Sunday, November 25, 2012

Where the Birds Sing a Different Song

Before I even woke up, my brain registered trouble. My dream shifted from a simple mistaken identity drama to something more surreal when the audio gave way to a soundtrack of unfamiliar music. Literally everything in the dream stopped so I could give full attention to these squeaks and beeps and unnatural flourishes. Then the dream ended, but before I could open my eyes and realize where I had been sleeping, I knew I was far from home: Awake but shut-eyed, I could still hear that music. It got into my dream. It was really happening. And it was the noise of birds we don't have in California.

It's been a long time since I've been far enough away from home that the birds sang a different song. I'd forgotten how strange it is to wake up and know that you're in the wrong place even before you figure out exactly where you are. I hadn't even realized that Los Angeles has birds that sing loud enough to overpower the noise of traffic, but they do. I suppose I missed them, just for a second.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Future Perfect, Present Tense

And after several weeks of murmuring and developments in a strange, shady world that I don’t understand, the video production team has completed the mini-documentary based on the article that I wrote about Danny and which, if you’ll remember, I implored you to vote for so many weeks back. Have a look:

Yes, Danny is sharing the spotlight with wealthy baby boomers, but hey — guess who’s most likely to watch public television?

Monday, November 19, 2012

We Really Need to Talk About The Apotheosis of Washington

Most intelligent Americans realize that our nation’s supposed separation of church and state doesn’t always hold up. After all, religion — Christianity in particular — often seeps into politics in a way that our forefathers either would have hated or been cool with, depending on whom you ask, but also don’t ask because that conversation will likely be endless and involve a lot of emphatic hand gestures. For a moment, however, disregard all the imaginary lines people like to paint between church and state, because there’s one aspect of Washington D.C. that would make both atheists and bible-thumpers respond with “huh?” And this thing is The Apotheosis of Washington.

via the capitol’s official flickr page; see a slideshow of details here.
I toured the Capitol Building when I was a kid, and if this work of art was included, our guide downplayed its whackadoo nature. I only recently had it pointed out to me in terms of how strange it is. Apotheosis, please understand, can have two meanings — either “the perfect example,” as in Webster’s example of “the apotheosis of the picaresque novel,” or a more literal meaning, “deification.” But doesn’t it seem strange to deify the guy who conceded that people should address the American head of state as “Mr. President” instead of anything loftier or monarchical? That’s nonetheless what this 1865 fresco depicts: George Washington riding clouds in heaven, styled like a character from classical mythology and flanked by personifications of victory and liberty. Scattered around the rim of this circular painting are founding fathers and Roman gods, side by side, in tableaus depicting war, science, commerce, mechanics, agriculture and, um, marine. (Yes, makes for a weird parallel construction in the style of running, dancing, leaping, purple and lobster.)

I find this all very strange, not only because the artist, the Italian-born Constantino Brumidi, began painting it the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and therefore during a time when the nation had other concerns. It’s also the subject matter itself, and it makes it no less weird to me to know that Brumidi wasn’t the only artist to give George the god treatment. That actually makes it even stranger in that this didn’t result from one crazy person’s idea but an aesthetic trend that a whole lot of people were willing to run with. However, there’s little I can say about it from my computer in my apartment which is not located in the Capitol rotunda, so here are some selections from other write-ups on The Apotheosis of Washington, whose matter-of-fact descriptions of all this religious kookiness verge on the surreal:
  • Gazing upward to the dome, one sees Washington floating far overhead, a life-sized and heavenly vision.1
  • The peak of a rainbow’s arch passes beneath his feet, and there are thirteen maidens aside the central three figures (Washington, Liberty, and Victory) that represent the original thirteen states.2
  • Surrounding Washington, Victory, and Liberty in a circle are 13 maidens who represent the original 13 colonies that formed the federation of the United States. Some of them are holding a banner which says E Pluribus Unum, but others have their backs turned towards Washington to indicate those states which attempted to break away from the union during the Civil War.3
  • Ceres, Roman goddess of agriculture, is identified by the wheat wreath on her head and a cornucopia. She is seated on a McCormack reaper.4
  • [In the “war” scene,] Brumidi may have expressed his own political feelings by using the features of the Confederate leaders on the evil figures being vanquished by Freedom: Jefferson Davis as Discord, with two lighted torches, and Alexander H. Stephens as Anger, being struck by a thunder bolt and biting his finger.5
  • Holding his trident, Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, looks on as Venus, the Roman goddess of love who was born from the sea, helps lay the transatlantic cable.4
  • Mercury, god of commerce, with his winged cap and sandals and caduceus, hands a bag of gold to Robert Morris, financier of the Revolutionary War, while men move a box on a dolly.5
  • Minerva, goddess of wisdom and the arts of civilization, with helmet and spear, points to an electric generator creating power stored in batteries, next to a printing press, while inventors Benjamin Franklin, Samuel F.B. Morse, and Robert Fulton watch.5
  • Paintings and sculptures of Washington’s celestial rise were soon to be found in living rooms and civic halls across the country.1
Now think about what you must do to achieve veneration as a glowering god of old.

