Three Thinkers and a Chimpanzee

Three Thinkers and a Chimpanzee

A few days ago, I recalled a work titled Chris Chrisman Goes to College and thought, “It was a decent book, but it had a great cover.” It boasted a superb caricature of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Charles Darwin. Man, those guys had sweet beards.

When I was in high school, my favorite teacher had me read a bunch of books exploring various worldviews from a Christian perspective. I tackled thoughtful books by guys like Peter Kreeft, Philip Yancey, and James W. Sire.

It was Sire whose book featured the outstanding picture above of three famous nineteenth-century thinkers (and a chimpanzee). Chris Chrisman Goes to College was, if I remember correctly, a fictionalized account of a sheltered Christian going to college and facing new ideologies. It wasn’t a bad book, but it didn’t make nearly as much of an impression on me as its delightful cover.

Marx, Freud, and Darwin are an interesting triumvirate. Each of these bearded gentleman crafted an ideology that rocked the world. Marx revolutionized politics by laying foundations for socialism and communism. Freud revolutionized psychology with his daring and controversial ideas. Darwin revolutionized scientific study with his naturalistic theories.

To wit, for better or worse, these guys really made a splash.

I can’t pretend to be very knowledgeable about these thinkers, their philosophies, or their legacies, but there’s at least one thing of which I’m absolutely certain.

Those are seriously some awesome beards.

311. Strange American Pumpkin Rituals

I’ve spent a few years in Indiana, one of the United States of America. Indiana is extremely different from my homeland of Ecuador. The season of autumn brings all sorts of strange cultural customs. In fact, as we approach the holiday known as “Halloween,” I’ve seen disconcerting rituals take place in my very neighborhood.

Today TMTF delves into anthropology and investigates strange American pumpkin rituals. For science.

I’m baffled by the bizarre, violent, and highly dubious custom of carving pumpkins into facsimiles of severed heads. These gruesome gourds are known as “jackal lanterns,” or some such.

Nothing brightens up a porch like grotesque facsimiles of severed heads!

Nothing brightens up a home like grotesque facsimiles of severed heads!

I recently witnessed the creation of jackal lanterns firsthand. First, the pumpkins were eviscerated and their innards piled in slimy heaps. Seeds were extracted from these heaps, seasoned, and cooked in an oven. I gathered that roasted pumpkin seeds are a seasonal delicacy, and tried a small handful—for science. The seeds tasted like buttered wood chips and were more or less completely indigestible. Americans must lack taste buds and have ironclad stomachs—but that’s research for another time.

After they were emptied of seeds and pulp, the hapless pumpkins had faces carved in them. These were grotesque. Further researches on my part yielded some interesting information: although jackal lanterns are generally patterned after severed heads, they can feature words, portraits, logos, cartoon ponies, interstellar weapons of mass destruction, and other forms of visual art.

Once completed, jackal lanterns are usually placed upon porches or in front yards. Lights or candles are placed inside them, shining through apertures and places where the sides of the pumpkins have been pared to a translucent thinness. This explains the lantern part of jackal lantern, but my researches have yet to explain the jackal part. Is the purpose of displaying these lanterns to frighten away jackals?

My other hypothesis is that jackal lanterns are deployed outside homes as protective charms to ward off gnomes, trolls, or evil spirits.

Halloween brings many more peculiar rituals, such as the custom of donning disguises, accosting strangers on their doorsteps, and demanding sweets. This ritual is apparently call “triquertreting.” (I haven’t actually seen the word written, so I’ve transcribed it phonetically here.) I can only presume the word is derived from the French triquer (cudgel) and the German treten (trample). Thus triquertreting can be loosely translated to cudgeling and trampling, which confirms my worst fears about Halloween and its customs.

All this makes me long for Ecuador’s peaceful and sensible customs for the Día de los Difuntos (Day of the Dead) on November 2, a couple of days after Halloween. Ecuadorians eat guaguas de pan, children made of bread; slurp colada morada, a soupy hot drink made with spiced fruit; and dine atop the graves of dead ancestors. What’s weird about that?

310. Obsessing over English

I love the English language. It’s a weird one, to be sure, but I love it anyway.

English began as a Germanic language called Anglo-Saxon. The Norman invasion of England in 1066 stirred in some French, eventually resulting in the sing-song language known as Middle English. Over the centuries, shifts in grammar, spelling, syntax, and pronunciation, along with words and phrases from other languages, have added up to the glorious mess we call English.

