Ho, Ho, Ho

Our flight from Prague to Boston via London that was supposed to happen on Monday got cancelled due to weather. Though annoying, this result (i.e. sitting in Prague for another four days) is infinitely better than the scenario of getting stuck in the insane, raving madhouse that has been Heathrow Airport for the past week. The broad strokes of this story are the tales of people stuck in the airport for four days and mile-long lines for the Eurostar train to France, but there are also juicy smaller details like the plane that finally received clearance to take off after hours of delay but then had to taxi back to the gate because some guy wouldn’t stop praying in the aisle. Given this whole tapestry of bad, I’ve been happy to sit in Prague and sip my seasonal hot wine and wait this one out.

If our next flight attempt (scheduled for Friday… with no stops in Western Europe, thank god… Prague straight to New York this time) runs into delays and frustrating problems, I’m going to struggle to keep in mind the example of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, unquestionably the victim of the worst-ever travel story. Yamaguichi was in Hiroshima on business on Aug 6, 1945, the day the atomic bomb was dropped. Having survived and spent the night in a emergency tent, he then boarded a train* to his native Nagasaki, arriving a day before the next bomb was dropped. According to accounts, he was literally in the middle of telling his manager at work about the first blast when the second one happened. I guess it would be something like being in the World Trade Center when the first plane hit, then somehow running up into the next tower before the second plane hit. There are believed to be over one hundred people who experienced both blasts, but Yamaguchi is the only certified nijū hibakusha (double blast experiencer). He lived until early this past year, when he died of natural causes at 93.

Take that, frustrated Euro holiday travelers!

[* None of the accounts I’ve read explain how it is that you could just hop a train the day after a city was nuked. Was the snack car running?]

How We Laughed

Lately, the wife and I have been batting around the idea of spending a couple of summer months next year in Berlin, just to try it on for size. I’ve written several times in this space about my positive feelings for Berlin, so it’s not like this is a new sentiment on my part. But it does seem to consistently amaze many Germans to find that their capital city has become such a desirable destination. I’m still discussing with my German friend Patrick the idea of co-authoring a coffee table book that will explore this phenomenon under the title Germany: Finally Cool After All These Years*.

Really, the only thing that gives me pause about the whole experiment would be subjecting myself and my small child to the infamously deficient German sense of humor. The English and – particularly – Irish sense of humor seem to exist as a pointy weapon to be used against ones’ social superiors, a manner of leveling the playing field. The Jewish humor tradition that dominated American culture until the 1970s probably serves the purpose of that Freud imagined for humor: allowing us laugh at those things that are not, in fact, funny. Meanwhile, the German sense of humor, from my observation, seems to be a humor of consensus and agreement– ‘we all agree this is funny and will now laugh together.’ Which is not, in fact, very funny.

Digression: I developed my own theory about the origins and/or social function of humor from watching my infant son develop. You know how small babies spend hours upon hours waving their arms and legs around as a instinctual means of building up the muscle strength to later be able to walk? I think humor provides the same role in a social sense: it gives tiny children a means of interacting socially with their parents before they have the ability to speak or formulate many opinions or ideas. Crying is obviously the first learned social behavior– infants do this from this moment they’re born. But laughing and smiling come shortly thereafter, before a child can do much of anything else.

Here are two interactions I had with Germans that defined my impression of the national brand of humor:

1. At a hostel in Dresden, I provided the receptionist with my credit card which, having been issued by Wells Fargo, bears the romantic image of  stagecoach. ‘Oh, this is nice,’ she remarked. ‘Thanks… you can keep it,’ I replied with a facetious lilt, signaling that I was not in fact being serious. ‘YES… AND YOU GIVE ME THE CODE NUMBER… HA HA HA,’ she answered, looking up at me with the intent we-are-now-making-a-joke expression. This seems to me to be the main deficiency in the German humor gene: a desire to take all nuance and uncertainty out of the equation. HA HA HA indeed.

2. Wearing sunglasses, walking along a street in Berlin on a technically overcast but actually very bright and hazy day. A large, florid, long-haired guy passes me with a group of his friends and says mirthfully (in German): ‘Why are you wearing sunglasses when its cloudy outside?’, to an immediate volley of ho-ho-hos from his entourage. I didn’t understand this as it was being said, so I was powerless to respond… once my wife explained what had happened, I whirled around in disbelief to find my antagonists, but they had disappeared into crowded Warschauer Strasse. In any case, I would submit this a classic example of humor-to-establish-consensus-and-social-norm, with the normies ganging up on the apparent outsider.