via the capitol’s flickr
  1. The Apotheosis of George Washington — Brumidi’s Fresco & Beyond
  2. DC Walkabout — The Apotheosis of Washington
  3. Presidents Day and the Apotheosis of Washington
  4. The Apotheosis of Washington
  5. Painting the Apotheosis of Washington

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Separated by History, United by Heaven

It’s a love story that America is afraid to tell.

And while this is notable in and of itself, it’s a preview of the weirdness I’m posting tomorrow morning. I couldn’t not share. Maybe you could not share, but I lack your willpower.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Petunia Incident

Okay, this: I have decided to see a therapist. And when I say “see,” I mean look all “around the room and not at him,” because his unblinking stare unnerves me to the point that I worry that if our eyes lock, he’ll peer into my all-of-me and learn my secrets. That’s not to say that the guy can’t help me realize a few brilliant, brutal truths about myself. Failing that, there’s something to be said for sitting in a room and forcing yourself to talk though the hilarious, hand-whirling banana peel slides that have led you to a given point in your life. As a result of this weekly, hour-long extracurricular class in which I study myself, I now sort through formative memories like some loaded old bag sorts through her jewelry collection — each piece comes with a story, and she can’t part with a single one of them, even if she wants to.

Here is one of them, and I can say with certainty that it’s responsible for most of what’s wrong in my life.

In second grade, a new girl joined my class. Let’s call her Petunia. She was instantly unpopular, and while I can’t be sure exactly what had made a group of seven- and eight-year-olds tacitly decide that Petunia was beneath us, it was obvious to our teacher. One day, our teacher asked Petunia to deliver a note to the principal’s office. This was not uncommon, exactly, though I’d never been asked to perform this job, and you’ll understand why I can be so sure about this in a moment. As soon as Petunia left, our teacher addressed us and shamed us for ganging up on Petunia. She told us that we hadn’t been fair, and we owed it to Petunia and to ourselves to do something to make her feel welcome.

This incident had three immediate effects. For one, everyone did act nicer to Petunia — at first just because we’d been told to, but I guess we just kept doing it until we forgot that we’d been given strict orders. I think I played with her in the sandbox, though I should point out that this was no great humanitarian act, for I was barely above Petunia on the totem pole that was the second-grade social hierarchy.

Secondly, I become consumed with the need to know what it said on the note our teacher gave Petunia. I would like to think it was as simple as “Hey, give this poor unfortunate soul something to keep her busy for five minutes while I tell her asshole classmates that they’re assholes. I’m going to teach them fractions wrong, these little assholes. Ha ha ha.” I mean, that’s what I would have wrote, were I teacher charged with educated the horrible children who imposed a classroom caste system upon themselves.

You may be able to guess the third and final result, depending on how well you know me or how familiar you are with the paranoid mind. Yes, I became terrified that the moment I left the classroom, the teacher would ask my classmates to take pity on me for being a socially awkward crybaby who refused to play football at recess. In the week following the Petunia Incident, I remember needing to use the bathroom and just holding it until I could exit the classroom at a safer time. Eventually, others left the classroom without the teacher plotting benevolence against them, and I eased up, but then the day came that she asked me to deliver some paperwork to the principal’s office. Me. Not Petunia. Not the kid who peed on the slide. Not the kid who ate worms because we dared him to. Me.

