Head Foot Awareness Days

Sometime toward the end of 1873, Newfoundlander Moses Harvey found the bargain of a lifetime. For just ten dollars the amateur naturalist and writer purchased the carcass of a giant squid. Harvey bought his prize from a fisherman who’d caught the creature by accident and I suspect was somewhat relieved to be rid of it. Harvey’s sea monster friend soon set up residence suspended above a tub in the living room where it became the first of its species to pose for a photograph.

newfie
Not that kind of Newfoundlander, but this makes a much cuter picture than a giant squid carcass.

People had been catching glimpses of the strange cephalopod since at least as early as the mid-twelfth century when the first partial descriptions appear in writing. For centuries, this creature served as a source of fear, as the great kraken of legend that pulled large ships to the bottom of the sea and possessed an insatiable hunger for human flesh.

It wasn’t until 1752 when Eric Pontoppidan, Bishop of Bergen wrote his First attempt at a Natural History of Norway (translated three years later into English) that anyone took a stab at a complete description. Even then, Pontoppidan didn’t get it quite right.

He claimed the one-and-a-half-mile wide kraken, with its spiky tentacles, was often mistaken for an island, and attracted its prey by regurgitating a great deal of partially digested fish to lure more into its giant, open mouth. Because of this behavior, Pontoppidan explains many fishermen thought the harvest above a kraken was rich enough to overcome a little fear of becoming a sea monster’s snack. He also reassured his readers the biggest risk ships faced when dealing with the kraken might not be getting pulled to the bottom of the ocean by its many serpentine tentacles, but rather getting sucked into the swirling vortex that followed in its wake.

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The focal point of any good living room design. Public Domain, via. Wikimedia Commons

Though now we know a little more of the sciency details of the somewhat elusive giant squid I think we can probably all admit that it’s a pretty darn creepy-looking animal. Also we’re pretty sure the species probably maxes out in size around forty-three feet long. Don’t get me wrong. That’s super big. But it’s not quite 1 ½ miles.

It does have sharp, spiky feeding tentacles, bringing its total number of appendages up to ten. With these, the squid guides prey, usually deep-water fish, to its sharp beak. To the best of our modern-day scientific knowledge, the giant squid has never been known to suck a ship into its swirling vortex of death and it doesn’t seem terribly interested in eating people.

There is some speculation that a particularly feisty squid could mistake a small ship for a sperm whale, one of its only known predators. Some squid enthusiasts (of which there are apparently a few) suggest this could result in an awesome sea battle that a small ship would almost certainly lose. Still, as long as you don’t set sail on a submarine with Captain Nemo I think you’ll be okay.

maneatingsquid
Cephalopod is Latin for “head foot.” Kraken is Norwegian for “that cephalopod is going to eat you.” Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Since most of us will never even encounter a giant squid washed up dead on a beach, or have the opportunity to purchase one for ten dollars, we’ll just have to appreciate them from afar. And today is the day to do it. Established in 2007 by The Octopus News Magazine Online forum (I told you there were squid enthusiasts), October 11th is Kraken Awareness Day, or technically, “Myths and Legends Day,” just one day in the string of days beginning on October 8 that are set aside to for Cephalopod Awareness. Because obviously one day isn’t enough.

I don’t know about you. I’m not about to display a giant squid in my living room or anything. But I suppose it  can’t hurt to be aware.

Black Bears on the Move: Suburban Shock and Awww

On November 14, 1902 US president, outdoor enthusiast, and big game hunter Theodore Roosevelt experienced a profound moment of awww when he refused to shoot a young black bear. The president was the only member of a hunting party near Onward, Mississippi who had yet to bag a bear when one of his assistants decided, appropriately enough, to assist. The man cornered a young bear and somehow managed to tie it to a tree with a length of rope.

TheodoreRooseveltTeddyBear
I mean, who could shoot that? [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But the president refused to shoot the animal, claiming that to do so just wouldn’t be sporting. Awww. I find that a fairly endearing story, but Roosevelt had to endure a little bit of ribbing from the company of, evidently, less sporting men who asked him to hand over his man card.

