Sorry to be distracted like this. I just got to wondering, like, how often does Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr, like, just freeze up in the kitchen and think, “I was in the Beatles! And now here I am, peeling an orange! How does something like that happen?” I’m assuming that they occasionally peel oranges. The only reason I can imagine they wouldn’t is if they don’t like oranges. I realize that no life can be all transcendant experiences, but, you know,every now and then Buzz Aldrin must think, “I walked on the Moon and here I am peeling a banana. How?”
Gene Deitch gets to direct this next King Features Popeye cartoon and you know what that means: I have no information about who the story’s by. The producer’s William L Snyder, though, and the production date is 1960. And now this … is Astro-Nut.
There was something glorious in the early 60s, when all you needed to join the space program was to be a cartoon character. If Top Cat and gang could be astronaut candidates just because Officer Dibble questioned their patriotism, the doors were open to everyone. I’m sure that when I get into King Features’s other cartoons of the 60s I’ll find one where Snuffy Smith joins NASA.
For this Gene Deitch production, Popeye joins the space program to do a simulated long-duration flight. Can a person survive in a tiny capsule with no human contact for sixty days? Cartoon NASA is getting ahead of its game with this test; nobody would spend sixty full days in space until Skylab 4/3, in 1973-74. (Skylab 3/2 came in about six hours short of 60 full days.) Still, better to know sooner than later, I suppose.
Popeye seems poorly briefed for the space-related mission he’s signed up for. I know, it’s to give the audience useful exposition. But there’s room to ask whether this was the actual space program Popeye was working for. I mean, Popeye’s only human contact is supposed to be one tape of his friends’ voices, that he can listen to over and over, making use of the world’s slowest rewind feature? And they didn’t check the tape to make sure that Brutus didn’t use his time to taunt Popeye about how he was going to steal Olive Oyl away? Maybe they thought this was playful teasing? Popeye did sign up for a 60-day simulated flight, after all. What did he imagine Brutus was going to do?
We get a montage of Brutus dating Olive Oyl. Seems like they’re doing a lot, too. We see them swimming (he pushes Olive Oyl into the water). Going for a car ride (Olive Oyl has to hold the car up and run, a scene that looks like a separate car-themed cartoon broke out; watch this space). Going to the horse races (Brutus steals some money form her). Going to the amusement park (they ride an improbably steep coaster). All this in what we learn is just two days.
Popeye’s torn between his duty to stay in the capsule 60 days and his intense jealous need to punch Brutus. So there’s only one thing to do and I’m not sure just what it was. He swings his fist, anyway, and the capsule spins, and the instant spray spinach starts to spray and then the capsule launches from the ground, heading into space at the speed of light. This, of course, will cause Earth time to go backwards while the capsule progresses at sixty times normal time speed. And somewhere, the young Python Anghelo nods, understanding. All Brutus’s dates with Olive Oyl wind backwards and the capsule lands again. The generals congratulate Popeye for … having done a 60-day endurance test in an hour and Brutus and Olive Oyl are there and don’t undrestand how much time has passed. I feel this is a cartoon whose plot I probably understood when I was a kid. I’m too old to follow its logic anymore. We close out with a song, at least, “Through space in an hour / On pure spinach power / I’m Popeye the Sailor Man”. Also he sprays spinach into his mouth, so I guess his bubble helmet was open the whole time.
So, it’s weird. It’s Gene Deitch, what do you want. There’s good bits here. Popeye sees a vision of Swee’pea in his pipe smoke, for example, while hearing his voice, and that vision’s wrecked by Brutus coming in. Popeye acts reasonably crazed with jealousy as he thinks about Brutus and Olive Oyl together. The repeated rewinding of the tape to Brutus’s sneering “I’m keeping company with poor lonesome Olive” is a good tension-builder.
But the cartoon gets stuck at the dilemma Popeye outlines. He can desert his post or he can give up on Olive Oyl for at least two months. He can’t do either and still be Popeye. Rather than break Popeye, we break the universe, and do the ending of Superman I 18 years early. It’s an interesting writing lesson: it’s easier to break all narrative logic than it is to defy Popeye’s nature.
Also, sixty times an hour is two and a half days. I know, it doesn’t matter. It’s a messy way out of the problem, but there’s not a good way.
There is no good reason for me to remember any Top Cat story. I apologize for the inconvenience.
The quarantine month has been a pretty tough time, as measured by how often we’ve had to go to the basement and berate cinder blocks. It’s a better coping mechanism than punching the cinder blocks was. The cinder blocks aren’t taking this personally. They know they’re there as support. Emotionally speaking, cinder blocks are bricks. I don’t say that cinder blocks are also literally bricks, because I’m afraid I’ll get in trouble with the brick enthusiast community. I don’t need someone explaining how something essential to bricks is incompatible with the nature of cinder blocks, because I would find that fascinating. I would read three different books, each at least 280 pages, on the history of bricks. I’m already enough of a caricature of myself. I do not need to become even more of that.
But this lands me on my point four times as well as I had expected just three sentences ago. Honest, I was lost. My point is: a lot of us are having a rough time now because we don’t have anything to do. There’s no hanging out at barcades. You can’t even go to the pet store and stare at the baby guinea pigs. A lot of people don’t have jobs. Those who do, have those jobs gone all weird. Two months ago you would spend all morning in a meeting to resolve what five minutes of e-mail would have. Today, you spend all morning in e-mail exchanges to resolve what five minutes of meeting would have.
All these things that we would do evaporated. So now we face the gap between the stuff we do, and who we are, and who we figure we want to be. That’s tough stuff. I remember who I wanted to be, growing up: the astronaut who draws Popeye. It’s been an adjustment, learning that the person I am doesn’t want to make the effort it takes to draw Popeye. Or to convince the people who hire astronauts that they need someone on staff who’ll draw Popeye too. That one’s on me. I keep applying for astronaut jobs, but at the interviews I never ask if they’re bringing a Popeye-drawer on board. I just take it for granted that if they don’t list it on their web site, they’re not going to, and I don’t even respond to their offers. I’m only messing up my own life like this.
How to handle the gap between what kept you busy and what your identity is? This involves serious quiet, letting all the thoughts imposed from other people — well-meaning or advertisers — wash out. Think seriously about what you are when at rest, and see what residue of life remains. Then realize this is a hecking lot of work and the results are terrible. You know how, on your body, you have this indestructible nostril hair that every booger in the world condenses around? Your personality is like that, only worse. It starts with that time you were six and teased that kid Christian across the street because his name rhymes with the imaginary word “Ristian”. And it’s accumulated like that since then. No, you’re better off finding a new store-bought identity and putting that on.
There’s so many to choose from! You could be the person who cruises social media, finding folks who are screaming at CSS for not being able to do what seems like a simple CSS thing, and reassuring them that the problem is that CSS is not actually good at CSS things yet, and never will be. (CSS is that computer thing where, for no good reason, sometimes all the stuff in your web browser is 50% off the edge of the screen to the right.)
You could be a background character in a Studio Ghibli film. In these times you’ll definitely want to be in one of the lower-stress movies. Take up some role where you look over bunches of vegetables, that kind of thing. You’ll have to act nonplussed when a bunch of kids run through on some lightly daft whimsical adventure to help the ghost wolf reconcile with its family or something. So remember to look up exactly what “nonplussed” means. You want to know how to react.
Or you could try being an astronaut who draws Popeye. The drawing Popeye part should be easy, but the real trick is getting up into space. To do that, you’ll want to practice jumping until you’re so good at it you jump into outer space. Go practice right now! (Note to the rest of you: if you’re hired as astronaut they provide the outer space for you. I just want to get my competition for the job out of the way.)
The exact choice isn’t important. What matters is that you realize who you are. Then we can see about fixing that.
I’ve still been thinking about alarms we might use. Please note that these are not based on dreams, except the dream we all have of a world made perfect. By perfect I mean one where we find out there are problems and can do things that fix them.
An alarm that it is time to make something in the slow cooker. Many of us have slow cookers not being used for their primary purpose. This can be okay, since we can use them for their secondary purpose, which is to be a big heavy thing covered in slightly greasy dust that’s on top of the refrigerator or kitchen cabinets, and that somehow falls away from us whenever we try to take it down. It’s a demanding job but what else could possibly do it? The blender? The rice cooker? The jumbo-size plastic bucket from Wall Drug, a place neither we nor anyone we know has ever been?
Yes, clearly. Any of these, plus the fondue pot and the bread maker that still has some kind of crust in it from 2014, can fill the slow cooker’s secondary purpose. So we need a reminder of that, and that’s what this alarm will do. It’s not an urgent alarm, just a reminder that, hey, you could take two hands full of edible things, put them in a pot, fill the rest with water, and set it going for between three and twelve hundred hours, so why aren’t you?
An alarm that someone might put a full travel mug in their backpack or suitcase or something. This is not based on anything I’ve seen someone do. It’s just that we have a really good travel mug. It’s dishwasher-safe, for one thing. And it’s scary good at keeping things warm. It’s kept an ordinary load of coffee warm for stretches of up to eight months. We don’t know if it could do longer. We wanted to put it in the dishwasher. Anyway this doesn’t call on unusual magic. It’s just really good at forming a closed seal to hold its liquids. Now here’s where it gets alarm-worthy.
My love uses a small backpack to lug stuff around. And sometimes at the end of the day tosses the empty travel mug in there, freeing up hand slots. And this has made me realize that someone could just toss a full travel mug, coffee and all, into their backpack or suitcase or anything else holding other stuff. And move around like that! This makes my feet crawl, and not in the good ways. I mean in the ways like when I hear how in the 60s NASA sketched some plans to make a Lunar Flyer, that would just be this platform with little rockets they could set off in pulses, using the mechanic we would come to know from Flappy Bird but at the Sea of Tranquility. The idea was this way astronauts could cover a lot more ground, then crash into it. And that’s the feeling this “chuck a full travel mug into your suitcase” idea gives me. There is absolutely nothing in place to stop this from happening. We need something in place to stop this from happening.
An alarm that we’re about to over-water a plant. Obviously this isn’t needed for every plant. Christmas trees, for example, have these nice huge buckets of water and we can see whether we’re putting too much in: it spills out onto the skirt. But for other plants it’s harder. We can see that, say, the soil is pretty dry, since the cactus is smothering itself in skin lotion that isn’t helping. Watering is the obvious answer. But we start out and the water just disappears into soil that isn’t made the slightest bit less dry. As we pour in the first three gallons of water the soil somehow becomes more dry. And then suddenly one more drop and it’s too wet. The flower pot is this stew ready to be put in the slow cooker, and there’s a waterfall of mud and cactus remnants pouring out over the bookcase, across the floor, and down into the basement, sweeping away whatever’s on the floor. This is piles of magazines and back issues of the local free alt-weekly newspaper that we can’t agree whether we’ve read. This is not just obviously inefficient. It’s also inefficient in the un-obvious ways. Anyway we need an alarm to let us know we’re entering the one-24th of a second window between “needs more water” and “is overwatered” so we can stop pouring.
There are probably more things we could be alarmed about give a fair start.
Most of us know three or even four astounding facts about Apollo 11. And yet these do not exhaust the subject. There are over twelve different things about this legendary space mission. Let’s review some of them.
Did you know, for example, that Apollo 11 had the first automatic dishwashing machine brought into lunar orbit? The Westinghouse corporation was proud to make the cramped Command Module at least as livable as an efficiency apartment is. Unfortunately the system failed shortly before the first midcourse correction burn. This was after breakfast but before full testing. Still, we owe the development of dishwashing gel packs to NASA’s need not to have powder floating all over the cabin. Thanks, Moon landing!
Many of us think of the poignancy of Michael Collins, remaining alone in lunar orbit while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface. But do you ever consider poor Ronald Evans, who had to remain in earth orbit on the S-II stage while the rest of the crew went on to lunar orbit? Do you remember Ken Mattingly, who had to stay behind on the launch pad while everyone else from the mission went on to earth orbit? And that just because he wasn’t willing to split the tolls. And then there’s poor William Pogue, who had to stay behind in the room where they put all their spacesuits on, because he misunderstood the question. He felt awful about that for years. He can’t even remember what he thought they were asking at the time. “What could it have been, besides `do you want to come to the moon with us’?” he said, in the 1974 debriefing. “Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid.” Well, live and learn.
The date for the landing was not settled until late in mission planning. The later the landing, after all, the more chance to train, although the less time to launch another mission in case something went wrong. All they knew was it had to launch before the 31st of December, 1969. And for that there was a heated debate about whether that meant Washington, DC, time or Houston time. “What if we need that extra hour,” was the point of contention. Anyway the date was set in May of 1969 when someone pointed out they had already inscribed on the plaque that men first set foot on the moon in July 1969. Sometimes it’s the littlest things that settle the hardest questions.
Do you know what held the crew and some people exposed to lunar dust for three weeks after the end of the flight? It was the Mobile Quarantine Facility. And it’s still out there. It’s still roving, too, and no one can stop it. If you encounter it, know that you are not in specific peril. But you aren’t going to have any in-person encounters for 21 days except for whoever else it’s caught. The facility got Wi-Fi in 2004, but it’s not good enough to stream HD video.
Not a single one of the crew returned from space transmogrified in any way. Granted, nobody seriously expected major changes. Like, someone coming back as a cool gelatinous blob. Something. There could be some cool field of strange energy. They could pass through and grow these cool retractable antennas. Maybe eyes some weird, brand-new color like neopurple or techneteal. I know what you’re thinking and no. We know they weren’t a weird color only while they were in space and we were watching in black-and-white. They were checking.
Also a disappointment: while, again, nobody was seriously expecting it? A lot of people hoped the astronauts would make contact with some incredible species of, they don’t know, magic otter aliens. Beings with technology and concepts of space nudity as much as five centuries ahead of anything known to Earth science and pants. No good, though. Despite the breakthroughs of the early 70s we still just have taking off clothes.
It’s true that the Lunar Module touched down with less than a minute of fuel remaining. They avoided this problem on following missions by launching them a minute later. “I don’t know why we didn’t think of that sooner,” said Buzz Aldrin in the 1989 debriefing. “But, hindsight, you know?”
While Apollo 11 was seen as quite the big deal at the time, the opinion of space historians has changed. While it’s still seen as important, that’s less for what it was by itself. Most in-the-know now see Apollo 11’s real legacy being its service as full dress rehearsal for the legendary Apollo 12 mission. So we’ll come back in November and do this again.
Why Easter eggs? Why bunnies? Why chocolate? If so, whom? These are some good questions. The last one looks like the result of youthful enthusiasm. It’s probably grammatically wrong anyway, unless “who” would be wrong instead. I bet it was submitted by someone who hypercorrects things. Hypercorrecting is a fun pastime. You start out with something that’s okay and then apply the grammatical rule of “people don’t sound like they know what they’re doing, so make it sound more obscure or complicated”. It’s good fun. It appeals to people’s desire to sound like they know a better set of rules than everyone else does. And it gives people who like to correct mistakes something to write about. There’s nothing so fun as correcting the hypercorrect. I thought that time I got a bag of rabbit litter at half-price was that good. I was wrong.
Anyway, Easter we can understand. If we didn’t have Easter then there’d be this huge attention-getting gap in-between Ash Wednesday and the Feast of the Assumption. “Shouldn’t something go in the middle, here?” people would ask. Eventually all sorts of folk explanations would spring up. Maybe they’d tumble across “there ought to be a particularly holy day for one of the top religions” there. “Also we should have plastic eggs and rabbits made of candy” I bet wouldn’t. Maybe people would do some more research and figure, “Hey, there’s got to be something that’s seventy days before Septuagesima, unless that’s supposed to be seventy days after Septuagesima.”
I mean if there still is a Septuagesima. I haven’t checked and I have the feeling it’s been downplayed ever since Vatican II: Vaticannier. But it’s a heck of a name for something. It isn’t seventy days from anything interesting in either direction. There’s probably a reason for that. Yes, I meant the Feast of the Ascension. The Assumption is a completely different thing. Don’t challenge me on this. I was raised Catholic so I remember there was something called the homoiousian controversy and couldn’t deliver the Nicene Creed with cue cards. We said the Nicene Creed every Sunday. Nobody ever talked about the homoiousian controversy.
Since we have Easter, we don’t have to worry about why there isn’t an Easter, although if it ever goes missing you know what to look for. Easter eggs we can wonder about. If there’s anything that we could get straightened out then we’d have one thing straightened out, and that would leave is in much better shape. For instance, let’s do away with the folk etymology that says they were originally “yeaster eggs”, egg-shape snacks made out of extremely bread-based foods. We can also do away with the tale that it started out as “Easter yeggs”, roving packs of 19th-century Bowery B’hoy toughs prowling the riverfront and painting themselves brightly. These theories were popular in the 1970s when they were thought to be hoaxes played by angry writer H L Mencken. But we now know the claim that they were a hoax was a prank on Mencken played by President Taft.
The tradition of hiding Easter eggs come to us from Renaissance Germany, with an assist by the Princely States of India and a rebound against Grand Columbia, which does not figure in this narrative. The problem originally was one of planting the seeds of useful crops like barley or bauxite or jute or other stuff from social studies textbooks without having birds flying in and eating them all. Somewhere on the upper Rhine the locals realized they could plant the birds instead and wait for the seeds to fly in and carry them off. The practice spread and grew to be very popular, eggs put in all sorts of places on the ground, and didn’t lose popularity even when it turned out to not even begin to sort-of work.
Since that failed, they tried making the process more complicated. Painting the eggs turned out not to be a way to get blue chickens with yellow zig-zag stripes, but wasn’t it worth trying, just in case? Do you know anyone who has better ideas to handle our shortage of blue chickens with yellow zig-zag stripes? It’s not so easy to achieve, is it? Anyway, during the Thirty Years War the tradition fled Germany, and who could blame it? The tradition’s got some sense after all.
There is no explanation for how the rabbits and chocolate and all that got involved. I’ll try to write that up next year before Easter.
Hi. OK, yes, it’s a week and a half after Thanksgiving and the only leftovers we have left are pies. Two kinds of pie. No, it’s really me. I swear. There’s good reason that we have pie left over that long: we didn’t eat so much pie as we figured. No, I swear, it’s me. Um.
No, I am not now the astronaut who draws Popeye. Well. Yeah, see, it turns out that drawing Popeye is a bad use of astronaut time. And astronaut work is a bad use of Popeye-drawer time, too. No, I swear to you, this really is me. Um. Well, no, I’m not an astronaut. They don’t need a lot of astronauts and I went through my 20s and 30s weighing like three times what an astronaut should. No, I don’t draw Popeye either. They don’t need him drawn so much these days either.
Well, there is good stuff, like, I’ve had pizza with the guy who plays Father Guido Sarducci. Who you don’t know, but trust me, in a couple years you’re going to be impressed by that. Oh, Dad knows who that is. He’ll think it’s neat. Anyway, uh. Hey, you know, it’s okay sometimes to eat only one bagel, instead of two or three, even though it’s so much harder to stop eating bagels. Also every movie or TV show about a circus is going to disappoint you because they’re all about how the circus can’t pay its mortgage. The people who make movies honestly believe that people fantasize about being part of a circus with money problems. Nobody knows what’s wrong with movie makers.
We’ll probably have the pie finished off in a day or two. No, none of them are minced meat pie.
Apparently, the Secret of the Moon Sphinx is that it’s a bit of a jerk, really. Also, I understand the Ancient Egyptians were busy being Ancient Egyptians and building astounding stuff for thousands of years, but it seems like if they were building sphinxes on the moon to laser-eye spaceships they were kind of losing focus on their really important projects, like land-surveying and the Sothic Cycle and the Hittites. Of course, I do some things that the Ancient Egyptians would probably consider outside my real focus, so who am I to tell them they were wasting their time? At least they got a laser-eye sphinx up on the moon, while all I can do is look at those astronauts and think they’re monkeys in spacesuits until I look again and see once more that it’s just the things on their heads giving me that impression.
The Peter Pulp account over on DeviantArt put up this cover, from the Summer 1930 issue of Wonder Stories Quarterly, and I guess it just shows how poorly we all handled First Contact back in the day. Obviously, I don’t know who started the fight, whether the wide-hipped spacemen with the guns or the alligator-cyclops, but as things stand now, the brave spacemen of tomorrow have to figure out a way to carry on their mission despite the near-complete destruction of their Bounce House. I don’t envy them their task. I’ve never been able to recover from more than a goat-hydra chewing on the restraint bar of my Tilt-a-Whirl car.
You know, I am guilty of assuming this is a matter of the alligator-cyclops throwing rocks at the Bounce House. But from just the still scene I don’t know if he’s actually busy removing rocks from it. He might be the hero of this scene, freeing trapped spacekids within, and what is he getting for his trouble? All the bullets he can eat. I bet that’s what happened; isn’t it always like that when you try helping spacemen with Bounce Houses, in your experience?
Armonk Calling. Strange, unsettling, faintly Altman-esque entry in the “Inept Invasions of America” comedy microgenre. The perfect surprise the Wehrmacht achieves by invading Manhattan in 1973 is defeated by the hassles of then-contemporary urban decay. Flashes of satirical insight in the modern-life-as-warfare theme give the film many chances, none quite capitalized on, to overcome the unease of the premise’s dubious taste. It’s an odd entry even for the experimental wing of 1970s American Cinema. Famously features Nick Offerman, much older than his age would suggest, as the teen who takes the invasion as his chance to throw dynamite into Times Square manholes to big and impressionistic effect. Suggestion: for a less troublesome project by nearly the same, supremely appealing, cast and crew try the family-fare yet affecting 1974 film The Cheesestronauts instead.
Playing about an hour before sunrise. Some scenes fragmentary.