Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

The first jack-o'-lantern was a turnip.

Kind of freaky. I'm told that the origin is based in an Irish folktale about a guy named Jack. It goes something like this...

Jack-o'-Lantern (from Ireland)

A rather nasty man named Jack tricks the Devil into climbing an apple tree.

How do you trick someone into climbing an apple tree? Seriously. I can understand tricking someone into a closet or a cave. But up a tree? Just sayin'.

Jack then carves crosses on the tree so the Devil can't climb down.

Um, dude, jump.

He bargains: I'll set you free if you won't take my soul when I die. The Devil agrees.

Imagine how much mocking the Devil gets back home for this. Picture Beelzebub and Mephistopheles hanging out by the water cooler after a tough day of data entry (in Hell, there's lots of data entry to do), saying, "Did you hear about the Devil getting stuck in that tree? Why didn't that dude jump?"

When Jack dies, he tries to enter Heaven, but he'd been so wicked that St. Peter says no.

I'm thinking Jack's plan had a few flaws...

He then tries to enter Hell, but the Devil keeps his promise and bars his way. Instead, the Devil tosses him a burning ember from the flames of Hell to light his way as he wanders for all eternity.

Aww, that's almost nice. Wait -- how does he catch the ember? Ouch.

Jack places the ember inside a hollowed-out turnip to preserve it, and then he wanders the earth in search of a place to stay. He's wandering still.

Cue the spooky music.

Today people carve jack-o-lanterns to ward away spirits like Jack.

And because no one really knows what else to do with pumpkins. Don't tell me pies. I've seen people bake pumpkin pies. Pumpkin pies are made from canned goop.

Wishing you all a happy Halloween!

(For more fairy tales and folklore with commentary, click here.)

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Sunday, October 19, 2008


I have found a new muse.


I still love my Raisinets, of course, and consider them a vital component in my writing process, as well as my primary source of fruit, but fudge... mmm, fudge...

My husband came home the other day with a little Tiffany-blue box labeled "Sweet Melissa" (the name of the new gourmet candy shop in our town). Inside was a quarter-pound of raspberry-chocolate fudge, a quarter-pound of caramel-chocolate fudge, and a cute little plastic knife so that I could immediately begin slicing my fudge and shoveling it into my mouth (which I did).

I am considering having my husband knighted. (Can you do that? Can you nominate someone for knighthood? I know Sir Nils Olav was knighted a little while ago, and he's a penguin.)

The importance of chocolate in the creative process should not be underestimated. It works as a reward, it works as a break, it works as as a late-night caffeine source... I would eat it in a box. I would eat it with a fox. I would eat it here and there. I would eat it anywhere.

Except maybe for breakfast. I'm not a big chocolate-at-breakfast girl. Except for Nutella. And these churros and chocolate that I had on a trip to Spain. We ate them every single morning -- at least every morning once I realized you were supposed to dip the churros into the cup of liquid chocolate. First time I tried to order "chocolate caliente," I thought the chocolate was really, really thick hot cocoa, and I drank it. Got a few strange looks for drinking the dip. Three years of high school Spanish, and there I was, drinking the dip. Anyway. Fudge...

Oh, fudge, thou art delicious,
I would eat you with the fishes,
I would eat you rain or shine,
if you promise to always be mine.

Anyhoo... In non-fudge-related news, I want to tell you about the great library visit I did last week. I spoke to around twenty teens at the Northport Public Library in Northport, NY, as part of Teen Read Week. I had a fabulous time. Everyone had great questions, plus the wonderful librarians did a fantastic job -- they even decorated with Wild-appropriate vines and served wild-berry Lifesavers! Also, the Northport Library is gorgeous. It has a courtyard, a cafe, art displays... Even though I adore my local library, I still had a wee bit of library envy. Luckily, I had my fudge to console me.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

Obscure Fairy Tale: Tam Lin

I adore Tam Lin. Kick-butt heroine. Awesome big confrontation scene. Lots of plaid. I suppose it doesn't qualify as a fairy tale since it's a ballad and you don't normally sing fairy tales. (Imagine "Twelve Dancing Princesses" to the tune of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." Doesn't work. But "Tam Lin" can be sung to the tune of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." Click here for lyrics.)