I’ve heard of two approaches to English and language in general. The first is a prescriptivist approach, which says, “This is how English must work, and everyone who disagrees is wrong.” I think this approach is hopeless, not to mention silly. Language changes constantly. A person may as well try to impose immutable order on the clouds above as on the English language.

(Of course, some formal standards are necessary for certain kinds of writing. It improves communication for professionals in the same profession to follow the same rules. What I frown upon is a universally prescriptivist approach to the English language.)

I prefer a descriptivist view, which says, “This is how English actually works right now. Let’s roll with it.” I disapprove of sloppy writing, but I don’t mind other people following different rules of grammar, spelling, and syntax. If other writers want to split infinitives, use sentence fragments, or end sentences in prepositions—and they’re consistent about it—who am I to argue?

When it comes to my own writing, however, I think I have linguistic OCD. Is that a thing? Let’s assume linguistic OCD is a thing. Obsessive-compulsive disorder can afflict anyone, even linguists.

As relaxed as I am about writing in general, I’m obsessive about my own. I seldom begin sentences with And or But. I never split infinitives, even though the rule about not splitting them is (according to an old college professor) an obsolete leftover from Latin. Heck, I even hate ending sentences with a parenthesis or the letter because I think these symbols look untidy next to a period.

I… I think I need help.

All right, not really. But I sure could loosen up a bit.

That last sentence was a little hard to write. I’ll keep working on it.

Criminal Penguins

When a globetrotting family friend recently shared tales of thieving penguins, it reminded me of something I had long forgotten. A few years ago, a college friend showed me this footage of penguin crimes. I hadn’t known penguins were so nefarious. They seemed so cute, fluffy, and innocent.

It’s worth noting that one of Batman’s greatest foes is known as the Penguin. Coincidence? Clearly not!

Be wary of penguins, dear reader. Watch your wallet and hold your children close! There’s no trusting the white-collar criminals known as penguins.

309. TMTF Reviews: Mario & Luigi – Dream Team

Since deciding to review video games on this blog, I’ve covered a lot of violent ones. I’ve played titles in the Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil series: games featuring guns, explosions, zombies, guns, death, nuclear weapons, and guns. Heck, I’ve played more violent video games in the past year alone than in all the years that came before.

It’s high time for something quirky and colorful. After so many gritty games, it’s time for a title that’s a little more… dreamy.

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team for the Nintendo 3DS the latest in a series of offbeat RPGs (role-playing games) starring a pair of portly plumbers. Mario’s RPGs are generally something special, and I hoped Dream Team would be no exception.

Does it play like a dream? Is is a nightmarish mess?

Mario & Luigi - Dream Team

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team (Nintendo 3DS, 2013)

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team may not be the greatest Mario RPG ever made, but it’s superb… and strange. It’s very, very strange.

Fever Dreams

When Mario and Luigi fly to Pi’illo Island for a restful visit, their vacation is disturbed by Antasma, a creature who haunts the world of dreams. Led by the prince of the ancient Pi’illo people, the Mario bros must rescue Pi’illo Island. They have one advantage: Luigi’s ability to nap anywhere allows him to open portals to the dream world, where things get weird.

Mario games are always a bit strange, but Dream Team is absolutely ridiculous. This is a game in which pillows talk, bizarre monsters roam freely, and Russian-accented bodybuilders obsess over beef—and all this in the “real” world. When the Mario bros dive into the dream world, it gets positively trippy. It’s a place in which timeless spirits talk on cell phones and geek out over superheroes.

The Mario RPGs have an unfair share of charm, and Dream Team is absolutely no exception. The setting is colorful, the characters are whimsical, and the dialogue is endearingly goofy. Dream Team is bright, absurd, and occasionally heartwarming.

Sadly, for all its strengths, the game doesn’t have much of a story. RPGs are often defined by strong narratives, and Dream Team doesn’t really have one. It’s a game whose story consists mostly of a series of objectives to be completed. I also lamented the lack of Fawful from previous Mario & Luigi games. His overenthusiastic villainy and mangled English were delightful, and his absence makes Dream Team a tiny bit less special.

Two’s a Crowd

Like the games before it, Dream Team gives the player separate, simultaneous control of both Mario bros. It takes a little practice, but controlling two characters allows for some engaging puzzles and battles.

The battle system is probably the game’s greatest strength. RPGs are built around strategy-based fights. Dream Team continues the Mario tradition of adding rhythm and timing to strategy. Instead of merely punching in commands and watching the battle unfold, the player must use timely button presses to attack and dodge. Battles, which so often become a chore in RPGs, are consistently fun.

