Life Is Still Terrible

Life is Still Terrible

The return of Don Brockway’s blog

By Harry McCracken

TourGuide: Here’s a typical abandoned blog. Take a look around.
Fusion50: When was it abdomened
TourGuide: early 21st century.
Fusion50: why
TourGuide: it should have been destroyed in the Google purge
TourGuide: The owner left and never came back
Fusion50: good move
Fusion50: but its not distroyed
TourGuide: When they shut down the blogosphere, they didn’t bother to erase them all.
Fusion50: why borther
Fusion50: bother
Fusion50: i dont see what so special
Hstrygrl: Fusion50, all surviving blogs were declared protected historic sites
TourGuide: Right, content plays no role in preservation. The only thing that’s ’special’ is that it survived.

–Don Brockway, in a February 2008 post, imagining future humans of an unspecified era discussing Isn’t Life Terrible?

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I first encountered the work of Don Brockway almost forty years ago, when we both belonged to Apatoons, an amateur press association publication about animated cartoons. It was rather like a group blog—except for the fact that everybody submitted their contributions in printed form every sixty days, whereupon they were stapled together and distributed to other members via U.S. mail.

Actually, you weren’t required to contribute to every issue. Don didn’t. It was sometimes more like a year between issues of his ‘zine, Sawdust Symphonies. But when it showed up, it was glorious — exceptionally funny and clever, and nothing like anything the rest of us were doing. It had a meaningful impact on my own prose style, and even my sense of humor.

Eventually, Don was dropped from the roster for contributing too rarely. Then he rejoined. Then he dropped out again, whereupon I was deprived of even sporadic exposure to his work.

Until 2007, that is, when he started a blog called Isn’t Life Terrible. At first, it was hosted on Google’s Blogspot service, where a somewhat broken version survives–the most recent two posts, on the movie Bedazzled and Laura Nyro, seem to be oddly appropriate blogspam–before Don moved it to a self-hosted WordPress site in 2010. (The WordPress version, which incorporates the earlier material, is the one we preserve here.)

Isn’t Life Terrible was rather like Don’s Apatoons contributions, except it covered a much broader range of stuff which Don was interested in: cartoons, toys, live-action movies, radio and TV shows and more. (Eventually, a large portion of it was devoted to audio extracts from old Tom Snyder shows.) And instead of being achingly infrequent, it was updated regularly. It was a feast.

Don posted to Isn’t Life Terrible? more than 260 times. And then he stopped blogging for almost three months. On November 1, 2010, he returned, with an explanation:

When new material stops appearing on a website, we assume that the author has lost interest, access, or possibly both.

Not the case here. I’ve been swept up with, and ocassionally overcome by, health problems. As they start to fade, maybe some color will start to drain into “Isn’t Life Terrible” once again.

Color did drain back into the blog, but only briefly. Don posted for the last time on November 9. He passed away on February 6, 2011.

Isn’t Life Terrible remained available, and I periodically revisited it, an experience which left me both melancholy and entertained. But even before Don left us, the site had begun to suffer technical issues. As he explained on the site, some links got busted when he moved the site from Blogger to WordPress. It also became oddly sluggish, perhaps because his server was misconfigured.

At some point, disaster struck: Because Don wasn’t around to renew, the domain name expired and was snapped up by someone in Japan, who used it for some sort of financial-advice site. (It’s since gone offline and the domain is for sale.) Don’s blog remained available at, but most of the images disappeared, robbing the site of one of its most vital aspects.

Then things got worse. Don had shared generous quantities of audio by linking to his Box account, but–for reasons unknown to me–all these links became inoperative. Over at his site, the home page for his tribute to his favorite film, Genevieve, broke. Did I mention that a spammer hacked Don’s account and stuffed with junk pages, which were also in Japanese?

Along the way, it occurred to me that it might be possible to restore Isn’t Life Terrible?–and that saving it, even in broken form, would be performing an important act of preservation. With a little work, I figured out how to restore most of the missing images and eliminate the spam which showed up after Don’s passing. With a lot more work, I recovered some (though not all) of the multimedia which Don had uploaded, and patched up various other aspects of the site which had fallen into disrepair. While I was at it, I also captured copies of his other sites, on Kathryn Beaumont, Genevieve, and his work as a corporate speechwriter.

I also began tracking down copies of the audio files and other media that Don had once shared in his now-gone Box account. This is an ongoing project: Some remain missing, and in a few frustrating cases, he shared unique items that might now be gone forever, or described what he was sharing in terms too mysterious to be positive what it was. For now, some of the broken Box links remain, and my hunt continues.