Of course, the press also got hold of the story. Then it wasn’t long until political cartoonist Clifford Berryman chronicled President Roosevelt’s mushy side for the Washington Post. And that was fun. Everyone had a nice chuckle at the soft-hearted leader of the free world.

It also gave one man a great idea. Morris Michtom, candy seller and maker of stuffed animals for children, decided it would be a good idea to make a sweet stuffed bear dedicated to the president. People loved the bears, and when Michtom asked President Roosevelt for permission to name the toy in his honor, as he no longer possessed a man card anyway, he agreed. Teddy’s bear was born, and in the years since has become the prolific teddy bear, beloved by children throughout the world, teaching all of them that bears are soft and squishy and should be given lots of hugs.

 

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Super huggable.

 

But it turns out that might not be entirely accurate, because as cute as they are, and they are CUTE, hugging black bears isn’t a great idea. At all.

Fortunately, in my corner of the world, we don’t have to think about it too much. Or at least that’s what I thought before a recent story broke in which a representative from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources calmly discussed the wild black bears now rambling their ways through the suburbs of St. Louis.

Much like Mississippi, the great state of Missouri was once home to a large population of black bears, and in the last few years, the dwindled population has been making a comeback. They’re out there. On one hand that’s great. Predators are an important part of ecosystems and their presence or absence is a good gauge of ecological health. But Missouri bears rarely take up residence in the suburbs.

black bear in the suburbs
Look at that cutie being all cute. But from a distance, okay? photo credit: RickyNJ Black Bear via photopin (license)

These haven’t. Allegedly they are just passing through and the experts have asked everyone to please keep calm. They’ve also asked us all not to feed or shoot the bears. And though to the best of my knowledge no one has said this specifically, I don’t think we’re supposed to try to give them squishy hugs, either.

I have seen a few videos of the critters as they make their way west, through suburban yards, and toward bear-appropriate wilderness. As far as I know, no people, pets, or bears have been hurt along the way, but there’ve been plenty of people surprised to see them, and once the shock has passed, a fair bit of awww.

Running is Still Stupid: A Tale of Perseverance as Told by an Ugly Guy

In 1915, Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the 18th Baron of Dunsany and a prolific writer known to his readers simply as Lord Dunsany, produced an updated version of another prolific storyteller’s work. He titled the tale “The True History of the Tortoise and the Hare.” Part of Aesop’s Fables, the original story tells of a plucky tortoise, who though slow and steady, defeats an arrogant hare in a foot race.

It provides a wonderful lesson in perseverance, or at least that’s how I always heard it. But Lord Dunsany’s version turns out a little differently. In it the hare thinks the whole idea of the race is remarkably stupid and he refuses to run. Later, after the tortoise has claimed his victory, the two are on a high hill and seeing a distant forest fire, decide the fastest of them should warn the forest creatures. All of the witnesses to the race event then perish, which is why few had heard the real end of the story before.

Lord Dunsany
Lord Dunsany, looking very smug after killing off all the forest animals. By Bain News Service, publisher – Library of Congress Catalog, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This may not have been Aesop’s original intention, but then, this may not have been Aesop’s story. Over the years, the collection of Aesop’s fables (or the Aesopica, which is a pretty great word) has grown to include more than seven hundred tales, many of which can be traced to origins that do not in any way coincide with Aesop’s life. So really, to credit a fable to Aesop is more about assigning a genre.

Also it’s not entirely clear there was an Aesop at all. Aristotle, along with other contemporary sources, describes a slave who loved to tell stories, born around 620 BC. About where exactly he was born or whose slave he might have been, sources disagree. It’s not until the 1st century AD that there was an effort to write a sort of biography, known as The Aesop Romance. From this account, attributed to no single author and freely expanded by many for hundreds of years, we learn that Aesop was an exceptionally ugly man who received his gift of storytelling from the goddess Isis.