Shaken, I accepted the manila envelope in which our teacher enclosed all her private communiques. I left the classroom, wondering what I could have done to merit an intervention by my teacher. Halfway down the hall, however, the dread of a Petunia talk lost out to the curiosity about the note itself. This was my chance, after all, to find out what code my teacher used to let the principal’s office staff in on her scheme. I did a 180 and bolted into the boys’ bathroom, hopped into a stall and pried together the prongs of the envelope enclosure. Alas, the note was unreadable. It was in a foreign language: cursive. At this point in my young life, I hadn’t realized that cursive was just a loopier version of the regular English I had already learned. I honestly thought those scrawls and flourishes constituted a whole different language, like Spanish or Pig Latin. With no adults I could trust to translate — clearly, they were all sneaky — I was defeated. I slipped the note back into the envelope and delivered it to the principal’s secretary, not technically having violated the instructions I’d been given. As the secretary read it, I studied her face for a reaction. Nothing. “You can sit down. It will be a minute.” While I may not have been hip to cursive, I could count to sixty at this point in my life. I knew what a minute felt like, and she kept me waiting for multiple minutes — maybe even five minutes, which was about the time it took for our teacher to give us the lecture about Petunia. I probably fidgeted a lot. When the secretary finally handed me the envelope back, I grabbed it and raced back to the bathroom, hoping that I’d be able to get some info from the response.

It was blank.

It’s a cliche to say that your mind reels, and it seems ridiculous to project that kind of horrified bafflement onto a seven-year-old, but that phrase comes pretty close to what I felt at that moment. Had the secretary made a mistake? Why would she reply with nothing? What did it mean?

At this point, my two non-sanctioned bathroom stops had made my errand run long, and I knew I had to get back to the class. I did. The teacher didn’t even look at the note; she just asked me to put it on her desk, unopened. I was sure she knew that it said nothing. Discreetly, I whisper-asked the kid next me what happened while I was gone. “Nothing.” At recess, I asked classmates I deemed trustworthy. They said the same thing, “nothing,” but that didn’t calm my suspicions. After all, that’s what that evil piece of paper had said: nothing.

In the paper’s defense — and also the teacher’s, I guess — I never did hear about any classroom discussion of my foibles or overall sanity. I apparently hadn’t been Petuniaed. However, I also wonder if any of us ever told Petunia what the teacher had said about her and about how we should act around her. She never exhibited any awareness of this fact, and she ended up staying on a few more years before switching schools. (In fact, she left before seventh grade, along with an exodus of many other kids who either wanted to go to middle school without uniforms or were just fed up with my class’s judgmental bullshit.) But could Petunia really not know, even today? It’s possible, in the way I still don’t know today.

However, unless she happened to be out during my office trip, Petunia probably been part of the audience that heard the teacher’s “Be nicer to poor, poor Drew” lecture, and she could have suspected that she received the same treatment. I wonder if she too cannot help herself from wondering whether she becomes the subject of conversation the moment she leaves the room and whether unexpected acts of kindness are motived more by pity than by altruism.

Because then we could talk about that, I guess, rather than having absolutely nothing to talk about, me and Petunia.

In closing, a confession: It was actually me alone who dared that one kid to eat the worms.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A List of Things You Should Probably Find Interesting

Yeah, a lot of them are on Wikipedia. Didn’t you know that Wikipedia has cornered the market on context-free trivia? But not all of them are on Wikipedia, importantly, see, because I’m actually very well-read.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre — one of the stranger bits of Mormon history I’ve ever learned about, and I only happened across it as a result of Sherlock.

The strange story of Olive Oatman, an Illinois woman abducted by Native Americans in 1851 and then released five years later. There’s a great deal of misinformation about her, and this piece sought to clear up ten of the most widely told Olive Oatman myths.

The story of how the pronunciation of the Spanish word for parsley figured into a genocide. And while we’re at it, Wikipedia’s big list of shibboleths, which includes lollapalooza, because why shouldn’t it.

Belphegor’s Prime is a 29-digit palindromic prime number that, clearly, is evil.

Wikipedia’s list of historical bachelors, which skews rather… old.

