Dear England: This is our “culture” (*shudder*)

August 8, 2009

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Dear friends in England:

You have had many questions about the redneck American carnivals known as county fairs. These are not — I repeat not — like Scarborough Fair. I’ve tried explaining to some of you what we here in the States consider “culture,” and you’ve reacted with all the appropriate disgust. But more than not you’ve reacted with dumbfounded disbelief that such a thing could exist.

Let me try to give you the run-down, so you can understand our yokel ways.

County fairs are a uniquely Midwestern institution wherein city folk travel to small towns and brave the overpowering smell of feces to watch bumpkins in bib overalls show off prize farm animals. Fairs are typically divided into five distinct areas: First, there are the animal barns, where after petting said cute beasts the highest bidders are able to purchase them for slaughter.

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My wife was particularly fond of this litter of piglets, and was worried for the runt of the litter, which she was afraid was not receiving enough of its mother’s milk. Lisa also was overheard remarking, “Wow, look at the size of that horse wiener,” on more than one occasion. She made me traipse twice through a petting zoo where we fed carrot sticks to deer, red kangaroos, pygmy goats, a water buffalo, and a bearded pig.

The second area of a county fair holds the carnival rides and booths, which are typically dangerous, nauseating, and staffed by toothless vagrants. We don’t frequent these. At all. Ugh. Dirty.

Our primary goal when visiting the fair is to run rampant through the third area: The food booths. Imagine a magical street where any food you can imagine can be deep fried and coated with magical sugar for outlandish prices. We’re talking deep-fried vegetables, deep-fried Twinkies, deep-fried rice, donuts, french fries, deep-fried cheese on a stick, deep-fried cheesecake, corndogs, funnel cakes (deep-fried dough), elephant ears (more deep-fried dough), deep-fried steak on a stick, deep-fried chicken in a pita,deep-fried Oreos, deep-fried potato chips….

This is me eating a deep-fried Milky Way bar, which was like a sickeningly sweet fudge pastry and made me want to simultaneously vomit and run in circles for an hour.

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The fourth area are open-air barns that serve two purposes: A) to show off artistic works being judged, and B) for local vendors to hawk their crap — everything from massages to tires to political ideals to cutlery.

The fifth and final area is the stadium, where there are not only musical acts (mostly country music bull) but also big attractions such as horse races, demolition derbies, and tractor pulls. The later, dear Brits, are very loud demonstrations of horsepower where over-beefed engines are forced to strain through mud whilst dragging weights.

Summer is fair season, and in the backwoods towns of Ohio each county holds its own. If our arteries can withstand the increased oil instake, we’ll be hitting up at least one more fair this summer — with pictures to follow. I’ll try to give you more hillbillyisms ASAP.

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At the zoo, I’m a little kid again

May 25, 2009

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FROM JASON’S SAFARI — Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo. I do believe it’s true.

The monkeys stand for honesty,
Giraffes are insincere,
And the elephants are kindly but
They’re dumb.
Orangutans are skeptical
Of changes in their cages,
And the zookeeper is very fond of rum.

Zebras are reactionaries,
Antelopes are missionaries,
Pigeons plot in secrecy,
And hamsters turn on frequently.
What a gas! you gotta come and see
At the zoo.

A favorite song.

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I’m a sucker for the zoo, but I have a tendency to lecture.

“That’s not a monkey, Kim,” I corrected my sister-in-law today at the Cleveland MetroParks Zoo as she marveled at an orangutan. “Monkeys have prehensile tails, while apes are adapted to living on the ground rather than in trees and typically have legs and backs longer than their legs. Apes are universally more intelligent than monkeys, able to use very basic symbolic language and even devise tools.”

I got an icy look.

I can’t help it. I grew up on National Geographic World magazine, watching lots of the society’s television specials (narrated by B.J. Honneycut from M*A*S*H). My grandmother bought me ZooBooks — which I fawned over for years — and family trips to the zoo were common when I was young.

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My wife and I have made a hobby of zoo-hopping, too. We frequent the Cleveland zoo about twice a year, and also hit up the Columbus, Toledo, Fort Wayne, and Indianapolis zoos. I’m looking to add Cincinnati, Akron, and Pittsburgh to the regional ones we hit pretty soon.

