S. Hamley Bildebrandt

“Morningstar is my hot stewardess.”

A More Fitting Home

Since my largely unnoticed return to the blogosphere, I’ve discovered I take the most pleasure in my List of Awesome posts. They’re relevant enough to my life as a lover of both awesomeness and absurdity, but distant enough from my life for me to be able to write them consistently no matter what good or bad befalls me in the real-life-osphere (as the kids call the non-blog world these days). I decided the List of Awesome posts need their own home, so I started a separate blog just to house them. I’m pleased to announce the inception of A Compendium of Awesome Things. Check it out. There have been a few changes made here and there to some earlier posts, which I explain here. It’s more or less what I’ve been sporadically doing on this blog, but hopefully with a much greater level of consistency. I’m confident this will be the case. I’m already working on a multiple part series on espresso, which should be posted shortly.

List of Awesome, Part III: The Bhutan Edition

What’s so awesome about Bhutan? Better question: What’s not awesome about Bhutan? Even better question: What (or who)* is Bhutan?

Starting with the third question. Bhutan is a remote kingdom in the Himalayas, wedged uncomfortably between China to the North, India to the South, and Shangri La (though no one’s sure exactly where). Bhutan is a tiny country populated mostly by ethnic Bhutanese with a considerable Yeti population** in the bigger cities and a few thousand Sherpa in the mountains.*** Bhutan has a total population of less than a million people and is known for pretty much nothing. And that’s exactly how they like it. We’re pretty sure. No one’s sure enough about how to get there to actually ask them.

Now the second question. What’s not awesome about Bhutan? Not much. For starters, its name (pronounced boo-ton) sounds pretty close to button, and that’s just cute. Far less superficially, Bhutan is already doing pretty well in the awesomeness department by being a Himalayan civilization. People who manage to survive – in the Himalayas – and actually build stuff and create a functioning society take on a mythical status approaching that of the aforementioned Shangri La. Even more impressive is the fact that Bhutan is the only absolute monarchy left of the great, old Himalayan kingdoms and one of the only left in the world as a whole. It truly is a kingdom lost in time. They didn’t even have the Internet until a few years ago, which brings me to the next and most important reason Bhutan is truly awesome. In fact, this reason’s going to get its own paragraph.

Bam! Bhutan is the only country in the world to measure GNH, or Gross National Happiness. It’s true. Look it up. The King of Bhutan has made it a policy to increase the Gross National Happiness of Bhutan with sweeping government programs. We have no way to know for sure what this involves because, as I said before, it’s not exactly the easiest thing to find Bhutan.**** Presumably GNH programs involve government-subsidized marshmallows, free pony rides, water slides in every backyard, and ice cream sundaes for breakfast. What we do know for sure is that part of the GNH program is the introduction of the Internet to Bhutan, thus why the last reason led into this one.

Finally, there’s the Bhutanese flag. It pretty much sums up the magic and whimsy of this Little Himalayan Kingdom-that-Could. I mean look at it. If that’s not the cutest dragon you’ve ever seen on a national flag, I just don’t know what is. And what is he holding anyway? Pomegranates? Apples? Rocks? Steamed buns? I like to think those are government-subsidized marshmallows. And our little friend Button the dragon here is holding them out to us as a token of his friendship and the friendship of all the Bhutanese people. Let us eat the Marshmallow of Happiness with him and savour the awesomeness that is Bhutan.

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*or when? Bhutan is pretty much the Brigadoon of the Himalayas. It’s a valid question.

**Not a real creature, though it sounds like one.

***A real ethnic group, though it sounds like a mythical creature.

**** Legend says one can only find Bhutan if they already know how to get there. Others say Bhutan reveals itself only to those it wants to find it. Others say the king made a dark bargain long ago with Forces he scarcely understood to keep Bhutan safe from invasion, but as a price his land was cursed with eternal, supernatural seclusion. Yet others say the altitude and weather patterns of the Himalayas make it difficult to reach Bhutan by plane or train, and that the Bhutanese government has direct control over the tourist industry and intentionally places caps on the number of people able to visit their idyllic kingdom so as not to tarnish its natural beauty and rustic charm.  But, let’s face it, that’s a bit far-fetched.

List of Awesome, Part II

“This time, it’s serial serious.”

