Monday, November 26, 2007

12 Worst Christmas Songs

Thanksgiving has come and gone as has "Black Friday" which retailers have been talking about this year like it's a real holiday. This can mean only one thing: we are all doomed to endure a month's worth of Christmas music. Now I am not a total scrooge. I will admit that I occasionally "need a little Christmas right this very minute" and might listen to a seasonal tune when I'm jonesing for a quick fix of holiday spirit. But we all must admit that a lot of these songs are down-right awful. And having to sit there as the radio stations replay the same catalog of tired tunes ad nauseum has made many the long holiday car ride ("from Atlantic to Pacific...") that much more unpleasant.

With this in mind, I figured I'd compile my own personal list of the 12 Worst Christmas Songs (because who doesn't like a countdown?). For each offender we'll discuss just what makes it such a clunker, before rendering a final judgment as to whether it's "awesomely bad" or just plain bad.

* The Kinks - Father Christmas
Ok, so this first track is sort of an anti-Christmas song, and it's actually kind of good, but I wanted to discuss it anyway. The narrator in this punk rock ballad tells how the last time he dressed up as Father Christmas outside a department store he was mugged by a band of pint-sized hooligans who shouted "Father Christmas, give us some money/ Don't mess around with those silly toys." Later on they sing "give daddy a job cus he needs one." Not only is this song somewhat funny, but it also just about manages to tackle the whole "remember those who are less fortunate during the holidays" schtick without being sappy. Too bad they almost never play it on the radio. Here's a (sadly poor quality) youtube video...


12. Beach Boys - Little Saint Nick
You wouldn't think this song would be so bad. It features characteristic Beach Boys' harmony and a little bit of rock n roll flavor. But something about the oft repeated line "it's the little saint nick" just really annoys me: it's a little too cutesy for my taste, and what's with the superfluous use of the definitive article?
FINAL JUDGMENT: Not the worst song (whatever, we're only on #12. They get a lot worse).

11. Benny Grunch - The 12 Yats of Christmas
You've probably only heard this novelty take on the Twelve Days of Christmas if you've lived in southeast Louisiana. As a New Orleans diasporean I can appreciate this on a nostalgia level, but it's unfortunate that they've decided to record it using various "comical" yatty voices. Also, they really lay on those references to local culture pretty thick. The 12 days of Christmas are represented by "12 Manuel's Tamales/ 11 Schwegmann bags/ the Tenneco Chalmette Refinery/ the Lower Ninth Ward/ Ate by ya mama's/ the 17th St. Canal/ a 6-pack of Dixie/ fried onion rings/ 'fore ya drive me nuts/ 3 french breads/ a Tujague's recipe/ and the crawfish they caught in Arabi." Here's a video of the song I found on youtube...

Nicole reminded me how there's a post-Katrina version in which they sing "ain't dere no more" after all the landmarks that have since been washed away by the hurricane or are otherwise defunct. If you think that makes the song less annoying, you'd be wrong.
FINAL JUDGMENT: Sort of cute the first time you hear it but gets old fast
IRREVERENT ONE LINER: Oh! Right in the Tenneco Chalmette Refinery!

10. Do You Hear What I Hear?
In my opinion, the "sacred" Christmas songs are usually less objectionable than the popular ones. But this song is an exception. First of all, it starts off with "said the night wind to the little lamb..." The wind's talking to a baby lamb?! I don't know, it's just a little too "Bambi" for me. Also, in my brain this song will forever be associated with the scene in the Gremlins where Mama dispatches of one of the little devils by throwing him in the food processor. Mmm, nothing says Christmas like a Gremlin smoothie!
FINAL JUDGMENT: Mildly irritating/a little creepy
IRREVERENT ONE-LINER: You're gonna wake up in a smoothie!

9. Little Drummer Boy
Another song with a religious theme. This is a sort of exegesis on the Gospel story of the three kings who trekked across the desert bearing gifts for the newborn Jesus, only in this version the magi run into a little drummer boy who decides to tag along. Of course the humble scamp doesn't have any fancy gifts for the newborn king so he just rattles off a beat on his drum Nick Cannon-style. Hopefully, he didn't do this so loudly that it made the baby cry.
This song is annoying if only for that "pa-rumpa-pum-pum" nonsense which comes at the end of almost every single line!! Also, did they even have drummer boys in Roman Palestine? What the hell was this boy supposed to be doing with the drum? Helping to round up grazing sheep?
Of course the best version of this song is the bizarro duet between glam rocker, David Bowie, and that avuncular, child-abusing crooner, Bing Crosby.


8. My Grown Up Christmas List
I might never have noticed this bland, boring little number if not for the fact that, every time it comes on, my mom remarks about how much she likes it. Moments like this really make me wonder about her taste in music. Anyhow, in the song a woman reads off her "grown up Christmas list" to Santa. Now praying for peace on earth is commendable, but she goes on to wish that everyone should have a friend, love should last forever, and that good should always triumph. That's a pretty tall order for Santa there, missy. Maybe if our girl were a little more "grown up" she'd realize that these are pipe dreams. I think my grown up Christmas list would include troop withdrawal from Iraq, a better monetary policy, shutting down Guantanamo...
If you've never heard this song and you're curious here's a link to a performance by Kelly Clarkson, but it's a snooze fest I assure you.
FINAL JUDGMENT: Boring, stupid, bad.

7. NewSong - Christmas Shoes
This country ballad first came out in 2000. The narrator is some scrooge who is rushing around one night doing some last minute gift shopping when he comes across an adorable little street urchin who's trying to buy a pair of shoes for his dying mother. Can you believe this crap?! When it is revealed that the moppet doesn't have enough change for the shoes, of course the narrator buys them for him.
They actually made an equally stupid TV movie based on the song starring Rob Lowe. The movie sounds SO awesomely bad: the scroogey main character is admonished for driving a foreign car and drinking cappuccino, and there's a subplot about farmers being pushed off their land by ecologist developers (!?). You know the people who wrote this crap voted for Bush the second time around.

FINAL JUDGMENT: Awesomely bad

6. Here's Come Santa Claus
Ugh. What's not to hate: so idiotic, so repetitive, so likely to get caught in your head, so lending itself to people singing "Sanny Claus" (didn't she graduate from my law school?).
FINAL JUDGMENT: we're talking purgatory levels of annoying

5. Grandma Got Runover by a Reindeer
This redneck jingle is as stupid as it is offensive. I'm also pretty sure it makes little children who lost their grandmothers cry. All that said, you might think this song is slighty amusing during the first 20 seconds of the first time you hear it, but after that it quickly grows irritating.
FINAL JUDGMENT: not as funny as it thinks it is, bad

4. Dear Mr. Jesus
I have to thank Desiree for introducing me to this gem. Here a little girl with a sickeningly cutesy voice prays to Jesus about a child she heard about on the news who was beaten by her parents and is now in the hospital in critical condition. Ok now, you might think I'm psycho for saying this, but once you get over the ridiculously depressing subject matter this song his actually hilarious. First there's my favorite line towards the end where the girl sings "Please don't tell my daddy but my mommy hits me too!" which is oddly accompanied by an upbeat instrumental crescendo. Then, after that, an adult male belts out "Please don't let them hurt the children!" in the most outrageous oversing. Between this, the stupid baby voice, and the infantile lyrics, this song is begging to not be taken seriously.

FINAL JUDGMENT: Awesomely bad

3. All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth
Please just shoot me now! Of all the cutesy holiday songs delivered in saccharine kiddy voices this is the worst. Basically, a boy is going through that awkward stage of childhood where his baby teeth are falling out and his adult teeth are growing in. He's currently missing his two incisors and thus he speaks with a lisp. He wishes his teeth would grow in already. As if the kiddy voice, the lisp and the premise weren't bad enough the song suffers from "second verse same as the first syndrome".
FINAL JUDGMENT: Root canal bad

2. Chrissy the Christmas Mouse
So you might be all "say whaaa?" but I swear to god that I somehow end up hearing this song several times every holiday season. It is so stupid and annoying that it boggles the mind. The song begins "Chrissy, the Christmas Mouse / lives in the middle of Santa's house". Nuff said really. As if we didn't have enough cutesy Christmas critters what with Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the red-nosed Republican. Somehow Chrissy never got her own claymation cartoon though, huh? Fancy that.
FINAL JUDGMENT: Crime against humanity bad

1. Lou Monte - Dominick the Donkey
A favorite among Italian Americans despite the fact that it reinforces silly stereotypes, I defy you to listen to this song and not laugh. I would say that Dominick the Italian Christmas donkey kicks Chrissy's arse but (as the song tells us) this donkey never kicks. My favorite line is "When Santa visits his paesans with Dominick he'll be / because the reindeer cannot climb the hills of Italy." Here's a video I found on youtube:

FINAL JUDGMENT: Awesomely bad

So that's my countdown. Please share your thoughts on these songs and/or your own picks for worst holiday songs.


Sunday, November 25, 2007

Lara Croft takes on Darfur

When she wasn't too busy being an award-winning actress, raising her four children (not including Brad, ha ha ha!), saving the world as a goodwill ambassador for the UN High Commission on Refugees, and (clearly) not eating enough, Angelina Jolie managed to squeeze in the time to write an article for the Economist. Yes, you heard me right, the Economist: the solidly respectable London-based magazine which reports on international politics and economics.

If the idea of "Gia" writing for the Economist isn't enough to get your blood boiling, then you just need to look at the issue's other guest writers. There's the Dalai Lama, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, New York Mayor Bloomberg... and Lara Croft Tombraider!

I was totally going to buy a copy of the Economist at the airport today just so I would have more snark fodder (it's a good magazine to read anyway), but I didn't have a chance so we'll just have to rely on second hand descriptions of her article. From what I've read, Angie says that the best way for us to combat human rights violations, such as the genocide in Darfur, is to prosecute those who are responsible. Good call, Ange. It's too bad that the US is not on board with the International Criminal Court, although I bet the Bush Administration is happy about that: I mean, it wouldn't take too much imagination to come up with a war crimes case against those jerks.

The above photo was taken during the filming of Angelina's upcoming movie The Changeling. Doesn't she look hot? I love me a good peekaboo hat.

I also read on dlisted that Brad is angry about some of the changes that Angelina requested for her upcoming film Wanted (God, how many movies does this girl have coming out?). Apparently Angelina had the writers beef up her onscreen romance with young, Scottish buck, James McAvoy. She also had them throw in a nude scene with her in the bath for good measure (she ain't no fool). I think this marital strife sounds pretty made up, but it's still fun to think about. And let's not forget how Angelina and Brad got together: they totally started sleeping together during the filming of Mr. & Mrs. Smith while Brad was still married to Jennifer Aniston!

Photo from filming of the Changeling found on dlisted.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

All About The Three Mothers

Have you ever heard the legend of the Three Mothers?


Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) first wrote about these women in "Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow" (read it here), a prose poem included in his 1845 book Suspiria de Profundis. De Quincey was an enigmatic English essayist and druggie who also wrote Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822 -- not to be confused with Confessions of A Teenage Drama Queen) and two papers On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts (1827, 1837).

In "Levana," the narrator recounts how, when he was a student at Oxford, the Roman goddess of newborns and child rearing came to him at night and introduced him to her three girlfriends. He calls them "Our Ladies of Sorrow." The Sorrows are a trio of supernatural beings much like the Graces, the Fates, or the Furies, and they are responsible for all human misery. Mater Lachrymarum (the Mother of Tears) is responsible for mourning, Mater Suspiriorum (the Mother of Sighs) oversees hopelessness and broken dreams, and Mater Tenebrarum (the Mother of Darkness) presides over mental illness -- depression and madness.

The Films of Dario Argento

Italian filmmaker, Dario Argento (b.1940), was inspired by De Quincey's work to create a trilogy of films based on the Three Mothers. Argento is best known for directing horror movies and gialli (the Italian word for works in the noir/detective/crime/slasher genre) in the '70s and '80s. His works are characterized by artistic and stylized depictions of murder, hallucinogenic use of color and other dream-like elements. Often the plot doesn't make logical sense, but things resonate in the viewer's subconscious and are accepted within the internal logic of the film much like in a dream.

A good example is Profondo Rosso (Deep Red 1975). The investigators are trying to track down the slasher when a witness tells them he heard a children's song playing when the killer was in his house. This reminds one of the investigators of a folktale/urban legend he once read about an abandoned villa outside of Rome where people heard the sounds of children playing. The connection between the slasher and the haunted house seems pretty tenuous, yet the other investigators are all like "great idea, let's check it out..," and the film continues from there. There is another scene where a victim uses his last breath to trace the killer's name on the steamed tiles of the bathroom wall, yet the audience can never make out what the letters say. This reminded me of how you can't really read things in a dream (I think the part of your brain that handles reading is not active when you're dreaming).

Argento also uses rock music in some of his films to interesting effect. Some of his movies were originally filmed with the international cast of actors all speaking in different languages, as it was planned to later dub the film into several languages (Italian, English...). If you've never seen any of Argento's work I would recommend Opera (1987) or Suspiria, and if you're already a fan I suggest you check out Kinoeye's series of articles analyzing Argento's cinema.

The Three Mother's Trilogy

Dario Argento reimagined the Three Mothers as a trio of immortal witches who use their powers to malevolently influence world events.

The first film in the trilogy is Suspiria (1977), in which a young American woman enrolls in a dance academy outside Freiburg, Germany which turns out to be run by a coven of witches. Helena Markos, the mysterious headmistress who is rarely seen but whose snoring echoes through the academy's halls at night, is none other than the Mother of Sighs although she is not identified as such in the movie. The actress who plays Markos in the film's climactic final scene is uncredited, but according to Jessica Harper, who played the protagonist, she was a 90-year-old ex-whore whom Argento found on the streets of Rome. In one scene, an academic tells the American girl about the witches, "their goal is to gain great personal wealth," yet in the movie we really don't see them do much more than try to run a girl's dance school while killing off the nosey people who come too close to unmasking them. Suspiria is regarded as one of Argento's best and scariest films.

The second film in the trilogy is Inferno (1980) in which we encounter the Mother of Darkness in her home in New York. Inferno also lays out the mythos of Argento's Three Mothers: we are told that, in the 19th century, the Mothers commissioned an architect named Varelli to build them three stately homes in Freiburg, New York City, and Rome from which they secretly rule the world. In an old book written by Varelli, one of the character's reads that you can identify the mothers' homes by three signs (1) a bittersweet smell of decay pervades the air around their houses, (2) hidden in the cellar one can find the portrait and the name of the mother who lives in the house, and (3) a third key is found "under the soles of your shoes" (as befits the film's oneiric tone, the characters are of course standing in the right place when they remember this key). Again, although we are told the witches secretly rule the world, Mater Tenebrarum really only seems to threaten the characters in the film who've visited her house or the general vicinity. Inferno also gives us a glimpse of Mater Lachrymarum in the guise of a beautiful young women with a black cat whom the protagonist sees during a music lecture in Rome.

The Third Mother is Nigh!

Plans for a third movie have been in the works since the completion of Inferno some 27 years ago, and the screenplay has gone through various unfinished incarnations. At least since 2004, I had heard rumors that the third movie in the trilogy was coming, but when I started to research this blog post I was surprised to find out that the film is finally here.

La Terza Madre (which the international distributor has decided to call "Mother of Tears," I guess because it sounds less stupid and slightly more frightening than "The Third Mother" -- in my head the tagline is "the baddest mother of them all!") was shown at the Toronto film festival in September and the Rome film festival last month, and it was released in Italy on Halloween (Oct. 31, 2007). The North American theatrical release is supposed to occur sometime next year.

From what I've heard, this is Argento's most graphic film. Apparently some scenes have been removed from the theatrical cut due to ratings concerns, but they will be available on the DVD (talk about a reason to wait to watch it on DVD!). Some people say this is the director's best film since 1987's Opera (until now his recent movies have been relatively lame), and that this is more gritty and realistic than his previous stylized, oneiric films. I also read somewhere that the film's aesthete is still kind of '80s thus suggesting that Argento's cinema is fatally intertwined with a past time period.

The actress from Inferno does not reprise the role of Mater Lachrymarum (seeing as how over 20 years have passed and she has five kids). Instead hot Israeli actress, Moran Atias, takes up the titular role. The film also stars Dario's sexy daughter, Asia Argento, and his baby mama, Daria Nicolodi.

Here is the trailer for Mother of Tears

For enquiring minds that don't speak Italian the captions read "Three sisters... the Mother of Sighs... the Mother of Darkness... and now even the cruelest [which is bullshit. Everybody knows Mater Tenebrarum is the cruelest of the three] has returned... to feed on your tears... after 'Suspiria'... and 'Inferno'... the Trilogy ends... The Third Mother... a film by Dario Argento."

Orestes pursued by the Furies (1862) painted by Bougereau can be seen at the Chrylser Museum in Norfolk, Virginia. Photo of Freiburg's Haus zum Walfisch taken by Frank McGady is in the public domain. Screenshot from Inferno (c) Produzioni Intersound and poster/trailer for Mother of Tears (c) Medusa Film.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Looking Your Age and the City

We recently discussed Carrie from Sex and the City, so I figured we should tackle Samantha.

I just read an article (originally reported by the Hollywood Rag) in which Kim Catrall says that she's had botox before but that she's never had any serious plastic surgery because she's afraid of looking in the mirror and not recognizing herself. She basically says that all those older actresses (and actors) who go under the knife to try and look 18 end up looking like freaks. In the article, Catrall says that she admires sexy, mature women like Helen Mirren and Judie Densch and that her goal is to look fabulous while still looking her age.

Right on. We all want to look good, but I guess there is something bizarre and unnatural about 45-year-olds who can pass for 20. The obvious example of a celebrity who transformed herself into a "plastic alien" in her quest for the fountain of youth is, of course, Cher back when she sang that "Believe" song (She was 52! What's she up to now?). The always amazingly radiant Michelle Pfeiffer sort of looks preternaturally preserved, especially in the 2002 movie White Oleander (she was 44 -- not that old I guess, but she definitely looked way younger). Then there's Demi Moore who at 45 is definitely not trying to look her age (although I feel that has more to do with her insane fitness regimen than with plastic surgery -- maybe I'm being naive?). Anyway, no matter how good your plastic surgeon may be you can never fool the reaper: he knows how old you really are.

So, getting back to Kim Catrall, can you believe she is 51?! I think she looks great and that her character Samantha is always a lot of fun. Several months ago Kim told the media that, although she thinks Samantha is really special, she is only doing this Sex and the City Movie for the money. Duh! Why does anybody do anything ever? Wait a minute, I'm not getting paid to write this blog post...

People's opinions on Kim Catrall seem to vary a lot. I always thought she was pretty good in Sex and the City, but my friend Lee absolutely hates her because of her role or performance or something in Big Trouble in Little China. I must admit that I have never seen this modern classic from start to finish (I know, I know), and I feel when I do watch it I'll be too busy thinking "Oh look, there's Samantha" to really critique her performance. I have also never seen more than 5 minutes of another of her movies, Baby Geniuses, but that was more than enough time to come to the conclusion that it was an unwatchable crime against humanity (Oh my god, Kathleen Turner was in that too?!). These are hardly films worthy of Helen Mirren and Judy Densch, Kimmy.

Oh, and IMDB says that Kim Catrell is British Canadian -- did you know that? I wasn't exactly sure how to fit that into this post, but I thought it was interesting.

The above photo of Kim Catrell and SJP was taken during filming of the Sex and the City Movie. What the hell are they wearing?! Did animal rights activits just throw red pain on Samantha's fur coat or what?

Image taken from

Friday, November 16, 2007

Who shot King Ludwig?

Earlier in the week I stumbled upon an article from the Independent which reported on recent evidence suggesting that King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886) was murdered.

Known as the "fairytale king" and the "swan king," Ludwig was declared legally insane and -- to further add to his mystique -- he died under mysterious circumstances.

The Life of Ludwig

When he ascended to the throne in 1864, Ludwig was only 18 years old. The early years of his reign were a tumultuous time for Bavaria: Prussia and Austria were struggling for predominance among the German states, and the little kingdom was caught in the middle. Predominately Catholic Bavaria had long been allied with the Empire of Austria, and thus Ludwig agreed to fight along side the Austrians in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. This proved to be a bad move. Not only did they lose, but as part of the peace agreement Bavaria was forced to sign a mutual defense treaty with Prussia. Incidentally, in Italy this conflict is called the Third War of Independence: the Italians fought along side the victorious Prussians and liberated the city of Venice from under the Austrian yoke.

In fulfillment of his obligations under the treaty, Ludwig reluctantly sent Bavarian troops to join the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) against Napoleon III. Victory further consolidated Prussia's hegemony over the German states, and in December 1870 -- at the behest of Prussian Prime Minister Otto Von Bismarck (1815-1890) -- Ludwig wrote a letter calling for King Wilhelm I of Prussia (1797-1888) to be declared the Kaiser of Germany. This effectively ended Bavaria's days as an independent kingdom.

After this, Ludwig grew increasingly withdrawn from politics and public life, spending most of his time at his royal residences in the country. He was an eccentric man. Supposedly, his servants were instructed to run and hide when they heard him coming, or --failing that -- to stand silent and motionless like a statue, so that they would not disturb his solitude. He detested public ceremonies, but would ride through the countryside on a sleigh, sometimes stopping to socialize with his subjects. This helped make him very popular among the people of Bavaria.

It is also widely accepted that King Ludwig was gay. He had several infatuations/affairs with handsome young courtiers. But Ludwig was also a fervently religious Catholic; at Neuschwanstein he had a chapel dedicated to Saint Louis, King of France whom he particularly identified with given that (a) he too was a king and (b) he was his namesake. As Ludwig's diaries attest, he was greatly conflicted between his sexual desires and his faith, and thus he attempted to suppress his homosexuality. Ludwig also had a close relationship throughout his life with his cousin Elisabeth (aka "Sissi", 1837-1898), who would marry the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria (1830-1916).

Ludwig's Legacy

Ludwig's greatest legacy is in the arts. He was a patron to the composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) whom he gave much needed financial support. During his reign, Ludwig also commissioned several striking works of architecture (following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather), most notably the never-fully-completed Neuschwanstein Castle. Neuschwanstein is located in the Bavarian Alps near the town of Füssen, where it overlooks Hohenschwangau Castle which had been built by Ludwig's father. It was constructed out of stones from the nearby Swan Lake quarry, and it is generally believed to be the inspiration for Disney's Cinderella Castle.

It is a common misconception (actually repeated in the Independent article) that building these follies drained Bavaria's treasury and put the kingdom on the edge of bankruptcy. In reality, however, these projects were all funded from the king's privy purse. Far from bringing ruin, they were actually beneficial to Bavaria's economy given that many local workers and artisans were employed in their construction. Moreover, the economic benefits continue on into the present as many tourists come to Bavaria to visit these architectural oddities every year.

Meeg's trip to Neuschwanstein

Yours truly actually visited Neuschwanstein along with some friends (Lee, Greg, and the Sonz) in the spring of 1999. We rented a car in Munich and drove out into the countryside. I remember that after the tour we stopped to have lunch at a nearby restaurant where we were served by a friendly Bavarian MILF. Oh how I wish I had a picture to share with you! I was looking through my mess of a closet, but all I could find was a blurry photo I took of Hohenschwangau. At any rate, this trip took place in what I refer to as my "Cochese" period. I hadn't had a haircut in like six months, so my dago-fro was in full effect. Add to that a '70s 'stache and you can see why I wish I had a picture. Also my face was pudgy and I was pale and wore stupid clothes. We really could have had a fun time critiquing my look. But I digress...

Ludwig the Lunatic?

On June 10, 1886, Ludwig's enemies in the Munich parliament had him declared legally incompetent by reason of insanity. He was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, but many people question the validity of this claim given that the diagnosis was based on second-hand reports of the king's behavior rather than an actual in-person examination. When a commission was sent to Neuschwanstein to arrest him, Ludwig had them thrown in the dungeon and shouted out all sorts of wild punishments that should be levied against these disloyal officials. The king's servants were rather embarrassed by this and, when it was Ludwig's nap time (or something), they quietly set the men free. This incident probably didn't do much to convince people of the king's sanity.

On June 12, Ludwig was successfully arrested and committed into the care of Professor Bernhard von Gudden (the same psychiatrist who had pronounced the diagnosis). The next evening (June 13), Ludwig asked for permission to take a walk around Lake Starnberg. Dr. Gudden agreed and accompanied the king. Later that night, the two men's bodies would be found floating by the shore of the lake. The official story is that this was a murder-suicide perpetrated by the mad King Ludwig.

Ludwig's beloved cousin, the Empress Sissi, said of his alleged madness, "the King was not mad; he was just an eccentric living in a world of dreams. They might have treated him more gently, and thus perhaps spared him so terrible an end."

New Evidence of Foul Play

The new evidence cited by the Independent is two-fold. First, in a sworn affidavit, a 60-year-old Munich banker named Detlev Utermöhle recounts an incident from his childhood which he insists he remembers vividly. When he was 10 years old, Utermöhle and his mother were invited to tea by Countess Josephine von Wrba-Kaunitz, who was a sort of caretaker for the House of Wittelsbach. In a stage whisper the Countess told the gathered guests "Now you will find out the truth about Ludwig's death without his family knowing. I will show you all the coat he wore on the day he died." She then opened up a chest and pulled out a grey Loden coat which Utermöhle saw had two bullet holes in its back. The coat was destroyed when the Countess' home caught fire -- killing her and her husband -- in 1973.

Utermöhle's account is further collaborated by art historian Siegfried Wichmann who this week published a hitherto unknown photograph of a postmortem portrait taken mere hours after King Ludwig's death. The portrait shows blood oozing out of the late king's mouth. This would seem to be incompatible with the official explanation that Ludwig drowned: if that was the case one would expect his lungs to have filled with water, but this bloody discharge suggests a trauma.

Many have long suspected that Ludwig may have been assassinated on the orders of his political enemies in Munich. For years some have called upon the Wittelsbach family to exhume his body so an autopsy can be performed, but thus far the family has chosen to let the matter, and King Ludwig, rest in peace.

Royal Bavarian coat of arms was found on wikipedia which states that under German law such images are not subject to copyright. Photo of 18yo Ludwig taken at Hohenschwangau was also found on wikipedia which states that the image is in the public domain. Neuschwanstein photo (c) flickr user jaegerpt. Photo of Memorial Cross taken by Nicholas Even who grants a GNU Free Documentation License over it.

Monday, November 12, 2007

One more thing about giant peccary...

How long do you think it will be until we see Anthony Bourdain eat one of these?

Now I think Anthony Bourdain is great. He first made a name for himself as a top chef in New York City. Then he published several books most notably Kitchen Confidential, about what goes on in the kitchen of a fine dining restaurant, and A Cook's Tour. Now he basically gets paid to travel the world: eating, drinking (perhaps to excess), getting into mischief, and writing/talking about it. This makes me very jealous. I'll admit that when I first saw Bourdain I thought he looked sort of like a sleazebag. He's tall and practically Mick Jagger thin, with a leathery face that looks like its been through years of abuse. But, whatever, you don't tune into his travel show to look at him. And to be fair he knows a lot about food, and he's pretty much up for everything. He also has the right attitude: I remember him saying that when he travels somewhere like Texas -- which as a New Yorker he's long harbored ill sentiments about -- he now recognizes it as a foreign culture and thus tries to give local customs the same respect he would if he were somewhere in China or Africa. I'm all about that: I say you can get a lot out of life if you treat everything as a cultural learning experience. Well most things anyway. And if Bourdain occassionally talks smack about celebrity chefs Rachel Ray and Bobby Flay, who's going to complain?

I LOVE No Reservations, the Travel Channel show where Bourdain hops around the globe stopping in different locales to show us the sights and sample the local cuisine. One week he'll be somewhere as mundane as Cleveland or New Jersey, and the next he'll be someplace as off-the-beaten track as Uzbekistan or Ghana. The show's emphasis is always on food and drink, but Bourdain also tours around and occasionally performs some wild stunts. Even the less exotic, domestic stops are brilliant because they show you what and where to eat if you ever find yourself there.

But the thing I've noticed is that Bourdain eats a whole lot of pork everywhere he goes on the show. Seriously, next time you watch the show check it out -- he loves him some treif. I think we should make a drinking game out of it (because life is one big drinking game if you play it correctly), and whenever you see Bourdain (a) chowing down on some swine or (b) say pointing at some pigs snouts at the market and going "mmm, my favorite" you take a shot. Who's in?

Photo (c) Travel Channel

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Gregory Peccary

Earlier this week, I read an article on about a newly discovered species. The giant peccary was found by Dutch scientist Mark van Roosmalen near the Aripuanã river in the Amazonas state in northeast Brazil.

Peccary are animals in the pig family that are native to the New World. There are three previously identified species of peccary: the collared peccary whose habitat extends from the southwestern United States down to South America and the island of Trinidad, the white-lipped peccary which is found in the rainforest of Central and South America, and the Chacoan peccary which inhabits the savanna in Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina and southern Brazil.

In North America, we also have Old World wild pigs, commonly referred to as "razorbacks," who were brought to the continent by the conquistador Hernando de Soto in the mid-1500s. You can tell the difference between razorbacks and peccary (surely that will impress your date) because the Old World razorbacks have tusks.

The giant peccary can grow as big as a large dog. Besides their size, they also differ from other peccary in that they live in pairs or small nuclear families while other species are known to form large herds. Moreover, the giant peccary subsists on fruits whereas other peccary dig for roots and seeds. Giant peccary also don't mark their territory using scent. The new species' habitat is limited to dry wooded areas found in a small part of the Rio Aripuanã river basin (collared and white-lipped peccary also live in this region). Because of this small habitat researchers recommend that the giant peccary be placed on the red list of threatened species.

Although this species' existence has just recently been confirmed by scientists, it is not news to the indigenous Tupi people in the area who call them caitetú mundè which means "great peccary that lives in pairs." Indeed it is regarded as the most prized game by local hunters. The specimen officially representing the new species can be found at a museum in the state capital of Manaus.

This is not the first time Van Roosmalen has discovered a new species in the wilderness of Brazil. In 2002, he identified two new species of titi monkeys: the Stephen Nash monkey and the Bernhard monkey (pictured left) -- the latter of which was named in honor of the late Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands (1911-2004), husband to Queen Juliana and a noted naturalist.

Giant peccary photo (c) Naturfilm/Roland Gockel, Bernhard monkey photo (c) AP Photo/Conservation International

Friday, November 9, 2007

Catty Corner

One of our readers has suggested that this blog could do with a healthy dose of frivolous trash. >sighsuppose I can take a break from all the intellectual posts about history and nature in order to write something which will make us all feel a little dirty. See this, readers, if you write a comment I will actually read it, and your suggestions will be noted.

Anyway, Maxim magazine recently compiled a list of the "Five Unsexiest Women Alive," thus proving that straight men can be catty bitches too. When I read about this my first reaction was "wow, picking out five people and labelling them 'unsexy' -- that is so mean." Seriously, wouldn't you cry if someone compiled an unsexy list and put you on it? I think I would. But the second thought that ran through my mind was "must find out who else is on list." So let's run down the list, shall we, and (a) decide whether or not these ladies have been unfairly branded as "unsexy" and/or (b) talk smack about them.

#5 It's Britney, bitch
Ay! This is just what Brit Brit needs. I mean, talk about kicking a girl while she's down. Dlisted reports that Britney wanted to go let off some steam at a Maxim party on Tuesday night, but that was before her friends let her in on the fact that she was on the magazine's unsexy list. When she heard the news, she supposedly pouted and her eyes welled up with tears. Aww! I think we're all ready for that Britney comeback that may never happen right about now both because (a) classic Britney gave us some fun songs, and (b) this whole "hitting rock bottom" thing has been going on for so long that it's not even entertaining anymore.

#4 Madonna
Ooh, I love the Madonna hate. First of all, the boys at Maxim rightly point out that we are all sick and tired of hearing about Madge's quasi-Jewish, Kabbalah bullshit and her adopted Malawian baby. Speaking of the baby, I like to think that she brought him home just to spite Lourdes. You know that little girl is a big diva. Some might point out that Madonna usually looks damn good for a woman of 60 (or however old she is), but she's definitely lost her sexy edge as of late. I think that maybe, just as Angelina and Brad have been draining the sexy out of each other ever since they got together (and I owe that observation to Nicole), Madonna and Guy Ritchie have also sucked the sexy and the talent out of one another since they tied the knot.

#3 Sandra Oh
The Maxim guys say Sandra has a skinny boy body. Wow, mean. I mean I guess Sandra Oh doesn't exude sex, but then again she didn't do too bad in Sideways. I do get the feeling however that life for her entails a daily struggle against the frump. Moreover, Scandalous Candice points out that she sort of looks like she's surprised all the time (check out her eyebrows). I don't watch that Grey's Anatomy crap, but have you ever seen the movie Double Happiness? It is a pretty decent independent movie from the '90s starring Sandra Oh, and it's all about growing up Chinese Canadian, and your family being all in your business and controlling, and sweet red bean buns (mmm). If that sounds at all interesting to you, you should check it out.

#2 Amy Winehouse
Yes. Get help. Oh, Amy, Amy, Amy! She tops my list of young female celebrities I want someone to slap some sense in to (Lilo is #2 and Britney is #3). It is seriously frightening what fame has been doing to young women lately. Anyway, I think that putting Amy Winehouse on this list is not so much mean as it is tough love. This girl needs to get her shit together because she has an amazing voice and too much talent to be killing herself.

#1 Sarah Jessica Parker
Harsh. So, in this picture she sort of looks like a cross between Robin Wright Penn and Viggo Mortensen in The Lord of Rings. SJP does have the face of a 42-year-old woman who is determined to age naturally, but she has come a long way since she played the fugalicious dork queen on Square Pegs. Her role on Sex and the City made her synonymous with fashion, sophistication, and glamor. Granted, glamor ≠ sex, and occasionally she went a little over board with the haute couture choices and landed on the wrong side of ridiculous, but we all need to give SJP credit for fighting a one woman battle to make America more glamorous. Seriously, I'm always complaining about how people never dress up anymore. Apparently, when SJP heard she had been named the unsexiest woman alive (!) she said something like"That's ok, I don't think I'm sexy either." That makes me feel even worse for her.

I would also like to go ahead and call bullshit on this whole list. Do you really think the single writers and readers of Maxim wouldn't sleep with any one of these ladies if they got the chance? I would bet money that these women are more attractive than half of the girls they pick up in bars.

Top 5 pics were all found on Britney pic (c) Mark J Terrill/AP Photos, Madonna pic (c) Alastair Grant/AP Photos, Amy Winehouse pic (c) Jeff Christensen/AP Photos, SJP pic (c) Jennifer Graylock/AP Photos. Square Pegs pic is a still from TV Land.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Not to put too fine a point on it...

It's super late right now, but I was wondering whether you have seen the new show, Pushing Daisies, yet. Pushing Daisies was created by Bryan Fuller, who also came up with Wonderfalls. Wonderfalls was about a 20-something slacker whose life changes (sort of) when toy animals begin to tell her what to do. It was one of those shows that you didn't hear about when it was on the air, it got cancelled in a hot minute, and then you see it years later and are like "this is awesome! too bad there's only 6 episodes."

Pushing Daisies is about this guy (Lee Pace who played Jaye's brother in Wonderfalls) who since boyhood has had the inexplicable power to bring dead things back to life. Of course there's a catch: if he touches them again they're dead for good, and if he doesn't kill them again in 60 seconds or less something else in the general vicinity has to die in their place. So of course the guy does the obvious thing: he opens a pie shop, and in his spare times he helps a black PI (with attitude) solve murders (by reviving the recently deceased long enough for them to tell him what happened).

The show has a similar feel to the movie Amelie or Big Fish. It features super-saturated, glowing visuals, and it's narrated by that old guy who does the "In heaven, Walgreen's is open 24 hours" commercials. It is a fairytale, and at the same time it has a weird sense of humor and manages to fit in elements such as bulimic chicks and murderous corporate conspiracies without it being too jarring. As if that's not cracky enough it's also a musical.

I know it's out of context, but this is my favorite scene to date in which the characters break out into "[Build A Little] Birdhouse In Your Soul" by They Might Be Giants.

Can you believe they show this on television!

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Life of St. Tammany

Speaking of saints... the state of Louisiana is divided into parishes rather than counties, and several parishes are named after saints. There's St. Bernard parish (we're all familiar with the breed of big, rescue dog bearing his name if not with the actual saint) and St. Charles parish (I had to write a report on him for catechism class; he was a 15th century, Italian cardinal), but what about St. Tammany parish -- located on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, and encompassing such cities as Mandeville, Covington, Abita Springs, and that town that starts with an "Sl" -- who is that named after? It turns out that "Saint Tammany" was not so much a saint as an Indian chief.

Tamanend (aka Tammany, 1628?-1698?) was a clan leader in the Lenni Lenape nation (whom the Europeans dubbed the Delaware Indians since the tribe lived near the river they named after the explorer De La Warr). The Lenni Lenape belonged to the greater Algonquin people -- tribes who spoke similar languages and who loosely identified with one another. Among the Algonquin, the Lenni Lenape were known as the grandfathers as they were traditionally regarded as the progenitors of all Algonquin tribes.

The Lenni Lenape organized themselves into matrilineal clans (i.e. membership was inherited from one's mother), and young men typically married outside of their clan. This meant that a child's father would be a member of another clan and that her closest male ancestor in the clan would be a maternal uncle or the maternal grandfather.

Tamanend's people lived in eastern Pennsylvania when William Penn (1644-1718) first settled the colony. As a prominent member of the Society of Friends (i.e. the Quakers), which promoted pacifism and egalitarianism, Penn felt it was important to deal fairly with the indigenous people. Thus, Penn purportedly paid 1,200 pounds for the land on which his first settlement was founded. This is universally regarded as a fair price. Among the Lenape he was given the nickname Minquon which means "quill," suggesting the pen with which treaties were signed.

Tamanend was one of the indigenous leaders present when, in 1682, Penn signed a treaty of eternal friendship under a great elm tree in the Lenape village of Shakamaxon. Tradition states that on this occasion Tamanend declared that the peace between the Quaker settlers and the Lenape people would endure as long as the streams and rivers flowed and as long as the stars burned in the sky. It is also said that Tamanend was present at a council in Philadelphia in 1694 when the Iroquois people wanted to attack the settlers. Tamanend insisted that despite the occasional obstacle standing in the way of their friendship his people should remain true to their word and keep the peace with the Christians.

Unfortunately, Penn returned to England in 1701, and his heirs and successors proved less interested in maintaining fair intercourse with the Native Americans. Moreover, more aggressive, warlike white men migrated into the region and pushed for westward expansion. One egregious incident was the so-called Walking Purchase which took place in 1737. Penn's successors produced a document of dubious authenticity which purported to be a deed, signed between the Lenape's ancestors and Penn, in which they sold him as much land as a man could walk in one-and-a-half days. The Lenape leaders agreed to honor the contract and let the colonists walk off the area conveyed. For this purpose, the colonists hired the three fastest sprinters they could find. Only one of the runners managed to finish the strenuous sprint: he travelled around 70 miles and thus gave the Penns' possession of around 1,200 square miles (roughly equivalent to the State of Rhode Island). Chief Lappawinsoe of the Lennai Lenape thought this was pretty weak, but he had little choice but to surrender the land.

The Americans westward expansion forced the Lenape to relocate time and time again. The Lenape nation's population in 1600 is estimated at around 20,000. In 1845, their numbers had dwindled to less than 2,000. But today there are almost 16,000 Lenape; although some still reside in Pennsylvania, most now live in Oklahoma.

Among the Lenape, Tamanend is remembered for his nobility of spirit, his wisdom and his kindness. There is also an interesting story surrounding Tamanend's death. When Tamanend was quite elderly, there was a conference at Philadelphia. He was too decrepit to walk so several of his younger clansmen had to carry him there. Soon the young men grew tired of lugging around old Tamanend, so when he fell asleep they built a tent and dropped him off there, leaving him in the care of an Indian girl. When Tamanend awoke, he was so frustrated and depressed at being left behind that he decided to take his own life. First, he attempted to slit his wrists but, when his hands proved to feeble to hold the knife, he instead set his bed of straw on fire and threw himself on the flames.

Tamanend's legacy would live on among Americans as well. At the time of the Revolutionary War, many colonists adopted the Indian as a symbol of the American identity to distinguish themselves from the Europeans. A particularly fervent cult arose around the peace-loving figure of Tamanend who was called "King Tammany" or "Saint Tammany" and who was dubbed "The Patron Saint of America." St. Tammany day was celebrated on May 1st or May 12th, and people would celebrate by dressing up like Indians and playing Indian games. In addition to St. Tammany Parish, Tammany Hall in New York, the Democratic Party's political machine which became synonymous with corruption, was also named after Tamanend.

A little more about the history of St. Tammany Parish... St. Tammany was part of the region known as West Florida. West Florida lay along the Gulf Coast, and it stretched from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain in the West to the Apalachicola River and the 31st parallel in the East. The French were the first European settlers in the western part of the region while the Spanish established an outpost at Pensacola. Then, at the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763, the British gained control of West Florida as well as the Spanish colony of East Florida.

West Florida would change hands once again in 1783. After the British defeat in the Revolutionary War, Britain ceded the Floridas to Spain. At this time, many British loyalists migrated to West Florida from the thirteen colonies. They were joined by other American settlers who moved west in search of new land.

After the United States purchased the Louisiana territory from Napoleon in 1803, the US and Spain quarrelled over who owned West Florida. The US argued that at least the western portion of the area was rightly considered part of Louisiana, given that it was first settled by the French, and that it was thus included in the package deal. This was still going on when, in 1810, the Anglophone West Floridians rebelled against the Spanish. They established an independent Republic, but later that year President Monroe issued a declaration stating that West Florida was part of the Louisiana territory. Thus, William C. C. Claiborne (1775-1817), the first US governor of Louisiana (and an Anglophone Virginian, incidentally), annexed West Florida as per the President's orders and St. Tammany Parish became part of Louisiana.

St. Tammany Parish Map from 1895 Rand McNally US Almanac, scan (c) CFC productions, found on Photo of Tamanend statue by Raymond Sandoval in Philadelphia taken by Joey Blue and found on chalfont, PA gov site. Image of Willian Penn signing treaty is from a frieze in the US Capitol and is in the public domain. 1767 map of West Florida taken from Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection and found on which claims its in the public domain.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Saint Hilda and the Ammonites

November 1st is All Saints Day, so I figured I'd write a post about a cool saint (plus, continuing from yesterday's topic, zombies... saints... they're sort of similar). Moreover, this post combines history with sea creatures.

Saint Hilda (614-680) was the grand-niece of St. Edwin (585-633), the King of Northumbria. When King Edwin married his second wife, Ethelburga, who was the sister of the Christian King Eadbald of Kent, she was accompanied to Northumbria by the missionary St. Paulinus of York (584-644). St. Paulinus converted Edwin to the Christian faith, and in 627 the king and his entire clan -- including 13-year-old Hilda -- were baptized.

Hilda lived the first half of her life as a secular noblewoman, but then, at the age of 33, she donned a nun's habit. She travelled to East Anglia intending to sail to France and join the Abbey at Chelles, but she was called back to Northumbria by St. Aidan, the Bishop of Lindisfarne. She spent some time in a small nunnery by the River Wear before Bishop Aidan, recognizing her gift for leadership, put her in charge of the monastery in Hartlepool which was said to have been founded by St. Bee. Then, in 657, she was tapped to become the founding abbess of the monastery that King Oswy (c612-670) commissioned at Streaneshalch (the Danes would later give it the more easily pronounceable name "Whitby").

Whitby Abbey was a double monastery housing both monks and nuns, and Hilda presided over both communities. She established a well-ordered administration, and Whitby Abbey became well-known as a place of learning. Indeed, no less than five of the monks in her charge would rise to the rank of bishop, including St. John of Beverly and St. Wilfrid of York. It is also said that commoners, holymen and princes would all travel from far and wide in order to ask for the advice of the wise Abbess Hilda.

In 664, an important synod was convened at Whitby in order to decide (among other things) whether the date of Easter should be calculated according to the Celtic reckoning or according to the established Roman system. St. Wilfrid eventually convinced King Oswy and the majority of the assembled clerics that they should follow the Roman system. Hilda supposedly favored the Celtic tradition, but when the decision was reached she accepted it, thus setting an example for other dissenters and helping to reconcile the two sides.

Hilda was stricken with fever for the last seven years of her life, but she never wavered in her devotion to God nor did she let her illness keep her from her duties. It is said that when St. Hilda died, the bells spontaneously sounded at the Hackness monastery some 13 miles away and that a nun had a vision of Hilda being carried off to heaven by a host of angels.

Our primary source of information for the life of Saint Hilda is the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation written by the Venerable Bede (c672-735) (see Book IV Chapter XXIII). If you took Brit Lit I in college you probably had to read the most famous passage of Bede's History (the next chapter actually) which is commonly referred to as "Caedmon's Hymn" (you can read it here). According to Bede, Caedmon was a peasant who was wholly ignorant of the art of song. Whenever the countryfolk got a little tipsy and decided it was karaoke time, Caedom would slip out the back. Then one night, a vision came to Caedmon in a dream and commanded him to compose a verse about the Creation of the Universe. Sure enough, when Caedmon awoke, he miraculously composed a beautiful verse. He presented his work at Whitby Abby and the gathered monks were greatly impressed. Hilda then convinced Caedmon to don a cassock and devote the rest of his life to God. She had Caedmon taught the scriptures, and he converted everything he learned into beautiful verse, thus going down in history as England's first recorded poet. This episode, too, shows Hilda's kindness and her gift for recognizing talent in others. Incidentally, in a note before the text, the Norton Anthology offers up an explanation to debunk the miracle: suggesting that perhaps Caedmon was hesitant to tell the chaste brothers and sisters of Whitby about all the bawdy secular songs he may have sung before he found religion and that this might be why he demurred and claimed that he was ignorant of all verse before that day.

Whitby Abbey was abandoned after a Viking attack in 867 (vikings... zombies...). It was rededicated in 1078 only to be destroyed once and for all by Henry VIII in 1540. Today it stands in picturesque ruin.

A great number of fossils have also been found in the vicinity of Whitby including pterodactyls and ammonites. The ammonite is an extinct sea creature which had a shell like a chambered nautilus and a body like a squid. Ammonites lived from the Late Silurian/Early Devonian era(circa 400 million years ago) until the end of the Cretaceous (circa 65 million years ago) when they went extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs. Ammonite remains are sometimes used as an index fossil to date the rock layer in which they are embedded. While Ammonite shells from the lower and middle Jurassic are usually smaller than 9 inches, later ammonite fossils have been found which measure 5 feet or more.

Medieval Europeans mistook fossilized ammonite shells for petrified serpents that had been turned to stone by the prayers of saints such as Hilda. Thus they were sometimes called "snakestones."

Sir Walter Scott's 1808 epic poem Marmion (which gave us the lines "Oh what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive") speaks about all this. To give credit where credit is due, I first encountered these verses in A.S. Byatt's awesome novel, The Virgin in the Garden.

They told, how in their convent-cell
A Saxon princess once did dwell,
The lovely Edelfled.
And how, of thousand snakes, each one
Was changed into a coil of stone,
When holy Hilda pray'd;
Themselves, within their holy bound,
Their stony folds had often found.
They told, how sea-fowls' pinions fail,
As over Whitby's towers they sail,
And, sinking down, with flutterings faint,
They do their homage to the saint.

Image of St. Hilda is from a stain glass window in the nave of St. Augustine Church in North London and can be found on the church's website. Photo of Whitby Abbey taken by Neil Gray who has released it into the public domain. Ammonite photo taken by Johnathan Dempsey ( was released into the public domain.