When we get inside, I become a dweeb. One of my earliest memories is visiting the Philadelphia Zoo (all I can remember is one particular goat), and elementary school trips always seemed to land me at Ross Park Zoo in New York. When my family moved to Watertown, N.Y., there was a (small-ish) zoo in the city park about 10 blocks from my house.

I’ve paid attention during every visit. I know things. And I can’t shut up about the polar bears, the dwarf crocodiles, red pandas, wallabies, fennec foxes, agouti, eastern hellbenders, Australian lungfish, marmosets….

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It was packed as Memorial Day crowds surged in, and we were on a schedule because my brother-in-law-to-be had to pull a late-night shift. So we zipped by quite a few of the attractions, while other exhibits were closed (the entire pachyderm building!) for reconstruction. No elephants and hippos today, friends.

The wife wouldn’t even let me tour the animatronic dinosaur walk. I was upset.

Oh well. There will be a next time, as Cleveland is 25 minutes away. And if just the wife and I hoof it alone, there will be time for more zoo picture-taking — a hobby I’ve indulged in for about five years now.

There was still time today to learn a thing or two, though.

Things I learned today at the zoo:

  • The Masai giraffe is the world’s largest land mammal, and can run at speeds in excess of 35 mph.
  • The zoo’s Iranian leopard was a performer for Jack Hannah and appeared many times as a cub on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Night with David Letterman.
  • Andean condors are the world’s longest-lived birds, sometimes surviving up to 50 years.
  • There are fewer than 3,000 black rhinoceroses in the wild.
  • Western lowland gorillas are afraid to cross even the shallowest streams, and so their territories are typically carved more by geography than anything.
  • Brazilian ocelots can be tamed, but have a sticky, extremely smelly urine that makes keeping them as pets extremely difficult.

Oh, the pains I suffer for love

May 20, 2009

FROM JASON’S ETERNAL MAN-IRE — I will premise this by saying that my wife is the smartest, most beautiful woman I have ever met. And that I am deeply afraid of her wrath.

As much as I love her, she does crazy things. They range from batty to full-fledged insane:

She buys pasta sauce based on how pretty the label is.

She will frequently grab the remote, insist on watching a certain show, and then proceed to drift out of the room 10 minutes later. But don’t try changing the channel. She’s still watching that dreadful interior design show on HGTV.

She bellows Britney Spears songs in the shower at 6 a.m.

Rather than use the phone to hold a comprehensive two-minute conversation, she’ll drag me into an hour-long texting fest. It’s not efficient.

She likes to deliver orders to me by talking to our dogs: “Macy, does Daddy know it’s his turn to clean the toilet?”

Her idea of good money management: Constant trips to Dairy Queen to spend $7 on ice cream cones instead of buying a half-gallon at the grocery store for $3.50.

If it isn’t HGTV, it’s a horrendous Bravo reality show. Or worse — The Style Network.

She makes up “cute” names for neighborhood animals, along with elaborate backstories: “That cat running through the field back there is named Mr. WhiteyPinks III. He is going on a trip to see his friend Rufus over at the brown house down the street for a tea party.”

Have you heard the Nannerpuss song? Because I have. On a loop. Since it started airing. Three months ago.

Two words: Speed walking.

“Cleaning” apparently means moving my papers, games, pens, and books into new, arbitrary piles where I can’t find them.

My primary function: bodyguard. Because in any public or private place, she believes she is in danger of being raped, no matter how many potential witnesses are nearby. That makes for a lot of protective trips by her side to the mall.

Putting clothing on animals is not amusing. Except to her.

Neighbors are not meant to be watched, but she keeps a vigilant eye on their every move. The comings and goings of each neighborhood car are carefully documented, as are the dates and times of various lawn-mowings up and down the street. And should a police car arrive at any house within sight, her body goes into spasms of voyeuristic curiosity.

There are pink curtains in my kitchen. Pink. Curtains.


Wallpaper of the Week: AT-AT walkers

April 10, 2009

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FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — The Empire Strikes Back is easily the best of the original (good) Star Wars trilogy, due in large part to the ginormous quadruped attack dogs called AT-ATs.

They only appear for a few brief scenes during the Battle of Hoth, and they’re not strictly dogs, really, but the slow-marching mecha are so animistic that it’s easy to assign them some canine properties. I mean, they’re stomping around with the “head” looking back and forth — you can almost imagine an All Terain Armored Transport wagging its tail (if it had one) as it zeros in on the rebel shield generators.

The wallpaper at the top of the page is typically-brilliant concept art by Ralph McQuarry, who I think is just as responsible for the design success of Star Wars as is George Lucas.

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This one, though, comes from a Flickr set about ATilla the dog in various poses: Getting a bath, wearing a hat, taking long walks on the beach…. Every guy loves dogs. Geeks are no exception; we’re also born with the Old Yeller gene. And a lot of sci-fi (or should I say SyFy?) finds a way to work in man’s best friend, whether it’s Boxey’s daggit in the old Battlestar Galactica, Megaman’s dog Rush, K9 from Doctor Who, the mechanical hound from Farenheit 451, or Chewbacca.

Everybody loves a dog. And any boy born in the early 1980s is going to be infatuated with the idea of mecha — I mean, how many hours did I spend watching RoboTech and Voltron? So mix the two and you get AT-ATs (or the Gobots Command Center).

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But as canine-pomorphic as we’ve made them, the cinematic AT-ATs are still terrifying in an almost zombie-like way, slowly encroaching on the rebels’ hidden base and deploying waves of snow troopers to harry the retreating Alliance soldiers. There’s no escape from their heavy, plodding assault once they land on the horizon.

I first saw the Battle of Hoth when I was four years old, and it remains one of the most captivating sequences I’ve ever seen. If you haven’t ever seen it, take a gander and be amazed:


Spore Creature Creator leaked, my night consumed

June 15, 2008

The Spore Creature Creator Demo has been leaked ahead of time (it’s supposed to launch June 17). Download and try it out. The thing has some kinks, takes some getting used to, is fun to play with, and generally helped me waste two hours tonight. The number of creature parts is limited, but there’s enough there to help spawn a few thousand variations of xeno-whatsits.

I’ve got to say — if the rest of Spore is as engaging as this tiny little portion, it will be well worth the price. So far, I’ve only gotten to play with the tinker-toy part. I can’t wait to get my hands on an actual free-roaming environment with some of these bad boys and see how they interact with other animals.

It will be interesting to see what traits succeed with Spore’s sharing mechanism. What works better in a swamp — lobster claws, insect mandibles, or primate hands? Is speed more important than brute strength? Can a venom spitter beat a serrated horn? Can cyclopians survive well? Are tactile adaptations a sure way to get a dominant species? How much difference do color and markings make?

I can’t wait to see how detailed and in-depth the game designers have gone. I’m usually the kind of guy to wait until the first price drop to buy a game, but I’m getting this one on launch day. Already, I can see it combines everything I loved about Legos with everything cool about evolution. Take that, creationists!

EDIT: Andrew here. Just thought I would add one of my creatures that I created today:


Week of Cartoons – Day 5: Muppet Babies (1984)

March 27, 2008


Part 2 | Part 3

FROM JASON’S RUNAWAY IMAGINATION — If you think you’re too manly or cool to watch Muppet Babies, then you’re probably just an asshole with low self-esteem.

Sure, it was about toddlers modeled on felt puppets. So what? Muppet Babies was brilliant because it was the Robot Chicken of its time — and it had a heart of gold.

The Jim Henson Company (operating under the umbrella of Marvel, surprisingly enough), strung together pop references like candy necklaces. The writers spoofed Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Star Trek, Flash Gordon, The Jetsons, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Back to the Future, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, Adventures in Babysitting, Conan the Barbarian, Lawrence of Arabia, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Oliver Twist, E.T., The Wizard of Oz, Miami Vice, The Lone Ranger, Peanuts, The Twilight Zone, and Family Ties.

And that’s just going from memory. There were a lot more.

In case you missed it, Muppet Babies ran for six years on CBS. At the height of its popularity, the station ran three episodes back-to-back-to-back. Even after the show was cancelled, CBS kept it in reruns until 1992.

The ‘toon followed young versions of Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Scooter, Skeeter (Scooter’s twin sister who was invented just for the show), Rowlf, and Animal. Sometimes they were joined by Bunson and Beaker, Bean, and one time by Janice. They all lived in a nursery and were cared for by a faceless woman called Nanny, who wore green-striped, knee-high socks.

Gonzo was by far the best of the cast. His schtick was bringing the bizarre, the red herring-ed, the geeky, and the sci-fi to the show. When everyone else was imagining pretty traditional or mundane things, he was way out in left field with the most oddball and deviant ideas, and I always identified with that.

Imagination is what Muppet Babies was all about. You’d see the Muppets’ fantasies as if they were real, like daydream sequences but with more substance. They would imagine flying through space. They would imagine building their own amusement parks. They would imagine being in dark dungeons or running from monsters — and they would react as if every single situation were real.

Looking back, this show was tremendously liberating and formative to me. The lessons were obvious: Think for yourself. Don’t be embarrassed to have a rich fantasy life. Creativity is a virtue. Childishness and complex, adult ideas can co-exist. It’s okay to be weird. Ideas can be fun and philosophically deep at the same time. Don’t always take things at face value.

Typing this now, I’m starting to realize this cartoon — this silly children’s show — may have had a strong influence on my early cognitive development, and that could explain a lot about why I’m a professional writer today. Imagination is a right-brain function and that hemisphere is associated with intuition, synthesis, creativity, art, emotion, language, problem-solving, and analysis of conceptual relationships. Those are the tools of my trade.

Of course, you can’t talk about Muppet Babies without discussing mixed media. The show would use live-action footage from movies and television — often from old public domain films or documentaries — right along with the animation. One running gag had Gonzo open the nursery closet to find a live action setting behind it, like Dracula or Alex P. Keaton. Internet legend has it that all of these licensed shots are why the cartoon hasn’t made it to DVD yet.

I would buy all of the seasons. Until then, a couple of awesome people have uploaded lots of episodes to YouTube for us to enjoy. Here are a few links:

Where No Muppet Has Gone Before
Out of This World History
Journey to the Center of the Nursery
The Great Muppet Cartoon Show
Muppet Land


Week of Cartoons – Day 3: TaleSpin (1991)

March 25, 2008

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7
Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12

talespin.jpgFROM JASON’S AIRSHIP FORTRESS — Who is this Baloo of whom you speak? I thought Don Karnage was the star of the show. If we’re being honest, TaleSpin was all about the air pirates.

Plunder & Lightning is the TaleSpin origin story, telling how boy scoundrel Kit Cloudkicker defected from Karnage’s clutches, teamed up with ace pilot Baloo, and saved Cape Suzette from a rain of laser fire and looting.

The show isn’t exactly steampunk, but it’s set in a timeless 1930-ish oceanic world with anthropomorphized bears, apes, tigers, pumas, and dogs. Looking back, I can’t explain how relieved I am that TaleSpin wasn’t just a Jungle Book spin-off set in India and featuring Mowgli. What we got was far superior and reminds me less of Rudyard Kipling and more of Indiana Jones.

P&L hit the TV in 1991 as part of the Disney Afternoon and won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Animation Program. I didn’t care about that; all I wanted was more kinda-noir hijinx. Boy did it ever deliver. It could have gone wrong — Baloo and Kit could have just zipped around against blue skies with zany, fluffy plots.

Instead, the animators put the Sea Duck in dog fights and swooping dives against some of the most incredible cloudscapes you’ve ever seen and actually made you afraid for the characters’ safety on a regular basis. There were also airships, robots, mad scientists, and diminutive Soviet warthogs.

The show was a bundle of pure awesome.

Baloo was an oddity: In a time when muscled action heroes like Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger were cashing in, Baloo was a fat, reluctant adventurer. The pear-shaped bear wanted nothing more to laze in his hammock. He was also a bumbler; his only redeeming qualities were his loyalty to friends and his flying skills.

Kit was awesome, zipping around on his aerofoil and playing Robin to Baloo’s huggable Batman. But I always thought the name Kit Cloudkicker was suspiciously too much like Luke Skywalker. Admittedly, I’m always one to see Star Wars parallels lurking in the shadows.

There are also quite a few Star Trek links to TaleSpin. Tony Jay, the voice of Shere Khan, appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation as Campio of the planet Kostolain, who was engaged to marry Lwuxana Troi, mother of Enterprise counselor Deanna Troi.

R.J. Williams, who voiced Kit Cloudkicker in TaleSpin, was also on TNG as Ian Andrew Troi, Deanna’s father.

Legendary voice actor Frank Welker (Megatron from Transformers), who has more than 550 acting credits on IMDB, helped out in TaleSpin, too. If a cartoon aired without his help, the universe would probably explode. I hear his IMDB resume is almost dense enough to collapse and become a new star. By the way, Welker appeared in an episode of Star Trek: Voyager as a random alien in 1998.