* That’s a joke, by the way.

(Photo: David Hasselhoff single-handedly ruins one of history’s great moments with his performance atop the remains of the newly-fallen Berlin Wall in 1989.)

Nerdtown, Population: Me

  • My typography article is up at Smashing Magazine. Enjoy a wholehearted delve into font nerdiness.

  • In response to yesterday’s Julius Peppers post, reader MM passes on this compendium of outlandish college basketball names. Sample fun fact: LaceDarius Dunn has a brother named DaVarious. I liked the politically-correct impulse to put a non-black guy in there– hence, the inclusion of Jimmer Fredette, even though it doesn’t hold a candle to… say, Dundrecous Nelson.

The Julius Peppers Challenge

Who’s got the coolest-sounding name in America? Why, NFL standout defensive end Julius Peppers, that’s who. I was having a rare football interlude last night and Peppers was involved, causing my name envy to be suddenly rekindled.

In 2004, Peppers starred for the Carolina Panthers, who were playing my beloved New England Patriots in Superbowl XXXVIII. I let it be known then that if the Panthers somehow prevailed (they didn’t), I would legally change my name to Julius Peppers as an homage. Now I’m willing to revive that offer for Peppers’ 2010 Bears. Who’s with me?

Blog Fight Song, pt. 3

Film director Elia Kazan, from an unpublished letter to Tennesse Williams. Kazan is asking Williams to add a speech in praise of bohemianism to his liberal-leaning script for “Camino Real”:

A dying race call them what you will: romantics, eccentrics, rebels, Bohemians, freaks, harum-scarum, bob-tail, Punchinellos, odd-ducks, the out-of-steps, the queers, double-gated, lechers, secret livers, dreamers, left-handed pitchers, defrocked bishops … the artists, the near artists, the would-be artists, the wanderers, the would-be wanderers, the secret wanderers, the foggy-minded, the asleep on the job, the loafers, the out-and-out hobos, the down and out, the grifters and drifters, the winos and boozers, the old maids who don’t venture to the other side of their windows, the good for nothings, the unfenceables, the rebels inside, the rebels manifest.

See also: Blog Fight Song parts one and two.

Photo: Paul Gaugin being ‘bohemian’.

Showcase of Hideous Christmas Reggae Album Covers

Semi-loyal reader KG recently saved me from the terrifying drought in good new music releases by turning me onto Scratch Radio, a station that streams nonstop rocksteady and dub. One of my stock tiresome soapbox rants is the position that Jamaican music is the most unfairly maligned and buttonholed genre or nationality of music (next to, perhaps, early gay underground disco, but that’s a post for another day). It’s a case of one particular artist becoming so dwarfingly popular relative to every other artist that most people automatically think ‘Bob Marley!’, when in fact he’s just the tip of the iceberg (note the self-conscious authorial attempt to avoid referring to the variety of Jamaican music as a ‘rainbow’). It would be like if people failed to recognize any contribution to rock music besides that of, say, Elvis Presley. Or the Insane Clown Posse. You get my point.

The beauty of Scratch Radio is that, in terms of vocal selections, they generally eschew tired-out ‘Roots’ reggae in favor of tracks from the glorious rocksteady years (my friend once explained this preference by saying, “I liked it when they were singing about girls instead of Haile Selassie and Mount Zion’). However, as soon as November rolled into December, I suddenly had to beat a ragged retreat from Scratch Radio because they began playing the cheesiest holiday-themed reggae songs almost nonstop. Who knew that a tropic island had so many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of holiday covers? It makes a certain amount of sense, given that Jamaican artists have traditionally been willing to cover just about anything… but still.

Some album cover examples from this regrettable and surprisingly prolific trend:

Blegh. Having explicitly poked fun at candy cane lettering in the snarky article I recently wrote about type for Smashing Mag, I was delighted to see an instance of this crop up in the first example posted above.

Finally, two covers from this unfortunate genre that are kinda redeemable. I wouldn’t go as far as to call them good, exactly, but there are some likable things going on here:

See also: the incredibly entertaining 42 Reggae Album Cover Designs from Crestock.com’s blog. It includes such fantastic curiosities as Ugly Man’s Ugly Lover album, containing hit song ‘Computer’:

Discotheque Esperanto

Spotted this ad for Music Club Zlatý Strom (Golden Tree) on the metro recently while heading to the train station and, subsequently, to Berlin:

In this case, I have to say that the blurriness of the photo is only partly attributable to rush (it was a packed metro car, so I only had a moment of unmolested empty space between stops in which to snap it) and largely due to a spasm of self-conscious embarrassment I experienced while snapping it that some onlooker might think I was legitimately wowed by the looks of the place. What actually attracted me was the peculiar gigantism of the sales pitch (’60 different types of vodka! 70 different types of tequila! 40 different types of rum!), and the weird half-baked visual language of ‘cool, sexy times being had’: hazy, indistinct purple field, generic sexy woman silhouettes*, disco balls. Only the incongruity of the golden tree seal sets this apart from any number of other cheesy clubs, I would guess.