A very long while ago, I began what was intended to be an ongoing series in tribute to something many studies conducted at prestigious universities have proven to the highest standards of scientific scrutiny: the fact that people love awesome. Sadly, as is often the case in life, I lost my way. But as the prodigal son, I have returned to the father’s home of blogging and even as I type he is killing the fatted calf of this blog post for me — and for you, dear reader — to feast upon. So come, allow him to place the signet ring of stretched metaphor on your finger and help yourself to a heaping portion of blog meat.

If you haven’t read the first post in the series yet. Read it here. It’s a good’ne. Which brings me to our first awesome item:

1) Antiquated British contractions

I’m a self-confessed Anglophile. I don’t know why. Perhaps I feel an affinity with the Mother Country because of shared heritage — namely pastiness, freckles and bitter, self-deprecating humour. Oh, and the way I spell humour. That too. Of the many things I love about England, their propensity for mashing the unlikeliest of words into a cumbersome contraction is very high on the list. Observe the following:

Ha’penny – Pronounced haypny, this is a contraction of half penny, which only sort of sounds similar. How they got there, I don’t know. Why anyone needs half a penny, I’m even less sure of. But the byzantine monetary system of the UK is an awesome thing for another post. As for the word byzantine, that’s already been covered here.

Ne’er/e’er/heav’n – These words are often (of’n?) featured in love poems and songs, apparently written by someone in a big hurry. Like the txtspk of the Elizabethan era, it’s how moody teenagers in Shakespeare’s day expressed things like ttyl and rotfl.

’twasn’t/’tweren’t – The fabled double contractions have baffled and intrigued linguists for generations. A curiosity to modern English speakers, I consider double contractions a challenge. How many apostrophes can I fit into one contraction? Ha’b’thday as a contraction of half birthday, for example. ‘twon’te’erbe for “It won’t ever be.” Or how about I’mno’sos’rethat’sag’d’dea for “I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.”

It might sound stupid. It might, rather than making communication easier, make it more difficult; but that’s the beauty of English. Our forebears wove absurdity into the very fabric of our language. And that’s awesome. ‘Strewth.

2) Microwave Ovens

The Future has, in many ways, been disappointing so far. Sure, in many ways we’ve far exceeded the hopes and expectations of past generations. The ability and popularity of mobile devices is largely an unforeseen phenomenon, for example. But in many more ways, we’ve been unable to live up to the Utopian dreams of yesteryear, when the silver screen was aglow with images of flying cars, floating cities, robots and spaceships. There is one item, however, that I feel has entirely lived up to the hype of the Future and even exceeded it: the microwave oven.

Microwave ovens might not make food well, but the manner in which they make it is very futuristic. If we traveled back in time and told people that one day, not too far from now, we’ll be able to place uncooked food in a metal box, press a button and, harnessing the power of invisible waves, be able to cook an entire meal in minutes; they’d never believe us. I hardly believe us. Even the fact that microwaves give off that otherworldly glow and emit a droning sci fi hum as they cook feels too futuristic to be true. And that’s awesome.

Still not convinced? Try calling microwave ovens “Photon Ovens” or “Instant Food Preparation Units” for a week and see how you feel then.

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I was hoping to have more time to finish this post, but alas! ‘Twill’vet’wait (It will have to wait)! Hopefully there will be more awesome to come. Soon. Until then, in the words of Ulrich Zwingli, “Peace out!”

Pads, i and otherwise

Need a reason to get on board the iPad bandwagon? Check this out: http://www.apple.com/ipad/apps-for-ipad/#elements

Need a reason to get on board the far-less-popular periodic table of the elements bandwagon? Check this out: http://www.apple.com/ipad/apps-for-ipad/#elements

Both bandwagons are filled with thick-rimmed glasses-wearing tech-savvy twenty-somethings, but one throws cooler parties than the other. The answer to “Which one?” depends on your answer to another question: How do you feel about Dungeons and Dragons?

P.S. – I’m down with the whole lower-case-“i”-before-an existing-word-as-a-name-for-a-product trend Apple is so fond of. Sure, it’ll probably sound really stupid in retrospect when we all tell our children about our iPods and iPhones and what not, but that’s what growing old is all about: sounding stupid to our kids. That and being able to blame all of our eccentricities on “the War.” Fortunately, thanks to our public school systems, our children and grandchildren will be too stupid to know there was no such War in our lifetimes. So, I am cool with the lower case “i.” The iPad, however: not cool. There’s another pad I can think of that women regularly carry around in their bags, and I doubt anyone wants to confuse it with an electronic devise in conversation. Perhaps a non-menstrual affiliation would alleviate just a small measure of the chuckling our progeny will inevitably respond with when we tell them what we used to carry in our pockets, bags and purses respectively. Then again, maybe not. But we can always blame it on the War.

