Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Baby you're a firework

Well first off, I took a vacation today and I am a very happy puppy. I slept in, finished watching the David Tennant Hamlet (brilliant, but more on that another day), and now I'm eating tortilla chips for breakfast while blogging. Glam, I know. 
Last month, I heard a story from NPR's On the Media about the power of metaphor. Researchers at Stanford wanted to see just how powerful metaphors were at framing experience, and so they set out to test it. They took two groups of people, and asked them to discuss the problem of crime in the fictional city of Addison. One group was told that crime was a beast ravaging the city of Addison. The other group was told that crime was a virus ravaging the city. Then they asked participants to say what they thought should be done about the problem.
They found that people given the beast metaphor were more likely to suggest more police enforcement, more jails. The people with the virus metaphor suggested more social reform, better schools, and so on. 
Studies like this always make me wonder, are our minds really that weak? Really that mailable? Were I a study participant, would I be so easily swayed? I use similes and metaphors a lot to get my point across; now I wonder if I'm even more effective at it than I think I am. 
The thing about metaphors is that they help our minds wrap around an abstract concept. Like once, I asked my husband the difference between RAM and ROM. He told me that ROM was like a library and RAM was like a librarian who goes and finds you books. That is how I will always remember it. We teach kids to tie their shoes by telling them that the bunny goes around the tree (or some nonsense like that, I remember being utterly confused and then going back to Velcro). 
In Vivian Cook's book All in a Word, she points out that we use metaphors even more often than we think we do. When we're happy, our spirits are up, and when we're sad, our hearts sink. Tom Waits is Big in Japan, and when I get mad, I throw a fit (and I do. It's a sight to behold. You do not want to be on the receiving end of that mess). We eat square meals and try to get square deals and when we win, we swear we did it fair and square. Bodybuilders have guns, I've got muffin tops, and J Lo has a lot of junk in her trunk.

Some of my favorite metaphors:
In Twelfth Night, Feste says the following to Orsino:

Now, the melancholy god protect thee; and the
tailor make thy doublet of changeable taffeta, for
thy mind is a very opal.

He's slyly calling Orsino fickle. As a side note, my Acting Shakespeare prof was always fond of pointing out that jesters used to carry mirrors around and hold them up to the faces of the people they were entertaining. Another type of metaphor.

In the last line of Last Thoughts on Woodie Guthrie, maybe my favorite poem ever, Bob Dylan talks of looking for hope, and he says:

And it ain't in the marshmallow noises of the chocolate cake voices
That come knockin' and tappin' in Christmas wrappin'
Sayin' ain't I pretty and ain't I cute and look at my skin
Look at my skin shine, look at my skin glow
Look at my skin laugh, look at my skin cry
When you can't even sense if they got any insides
These people so pretty in their ribbons and bows

Garfunkel and Oats use these similes One Night Stand
I'm like Fred Flintstone; I make your bed rock
you're like a parking ticket, so fine
Jean Claude van Daaammn, you're sexy
Let's get horizontal and combine

And of course, Atticus Finch tells us it's a sin to kill a mockingbird. Because all mockingbirds do is make beautiful music for people.

These are fireworks.

Edit: One of my favorite quotes from any movie ever was Jack Nicholson in As Good as it Gets: "People who speak in metaphors oughta shampoo my crotch."
He can say that. He's the man.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it**

I am deeply troubled by this news story*. Seems the bastards from the Westboro Baptist Church descended on Brandon, Mississippi to preach their gospel of hate outside the funeral of service member Staff Sgt. Jason Rogers, killed in Afghanistan.
Rather than take it lying down, several folks in the town brutally beat one of the protesters when he showed up from Kansas a few days before the funeral. Then a caravan of pickup trucks showed up the morning of the protest at the motel where the protesters were staying, and blocked in anyone with Kansas plates. Protesters who did make it to the protest site were taken to the police station to be questioned about a non-existent crime until after the funeral.
What upsets me about this is that I hate, and I don't use that word lightly, I hate the Westboro Baptist Church and everything they stand for. If one of them was standing in front of me, I'd want to kick his ass and take his first amendment rights away too. But there's the rub. The first amendment.
The stuff the folks of Brandon Mississippi pulled is exactly the same crap that police and other folk pulled on the civil rights protesters in the 60s. The stuff folks did in Brandon Mississippi is a down-and-out violation of the first amendment and as sick as it makes me to say it, that's not right. That's not American. I think.
I've been thinking lately about the other stuff people do about Westboro Baptist Church folk and others. UUs, and probably others, have this non-violent approach wherein they'll stand in front of the protesters with positive, loving signs of their own, or holding giant golf umbrellas, or wearing giant white wings (which I suspect was a tactic used to skirt a rule that you can't use a sign to block another protester's sign or something like that). Does that deny protesters their first amendment rights too?
I don't know, and it's late, but that's just on my mind. The first amendment even applies to evil, vile, hateful assholes. Else we could just brand everyone vile, hateful assholes if we didn't want to hear them. 
But maybe we could suspend the first amendment just this once. What do ya say?

