That Gift in the Top of Your Closet

In February of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln followed up on a letter that had been sent to his predecessor by Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongut, the king of Siam. The king had made a generous offer to the people of the United States, suggesting that he would be happy to send a gift of a sufficient number of elephants to breed in the wilds of the nation. And it certainly wasn’t the bizarre offer it might seem like today. Highly intelligent and useful in transporting goods and raising circus tents, Asian elephants enjoyed a long history as generous gifts.

President Lincoln crafted a highly diplomatic response, explaining that America did not offer environmental conditions conducive to wild elephant success and that when it came to transporting goods, we were scraping by okay with our newfangled steam engines. But he was also careful to thank the king for his very gracious offer.

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Consular Flag of Thailand, featuring an auspicious elephant. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Because some elephants, particularly the rare albino ones, have long been considered sacred in Siam and throughout Southeast Asia, given their relationship to Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha). The story goes that Gautama’s mother dreamt of a white elephant descending from heaven on the very night she conceived her son.

So white elephants (and some not-so-white ones that are found to possess other traits earning them the title of “auspicious elephants”) have long been considered the sacred property of the reigning king in Siam. On occasion, the king also may have chosen to honor deserving courtiers by giving them the gift of trusting a white elephant to their care.

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Royal Elephant Stable where the King of Siam used to keep his White Elephants (today: The Royal Elephant National Museum, Bangkok) By Hdamm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
It was a generous gift, but there were drawbacks. The amazing and rare creatures were too sacred to be put to work raising circus tents, had to be specially housed, and had to eat. A lot. A white elephant gift from the king, then, was not exactly something to be desired. It could easily burden a man into poverty. And it was a gift that couldn’t be refused.

Allegedly this is where the term “white elephant gift” came from, to refer to something you might give or receive that no one really wants. I don’t know about you, but over the years, I have been to my share of white elephant gift exchanges (also referred to as a Yankee Swap, or a Naughty Santa, which is NOT what it sounds like). These events usually come complete with rules that allow participants to trade the terrible gift they receive for someone else’s terrible gift. The idea, of course, is that one man’s trash may actually be another man’s treasure.

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Another man’s treasure. photo credit: sukigirl74 teacosy top view via photopin (license)

And who knows? Perhaps you have been searching for years for a tea cozy that’s the perfect shade of cerulean, and maybe your friend Ted has been just dying to get his hands on the Duran Duran cassette gathering dust in the top of your closet since the early 90’s.

But if your exchange doesn’t result in you taking home a gift you actually kind of want, don’t fear. You had a good time with friends, enjoying some laughs as everyone attempted to steal the same ceramic Yoda m&m dispenser. Besides you can always shove your unfortunate gift in the top of your closet and dust it off for next time.

Because over the last few years, the notion of re-gifting has gained some traction as a way to both rein in Holiday spending and create less waste. There are helpful re-gifting etiquette guidelines online and in October of 2008, then governor of Colorado, Bill Ritter declared December 18 as “National Re-gifting Day.” Frankly, I’m not sure the governor of Colorado has that kind of national authority. 

At least some people agree with me because a quick Internet search reveals that National Re-gifting Day can also be observed on either December 15, or on the last Thursday before Christmas, which to be fair to Governor Ritter will sometimes fall on the 18th. But I suppose it doesn’t matter when you mark it on the calendar because as other important festive occasions approach, National Re-gifting Day is a holiday that you can always pull off the dusty top shelf of your closet, stick in recycled gift bag, and celebrate again and again.

Scary Stuff: The Attack of the One-Eyed, One-Horned Alligator in Short Shorts

I’ve mentioned before that Halloween is not my favorite time of year. Not that I don’t like a fun costume or a good sugar high. I just really don’t enjoy scary things. Horror movies, haunted houses, and Ouija boards are not for me. If something frightening startles me, I’m likely to scream and punch (scary clowns be warned).

And as far as monsters go, unless they live on Sesame Street or spend much more of their time in philosophical reflection upon their own nature and creation than they do engaging in actual scaring, then I’m not a big fan. But I do have a soft spot for one particularly friendly rock ‘n’ roll loving, purple people eating, flying monster in short shorts from my childhood.

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The Purple People Eater isn’t scary because he only eats purple people. At least I hope that’s right.

Because I have fond memories of setting the needle of my Fisher Price record player on a Wacky Winners record and dancing around the living room to Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater.” (Once in a while, my actual age startles me, and I’m likely to scream and punch.)

The story goes that the son of one of Wooley’s friends came home from school with a joke one day: “What has one eye, one horn, flies and eats people?” The answer, so obvious to us now, was, “A flying purple people eater!” The joke struck the funny bone of the kid’s dad, who shared it with his friend Sheb. He liked it so much, the actor/songwriter sat down immediately to scribble some lyrics.

Then in 1958 (and just to clarify, that was long before me and my Fisher Price record player came along), Sheb Wooley had a hit on his hands, with “Purple People Eater” becoming the only novelty song to ever to sit in the top spot of the Billboard pop chart.

