Strange American Valentine Rituals

The United States of America has many strange customs and holidays, and I consider it my duty to research them. With St. Valentine’s Day soon taking place, I set my studies of Halloween and Thanksgiving behind me in order to give this latest holiday the anthropological scrutiny it deserves.*

My findings were… dark. Despite its popular image as a time for giving gifts and expressing romantic love, St. Valentine’s Day represents bloodstained history and wanton consumerism.

Verily, of the various letters vividly visible above, the very first veers vaguely toward the visual vibe of a violent yet entertaining film I once viewed.

Verily, of the various letters vividly visible above, the very first veers vaguely toward the visual vibe of a viscerally vicious and violent film I once viewed: V for Valentine, or some variation.

As the holiday is named for a historical figure, my first task was to research St. Valentine himself. Little is known of this ancient Roman martyr, whose death is celebrated every year in America by the sale and distribution of gifts such as flowers, chocolates, cookies, cards, jewelry, and frilly undergarments. St. Valentine, who is known as Valentinus in some accounts, is surrounded by legends, but few facts remain.

Upon finding the study of this dead saint to be a dead end, I turned my researches toward the holiday itself, and discovered a sordid celebration of Valentine’s demise.

The name of the event, St. Valentine’s Day, is generally shortened to Valentine’s Day by the disgraceful omission of Valentine’s hagiographic title. Just as the Christmas season is marked by certain colors (viz. red and green), so Valentine’s Day is recognized by the colors red and pink.

The significance of these colors is open to speculation. Given what little is known of St. Valentine’s personal history, the color red may represent his violent death as a martyr. Pink generally represents love or sweetness; its association with the bloody red of Valentine’s death demonstrates a disturbing veneration of violence.

More than fifteen centuries after Valentine’s tragic end, why is it celebrated by the giving of gifts? Why is romantic love the legacy of Valentine’s martyrdom? What aspect of his brutal death inspired sappy cards, heart-shaped candies, and other mawkish gifts?

These are distressing questions, and my best researches have yielded no answer.

Do you know what else is distressing? These awful pills. I don't know what kind of medication they contain, but they taste awful.

Do you know what else is distressing? These awful tablets. I don’t know what kind of medication they contain, but they taste awful.

Perhaps it would be prudent for me to narrow the lens of my researches from the purpose of the holiday to its specific observances.

The greatest tradition of Valentine’s Day seems to be buying things, such as the aforementioned flowers, candy, cookies, cards, jewelry, and lingerie. This eclectic assortment of romantic items has no discernible connection to Valentine himself, leaving me to surmise that their popularity as Valentine’s Day gifts is prompted by the theme of romantic love that has left its indelible and inexplicable mark upon the remembrance of that saint’s death.

Never mind the occasion—coffee is always an appropriate gift.

Never mind the occasion—coffee is always an appropriate gift.

Although these gifts are generally exchanged by romantic partners, it is common for celebrants of Valentine’s Day to distribute cheaper and less intimate gifts among friends, classmates, and coworkers; candy and cards are among the most popular options. Other Valentine’s Day traditions observed in America include going on dates or to parties.

A romantic card or letter given on Valentine’s Day is known as a valentine. This eponymous designation is shared by any person to whom such a card or letter is given.

(If I may permit a personal view to interfere with my serious studies of American holidays: I strongly opine that video game valentines are the best valentines.)

If you recognize all of the games represented in these Valentine's Day cards, you deserve a cookie.

If you recognize all of the games represented in these valentines, a winner is you!

In conclusion, Valentine’s Day seems to celebrate the violent death of a good man, associating it (for dark, unknown reasons) with romantic sentimentality. I acknowledge, regardless, the importance of the virtues venerated by the holiday—to wit, love and friendship.

Thus, with sincerity and due caution, I wish you a happy St. Valentine’s Day.

*I should remind my dear readers that my studies of American holidays are silly, sarcastic, and absolutely not serious. This blog post is a joke. Please don’t take it seriously!


This post was originally published on February 13, 2015. TMTF shall return with new content on February 22, 2016!