* Note: I'm having trouble finding the story on any of the standard news Web sites, so I can't actually vouch for its veracity. I find the lack of news coverage or reputable first-hand accounts suspicious.
** Voltaire. I'm smart. See? I just quoted Voltaire.

The photo is the work of an Andrew Line. You can tell because it's awesome.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dough a dear

I'm not feeling the blog tonight, I'm feeling Glee. The 90 minute season finale of Glee, no less. So now I'm thinking music.
It just occurred to me to wonder where the heck do re mi fa sol la ti do comes from. Wikipedia tells me that do re me is called solfège in French or solfeggio in Italian, named after the phonemes sol and fa. Wikipedia further tells me that solfège is a pedagogical solmization, which sounds kind of like something somebody would make up to sound smart. Pedagogical means something like teaching-related, and a solmization is a musical scale sung with a distinct syllable for each note. In Arabic, they sing, dāl, rā', mīm, fā', ṣād, lām, tā, and in South China, they sing 上, 尺, 工, 凡, 六, 五, 乙 , which sounds like siong, cei, gong, huan, liuo, ngou, yik.
Solmization, by the way, is named for sol and mi.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Buffoonery is a great word

I heard a story on NPR about Spike Lee's public criticism of fellow black filmmaker, Tyler Perry. Lee says the "buffoonery" of Perry's films, shows, and plays, sends a negative message about black people to white people and reinforces stereotypes. Now, I like Spike Lee and his films, but the guy gets a little preachier every day, and it's getting old. I've never seen anything, besides commercials, with Tyler Perry in them, but it does seem like the sort of humor that causes your IQ to drop while you watch it.
But the story got me to thinking whether people who write about minorities, or even majorities, have a responsibility to modulate their messages based on the fact that they're somehow speaking for all of their people. It's not a simple question. Am I representing all women, all Irish people, all people with mental illness when I write? No. But I do try to keep in mind that I may be the only "out" person with a mental illness that folks know, and I do try to not to behave or write in a stereotypically bipolar way. I try not to be strident in my liberalism, elitist in my Unitarianism, nor drunken in my Irishism.
And rather than seeing that as unfair - that I have to modulate my behavior because people might take me as a representative of "my people," or whatever, I see it as an opportunity. Because everybody knows the Irish drink. Not everybody knows that the Irish in both Ireland and America were some of the most ardent slavery activists. But that doesn't mean I'm going to pretend I don't love me some Jameson's either.
Should Tyler Perry change his work based on the fact that it might reinforce stereotypes of black people? Should Rosanne have changed what she did because it reinforced stereotypes of "white trash"? Should Seinfeld's George Costanza have toned down the penny-pinching, or Marilyn Monroe have worn less revealing clothing? I don't really have an answer.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Here's my whole problem with historical romance: people in olden times stunk. Maybe I'm to literally minded, or maybe my imagination works just a little bit too well, or maybe I'm just the only sane person alive but I tell you something. Cowboys smelled like horse crap. Just think about how all the rotting teeth in dreamy Captain Jack Sparrow's head would smell. And didn't people in Elizabethan England keep on the same clothes for months at a time, or did I make that up? Regardless, you know Romeo hadn't showered in a good five years when he met Juliet. A rose by any other name would smell like a pile of dirty sweat socks. And think about every character Bogey ever played. I mean, remember when smoking was still allowed in bars, how your hair would smell after a night at the bar? That's what Rick Blaine of Casablanca smelled like all the time.
But with Dove's Go Sleeveless campaign, it's possible we've taken the whole personal hygiene thing a little far. So it's this thing where if you use their deodorant for a week, your armpits will cease to be hideous wastelands of filth and you'll finally have the courage to show those ghastly things to the world. Aww, man, my armpits were the last part of my body I wasn't afraid to show in public. Now I find out that they're gross too?
I just read this article about the history of ads that play on women's fears about their bodies. Apparently, Listerine popularized the expression often the bridesmaid, never the bride with their ads that explained to women that they couldn't find a man because their breath smelled bad. Although I think Slate's case about the phrase itself is a little overstated - the saying three times the bridesmaid, never the bride has been around a lot longer than mouthwash.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Please bear with my TL;DR. This is kind of important.
A couple of years ago, when my friend Hillary asked me to start calling him Andrew, I didn't know the world I was about to find myself in. I never had thought much about transgender people before. I don't think I exactly knew what transgender meant. What I had in my head was a mix of stereotypes and half-truths; well-meaning misconceptions. What follows are some vocabulary lessons I've learned. 
Transgender is sort of umbrella term, but I suppose it boils down to referring to someone whose gender identity isn't the same as their physical sex. Some people who are transgender live as women but were born with male genitals, live as men but were born with female genitals, or do not identify with either gender, regardless of their genitals. 
