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Identified Object.

I saw a UFO once when I was a kid, and then my friend Tony, the same one I saw get hit by a car, ruined it for me.

We were playing in my backyard after dark and for some reason I looked to the south and could see a bright star twinkling and changing color, going from red to white to blue, even though the fourth of July was long since over. And also this was clearly not any kind of firecracker or plane because it was motionless over the horizon. This was it. This was what I’d been waiting for, hoping for, this had to be a UFO.

I’d been obsessed with UFOs for a while. I’d read every book I could find about UFOs—which, admittedly, wasn’t a lot, but some librarians helped as much as they could—and a few years earlier I’d faithfully tuned in to a TV show called Project U.F.O. which I realize now was actually kind of a precursor to The X-Files in that it followed a couple of government agents investigating reports of strange sightings and events all over the country. Except that, instead of Mulder and Scully, the government agents are highly decorated Air Force pilots which would be cool if they didn’t have all the personality of wet sponges. And instead of a shadowy government conspiracy all the cases they investigate either have a perfectly logical explanation or they shrug and say, “Well, who knows what happened?” and move on. The special effects are good, though, since the producers obviously didn’t waste any money on scripts, and include a modified Robby The Robot, and, since it was the ‘70’s, there was the obligatory cameo by Dr. Joyce Brothers.

And there was also Close Encounters Of The Third Kind which I also loved because it had spaceships and aliens and, hey, a shadowy government conspiracy that completely went over my head when I was a kid, but that’s another story.

Anyway I was certain that the twinkling color-changing star I was seeing was a UFO. It had to be. What else could explain it?

“Weird,” said Tony. “It must be something in the air. Other stars are doing it too.”

And he was right. The particular star I’d noticed, which I’m now pretty sure was Sirius, is extremely bright, and atmospheric conditions often cause it to appear to rapidly change color. So it’s identified, and it wasn’t really flying, but, hey, it was an object. One out of three ain’t bad, right?   

These Really Took Brains.

Source: Creative Arts Group

There’s something innately creepy about scarecrows. I guess it’s the uncanny valley issue, and also the fact that they’re usually out in cornfields or other vast empty spaces that, thanks to horror films, now have an aura of menace about them because it’s now ingrained in our consciousness that there’s a chainsaw-wielding maniac or a bunch of creepy kids hanging out there. As a kid I even found something disturbing about Scarecrow in The Wizard Of Oz. He was and still is my favorite character—a lot of times I can really relate to the lack of a brain, but that’s another story—but the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion can defend themselves pretty well. Scarecrow can barely even stand up when Dorothy first helps him down, and it’s bad enough that the Wicked Witch threatens him with some fire. I’m pretty sure the part where he gets all his stuffing ripped out gave me nightmares.  

And he’s the only cinematic scarecrow I can think of who’s actually friendly. There are so many others who aren’t: the one in Jeepers Creepers, the Batman Villain, the scarecrows in the Doctor Who two-parter Human Nature and Family of Blood, the scarecrow in The League Of Gentlemen who’s actually a guy who was caught sleeping with the farmer’s wife and who’s left tied up in a field by a pair of creepy twin girls who call him their “special friend”. Now that I think about it the British seem to have a real thing about scarecrows.

Source: Tumblr

Source: Tumblr

Then there’s the town of Sierra Madre, California, which has an annual scarecrow festival. There are more than a hundred entries this year and they are brilliant. Some are more traditional:

Source: Creative Arts Group

But there are also a lot of hilarious pop-culture inspired ones:

Source: Creative Arts Group

Source: Creative Arts Group

And some puns:

Source: Creative Arts Group

It would be really cool if where I lived had a scarecrow festival like this one. Surely we’ve got enough brains around here for that.

And also here’s this “high tech scarecrow” that can scare off pretty much anything.

How D’You Like Them Apples?

It’s October and time to finally put to rest one of the most vexing seasonal questions of all: what is the difference between apple juice and apple cider?

Apple juice: Non-alcoholic.

Apple cider: May be non-alcoholic or alcoholic. Traditionally alcoholic in Europe the term “cider” referred to raw apple juice in the US for a long time in spite of its derivation from a Hebrew word meaning “strong drink” before the rising popularity of alcoholic cider.

 

Apple juice: Filtered, clear.

Apple cider: Generally unfiltered; may be clear or cloudy.

 

Apple juice: Pasteurized.

Apple cider: Generally also pasteurized but at a lower temperature or shorter period, giving it a shorter shelf life. Left alone will either turn into apple cider vinegar or applesauce.

 

Apple juice: Consumed year-round, mostly by children.

Apple cider: The alcoholic variety is consumed year-round, mostly by adults, while the non-alcoholic variety is consumed in the fall at church picnics by people who think it sounds kind of seasonal and also it’s cheaper.

