On the Nature of Scary Things

Happy somewhat belated Halloween. The one day of the year when everyone thinks folklorists are cool and listens to what we have to say. Often this is about the origins of Halloween, but I’ve already gone into that way  back in the day when I posted about liminality. So instead, I thought I’d share a spooky story and a short musing on the nature of spooky stories.

I just got back from a conference in New Orleans. New Orleans is an incredible city, but that’s another post. This post is about another guest at the hotel; one of the eternal variety. You see, one of my friends convinced herself her room was haunted and went to the front desk to talk to them about it. While they knew nothing about her room, they did show her a photograph taken by a guest of the fourteenth floor showing the ghost of a little boy who haunts that floor. It was clear and somewhat creepy. I know because I asked to see it.

It probably won’t surprise anyone who knows me at all that my next step was to go to the fourteenth floor and check it out. It was quite late by the time I got there (with another friend). At first I thought we were just doing something silly. It’s hardly my first time looking for ghosts. But in a crowded hotel on a weekend night; I just figured what were the chances he would come out and play?

We were about halfway down the hallway when I remarked to my friend that the hallway “felt” different. She agreed and said her ears were popping. Mine were two. We kept walking. At one point I had to put out a hand to steady myself against the wall because it felt so heavy and my head was swimming. My friend agreed the “heavy” sensation was worse in that part of the hall. Weirder than all of that is the fact that by the time we got to the end of the hall we felt better. It was just that one area; we walked through it four times to make sure.

Now, I don’t know that the dizziness we felt was a ghost or anything supernatural. Maybe there’s unshielded electrical wire there and that’s what was giving off that strange heaviness. Maybe it was all power of suggestion.

But isn’t that exactly why it’s creepy?

As another friend pointed out, it’s that ambiguity which gives supernatural narratives a lot of their appeal. If someone could prove that ghosts exist, they’d become a lot less interesting. They wouldn’t be creepy, they’d just be part of our reality. It’s that unknown that unsettles us.

So maybe the fourteenth floor of our hotel is haunted, maybe it’s not. That’s what makes it a good story.

Movie Review: Please Vote For Me

Title:  Please Vote For Me (2007)

Director:  Weijun Chen

I was all set to plug a Bollywood movie until I turned on a short (58 minute) documentary while I fixed supper.  Please Vote for Me follows a class of elementary school children in China as they experiment with a democratic election for the coveted position of Class Monitor.

It was a completely appropriate choice given that it’s election season around here right now.  The difference is, I found this election far more compelling.

This is a not an overly-slick, Hollywood-ized documentary.  A lot of it is 8 year old kids being 8 year old kids.  Yelling, pouting, fighting, arguing…it’s as real as it gets (and one of these boys is totally going to regret this when he’s a teenager and it gets shown around school with him all up in his undies all the time).   It’s only when you stop to realize that this is China that it gets truly amazing.

Watching the three kids at the center of the election jump into the typical games of politics (back-room negotiations, pushy behavior, gifts to gain favor, empty promises, mud-slinging and general sabotage) you start to wonder if what you’re seeing is the rise of a new way of thinking in China, or if competitive election behavior is just rooted in human DNA.  And it’s not just the kids, the push-to-achieve Chinese parenting style is apparently way more powerful than any loyalty to communist equality as all the parents push their little darlings to practice for each round of the election cycle–some pulling out more stops than others.

It was interesting to watch the way these kids approached the process, and though less heavily featured, it was even more amazing to see the teacher walk them through it.  About the last thing I ever expected was to see a Chinese teacher explaining democracy, and emphasizing the importance of each kid’s vote as their way to control their own destiny.  It would be a throw-away speech for a teacher here, but in a country where the internet is fire-walled by your government and there’s only one party, it becomes a heavy-hitter.

There’s a plain old slice-of-life attraction to it as well.  You follow these kids home and get a little peek at the life of the new “middle class” Chinese family.  And the classroom shots were an eye-opener.  I was surprised that you didn’t see the kids doing all that much school work.  And the way they were wandering around at lunch, in and out of the halls,  doing as they pleased?  That’s not what I expected, especially since the public school classroom where I volunteered in Dallas was a WAY more uniformed, regimented, all-in-a-line kind of place where there was no way a kid set so much as a toe in the hall without being in classroom line, or escorted by a teacher.

Sadly, these kiddos didn’t get much better choices for their leader than you find in most Western elections, so there’s a depressing universality going on here.

It’s an interesting look at both election behavior and at what China is becoming.  The film is not life-changer, but it does inspire a moderate amount of thought.

I give it 3 and a half jars of peanut-butter.

Coffee with Deborah Sampson

Would we drink coffee with Deborah Sampson?

Kristy: Well, having had coffee with most of our founding fathers, I suppose it’s appropriate that I have coffee with one of our founding mothers. Okay, “founding mother” might be something of an exaggeration since she had nothing to do with our country separating from England or in establishing the government after. But TJ could have written all the poetic letters he wanted and GW could have triumphantly crossed all the rivers he wanted, if we hadn’t had the run of the mill soldiers to back them up, none of it would have mattered. And, you know, some of those soldiers were women. It’s nice to know. I’d like to have coffee with Deborah, because, honestly, I’d like to know more about her motivation. Did she join the army out of patriotism like the folk stories tend to make out, or if it was just a chance to get out of her life as it was. From what I’ve read about her life, she didn’t have a whole lot to leave behind. I’d also like to ask her whether it was hard to go back to living the restricted life of a woman after living as a man for so long. The records seem to make it clear she had a rough life before and after, but was no pushover. And if nothing else, you know that woman has some stories to tell.

Cammy:  But of course.  Sad as it is, I didn’t know who the hell she was until just now.  Doesn’t mean I don’t want to have coffee and see what she’s all about.  American history is sadly lacking in female figures for us gals to look up to.  And one who actually took up arms?  Yeah, how is it THAT little fact fails get mentioned in, oh, I dunno, every textbook I ever had?  I’m sure she’d be good for a chat about women in the U.S. military today and how it’s taken until 2012 for the DoD to start considering letting women do what she did over 225 years before (actually participate in combat).  Definitely looking forward to this round of coffee.

Costuming a Monkey

This is a short post because I’m in the middle of trying to figure out something for work.  It’s a complex problem, and I have limited time and materials to complete it:

I need to figure out how to costume a monkey piñata (Curious George monkey piñata, to be exact) as The Green Lantern for Halloween using only construction paper.

This would be a little easier if the monkey were here with me instead of back in my office at work (Yes, I really have a Curious George monkey piñata in my office). But, as it is, I’m having to go off some rough measurements and memory to try and lay this out.

Why am I trying to put a costume on a monkey piñata?  That’s a story that’s long, drawn out and would require more explanation than I want to give about the details of my bill-paying job.  Suffice it to say that my work team has a thing for monkeys and the color green, and my supervisor said she thought that the monkey really needed to be wearing pants.  I asked if dressing him in super-hero tights would be enough and she seemed pleased by this, so….

At any rate, this is taking longer than estimated, and then I have to iron clothes for work (you see how my priorities are running this evening:  monkey costumes, blog posts and THEN preparing for my job).  I’ll let you know how it comes out.

Changing Weather…Changing Drinks

I left town for literally one day and came back to a 40 degree drop in temperature.  Good times.

Among the other things that have to change with this temperature drop?  My drink preferences.

The evening before my short trip, I looked at my bottle o’ rum, looked at the internet, looked back at my bottle o’rum and contemplated what kind of cool and refreshing beverage I could concoct (I was lamenting my lack of Ginger Beer that would have allowed for a Dark & Stormy).  My quest led me past more than a few hot-rum drinks which, in the midst of weather that felt–in the words of a friend of mine–“like armpit”, sounded disgusting.

Tonight however?  Bring on the Hot Buttered Rum, y’all.

This is actually my first attempt at this particular drink.  Usually, I resort to hot rum drinks to alleviate the results of a close, personal encounter with the rhino-virus, and “butter” + “snot” is not really what I’m after.  Tonight, for once, I don’t care if the dairy element generates additional phlegm.  So I combined a few recipes and ad-hoc’d the rest.  1 T Butter, 1.25 tsp Cloves, 1.25 tsp cinnamon, dash of nutmeg, dash of all spice, 2 T brown sugar, 2 oz rum and hot water to fill the mug.   I think I should have cut back slightly on the cloves and added just a touch more butter, but otherwise, this is quite tasty.

Is this healthy?  Hell no.

Is it keeping me warm as this first legitimate winter blast sets in?  Yup.

Musikalischer Mittwoch: Whoever’s In New England

After a solid week of my playlist consisting of no English language songs other than a faint smattering of Corb Lund and a Nanci Griffith tune or two (everything else has been either Spanish, German, Norwegian, Swedish or Hindi–the U.N. barfed on my iPod), out of the blue, this classic rolled up on my playlist.

In case you’ve completely missed it, I’m a big Reba fan.  Have been since probably the age of 6 or 7.  And “Whoever’s In New England” was critical to that early addiction.  The time before I knew this song is just a kind of hazy memory.  I know from checking that apparently this was not part of the soundtrack of my existence prior to 1986, but all that time before is just so fuzzy I’m not sure much of it matters.

It’s a watershed song in the history of Reba.  The album went platinum, the song was number 1 and it was her first music video.  In any retrospective collection of Reba hits?  This song is there.

And after not having heard it in so long that I’m rather ashamed, I understand why.  It’s a good song.  It showcases Reba’s voice and particular style in a way her earlier songs hadn’t quite done.  The arrangement is undoubtedly country, but not in-your-face as so many songs can be.  It’s good, but you almost forget it’s there because it really does what it needs to do:  stays out of the way of the voice.  And, of course, the voice is fantastic.  Since it was back in the day, Reba’s voice had a slightly “lighter” quality to it, and she doesn’t muddy that up with any vocal calisthenics (sistafriend’s pipes are awesome and I’m glad she displays the up and down control, but occasionally, I can do without the trills).  Here Reba manages to strike a balance of matter of fact and emotional that’s almost creepy.

And some of the lyrics? “When the icy wind blows through you / Remember that it’s me / Who feels the cold most of all….”  I have loved that line as long as I can remember.  In general, you’ve got to give it a nod because, well, you find another country song about Boston that’s done half as well?  (Other than when Reba did a cover of “Please Come to Boston” in 1995.)

And then there’s the the video.  The only thing this video is missing is Spencer and Hawk sprinting through the background in one of the Boston shots.  At one time, it would have been a simple enough video (albeit, one with a clear storyline–Reba’s been a good one for that from early on…up until CMT went all f’d up, but that’s another rant), but now it’s a time capsule of 80s goodness.  The clothes.  The cars.  Reba when she still had chipmunk front teeth AND THE PERMED MULLET.  Oh, it’s just beauty.  And how d’ya like the shots inside Boston’s Logan airport from way the hell back in the day when people without tickets could go all over the place (remember before security, kids?).

For those looking to educate themselves on the country genre, this is a must listen.  It marks the sharp up-tick in the career of someone prominent to the genre, was a key song in the swing back into more traditional country post 70s-early- 80s crossover, and any audio tour of country music just wouldn’t be complete without it.  Also, it’s awesome.

Multi-Dish Meals (And a Cookbook Idea)

I’m actually a fairly decent cook. At least I like to think so. Not brilliant or anything, but totally passable. I can’t follow a recipe to save my life, but that’s another blog post. But I struggle with something that I find a lot of people my age struggle with—multi-dish meals.

As a single woman on a minimal budget I’ve made a lot of one pot meals. Mostly beans and rice, I’m not going to lie. I eat healthy though—I make sure to get my vegetables. Mostly I’ve done this by having a salad for dinner. Again, as a girl on a budget they haven’t been super inventive. It’s mostly been spinach. Lots of spinach. But I like spinach and it’s a supervegetable, so I’ve told myself it was okay. But it does get boring. And now that I am marginally more financially stable and live in a town with a great farmer’s market, I’m trying to have other vegetables.

The problem is I make a vegetable and a protein and maybe a grain or carb (because they will not make me fear carbs, damnit) and my grain is ready early and getting cold while my tofu is getting crispy and my veggies are barely done. Hell, I have a hard time managing stir-fry and rice at the same time. But I know it’s possible, because my mother did it every day for years. With seemingly no effort. Is this a skill you magically develop when you get married or have kids? Crap, I knew there was a downside to perpetual singleness.

I’ve half wondered if there would be a market for a cookbook that breaks these things down—you know, gives you a full meal and has it structured step-by-step. First cut up your veggies. Then set it to the side while you boil the water for your quinoa. Just before you put the quinoa in to cook throw your chicken on the grill. Five minutes later put your vegetables in the steamer.

Okay, it probably exists already. And even if I knew where it was, I wouldn’t buy it. Because I’m no good at following recipes and inevitably I wouldn’t be able to find a recipe that had everything I like in it. You know it would be two wonderful things like roasted broccoli and couscous and then one horrible thing like fish. But sometimes… I think developing this skill would be so nice, I might actually learn to follow recipes for it.

Coffee with… Head of Cow!

Would we have coffee with Cabeza de Vaca?

Cammy:  But of course!  Let’s start with the fact that Cabeza de Vaca literally means “Head of a cow.”  That alone pretty much seals the awesomeness deal for a coffee get together. But even if he didn’t have a bad-ass name, I’d still be game.  He’s actually the first Conquistador I ever remember learning about.  Sure, Columbus got some lip service, but we hadn’t seriously studied him before I got my first round of Texas history in 2nd grade.  And since de Vaca and his fellow shipwreck survivors landed on what’s now Galveston Island, that means Texas claims him as its own personal Spanish Conquistador (even though he was in Florida first.  Whatever) and he gets first billing in the Texas history books.  But most intriguing of all is the amount of time and time and the circumstances under which de Vaca interacted with the native populations.  He and his fellow ship-wreckers were wandering around Texas, the Southwest US and Mexico for 8 years.  At times he was a slave, at other times he was a trader.  He actually developed some respect for the native peoples of the Americas and seemed to see them as something more than people to be, well, conquered.  That makes him, quite possibly, the only really cool Spanish explorer ever.  How could I not want to talk to him about THAT?  He saw that part of the world in the way no other European got to witness it, so a straight-up data dump would be worth a lot of coffee.

Kristy: Certainly. For all the reasons Cammy mentioned. Except the Texas history class stuff, because I was in Florida in 2nd grade. The man was essentially a proto-anthropologist. At some point while stranded with a bunch of Native peoples, he apparently decided, “Wow. These people have interesting customs. I should document them.” And yes, his writings are clearly influenced by the biases that went along with being a white male Catholic in the sixteenth-century, but he tried. And he stood up for the people who saved him from certain death; albeit unsuccessfully, but he tried. Also, I used to teach him in my American literature class. The guidelines for the curriculum didn’t require me to teach anything before the Puritans, but I objected because a) it left out Virginia, b) it left out indigenous populations, c) it assumed “American”=”English speaking”. And Cabeza de Vaca was in our textbook, so in he went to my syllabus. So in gratitude, I feel I should buy him a cup of coffee.

What do you get for the girl who just became a saint?

Today Kateri Tekakwitha was officially canonized. It’s a little odd that she is only officially canonized now, since there are several churches and at least one convent already named St. Kateri Tekakwitha, but, you know, you have to appreciate that the Catholic Church has never really discouraged its folk elements. Most sources are declaring her the first indigenous saint from North America; this is highly debatable. There’s also an Orthodox Saint Peter the Aleut; my Canadian friends seem to classify Aleuts as something other than First nations, but this is not something I know a whole lot about, so I’m not going to take a stand. I would hazard a guess he gets left out of the Vatican’s press releases on account of that whole “not being Catholic” thing (his martyrdom is actually said to have taken place at the hands of Jesuits). There’s also Juan Diego. He’s definitely indigenous, but he’s also Mexican. Apparently we’re not counting that as “North America” anymore.

Both the US and Canada want to claim her as their own; she was born in New York and died in Quebec. In reality neither nation existed yet and neither would have given her citizenship rights if it had for quite some time. So it’s all kind of a moot point.

But I don’t care that much about any of that; none of that is what I’m excited about. Why did I spend the day eagerly reading news on the canonization? Because she’s in my dissertation! So while some marked this day by praying and some by rejoicing (and a few by protesting), I spent it googling and saving stuff to Zotero. And man, I have to say, the media did not let me down as far as giving me gems to talk about. From calling her the “Pocahontas of the Catholic Church” to the AP talking about her exchanging the “totem for the crucifix” (btw, that’s totally a dissertation chapter title now, thanks AP) it was like they were just showering me with gifts.

It’s not common for anyone to see the topic of their dissertation in the news. It’s less common in my field than some. It’s unlikely to happen again for me. I can’t quite describe what it feels like. It’s kind of like how suddenly at Halloween folklorists become the cool kids everyone wants to interview. Granted no one has called to interview me about this yet… It’s a different kind of excitement though. It’s the permission to go ahead and be a know-it-all. I’m not saying I’m not one usually, but right now I can back it up.

Movie Review: Gloomy Sunday

Title:  Gloomy Sunday (German title: Ein Lied von Liebe und Tod) – 1999

Director: Rolf Schübel

Writers: Rolf Schübel (screenplay); Nick Barkow (novel)

This movie has a lot going for it just from the start where I’m concerned: (a) it’s based on an urban legend, and who doesn’t like those, right?  (b) it’s set in Budapest, a city I fell in love with on my short business trip visit and which I plan to visit again someday (c) it’s in German, which I love because it’s not easy to find German language media to bolster mein Deutsch.  All this makes me pre-disposed to like this film (certainly more than if it were not based on a urban legend, set in Cleveland and in French).

The film is adapted from a novel that I think I need to get my hands on.  The story is loosely based on the urban legend surrounding “Gloomy Sunday” a song by a Hungarian composer that allegedly drove multiple people in Europe and America to commit suicide in the 1930s.  It focuses in particular on the love triangle between the composer, a restaurant owner and a beautiful hostess.  And because this is a 1930s period piece in Europe, you can bet your ass that it involves Nazis.

The love triangle is, well, odd.  Not really ménage à trois, but definitely not conventional.  I can’t say the relationship gives me warm and fuzzies, but it’s well done enough that I also don’t feel like bleaching my brain (a common problem when European film romances get weird).  It’s well done for what it is.  And, because this isn’t your typical mainstream Hollywood BS, one of the two male leads is, well, not much to look at.  I appreciate that about a lot of foreign cinema, but in this case, being a German film, you see Mr. Mediocre-Looks’s bare ass which I, personally, could have done without (not so much because of my prudish American tendencies as because, well, it’s not a hot ass, so what’s the point?).  For male viewers, you also get plenty of bare-breasted shots of the female lead (who is good looking).  I was neither offended (meh, I have my own.  Whatever) nor impressed (meh, I have my own. Whatever).

The scenery, is, of course, fantastic.  I really do love Budapest.  Seeing the movie meant I got to spend a lot of time squeeing and going “The Széchenyi  bridge!” and “OMG, I WALKED THERE!”  And it’s not unfounded squeeing because the city is beautiful (except in those places where the hideous Cold War construction crept in….thankfully the eye-sore of a Marriot I stayed in was skillfully avoided by the cameras).  There are plenty of good establishing shots to feast your eyes upon.  On a more interior note, Lazlo’s restaurant in which much of the action takes place is VERY similar to two of the restaurant’s I dined in while there.  And the focus on the Hungarian rouladen, was nice because I had some of that….and a lot of other really friggin’ delicious dishes in that city (it’s entirely possible to gain weight just thinking about the food in Budapest).

Of course, since the movie is named after music, the music in the film is wonderful.  Very classical.  The theme is a truly beautiful piece.  Piano is the primary mode of transmission, but there are some excellent incidences of violin as well (which actually fits more with the music I heard in Budapest).  I’m strongly considering picking up the soundtrack to this one.

One of the downsides to the film is, well, inevitable.  As I mentioned, it’s set in 1930s Europe.  This means you will NOT avoid Nazis and Jews.  It’s that damn elephant in the room you can’t avoid.  But….at this point in time, even though it’s real and it’s true, it’s almost become cliche.  Particularly because the German officer featured in this film is completely stereotypical in terms of his appearance: blonde, fair, etc.  I can’t help rolling my eyes at that visual because the most-recently-off-the-boat Germans in my family are NOT blonde, blue eyed or fair.  In fact, they literally “pass” for Mexicans (the Hungarians and Jews in the film look way more like many of my family than the German characters).  I’m not saying I like the idea of my homies being associated with Nazis, but if we’re going to embrace the reality of Nazis being in every film about that era, we may as well embrace that not all Germans are fair and blue eyed.

Of course, the war and the Nazis are integral to the plot and you see that part coming a mile out.  The relationship complexity adds the real flavor, though the plot still seems to drag a bit at times while you’re watching.  I know this because I make notes.  And because it’s a European film.  I also know that the ending to this one makes me forget the drag every time I watch.  It’s a more awesome ending that you get in a lot of European films, so double bonus on that one.

All told, I’ll give it 3 and ¾ jars of peanut butter.  Deductions for the buttshots, the occasional plot drag and for the cliche German.