A Caffeinated Romance

St. Valentine’s Day is coming up. (Yes, I insist on referring to the holiday as St. Valentine’s Day, because I am a grouchy traditionalist.) It’s a time for people in relationships to express their affections, and for single people to feel awkward. St. Valentine’s Day is also a time for coffee, but let’s be honest—it’s always time for coffee.

“Taylor the Latte Boy” is my all-time favorite romantic song. (Well, the video above actually features two songs: “Taylor the Latte Boy” and its response, “Taylor’s Rebuttal.”) What could be more romantic than a guy and a girl falling in love over coffee? The girl’s passionate tale of love, longing, and lattes is only slightly marred by the guy being absolutely not interested.

Coffee, love poetry, and the possibility of a restraining order: “Taylor the Latte Boy” has it all. This two-part song is on the longish side, but if you have time, I absolutely recommend it. The parts of Taylor and his admirer are performed well, and the differences between their points of view are hilarious.

In the end, I think we can all agree that caffeinated romances are the best kind.


This post was originally published on February 11, 2015. TMTF shall return with new content on February 22, 2016!

Sandwiches

There comes a time in the life of every blogger when he must blog about sandwiches. That day has come. This, dear reader, is my destiny.

I consider sandwiches the crowning achievement of humankind, surpassing such modest inventions as the printing press, the steam engine, and the Internet. The sandwich was bestowed upon the human race by John Montagu, an eighteenth-century British statesman. Montagu was the fourth Earl of Sandwich, and possibly the greatest man of his millennium.

I salute you, Lord Montagu. Long may your name be remembered and your namesake be relished!

I salute you, Lord Montagu. Long may your name be remembered and your namesake relished!

As the story goes, the Earl of Sandwich wanted to eat while working without making a mess. (A popular version of the story suggests Montagu didn’t want meals to divert him from playing cards.) He asked his servants to bring him meat between pieces of bread so that he could eat without using silverware or getting his hands dirty. Montagu’s culinary triumph was eventually named after him, and the rest is history—shining, glorious history.

I have had the privilege and pleasure of sampling many sandwiches in my twenty-something years. (Heck, I ate a sandwich just an hour or two ago.) The possibilities are endless. There are hundreds of varieties of bread, and thousands of ingredients to mix and match. Whether you prefer a simple turkey and Swiss on whole wheat, a sweet honey and butter on white, a robust blend of meats and vegetables on an Italian sub, or any other of the millions of combinations out there, there is a sandwich for you.

My personal favorite is the chivito.

As it is written, "Man shall not live by bread alone." I'm certain this ancient Scripture refers specifically to this sandwich.

It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone.” I’m pretty certain this ancient Scripture refers specifically to this sandwich.

The chivito is a sandwich popular in Uruguay, where my parents live and work. In Spanish, the literal meaning of chivito is small male goat, which is a misnomer in the case of the sandwich: the Uruguayan chivito contains beef, eggs, lettuce, tomatoes, and occasionally mayonnaise, bacon, onions, peppers, olives, or cheese.

Chivitos are the best sandwiches I’ve ever tasted, and I spent three and a half years in college working part-time in a sandwich shop. I know sandwiches. The chivito is by far my favorite sandwich, and possibly my favorite food.

While visiting my parents in Montevideo, I dissected a chivito prior to eating it. For science.

While visiting my parents, I dissected this chivito prior to eating it. For science.

I haven’t tasted a chivito in years: my quiet corner of Indiana boasts no such exotic sandwiches. All the same, I continue to enjoy old favorites such as turkey and cheddar, peanut butter and jam, grilled cheese, and a variety of subs from local Subway restaurants.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need a sandwich.


This post was originally published on March 13, 2015. TMTF shall return with new content on February 22, 2016!

420. The Year of the (Typewriter) Monkey

TMTF will be taking a two-week break, during which it will republish old posts on its usual schedule. The blog shall return with new content on February 22!

This Monday begins the Year of the Monkey: the ninth of the twelve-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac.