Whither Bloggery?

If you’re reading this post, you can probably tell that I have come back to the blogging world. I was in the midst of writing a comeback post, with all the blog equivalents of bells and whistles, but I’m afraid the post quickly descended into chaos and incoherence. I’ll let the excerpt below speak for itself:

About one Earth year ago, I took a sabbatical from blogging. I’d like to report that I spent that time living a mendicant lifestyle, wandering from monastery to monastery across the cold steppes and linden forests of Old Europe, while occasionally hiring out my services as a snark hunter. I’d like to, but I can’t. No, my friends. I spent the past year in a location so familiar and mundane, it’s hardly worth mentioning. In fact, I won’t. For the remainder of this post and, Lord willing, all posts from now on, I’ll just refer to this place under the pseudonym of “France’s Biddy.” (It’s well known that France has but one biddy. It’s been that way from time immemorial. No one really knows who made the rule, but everyone follows it to. the. letter. Because they’re French, and as soon as anything is canonized as the Gaulishest of traditions, they will all defend it to the death, which creates a bit of a problem because surrendering is among the Gaulishest of the traditions, putting them in a bit of a catch-22.) So I spent this year with France’s Biddy, who’s a terrible conversationalist, but a pretty good cook. She made three meals a day like clockwork, and I never missed a one, unless I was on a snark hunt.

Not a shred of it was even true! So, needless to say, I scrapped it. But ’twasn’t all for naught. For one, it provided me with the opportunity to use an archaic double contraction. Secondly, it taught me an important lesson: Perhaps simplicity is best.

So here goes: I’m blogging again.

The End

Yet more bookstore magic!

We have a wonderful teacher here at IHOP–KC named Terri Terry. It is her real name. When she first moved here we started carrying one of her books at the bookstore. As soon as we discovered her name on the cover, it quickly became a cause of great amusement – and great curiosity – for the staff. One day she came by the store and so we finally asked her if Terri Terry is her real name. She told us it is. We asked her if it was her birth name. She responded, “Of course not! Who would do that to their child? I married into it.” I asked her if she had any reservations marrying a man with her first name for his last name. She said, “Of course I did, but when he asked me to marry him I said to myself, ‘Hey, you might not get another chance, so go for it.'” And that about sums up Terri Terry.

Fast forward three years. I was working a shift in the bookstore with my friend Amanda. We were unpacking a box of the same book that introduced us to Terri Terry and sparked our curiosity years back. We noticed that her name was written “Terri L. Terry”. My friend Amanda asked me what I thought the ‘L’ stands for. I jokingly said, “Terri Larry Terry!” and chuckled to myself at the thought of so ridiculous a monicker. We both commented on how unbelievable that would be and we vowed to ask her when we saw her again.

The very next day, Mrs. Terry herself paid the store a visit. I was not there in person, but Amanda was, and she shared with me the following account:

When Amanda saw Terri she asked her what her middle name was. Terry responded, “It’s Lawrence. My parents wanted a boy, whom they were going to name Lawrence. So they kept it as my middle name.”

Amanda kept quiet, weighing the implications of this new information when Terri said, on her own, “So my name is Terri Larry Terry.”

Score.

It never even occurred to me that bookstore magic was at work until I talked with Christine about it, but it fits the pattern. I love bookstore magic.

MacGuffins

I’m about to type a sentence you probably never thought you would read or hear. You probably never even thought to think you’d never read or hear it. I certainly never thought to think I wouldn’t type or say it. Here goes: I’m all about the MacGuffins. Can’t get enough of ’em.

If you don’t know what a MacGuffin is, allow me to tell you. If you do, feel free to skip down a few paragraphs (I’ll tell you right now, the MacGuffin in this blog post is the MacGuffin). The MacGuffin is a plot device used in film, TV and literature. It is the object that sets a plotline in motion. It is almost always a physical item that is greatly sought after by the characters in a story. It is the force that drives them, the common thread that binds them and, depending on the kind of story, the instrument that makes or breaks them. MacGuffins have been around probably as long as stories have been told, but it was Alfred Hitchcock who popularized the term and took the use of MacGuffins to whole new heights. According to Hitchcock, a MacGuffin is an essentially meaningless item. It serves but one purpose: to give the characters in the story a reason to act. Once they act, the story takes over and the MacGuffin takes backseat. The item does not, therefore, have to contain any intrinsic value apart from convenience. It requires no back story, no justification, no deeper meaning. The thief in a story, Hitchcock said, is always after jewels. Spies are always after documents. No more need be understood or explored.

It is the inherent meaninglessness of the MacGuffin that inspired its name, which is, appropriately, inherently meaningless. Apparently it was Hitchcock’s friend, a man named Angus McPhail, who coined the term MacGuffin. When asked what a MacGuffin was, he used to tell a story that went like this:

There were two men on a train from London to Scotland. The first man noticed a bizarre package in the luggage rack above the other man.

“What have you got there?” asked the first man, indicating the package.

“Oh,” replied the second man, “That’s a MacGuffin.”

“What’s a MacGuffin?” asked the second man, confused.

“It’s a contraption used to trap lions in the Scottish highlands,’ the second man said.

“But,” came the first man, “there aren’t any lions in the Scottish highlands.”

“Oh, well then I guess that’s no MacGuffin!”

Film is especially full of MacGuffins, and I’ve noticed recently how many of my favourite films and TV shows revolve around them. Every episode of Duck Tales features a MacGuffin. All four Indiana Jones films are pretty heavy on the MacGuffin action. So much about what I consider adventurous, romantic and exciting is defined by the types of films that feature an irresistable object. There is something so thrilling for me about the idea of trotting the globe, braving countless dangers in search of some elusive, mysterious treasure. It’s simultaneously a tragic and a heroic act. One outcome is the finding of the object which brings untold riches and possibly fame, but fails to satisfy the emptiness it embodies in the heart of our hero. The other outcome involves the hero failing to find the item and always feeling the sting of the “what if?”, but he finds out a lot about himself in the process and is therefore greatly enriched. Hitchcock might have considered the MacGuffin a shallow expedient, but it becomes a mirror for all the characters’ actions and struggles.

So I thought I would make a list of ten of my favourite MacGuffins. This is by no means a definitive list, and it’s subject to change or addendum, but here it is nonetheless.

10. Leeloo in The Fifth Element

A nice twist on the traditional MacGuffin. The elusive fifth element is said to be the key to unlimited power; the perfect weapon. It turns out it is actually a she. It’s also the only proof I have that Milla Jovavich can be anything but obnoxious. “Multipass.” That’s all I have to say.

9. The plant in WALL-E

Deeply symbolic of rebirth springing from barrenness; about direction being found in a directionless world; about Man returning to his original mandate to cultivate the earth. A symbol of WALL-E’s ability to grow and change beyond what is possible and for EVE to transcend her own directive in submission to a higher one. A simple, beautiful olive branch for this futuristic Noah’s ark story.

8. Princess Peach in the Super Mario franchise

What Peach, and the entire Mario franchise may lack in substance it makes up for in staying power. The story may never change; the story may never be a real story, but it never fails to capture the imagination and to earn the loyalty of successive generations. I can think of few things more iconic in the last twenty-five years than Mario and his quest for Peach.

7. The Green Destiny in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

This is one of my favourite films of all time. This is the movie that made me fall in love with movies. Tragic heroes, star-crossed lovers all in search of a legendary sword and the greatness it endows to the one who holds it. Aesthetically, the sword has a subtly ethereal, almost elvish quality to it. In its first appearance in the film it quietly sings a soft, metallic song when struck, like a siren beckoning all who hear it to come and claim it as their own. And like a siren, it dashes its pursuers against the rocks. As the warriors in this film clash and move closer to their respective fates, it becomes clearer that the sword is not what they seek at all, but love, identity, rest and absolution. Ang Lee deftly turns the pulp fiction source material into subtle, tragic beauty.

6. The Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Monty Python’s Holy Grail and far too many films and stories to bother listing

The mother of all MacGuffins. I list the Holy Grail this low on the list for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s a victim of its own fame. The Holy Grail has become so synonymous with sought for treasures, that it has taken on that second meaning. “It’s the Holy Grail of professional competitive taxidermy,” is something you might hear. As a result, it’s lost a lot of its original meaning. Our culture is so saturated with its presence, it’s difficult to sift through the legend and gaze upon the mystery of the Grail with the same wonderment and awe of a Knight Templar or a Nazi hating adventurer. Secondly, even if one can see through the ubiquitous hype of the grail, it is, at the end of the day, a cup. A cup Jesus may have drunk from, but a cup nonetheless. Of all the holy relics one could search for, the Lord’s cup is not even close to being the coolest. Nevertheless, it is iconic, steeped in religious lore and medieval mysticism. That makes it one sweet MacGuffin.

5. The Maltese Falcon in The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon has its origins with the mysterious Knights of St. John, or the Knights of Malta –  monks, warriors, secret society. They went to Jerusalem during the Crusades to protect pilgrims from ambush. They remained to build a hospital and their own private army. When the Crusades ended, they left the Holy Land with mountains of gold, or so the legend says, and they built their own secretive kingdom on the island of Malta. The King of Spain, it is said, required only one thing in exchange for allowing them to remain on Malta: a single falcon sent to him every year. As a token of their gratitude, instead of sending him a simple bird, the knights carved a falcon from solid gold and adorned it with the finest of their jewels. They sent one of their own commanders to guard the falcon on the voyage to Spain. But en route, the boat was attacked by pirates. They killed all on board, including the knight, and disappeared. The falcon was never seen or heard from again…or was it?

Let me also mention this: Humphrey Bogart. Enough said.

4. The Dead Man’s Chest in the eponymous Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man’s Chest

Most people I know did not like Pirates of the Caribbean 2. I liked it a lot. It wasn’t a perfect film, but what it got right it nailed. Davey Jones’ tragic love story is what fairy tales and pirate stories such as this are all about. The mystery of the Dead Man’s chest, the power it holds, the lengths heroes and villains alike are willing to go through to get it, the act they must be willing to commit to get what they desire – all of it is classic bedtime story adventure.

3. The One Ring in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings

Obligatory on any MacGuffin tribute, Sauron’s ring is nearly as compelling a MacGuffin as could be imagined. Forged by the Dark Lord, he poured all his power, all his malice into it, giving it a life of its own. With it, he would be far more powerful than he ever was. Without it, he is nothing more than a flickering shadow of his former greatness. Any who bears this Ring is granted the power of its maker, but at a cost. Its living, breathing malice consumes the bearer, twisting them into an abomination as dark as Sauron himself. A terrifying symbol of man’s love of darkness and the corruption of desire, it is literally Wagnerian in its scope. Tolkien borrowed heavily from Germanic myth and Wagner’s brilliant, 18 hour long Ring of the Nibelung opera featuring a cruel dwarf who forges a Ring that endows its bearer with unlimited power on the condition that they forsake love eternally.

The One Ring is nearly as tragic an object as was ever forged, but Tolkien outdid himself with the next items.

2. The Silmarils in The Silmarillion

The Silmarils are the center of the most tragic tale in Tolkien’s expansive world. The Silmarils are jewels of incomparable beauty, forged by an elf named Feanor who was consumed with lust for his own creation. As the centuries and millennia unfold, successive generations of elves and men commit acts of unspeakable darkness in order to possess these jewels. They are the focal point and the narrative vehicle for the slow moral demise of both elves and men. Far more tragic than the One Ring because the jewels were originally created in purity but were corrupted by their maker’s lust, they drag down generations of people into darkness and murder and they do not end in triumph for the cause of good. The Silmarils meet an end as shameful and pathetic as the races of men and elves they corrupted. By far, the most heart breaking and sorrowful moral tale Tolkien wrote.

1. The Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark

But nothing tops the Ark of the Covenant. Built under divine command, the Ark contains the original Ten Commandments, Moses’ staff, and manna bread from heaven. It is also the throne of God on this earth; the dwelling of his power, the place where his glory dwells, the seat the God of the Universe sits on to pronounce judgment and mercy. As long as the army of Israel carried it before them, they were invincible against all attacks of their enemies. The Ark of the Covenant is the ultimate weapon, gifted to Israel by God himself. The Knights Templar, the original creepy secret agents, searched for it on Solomon’s mount, secret cults claim to hold it in their compounds in Europe, even real life Indiana Jones style adventurers like Ron Wyatt have risked life and limb to find it in rubble and caves beneath the Old City of Jerusalem. Throw in a story about Hitler trying to claim it as his own to take over the world and slaughter the very people who crafted the ark in the first place and you’ve got yourself the MacGuffinest MacGuffin cinema has ever known.