You can find a collection of the various versions of this Scottish ballad here. I also love the version by Jane Yolen and the retelling by Pamela Dean. But here's the basic tale:

Tam Lin (from Francis James Child's ballads)

Everyone is warned, "Don't go to Carterhaugh. Yeah, it was once a pretty house, but it's owned by Faeries now. You don't mess with Faeries-with-an-E."

You see, all faeries started out with an "e." But when prissy goody-two-shoes faeries like Flora, Fauna, and Meriwether took jobs in Disney World, they changed their name to "fairies" with an extra "i" so that they could dot the "i"s with hearts.

But Janet, rightful heir to Carterhaugh, goes anyway.

She's not going to simply be ornery; she wants to reclaim her rightful property. I think that's awesome. I also think she should have come prepared. Perhaps a weapon or two. Or a magic spell to banish faeries. Or, you know, any kind of plan at all. Just sayin'.

She plucks a rose, and a handsome man appears.

Wonder which came first: this rose or the rose in Beauty and the Beast. Also wonder where one could buy man-summoning rose seeds...

They talk. He tells her his name is Tam Lin, and he was captured by the faeries decades ago when he fell off his horse. She tells him that she's Janet and she's taking the house back. He thinks that's kind of cool.

I know I've said this before, but I love tales where the hero and heroine get to know each other before we're supposed to buy the "true love" thing. Sleeping Beauty, she's asleep. Snow White, comatose. Even Cinderella... while they do have one date, their conversation is so shallow that it doesn't even include, "Hey, what's your name?" But both Beauty and Janet have a nice chat with their boy wonders before saving their lives.

She returns home, and her dad notices that she's pregnant. He says, "I told you not to go to Carterhaugh. You're grounded."

Okay, perhaps they did more than chat.

Back in Carterhaugh, Janet confronts Tam Lin, who trumps her news by telling her that he's going to die on Halloween.

Yeah, that's a conversation-stopper.

Every seven years, the faeries kill a human captive as a tithe to Hell. Prior years, the queen loved Tam Lin best and spared him. But this year, she loves another and has chosen him as the sacrifice.

Talk about a bad break-up. Sheesh.

Janet declares she'll save him, and he tells her how to do it.

I think this is quite decent of her. After all, he's just revealed that he's recently come out of a long-term relationship. And that his taste in women leans toward the evil side.

On Hallow's Eve, she returns to Caterhaugh with faerie-queen butt-kicking equipment: holy water and earth.

Yay, a plan!

She hides and waits. Soon, horses gallop by. Following Tam Lin's instructions, she lets the black horse pass then the brown horse. When she sees the white horse, she leaps from her hiding place and pulls Tam Lin off the horse.

I'm totally not coordinated enough to do that.

The faery queen and her retinue encircle her, and the faery queen says, "That's not Tam Lin you hold." And she transforms Tam Lin into a snake. Janet holds tight.

I think this is the most romantic scene in all folklore. I'm not saying I want my next night-out with my husband to involve snakes and super-scary amoral women with supernatural powers. I just like the scene.

The queen changes him into a lion. Janet holds tight. The queen changes him into red-hot iron. Janet dumps him into a well.

Sensible and brave. Go, Janet! Such an improvement over your standard idiot-heroine like Snow White. (In one of the earlier tales, an old peddler woman nearly kills her twice yet she STILL eats the poisoned apple.) Or Little Red Riding Hood (though I'm open to the argument that she's not dumb; she just needs glasses).

She then pours holy water on him and spreads earth in a protective circle around them. Tam Lin transforms back into a (naked) man.

Most versions of Tam Lin specify that he's nude. Kind of cracks me up that this is a detail that gets preserved. Also, I like imagining the conversation at home when Janet brings back her naked boyfriend... Awkward.

The faery queen says lots of impolite things, but her power is broken. She rides away with the dawn, and Janet and Tam Lin live happily ever after in Carterhaugh.

Sigh. A real happy ending. I have nothing to say here except I love this tale. And really, someone should sell man-summoning roses...

