Monthly Archives: May 2010

Rejected Topics

It isn't all gold.

As you may have noticed, content in this blog is frequently based on news items from the past thousand years or so.  Newspapers often cough up something inspirational, so I search a variety of sources for material and then run my ideas past the editorial board (that would be me).  Some news items seem at first glance to have promise, but wind up being cast aside because they are in questionable taste, or because I don’t want to get sued.  Or sometimes, without reason, the editorial board just says “nah”.

An example of the poor-taste concern came up in November 2009, when the BBC, CNN, Associated Press and other reputable news sources reported that gang members in Peru had been arrested on suspicion of killing dozens of people.  It was the motive that drew my attention:  the victims were targeted in order to sell their body fat and tissue for use in cosmetics.  I know — yeesh. 

In no way do I mean to make light of the disappearance of at least sixty people who seem to have met a gruesome end.  But you can’t help wondering if they’re eventually going to wind up on someone else’s face, right?  Somehow it didn’t allay my queasiness when BBC reported that medical authorities are skeptical about a black market for human fat, “partly because of the wide availability of fat for use in surgical procedures.”

That’s enough to show you why the editorial board at Tom Reeder’s Blog decided to spindle that story.

An item that initially seemed more promising appeared in wire service reports a couple of weeks ago (5/15/10).  It seems that the U.S. Postal Service recovered 20,000 pieces of mail — some dating back to 1997 — from the garage of a Philadelphia postal carrier.  My first thought was, “So that’s why I never got thank-you notes for those wedding and graduation gifts!”  On further consideration, though, it seems unlikely that all of those expressions of gratitude would wind up in Philadelphia, since they would have been sent to me from many other places around the country.  So that approach to the story was a dead end.

I briefly thought about using the postman’s garage full of other people’s mail to reflect on the stuff all of us hoard in our garages and closets and attics.  Why are we keeping it?  Will we ever use it if we can’t even remember that it’s there?

Then I had an even better idea for this subject.  How did the course of people’s lives change because that postman didn’t deliver… well, let’s say the flyer from Bed Bath & Beyond?  The 20% off coupon expired decades ago, of course, but what if the addressees had gotten it on time?  Mr. X could have purchased the pillow that would have eased his back pain.  Maybe he wouldn’t have needed surgery if only he’d gotten the pillow.  BUT — if he hadn’t had the surgery, he would never have met Miss Y, the attractive physical therapist.  You see the potential here?  It’s simply not possible to do that topic justice in a mere 500 words.

On the other hand, there’s the wire service report (5/6/10) about the man who walked into a police station in Grenada.  He was carrying a bucket that had two severed heads in it.  The only thing that makes that topic interesting is the man’s name:  Steve Gory.  No way I can get 500 words out of that.

Who Were the Luddites?

"And I hate microwave popcorn, too!"

The technological advances of the past couple of decades have enabled us to do things our ancestors could only dream of.  With cell phones, for instance, we can now talk to a loved one or business associate while using an airport restroom!  And it’s difficult now to imagine how empty our lives would be without cultural improvements like video games and on-line gambling.  There are, however, some grumps who fail to appreciate our battery-operated blessings; these people are sometimes referred to as Luddites. 

It’s a term applied, usually with contempt, to those who oppose (or fear) new technology.  On the other hand, there are some of these technophobes who proudly choose to call themselves Luddites.  What both sides have in common is a hazy comprehension of who the original Luddites were.  So here’s the story…

Some of the early battles of the Industrial Revolution took place in Nottingham, England, in 1811.  Stockings and other hand-woven garments had been made there for centuries, but tycoons brought in power looms, built factories, and hired workers who didn’t know a warp from a woof.  This seemed like unfair competition to those making stockings in the traditional way, on wooden frames they kept in their homes.

The economy was lousy anyway, due to the expensive war being fought against Napoleon, and now the weavers were getting lower pay for their products.  Fearful that the new machinery was ruining their way of life, the weavers broke into factories at night and smashed equipment.  When these property crimes were investigated, those being questioned all said, “Ned Ludd did it.”

Ned Ludd probably did not exist.  A story — most likely fictional — had circulated about a Ned Ludd who had broken a couple of stocking frames in a fit of rage back in 1779.  He was definitely not around in 1811 when all the mischief was being committed, but he got the blame for it anyway.  The revolt spread to other shires in the Midlands, and over 200 frames were destroyed that year.

By 1812 the frame-breakers had made Ned Ludd their imaginary leader; they began to refer to him as King Ludd, General Ludd, or Captain Ludd.  You can see, then, how his “followers” came to be known as Luddites.