The Wikipedia page for The Nanny actor Benjamin Salisbury, which is notable only for the fact that it alleges that he was cast to play Bart Simpson in a purported live-action Simpsons movie that I’ve never heard mentioned anywhere else ever.

There is a video game whose title is Ar tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel, because someone thought that was a good idea.

Pineberries are white-fleshed, red-seeded strawberries that taste like pineapples.

Stag farts, a traditional sign of summer.

Pigasus, a candidate for U.S. President in 1968.

Bald-hairy, the nature of the Russian political cycle.

The flower Lamprocapnos spectabilis, which is pretty, yes, but which is perhaps more notable for its non-scientific names, which include old-fashioned bleeding-heart, lyre flower, Venus’s car, lady in a bath and, best of all, Dutchman's trousers.

There’s also the Amazon milk frog, the zebra-striped, blue-mouthed little weirdo you see at the top of this post.

Jenny Hanivers — dried ray carcasses modified to look like water dragon babies — are the most horrifying things ever.

And finally the web video series “Cooking With Dog,” which stars a Japanese woman who must surely be in on the joke made in the title, no? Surely.

And speaking of unexpected things made by Japanese people, there’s also a Les Miserables fighting game in which you can fight as Jean Valjean, Eponine or even Judgment personified.

Have a happy, productive Monday. Or don’t, and just enjoy the links.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Green, Hairy Balls of Death

So maybe you played Secret of Mana back in the day, and maybe its wonderful mishmash of cultures taught you a thing or two. For instance, when you learned that the fifteenth-century scientist and occultist Paracelsus assigned supernatural spirits to the four natural elements — gnomes for earth, undines for water, sylphs for air and salamanders for fire — you recognized the names, and you realized that while alchemy may no longer be a legitimate field of study, its more fantastical tenets live on in nerd culture. Sure, some of the Secret of Mana simply sprung from the developers’ imaginations, but a lot of it came from somewhere, and that was reason enough to wonder about the stuff you never figured out.

Like Aegagropilon, a borderline unpronounceable boss that looks like this:

It’s… a giant, lumbering, toothed plant-thing. And it was a pain to beat, I remember, but what lingered most about this boss was the fact that its name seemed like it must mean something.

It does.

Best known by their Japanese name, marimo, spherical, velvety balls of green algae can form under certain conditions that are only naturally met in lakes in Scotland, Austria, Japan and Estonia. From Wikipedia:
The round shape of the marimo is maintained by gentle wave action that occasionally turns it. The balls are green all the way round which guarantees that they can photosynthesize no matter which side is turned upwards. Inside, the ball is also green and packed with dormant chloroplasts which become active in a matter of hours if the ball breaks apart. The wave action also cleans the balls of detritus. As some colonies have two or even three layers of marimo balls, wave action is needed to tumble them around so each ball reaches the light.
The Japanese name comes from a combination of the word mari, “ball,” and mo, a generic term for water plants, according to Wikipedia. The Ainu call them torasampe, “lake goblin” and tokarip, “lake roller.” In Iceland, they’re kúluskítur — from kúla, “ball,” and skítur, “skítur.” But their scientific name is Aegagropila linnaei, and knowing that, it’s pretty clear that someone involved in the production of Secret of Mana knew this fact, saw that the Aegagropilon was a green, round plant thing and was all “Hey, how about this for a name?” And now, nearly twenty years after I played the game, I see what they did there.

Aegagropila, by the way, is apparently Greek for “goat hair.” Logical conclusion: Goats must be different in Greece.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

You’re Late, But I Swear I’m Not Being Rude About It

Certain English words have an inherently nasty sound, often because their multisyllabic, Latin origins give them the ring of a clinical term for something impolite. I’d wager that for this reason, words such as gesticulate, fallaciousmasticate amd testaceous have all been rejected by public speakers in favor of a more wholesome-sounding synonyms. Here’s one that’s new to me, much in the vein of a previous word of the week, the Betty Draper-appropriate iracund.
cunctation (kungk-TAY-shun) — noun: a delay; tardiness.
Can’t you imagine accusing someone of chronic cunctation and getting a more hostile reaction that the word merits? I can. Or is that a memory? It’s hard to say when you’re slapped so hard.

