teacher, an irredeemably evil Slovenian woman with an alabaster complexion, who hated and feared the native English speaking teachers. She schemed furiously to get us fired, or at least sidelined, sidling up to the owner of the school and whispering slander into her ear at every opportunity. It was a black day when she became our supervisor. Fortunately, the woman who owned the school had the good business sense to realize that having native speakers on staff was essential to the viability of the concern, even if one didn’t want to have more than were absolutely needed, on account of the expense. As Jonathan observed, we were kind of display window candy. Our role was to attract customers; our actual knowledge of the language and teaching skills were irrelevant.

Nikolai was the school’s “driver.” And by driver, I mean local fixer, i.e., payer of bribes, etc. He spoke perhaps 5 words of English and was loathe to do any actual driving. His gold-toothed grin evoked an underworld charm. We knew that he procured our lodgings. You’d meet him in a hallway somewhere and he’d hand you a key, grin at you and then amble lazily away. Whatever else he did I have no idea, but he was apparently necessary, as he was on salary.

Now the Vampire, in the process of consolidating her power, felt threatened by Nikolai for some reason. She wanted her own cadre of hand-picked helpers and was keen to winnow away those whose tenure preceded her reign of terror. It took some months, but she finally got him axed on some pretext, which gave us shivers, because it seemed to indicate that her hand was strengthening.

What worried us on that last night was that we had to assume that Nikolai still had keys to our flats. He also knew how much we made, knew when we were leaving, and knew we got paid in cash.

Now, who knew if Nikolai was a criminal? Maybe he was a decent, honest fellow, cobbling together a living with his local contacts and street smarts. Or perhaps he was a wife-beating, alcoholic, compulsive gambler, with mobsters breathing down his neck. There was no way to know. We were like infants who couldn’t possibly understand what the adults were talking about in the other room. But it certainly seemed possible that he or some friends of his might well show up and pistol-whip us out of our clammy wads of cash.

This would have been particularly picaresque if it had happened before I could find my cash. I rather doubted they would believe me when I told them I didn’t know where it was. Lacking the English to say, “Do you take me for a fool?” I expect our gangster would have just hit me harder, leaned in closer (me being tied to a chair), breathed cigarette smoke and vodka fumes into my face and venomously hissed the single word, moooooneeeey.

Lest you think my addled brain was overheated, let me add in defense of my paranoia that our esteemed colleague Stokes had been robbed… and then found the investigating policeman wearing his watch. (He being a foreigner, it was returned with a grin.) And a young woman in our circle was slammed into by a drunk driver, who turned out to be a member of the moneyed elite. This charming son of privilege laughingly threw wads of money at the policeman… at the scene of the crime, in full view of a gathering crowd. The policeman then protected the drunk driver from the angry witnesses. Later, all the security cam video from area businesses was found to have mysteriously evaporated. The cab driver, in the hospital, asked our friend not to visit him anymore because he thought it wasn’t safe for her. She was not a foreigner and so was less insulated from the casual brutality of the place. The milieu did not exactly reek of the rule of law.

But the unthinkable (which I couldn’t stop thinking about) never came to pass. I finally found my money, I disremember where… under some boards or something.

We slept a few hours at last and then, aching, hollow-eyed, still drunk, climbed into rattling cabs. Jonathan took a different flight, laden as he was with two cats, and heading for a different destination in the US. (Each cat had their own little cat passport, which cost a fortune in questionable “surcharges.”) When I got to the airport, long beofre dawn,  it was silent, dark, and freezing. I boarded without having to declare my cash and I was even able to carry on my guitar. (I was prepared to give it away to someone in the terminal if necessary.)

Except for a snarling customs official in the Moscow airport, my encounters with authority in that part of the world were over with. I landed without incident in Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, where, tired but happy, standing in line, eager to see my friends and family again, chatting with other garrulous Americans, my passport was stolen.

Igor and Olga

Igor & Olga, getting ready to emigrate to America.

They let me in, anyway.


Explaining The Silence

September 27, 2014

Good heavens, I haven’t written in this journal for almost 10 months? Well, it’s not for lack of things to write about… it’s more that the things I would like to write are not necessarily appropriate to toss out into the public sphere. Let me explain.

Being an English-only speaking expat in a fairly remote Central Asian city, I lived in a very small and rather intense bubble, where the main action was in the relationships between a tight-knit group of eccentric people, thrown together by chance and the consequences of a common tendency toward adventurousness… one might even say recklessness. These little dramas absorbed most of my attention. Because I never really picked up any Russian and because I did not feel safe on the streets—in fact, I got mugged, which definitely colored my view of the place—my interactions with locals and the country in which I was living were much more limited than in Poland.


We played a lot of cards in Kazakhstan.

I need to go through my personal journals (which are quite copious) and see what I can drag into the light. Perhaps there is some way to give an idea of the texture of events without being a jerk. After all, I don’t know how I’d feel about one of my friends writing about my peccadilloes on the internet where everyone can see. Not that I would write anything intentionally unkind about my friends, it’s just that the things I find interesting are not usually what people share with strangers.