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Speedy. photo credit: Riccardo Palazzani – Italy Testuggine delle Seychelles via photopin (license)

And that, I think, is as likely as a tortoise outrunning a hare.

So it’s probably safe to say that Lord Dunsany, or any other writer, can pretty much do whatever he wants with the story. Though I like the message that perseverance pays off in the end, I’m fond of the 1915 version as well, in which the moral is obviously that tortoise brains are as thick as their shells and there’s nothing slow and steady about a forest fire. Also, from the hare we learn that running is stupid.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, or if you’ve read Launching Sheep, then you may recognize this as my personal running mantra. Also, you may recall that I only need a running mantra because I am a sucker for a goofy event. I really do despise running.

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I only run for the tutus.

But when I recently saw there would be a Bunny Run 5k close by, including a costume contest, I decided to participate. I even did a little bit of training to prepare so I didn’t injure or embarrass myself. Then I worked on my costume. At the suggestion of my very clever husband, I decided to be the tortoise among the bunnies.

Race day dawned dreary and dull. And stormy. And cold. But because I had worked so hard on my costume (and trained a little for the run itself), I pulled myself out of bed on that awful Saturday morning and ran.

This slow and steady tortoise definitely did not win her race, but I did win the prize for best costume and I finished in a time that made me happy, ahead of a good number of bunnies. Also, no one died in a forest fire. Because it was raining.

Running is stupid.

What the Duck?

Sometime in the 1930s, hunting buddies Frank Schutt and Chip Barwick returned to Memphis, Tennessee from a weekend of duck hunting in Arkansas. Like many hunting trips, this one allegedly involved a good bit of whiskey and like many hunting buddies that have imbibed too much whiskey the pair came up with a rather absurd idea.

Upon their late night return to the Peabody Hotel where Schutt served as general manager, the two decided it would be hilarious to take their live decoy ducks and place them in the marble fountain in the middle of the lobby of the very swanky hotel.

duck fountain
Mallard ducks, perfectly at home in the lobby of a swanky hotel.

Of course whiskey-soaked hunting buddies do eventually sober up and Schutt stepped into the lobby the next morning to assess the damage created by his tomfoolery. What he found were excited guests enamored by the presence of three well –mannered ducks swimming in the fountain and minding their own ducky business. The frazzled manager apologized to hotel guests who insisted that the ducks were a charming addition to the atmosphere of the hotel.

So the ducks stayed. And that was pretty weird.

Then a few years later, a bellman by the name of Edward Pembroke, whose previous professional experience included a stint as an animal trainer with a large circus, suggested he might be able to encourage the ducks to march a particular way. What he proposed was a kind of ceremony in which each morning the ducks would march down a red carpet into the fountain, waddling to the piped-in sounds of John Philip Sousa’s “King Cotton March.” The ducks, he explained, would reverse the same march in the afternoon, in a theatrical performance that would mesmerize hotel guests.

duck carpet
These ducks are kind of a big deal.

It did. And it was definitely weird.

Pembroke was given the title of “Duckmaster” and ninety years later, the ducks are still waddling up and down the red carpet every day in the lobby of the swanky Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis.

My family and I recently spent a long weekend exploring Memphis, and I have to say, in this town that features the delightfully gaudy home of the most likely dead Elvis, the Peabody ducks are still the weirdest tourist attraction we found.

duck master
The Peabody Duckmaster, whose job is not made up, is prepared to answer all your duck-related questions. Yes, all of them.

We got to the lobby of the Peabody around 10:30 and already one of the elevators was roped off and the red carpet had been partially unrolled. One of the current duckmasters, dressed in his brass button duckmaster finest, stood ready to answer all of the growing crowd’s duck-related questions, of which there were a surprisingly large number.