 

Apple juice: Squeezed from the fruit using modern equipment, processed, and bottled within twenty-four hours.

Apple cider: Fruit and pulp are pressed in ancient stone building. The juice is then left to ferment for months or years while druids perform strange rituals over the barrels.

 

Apple juice: Usually served cold but can also be served hot and flavored with spices such as cinnamon, cloves, and star anise.

Apple cider: Always cold because of its aura of menace. Sucks the life force from cinnamon sticks like Billy Zane in The Mummy.

 

Apple juice: Made from a variety of red delicious apples specifically bred for juice.

Apple cider: Made from cursed apples that grow in orchards planted in forgotten graveyards.

 

Apple juice: Apples are harvested by industrial means in large quantities.

Apple cider: Apples are harvested by hand by tough withered Steinbeck characters with names like Nick, Skipjack, and Hortense.

 

Apple juice: Found on grocery store shelves next to the powdered drink mixes.

Apple cider: Found in the refrigerated section of the grocery store next to the beer, but may also be sold to you in the alley behind the store by a tough withered Steinbeck character with a three-day beard, an eyepatch, wearing a tattered trenchcoat, and carrying an axe. Answers to “Hortense”.

 

Apple juice: May be made from concentrate.

Apple cider: You know it’s thinking something.

 

Apple juice: Family friendly; often sold in bottles adorned with cartoon characters.

Apple cider: “We only fly the flag of the Jolly Roger,” says Hortense, glaring at you.

 

Apple juice: Goes great with a child’s afternoon snack of graham crackers or ginger snaps.

Apple cider: Lurks in the darkness waiting for the proper incantations that will release the demons trapped in its depths.

 

Apple juice: May have added sugar.

Apple cider: “I’d be more concerned with what it takes,” says Hortense, wiping something from her axe.

 

Apple juice: Makes adults nostalgic for carefree summer days of running barefoot through the tall grass with friends.

Apple cider: Wants you to pour it out over a blood sacrifice performed under a full moon, thus opening a portal to the netherworld where dark and mysterious creatures still reign.

 

Apple juice: Has a diuretic effect.

Apple cider: The only thing known to dislodge that bubblegum you swallowed in third grade.

Source: Wondermark

Jack The Tipper.

Source: Wikipedia

Big Dave was a taxi driver who worked for a discount cab company that shuttled us students back and forth between Harlaxton Manor, where we were going to school, and the nearby town of Grantham. We called him Big Dave because, well, he was a big guy, even bigger in the bulky gray-green sweater he always wore, and he introduced himself as “Big Dave”. It also helped distinguish him from the other taxi driver named Dave who worked at the same company.

One night Big Dave was driving us back to Harlaxton. The Silence Of The Lambs had just come out and we were all talking about serial killers, and got on to the subject of Jack The Ripper.

“We may never know who he was,” I said, “but we know he was just insane.”

“You think that, do you?” said Big Dave sharply. We all got quiet. Big Dave was usually friendly, and he was full of funny stories, like the time he went for a swim in the fountain in Trafalgar Square. In December. This seemed different, though.

“I used to drive for a mental hospital outside of London,” he went on.

“You mean like an ambulance?” someone asked.

Big Dave chuckled. “Nah. I haven’t got the nerve for that.” This was a guy who drove himself to two hospitals after being bitten by the only poisonous snake in Britain, but I wasn’t going to interrupt. He went on.

“I drove patients into town for the day and picked ‘em up in the evening, sort of like you kids. Good people, they were. Troubled, some couldn’t get by on their own, but decent like. Whatever Jack The Ripper was he was a whole breed apart.”

We were all silent thinking about this. Then Big Dave spoke again.

“Of course there was that one guy. Gave me a right fright.”

None of us breathed.

“It was in the winter so it got dark early and only one patient, Charlie, I think, wanted to go into town. On the way back we drove through a long stretch of farmland. There was a low mist over everything and just a sliver of moon. And Charlie, he’d gotten real quiet. I didn’t mind until out of the blue he just says, ‘Nice night for a murder, this.’”

Big Dave let out a breath.

“You can imagine I was pretty scared but it weren’t long before we saw the hospital just up the road. I felt relief but then I heard Charlie lean forward. ‘I’ve got something for you,’ he says, and I thought, oh, this is it, I’m gonna get stabbed right here. We pulled up to the hospital door and I felt something in my side, Charlie pressing something into me.”

He paused. Outside the windows the countryside was just like he’d described: misty fields in darkness. Finally someone asked, “What was it?”

“A tenner!” Big Dave laughed. “I thought it was the tip of a knife and it was just a tip!”

As we were getting out of the taxi we paid Big Dave then took up a collection to give him something extra. It didn’t add up to ten pounds, though.

The Candlestick Makers.

It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness. UNLESS THE CANDLE ITSELF IS CURSED! Or if you have a really cool decorative candle like the ones made by Norris Hunt Candles which you can find on Etsy, Instagram, and Facebook. And they are fantastic.

Source: Etsy.

Laura Norris used to work at the same library where I work, which is how we met, but then moved to Texas where she is now a librarian for the Texas Talking Book Program, which is important year-round, but deserves an extra plug since October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. I asked how she got started making candles, and she said, “I was trying out different artsy hobbies, seeing what struck my fancy. I’m practical and we burn candles so I thought, this might be fun.” She went on to explain that her husband creates some of the designs himself and buys some from other artists. They then create a master using a 3-D printer, and, as Laura explained, “the master is like a plastic version of the finished candle. And then we pour silicone around it to make a negative space of the master. Pour wax in there and you wind up with a candle that looks like the master.

Source: Facebook

It does seem like candle-making would be fun, and the level of artistry in these is amazing. The often dark themes also make them perfect Halloween party decorations or, if you’re like me, perfect for any time, since I spend eleven months of the year preparing for Halloween, but that’s another story.

Several are also useful for summoning up eldritch gods, if that’s your thing.

Source: Facebook

Candles are by nature an ephemeral art form. They’re meant to be used, and while it’s a shame to destroy them many of these have an extra feature: they bleed.

Source: Etsy

Source: Etsy. Check out the title of the book on top.

And when they’re gone you buy another one, so it’s a feature, not a bug. Also this is a feature, not a bug:

Source: Etsy

Not all are horror-themed, in case you want to, you know, lighten up.

Source: Facebook

Some are aimed at role-playing gamers, although I’m pretty sure the Venn diagram of RPGers and people who’d want horny little devil candle accenting their tabletop is a circle.

Source: Etsy

They also come in a wide range of scents that are cleverly paired with the designs, including dragon’s blood. Seriously, there’s nothing better than having your house smell like dragon’s blood for Halloween or, if you’re like me, any time. And now it’s time to curse the darkness.

Source: Facebook

Lord Of The Rings.

Source: SkyView app

The Moon and Jupiter are very prominent in the southern sky right now in the early evening, but my eye is also drawn to a less luminous object between them. It’s Saturn, which, back in the days when astronomers thought the heavens were composed of crystal spheres, must have been the weirdest of all the wanderers, being the slowest—it takes nearly three times as long to orbit the Sun as Jupiter, although in those days astronomers also believed everything revolved around the Earth. Saturn was also, for most of human history, the edge of the solar system. Things got even weirder when Galileo turned his telescope to it. He’d already discovered that Jupiter had four moons of its own—and those would be followed by dozens more—and Saturn at first looked to him like a planet with two very large moons, but he couldn’t figure out why they sometimes disappeared. Once they were recognized as rings, and that those rings are held in place by the influence of some of Saturn’s moons, it made sense. We see Saturn at an angle and the rings are so thin that when they’re flat from our perspective they’re practically invisible.

Maybe it was because of its distance that Saturn got its name. The other planets were all named after Olympian gods, but Saturn, mythologically speaking, was the father of the Olympians, the one who swallowed all of his children except Jupiter, and who was defeated, sent down to a second-tier position but kept some of his original glory, becoming the scythe-wielding god of the harvest and time, and through the Dark Ages and Renaissance people who were born under Saturn were believed to be moody and cynical, but also ambitious—most artists were believed to be influenced by Saturn’s position at their birth.

I’m a skeptic when it comes to astrology, mostly, but I do think it’s possible planetary movements have some influence over our lives, and who we become as we move through time. The Earth isn’t a closed sphere; our little planet is affected by the Moon and the Sun, and it’s not unreasonable to think the powerful tug of other planets plays a part too. There’s even the idea that regular meteor impacts on the Earth—the most famous being the one that wiped out the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago—could be the result of where our solar system happens to be as it moves around in its outside arm of the Milky Way. If the universe beyond our solar system can affect, even destroy, life on Earth imagine what effects our closest neighbors might have.

And, looking up at Saturn, I remember one fall night when I was a kid and I was talking to a girl who lived across the street. Neither of us knew enough about astronomy to identify anything other than the Moon, and she said, “You know what would be cool? If all the planets were close enough or big enough that we could see them all clearly.”

That would be pretty cool but, with the way gravity works, I’m sure having every planet crammed in so close would have some powerful effects.

Such A Lovely Place.

Seeing John Prine on a bus stop bench reminded me once again of his passing last year and also, through a rather convoluted train of thought—actually I’m not sure why they call it a “train of thought” since, at least in my case, it’s more like a “spaghetti of thought” where one noodle twists and turns through the sauce of my brain and can easily lead to another that just happens to be adjacent, but that’s another story—took me back to a night when I was in Cork, Ireland.

John Prine and Ireland will always be linked in my mind mainly because I worked with an Irish woman whose husband is a professional drummer, and he and Prine were good friends, which means I was two degrees of separation from meeting John Prine, and also his songs tended to find the funny things in life’s darker moments, which is also something I associated with the Irish. If you’re still following this spaghetti of thought there’s some parmesan coming because this story does get a bit cheesy.

Back in the late fall of 1990 I was in Cork as part of a trip around eastern Ireland. It was late at night and I’d had my fill of fish and chips and Guinness, because, well, what else would you do in Cork? I was walking down a cobblestone street to my hotel and passed by a group of street performers. There were two guys with guitars, another with a fiddle, of course, because this was Ireland, and a woman who was singing. There was a good crowd gathered around them but for some reason they thought they needed one more because they yelled at me.

“Oi! You! Get over here!”

The Guinness I’d had wouldn’t allow me to turn down a request like that, laced as it was with a thick brogue so I walked over.

“Give us a request, then,” one of the guitarists said.

Unable to say no but unable to think of anything appropriately Irish I blurted out, “Hey, do you know Hotel California?”

They laughed and said something about how nice it was to have an American in their midst, and one started singing, “Such a lovely place, such a lovely place,” but one of the guitarists told me they’d need me to help them remember the rest of the words. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket but for reasons that are a whole other pot of spaghetti I knew Hotel California by heart and together all of us, the performers and the crowd, made it through.

Source: Wikipedia

I was trying to save my Irish coins for my collection but I threw my last punt, now replaced by the euro, into their hat. The guitarist threw his arm around me and said, “Cheers, mate, I’m moving to America soon. Maybe we’ll see each other again.”

I didn’t get his name and in the dark didn’t even get a good look at his face and I thought it unlikely we’d even end up in the same state, let alone anywhere we might cross paths, but, now that I write this, it occurs to me that, as a musician, he likely would have come to Nashville. Maybe at some point he even worked with John Prine.

Another Brick In The Wall.

The interesting thing about The Cask Of Amontillado is that in the final lines Montressor reveals the story he’s just told happened fifty years earlier. His telling is so vivid, so immediate it’s like it just happened, but Fortunato’s been rotting in his basement for half a century.

Maybe it’s that vividness that makes it one of Poe’s most popular stories–it’s one I think is most used to introduce kids to Poe, along with The Tell-Tale Heart and The Black Cat, although, in summary, it sounds more like a story for college students: two guys meet up in the middle of Mardi Gras, one says, “Hey, I’ve got a keg of some pretty sweet wine in my basement. You in, bruh?” The other says, “Hells yeah!” and, well, maybe the “college” part drops off there. I remember some pretty wild parties when I was a student but only a few ended with somebody chained up and sealed behind a brick wall.

Maybe it’s the desire for revenge that makes it so popular, but what makes it fascinating to me is that it’s also apparently a deathbed confession. Poe never tells us how old Montressor and Fortunato are, but Montressor seems to live alone while Fortunato has a wife. At the very least they’re in their late twenties which means by the time he’s telling the story Montressor is pushing eighty. Unlike the narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart who can’t keep his yap shut for a few hours Montressor has held his secret for half a century.

Source: Wikipedia

It’s also not exactly a confession; Montressor seems really pleased with himself for having borne the “thousand injuries” from Fortunato and only seeking revenge for an “insult”.

What did Fortunato do wrong, anyway? That’s one of literature’s unsolved mysteries, and it’s also the weirdest thing about the story’s end. Fortunato knows something is up, he knows he’s being slowly put to death, and yet he never tries to talk his way out of it. He never even asks, “What did I do?” Of course we’re only getting Montressor’s version of events and, as unreliable narrators go, he’s one of the unreliablest.

Poe generally hated allegory and symbolism (The Masque Of The Red Death was an exception) but he was fascinated by chemistry and even alchemy (The Gold Bug is just one example) and I’m going to throw out an idea based on that. The nitre that covers the walls of the Montressor family catacomb is potassium nitrate, which is a fertilizer–the ancestors aren’t the only thing pushing up daisies. It’s also a lung irritant. Fortunato already seems to have a bad cold and even if Montressor hadn’t left him down there he probably shortened his friend’s life anyway.

It’s also an ingredient in gunpowder.

Is there some alchemy going on here? Fortunato, with his outgoing nature and multi-colored outfit, could be sulfur, Montressor, all in black, is carbon, and once you add the potassium nitrate they’re an explosive combination.

I know it’s a stretch but Poe also loved irony and misdirection, and it would be just like him to set up this story to end not with a bang but a whimper.

 

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