In the meantime, here’s a general update on what I’ve been doing since returning. I white-knuckled it, finished my contract, and flew back to the states in the beginning of June. I had gained 30 pounds from unrestrained alcohol consumption and comfort eating. I did manage to save a little money, enough to stay afloat a while while I planned my next move, if I was quite frugal. (What seems like a lot of money in Kazakhstan is chump change in the US.)

I first spent a month in Houston with my dear friends Jeromy & Vicki, people who are like family to me and make me feel safe and loved. I was very glad to be back in the states, much more than I ever expected I would be. I was a bit shell-shocked and needed some time to decompress. I worked a little on music, took care of their cats while they went to LA for two weeks, bought a cheap bicycle and rode around Houston… just generally recalibrated. I loved going to the HEB and seeing all the food I recognized.

After that, I took a road trip with my mom, from Texas all the way up to Rockland, Maine, to go sailing on the Victory Chimes, a three-masted sailing ship. We camped all the way there and back and had a great time. My mom is a great traveler. Here she is in her 70s and she’s still camping, sailing, cruising, just getting out there and covering all the territory she can. I come by my rambling honest.

Camping with mom.

Camping with mom.

Mom dropped me off in Fulton, Missouri, which is now home base. I’m inheriting (via mom) the little house my grandmother used to live in. I spent a month cleaning house, fixing the toilet & water heater, pulling weeds, unpacking my own scanty belongings, sending a few of Grandma’s things off to family who might like them, and finally, having a yard sale to dispose of the rest. It was a pretty epic task… if Grandma liked something, she didn’t have one, she had 5 or 10 of the same thing. Egg beaters, yardsticks, copies of The Bridges of Madison County, toilet scrubbers, sticks for stirring paint… you name it. Multiples of everything were randomly distributed all over the house, buried under heaps of dish rags, doilies, woven baskets, and crumbling wreaths. The whole process left me more determined than ever to minimize my own debris field. If I don’t need it and use it… it goes, baby.

The living room, the night before the Great Grandma Yard Sale.

The living room, the night before the Great Grandma Yard Sale.

After that, I drove down to Texas, where I’m currently house-sitting for mom while she travels with a friend. I’m just outside of Austin, where I lived for 20 years. I go into town and see friends or my sister once or twice a week, but mostly I’m taking it easy and enjoying all the nothing I have to do every day. I’m very focused on losing the weight I gained in Kazakhstan; I’ve lost 16 lbs. or so already. I count calories and exercise every day. I have about two more weeks until I head home to Missouri.

Below is an example of how spend my time… a little thing I did today, number two million in my series of recordings of the weird little riffs that pop up in my brain, usually in the morning, like algae covering the surface of a pond. I have to get one of those things they use to clean swimming pools and scrape the music/algae off the top of my consciousness or I won’t be able to think anything else that day.

I got a job. (My buddy Abdullah in Poland helped me out with the contact.) I’m teaching English over the phone and/or computer to people in France. It’s not the most lucrative gig I’ve ever had, but it’s very flexible; I can make my own hours and work as much or as little as I like. I can also do it anywhere I have an internet connection, which definitely suits my fidgety ways. I could even go to Poland for 180 days on a Schengen visa and teach from there if I wanted to. Or Budapest!

But that’s in the future. Right now I’m looking to settle down for a little while, save a little money, collect some musical instruments, reconstruct my recording studio… just generally engage in nesting behavior.

My little house

My little house.

And I will write about the second half of my time in Kazakhstan. A soon as I figure out how.

Karaganda Scrapbook

December 28, 2013



Well, I still find myself incapable of writing an orderly account of my time here. I will take the lazy way out and just annotate some photos.

DSC08185When I arrived in Kazakhstan, after two months of loafing away my money in Poland, I had about $10. Fortunately, my job gave me a care package of sorts. I had a bit to eat until I could get an advance. This is what I lived on that first weekend.

DSC08203My neighborhood. My building is on the left and my corner shop is on the right.

DSC08205I can read these signs on my street now. You would pronounce those something along the lines of  “Yerubayev” and “Yermyekov.” Unfortunately, they off by 90 degrees.

DSC08207You have to go into that blue and white building and go into some tunnels to cross the street here. 

DSC08427DSC08429I actually like the tunnels. There are little shops down there where you can buy your needfuls real cheap. 

DSC08227I didn’t understand this at first and couldn’t get back into my building except by hanging around until someone went in, then shadowing them. Eventually I learned I had a little electronic thing on my key fob.

DSC08231If you like weird old vehicles, Kazakhstan is an interesting place. This poor guy was crank starting this old bus.

DSC08236Hoisting a hefty tankard with me mate Stokey Pete.