We learned that the Peabody ducks are treated as wild animals and will eventually return to the wild after their three month assignment in the Peabody fountain, and that when they are not swimming in the lobby, the ducks reside in a lavish penthouse duck suite that cost more to build (in non-adjusted dollars) than Elvis originally paid for Graceland.

ducky master
You will not find duck anywhere on the menu of Chez Philippe (the Peabody’s classic French cuisine-inspired restaurant), but you will find plenty of duck-related merchandise in the hotel’s gift shop.

As 11:00 approached, the anticipation in the crowd grew palpable. At about ten ‘til the hour, the duckmaster told the story of the drunken hunting buddies and named one lucky hotel guest the “Honorary Duckmaster” (a title he now shares with Oprah and that will allow him to forever include the initials HDM at the end of his name, that lucky duck). The two of them then finished rolling out the red carpet and headed up in the duck-designated elevator as the rest of us less fortunate observers stood with bated breath.

duck march
Ducks struttin’ their stuff behind the HDM, and being pursued by Paparazzi. #ducklife

Then at last the moment arrived. Sousa’s majestic march filled the lobby, the notes bouncing off gleaming marble surfaces as the elevator doors opened and in walked the HDM with five mallard ducks waddling behind him.

The crowd cheered. I cheered. The ducks waddled. And splashed. And quacked. It was just the kind of absurd spectacle you’d imagine might be dreamt up by a couple of whiskey soaked hunting buddies and a circus animal trainer.

Yep. It was super weird.

A Talking Dog that Cares About Grandmama

This week brought with it at least two stunning pieces of news. The first is that highly decorated Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps does not swim as fast as a great white shark, even if he wears a simulated shark skin wetsuit and a ridiculous fin. The second, equally shocking revelation, is that within ten years, our dogs could be speaking to us.

According to consumer futurologist William Higham (whose job is not nearly as made up as it sounds), the market demands a product that will allow the translation of dog barking. And it turns out Northern Arizona University biology professor emeritus and author of a book called Chasing Dr. Doolittle: Learning the Language of Animals, Con Slobodchikoff thinks it may be possible. And frankly, his job sounds way less made up.

Alexander_Graham_Bell
Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the talking dog. And the telephone. By Moffett Studio, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A few days ago, Amazon got super excited about this and said that when there is such a product, they will be happy to ship it to you via drone and then hound you for a review. And as anyone who has ever tried to sell a book can tell you, the market lives and dies on the word of Amazon. But it got me thinking whether I really do want to know what my dog has to say.

Alexander Graham Bell, of telephone inventing fame, decided when he was a young man of twenty that he did want to know what his dog Trouve had to say. With both an elocutionist for a father and a mother who was nearly deaf, Bell became fascinated at an early age with how sound could be transformed by the shape of one’s mouth.

So he did what I’m sure any of us would have done. He taught his skye terrier to produce a sustained growl on command and then manipulated the dog’s mouth to approximate the words “How are you, Grandmama?” I imagine the interpretation took a little bit of imagination, but the discovery that it could be done led Bell in some interesting directions in his studies of speech and sound transmission.

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Skye terrier, a dog that cares about Grandmama. By Pleple2000 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1851190

Sometimes I do wish my dog could speak English, or at least that we could understand one another a little better. Almost two weeks ago, my family and I went out of town for the weekend and Ozzie got to spend a couple days in the kennel.

We have a great kennel and Ozzie is a very social dog, so he gets really excited when we take him there, but this time, the poor thing caught a cold. Several days after we got back, we noticed he had begun to sneeze more often than normal, and even cough a little. He was especially sleepy and didn’t seem to feel very well. We took him to the vet.

Ozzie came home with antibiotics he was not convinced he wanted to take. I wished I could explain to him the importance of the pills and that they will help him feel better, or at least prevent him from feeling even worse. Instead, I have to break them open and mix the medicine with peanut butter. And all I can do is let him lay his head on my lap so he can breathe a little easier while I scratch behind his ears.

So, I suppose we communicate just fine. Whether he understands that I’m trying to help or that the yuck he’s feeling is temporary, I don’t know. But he likes peanut butter (even when it’s laced with amoxicillin) and I think he at least knows I care.