Wooley went on to record a number of novelty songs, and had a run of successes as an actor, particularly in western films. But while he is certainly best known as the voice behind everyone’s favorite pigeon-toed, under-growed flying monster who plays a mean head horn, his voice has been heard most in something else.

Because most likely the songwriter/actor is also the man responsible for the most famous scream in the world. Performed in a sound studio for use in the 1951 film Distant Drums, the scream was a response to the need to fill in the sound a guy would make if he were suddenly attacked and dragged under water by an alligator.

Personally, I think Wooley nailed it.

And apparently so did a lot of filmmakers, because after the unique scream became a part of the Warner Brothers sound library, it got plopped into a whole lot of movies. So many movies, in fact, that a group of film students at the University of Southern California took notice and set out on a quest to uncover the first movie that ever featured Wooley’s well-used scream.

The earliest they found was a 1963 western movie called The Charge at Feather River, in which a character named Private Wilhelm takes an arrow to the leg and lets out a scream that, to my mind, sounds a lot like the noise a guy would make if he were being attacked and pulled under water by an alligator.

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Sheb Wooly. If this man is attacked by an alligator, he will scream like a falling storm trooper. By OMAC Artist Corporation, Bakersfield, CA. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Of course the film students were off by a few years, and who knows how many movies, but the sound clip took on the nickname “the Wilhelm scream” anyway. And that might have been the end of a fun little story, except that among the USC classmates that discovered the unique little piece of movie sound was Ben Burtt, the sound designer who worked on a unique little movie called Star Wars.

As a nod to his friends, Burtt decided to include the Wilhelm scream in the movie, because it turns out the sound a storm trooper makes when falling down a chasm is pretty much the same sound a man makes when getting attacked by an alligator.

In fact, the sound makes it into every Star Wars movie, as well as each Indiana Jones. And basically all the filmmakers you’ve heard of have picked up on the joke, too. Wooley’s iconic scream has been included in The Lord of the Rings, Toy Story, Titanic, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Some estimates put the number of films that have used the clip close to 300. I would attempt to verify that, but there’s a good chance at least a few of those are horror movies.

Nearly 300 Hollywood folks have been attacked and dragged under the water by an alligator because of the otherwise harmless purple people eater. And that’s pretty scary stuff. Man, I hate Halloween.

A Troublesome Apple and an Ample Supply of Butt Glue

It all started with an apple. Or perhaps it started when Eris, the goddess of discord got her toga in a bunch because she wasn’t invited to a wedding. The problem with offending the goddess of discord is that she’s pretty good at causing trouble. The story goes that Eris crashed the wedding, but only long enough to present a golden apple to the fairest of them all.

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The world’s first beauty contest, maybe ever so slightly more risqué than the swimsuit competitions of today. The Judgement of Paris by Enrique Simonet, 1904, Pubic Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Three formidable goddesses (Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite) stepped forward to claim the prize. Zeus wasn’t about to wade into that hornet’s nest by declaring a victor, so he passed the responsibility off to Paris, who faced a very difficult choice. None of the goddesses was keen to hand over the title of fairest and so they bribed their unfortunate judge. Hera offered him the opportunity to rule, Athena offered him victory on the battlefield, and Aphrodite offered him the love of Helen, who was quite a beauty queen herself.

Paris chose the pretty girl because, like Aphrodite, she appeared well-poised and graceful in a swimsuit and high heels and could clearly benefit from a scholarship. She also wanted world peace and “like such as, uh, South Africa, and, uh, Iraq, everywhere like such as…”*

Alas, world peace was not to be, since Helen was married to Menelaus of Sparta, and he didn’t agree that Aphrodite should be given the title of Miss Olympus. War broke out and because the Trojans couldn’t resist a good looking giant wooden horse any more than Paris could resist a pretty girl, it didn’t end well for Troy.

Given the bloody history, then, it isn’t all that surprising that outside of a few small May Day festivals, there really wasn’t much in the way of beauty contests for thousands of years. Then along came P.T. Barnum who, in 1854, thought it would be a great idea to parade women in front of a crowd to judge their beauty.

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Margaret Gorman, 16-year-old, 1921 winner of the Bather’s Review, and the first Miss America, without even a single glob of butt glue to keep her swim suit in place. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It turned out it was a pretty good money-making idea, just a little ahead of its time. But what ended in angry protest in 1854, started to catch on almost seventy years later in Atlantic City, as the Inter-City Beauty Contest in which women competed for applause and a chance to parade around in their swimming suits the next day in the “Bather’s Review.”

From these humble beginnings emerged the Miss America Pageant, which is ongoing and will wind up with the crowning of a new beauty in a glued-on bathing suit this Sunday, September 11.

Now, I’m not a big pageant fan myself, and I have never competed in one (frankly, it just wouldn’t be fair to the other ladies), so I have mixed feelings about criticizing them. I do think that, with a few unfortunate exceptions, the contestants of most of the larger pageants today, are smart, talented, and highly-motivated women who are working hard to find a platform from which to make a positive difference in the world.