Before I met Andrew, I never realized just how many people fit under the transgender umbrella, nor did I have the slightest understanding, really, of what transgender looked like, in real life. I think the first thing I had to learn was the vocabulary, and so now I'll share some with you.
First, if you're referring to a trans man or trans guy, you're referring to someone who was born with female parts but identifies, dresses, and/or lives as a guy. Trans guys can also be known as female-to-male or F2M. If you're referring to a trans woman or trans girl, you're talking about a person who was born with male parts but identifies, dresses, and/or lives as a girl. Trans girls can also be known as male-to-female or F2M.
A trans woman is not generally the same thing as a drag queen. A drag queen is someone who was born with boy parts and dresses as a woman - usually as a caricature of a woman, for the sake of performance or entertainment. Drag queens don't usually consider themselves or live as women. There is a certain amount of contention between drag queens and other sorts of trans women because the visibility of drag queens causes a lot of people, like I did, to think that most or all trans women wear sequins, absurd makeup, and massive wigs. Most trans women dress in regular old girl clothes. I also always thought trans women were young for some reason, whereas many of the trans ladies I know are middle aged or older and dress just like any other mom or grandma. 
Cross-dresser is a general term for people who wear clothes that are not considered appropriate for the gender they were born to. This word has largely replaced transvestite.
Cross-dressers and other folks who identify with a gender other than their own aren't necessarily attracted to people of the gender opposite to the one with which they identify. Which is to say, it's perfectly common for a trans woman to be attracted to and have relationships with other women, or a trans man to be attracted to and have relationships with other men.
So pronouns. This is a tough one, and people under the transgender umbrella have all sorts of different notions about pronoun usage. The best way to select a gender pronoun for a trans person is to ask him or her what he or she prefers. Most trans people I've met are pretty patient with the pronoun thing, but most prefer that they be referred to by the gender with which they identify - so you'd call a trans woman she and a trans man he. There are also gender-neutral pronouns, ghe and gher or ze and zer, but they aren't all that commonly used. They're awkward to say and hard to remember.
Some trans people say that they were born in the wrong body. However, many others think that this is the wrong way of looking at it - that it emphasizes the idea of the trans person as a victim or an accident. Those people are not saying that being trans is a choice, rather that using born in the wrong body language frames the experience in a negative light. I guess that makes sense; most people change their body to bring it more in line with how they see themselves. That doesn't mean their bodies were wrong in the first place, just that they needed to see themselves on the outside as they see themselves on the inside.
There are lots of reasons for transgenderism. It's more common than you'd think for a trans woman, for instance, to have been born with the outdoor plumbing of a guy, but the indoor plumbing of a girl - for example, sometimes it turns out that a trans woman, who externally looks like a guy, has a uterus and an ovary or two. Sometimes, the hormones are to blame - folks with boy plumbing can be born with the hormones of a woman and vice versa. Chromosomal abnormalities can also be a factor. The DSM currently says that transgender folks have gender identity disorder, but many trans folks argue that being transgender isn't a disorder. However, in a lot of places, a psychiatrist must diagnose a person with gender identity disorder before a doctor is allowed to begin gender reassignment therapy.
Gender reassignment therapy does not just refer to the sex change operation. In fact, many trans people never have the full surgery (usually called bottom surgery, as opposed to top surgery, which refers to mastectomy or breast implants) - it's insanely expensive and hard to procure, not to mention physically traumatic. Gender reassignment therapy can include the use of hormone replacement therapy, or hrt
So that's kind of a nutshell. There's a ton I didn't get to. I guess what I want people to carry away from this is that transgenderism isn't a rarity or a freak-show. I also want people to understand that it's not easy. My trans friends go through hell and back just to be allowed to be who they are. Some trans folks have insults or threats of hell thrown at them every day. Some are afraid to leave their own homes dressed the way they feel comfortable dressing. The process of transitioning is frightening, difficult, and sometimes dehumanizing, and it takes incredible courage. Being trans gender isn't about trying to be different, it's about trying to be oneself. I think what it would feel like to have society shrieking at me that the way I choose to look is bad or wrong. Hundreds of trans people are murdered every year, many here in America, just for dressing in the "wrong" clothing. Just last month, Marcal Camero Tye was shot and then drug behind a car in the early morning hours in Arkansas.  My Andrew does this particular topic a lot more justice than I:

Catalyst (in memoriam)
By: Andrew Line
8 APR 11

Marcal was 25.
On the mornign of March 8th,
between the hours of 2 and 5 a.m.,
they shot her... twice,

dragged her down the highway
and dumped her on the side of the road.
And, even in her death,
the media could not grant her the last dignity
of using the correct pronouns.

"A man wearing women's clothing was found dead,"
they said, as if she had it comming
for daring to be different in a way
that made people so uncomfortable.

I watched the sheriff hold her at arm's length
between phobic fingertips.
His face said
that the rancid stench of her sunrise-rotted flesh
was the epitome of everything wrong with the world.

And as I cried for my sister,
this bitch had the ignorance to tell me not to take it personally;
after all, "People are murdered every day."
That's easy for you to say!
Sometimes, I swear, no one but us gives a fuck!

Maybe if she were murdered for being a mundane,
whitewashed suburbanite, people would pay attention.
Every time we lose another,
I can't fathom why we're not rioting!

I used to know a girl who named all the lobsters in the tank
so I couldn't eat them.
Would it help if I brought you a list of the victims?!

Dino Huansi was 28.
She was stabbed to death and left
in a road-side dump.

Amanda Gonzalaz was strangled.

An unidentified trans-woman who's body was never claimed
was dismembered and mutilated.
Another was beheaded.

Branda was burned to death,

Selma was drowned

and 16-month-old Roy Antonio Jones III
of Southampton, New York
was beaten to death
by his mother's boyfriend,
who told the cops he was “trying to make him act like a boy
instead of a little girl.”

How many more have to die before we wake up?!
Well, I am here to tell you, that I HAVE HAD ENOUGH!
Yes, I will continue to jump down your throats
every time you you utter the words
or "tranny,"
or "that's so gay,"
because that is where it starts, and this is where it will end!
It feels like the blood in my veins has been replaced
by gasoline,
and that's the Righteous Indignation that we need to take to the streets!

If ever there was a time to take a stand...
it was on the morning of March 8th,
between the hours of 2 and 5 a.m.
Let's not let it happen again.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Gooses, meese, and mongeese

The plural of goose is geese. A girl goose is a goose. A boy goose is a gander.
The name comes from the Proto-Indo-European root word ghans. I'm going to cut and paste a paragraph about the name origin directly from Wikipedia because it's a neat example of a commonality between bunch of exceptionally disparate languages. I often have a hard time wrapping my brain around the fact that all these languages can be related, and this example helps:
In Germanic languages, the root gave Old English gōs with the plural gēs and gandra (becoming Modern English goosegeese, and gander, respectively), New High German GansGänse, and Ganter and Old Norse gās. This term also gave Lithuanian žąsìs, Irish  (swan, from Old Irish géiss), Latin anser, Greek chēn, Albanian gatë (heron), Sanskrit hamsá, Avestan zāō, Polish gęś, Russian гусь, Czech husa, Slovak hus, and Persian ghāz.
Right? Holy bananas. Geese are foul-tempered things (pun only sort of intended) that would, I assure you, bite your eyes out given the opportunity. My high school had lots of them, and during hatching season, things could get ugly. "Geese in my way" was a legit excuse for being late to class. Except when you used it every day.