Hopefully Trouve understood that, too. According to Bell, the dog enjoyed the attention and the treats that came along with his elocution lessons. Despite rumors to the contrary, Bell’s terrier never became a great orator. The inventor admitted he was never able to train the dog to make the sounds on his own. Of course it’s always possible that Trouve was just kind of a jerk who didn’t really care how Grandmama was doing.

sickozzie
In a week or so, when he’s feeling better, I bet Ozzie will be saying, “Hey, lady, where’s my peanut butter?”

And that’s the real concern I think. Because what if, after the Amazon drone delivers my dog interpretation device, I discover that I don’t care much for what my furry companion has to say. Ozzie is pretty expressive already. He tells me quite clearly when he needs to spend some private time outside and when it’s time for me to give him a treat. He can’t resist happily howling along when the boys play the piano, but seems to care not at all for the guitar and ukulele. He rests at my feet as I write, and stares at me with kind brown eyes when I read to him from my work, or pretend that I’m talking to him and not just to myself.

I suppose I’m just afraid to know what he’s really thinking at those times. What if he calls me names when I’m slower than he’d like to let him out or get him a treat? What if the lyrics he’s put to the piano tunes have no sense of poetry? What if he’s critical of my words? All things considered, I think I like our relationship the way it is. I like telling him how much I love him with a scratch behind the ears. And I like assuming that he does care very much how Grandmama is doing.

A Clever Person Does NOT Stick His Head Inside a Lion’s Mouth

In 1820, nineteen-year-old Isaac Van Amburgh accepted a position with the Zoological Institute of New York, as the cage boy whose job it was to clean out the cages of the exotic animals kept by the traveling menagerie. To say it was his dream job would probably be a bit of a stretch, but like most of us, Isaac had to do some grunt work before he got his big break.

That break came just a year later when one of the owners of the menagerie saw that young Isaac had a way with the lions. It turned out he had a knack for training them. He would eventually go on become the person most often credited with beginning the art of lion taming for show, an act that would become as linked with the circus as clowns, elephants, and P.T. Barnum.

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Aw. He looks so cuddly. But he’s not. He will eat you. photo credit: kennethkonica IMG_1874 via photopin (license)

For this reason, when my oldest son realized a camp he attends would have a circus theme this year and for one of their special events, he would need a circus-themed costume, he chose to be a lion tamer. And because he’s an extremely clever kid with a quirky sense of humor, he decided to be a lion tamer who is allergic to cats.

I love the way he thinks, but he may be overconfident in my skill as a costumer. I like to believe I’m fairly clever, too, and I can be crafty when called upon. Like my own mother always did, I keep a few pieces of poster board stuffed behind my dresser just in case one of my kids suddenly remembers the science fair is tomorrow. And I barely batted an eye when he came home from school earlier this year needing an Egyptian pharaoh costume for a social studies speech the next day. Thank goodness bathrobes are so versatile.

Lion Tamer Costume
He may make you sneeze, but that lion doesn’t look so dangerous.

But then after weeks of asking him if he had a handle on his lion tamer costume, he finally told me a few days before camp, all he needed was a lion and a red tuxedo jacket, preferably with sequins.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to find a red tuxedo jacket for a twelve-year-old on a poster board budget and with two days notice, but it’s not exactly an easy task. What we came up with was a red raincoat that with a great deal of red duct tape and some shiny gold craft tape looked kind of okay from a distance.

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He did what? Evidently Van Amburgh was not allergic to cats. Or very large teeth. photo credit: valentinastorti Lion – yawning via photopin (license)

And really, keeping a lion tamer at a distance probably isn’t such a bad idea anyway. Because lions are wild animals, and unless you are Isaac Van Amburgh, they may bite off your head. Actually it’s surprising they didn’t do just that to Van Amburgh, who earned himself a great deal of fame and wealth by becoming the first man to stick his head inside the open jaws of a lion.