I don’t begrudge them that opportunity, but here’s my question. If we have so many smart, talented, and highly-motivated women in the world (or even the universe, though I think that pageant is rigged as only Earth girls have ever been crowned), why is it that we need to see them in a bathing suit and high heels? Does their poise and athleticism while half-naked make them somehow more likely to be forces for positive change? Or does their successful application of butt glue somehow make them more worthy of college scholarships?

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Homer: a practical history blogger before his time. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Tough questions, I know, and not easily answered by world peace and, like um, South Africa. Too tough for me, a lowly blogger of all things historical, and, evidently mythological. Because, yes, in addition to being among the four fifths of Americans who can identify the United States on a world map, I am also aware that the Trojan War may not have happened at all. And if some version of it did, it most likely didn’t start with an epic godly beauty pageant.

But then again, on the rare occasion that I have flipped on the television and watched part of the Miss America Pageant, I have usually found myself asking if it’s for real, too.

 

*Actual excerpt from an actual response given by a contestant in the 2007 Miss Teen USA Pageant while answering the question, “Recent polls have shown a fifth of Americans can’t locate the U.S. on a world map. Why do you think this is?” In her defense, it was a pretty high pressure situation and a FIFTH OF AMERICANS CAN’T IDENTIFY THE U.S. ON A WORLD MAP! Likely this beauty contestant is not among them. I suspect she can also find, uh, South Africa, and, uh, Iraq.

The Pokémon Pandemic is Upon Us…Go Wash your Hands

In February of 1512, a Spanish Conquistador named Juan Ponce de León received a royal commission to pillage, plunder, and claim the rumored islands northwest of Hispaniola. King Ferdinand specifically wanted this honor to go to Ponce de León, a Spanish son of a good Spanish family, because he did not want to cede any more power to Diego Columbus, the uppity son of that silly Italian fellow who’d done all the exploring for them in the first place.

Ponce de León had travelled to the New World initially on the second voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1493. Though it’s not clear what he did in the meantime, by 1504 he became the right hand man of the appointed governor of Hispaniola, Nicolás de Ovando, by effectively squashing a rebellion by the native Taínos.

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Juan Ponce de Léon, pillager, plunderer, and Pokémon Trainer extraordinaire. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Thus began Ponce de León’s widely successful career of murder and exploration. He soon set off for the island eventually known as Puerto Rico in search of riches rumored by the Taínos, in exchange for which he enslaved many of them and gave the rest smallpox because he never washed his hands. He did find a great deal of gold, but by the time he returned to Hispaniola, Ovando had been usurped by the pesky Diego Columbus and a power struggle soon raged.

So when King Ferdinand suggested Ponce de León go exploring, he was probably pretty happy to oblige. He was the kind of guy who would jump at the chance to gather slaves, glory, and eternal youth, even if it meant wandering into a dark alley at 2 o’clock in the morning.

Because, yes, I think it’s safe to assume that if Ponce de León were alive today, he would be pretty obsessed with the game Pokémon Go. Now I don’t know where else in the world this game may be at this point, but here in the US, it made its debut earlier this month, and I’m telling you, wash your hands, because the pandemic is coming. If you are in the US and you don’t know the game yet, it’s what those people wandering aimless through your neighborhood while staring intently at their phones are doing.

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There’s one! Oh wait, no, that’s just a toy. photo credit: 对阵/Versus via photopin (license)

I was just a few years too old to get caught up in the Pokémon craze the first time around and I’m going to sit it out this time around, too, so if you one of those obsessed (and I’m betting you’re not because you wouldn’t be wasting time/cell phone battery on reading this post), then I apologize for the following explanation.

As far as I can figure, Pokémon is a game in which you capture little powerful creatures and make them fight each other for your entertainment. In the late nineties, you did this by buying or trading Pokémon cards that you would play against your friends who would try to counter your attack with whatever cards they bought or traded for.

Now it’s gone mobile and realistic-ish, because through the magic of Internet mapping, Pokémon (the critters) can show up anywhere at any time and in order to capture them, all you have to do is throw Pokéballs (whatever those are) at them or hatch them from an egg by walking around like a crazy person.

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Ah the good old days, when Pokémon was just a game that everyone was obsessed with. Oh, wait…

 

And if that’s not exciting enough for you, yes, you can make them fight, and you can take over “gyms” from other Poképlayers (a word I think I just made up, but probably not).  The “gyms” are located in real-life public spaces, businesses, and even private properties that were once designated as something else, without any permission whatsoever given by the property-owners, or any recourse for those who don’t want their property to be a part of the game.

Did I get this about right?