I was only vaguely aware of this event, but my typewriter monkeys—my dozen or so assistants who keep this blog up and running—brought it to my attention by going on strike. (After setting things on fire, going on strike is my monkeys’ favorite hobby.) This time, for the Year of the Monkey, they wanted to spend the entire year on vacation.

That ain’t happening.

TMTF clean (paper)

My typewriter monkeys are the worst.

I mean, it’s not like I overwork my monkeys. If anything, need a vacation while they run the blog. (Of course, that ain’t happening either, since giving them free rein on the Internet would probably break it.) At last, after several hours of heated* argument, we reached an agreement.

* I mean this literally; my monkeys set fire to my desk during negotiations.

As the Year of the Monkey begins, this blog will take a two-week break, returning with new content on February 22. As usual, TMTF will rerun old posts during the break, because that is how we roll. When the blog returns, I will have one or two big announcements to make about its future. Things shall change this year, but I’ll explain further after the break.

In the meantime, may I suggest a more immediate change? The Year of the Monkey has greatly exaggerated my typewriter monkeys’ sense of self-importance. Can we please make this the Year of Some Other Animal?

Can we replace the Year of the Monkey with, say, the Year of the Llama? Please?

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back!

How to Start a Story

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

~ C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Any writer worth her ink and paper knows the importance of starting a story with a really good line. An interesting or clever first line grabs the reader’s attention right away. First impressions are important, you know!

The quote above from C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite opening lines of any story. It’s witty and succinct, and also tells us several important things right away while setting up one or two intriguing questions:

  1. Eustace Clarence Scrubb is a character in this story.
  2. He is also a boy.
  3. His name is terrible.
  4. He almost deserves his name—why?
  5. The lousy name suggests that his parents, who (presumably) named him, are probably unusual in some way or simply have poor taste. (Spoiler: It’s a bit of both.) What is their deal?

In just thirteen words, the author has begun to set the stage for the story, and told a joke into the bargain. That, dear reader, is how it is done.

Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite opening lines in literature.

When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

~ Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

I have yet to read The Metamorphosis by Kafka—it’s on my reading list, which continues to grow at an alarming rate—but this line is fantastic. I mean, after reading this line, I really want to find out what happens next.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

~ Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

As many of my friends know only too well, I have read only one book by Jane Austen, and hated it with the burning passion of ten thousand suns. Mark Twain put it well: “I often want to criticise Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” However, as much as I disliked Pride and Prejudice, I have to admit that it has one heck of a first line. It wryly pokes fun at the expectations of high society with its “truth universally acknowledged,” and also hints at the plot of the novel.

In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.

~ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

All right, I admit it: I love this one mostly for sentimental reasons. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a great opening line. What is a hobbit? Why does it live in a hole in the ground? The following paragraphs elaborate with surprising information: the hobbit lives not in “a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole,” but in a neat, comfortable, luxurious home built inside a hill. This line is an intriguing set-up to a few really engaging paragraphs… assuming the reader doesn’t mind starting the story at a leisurely pace.

What is your favorite opening line in literature? Let us know in the comments!

419. Fans, Geeks, and Fan Fiction: A Momentary Study

The pursuit of knowledge does not always take us to pleasant places. It may lift us to dizzying heights, but may also drop us into dark valleys where no sane person should go.

Today we’re talking about fan fiction. Brace yourselves.

Fanfiction everywhere

The Internet has a lot of fan fiction, and also a lot of visual memes.

Let’s begin with the basics. Fan fiction is an amateur literary genre in which writers use worlds, concepts, or characters from other stories to tell their own.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem so bad—indeed, some fan fiction is actually quite tolerable. For example, many fan fictions (abbreviated fanfics) have been written and even published using characters now in the public domain, such as Alice from Alice in Wonderland and Sherlock Holmes. At its best, fan fiction is… all right, I guess?

However, most fanfics are terrible. Many writers of fan fiction lack the skill or experience to make good use of the ideas they steal from other stories. On top of that, too many writers use fanfics not to tell good stories, but as a cheap form of wish-fulfillment. Heck, there are entire categories of fan fiction devoted to fulfilling fans’ private desires.

For example, self-insert fics put the writers themselves (or fictional versions thereof) into the stories. (These representations of the authors are known as OCs, or Original Characters. OCs sometimes exist outside of fanfics, as many fans enjoy creating characters based on ideas or styles from existing stories.) Hurt/comfort fics inflict harm upon familiar characters, giving fans the emotional catharsis of seeing them comforted. Slash fics put characters in romantic or sexual relationships, thus upholding Rule 34 of the Internet: If it exists, there is porn of it.

(Here I must credit TV Tropes for its helpful information on fan fiction subgenres.)

Fan fiction can tell meaningful stories, but in practice, it hardly ever does.

Trying to cope

My reaction to most fan fiction is… not favorable.

Besides the problems with individual fanfics, fan fiction as a genre has two colossal faults. The first concerns law and ethics; the second, creativity and intellect.

Fan fiction is technically illegal. Companies hardly ever sue writers of fan fiction unless they try to publish their fanfics, and sometimes not even then. Regardless, fan fiction infringes copyright. It’s theft of intellectual property. For that reason, it has ethical as well as legal implications.

The second problem is more personal. Fan fiction represents relatively little initiative and creativity. Instead of creating new characters, situations, and settings—or at least pretending by renaming existing ones, changing them slightly, and using them differently—writers steal whole worlds from other writers.

Why do fans write fan fiction? I’ve already mentioned the aspect of wish-fulfillment. Some fans read or write fanfics as a way to delve deeper into stories they love, and fan fiction writers are usually guaranteed an audience within their fandoms. (Of course, conversely, they are usually guaranteed an audience nowhere else.) Like shipping and waifus, fan fiction is an enthusiastic outpouring of affection and interest toward a story.

In this post, I’ve been rather merciless toward fan fiction as a genre. I don’t mean to offend anyone who enjoys reading or writing fanfics. Heck, I’m as guilty as anyone. In years past, I read a few fan fictions, and even wrote a few. I still enjoy a lot of art, music, and webcomics by fans. We live in a culture of remakes and remixes, and fan works are part of that. Even unimpressive fan works are proof of how stories encourage and inspire creativity in their fans!

Calvin & Hobbes

Fan works are at their best when they add something funny or clever to an existing work. In this picture, a fan of Calvin and Hobbes reimagined its characters as… well, Calvin and Hobbes.

Reading and writing fan fiction are valid hobbies. Creating it can develop writing skills, and reading it can evoke positive emotional responses. Fan fiction isn’t necessarily a bad thing… but I don’t believe it’s a particularly good one, either.

418. The Cultural History of Sneezing

There comes a time in the life of every blogger when he must write about sneezing. If you’re a blogger and haven’t yet reached this point, trust me, you’ll get there.

Sneezing has a rich and varied cultural history. In ancient Greece, sneezes were considered divine omens. (Of course, in those days, all kinds of odd things were interpreted as prophetic signs, such as animal guts and the flights of birds.) A timely sneeze was believed to be a thumbs-up from the gods.

Centuries later in medieval Europe, sneezes were regarded as potentially fatal. A person’s life was believed to depend on her breath. Since sneezing expels a lot of breath from the lungs, a person could sneeze herself to death, or so it was believed.

Calvin sneezing

Bill Watterson clearly understands the dangers of sneezing.

Superstitions linger around sneezing to this day. In Japan, for example, a tradition claims that talking behind someone’s back will cause that person to sneeze.

Although no one knows why “God bless you” is the standard response to a sneeze, theories abound. I’ve already mentioned the superstition that a person can sneeze himself to death; invoking God’s blessing may have been a safeguard against such a danger. Another theory claims the blessing was meant to prevent any sickness of which sneezes were an early symptom. According to yet another theory, sneezes were thought to exorcise unclean spirits, and the blessing was intended to keep them at bay.

In my twenty-something years, I have heard some truly thunderous sneezes. For example, a student I knew in high school—I’ll call him, say, Socrates—sneezed with the noise and abruptness of a gunshot. There was never any warning before his sneezes: no changes of expression, no sharp intakes of breath, nothing. Sitting near Socrates was like sitting on a landmine. You suspected an explosion might happen, but you never knew when.

Calvin sneezing again

In fact, Mr. Watterson seems a bit preoccupied with sneezing. God bless him.

My grandfather is a great man, and also the greatest sneezer I have ever known. His sneezes shake the very foundations of his house. They probably measure on the Richter scale. All jokes aside, his sneezes have made children cry.

Am I the only one to notice that looking up, especially toward bright lights, causes a person to sneeze? Why is this? Seriously, I’m curious and I want to know. Is it the light? Is it airborne irritants entering the nose at a particular angle? Someone should research this. For science.

Mickey Mouse in Mexico

I never did trust piñatas. After so many generations of being beaten by children with sticks, it was only a matter of time before they struck back.

Incidentally, I’m glad Disney is still making Mickey Mouse cartoons. It’s nice to see that this juggernaut of mass media, which now owns everything from Marvel Comics to Star Wars, hasn’t forgotten the little mouse that started it all.

417. Working on Self-Respect

A while back, a resident of the nursing home where I work thanked me for helping her with something. “Sure thing,” I replied. “They don’t pay me to stand around looking grumpy, you know.”

The resident laughed, and I added, “I am pretty good at it, though. If being a grump were a paying profession, I’d be the best in my field.”

“Don’t say that,” said the resident, suddenly serious. “You’re too hard on yourself.”

I briefly considered explaining my tendency toward self-deprecating humor, but decided against it for two reasons. First, I had other people to assist. Second, the resident is in her nineties and can’t even remember my name, so an explanation didn’t seem worth the effort.

I like to make people laugh, and put-downs are an easy form of humor. Since other people are hurt by mockery, I mock myself. I don’t think there’s any harm in that. Heck, some of the people whom I admire most, including family members, poke fun at themselves all the time.

Taking a break

Besides, when it comes to cheerful self-deprecation, I’m an awfully easy target.

However, if I’m honest with myself, some small part of my self-deprecation is a response to low self-esteem. Poking fun at myself allows me to point out some of my own faults before anyone else gets the chance. It’s a way of telling others, “Look, I know I have problems. You don’t have to tell me. I already know.”

Low self-esteem seems to run in the family. Many of my relatives on both sides have struggled to maintain a sense of self-worth. Fortunately, however little a person might esteem or value himself, he can choose to respect himself. Self-esteem depends on mood or circumstances, but self-respect is a choice.

Self-respect is a powerful weapon for overcoming life’s obstacles. (Specifically, self-respect is a sharp katana blazing with purple flames… according to the movies, anyway.) I may not be able to wish away feelings of low self-worth, but I try to maintain self-respect in my day-to-day life.

How am I trying to maintain self-respect? Well, I’m glad I asked.

I’m trying to keep my home neat and clean.

In this chaotic, broken mess of a world, my home is the only place over which I have complete control. When I allow it to become cluttered or dirty, I feel like I’m losing what little respectability and self-discipline I have. I may sometimes feel like a mess, but I can at least make sure my immediate surroundings aren’t messy.

Oddly enough, I’m not even slightly bothered by the messiness of other people. Their clutter is their concern. Only my own messes bother me. When I stay in other homes, or other people stay in mine, I’m satisfied to keep my own stuff neat. It’s only when I become untidy that my self-esteem plummets.

I’m trying to keep myself neat and clean.

This is pretty much the same principle as the one above, but applied to my person instead of my surroundings. I don’t wear elegant clothes or obsess over my appearance. However, I do wear clean clothes that fit, match, and have no obvious rips, holes, or stains. I try to look respectable, and to smell clean. Heck, I even shave occasionally. Neatness and cleanliness are basic virtues, but important ones for maintaining self-respect.

I don’t look particularly nice, but I’ll settle for vague respectability.

I feel lazy and slovenly when I stop caring about my appearance. Even when I feel like a failure, I sure as heck don’t want to look like one.

I’m trying not to blame myself for things that aren’t my fault.

I tend to blame myself when things go wrong. After all, I have to blame someone, and I feel guilty blaming other people. Thus, when my car breaks down, or someone steals a package I ordered, or a person at work is rude, I assume it’s somehow my fault. I could have avoided it, right? I could have done something better, and I should have done it. This assumption makes it awfully hard to stay positive. I make enough mistakes without blaming myself for everything else.

As I blunder onward, I’m trying to be more rational in acknowledging that stuff isn’t always my fault—or at least, it isn’t always all my fault. In one of the Harry Potter books, as Dumbledore confesses a terrible mistake, he admits it was “almost entirely my fault—I will not be so arrogant as to claim responsibility for the whole.” There’s a lesson there.

I’m trying not to procrastinate.

Putting off commitments and responsibilities leaves me feeling stressed and guilty. Completing them promptly gives me a warm feeling of satisfaction, and allows me to feel ever so slightly more in control of my life. I’m trying not to procrastinate. I’m not really succeeding—I didn’t know what I was going to write for this post, let alone start writing it, until the day before it was due—but I sure am trying.

I’m trying to balance work and rest.

I feel stressed and helpless when I’m too busy, and anxious and guilty when I’m not busy enough. Both extremes damage whatever self-esteem I have. It’s when I reach a healthy balance of work and rest that I feel like a respectable, well-adjusted human being.

Are my attempts to maintain self-respect working? I think so, though it doesn’t always feel like it. Fortunately, self-respect isn’t a feeling, but a choice. However my self-esteem may rise or fall, I choose to believe I’m a worthwhile human being, and to act like one.

(I don’t have a flaming katana yet, but I’m getting there.)

416. About Storytelling: Coincidences Are Cheap

Coincidences are a terrible storytelling device.

Seriously. In storytelling, coincidences are nearly always lazy, cheap, and frustrating. A storyteller’s job is to tell a believable story, and few things are less believable than convenient twists of fate.

Coincidences are an easy way to keep a story moving or set up exciting events, but not a compelling one. A character stumbles upon an important path, clue, or MacGuffin by accident. Complete strangers end up sharing some implausible connection. By blind luck, a character overhears a conversation relevant to the plot. These plot devices are all pretty common in fiction, and also pretty lame.

Whether from desperation, inexperience, or laziness, storytellers resort to all kinds of cheap ploys. I’m as guilty as anyone. I’ve used more lousy coincidences in my stories than I care to admit.

What exactly are the problems with using coincidences in storytelling?

Well, since I asked….

Coincidences are cheap.

The major events in a story should be earned. They should be built up carefully; foreshadowing beforehand, or explanations afterward, can be helpful. Coincidences are an easy shortcut, and a cheap way to keep the story moving.

Coincidences damage the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

Suspension of disbelief is a fancy term for the acceptance of fictional events. If I suspend my disbelief in, say, talking animals, I can watch The Lion King without constantly saying, “Hey, that lion is talking. That isn’t realistic! Lions don’t talk. This is stupid.” Some degree of suspension of disbelief is necessary for nearly any kind of story.

Coincidences make it seriously hard to believe a story; they damage the suspension of disbelief. An audience might be able to swallow a fantastical tale of magic or spaceships, but a story with too many unexplained or convenient coincidences is too contrived to accept.

Coincidences are clichéd.

I already mentioned a few common categories of coincidences in fiction: the overheard conversation, the important thing discovered by accident, and the hidden connection between unrelated characters. You have probably seen some of these before. I know I have.

Coincidences should be avoided whenever possible, if only because they have already been done to death.

Sometimes coincidences are unavoidable, or the only alternative is something even more implausible. That’s fine. Minor or infrequent coincidences may stretch plausibility, but not destroy it. A story may even offer an explanation for apparent coincidences, such as a guiding hand behind the scenes. At the very least, lampshading (i.e. acknowledging) a coincidence can make it a little easier to swallow. Coincidences do happen, after all!

In conclusion, though a good story may include coincidences, it should never depend on them.