The plural of moose is moose. A boy moose is a bull and a girl moose is a cow. Which is silly, because everyone knows a cow is a cow and not a moose. Side by side comparison. C'mon. The scientific name for moose is Alces alces, from the Latin for Elk. Because in England, moose are elk and elk are... something else. I don't know what name the English have for the thing we call an elk, but given that Elk are native to a small part of the US and Asia, far away from England, I suppose it's possible the English have never heard of elk. Unlikely, but possible. Come to think of it, I don't know what name the English have for what we call pudding. Maybe they've never heard of pudding.
Moose is a native American word, meaning moose.

Holy crap, these things are cute. Don't you just want to take the little guy home? I bet he'd cuddle with you all night, and then take care of your snake problem. Because they're awesome like that. Way better than stupid cats that puke on everything you love and wake you up in the morning by biting your elbows. *Glares at sleeping cat. Then bites sleeping cat's elbow.*
The plural of mongoose is mongooses. I'm not sure what a boy mongoose is called, although more than one online resource claims that girl mongooses are called teriyaki biscuit. Let's have a hand for the Internet.
There are actually 30 some species of critters called mongooses, all members of the family herpestidae, which sounds like a disease I recently had. Mongoose comes from an Indian word, mangus, and is etymologically unrelated to goose. Say etymologically out loud. You'll thank me later.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Noisy desparation

I wrote a post about this over the weekend, then decided I hadn't quite done it justice and took it down. I'm not sure if I'll do it justice this time either.
I want to talk about self-injury. As I mentioned in this post,  the term emo, a slang term descended from emocore, a music genre, can also refer to someone who cuts herself.
Emo's a new thing that teenage girls do for attention, right? 
Despite what folks believe, self-injury is nothing new. It's a symptom of just about every major mental illness, although cutting seems to have gotten more popular these days. Among both boys and girls, I assure you. Far more common are things like head smacking and wrist-banging, habits that leave considerably less evidence, but are arguably more hazardous to the health. And actually, I'm not sure cutting is all that much more popular. I think it's possible that a person or two stopped being ashamed of their scars, and before long, self-injurers began shedding the pounds of concealing clothing, not letting their illness control what they wore anymore.
I kind of used to think that folks who were open about their self injury were maybe just showing off a little. Going for attention. And then I realized that it's possible I felt that way because seeing people who were comfortable with who they were made me feel uncomfortable. 
And I'll tell you this. Nobody self-injures for attention. People might self-injure and enjoy the attention they get from it, but there's always something underneath it. Folks without serious problems will learn to tap dance if they want attention so badly. 
People always say that self-injury is a cry for attention. And if it is, doesn't that indicate that the injurer really, really needs some kind of attention? I mean, I've known people who self-injured who milked it for every ounce of attention they could get. But I've never known a self-injurer who didn't have something terrible to cut over.
And another thing. They say that failed suicide attempts are nothing but a cry for help. If someone's crying for help that loudly, wouldn't it be a good idea to, you know, help them?
I guess what I'm saying is the world would probably be better if people spent less time coming up with ways to dismiss folks with problems and more time helping them. Us.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

I should be writing

I have piles and piles of notebooks, cheap and spiral bound; journals. I started my first journal when I was ten, after reading Harriet the Spy. Harriet had a speckled composition notebook, and so I did too, and I wrote in it every day. Or I think I did. At least I tried. From fifth grade until college I always had a speckled composition book, and sometimes I wrote pages and pages a day, and sometimes I went months without writing. I'd say I wrote one a year, and that seemed like a lot. I still have them all, here and there. They have names. One is Back there Someday, after the song from The Muppet Movie. I don't remember ever not loving this song. I think it may predate Bruce.

One is Ask Me, from the poem by William Stafford. I'm not sure what it means, or I'm not good at putting it into words. But it means something now, and it meant everything then.

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

One is called Her Kind, after the Anne Sexton poem. Once in a poetry class we had to write a poem piggybacking another, more famous poem. I wrote one piggybacking Anne Sexton's version below. It was the best poem I've ever written by far and utterly worthless to me by virtue of its skeleton belonging to someone else.

I have gone out, a possessed witch,   
haunting the black air, braver at night;   
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch   
over the plain houses, light by light:   
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.   
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.   
I have been her kind.

I have found the warm caves in the woods,   
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,   
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:   
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.

I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,   
learning the last bright routes, survivor   
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.   
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.   
I have been her kind.

