Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mars Day

Every now and then, Thanksgiving lands on my birthday. This isn’t one of those years, However, every day of the year is a holiday somewhere, and this Sunday, aside from being my birthday, is Mars Day – the planet, not the candy bar. So, I’ll make a double celebration with a slice of cake for me and a glass of wine – red, of course – for our celestial neighbor.

As the most earthlike of all the other planets of the solar system, Mars draws the eyes of 3rd Rock-lings, especially science fiction fans. This always has been so. Can one find a more archetypical scifi novel than War of the Worlds (1898) by H.G. Wells, in which tentacled Martian nasties attack the earth in tripod war machines armed with heat rays and poison gases? Edgar Rice Burroughs first sent John Carter off to the red planet in A Princess of Mars (1912), and his novels have stayed in print ever since. Ray Bradbury felt the gravitational pull of Mars as well, resulting in The Martian Chronicles (1950). In the 1990s, Kim Stanley Robinson published Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars, all of which read more like terraformation manuals than like fiction. Despite all this intimidating competition, I couldn’t resist visiting Mars in one of my own short stories, “Little Green Women” in Double Dose (2005).

I’ve never seen a flying saucer, much less been abducted by aliens, but there is a distant and fleeting family history with Arean types. Grovers Mill, located of outside Princeton, NJ, is where the Martians landed in 1938, as reported by Orson Welles in his famous radio broadcast. Grovers Mill is about an hour away by car from Mendham, NJ, where my maternal grandparents lived – and where I live now. On October 30, 1938, they heard Welles’ broadcast and learned the Martians were on the move. “I guess it’s the end of the world,” my dairy farmer grandfather opined calmly while puffing on his pipe. My mom was much more put out. In her opinion, it was all well and good for the world to end for the old folks, but she was only 10; she was angry about this disruption to her plans. My grandparents took their kids outside in front of the porch to look at the night sky for signs of the interplanetary war and for more Martian spacecraft. My Aunt Diane, a few years younger than my mom, recalls the evening as a warm and fuzzy family moment. Anyway, the sky stayed dark, so after a while they went back inside. As we all know, the Martian invasion was thwarted, so my mom never got to meet any Martians face to face. Or perhaps it succeeded and the secret has been kept from us. Did Martians seize the Mercury Theater, take over Orson Welles’ body, and then pretend the invasion was a hoax?

(Link to the alarming portion of Welles’ broadcast:

As that may be, I think it’s high time we earthlings returned a courtesy call on Mars, and what better time to dedicate ourselves to that goal than Mars Day? Besides, according to the following documentary, there are some mighty attractive women up there – and they’re all twins.

Martian Chicks Cut a Rug in Just Imagine (1930)

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Jurassic Pork

The consensus among palaeontologists is that dinosaurs and birds are so closely related that the only real difference is a pair of wings. From this, I think we can conclude that dinos taste pretty much like turkey, making them a welcome alternative to the traditional Thanksgiving meal if you are expecting a large crowd for the holidays.

First, bag a dinosaur. The truly impressive drumsticks of tyrannosaurus make this the preferred genus. I’ll let you work out the time travel details for yourself, but there are some tips for the hunt itself in the video below. Actually, I think the theropod in the clip is an allosaurus (note the foreclaws), but the same principle applies. Just use a bigger spear.

A good-size tyrannosaur weighs 7.5 tons (6.8 metric), but, after it is field dressed in the same manner as a wild turkey, it is a more manageable 5.

Bring back the dressed tyrannosaur carcass to your backyard. Picnicking in the Cretaceous is not recommended; scavengers of the time are very large and aggressive, and so are apt to be annoying pests. Spitting a beast of this size over an open flame is not really practical, so pit roasting is the way to go. In order to accommodate the tail fully (which, like alligator, is the tastiest morsel), your pit will need to be an oblong 40 feet long by 20 feet wide and 16 deep (12m x 6m x 4.9m). Line with rocks. Start a blazing fire throughout the pit. Allow to burn down until the hot coals fill the pit halfway. Toss in another layer of stones. Push in the tyrannosaur. Cover meat with a mat to keep out dirt; fronds and palm leaves will work for your mat, but to save time you might want to use carpets. Do not use synthetic materials. Cover the matted tyrannosaur with dirt.

Turkeys usually cook 15 minutes per pound. This scales up to 104 days, but, fortunately, cooking times are nonlinear with weight. A whole steer takes only 24 hours, so 48 should be time enough for a dinosaur. Double check with meat thermometer to be sure it is done.

Dig up tyrannosaur and serve. Feeds 2500 guests.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Hierocles Gets No Respect. He Gets No Respect at All

This past weekend I was in a somber mood (for reasons that are not good blog material), so in an effort to lighten things, I plucked Philolegos (“Laughter-Lover”) off the shelf. It is an ancient joke book.

Joke books go way back. In 4th century BC Athens, aspiring stand-ups called the Group of Sixty met in the temple of Heracles and traded punchlines. Philip of Macedon (Alexander’s dad) stopped to listen and was amused by their routines; I think we can assume none of the jokes were at his expense, at least not to his face. He ordered the jokesters to compile a book of their best knee-slappers. Unfortunately, no copies of this book exist today. Other similar anthologies are mentioned by ancient writers, but the earliest one still in existence is Philolegos. It was published in the late 4th or early 5th century AD though most of the jokes in it surely are far older.

The compilers of this anthology were Hierocles and Philagrius. About Philagrius we know nothing. For centuries, Hierocles was believed to be the Stoic philosopher Hierocles of Alexandria. Nowadays, it is fashionable for scholars to doubt this, but for no good reason that I can see other than the pleasure of being contrary. Not only was Hierocles of Alexandria in the right place at the right time, but he was publicly flogged in Constantinople for being a pagan, which at least proves he had a better sense of humor than the people who ordered the flogging.

Some of the jokes in Philolegos are puzzling to a modern reader. There are ones about public bathhouses that seem to make little sense, but they might be hilarious if we fully understood the Roman bathhouse experience. Lettuce, of all things, plainly had a sexual connotation of some kind; use your own imagination on that one. Yet, most of the jokes are perfectly comprehensible, and about half are funny, which isn’t a bad proportion. Many sound eerily familiar. Examples of parallels with more recent humorists:

Mark Twain:
“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Hierocles and Philagrius:
“I heard you were dead.”
“You see me alive.”
“The person who told me you were dead is more trustworthy than you.”

Groucho Marx:
“Doctor, it hurts when I do this.”
“Don’t do that.”
Hierocles and Philagrius:
“Doctor, I’m dizzy for half an hour after I wake up.”
“Don’t get up for half an hour.”

Monty Python:
“The parrot you sold me is dead!”
“He’s sleeping.”
Hierocles and Philagrius:
“The slave you sold me died!”
“He never did that when I owned him.”

“I slept with your wife.”
“My condolences.”
Hierocles and Philagrius:
“I slept with your wife.”
“Idiot! I have to sleep with her, you don’t.”

This is not an ancient treasure on the order of The Bacchae or The Aeneid, but it offers more smiles than the typical TV sitcom, for whatever recommendation that may be.

Actually, the plots of many TV sitcom scripts can be found in Plautus and Terence, but that is subject matter for another blog.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


In August 1968, I was an insecure 15-year-old waiting for my junior year to begin at my suburban prep school. As a teen, I never was in the groove, as the cool kids of the day were wont to say (unaware the slang was 50 years old even then). Nonetheless, while I assumed I forever would remain outside the In Crowd’s innermost circle, I tried to keep at least aware of current music, movies, and pop culture trends so as not to be a hopeless square; the term “geek” had not been appropriated from carnie vocabulary yet. So, on the music side, I bought and played the vinyl of Cream’s Wheels of Fire with its signature hit “White Room,” Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow (“White Rabbit) and Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends (“Mrs. Robinson”), among other albums. To my surprise, I liked most of them (certainly all three named), though I retained affection for Eric Burden’s already fading star. (Actually, I still like Eric, who continues to record.) I didn’t splurge on Jimi Hendrix until the next year, and then kicked myself for waiting.

In August ’68, however, I slipped a new vinyl album out of its jacket, which was covered with the artwork of Robert Crumb. The album had been getting some buzz. It was Cheap Thrills by Big Brother and the Holding Company. The lead singer was Janis Joplin, whose California notoriety had been given a national boost by articles in Time the previous April. I fitted the record onto the stereo turntable and watched the diamond needle drop. I wasn’t sure I liked what I was hearing in the first number, “Combination of the Two” – a peculiar psychedelic rocking-blues sound with mindless lyrics – but the second track, “I Need a Man to Love,” intrigued me, as did Janis’ rendition of “Summertime.” The fourth number, “Piece of My Heart,” which became her first big hit, blew me away. I flipped over the vinyl disc (literally and figuratively) and listened until the end of "Ball and Chain" when the Fillmore West staff can be heard dismissing the audience. It was rare then, as it is now, for me to sit through an album – I don’t mean as background music but as the center of attention – from start to finish without a break. I did with Cheap Thrills, and not for the last time.

Popular music in 2010 tends to be technically polished and very visual, typically with jaw-droppingly attractive singers and dancers; the elaborately choreographed imagery often is far more memorable than the sound or lyrics, which range from airy to cynical to downright brutal. This is so unlike the 1960s. It is certainly unlike the un-pretty yet appealing Janis, who, in frowzy attire, simply walked on stage and sang her heart out. She was rough, ragged, unpolished, and very effective. Most of her songs are about giving 100% to love and facing the pain when that goes wrong, as it almost always does. There is something about this romantic excess which appeals especially to adolescents – and to those who retain an adolescent spirit into later life. (In this context, I for once don’t use the term “adolescent” as an insult.) It appealed to me in 1968, and four of her cds are on my shelf today.

Janis belonged so much to her time that it is hard to see many teens today being able to relate to her. But could a similar rough-cut give-it-your-all blues singer of this generation find an audience alongside the highly produced likes of Katy Perry or Lady Gaga? I don’t know. Hey, I was playing catch-up in 1968, never mind 2010, but maybe the idea isn’t so outlandish.

The dark side to Janis – also very 1960s but not unique to them – was substance abuse, to which, regrettably, she also gave her all. She died, at the age of 27, in October 1970 from a lethal mix of Southern Comfort and heroin.

All this was brought to mind by a recent showing of Janis (1974) on the Ovation Channel, no doubt commemorating the 40th anniversary of her death. For fans of Janis Joplin, this is a wonderful film. It is just Janis in concert interspersed with some interviews. If you’re not yet a fan, this movie probably is too much for too long. Become a fan first. Start with Cheap Thrills, Pearl, or one of the collections such as The Essential Janis Joplin. Then, maybe, you’ll be ready for the movie.

So, tonight I’m toasting Janis (Southern Comfort without the mixer), to Kozmic Blues.

Janis singing "Get It While You Can" on the Dick Cavett Show in June 1970, four months before her death.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Over There

Thursday of this week is the holiday originally designated as Armistice Day, marking the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when the guns stopped firing in the War to End War. To hardly anyone’s surprise – certainly not that of the veterans of the conflict – the war did not end war. So, in 1954 the day was expanded to recognize veterans of all wars, which is fair enough. The legacy of World War One, however, remains special.

Only one US veteran of WW1 is alive today: 109 year-old Frank Woodruff Buckles of West Virginia. He was sent to France in 1918 where he served with the Army's 1st Fort Riley Casual Detachment, which was a medical unit, not, as one might think, a pretty laid-back bunch of guys. (Frank later survived 39 months in a Japanese prison camp, but that was another war and another time.) Frank is the last American – and one of the few people anywhere – to have witnessed WW1 first hand as a soldier, but the events of 1914-18 still matter to the rest of us.

It takes at least a century to get past a really big war. Consider the American Civil War. As late as the presidential election of 1968, a regional candidate won the electoral votes of five Southern States over issues unresolved in 1865. In a similar way, World War One has yet to release its grip in 2010. Referencing a catchy wartime slogan, a sour (and accurate) joke in the 1920s and 1930s was that the war made the world safe for fascism and communism. The struggles for and against those ideologies dominated the rest of the 20th century. In the 21st century, we are still embroiled in the aftermath of the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire by the victors of WW1. The Great War still matters.

None of the ongoing turmoil is the fault of the 61,526,000 soldiers mobilized by all belligerents in the war, 9,721,937 of whom (including 116,708 Americans), by official count, were killed – almost surely an undercount. Civilian deaths, not counting those from disease, only can be estimated, but are often put at 8,000,000. They deserved better from the politicians who squandered first their lives and then the peace. They still do, and so do we. If and when we finally wrap up World War One, perhaps we can turn our attention to finishing up World War Two.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Low Bow to High Brow

Mark Twain famously defined a classic as something everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read.

The same holds true for movies. As an experiment, George Loewenstein and Daniel Read handed out vouchers for free movie rentals. Some of the vouchers had to be used that very night while others were for the following week. Upon being handed a voucher, each person had to choose a film from either a high-brow category (such as Schindler's List) or a low-brow category (such as Austin Powers).

When the voucher was for next week, participants overwhelmingly picked high-brow films they thought they should see. When the vouchers were for that very night, they overwhelmingly picked low-brow films. In other words, when faced with the imminent prospect of actually having to watch a movie, they chose mindless entertainment. Perhaps they thought something like this: “I’m really highly cultured, you know, but I’m just in the mood for something light at this particular moment. By next week I’m sure I will be my usual weighty self.”

It is hard to begrudge such self-delusions. They cost little and help us feel better about ourselves in a world where most things cost plenty and where our self-esteem is battered at every turn. So, kindly leave unchallenged the cultured poses of our fellow humans. The kinder ones among them will keep mum for us, too.