I wonder if the rather unfriendly sound of cunctation has prevented it from becoming a commonly used, easily recognized word. Hell, it lost out to tardiness. The word only sounds worse as you trace it back. It comes from a Latin verb whose infinitive form, unfortunately, is cunctor. The first person single present form, cuncto, can be translated as either “I delay,” “I hesitate” or “I dawdle” but not “I use the word that makes the woman hit me.”

Previous words of the week after the jump.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

I’ve Only Got Eyes for You

(With the you in question either being God or the jerk who actually took her eyes.)

Long, long ago, I wrote about St. Agatha, the Catholic patroness of bell-makers. How did she achieve this association with bells, you may ask? When St. Agatha was martyred, her breasts were cut off, and subsequent depictions of her show off her martyr wounds by having her display her severed breasts on a platter. Out of the context of her story, the severed breasts resemble bells. I mean, why else would she so proudly show them off?

Today, I present to you another sad sack saint, whose shtick is almost as horrifying: Saint Lucy, patroness of the blind. Guess what part she lost on her route to martyrdom?

Here, then, are eight images of St. Lucy, showing off what she doesn’t have anymore:

image via
image via
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image via
image via
image via, although this apparently is not mary
image via
Most disturbing of all is this last one, in which St. Lucy sports her eyes on a sprig of foliage, for no reason other than to appear more horrifying:

I present these not to offend but to marvel at the darkly surreal image of a woman serenely presenting her eyes, even when she seems to still have her eyes in her head. Also, isn’t it strange how the artists often choose to represent her eyes how they might have appeared on her face instead of as eyeballs — like they would have looked had they been removed from her face? Yes, Catholicism is a strange, strange practice. Case in point: cephalophore, a strange and wonderful word used to refer to someone carrying their own head.

God bless!

Monday, November 05, 2012

Those Forgotten Mario Kart Games Play Like a Dream

A few weeks back, I took the train down to meet some friends in Long Beach. They were delayed in picking me up, however, so I toddled to where people were and found a living, breathing arcade — one that had the arcade Mario Kart games, no less. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who loves Mario Kart more than I do, yet I’d never actually played these games, just because I’d never encountered them before. Finally seeing them, brightly colored and zippy as Mario Kart games tend to be, I knew what I had to do: sit down and play until my ride arrived.

The curious thing about Mario Kart Aracade GP, however, is that it were developed by Namco, the company that made Pac-Man, and only published by Nintendo. As a result, you can play as Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man and Blinky the ghost in addition to the usual Mario crew — and in the sequel, you can even race as a Tamagotchi, like you always wrote about doing in your Mario Kart fanfic.

And as another result, the following description that I gave to my friends and caused myself to sound like someone who’d abused cold medication: “It was actually pretty cool. There was this one stage where you were racing through, though this little pastoral scene, and then you drive into the crotch of a tree and it looks like a Disneyland dark ride, and then all of a sudden you’re going through what’s clearly supposed to be one of the Pac-Man mazes, only it’s three dimensional, and moving around you are the sprites from the original Pac-Man, only they’re three dimensional too, but still blocky, and they’re moving around you. But it’s only for a few seconds, and then the scene shifts and you’re back in the field and oh my god, I sound like I’m describing some weird, nerdy dream I had, but I swear that’s what actually happened.”

That’s what I said, more or less, but importantly it wasn’t some weird, nerdy dream. Here’s the proof:

If you’re comparing the game to the “real” Mario Kart games — the ones Nintendo acknowledge and re-create for retro courses in new games — you’d probably notice that the courses are a little bland. That said, the level of detail around you is amazing to the point that you almost want to blow the race in order to see what you’re zooming past.

Check out the Yoshi Park course, which plays like an actual amusement park:

The game is also expensive as hell to play — a major minus — but you have to nod approvingly in the direction of a Mario Kart that allows you to infect your opponents with the viruses from Dr. Mario.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

The Bacon of Grief

We all deal with adversity in our own ways — usually by putting something into our bodies, occasionally by taking something out of our bodies and in certain cases by putting something into our bodies and then quickly out and then in and out again and again until the grief is forgotten, at least temporarily.