For more obscure fairy tales (with commentary), check out the Obscure Fairy Tales page of my website, where I've gathered links to all my prior fairy tale posts.


Sunday, October 05, 2008

Armadillos, Dignified Plants, and Side Effects of Coca-Cola

I missed a great event on Thursday. Not the VP Debate. I watched that. And I patriotically ate a lot of apple pie while doing so. Apple crumb pie from the Jericho Cider Mill. Best pie in the world. Low on goo. I am not a fan of apple pies with high goo ratios. In fact, I'm not a fan of any food with a high goo ratio. Like enormous Cadbury eggs. Just a bad idea. The sugar goo to chocolate ratio... But I digress.

The big event of the night was the awarding of the 2008 Ig Noble Prize Awards. I love the Ig Noble Awards. They make me happy. If you've never heard of them, the Ig Nobles are awarded annually to scientific research and/or academic achievements that "first make you laugh then make you think."

My personal favorite continues to be the 2005 Literature Prize awarded to: "The Internet entrepreneurs of Nigeria, for creating and then using e-mail to distribute a bold series of short stories, thus introducing millions of readers to a cast of rich characters -- General Sani Abacha, Mrs. Mariam Sanni Abacha, Barrister Jon A Mbeki Esq., and others -- each of whom requires just a small amount of expense money so as to obtain access to the great wealth to which they are entitled and which they would like to share with the kind person who assists them."

The 2008 Ig Nobel Prize Winners
(text below is quoted from

NUTRITION PRIZE. Massimiliano Zampini of the University of Trento, Italy and Charles Spence of Oxford University, UK, for electronically modifying the sound of a potato chip to make the person chewing the chip believe it to be crisper and fresher than it really is.

PEACE PRIZE. The Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology (ECNH) and the citizens of Switzerland for adopting the legal principle that plants have dignity.

ARCHAEOLOGY PRIZE. Astolfo G. Mello Araujo and José Carlos Marcelino of Universidade de São Paulo, Brazil, for measuring how the course of history, or at least the contents of an archaeological dig site, can be scrambled by the actions of a live armadillo.

BIOLOGY PRIZE. Marie-Christine Cadiergues, Christel Joubert,, and Michel Franc of Ecole Nationale Veterinaire de Toulouse, France for discovering that the fleas that live on a dog can jump higher than the fleas that live on a cat.

MEDICINE PRIZE. Dan Ariely of Duke University, USA, for demonstrating that high-priced fake medicine is more effective than low-priced fake medicine.

COGNITIVE SCIENCE PRIZE. Toshiyuki Nakagaki of Hokkaido University, Japan, Hiroyasu Yamada of Nagoya, Japan, Ryo Kobayashi of Hiroshima University, Atsushi Tero of Presto JST, Akio Ishiguro of Tohoku University, and Ágotá Tóth of the University of Szeged, Hungary, for discovering that slime molds can solve puzzles.

ECONOMICS PRIZE. Geoffrey Miller, Joshua Tybur and Brent Jordan of the University of New Mexico, USA, for discovering that a professional lap dancer's ovulatory cycle affects her tip earnings.

PHYSICS PRIZE. Dorian Raymer of the Ocean Observatories Initiative at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, USA, and Douglas Smith of the University of California, San Diego, USA, for proving mathematically that heaps of string or hair or almost anything else will inevitably tangle themselves up in knots.

CHEMISTRY PRIZE. Sharee A. Umpierre of the University of Puerto Rico, Joseph A. Hill of The Fertility Centers of New England (USA), Deborah J. Anderson of Boston University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School (USA), for discovering that Coca-Cola is an effective spermicide, and to Chuang-Ye Hong of Taipei Medical University (Taiwan), C.C. Shieh, P. Wu, and B.N. Chiang (all of Taiwan) for discovering that it is not.

LITERATURE PRIZE. David Sims of Cass Business School, London, UK, for his lovingly written study "You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations."

Apparently, the winners for cognitive science sang their acceptance speech in three-part harmony. And the winners for chemistry were toasted with bottles of Coke.

I think this is awesome. I also think I owe apologies to several plants.

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