I say consistently, not constantly, fun; a few of the tougher fights are frustrating. Casual players may appreciate the option for an “Easy” mode for boss battles. Without it, a couple of fights (especially the very last one) are unfairly tough.

Dream Team also features “giant battles” in which Luigi grows to colossal size in his dreams to take on huge foes. These battles look cool and use the Nintendo 3DS in innovative ways… but also take way too long, demand perfect timing, and allow practically no margin for error. It was hard to appreciate the giant battles when they made me want to smash my younger brother’s Nintendo 3DS against the wall.

The “real” world in Dream Team is built as an isometrically-viewed RPG. The dream world, however, is viewed horizontally like a traditional Mario side scroller. Switching perspectives is refreshing. Even battles function differently in the dream world. As Mario dives into Luigi’s dreams, the slumbering Luigi is replaced by dream versions of himself. “Dreamy Luigi” can multiply himself to do all sorts of trippy things, from stacking up to rolling around in a ball. It’s surreal, and kinda awesome.

Dreamy!

That’s just how Luigi rolls.

Dreamy!

Although it can be frustrating at times, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team is upbeat, engaging, and fun—and bizarre in the most wonderful ways.

TMTF Reviews - Dream TeamAfter so many grim games with guns, it was nice to enjoy something lighter, brighter, and altogether more cheerful. I expected charm and whimsy. I wasn’t disappointed. What I didn’t expect was talking pillows and beef-obsessed bodybuilders, but that’s just icing on a very sweet cake.

308. On the Shoulders of Giants

I recently spent a few days traveling with my parents and younger brother. It was quite a trip: exciting, exhausting, sentimental, and rife with unexpected ups and downs. Tolkien was right: It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. There’s no telling what will happen.

At one point, we had dinner with relatives and a family friend. Our conversations during and after the meal were of a kind common in my family: full of nostalgia, peppered with Spanish, ringing with laughter, and rich in stories of distant times and faraway places.

I heard anecdotes of adventures (and misadventures) in Ecuador, Portugal, Morocco, Fiji, and Antarctica, among other countries. I lounged on a sofa, looking round a cozy room lit by soft lamps, and listened contentedly to wild tales of grass skirts, bus breakdowns, shifty carpet merchants, and thieving penguins.

Penguin!

He may look innocent, but this bird is a stone-cold criminal. (Pun intended. I’m so, so sorry.)

For that one evening, I forgot the quiet, comfortable, soundly American life I’ve lived for the past two years. I remembered places long forgotten: gray beaches strewn with shells and driftwood; low hills studded with weathered trees; water cascading down cliffs covered in moss and ferns; mountains towering green and silent against the sky. As places were mentioned that I hadn’t visited, my imagination filled in the gaps.

Some of the stories that night told took me back decades to a time when the coast of Ecuador, my homeland, was a wilderness. There were hardly any cars or paved roads in those days. People traveled on foot, in canoes, and on rickety buses. My grandfather, a missionary to Ecuador’s coast many decades ago, was a pioneer in his time.

Those conversations opened windows in my imagination and memory, giving glimpses of things dimly seen or half-forgotten.

All of this reminded me of three things.

I am such a softy.

As I enjoy a life of incredible luxury, I often take for granted blessings like clean water, hot showers, fast Internet, video games, a comfortable home, a steady income, a safe neighborhood, and a steady supply of coffee. While I gripe about chilly weather and minor car troubles, a staggering number of people survive in harsh conditions with very few luxuries.

It’s my responsibility to be grateful and generous… and also to toughen up a bit!

I panic over little things.

I feel extremely stressed by small things, from the everyday pressures of my job to minor problems like my Internet connection failing. It helps to recall those tales of risks, perils, and painful misadventures. Things could always be much worse.

I need to keep a proper sense of perspective.

I mustn’t get too comfortable.

I get so comfortable in my quiet Indiana life that I often forgot my all-important purpose of loving people. Love is hard. It leaves behind cozy armchairs, warm lamps, and cups of tea. It braves darkness, cold, and awkward pauses to reach out. Love makes me uncomfortable, but that shouldn’t ever stop me from trying to love people. It didn’t stop my grandfather. It doesn’t stop my parents. I mustn’t let it stop me.

All said, it was quite a trip.

All said, it was quite a trip.