We’re talking the kind of fame that won him the attention of Queen Victoria, who even became a groupie of his for a time, taking the time to catch his act about half a dozen times in a matter of weeks. And this was even in the days before YouTube.

The queen was so taken with the performance that she commissioned a painting of her favorite daring (and incredibly stupid) animal trainer. In it, Van Amburgh is pictured wearing a Roman gladiator ensemble, his preferred costume since shiny red tuxedo jackets can be challenging to find.

A man who stuck his head inside the mouth of a lion and lived to tell the tale.
Isaac Van Amburgh and His Animals, By Edwin Henry Landseer – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6185738

Van Amburgh’s show did receive a fair share of criticism, too. He was, according to his publicity agent, terribly abusive to the large cats, basically beating and strategically starving them into submission. Had he gotten his head chomped by one of them, he’d probably have gotten what he deserved.

Instead, Van Amburgh had a heart attack and died in his bed in 1865. He was only 54 at the time, but for a guy who made his living putting his head into the open mouths of angry, hungry lions, I’d say he lived a pretty long life.

Slipping in Unicorn Puke

In the early part of the fourth century BC, a historian by the name of Ctesias returned to his native Greece after traveling through India and Persia, where he served a number of years as physician to the royal court. When he got home, he set to work writing about his travels in his great works Persica, which like many of the era’s works of history is somewhat dubious in nature, and Indica, which among other things, describes India’s native unicorn.

The unicorn, he wrote, was as large as a horse, with blue eyes, a red head, a white body, and a horn on its head measuring at least a foot and a half. It was also very strong and lightning fast.

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For a while rumor had it only a young virgin could successfully catch a unicorn because the creatures were attracted to purity. By Domenichino – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ctesias offers us the first written account of this elusive animal, but he certainly wasn’t the only “scholar” to write about it. Among those who mention the beast are Pliny the Elder, Saint Isidore of Seville, and Marco Polo. The unicorn even gets a nod in some translations of the Bible (I’m pretty sure the LSD translation is on the list).

Of course none of these writings seem to be eye-witness accounts, and the descriptions vary (some may more closely resemble a rhinoceros, which definitely is real), but for a good part of human history, there was little doubt of the unicorn’s existence. Its horn has been pulverized to make an antidote for poisons, it’s been used as a religious symbol of purity, and it’s even graced symbols of state.

Today’s unicorn is a little sleeker, a little sparklier, and a little more make-believe (though I hear Animal Planet is planning a show called Hunting Unicorns, which will air just as soon as they find Bigfoot). The unicorn of today also seems to have a hard time holding on to its lunch (which I have to assume is made up primarily of Skittles) because the creatures are frequently depicted puking rainbows.

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Yep. This sure makes me thirsty for something with sugar and sparkles.

I have to wonder if that’s what Starbucks was hoping to call to mind when they introduced their Unicorn Frappuccino last week. The multi-colored sugar bomb lasted only five days, and was even sold out at many stores faster than that, proving as difficult to catch as the unicorn itself.

I’m certainly not complaining. As a more or less non-coffee drinker, I have one Starbucks order I’ve convinced myself I enjoy when I occasionally have to meet up there, and the Unicorn Frappuccino isn’t it. But if they were still making them, then for the purpose of thorough research I suppose I would have gotten one just to take a picture. I might even have tried a sip so as to not anger the barista who just spent the last hour making 437 of them and is starting to take on a strange pink and blue hue.

unicorn
Since I didn’t get the drink you’ll just have to use your imagination. Picture this in a cup topped with whipped cream and pink and blue sprinkles.

So I didn’t catch a unicorn myself, but for a few days there I sure did hear a lot of rumors of their existence. I see from the Internet buzz that some Starbucks stores are now offering a Dragon Frappuccino made with green tea and magic and probably also a lot of sugar. I think I’ll pass on that one as well, but perhaps you’d like to try it.

If you tried the Unicorn Frappuccino, I’m curious, what did you think? Should Starbucks bring it back and make it a permanent offering, or did it make you puke rainbows like a unicorn?