Indeed, as soon as I arrived in Berlin, I passed Club Matrix, which exhibits the same, lame purple-clad associations:

What is it with purple, anyway? I guess the thinking is that sheer black would be too dull, and red would look too hellish and infernal. There’s a sort of international visual esperanto of cheeseball Euro-disco-trashiness emerging here.

* Although it should be noted that this ad is incredibly chaste compared to the web site and online advertising for the Zlaty Strom, which I looked up as soon as I got back to Prague. All vague, atmospheric promises are tossed aside in favor of a much more graphic and concrete approach suggesting an outright brothel.

Lego, Lasers, Awesome

I don’t know anything about 3D printing, but apparently it’s the bee’s knees. Just check out the side bar of an article someone pointed me to called ‘3D Printer Prints Its Own Upgrades‘:

Doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot of nay-saying flying around at PC World over this right now.

Question: suppose you strip out the references to 3D printing from these article titles. This leaves you with…

  1. Vase Made With ________ : What Can’t________ Do?
  2. ________ Cars May Be The Way Of The Future
  3. ________ May Bring Legal Challenges, Group Says
  4. ________ Built Out Of Lego, Lasers, Awesome
  5. Want ________? Build Your Own With Lego

What’s the best phrase you can insert into the blank? Feel free to nominate your own, or vote for one of these suggestions:

The Comenian Islands

Living in a small European nation, there are often times when I feel that I’m missing out by not living in a larger European nation, one with more historical prominence and cultural relevance. For instance: I don’t even know how the Czech national anthem goes. It’s half-surprising there even is one anymore, after centuries of pummeling from foreign neighbors. Somehow, I don’t think I’d have this problem if I lived in France or Germany. And it would be nice if mentioning where you live brought to mind a deserving historical figure than Jaromir Jagr for the average listener. Even if it was one as belittling/reviled as Peppy Le Peu or Adolf Hitler– still, it would be an improvement.

But most of all, I feel I’m missing out by not living in country with a colonial legacy. Um, not that I’m into colonialism, per se– heck, it’s responsible for all sorts of bad things. But from a sheer present-day travel perspective, it would be fantastically entertaining if we could jump on a plane during these cold winter months and taking a lengthy flight to some distant Caribbean island with a poignant connection to the Czech lands. I imagine local guys wearing white sweaters and playing cricket while speaking in an island patois variant of Czech. Jerk goulash. A mysterious, enduring tradition of giving male children traditional Czech names like Jaroslav and Svatopluk.

In all likelihood, this island– if it existed– would be named after Charles IV, like everything in Czech. But let’s pretend that they throw us a curve ball this time and name it after the third-most historically noteworthy Czech, Jan Komensky. ‘The Comenian Islands’ have a nice ring. (Komensky fun facts: generally regarded as ‘the father of modern education’… was allegedly asked to become an early president of Harvard University… pops up in a Rembrandt painting… attempted to invent a language in which false statements are impossible).

My unreliable sources inform me that there actually a brief flickering moment where the possibility of the Comenian Islands could have become a reality: at some point in the 90s (sic?), Croatia owed Czech a ton of money, and the idea was briefly floated of the debt being paid off by Croatia handing over one of its innumerable islands. Unfortunately, they seemed to have come to their senses (or perhaps this never happened– I’ve been totally unable to confirm it). I think the group that gives up the island for cash always winds up regretting it down the road.

My favorite-ever parent-child relationship in the annals of colonialism is definitely Denmark and Greenland. Like a tiny parent walking down the street with its Augustus Gloop-sized offspring, there’s a delicious size juxtaposition at work here in this relationship. One salient fact that I think is often overlooked is the fact that Greenland and Denmark are actually similar in shape, despite the massive difference in scale (shown below with the Faroe islands, to complete the formidable ‘Danish Commonwealth’):

I would love it if the two were somehow exactly the same shape, in some sort of unparalleled geological and political coincidence.