And people have become absolutely obsessed with this game. I know because when I first heard about it maybe three or four days ago, it took over my Facebook feed, where so many of my otherwise pretty rational friends began posting screenshots of all the funny little places they’d found Pokémon, like in the bathroom stall at work. I would say an equal number of otherwise rational friends began railing against the posts and the crazy people stumbling about staring at their phones in places they ought not to have been, like the bathroom stalls of someone else’s workplace. Then I turned on the radio and the dj was droning on and on about Pokémon Go and I realized that even though I didn’t understand a single word, she assumed all her listeners knew exactly what she was talking about. And they probably did.

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Virtual Pokémon in the non-virtual world. I admit, it looks pretty fun. Thanks to my multiple FB friends who, when I put out a call for a pic, obliged quickly and enthusiastically.

 

So why are people so obsessed with the game? All I can think is that they are reliving their childhoods, searching for a little bit of that wonder they felt in their youth, and hoping that by scouring a dark alleyway at 2 o’clock in the morning, and taking over new lands (or “gyms”), perhaps they can find it.

The great rumor mill of history suggests that that’s what Ponce de León was after as well when he stumbled into Florida. In addition to gold and slaves and glory, he was searching for the famed fountain of youth. Of course there are no contemporary sources that suggest this was the case, and even if he was seeking it, he never found it. In 1521, the conquistador was shot by poison tipped arrows fired by native inhabitants of his new land. Sapped of the strength even to throw a Pokéball, he died shortly after. And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

But despite the possible private property issues and potentials for abuse, which will need to be worked out, the game seems innocent enough. I wish all the Pokéballers (another word I think I just made up, but probably not) good luck on their quests for youth. But seriously, go wash your hands.

 

Bloggy McBlogface: Appeasing Poseidon and the Boat-Loving Internet Trolls

This week I was reminded that even in the era of Donald Trump, people are still capable of taking voting seriously. Because a few days ago my attention was drawn to an exciting ongoing voting process on the Internet.

In case you’re not familiar with this incredible developing story, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in the UK is in the process of designing a new boat. The 287 million dollar polar research vessel is a serious piece of nautical equipment expected to launch in 2019 in order to engage in serious nautical work.

But as everyone knows, a good boat needs a good name. And when I say everyone, I mean even the Ancient Babylonians. As early as the 3rd millennium BC, people heading out onto the water were taking the task pretty seriously, launching their vessels with elaborate ceremony and a carefully chosen name.

The Egyptians did it, too, as did the Greeks and Romans. Ships were most often named in honor of the gods and goddesses sailors felt the need to appease and appeal to for safety on the water. These were important names.

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This boat obviously does not belong to a boat naming historian. photo credit: NS-00388 – Who Cares via photopin (license)

As the tradition continued to develop, ships most often took on feminine personas, either as a natural shift from the use of goddess names or as an outcropping of the feminine assignment in most European languages to la boat.

Some boat naming historians (yep, that’s a real thing) suggest that by giving a woman’s name to a ship, sailors and captains are more likely to take loving care of the vessels in their charge. And as a bonus, should the ship run into danger on the open sea, a feminine entity speaks more to the  comfort and care of those who are at the mercy of her strength.

I don’t know about any of that, but what I do know is that finding the right name for a boat is serious business. And I know that putting the Internet in charge of naming your boat is risky. That’s the painful lesson the NERC is now learning. A few weeks ago the Council appealed to the public to recommend names for the new research vessel and then vote in support of favorites.

The NERC got the ball rolling with a few possibilities, including the RRS Shackleton, RRS Falcon, or RRS Endeavor. Fine names to be sure, but the one that has really caught the imagination of the voting public was proposed by James Hand, who added RRS Boaty McBoatface to the list.

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I think Laryssa may have her work cut out for her protecting this precarious boatload. photo credit: Cages via photopin (license)

 

Mr. Hand’s idea caught on, and soon jumped to the top of the list, with over 100, 000 votes. And it turns out his suggestion was only one among a long list of very creative (and pretty funny) choices, including the RRS WhateverFloatsYa, the RRS I Like Big Boats and I Cannot Lie, and the RRS Immacrackdatice.

The NERC has actually been pretty cool about the whole thing. In public statements it has expressed thanks to an enthusiastic public for their humorous and overwhelming level of engagement.  The Council will, of course, have final say over the name of the ship, and it will most likely not choose to go with BoatyMcBoatface in the end.

Still it seems the public has spoken, and as everyone knows, changing a ship’s name is about the dumbest thing you can do. Again, by everyone, I mean everyone who knows anything about boats, going back millennia.

Because tradition insists that Poseidon himself records and knows the name of every vessel on the sea. If he has to go scribbling them all out in the Ledger of the Deep, it leaves his records messy and confusing, and makes him all discombobulated and cranky. So if you must change the name of a ship, it’s wise to tread carefully.

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What will Votey McVoteface come up with next? photo credit: Voting via photopin (license)

 

Personally, I don’t put any stock into such warnings, but then I am not a boat owner, or sailor, or boat naming historian. I’m also thankfully not part of the Natural Environment Research Council, which after the polls close on April 16th, will be tasked with deciding whether it’s better to allow a serious vessel to carry a lighthearted name, or to risk irritating a discombobulated sea god or worse, incurring the wrath of the Internet trolls, and those who take the power of their vote super seriously.

Because one need look no further than the US presidential race to know that people love to vote for ridiculous things. And they get ridiculously upset when you try to reason with them. I’m pretty sure a cranky sea god is the least of the NERC’s concerns.

Going Tiny in a Very Small Way

In a few weeks I will celebrate the third anniversary of moving into my current home. This most recent move, from Salem, Oregon, was the fifth in my fifteen years of marriage, and I’m sincerely hoping it is the last for a while. I’d like to let my sons go through school with a consistent group of friends. I’d like to think that when someone asks them where they are from originally, they might know how to answer. And despite all the bad press of the last few years, St. Louis is a wonderful place and we are very happy to be living so near our favorite city.

But lately I’ve also been thinking about the one big disadvantage of staying put. Because I’ve become obsessed with the television shows that highlight the tiny house movement. There are several different ones, but each focuses in on a person, or couple, or sometimes even pretty good size family that is looking to either build or buy a home that is somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 square feet or less.

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Tiny house. Big bludgeoning risk. photo credit: IMG_6224 via photopin (license)

I’ve tried for a long time to figure out what appeals to me about these shows. I know for certain that I do NOT wish to live in such a home. As much as I love my family, if I had to live on top of them every minute of every day, someone would get accidentally bludgeoned to death.

I think the reason these shows appeal to me so much is because of the stories of the people. Almost all of them say the reason they want to “go tiny” is, in part, because they want to rid themselves of the extra stuff in their lives and live more freely with less.

Doesn’t that sound amazing? So I’m a little scared to not be looking ahead to a move now that it’s been a few years, because every time we pack up to move, we pare down. And it’s amazing.

Without a move looming, the drawers are getting a little cluttered, the closets a little crowded, and the tower of boxes in the basement of outgrown clothes and toys and books that should be donated is beginning to teeter dangerously.

I’m afraid if this goes much longer, we risk becoming like Homer and Langley Collyer, a well-to-do pair of brothers that lived together in their family’s 5th Avenue Harlem mansion, along with all the leftover equipment from their deceased father’s medical practice, the possessions from their deceased mother’s separate house, stacks and stacks of newspapers, and fourteen pianos.

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So my closets don’t look like this. Yet. photo credit: bric-a-brac via photopin (license)

On March 21, 1947 the police received a call about a smell of decay emanating from the house. They dug their way in and discovered Homer Collyer dead. Nearly a month later, workers uncovered the body of Langley Collyer, crushed under the junk. Around 120 tons of debris was eventually removed from the house. The few salvageable things fetched $2000 at auction and the dangerous house was razed, making way for the small Collyer Brother’s Park at the corner of 128th and 5th Avenue.

There’ve been attempts to have the park renamed, in order to honor someone or something perhaps more noble than the famous hoarders, but as then NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe pointed out, “Not all history is pretty — and many New York children were admonished by their parents to clean their room ‘or else you’ll end up like the Collyer brothers.’”

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A teetering tower of donations. But no pianos, so that’s something.

I think it’s safe to assume there were some underlying pathological issues that led to the lifestyle and tragic demise of the Collyers, but I’m going to try to learn a lesson from them anyway. I’m not facing an impending move, and because I love my family and would hate to have to bludgeon them, I am not going to attempt to live in 400 square feet.

But what I am going to do is make a concerted effort to pare down as if we were planning a big change. Call it my 2016 resolution if you will. I will sort out the junk drawers, reorganize the closets, and haul off that teetering tower of donation boxes.  I will rid myself of the extra stuff and live more freely with less.

And it will feel amazing.

Hi ho! The Fourth and Final Voyage of Kermit the Frog

Christopher Columbus, famed explorer who kind of resembles Fozzie Bear. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

On September 18, 1502, on his fourth and final voyage to the New World (which he still stubbornly insisted was Asia, because by then he was becoming a little floopy) Christopher Columbus arrived in what would come to be known as Costa Rica. I say “arrived” because “discovered” is certainly the wrong word, as he was warmly greeted by canoes full of Carib Indians, representing one of four indigenous tribes living in the area at the time.

In fact, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of human occupation in Costa Rica dating back at least 10,000 years. A large variety of tools, weapons, metal work, and even remnants of an ancient city complete with aqueducts indicate that many cultures may have come, gone, and coexisted through the area.

By Tim Ross (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This tree frog from Costa Rica resembles Kermit the Frog when the pollen count is really high. By Tim Ross (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But its rich history of human diversity isn’t all that makes the country so fascinating, because representing just one third of one percent of Earth’s landmass, Costa Rica contains approximately four percent of the species that exist on the entire planet. It boasts the highest density of biodiversity of any country in the world, with hundreds of species that, outside of captivity, can only be found there.

And Costa Rica is home to somewhere in the neighborhood of 175 species of amphibians. Eighty-five percent of those are frogs. It’s got the poison dart frogs, the famous red-eyed tree frog, the giant toad, and the rainforest rocket frog, which at a length of about half and inch is not the smallest frog in the world, but it does have the coolest name.

And now there’s one more frog in Costa Rica, because recently researcher Brian Kubicki found a previously undiscovered glass frog he named Hyalinobatrachium dianae. Like in so much of the world, Costa Rican species are being stressed by rapid environmental change and the country has already lost many frog species to extinction. So to discover a new one is pretty exciting.

photo credit: Kermit the Frog - Smithsonian Museum of Natural History - 2012-05-15 via photopin (license)
Hyalinobatrachium dianae, a newly identified species of glass frog. Oh, wait, no that’s a Muppet. photo credit: Kermit the Frog – Smithsonian Museum of Natural History – 2012-05-15 via photopin (license)

Especially when the Internet decides that new species looks like Kermit the Frog. And it does, kind of, at least in the same way that if you put a domestic pig in a blonde wig and taught it karate, it would totally resemble Miss Piggy.

The new frog does have similar coloring to Kermit, except on its belly where its skin is nearly transparent so you can see all of its internal organs. It also has big white eyes that bug out of its head, and like its Muppet counterpart, H. dianae plays the banjo and harbors a not-so-secret wish to make it big in showbiz.

So the only real question remaining is what is Kermit the Frog doing in Costa Rica? Because as everyone who has seen the straight-to-video classic Kermit’s Swamp Years knows (and judging by the reviews that could be as many as a dozen people or more), Kermit is originally from the swamps of the Deep South, not Costa Rica.

The answer to the question may lie in the years he spent as a hard-hitting investigative journalist at Sesame Street News. As something of a hard-hitting investigative journalist myself, I have uncovered footage from Kermit’s past that may explain the link between the famous Muppet and this new little glass frog now taking the Internet by storm, a link drawn straight through the famous explorer Christopher Columbus who accidentally stumbled onto Costa Rica so many years ago. Enjoy!

The Truth about Philosophers: How to Get Your Mom to Give You a Cookie

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John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism, and maybe sometimes kind of a controlling jerk.

In the summer of 1536, a young philosopher and theologian named John Calvin, having recently gotten himself into trouble in his native Catholic France by writing about his unique brand of Protestantism, arrived at an inn in Geneva, Switzerland. While there he was approached by a local church leader who begged him to remain in Geneva to help him organize the new Protestant church there.

Suspecting that it may have been predetermined by God that he do so, Calvin agreed and spent much of the remainder of his life (after being thrown out of Geneva for a few years because he kind of acted like a controlling jerk) preaching and teaching, setting in place a theocratic system of pastors, doctors, elders, and deacons, each dedicated to over-seeing different aspects of running Calvin’s idea of a perfect society.

He was remarkably influential, his ideas in some respects giving rise to capitalism, individualism, and democracy. Still, today, we’d probably call him a controlling jerk, and so did many of his contemporaries. Loudly. Sometimes over the sound of his preaching, and for many years after.

The English philosopher Tomas Hobbes, writing in his controversial Leviathan nearly 100 years after Calvin’s death, was critical of the Presbyterian political design. Sometimes considered the father of modern political philosophy, Hobbes was pretty sure that not only had Calvin been a jerk, but that so were all the bishops ruling within the Church, and, well, basically everyone else, too.

Thomas Hobbes, father of modern political philosophy, and pretty sure you're kind of a jerk.     "Thomas Hobbes (portrait)" by John Michael Wright - National Portrait Gallery: NPG 225While Commons policy accepts the use of this media, one or more third parties have made copyright claims against Wikimedia Commons in relation to the work from which this is sourced or a purely mechanical reproduction thereof. This may be due to recognition of the "sweat of the brow" doctrine, allowing works to be eligible for protection through skill and labour, and not purely by originality as is the case in the United States (where this website is hosted). These claims may or may not be valid in all jurisdictions.As such, use of this image in the jurisdiction of the claimant or other countries may be regarded as copyright infringement. Please see Commons:When to use the PD-Art tag for more information.See User:Dcoetzee/NPG legal threat for more information.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information.English | Español | Français | Magyar | Italiano | Македонски | Türkmençe | +/−. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_Hobbes_(portrait).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Thomas_Hobbes_(portrait).jpg
Thomas Hobbes, father of modern political philosophy, and pretty sure you’re kind of a jerk.

Hobbes promoted the idea that humans were little more than machines, designed to act only in the interest of the self and this informed his political views. His words were influential, often as a starting point for debates by more reasonable philosophers, who mostly thought Hobbes was kind of a pessimistic jerk.

But about three hundred years after his death, and more than four hundred years after the death of John Calvin, both men were honored in the personalities of two of the most beloved philosophers of modern times, when the world was introduced on November 18, 1985, to a six-year-old boy with spiky yellow hair and a stuffed tiger, who was the best friend a kid could have.

Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin & Hobbes, explained in his 1995 book celebrating the tenth anniversary of the comic strip, that he’d chosen the names from these two historical men. He doesn’t offer a great deal of explanation as to why, only that Hobbes the tiger seems to express a certain mistrust of human nature that shows up from time to time as his apparent pride in not being human himself. Calvin, Watterson claims, is based more or less on his adult self, as he grapples with big questions through the metaphor of tenacious, bratty childhood.

Though the strip ended in 1995 and Bill Watterson makes it a point to remain private and with very few exceptions, irritatingly aloof, the characters of Calvin and Hobbes have remained in the public consciousness, because between the laughs, the strips are really about friendship, imagination, and growing up. In the midst of funny childish games, Calvin and Hobbes speak to certain human truths.

My seven-year-old philosopher's last birthday cake, in which Calvin & Hobbes look a little bit like jerks.
My seven-year-old philosopher’s last birthday cake, on which Calvin & Hobbes look a little bit like jerks.

Right now, in my home, the largest truth they speak to is that a little boy with spiky yellow hair and a wild imagination really can provide profound wisdom disguised as disarming charm, sometimes without even knowing it.

My youngest son, a spiky-yellow-haired seven-year-old philosopher, is a huge fan of Calvin & Hobbes. He spends hours poring over the various collection books and I think he knows every strip by heart, turning over each one in his mind, sharpening his already impressive wit and gleaning some very useful advice. The day he marched into the kitchen and asked me for a chainsaw, and in lieu of that, a cookie, I knew I was in trouble.

He stood there with his clever grin, assured of his predetermined success. Tucked under his arm was his constant companion, a small stuffed rabbit named Bunny (because my son, though wickedly clever, can’t name many 17th-century philosophers). I suspected Bunny might be the real mastermind behind the great cookie plot; that she somehow played on my son’s greedy human nature and put him up to it. That would be just like her. As thoughtful and devoted as she is, sometimes she’s kind of a jerk.

I gave him the cookie.

My son's "Hobbes," a stuffed bunny he appropriately named "Bunny." Sure, she looks all innocent sitting on the couch waiting for him to come home from school, but make no mistake. The second he comes through that door, she'll pounce.
My son’s “Hobbes,” a stuffed bunny he appropriately named “Bunny.” Sure, she looks all innocent sitting on the couch waiting for him to come home from school, but don’t be fooled. The second he comes through that door, she’ll pounce. Because sometimes, she can be a real jerk.

The Guy You’re Gonna Call

In 1933, renowned spiritual medium Eileen Garrett entered the parapsychology laboratory at Duke University where she met with botanist turned clinical parapsychologist J.B. Rhine to participate in his quantitative study of extrasensory perception (ESP).

Rhine brought out a deck of cards, specifically designed with his partner Karl Zener for the experiments. Each of the Zener cards contained one of five simple shapes. Ms. Garrett simply had to identify, without seeing the shape on the card, which one Rhine presented her with. The assumption was that an accuracy rate more than 20% would indicate ESP.

Zener Cards [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Zener Cards, used to test for ESP [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A few years prior, Rhine had gleefully exposed medium Mina Crandon as a fraud, so no one was more surprised than he when Garratt did identify the correct shapes more than 20% of the time. The medium herself, however, was not pleased with the results, claiming that she would have performed better had the cards not lacked a certain psychic energy.

She would have been better off graciously accepting her results because later testing by other researchers failed to find any ability to correctly identify the cards above that of normal chance. Actually Rhine’s methods attracted a lot of criticism, particularly claims that he inadvertently cued his subjects to the proper shapes on the cards. His results were never verifiable in subsequent tests.

But still, Rhine is credited with coining the term “parapsychology” and with being the first to honestly attempt to study it quantitatively. He continued his research at Duke until the university discontinued its support in the early 1960s and he founded the Journal of Parapsychology, the Institute of Parapsychology, and the Parapsychological Association. There’s no question he made himself into the foremost expert in his field, the guy you would call with all of your parapsychological concerns.

And in 1984, his dedication to his field of study brought him a great honor. In one of the opening scenes of Ghostbusters, Dr. Peter Venkman, played by Bill Murray, uses Rhine’s Zener card methodology to test two students for ESP, torturing a young male student who fares at least as well as Garratt did, and hitting on a pretty young lady who always seems to guess correctly even though she doesn’t.

Hook and Ladder Company No. 8. NO FIRES! and NO GHOSTS! "Ghostbusters Firehouse 2 (2007)" by Daniel SCHNERF - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ghostbusters_Firehouse_2_(2007).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Ghostbusters_Firehouse_2_(2007).jpg
Hook and Ladder Company No. 8. NO FIRES! and NO GHOSTS! “Ghostbusters Firehouse 2 (2007)” by Daniel SCHNERF – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ghostbusters_Firehouse_2_(2007).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Ghostbusters_Firehouse_2_(2007).jpg

Like Rhine, Venkman faces the end of his university funding with grace and increased dedication to his chosen field of study. Rather than wallow in his misfortune, he and his associates move into an old firehouse and establish themselves as the guys you’re gonna call with all of your parapsychological concerns.