Here’s a sanitized alternative, regardless of how it might sound.
kummerspeck (KUM-er-speck) — noun: excess weight gained due to emotional eating.
Look, I even found a visual aid. Is this not the best-ever stock photo for illustrating this concept? Thank the scary .ru website that tried to infect my computer!

I’ve used a lower-case “K” and offered what seems like a reasonable English pronunciation simply because this is a fun word to say and it names a familiar concept for which we have no single, tidy word. We should steal it. Kummerspeck comes from the German Kummer, “grief,” and Speck, “lard.” (Note: I previously translated Kummerspeck as “grief bacon,” but Speck apparently means “lard” in German, though it can refer to bacon-like foods in other languages.) We actually use speck in English to refer to a Tyrolese variety of juniper-cured ham, which would sound delicious even if I wasn’t sliding down the garbage chute of misery

If you’ve happened across this word before and you’re neither German and nor suppressing your emotions with a wad of cheesecake, then you’ve probably seen it on those omnipresent listicles that have headlines like “X Crazy Words Other Languages Have!” They are plentiful, to say the least, but I can’t complain, because they’ve generated a few of the words I’ve featured here, including culaccino and slampatado, both of which are as fun to say as kummerspeck is.

Previous words of the week after the jump.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

The Standout Passage from Robert Bloch’s Psycho II

One summer, I took a class in horror movies. I realize now that this decision resulted from a desire to live out the sitcomish notion of a throwaway college elective such as Intermediate Thumb Wrestling or Robert Loggia Appreciation. Of course, it backfired, and the class turned out to be terrible. All I could take away from the experience was the professor’s analysis of the scene in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare were Heather Langenkamp’s husband gets stabbed by Freddy Krueger’s claw: “metaphoric castration by the disembodied hand of infantile masturbation,” and yes, that’s an exact quote (I wrote it down) and no, I am not making that up. Well, I took away that and Psycho II.

Not that we watched Psycho II or even the orginal Psycho, I don’t think, but the class reader — which was thick, rest assured — included a chapter from the book Psycho II, the sequel that the original book’s author, Robert Bloch, published shortly before the release of the cinematic Psycho II. The two sequels, however, aren’t related: Bloch published his sequel after Universal rejected his story as a basis for the movie. In retrospect, Universal made the right call. Whereas the movie Psycho II focuses on Norman Bates returning to his hometown upon his release from the loony bin, the book Psycho II ditches Norman almost entirely. The story opens rather spectacularly, with him murdering two nuns and then escaping from a mental institution, but he then lurks in the shadows for most of the book, with the action focusing instead on his doctor and the cast and crew of a Hollywood film based on the murder of Mary Crane. (Yeah, it’s Mary, not Marion, as the character was named when Janet Leigh played her in the movie. Maybe they thought naming the victim “Mary” was too obvious a hint about Norman’s mommy issues?)

Friday, November 02, 2012

How a Cool Video Game Sounded in 1988

Does everyone suffer from the strange syndrome in which the duration of a memory has little correlation to the significance of the event that caused it? I’ll assume everyone does. I would rather that I’m not the only one whose memory works like an unsorted junk drawer. So, then, just this week that weird memory thing that we all suffer from put into my head some video game music that I hadn’t heard since the late 80s. Here, you put it in your head now:

It’s from Wizards & Warriors II, a game that I completed but which never really grabbed me like your Marios and your Mega Mans. In fact, only re-examining it now do I realized that it was developed by the crew that would eventually make the Donkey Kong Country games, which I loved. It’s the same composer, in fact, and I feel like you can hear some similarities with this opening ditty and some of the tracks from those Donkey Kong games, which often sounded somehow more epic and less cartoony than a game about banana-grabbing simians should have merited.

I lack the musical know-how to state whether this track exhibits a higher-level of compositional quality than most video game music and therefore that is why I remember it, but it nonetheless starts playing in my head every three or four years or so. I wonder how long this will continue.

At least I’m not the only one who remembered it. Dana Harris, a composer, reworked it with updated technology to give it an older sound.

In the second version, it occasionally sounds like Prokofiev’s “Montagues and Capulets,” no?

Sudden bursts of video game music nostalgia, previously: