So suppose you’re going into your fourteenth continuous year of the temperature being consistently above 586 degrees. And your pet rabbits are showing signs of strain from the heat, such as extremely rapid nose-wiggling, shallow breathing, making picket signs that read “HEAT UNFAIR TO” and then the crayon melts, and even more disapproving glares at the window than usual. Well, just take an emptied bottle of soda or pop, as you prefer, fill it with water, and freeze it. Then set it in the rabbit’s enclosure and look! Within minutes you’ll have a rabbit nose-bump the thing until it rolls some, and then staring at you and asking what that was supposed to accomplish. And the answer is, nothing, really. It’s just important that you have a process.
Here’s my most recent recap of James Allen’s Mark Trail. At or near the top of that link, anyway. My recap here should cover the early part of 2018. Good luck.
And I discuss comic strips with mathematical themes on my other blog. I hope you find that interesting too.
11 February – 6 May 2018.
Last time in Mark Trail there were a bunch of animals in weird places. I mean weird by Mark Trail’s standards. A giraffe eating Rusty’s apples. An ostrich with an organ-grinding monkey teasing Doc. A rhino chasing down a couple of Mark Trail cartoonist James Allen’s friends. Mark could be baffled by these goings-on while we readers weren’t. And not because Mark or anyone was being dumb. We had information that they didn’t: “Dirty” Dyer read about how the Tingling Brothers Circus was making its last tour. How or why their animals were loose might be a mystery, but why there should be a giraffe at the Lost Forest at this time of year was not. Oh, also, Dyer is figuring to kill Mark Trail. But he’s taking his time and working up to it.
After hearing of Rusty and Doc’s weird-animal reports, Mark steps out on the porch and sees a tiger. He swings into action and steps back inside, to toss a ham outside. A big old ham, too, like you see in 1950s humor comic books. The tiger eats the ham, proving to Mark that this isn’t some hallucination, somehow? After that odd moment, though, Mark calls the authorities, who it turns out were coming to visit anyway. The Sheriff explains. The Circus train derailed and most of the animals got loose.
Then he launches into what’s almost a shaggy dog story. It’s built on the premise that the clown car took it hardest: “You should have seen it, Mark — greasepaint and rubber chickens on the tracks for miles!”. The story then goes into the clowns, who were all safely in the bar car, in full makeup and dress. The dazed group, led by the eldest and most respected clown, the Great Wilhelm — “the clown that never spoke, he just screamed a lot” — wandered away. They stumbled through a graveyard and toward a bonfire where some kids were having a camping night and telling monster stories and stuff. So you can imagine how well a pack of dazed, disheveled clowns stumbling out of the graveyard were received. The clowns, frightened by the kids’ screams, turned and fled. Old Man Basil, overseeing the bonfire, fired a load of rock salt and hit The Great Wilhelm in the back. “They said you could hear Wilhelm scream from the other end of the valley!”
Okay. So. First. I’m not afraid of clowns. Not in the slightest. I don’t get what is supposed to be frightening about clowns. I think the pop culture default assumption that of course clowns are evil terrifying monsters who have to be stamped out of society is a sickness. I’ll grant there are people afraid of clowns, but, I mean, there are people afraid of any living matter that has lots of holes in it, like some kinds of fungus have. We don’t grant that phobia a privileged place in society and tell each other that of course the phobia is correct. “But wait,” people trying to talk me into fearing clowns say. “What about the clown from It? Aren’t you scared of that clown?”
I’ve never read It, nor seen the movie. But as I understand it, the clown from It is an unstoppable supernatural monster dragging people to a horrible death. The scary thing there is “unstoppable supernatural monster dragging people to a horrible death”. That he manifests as a clown doesn’t enter into it. I would not feel less menaced if the unstoppable supernatural monster dragging people to a horrible death were a freelance insurance-claims investigator.
Second. Wilhelm Scream? As in the scream that I guess is in every movie nerds like. James Allen put into Mark Trail a nerd-culture riff like that? And I didn’t notice? Even though he quite fairly set it up and underlined it several times, talking about The Great Wilhelm who “just screamed a lot”. And I didn’t notice. Well, fair enough. I’ve never noticed the Wilhelm Scream sound effect even though it’s apparently in every movie I’ve watched more than three times, including the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business and Mister Bug Goes To Town. (Don’t @ me. I’ve listened to the scream in isolation, and I’ve listened to scenes with it in. I’ve learned that it turns out I just don’t care.) I’m not sure how I feel about Mark Trail making nerd culture jokes. But he put in a good one, and did it well, laying out the setup where anyone could see and trusting people wouldn’t notice.
Anyway. Back to the story. Mark and Dusty go looking for animals. There’s the ground rumbling. Mark says “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” and I see what he did there. It’s an elephant. Mark gets to the tranquilizer gun and knocks out the elephant before anybody can come to particular harm.
Then a new, bearded, bald guy comes in. In Mark Trail tradition this signals that we’ve finally met the villain. But no: he’s Marlin Creed from the Eden Gardens Zoo. There is no villain in this piece. He and his assistant Jim are here to help trap the animals and to ask if you get the reference there. Well? Do you? BETTER SAY YES! (2 points to the first person who gets what my reference there is. That person will be Roymark Kassinger.). (5 points to the first person who figures out what I’m referencing with this points-to-the-first-person-who stuff.)
With the arrival of Marlin and Jim, and the news that the circus people are getting organized again, the story looks like it’s finally ended. Mark mentions he’s going to have a vacation in Mexico soon. And then it turns out there’s a ruckus off-screen. There’s a tiger fighting a rhinoceros, because hey, how often do you get to justify having a tiger fight a rhinoceros? I mean outside March Mammal Madness? (I have not forgotten #Unsettlegate. Don’t ask what this is all about. You’re better off not knowing.)
The tiger runs off in one direction, the rhino in another. Mark, Marlin, and Jim chase the rhino in a cool zebra-striped jeep. Meanwhile Joel Robinson in the corner of the screen whispers out, “Daktari”. After the Wilhelm Scream thing I’m not getting nerd-snookered again. Marlin sends Jim out to annoy the rhino with a stick. Mark asks “is that safe?” Marlin says “No.” Like in the jokes about Wild America made back when we made jokes about Marlin and Jim and Wild America. The rhino is successfully annoyed and smashes the jeep. But Mark’s able to shoot him with a tranquilizer dart.
With the 14th of April this story is officially closed. We’re told the circus has recovered all their missing animals. This includes “Twinkles, the flaming-log-juggling hippo”. I assume this is a reference to something and I’m waiting to see what it is in Dick Tracy.
The 16th of April starts what might be the current story. It’s in the Bahamas where Dirty Dyer has been lounging on the beach and scaring resort guests with his knife-throwing practice. Also shooting off guns. Also reading Weapons For Dummies, Calvin and Hobbes, and To Serve Man. Dyer glad-handles the guy sent to report on how he’s alarming the guests into becoming his assistant.
I say this might be the current story. We’ve seen one or two-week interludes with Dirty Dyer before. James Allen is letting this story simmer. I don’t know whether Mark Trail is going to encounter Dirty Dyer yet.
So the 26th of April starts what is unambiguously the current story. The Trails are flying to Mexico. Rusty has an honestly endearing moment where he’s amazed at the size of the airport. “We’re only going to Mexico — I didn’t think we’d need an airport this big!” I sincerely like the kid-logic that how far you’re going should affect the size of the airport you go to. It’s even got enough bits of truth to it to make sense. Rusty Trail comes in for a lot of jokes about being a terrifying homunculus. I’m glad to see him being a normal-ish child.
Not much has happened here yet. While taking off Cherry Trail mentions a couple stories back where the island Mark was on exploded under a volcano. And Mark talks a bit about where they’re going. It’s called the Azyoulik, an ecoresort near Tulum. And right near the town of Santa Poco. Get it?
Yeah, me neither. Mark explains, “Interestingly enough, Santa Poco was saved from bandits in the silent movie era by three American cowboy actors!” So I do thank James Allen for explaining he was making a Three Amigos reference. Rusty’s already wandered off to meet someone named Mara, whose family is also going to Tulum. And that’s where we are as of Saturday.
So all in all, I don’t know why Mark Trail is making so many nerd movie jokes lately. I think Allen’s just having fun with the strip’s hip-because-square reputation.
Sunday Animals Watch
What bits of nature have been showcased on Sundays recently? These have been:
- Sea Turtles, 11 February 2018. Really, really endangered.
- Bougainvillea, 18 February 2018. Not endangered except by spelling bee contestants who’ve just been knocked out.
- Prairies Dogs and Black-Footed Ferrets, 25 February 2018. Finally. The Black-Footed Ferrets are incredibly endangered. Prairie Dogs are making a comeback.
- Spiders and Great Heights, 4 March 2018. While public-speaking on an airplane naked in front of the House Centipede convention.
- Blue Tarantulas, 11 March 2018. Freshly-discovered and so very popular so we’re going to destroy it any day now.
- Rhesus Macaque Monkeys on this island near Puerto Rico, 18 March 2018. They survived Hurricane Maria and the future disgraced former president hasn’t ordered their gizzards drilled for coal yet!
- Black-Footed [wild] Cat of southwest Africa, 25 March 2018. Really, really endangered.
- Feral Pigs, 1 April 2018. Endangering you. Seriously. That bit at the start of The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy falls in the pig pen and the Cowardly Lion’s farmhand’sona rescues her? That’s showing off his bravery. The movie thought that part out.
- Tiger Sharks, 8 April 2018. ThunderCats, but for sea life, why wouldn’t this be a hit? Because it didn’t make sense even by the standards of the SilverHawks universe is why. I mean, when your show would have been less baffling if you didn’t include the pilot episode laying out how everybody came to be Tiger Sharks and what their powers and all were you have world-building problems.
- Chameleons, 15 April 2018. All my attempts to learn about how their faces fluoresce were obliterated by noticing Mark Trail calling them “squamates” and I have to sit and stare at that word for a long while even though (a) I know full well it’s a legitimate way to refer to them and (b) I knew the root word “squamous” before Mark Trail got onto it so there.
- Marbled Crayfish, 22 April 2018. You know, those crayfish that are doing way better since they stopped dealing with the males of the species.
- Orange Crocodiles, 29 April 2018. Probably Just About Dead.
- Harris’s Hawks, 6 May 2018. Not endangered yet, but just you wait.
Muffins. What are they, and what became of them? Can you put mayonnaise on a muffin? Come back in a week and I’ll share the weird message of existential despair from the car place down the block.
So I was reading Seymour I Schwartz’s The Mismapping of America, which as you inferred from the title is all about the challenges in making an integrated-circuit design and surrounding circuit board that would be lightweight and reliable enough to serve as the Apollo Guidance Computer for the moon landings. In the last full chapter Schwartz discusses the history of mapping the Great Lakes and how we got around to having two Lake Superior islands — Isle Phelipeaux and Isle Pontchartain — which define part of the boundary between the United States and Canada despite neither actually in fact existing. Here “neither” refers to Lake Superior and to the United States, which should be a considerable relief to everyone but the mapmakers. And now consider this following sentence, about the late-1680s exploration reports by Louis, Baron de Lahontan et Hesleche, of the Fox River in what we now think of as Wisconsin.
Lahontan’s text includes an extensive, although improbable, description of domesticated beavers in the area.
And now try to tell me that sentence hasn’t caused you to pause in your day’s worries and allow a gentle, delighted smile to cross your face. You can’t do it, and for good reason. I thank whatever twists and turns of fate led Seymour I Schwartz to the point of writing such a delightful sentence. It’s rare for fourteen words to do so much for the human condition.
- After three overtimes the game will be settled by a fifteen-word spelling bee.
- A regulation field is 120 yards in length, 53 and 1/3d yards in width, and 1.16 light-seconds in height, extending six feet, two inches below the surface of the ground.
- Any kind of zebra, whether talking or not, is specifically prohibited from playing in the Super Bowl.
- Team uniforms are not allowed to be chroma-key green.
- The zebra’s also prohibited from the Pro Bowl, Conference Championships, and the Divisional Rounds.
- No licking the ball after the two-minute warning.
- Yes, a zebra is allowed to play in the wild-card round, but only as a field goal kicker.
- All players must exist in no fewer than three dimensions of space and one of time.
- If by some chance the offensive team gets to a 7th Down that’s automatically one point.
- It’s a 20-yard penalty and loss of possession for four or more players on the offensive team to blep their tongues out simultaneously while behind the line of scrimmage.
- No player is allowed to wear his helmet either backwards or on either foot during the game. (However, this rule has never been enforced at the professional level.)
- It’s prohibited to use the player’s bench as a workbench for light carpentry projects.
Source: The Kaiser’s Merchant Ships in World War I, William Lowell Putnam.
|What I Think I’m Good At||What I Am Good At|
Pop mathematics writing
Listening to distressed friends without making their anxieties worse
Nursing ill pet animals back to health
Reducto-ad-absurdum chains of humorous reasoning
Providing, when asked, historical context for minor oddities
|Telling casual acquaintances on social media how to handle it if they’ve accidentally forgotten they were on call for jury duty this week and are kind of freaking out about this|
I was just getting some rabbit food at the pet store, but I paused to watch the guinea pigs, because they’re always soothing and fun. Someone was there with a little kid, and she was pointing out and naming the animals to him. “There are some rats,” she said, “fancy rats.” And the kid asked, “Why?”
And I understand the kid was just at that age where “why” is the response to any question, including “would you like this extra chocolate we happened to have hanging around?” But I also feel like I’ve been given the responsibility of writing a charming, slightly twee children’s book explaining why some animals are rats.
And I gotta say, I’m not the person to ask that. The best I can come up with, and this is after literally dozens of minutes thinking about it, is that there are some animals who just did awesomely well in Mouse College, and they went on to earn their Masters of Rodent Arts. But they got ultimately sound advice to not go on to a doctorate in Possum Studies or something like that, so that’s left them as well-equipped and highly trained rats prowling around the world and adding to it that charming Halloween touch and also those great pictures online where one’s looking right at you with big, sweet, innocent eyes and grabbing a hindpaw with both front paws. Anyway, this is why my nieces refer to me as “Silly Uncle Joseph”. I’m sorry.
Do you remember being bored? I mean, boredom is still with us. But it’s attenuated now, chopped up into small bits of boredom between something exciting happening on Facebook or watching the spectacle of the Future Disgraced Former President’s self-immolation or the like. And a lot of that is still an expression of boredom, since boredom is the state in which anything is sufficient to hold our attention. A video of a bird putting a cover on a cat isn’t actually interesting, but compared to nothing going on, it’s interesting enough.
But back in the days, we could be bored in quantity. Just have days, especially summer ones, when time stretched out and there wasn’t any prospect of something asking for attention. I’m not saying those were better days. They weren’t. By nearly all measures we are so much better off today that we have cell phones and abundant Internet and are never that far from someone we want to communicate with or something we find entertaining to watch or do.
In this Vic and Sade episode, from the 13th of June, 1939, it’s the boring part of summer. And the best of all possible things happens: something exciting comes up. A good part of an old building collapses. Rush gets to see it. And one of his friends is inspired. He turns something already exciting into a performance. Maybe it’s the sort of thing that could happen today. But I do wonder if it takes being bored, and knowing what the face of long stretches of quiet, inactive summer evenings imply, to see a chance like this and make it something even more.
Hi, reader. This is my best attempt at explaining what’s been going on in James Allen’s Mark Trail for the last couple months. If for you the last couple months do not include, like, May of 2017 then I might be writing here about a story that’s not going on anymore, if the current story ever ends. Right now it’s not looking promising. But in case the story has ended by the time you read this, try reading this instead, as a more current essay might be among its first links. I hope this helps you find what you’re looking for.
19 March – 10 June 2017
My last Mark Trail report coincided strangely well with the start of a new adventure. 17-year-periodic guest star Johnny Lone Elk had invited Mark Trail to South Dakota, there to watch the prairie dog census and to find out if there’s some way to get the black-footed ferret to explode a boat. I’m interested in this because as a kid I was deeply impressed by that Peanuts sequence where Snoopy pretended to be a prairie dog. To this day I think of the punch line “prairie dogs are making a comeback” as the sort of appropriately odd not-a-joke thing to be dropped into a conversation and so make it that much needlessly weirder, so once again I’m reminded why everybody treated me like that in middle school. Anyway, this would be the start of a lot of talk about prairie dogs by Mark Trail.
Meanwhile in Rapid City, South Dakota, a local tough has robbed a bank, taken a woman hostage, and spotted in the fresh-arrived Mark Trail just the unwitting getaway driver he wanted. Mark Trail, thinking fast, has enough of an internal monologue to ponder the need to alert some official without betraying what he’s doing to the bank robber. And, to a wonder, he does it without letting the reader in on his plan.
My best guess: he’s figuring to pull a Ransom of Red Chief only instead of being a holy terror, he’s going to drive the bank robber past every possible scene of animals interacting in some way. Am I being unfairly snarky? From the 19th of April through the 28th the strip showed the car driving past a clutch of groundhogs, wolf pups, some falcon-class bird learning that it can’t just pick up a jackrabbit, a herd of sheep, another falcon trying to prey upon the dialogue balloons, a couple rams head-butting one another, and some moose or something. After that the bank robber has enough of this, figures out Mark Trail’s got a tracking device put on the car, and rips that out.
After driving past some buffalo, antelope I guess, and groundhogs looking disapproving at a wolf the bank robber tells Mark Trail what they’re going to do. They’re going to go to Johnny Lone Elk’s, tell him that the bank robber and the kidnapped woman are his new camera crew, and put the stolen money in Mark Trail’s camera bags. Then they’ll all go off together to see these prairie dogs and an abandoned airstrip that Mark Trail exposited about earlier.
Meanwhile the local FBI, looking for the bank robbers, is following the clue that there’s something weird about how Mark Trail rented the car. I admit I have never tried to rent a car while being held at gunpoint by a bank robber, but for the life of me I can’t figure how I’d do something weird with my car rental. I mean weird enough that car rental people would notice. Maybe tell them yes, I’d love the car insurance that’s an extra $75 a day and doesn’t do anything my home insurance doesn’t do anyway.
Mark Trail does his best not to act weird around Johnny and his wife and their handyman Nick Charles. But a stray $100 makes Johnny’s wife suspect there’s some connection to the Rapid City bank robbery, suggesting that she’s not really into this story and hopes to get it to the end as soon as possible. On the trail, Johnny knows something’s wrong and arranges for some dramatic talk about trick riding. Meanwhile a prairie dog tries to evade another swooping hawk, possibly the same one that was getting kicked by a rabbit a couple weeks back.
I know this sounds like a lot. But I gotta say, reading it one day at a time, it feels like the whole story has been waiting for stuff to happen. I expect James Allen is going for suspense in the question of how Mark Trail could possibly have arranged for help in all this, but the lack of specifics, or even hints of specifics, undermines that. I’m hoping that we’re about to see some action that brings this to a clear resolution. I’m also curious how the strip is going to turn into some major natural disaster that teaches us to never go anywhere more wild and untamed than an Apple Store. Well, there was threatened bad weather. That could mean anything.
Sunday Animals Watch
Animals or other natural phenomena featured on Sundays recently have included:
- Bees, 19 March 2017
- Moose, 26 March 2017
- Platerodrilus Beetles, 2 April 2017
- Feather Stars, “Crinoids”, 9 April 2017
- Dracaena Cinnabari, the “Dragon’s Blood Tree”, 16 April 2017
- Giraffes, 23 April 2017
- Male lions, 30 April 2017
- Parrotfish, 7 March 2017
- Saiga Antelope, 14 May 2017
- Alligators, 21 May 2017
- Black Rhinoceroses, 28 May 2017
- Sanguinaria Canadensis, “Bloodroot”, 4 June 2017
- Tornadoes, 11 June 2017
Karen Moy and June Brigman’s Mary Worth. Not to say too much about what’s been happening, but: cruise ships!.
- Arctic Hare
- Common Mongoose
- Volcano Rabbit
- Banded Doomed-Madagascaran-Marshlands Mongoose
- Silver Marten Rabbit (which sounds like somebody being ironic or something)
- False Dwarf Rabbit
- Anglican Slender Mongoose (Reformed)
- Flat-headed kusimanse
- Mongoose Civique
- Bluffing Giant Hare
- Furtive Upper-Tailed Cape Gray Mongoose
- Belgian Hare IPA
- Mer-goose (properly, a fish which takes on the appearance of a mongoose in order to punch snakes)
- San Jose Brush Rabbit
- Trans-Canada Pika
- Robertson square-headed kusimanse
- Antelope Jackrabbit (which is not a jackalope we swear)
- Yellow Mongoose
[ Edited the 10th of June, 2017 to add ] Hi, persons trying to catch up what’s going on in James Allen’s comic strip Mark Trail. This article’s true enough for when it was posted, but it’s out of date by now. Less out of date? The plot summaries at or near the top of this link. Thanks for reading and I hope something here helps you out.
Mark Trail was the second story strip I reviewed as having had a sea change considerably improving it. And I’ve talked in passing about the major event of November and December. But let me recap the whole of the last few months as best I understand it.
4 December 2016 through 18 March 2017
When I last talked about Mark Trail he was off on a remote Hawai’ian atoll, there to document an invasive species of ant that was bothering the local birds. While human-induced carelessness will create ecological problems nature has its ways of restoring the balance. In this case, nature chose to go with “titanic volcano explosion that destroys the island, the invasive ants, and everything else on it”. Nature has a real problem figuring out the appropriate scale for its responses. This by the way isn’t the first time in James Allen’s tenure as Mark Trail author-and-artist that an invasive species has been solved by fire. Some kind of beetle boring into woods was solved by a particularly well-placed bit of semi-controlled wildfire.
Anyway, the volcano exploded a lot, and then exploded some more, and then went on exploding to the point that some readers got a bit cranky wondering if there was even any island left to explode. It reads better if you look at a week’s worth of strips at once, which Comics Kingdom’s web site makes easy to do, at least if you have a paid subscription. Once again, I recommend subscriptions to both Comics Kingdom and to GoComics if you like newspaper-grade syndicated comic strips. Both web sites do their jobs very well.
With the island escaped, Mark Trail observed the ritual of cleansing between storylines: eating pancakes while sharing stilted dialogue and promising his son Rusty that they’ll go fishing someday.
Meanwhile, Lee Hunter, whom I don’t know anything about either, arrives in West Africa for a licensed safari hunt. In the West African village of Village, where all the lionesses and cubs have been shipped off to zoos, there’s an elderly male that’s turned human-eater. Possibly from loneliness; he’d hardly be the first person to go a little crazy at work because of an unsatisfying home life.
As she arrives she bumps into Chris, nicknamed Dirty, a guy who’d been in some Mark Trail story a couple years ago when the strip was all about poacher smuggling. He’s on his way to the United States, and we haven’t seen Lee Hunter again since that encounter. I don’t have any guess whether Village is going to have anything to do with the current storyline, or whether James Allen is setting up a future storyline, or whether the strip just wanted to put in a good word for licensed exotic-animal hunting. (It feels out of character for Mark Trail, but it is a difficult question of ethics, and a character is under no obligation to make choices that even the author thinks correct. A character is only obliged to make choices that the author thinks credible for the story.)
That’s also just about all we’ve seen from Chris Dirty, too. Since that airport encounter Mark Trail’s been talking about how his old buddy Johnny Lone Elk spotted a pair of gray wolves and some cougar tracks at the Cheyenne River Reservation. Also evidence of a bear, which is quite exciting stuff when Mark was just thinking about getting in on some black-footed-ferret and prairie dog census work. Cherry Trail mentioned that it isn’t tornado season, so we can look forward to a tornado catching on fire and blowing up in the near future.
Cherry’s also mentioned some water park incident that I don’t know anything about. Trusting that it’s something that really happened back when Jack Elrod was writing and drawing the strip I’m going to suppose that someone was smuggling otters down the lazy river. I have no further information about this incident.
Animals or other natural phenomena featured on Sundays recently have included:
- The Pink Frogmouth, 12 March 2017
- Toucans, 5 March 2017
- The Western Pacific Biotwang (whale noise), 26 February 2017
- Flying Lemurs, 19 February 2017
- Amethyst, 12 February 2017
- This Leaf-Shaped Spider In Yunnan, China, 5 February 2017
- Hooded Nudibranches, 29 January 2017
- New Zealand Keas, 22 January 2017
- Spiders and Giraffe Assassin Bugs, 15 January 2017
- Good news for bats affected with white-nose syndrome, 8 January 2017
- Pyrosomes (which are these giant glowing sea-dwelling worms so don’t say I didn’t warn you), 1 January 2017
- Blue Nawab caterpillars, 18 December 2016
- Frog rescue and this amphibian-threatening fungus, 11 December 2016
- The Great Blue Hole off the coast of Belize, 4 December 2016
- Dodder Vine, 27 November 2016
- Floriemel, Carmela, and Margarita Coati. Cohanzick Zoo, Bridgeton, NJ. February 1. The animals come out and eat fruit to predict how many human-interest features will explain what the heck coatis are. They’re what Belize has instead of raccoons.
- Punxsutawney Phil, Punxsutawney, Totally Oughta Be Philadelphia. February 2. Groundhog famous for predicting whether we’ll get the place spelled right.
- Woody the Woodchuck, Howell, Michigan. February 2. Predicts whether spring will come to the lower peninsula in six weeks or whether spring will be like normal and arrive sometime late May. No forecast for the upper peninsula as spring has never come to the upper peninsula.
- Shrieking Sam the Shreveport Clam, Louisiana. February 4. Will holler up a storm about whether a storm is coming in. Does not count own hollering storm as a storm.
- Jormungandr, Low Earth Orbit. February 5. Rises early in the morning to determine whether this will be the year he eats Scandinavia. Spoiler: hasn’t for the last 876 years, starting to think he never will. Dress warmly anyway.
- Chris Squirrel, London. February 7. Adorable fluffy-tailed character in a computer-animated funny-animal movie about the Yes bassist. Forecasts whether the coming year will feature lasers.
- Kenny Kangaroo, Pittsburgh, February 8. Forecasts whether the Kennywood amusement park would close for the day at 8:00 or 9:00, if it were open in the middle of winter like this. Mostly a public-relations thing, unlike the other weather-forecasting animals.
- Carl, Des Moines, Washington, February 10. Oversleeping groundhog that makes us wonder why we need a Des Moines in Washington when the one in Iowa would seem to sate all our Des Moines needs, really. Forecasts whether eastern Washington state will have a quarter-inch of rain this year or whether it’ll stay dry.
- Dogs in glasses.
- Raccoons in glasses.
- I mean eyeglasses.
- Wearing eyeglasses.
- Not “in drinking glasses”.
- Although that would kind of be cool too.
- So maybe raccoons in drinking glasses wearing eyeglasses.
- Or any animals in drinking glasses wearing eyeglasses.
- 3-D glasses would work too.
- Oh, uh, I dunno, maybe you as a kid doing that Calvin and Hobbes “Let’s Go Exploring” final-ever panel? That’s art, right? I bet that’s art.
To close out Me Week, how about some of lists of stuff that I liked?
- Fifteen Things Humanity Got Around To Before The Writing Of ‘Hotel California’ and yeah, one of them’s wrong. Sorry.
- The Hardest Things To Understand In Old Movies to help you out before diving into anything made before about 1998.
- The Size of Rhode Island in terms of Football Fields and someone actually gave that a one-star vote! How could anyone not be interested in this? Also it inspired some doubts in my mind.
- What Average People Think Are Rodents Versus What Biologists Think Are Rodents and I know I’m going to be proved right about guinea pigs someday.
- My Reactions To Reading The Grimm Fairy Tales so now you don’t have to read them yourselves, although there’s some great and weird ones in there. Also some alarming ones.
- The Nations Of The World, As Represented In Amusement Park Figures And Art and tell me if it’s not true.
- Hamlet’s To Be Or Not To Be Soliloquy, In Order which I’ve totally got to do in an Open Mike night someday.
- Statistics Saturday: Risk That I Will Correctly Identify A Color By Its Name Alone, a softly despairing plea for words to mean better things.
And because the world is confusing and hurt-y, here’s one more. The Ingredients List For Libby’s 29 oz Can of 100% Pure Pumpkin brings a refreshing calm and sense of place to everything. I hope this helps.
So Count Weirdly has created a handheld ray beam to alter the genetic code of creatures. Only it has terrible aim. That’s all right. I understand Count Weirdly’s thing is that he doesn’t really have to have a purpose to all this stuff he’s doing. He’s just in it for the kicks.
So he’s made a gadget that gives you antennas. I don’t want to tell Slylock his business, but let’s think things out here. Of all the insect body parts, the antennas are about the only ones that aren’t creepy or horrible or possessed of a name like “mandible” that I don’t even want to know what it does. OK, an insect antenna can be long enough to be unsettling, but the ones on the spider there aren’t nearly it. So hey, free insect antennas! Why is Slylock dodging this? OK, antennas would make his hat more complicated. And I agree his hat is an important part of his style. But isn’t having to work out a modified hat policy a reasonable price to pay?
When I was a kid I placed Aquaman as one of my favorite Superfriends because shut up he is too cool. That maybe sounds a little defensive. You understand where I get that. It would be wherever I learned to be so off in my own strange little world I couldn’t just say “Green Lantern” like all the normal people who wanted out of the Superman-Batman rut but weren’t hipster enough to say “Plastic-Man”. Or who just felt they needed to be shunned that much more.
Aquaman’s not an easy Superfriend to stand behind. I’ll do it, though, not just because he could stay underwater forever and he would often get turned into a giant quasi-prehistoric sea monster and go rampaging through coastal cities. I’m not saying that I would turn down those powers. I’d be up for staying underwater as long as I liked, as long as the computers still worked. And I don’t want to say I have a list of 22 minor Pacific Rim municipalities I’d crush under my mighty webbed clawfoot. I just ask, if we’re being honest, what does Des Moines, Washington offer that isn’t satisfied by other, less coastal Des Moineses?
And then there’s the talking to fish thing. That’s the point that’s supposed to shut down every Aquaman fan. Because that’s just not respectable. Oh, talking to land animals, that’s fine. Tarzan can communicate with any of the primates and that’s a cool part. Because, yeah, a howler monkey has so many useful things to say that a blue whale doesn’t. Being in telepathic contact with a jaguar is supposed to impress us. Being able to summon all the Great White Sharks in a ten-mile radius? Eh.
I’ll have none of that attitude. Besides, arguing over that overlooks Aquaman’s real superpower. I bet anybody could talk with dolphins or whatever given the chance. In a superhero universe it’s hard not to talk with them. There’s always magnetic meteorites falling into the seas and unleashing strange side-effects and whatnot. But Aquaman can ask the creatures of the sea to do any fool thing that pops into his head, and they do it. And, as you may remember from every Superfriend cartoon ever, they had an endless supply of fool things to do. Remember, it once took three Superfriends to outsmart a roller coaster. And not a cursed or enchanted roller coaster either, just a regular old one in a defunct amusement park. Granted two of the Superfriends were Zan and Jayna. There’s still a thick block of foolishness around their projects.
I mean, imagine this. You’re a porpoise. You’re busy going about your business, swimming, eating things, arguing with people who mistake you for a dolphin. The same things you do now, only you don’t have to get dressed for work. Then comes a telepathic summons from Aquaman. He asks you to swim over from half a mile away and whack your body against this motorboat that’s stuck between two rocks. Would you do it? Before you say sure, remember the last time someone asked you to help them move a fold-away sofa-bed to their fourth-floor walk-up apartment. Now answer honestly.
The sofa-bed mover promised pizza and The Wrath of Khan on the new TV and to return the favor. You still “thought that was Sunday, I’m sorry. Oh and my phone was dead and turned off and lost.” Aquaman offers none of that. Oh, there’s some rewards. There’s always the satisfaction of a job well done. And you could imagine yourself to be punching a motorboat with your whole body. Who wouldn’t want to do that? But those are rewards we make for ourselves. Aquaman isn’t giving anything except the chance to do him a favor.
The stuck-boat thing isn’t much of a favor to ask, yeah. But what about the big ones? “Drop all your porpoise work! I need you and whatever eats porpoises to form a giant fleshy dam that can hold up to this army of robots shooting ice rays at Coast City!” How could someone ever say that in a way that made you even consider it, much less do it? I can’t imagine selling a porpoise on that deal. Even imagine being coaxed in with the promise that it was going to be a giddy little prank to warm the alien’s floating starship full of heat rays. It would figure what was going on and go somewhere else. But Aquaman coaxes sea creatures into carrying on. How?
I know what excuse you’re making. “It’s just mind control, the fish don’t have a choice.” Oh yeah? If that’s so then why do I have a clear vague memory of an episode where some dolphins or something give up on Aquaman’s project because they’re exhausted and he lets them go? Why worry about their exhaustion, besides his not being a complete jerk? Huh? How about that? Remember, that’s from the era where superheroes were jerks only by accident or by their privilege. It’s before writers discovered they could look good if we felt bad for liking superheroes.
So I stand behind my interpretation. It isn’t just amazing that Aquaman can talk to fish. It’s that he can get them to commit to doing whatever he thinks needs doing. But getting people to change their minds has gone out of fashion. Punching people out, that’s the new persuasion. The last time we’ve got on record of reason changing someone’s mind was in 2008. And that was just over whether William Shatner was actually a decent director for his Star Trek movie. If we’re not interested in persuading people anymore, we’re certainly not going to be interested in persuading fish, even if we need to do something about Waldport, Oregon. I know. Just ask anyone who asked me about my favorite superhero. I’m sure that’s why they didn’t ever talk to me a third time.
My love needed some books from the library. I went along because I like being places with my love. I did not go because I needed any books. I had several library books to read yet anyway. And I have a half-dozen or so books, some going back to summer, that I’ve bought and haven’t got to because I’ve been borrowing library books at a good rate (about one book per book finished) since then. I was there simply in a companionate role, smiling and being present and that was it.
What I’m saying is of course I borrowed Alan Abel’s The Great American Hoax, about the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals. This was the early-60s satire of groups that go out caring about stuff. It proposed that all sufficiently large animals wear clothes. The story of how allegedly grown-up people were fooled into thinking it was real was bought by Paramount for adaptation into a movie, if you believe the jacket copy, which who would?
A while back I talked about the backstory Python Anghelo designed for the pinball machine Popeye Saves The Earth. I hesitate to call the backstory “crazypants”. I don’t want to wear out a good term by overuse. Also “crazypants” is inadequate to describe it. “Crazypants, crazyshirt, crazysocks and crazyshoes, crazyblazer, crazysheltered from the crazybuckets of crazyrain by a craizywaistcoat and crazyumbrella” gets more at it. Somehow Anghelo, most famous for Joust, had a strange vision for Popeye. Joust you’ll remember as the “medieval knights in space using ostriches to bludgeon pterodactyls” game.
The plan sketched out had Popeye bothered by the hypodermic needles Olive Oyl finds on the beach. So he buys the Glomar Explorer. With the help of Al Gore and H Ross Perot, he launches a space ark with two of every animal in the world. They journey to such worlds as Odorsphera, where the natives’ lack of noses causes the planet to smell terrible; a planet of spotted and striped people; a planet where everything is red; unisex gay world; and a planet with three moons. Finally they land back on an Earth ruined by total ecological collapse, with the few, disease-ridden human survivors resorting to cannibalism. Was the game as fun as this preliminary concept suggested?
Back in the 90s we didn’t think so. Usenet newsgroup rec.games.pinball judged this Bally/Midway table to be the worst thing humanity had accomplished in at least 875 years. It was so awful the group sentenced the game to the ignominy of having its name rendered without vowels. I believe they’re still calling it “P-p-y-” over there. And I’m not joking: nobody on the group questioned whether “y” served as a vowel in this context.
But I got to play the game this past week. I wanted to share my impressions of how the game lives up to its crazystuff potential. Sad to say, not much of the concept makes it into the game. What is there is just enough to baffle people who hadn’t read the nine-page document. For instance, there’s nothing in the game suggesting Popeye is going into space with any of the animals. Sure, the art on the side of the machine shows the Earth and Moon in the background of Popeye’s ark. But it also shows an eager young raccoon perched atop a giraffe who’s weighted down with a heavy, Funky Winkerbeanesque ennui. That could mean anything.
There is an environmental theme, with Bluto locking up animals that Popeye frees. And there’s these Bluto’s Cartel shots. In them Bluto does stuff like put bricks up across the video-display scoreboard. This the game explains as Bluto’s Earth Pavers. It’s always nice to see a shout-out to Usenet foundational group alt.pave.the.earth. But if Bluto is paving the Earth one cinder block at a time, he’s really not much of an environmental menace. Over a normal working life he might be able to pave, like, something the size of Rhode Island with cinder blocks. But that’s not so much of the Earth. Also he’s building walls, which are vertical. The surface of the earth is more horizontal, like a floor. If Popeye left him alone he’d probably screw up some wind farms and make a nasty shadow but that’s it.
Another Cartel challenge makes it look like you, as Popeye, and Bluto, as Bluto, are winching control wheels to drown the other in a tank of water. That’s a misunderstanding created by not paying attention when the challenge gets started. In fact you and Bluto are trying to drown one another in a tank of oil.
And that kind of describes the game. The playfield has a lot of fun art of animals lounging around or singing to themselves. There’s also tiger- and lion-men paying shuffleboard with turtles who are either really big or the lion- and tiger-men are really small. Lion- and tiger-men really aren’t endangered. Heck, they take over Pittsburgh one week every summer for Anthrocon. They don’t need Space Popeye. The game is full of mysterious asides like this. Like, I get why Wimpy would put a bottle of catsup in a champagne bucket, but why would Popeye put a wrench in his?
The video screen has some fun animations, must say. And the voice acting is not bad, considering that everybody born before 1980 learned how to do Popeye’s voice except the people hired to do Popeye’s voice in projects like this. And the game with everything working is not so bad, though I bet it broke all the time in annoying ways in actual arcades. And I could point out gameplay issues that make you hate everybody who takes pinball seriously, but why? The game probably deserves to have at least two of its vowels restored.
So, in conclusion, may I point to the side art again and ask: is that koala on the edge of Popeye’s space ark contemplating suicide? It’s a strange and disappointing game, but humanity has probably done worse things in the last 875 years. Well, 886 at this point.
A history of the local zoo mentioned that the place used to have a guinea pig mound. It supported this claim with one of those slightly blurry black-and-white photos you get in local histories, showing what is certainly a mound maybe twenty feet across and not so high in the middle. This inspires all sorts of questions, like, why don’t more zoos have guinea pig mounds? An individual guinea pig might not be a very exciting animal, what with it mostly wanting to stand where it is and stare back at you with the expression that says, “I have some projects I could get to too, if you wanted to leave”. But get a big enough mass of them together and at any time you’ll have maybe two of them scurrying along as much as two feet before deciding they could just stop and stand where they are instead.
Another question it raises is: so, guinea pigs live in mounds, then? And I don’t know. Back in middle school I bred guinea pigs (the guinea pigs did most of the breeding, while I did the hard work of explaining to my parents why their cages didn’t need cleaning, even as the odor melted my bagged Star Trek comic books off the walls where they’d been hung as horrible decoration) but that’s in the highly unnatural environment of ten-gallon aquarium cages. I now know ten-gallon aquarium cages are terrible places to keep guinea pigs, and I wouldn’t do it again, but that’s what the guide books back then suggested was perfectly all right. I should have known their research was suspect, since the books were published by leading manufacturers of rodent scuba gear, but I was young and the guinea pigs thought they looked great in wetsuits. Plus several of them said their favorite superhero was Aquaman. Who would be suspicious?
Still, do guinea pigs live in mounds? A friend wisely noted that of course they do, if all you give them to live in is a mound. But if a mound weren’t at least tolerable, the guinea pigs would have words with their keepers. Most of those words would be “fweep”, with a couple “wheep” phrases included for good measure, but it would get the point across, especially when the keepers needed to sleep.
In the hope of finding some dubiously sourced, not-quite-grammatical sentences that were almost but not quite on point, I went to Wikipedia. Their article mentioned how guinea pigs aren’t found naturally in the wild. They’re creatures of domestication. That’s a heady thought. There are things it’s obvious there would never be if humans didn’t exist — Saturn V rockets, Dutch stroopwaffel, competitive Rock-Paper-Scissors leagues, Elvira-themed pinball games, Phil Harris’s novelty song “The Thing” — but how many such items would you have to list before you thought to mention “guinea pigs”? I needed at least six.
But the guinea pig article says that cavies, which is how people who want to sound like scientists but are not actually scientists refer to guinea pigs (scientists just say “guinea pigs” and giggle at people who say “cavies”), or their wild counterparts “are found on grassy plains” with no mention of mounds. So guinea pigs are perfectly camouflaged to live on mounds and not so perfectly for grassy plains. It also mentions guinea pigs “occupy an ecological niche similar to that of cattle”. It’s been days since a sentence delighted me so much.
Now my mind swirls with thoughts of herds of guinea pigs roaming the plains like ankle-high cattle. Itty-bitty cowboys, possibly costumed mice, watch over the herds, with lassoos made of dental floss and perhaps riding the backs of hares. All the cowboy-mice stay alert, listening for the sounds of mass “wheep”ing that marks the start of a guinea pig stampede. It’s a massive, thundering squirming of the critters that can get as far as four feet before all the guinea pigs remember that instead of running, they could be not running. And all this could be going on just underneath our line of sight, at least if we live near grassy plains or mounds. It’s inspired me to spend more time looking down.
So Michigan’s official state groundhog, who works out of an animal rescue shelter very near to Howell, and not out of the capital in Lansing, predicted six more weeks of winter, which would still be a pretty early end to winter. This doesn’t surprise folks much because we got up to eighteen inches of snow on Sunday and there might be more coming in tomorrow, although it’s better than last winter, which moved in around August 24th and still hasn’t left.
What is surprising is that the prediction was made by Murray, who’s the state’s backup groundhog because Woody the Woodchuck, the main groundhog, was recovering from a respiratory infection. I’d like to think the state has a main and a backup groundhog because, hey, two major peninsulas, two major woodchucks, but that seems to just be coincidence. Also, Murray is named after Bill Murray, and as you might expect Murray is a female groundhog. I suppose this reflects people not asking groundhogs some obvious questions before naming them.
Also, not to get into an inter-state rivalry thing here, because I can’t, because I’m from New Jersey, but the groundhog in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, bit mayor Jonathan Freund, who — according to groundhog handlers Jerry and Maria Hahn — went on to misrepresent the groundhog’s weather prediction. I can sympathize with Freund getting it wrong after being bitten by a Wisconsonian groundhog, though.
I was in the pet store and after spending enough time watching the guinea pigs (who just had a litter of six! Six! Can you imagine?) I wandered into the aquarium supplies, to get food for our goldfish. There they had a gadget for catching snails, which apparently people need to do every now and then.
The Snail Collect was labelled, in English, as a “snail trap”. Fine enough. It was also identified on the box as, in French, “piège á escargots”, which is maybe better. And then in German it was “Schnecken-Falle”, and I can’t decide whether the French or the German is more wonderful. I have got to find out what this is called in Dutch.