Perhaps you think it is a stretch to call this small nod to Rhine a great honor, and, well, of course you’re right. Because it would admittedly be a stretch to call Ghostbusters one of the great cinematic achievements of all time. Or of the 1980s. Or of 1984.

But even if it doesn’t hold up all that well, I was a child in the 1980s and Ghostbusters was surely the closest thing to a scary movie my parents ever let me watch. Because of that, it has formed an important part of my childhood. And maybe of yours, too. If so, you’re in luck.

This week marks the 30th anniversary of the original theatrical release of Ghostbusters with (and if you have ESP then you can probably know this already) a theatrical release.

Stay Puft: The monster in your closet since 1984 photo credit: Great Beyond via photopin cc
Stay Puft: The monster in your closet since 1984
photo credit: Great Beyond via photopin cc

That’s right. Starting today and going through this next week, you can celebrate this momentous anniversary by donning your eighties garb and heading to a theater near you to experience the Stay Puft marshmallow attack on New York City in its full big-screen glory.

I think you’re going to do it. I see parachute pants, teased bangs, and a whole mess of ectoplasm in your future. And there’s a fifty percent chance I’m right.

 

Oh the Places I’ve Never Gone: A Story of SPAM

I love a good road trip and, I confess, I have a little bit of an obsession. I collect brochures. I don’t mean that I have a basement full of full color brochures from every place I’ve ever visited. That might actually make sense.

I mean that at every hotel, roadside diner, and rest stop, the first thing I do is check out the tourism brochure rack, and I usually pick up at least three or four. Of course I do this in the places where I’m staying for a while, but also in the places I’m just driving through.

In case you can't read it, that phone number is 800-LUV-SPAM, so you can get all of your SPAM and SPAM Museum-related questioned answered. I'm sure you have many.
It’s Free! And it has bathrooms. And probably tee shirts.

And here’s the strange part, I almost never go to the places in the brochures. But I love to learn about bizarre little tourist sites that get highlighted on those racks. I guess it’s my way of soaking in some of quirkiness of the communities I am privileged to pass through.

There are the standard places like zoos, waterparks, and outlet malls and in this part of the country there’s usually a cave tour or two. Sometimes those are accompanied by interesting stories. But the ones I like best advertise those truly unique places, the ones that are just weird enough that it’s unlikely anyone would ever travel specifically to a particular area just to see them.

My latest find, maybe the best brochure I have ever picked up on a road trip, came from a hotel in Rochester, Minnesota where we stopped this weekend on our way to watch a community theater musical production that featured one of our very talented nieces.

Obviously she stole the show and we were delighted to be there to watch her performance, but I admit, second to that, my favorite part of the trip was the place we didn’t go: The SPAM Museum in Austin, Minnesota.

Austin is only about a 45 minute drive from Rochester and not particularly out of the way for a traveler headed back to St. Louis, but it was the last day of our whirlwind weekend road trip. We were anxious to head home. And I was the only one who seemed at all interested in going.

Even Big Foot loves SPAM.
Even Big Foot loves SPAM.

How could I not be? First of all the museum is free, so even if it’s not everything it’s advertised to be, all you’ve lost is an hour or so of your time, which you can’t ever get back. Still, how can you say no to a tourist destination that boldly proclaims: “Theater! Game Show! Restrooms! IT’S ALL HERE!”

So since my family wouldn’t be convinced to tour the museum (okay so it’s possible I didn’t try that hard), I had to research SPAM the old fashioned way and just Google it.

SPAM hit the market in 1937 and soon dominated the canned meat industry. A spiced ham product initially made entirely from pork shoulder which had been an underutilized cut of meat up to that point in the company Hormel’s canned meat products, SPAM received its iconic name from a somewhat suspicious contest.

The winning entry was submitted by an actor named Ken Daigneau who also happened to be the brother of a Hormel Foods Vice President. There’s no word on whether or not said vice president was in fact the judge of the contest, but Hormel awarded Daigneau $100 for his efforts and it’s a good thing they did because “ham jello” just doesn’t sing as well.

Though SPAM (which Hormel claims stands for “spiced ham” and not the “something posing as meat” that some have suggested) took off largely as a wartime food, its real boost into the popular psyche came from Monty Python’s famous 1970 SPAM comedy sketch, which period actors with brilliant British accents (I’m sure) reenact daily for a fascinated audience at the SPAM Museum.

Alas, I’ve never been. Still, I do have the brilliant brochure that both splits into detachable postcards with fun SPAM facts so you can conveniently invite your friends from all over the world to a SPAM pilgrimage they won’t soon forget and also features a helpful map placing the museum into geographical context with the World’s Largest Stack of Empty Oil Cans. I haven’t managed to collect a brochure advertising that American travel gem yet, but it’s definitely on my list of sites to not visit.

spammap
10,000 Lakes? Big Deal. Come to Minnesota for the SPAM!