DSC08243Most streets are coal black at night, but you could sit down and read a book outside ome of these government buildings. Not that I would recommend it… you don’t want anything to do with the security guys.

DSC08297I was very excited to get my packages from Poland, the ones I shipped myself from the post office in the rynek in Żory.

DSC08299My stuff! Clothes to wear!

DSC08308This is the can opener I found in my flat.

DSC08310My proud handiwork.

DSC08313Once again, Cowboy Beans to the rescue.

DSC08314Here’s something I know how to open.

DSC08337Bread here is cheap and tasty. This cost about 50 cents.

DSC08344The street where I live.

DSC08380One of my students took me and my friends out for an evening of drink and song. We had a great time. I heard lounge music sung phonetically by non-English speakers. I couldn’t believe how well they did it.

DSC08425A note on my door, telling me, as it turned out, that the gas would be off that day.

DSC08440There is some Soviet style architecture… statues of workers, imposing columns, etc.

DSC08442 DSC08451Now there’s a guy who knows where he’s going.

DSC08480The rynok (market) is a mile or two from my house. I love open air markets.

DSC08526 DSC08564Went with some friends to the museum of the Karlag, the old Soviet prison camp on which this place was founded. This is an effigy of an intake officer.

DSC08587My friends and fellow teachers, outside a pub near where we took Russian lessons.

DSC08594Music in the air… quarter notes, to be precise.

DSC08611View of the street from inside a marshrutka. You can rarely actually see anything outside… you generally have to know where you’re going and count stops.

DSC08613These old Ladas are everywhere. I love that they keep them running. I have ridden in one or two as taxis.

DSC08624One night this gloriously goth coffin appeared in the stairwell outside my flat. It was gone the next morning.

DSC08634The beginning of winter was not good for safe mobility. Until the snow cover got thick, what you had was ice, and lots of it. Some mornings, with the wind gusting, I could actually wind sail across patches of it.

DSC08638After my second paycheck, I bought a guitar at the local music shop. It’s made in China, but it’s not bad. Cost about $180.

DSC08675Outside a restaurant with friends.

So those are a few snapshots. The truth is most of my life here is just work. On weekends, I putter about my flat, cleaning up, decompressing, planning lessons.

Over the winter break, a fellow teacher and I are going to make the 18-hour train journey to Almaty. I will try to keep a real journal of that one. We should see some different stuff.

A UFO In Kazakhstan

December 7, 2013

Well, I have been worse than terrible about updating this blog. I’ve been in Kazakhstan over three months now and have written precisely nothing.

Where to start? One reason I haven’t written is that I’ve been very busy with work. This school uses a different set of teaching materials than my last school, an entirely different approach, and, though I think it’s very good for my development as a teacher, there is a great deal of preparation and planning required.

Kazakhstan is very different from Poland, of course. For one thing, people speak Russian here. Despite the similarity to Russian, my Polish is pretty much useless. I haven’t put much energy into learning Russian, just the things I need to direct a taxi driver or ask for something in a shop. I can sound out written words now and that often helps, as there are lots of words similar to English, Polish, and other languages I am more familiar with. But still, I can barely function. I have to point and mime a lot.

There’s no way I’m going to write a coherent entry about the last three months at the moment, so I think I’ll just post a few pictures. And soon I will try to organize my thoughts a bit.


Winter is here. That wind is ferocious. I’m okay so far… I’ve got my GRIZZLY FORCE coat and some good ski gloves. It was around 15-20 F when I left my flat this morning at 10:00.

A shopping mall. Shopping malls are the hub of public life in Karaganda, as far as I can tell. I guess there are also sporting events but I would hesitate before attending one. I’d be nervous in the crowd.

Looking out my kitchen window. I have no idea if the people across the way can see in my windows at night, because of these cheap sheer curtains I’ve got. I just assume they can.

A Typical Work-Week Morning…

Breakfast. Notice that it is utterly black outside my window.

I’ve come to like Turkish coffee. I actually like the grit.

I get to the bus stop around 8:15 and it begins to get light.

A marshrutka… that’s Russian for ‘death trap sardine can.’

Congo? Sure, yeah, I can hear the howler monkeys and feel the sweat dripping off me.

Today (Saturday)…

I got out before noon this morning, which is rare for me on a Saturday. Went to Ankara, the fast food joint, where a couple of my fellow teachers were cramming for the Russian lessons I no longer bother with. I chatted with them, read a bit, then went over to a couple of malls to look at music gear.

Somehow I have missed up until now that there is an abandoned amusement park, right by places I shop all the time.

I saw a UFO today.

Everywhere I go, (from Illinois to China), I find eerie graveyards of merriment.

They used to put the kids they didn’t like in CAR X.

“Eep! I’ve been shot!”

That is one sinister looking caterpillar. He looks like he’d sell you a railroad car full of Kalashnikovs, collect the money, then rat you out to the security services and take back the guns.

Something terrible happened here.

More soon.