For the most part, I wanted to restore Isn’t That Terrible? to its original state. But while it hasn’t changed since 2010, the rest of the web has. So some links to external resources are now broken (or, like the link to 2719 Hyperion, one of Don’s favorite animation sites, no longer lead where he pointed them.) I haven’t dealt with all of these issues, but in some cases, you’ll find editor’s notes on what’s going on.

 ♦ ♦ ♦

Most blogs are about issues of the day, and therefore have fleeting shelf lives. Almost all of Don’s posts concern matters which date back twenty, forty, sixty or more years. (The rare exceptions, such as a piece praising John Mayer, are downright startling.) His work was timeless when he wrote it, which means that it’s just as fresh today and will make for good reading far into the future.

Donald car
Donald Duck in one of his crappy cars

I don’t know how easy Don found writing, but much of his best work is memorable not because it’s obviously ambitious, but because it feels effortless. Donald Duck and His Crappy Cars consists of 114 words and eight pictures; I’ve probably read and enjoyed it a hundred times.

Here’s a photo from Don’s unforgettable piece about Jolly Bill, a cartoonist and radio entertainer who wasn’t so much forgotten as perennially obscure:

Jolly Bill

Don’s description of the scene is as evocative as the photo itself:

I’m guessing post-WWII based on the Bartholomew Collins striped shirt and the RCA 77 mike. Not good times for Jolly Bill: the defiant basketball sneaker (and sock?) touching the stage to indicate boredom; the unappealing, oddly proportioned drawings; the furtive escape of the girl in the checked dress; Jolly Bill in his artist’s beret, looking for all the world like Sam Kinison; the inescapable feeling that that – whatever is happening – this late-life performance is not going well.

As Don was moved to mention in his blog’s footer, the name Isn’t Life Terrible?–which referenced a silent comedy by Charley Chase, one of Don’s favorites — didn’t indicate that it was a blog about terrible things. It did, however, occasionally, veer into some of pop culture history’s darker moments. The death of Disney star Bobby Driscoll was one such instance. So was the story of the Dionne Quintuplets, which Don covered in a three-part series, epic by the blog’s standards.

Without departing sharply from his generally jovial tone, Don captures the outrage of the Quints’ fate:

What’s missing in the story of the Dionne Quintuplets… is a hero. Someone who rides to the rescue. Someone who says “This is wrong and it has to stop.”
  • It wasn’t Dr. Dafoe, who commandeered the quints, was celebrated by the press as a savior, and made a lot of money.
  • It wasn’t Oliva Dionne, whose initial reaction to the birth was to “sell the Quints,” in order to make a lot of money.
  • It wasn’t Father Daniel Routhier, from whom Oliva Dionne sought guidance and who suggested that, since the children were a miracle from God, 7% of the money should be given to the church.
  • It wasn’t Elzire Dionne, who had married at 16 and was the embarrassed mother of 10 at age 25.
  • It wasn’t Dr. W.E. Blatz, who headed the team from St. George’s School for Child Study at the University of Toronto, who cataloged every move the Quints made but either did not see, or did not want to see, the big picture.
  • It wasn’t Mitchell Hepburn, the premier of Ontario, who arranged for the Quints to be taken from their parents legally, via a “guardianship” act that officially gave the government and Dafoe full charge.

Yvonne, Marie, Emilie, Annette and Cecile had to become their own heroes.

♦ ♦ ♦
I like re-reading blog posts by Don that I’ve never forgotten. I also like re-reading ones that I have forgotten, or somehow missed in the first place. This restored version of Isn’t Life Terrible? makes it possible to do both, and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of it.

If you’re new to the blog, you can simply begin with Don’s final post (about his father and James Brown) and move backwards. Or his first post (about Jay Ward cartoon music) and move forwards. Or choose a month at random from the archive. Or click on a tag such as “Disney.”

For all the joy to be found here, Isn’t Life Terrible? also reminds us of what we lost when we lost Don. There will never be another post, which makes the ones we have all the more precious.

Just now, I was reading Don’s item on the D.C. Heath Disney storybooks; at one point, he asks us to remind him to tell us about the Bambi book sometime. Alas, we can’t. But we savor all the things he did get around to telling us.

I’ll give Don the last word, in an excerpt from a post about a 1970s reunion of the Mousketeers:

You see, each morning, you get up, you look in the mirror, and, barring misfortune, you see almost exactly the same face you saw yesterday and will see tomorrow. You never see yourself age. You only come to realize how old you are obliquely, by encountering some other face you haven’t seen in a long while. At that point, logic kicks in: I don’t feel older, but if that person is older, then I must be older.

If it weren’t for those damn Mouseketeers, and those damn memories of winter days when the fading sunlight in our TV rooms imperceptibly accomplished a cross-dissolve with the blue glow from our black and white sets, we could have stayed young forever.

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