I stand, as the saying goes, upon the shoulders of giants. I’m related to some remarkable people, and they’ve done some remarkable things. As I live out this unremarkable chapter of my life, I mustn’t ever lose sight of the things that matter most—the things I can’t see.

Cartoon Anatomy Is Weird

Cartoon anatomyI’m no expert on human anatomy, but I’m pretty sure Charlie Brown’s neck wouldn’t support his head. He’s always seemed a bit… top-heavy.

The same is true for Mabel Pines, and her neck isn’t the only problem—I’m pretty sure those legs wouldn’t carry her weight. Speaking of which, I consider it a miracle that Doctor Eggman can stand at all. His slender needle-legs wouldn’t hold up his mustache, let alone his, um, bulbous physique.

Yes, I’m overthinking things. Cartoons aren’t supposed to be realistic. Character designs are highly stylized. I get that, and I like cartoony proportions. (Would Snoopy from Peanuts be one-half as adorable with a proportionately-sized head? I didn’t think so.) All the same, I find myself occasionally scrutinizing cartoon characters and wondering which bones would be the first to break.

Consider the following image of Charlie Brown, courtesy of Michael Paulus.

Charlie Brown's skeletonFor someone frequently addressed as “blockhead,” Charlie Brown’s gargantuan dome is quite spherical. No way on God’s green earth would a few spindly vertebra hold up a skull like that.

I suppose cartoon anatomy joins the ability to pull stuff from nowhere as one of animation’s greatest mysteries.

 

307. Goodbye, Brawl in the Family

I’ve seen many little blessings vanish from my life. The Harry Potter books concluded. Avatar: The Last Airbender aired its final episode. Nintendo Power ceased publication. (This noble magazine was too clearly good for this world; may it rest in peace.) One by one, these sparks of joy and humor were extinguished, leaving my world a tiny bit darker.

Today the Internet loses a great webcomic. Brawl in the Family has ended its six-year run, and I am reminded of how fleeting are most of the good things in life.

I shall miss you. Well, may not you, Ice Climbers, but I'll miss the rest of you.

(Am I seriously writing a blog post mourning the end of a webcomic? Yes. Yes, I am.)

Anyone familiar with Nintendo and its games should check out Brawl in the Family immediately. BitF is a superb webcomic. (However, it’s also packed with video game-specific humor, so non-Nintendo fans shouldn’t feel bad for giving it a miss.)

As a person who creates stuff and throws it at the Internet, I admire the creators of BitF. I’ll miss its cartoony style and gentle humor. The comic’s jokes were often sophisticated, using absurdism or deconstructionism to poke fun at Nintendo’s video games… and then some of the comic’s jokes were just really bad puns.

BitF has long brightened quiet corners of this blog. The comic inspired one of TMTF’s earliest posts, taught me the history of Nintendo in one ridiculously catchy song, and made bearable one of the darker days of my life. And have you noticed the green coffee cup I hold in one of this blog’s banners? It’s a nod to the comic. Heck, BitF has made so many appearances on TMTF that I’ve considered giving the comic its own tag.

I’ll miss Kirby, Dedede, and the comic’s other oddball characters. I’ll even miss Waluigi and his surreal (and invariably purple-colored) antics.

Waluigi goes trick-or-treating

One of the comic’s creators is going on to develop his own video game and compose game soundtracks. As much as I’ll miss his comic, I can appreciate that he wants to move on to new things.

Goodbye, Brawl in the Family. Thanks for brightening my life with laughter, absurdity, and Kirby-eats-something jokes.

I’m gonna miss you, Kirby.

Video Game Systems Sure Make Great Instruments

Musical instruments may be designed to produce a specific sound, but that doesn’t stop some musicians from using a single instrument to make all kinds of noises. For example, guitarist Phil Keaggy and cellist Steven Sharp Nelson use their instruments in incredibly creative ways. In my all-time favorite arrangement of Pachelbel’s Canon, Mr. Nelson strums his instrument like a banjo and beats it like a drum besides playing it as, you know, a cello.

Some clever musician on YouTube composed and performed some lovely music: smooth electronica backed by acoustic percussion. The only instruments used were three video game consoles: a Wii, an Xbox 360, and a PS3. The song is titled “Console Wars.” Of course.

I’m amazed at how a coherent melody, let alone such a charming one, could be arranged from the beeps of systems powering on, the jingles of menu screens, the clicks of analogue sticks, and the soft thumps of hands hitting plastic.

I like video game music, and I’ve shared a lot of it. This song isn’t like any I’ve ever heard. I wonder what other everyday objects could be used as instruments….