In college, I took a writing class with Sr. Mary Dennis. It just occurred to me that the teachers who have most inspired me to find my voice as a writer have been nuns. I wonder what that means. Anyway, I took this class and we read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, who deserves her own post some day soon. It's a book about journaling, or more appropriately, writing practice. She says her personal goal is to fill a notebook a month. I was like "Seriously lady?" Granted I was taking 18 credit hours and had three jobs, the idea of filling a notebook a month was a little on the preposterous side. But for about a year, up until September of 2010, according to the entry I'm looking at just now, I did just that. Speckled composition books got too unwieldy for the speed writing I was doing, so I got the spiral kind, with Hello Kitty and Chococat and Butterflies. Stacks of words and words and words.
Natalie writes a notebook a month, no matter what else she's working on. To which I say, "Seriously, lady?" I've been writing a novel since roughly September of 2010. Granted I spend 40 hours a week writing at work, and I've got the blog, and then I've got to squeeze in noveling, but I do feel something missing, like my writing would be better if I were still journaling. 
Stephen King says he tries not to spend more than six weeks on each book. Granted, in some of those books, it really shows, but man... I don't see myself being done with the thing by September of 2011. I'll be thanking my lucky stars if I finish before April 2012.
All of which makes me wonder whether I'm doing this thing right.
Funny, though. My novel's a thriller, a mystery, a romance. Exactly the sort of thing I would have considered selling out, back in my intellectual English major days. It's not Art, you know. But it's what came to me. It's the story my mind wants to tell.
I'm being all sorts of rambly and not so much with the informativity. Ah well. I'm a writer. It's my prerogative to ramble.
I'm a writer, dude. Saying that never, ever gets old. I'm a writer.

My first tattoo

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

gorilla gorilla gorilla gorilla gorilla gorilla gorilla gorilla gorilla gorilla gorilla gorilla

The Western Lowland gorilla is a very special gorilla indeed. You see, all gorillas belong to the genus gorilla and the species Gorilla. Western Lowland gorillas belong to the sub-species gorilla, making them gorilla gorilla gorillas. But from where do we get the name gorilla? Well, that's a story so depressing it rather takes the wind out of my gorilla gorilla gorilla sails.
Once upon a time, there was this dude named Hanno, who was a navigator from Carthage. In exploring the Northwest coast of Africa, he and his men ran across a race of people that their translators called Gorrilae. They were wild, hairy, and savage, so naturally the Hanno and his boys snatched up some of the women and skinned them. Like one does.
And then the missionary Thomas Savage finds some gorilla specimens in 1847 and goes "Hey, you know that appalling story from random ancient Carthaginian history that I just happen to know off the top of my head? Let's name these guys after that."
Can't something be whimsical just once?

Monday, April 4, 2011

What's your sign?

Some years back, B.F. Skinner did an experiment in which he gave food to a pigeon at random intervals. The pigeon, not being in any way in control of when the food came, began to assign meaning to random behaviors of his - if he was standing on one foot the last time he got fed, he'd stand on one foot. If he was pecking the ground the last time he got fed, he'd stand on one foot and peck the ground. He became, essentially, superstitious.
Later studies have revealed that the less control humans have over their own lives, the more superstitious we become. When people are put in a clinical setting in which they don't have control over their environment, they're more likely to see hidden messages in abstract pictures, for example.
This explains a lot for me... and gives me a new contempt for people who exploit this. I have fibromyalgia, if you're not aware. It's a disease that, for reasons that doctors are still working to totally pin down, makes you feel achy - like you're coming down with the flu, or just got brutally beaten the night before - all the time. I've actually got it really well in hand these days, but there used to be these endless strings of sleepless nights where I'd be up, aching and pacing because it hurt too much to lie still, trying every remedy I could. If you weren't aware, the middle of the night is when they start showing these infomercials for magnetic bracelets and magic shoe inserts and herbal remedies that will take all of your pain away like magic, and damn, those stupid things are cruel. When you're in so much pain that you go for days with almost no sleep, you'll start believing a lot of things no sane person would.
A slightly less evil, in my opinion, phenomenon that plays on the credulity of insomniacs is a radio show called Coast to Coast AM.  It's a radio show that runs in the wee hours of the morning, and it's all about the supernatural. I think it's less evil because they're not selling you anything, and everyone who works on the show seems to really believe in Bigfoot and black helicopters and alien probings and it's kind of adorable. I used to love that show. On it, everything in the tabloids is just assumed to be true. What's really funny is when people combine the myths - like black helicopters dropping chupacabras into the countryside so as to guard against alien abductors. Okay, I made that up, but it's not nearly as outlandish as some of the stuff on that show.
Chupacabras, by the way, is Spanish for goat sucker, because they're believed to suck the blood of goats. The chupacabras myth has a lot more than a grain of truth to it. They don't suck blood, but there is a disease out there that affects coyotes, causing them to go bald and gross and act all crazy. 
A depressing number of people in poverty believe that they can, if they work really hard at it, divine the winning pick 3 lotto numbers, so much so that they'll spend several dollars a day on lottery tickets even though the top prize is only $250 bucks, money they could easily make in a couple of months just by not buying the freaking lottery tickets. This site tells me that there are only 3,600 astronomers in the US, but 15,000 astrologers. I find the latter number suspiciously low, though.
That site also tells me something more interesting though. That 25% of people who attend sports games believe their presence has some effect on the outcome of the game. And who doesn't say that at times. Oh, the Indians score a home run every time I leave to go to the bathroom, or the Browns always lose when I attend a game (news flash, the Browns always lose, period). Which makes perfect sense in light of the fact that fans have absolutely no control over the game, and that helplessness makes them want to feel like they've got some power.
Also, think about the professions whose practitioners tend to be more superstitious - athletes, sailors, and actors. There are a million things in any of those professions that could go wrong, things totally out of the control of the individual, and so they come up with strange routines to help them cope. Not changing their socks, not saying "good luck," etc. By the way, the reason it's bad luck to whistle in a theatre? Probably because people who worked the riggings up in the fly lofts used to communicate by whistle, so whistling might just confuse a rigger into dropping a fly on your head.