While they deplored recent technological innovations, the Luddites didn’t seem to have any qualms about an earlier invention known as the musket; hostilities escalated, and there were casualties on both sides.  The government cracked down — in 1812 Parliament passed something called The Frame Breaking Act.  The poet Lord Byron had made an impassioned speech against it in the House of Lords, to no avail.  The law authorized some harsh penalties:  Those convicted of breaking machines could be sentenced to death, and many of the Luddites did go to the gallows, still blaming King Ludd.  Others were transported to the penal colony that eventually came to be known as Australia.

By 1817 the Luddite movement had virtually disappeared; the former hotheads were dead, or working in factories, or co-existing with kangaroos.  Ned Ludd, a mythical character who had been their imaginary leader, passed into history.  For that matter, so have stockings.

Spend an Hour in Room X

Kunsthistorisches, Vienna

Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches is one of the world’s finest art museums, even though it isn’t always mentioned in the same breath with the Louvre or the Rijksmuseum or the Prado.  That may be partly due to the difficulty of saying the word Kunsthistorisches in the same breath with anything.  The name is pronounced KOONST-hist-OR-eh-shess; in German that means Museum of Art History, but is often rendered in English as Museum of Fine Arts.

It is the repository of treasures collected by the Habsburgs, and we’re not talking Ed and Ginny Habsburg from your bowling league.  This was the Habsburg dynasty, which for several centuries ruled over big chunks of Europe until the conclusion of World War I.  Before the map got forcibly rearranged, though, the Habsburg emperors went around saying “I want that,” and they got a lot of wonderful stuff.  Emperor Franz Joseph I had the Kunsthistorisches built to store all the goodies; it was completed in 1891.

When talking about this museum, it’s difficult not to repeatedly use the adjective “grand”.  You enter a grand lobby, ascend a grand staircase to an entire floor of grand paintings, beginning with Room I, which is all works by Titian.  Nearby are three rooms filled with paintings by Peter Paul Rubens.  You get the idea — the Kunsthistorisches is loaded with grand things.

It’s not possible to list all the masterpieces here, but I want to mention a few of my favorites:

•  An oil  by Johannes Vermeer you’d instantly recognize; it is known by different titles, but most often is called The Art of Painting.  You can’t look at it without saying (or at least thinking) “wow”.

•  One of the three paintings Mantegna did of St. Sebastian shot full of arrows.  This is the version used to illustrate my blog post of 1/8/09, titled “Saint Sebastian:  That Had To Hurt”.

•  Madonna of the Meadow, by Raphael.  The artist managed to make Jesus and John the Baptist look like real toddlers in spite of their halos.

•  Pieter Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow.  There is an entire room (Room X) devoted to this 16th-century master; indeed, the Kunsthistorisches has somewhere between a third and a half of all known works by Bruegel.  Take your time here; marvel at the details in his paintings.

•  Cellini’s Saliera was stolen from the Kunsthistorisches in 2003, but the gold salt cellar was recovered in 2006.  This piece is the highlight of the sculpture department, which, as far as I’m concerned, is not the museum’s strength.

The Kunsthistorisches is proud of its Egyptian Collection, and the Habsburgs also looted an assortment of Greek and Roman antiquities that are now on display here, but paintings — especially from the 16th and 17th century — are why this museum is so highly regarded.

I can also recommend the haus torte in the museum café, but I’m not sure it’s world-class.  Well, no, now that I think about it… in its way, the Kunsthistorisches cake actually might be as good as the delicious ham-and-cheese sandwich at the Louvre.

Our Team Has Identity Issues

The team nickname "Geckos" is probably still available.

There are more sports teams called the Tigers than there are actual tigers.  OK, that may be a slight exaggeration, but tigers in the wild have become scarce, while Tigers in stadiums and arenas are plentiful.  In addition to the baseball team in Detroit, there are forty-six college teams that call themselves the Tigers, including Auburn, Clemson, LSU, Missouri, and Memphis.  I don’t know exactly how many high schools have adopted that nickname, but I’d estimate “lots”.

It’s common practice to choose a name that conveys menace:  besides Tigers, there are lots of Bulldogs and Bears and Wildcats.  Eagles are plentiful as well; seventy-six colleges use that nickname, the most of any bird or beast.

There are, however, a handful of teams that have taken names that aren’t intimidating at all.  They may have historic significance, but they aren’t likely to make the opposition gasp, “Oh my god, we’re about to get devoured!”  I’m thinking of New York University, which calls its teams the Violets.  That may have something to do with the flowers that grow around Washington Square where the campus is located, but I would imagine the name is a handicap in recruiting.  What power forward wants to think of himself as a Violet?

Amherst College has a fine academic reputation, but its athletic teams are saddled with the nickname “Lord Jeffs”, for the British military commander.  They may be good competitors for all I know, but Lord Jeffs sounds like a bunch of guys whose closets are full of satin outfits.  That applies to the Whittier College Poets as well.

There is a professional basketball team in New York called the Knicks, a name that has an obscure origin.  In fact, I’ll bet if you stopped fifty people at random on the streets of New York City to ask them what “Knicks” means, forty-eight of them would tell you to go *!%*# yourself.  The other two would admit they don’t know.  It turns out that Knick is an abbreviated form of Knickerbocker, a name associated with the Dutch who originally settled New York (well, New Amsterdam back then).  Fittingly, the current Knicks team plays as if they’re wearing wooden shoes.

Another team in the New York area that has a strange nickname is Manhattan College, which goes by the Jaspers.  The inspiration for that was Brother Jasper who, in the late 19th century, brought to the Catholic campus an obscure sport called base ball.  He became Manhattan’s first coach, and Brother Jasper is also credited with the invention of the seventh-inning stretch.

There are several other nicknames that one doesn’t associate with athletic prowess (Stetson University Hatters, UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs).  There are some that seem intentionally obscure:  Western Carolina and University of Vermont both call their teams the Catamounts.  I’ll save you the trouble of looking it up — catamount is a general term for wild cats such as cougars and lynxes.

There are others we could ridicule, but the prize for dumbest name goes to the Rhode Island School of Design, which calls its hockey team the Nads.  That name was selected for the sole purpose of having its student section chant, “Go, Nads”.  Yeah.  Haha, very funny, kids.  Thanks for the reminder that sophomoric humor originated with sophomores.

You’ll Find This Hypnotic

Franz Anton Mesmer, Chick Magnet

Three times in the past week I’ve encountered the word “mesmerizing”.  One time it was about an actor who gave, I was told, a “mesmerizing performance.”  I forget how it came up the other two times, but it was used in that same sense, as a synonym for spellbinding or enthralling.  If mesmerizing is about to become the buzz word du jour, I thought it might be worth exploring its origins.

The word is derived from a physician/showman named Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815).  He is sometimes referred to as the Father of Hypnotism, even though he was really the Father of Mesmerism, which is something else.  If I understand it — and I’m pretty sure I don’t — Mesmerism has to do with the gravitational or magnetic pull of planets on human beings through an invisible fluid, and the conviction that these influences have a bearing on one’s health. 

Anton Mesmer also postulated something called “animal magnetism”, stating that one person may have a sort of magnetic force over another person.  He certainly must have had some kind of magnetic personality, because he managed to persuade people to hand over substantial amounts of cash for his unusual treatments.

Mesmer’s group therapy sessions were a bit like séances.  According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “patients sat around a vat of dilute sulfuric acid while holding hands or grasping iron bars protruding from the solution.”  These odd practices did not go down well with the medical establishment, and bear in mind that this was at a time when draining a patient of his or her blood was a standard cure.  Accused of practicing magic, Mesmer was run out of Vienna in 1778, but he soon set up shop in Paris.

Again he flamboyantly promoted his unorthodox cures; again lots of patients were willing to submit to trance-like “treatments” with intense side effects that sometimes included convulsions.  Mesmer’s medical procedures were brought to the attention of King Louis XVI; he appointed a commission of eminent scientists and physicians to investigate Mesmer and his claims. 

Among the commission members were American kite-flying genius Benjamin Franklin, the chemist Antoine Lavoisier, and Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who later had a device that removed heads from bodies named after him.  By awful coincidence, Lavoisier was guillotined during the French Revolution.

At any rate, this commission concluded that Mesmer was a charlatan, although they didn’t say it quite that bluntly; they attributed the “cures” to the patients’ own imaginations.  In a way, that validated some of Mesmer’s views about the role the mind played in disease, and it was that mind-over-matter aspect that laid a foundation for hypnosis.

It should be noted that Mesmer’s theories about magnetic therapy were “borrowed” in large part from a contemporary of his named — seriously — Maximilian Hell.  So if that guy had gotten proper credit, we wouldn’t be saying the actor’s performance was “mesmerizing”, we’d be saying it was “hellish”.  Wouldn’t that be cool?