A few new vocab words for you, related to the theme:
Cryptozoology: Study of animals rumored, but not proved to exist - Nessy, the Yeti, etc.
Psychomancy: Communication between spirits.
Cold Readings: Very sneaky trick in which a supposed psychomancer uses mind tricks to make people think they're talking to their dead relatives, ala John Edwards of Crossing Over fame. You can learn more about the tricks cold readers play here.

To those of you who have inquired about my health, I tell you what, I'm naming my firstborn Valtrex. I'm seriously 100% fine. 

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Who's on Stage?

And now, the origins of some of my favorite band names. Gleaned from interviews I've heard or read over the years:

They Might Be Giants
These guys are my husband's favorite band (of course). Their name comes from Don Quixote - Don Quixote is preparing to go to battle with some windmills. When asked why, he replies "They might be giants."
The band, being a favorite among freaks and geeks like me, used to resist being considered a band for nerds, because they thought it insulting to their fans. Which reminds you that not long ago, nerd used to be an insult. Now it's a thing the prom queens claim to have been so that people will think they are cool. Even though they probably spent most of high school making nerds' lives a living hell.

Jeremy and I danced to this as the first song at our wedding. We're that nerdy.

The Barenaked Ladies is a very silly name for a band, and the name came about in a very silly way. The band's founders were bored at a concert, and entertaining themselves by making up ridiculously bad band names, one of which was The Barenaked Ladies. Later, when they were about to play together at a battle of the bands, they were asked for a band name, and one of them replied Barenaked Ladies because that's all he could think of.
On a related note, Stan Lee has claimed that the name for the World War II-based comic series Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos got their name as the result of a bet between he and another Marvel Comics exec; that Lee could not make a success of a comic book with the stupidest name he could think of. Lee tells a fanciful story, but I suspect the name was at least partially inspired by one General Holland McTyeire "Howlin' Mad" Smith, a famous WWII general.
Lee, incidentally, also claims that one of the Howling Commandos, Percy "Pinky" Pinkerton, whose first appearance was in 1964 was Marvel's first gay character. This, too, might be Lee revising history, but Marvel Comics did have one of the first openly gay comic book characters, Northstar, who came out of the closet around 1991. Marvel has very often used the X-Men and other hero groups as an allegory for the gay rights movement, just as they did with the civil rights movement in the 1960s. I think that's pretty brave of them, standing up for what they believe to be right without concern for popularity. You could probably see it in a more cynical light, but why?

Led Zeppelin
The band was once called The New Yardbirds. Legend has it that when the band was searching for a new name, Keith Moon, drummer for The Who, said that the name New Yardbirds would go over like a lead zeppelin. Wikipedia tells it differently, but I like the version I heard better.
I don't know how The Who got their name, but I do know that this is one of the funniest bits in cartoon history: