Sunday, December 03, 2017

A Deep Exploration of the Terrifying Stained Glass Windows at a Run-Down Children’s Museum

The London Regional Children’s Museum has seen better days, but I have fond memories of going there as a kid. A highlight is when a traveling Jim Henson exhibit was set up there, and I got to see the actual muppets from my favourite movie at the time (okay, still), Labyrinth.

There’s a story about how one of the animatronic muppets from Labyrinth, Hoggle, was later neglected, misplaced, and eventually found in an airline’s unclaimed baggage department looking like this:

I feel like the entire Children’s Museum has followed a similar path as Hoggle. The building has been sold, but remains open while the owners figure out what to do with it, and when I visited recently, many of the exhibits were missing pieces or otherwise marred by age. In the room educating kids about outer space, a mysterious purple drawer has a sign reading “What’s in here?” It evokes my sense of childhood wonder—if they bothered putting a sign up, it must be something exciting and/or educational! What will I learn today?! I hastily yank the drawer open, only to find … nothing. It’s completely empty.

Perhaps a lesson about how vast and barren the vacuum of space is? Who knows.

Nearby, a dead astronaut hangs from the ceiling.

A tribute to David Bowie? Unlikely.

But the oddest area is the music room. It’s a large room, but like the empty drawer, it’s mostly dead space. There is no furniture—just instruments scattered across the floor. Most of them are fully or partially destroyed. Drums have tears across their leathery membranes, so that banging the splintered drumsticks against them sounds no different than banging them against anything else. A wooden contraption makes clicking sounds when I shake it, but it’s not any instrument I’ve encountered in this reality. There are children here, unsupervised, eyes vacant as they try to wrestle music out of the wreckage. 

Where are their parents? Do they even have parents? Or have they always been here? Perhaps.

To distract myself from the racket, I look up, and this is what I see:

I recoil in fear from the kid in the middle, staring directly at me like I’ve interrupted … whatever he’s doing. But then I can’t tear my gaze from the stained glass window on the right. Can it be anything other than the wailing ghost of a dead child?

No. No. I’m a scientist, a man of reason—there must be some rational explanation for this. I turn to research for the cold comfort of knowledge, but unfortunately, there is nothing to put my mind at ease. It only gets stranger from here.

You Know, For Kids

The windows were created by Roy Edward Suhr, a local glazier, and installed in 1907 at Riverview Public School, which was later transformed into the Children’s Museum. (Source)

There were other windows, as well. Jack and Jill and The Big Bad Wolf lived at the school, but were removed for renovations, misplaced, then later found elsewhere. Sort of like Hoggle. Another one, The Pie Man, was used as the cover for a poetry book called Rat Jelly:

As has hopefully become clear, each window is based on an old nursery rhyme. The three still in the museum are Little Miss Muffet, Ride a Cockhorse to Banberry Cross, and Little Tommy Tucker.
Wait, cockhorse?

And who’s Tommy Tucker? Apparently he’s the dead kid on the right. The nursery rhyme goes like this:
Little Tom Tucker
Sings for his supper.
What shall we give him?
White bread and butter.
How shall he cut it
Without a knife?
How will he be married
Without a wife?
So I guess he’s singing for his supper, not educating kids about the wailing of the damned. And he’s given bread without a knife … and prematurely considering marriage. For some reason.

I wasn’t aware of Tommy Tucker, but he is big in pop culture, according to his Wikipedia page.

Wait, squirrel?

Tommy Tucker (Squirrel)

This is the squirrel named after the dead child at the Children’s Museum:

He, too, has his own Wikipedia page, because he falls into the (presumably small) category of famous cross-dressing squirrels.

Tommy Tucker (squirrel) toured the United States in the 1940s, wearing women’s fashions, doing tricks, and selling war bonds. He’s described as unusually docile, but did occasionally bite people, which makes me concerned about how often squirrels usually bite people.

After World War II, Tommy settled down and married another squirrel named Buzzy. But unfortunately, Tommy died in 1949. Whoever wrote the Wikipedia article seems to suspect foul play, saying he ostensibly died of a heart attack due to old age, then pointing out that squirrels usually live for more than ten years in captivity. Was it murder? Did Buzzy do it? Or did the spirit of Tommy Tucker appear to him in the dead of night, this time not wailing for his bread, but for the soul of the squirrel who stole his name?

The squirrel’s body was stuffed and mounted. He was passed along, and ended up in the possession of an old woman, who died in 2005. She thought Tommy should be in a museum, and bequeathed him to the Smithsonian. (Source)

The Smithsonian didn’t want him.

Now he’s encased in plexiglass inside a cardboard box in the office of that old woman’s lawyer. The glass case is there because moths were starting to eat away at him.

It appears that Tommy, like the other windows in the museum, like the museum itself, followed the path of Hoggle. He lived his life, then when the world couldn’t use him any more, he was forgotten, passed from person to person, eaten by wriggling things and the passage of time.

There’s always hope, though. After the startling discovery of Hoggle’s mangled muppet corpse, he was purchased by the Unclaimed Baggage Center, a museum/store in a small city in Alabama, and restored to, well, something vaguely resembling his former glory:

Everything dies, nothing lasts, but if you’re lucky, you’ll end up stuffed, preserved behind glass, scaring children in a museum. I find an odd sort of comfort in that.

This was originally posted on Medium: A Deep Exploration of the Terrifying Stained Glass Windows at a Run-Down Children's Museum. I've started posting a few things there before I put them here, because I like what Medium is doing—basically paying content creators directly when subscribers like what they do. It's a big improvement over the advertising-infected world of much of the rest of the web. Anyway, go follow me on Medium if you like that sort of thing.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Halloween and the Meaning of Life

I love when autumn begins, then soon it's Halloween. The trees are half-green, half-yellow, and half-orange, soon throwing off the shrivelled leaves that give the crisp air that musty fall smell and the sidewalk that delightful crunchiness. The temperature is just right; like a cool summer night, but all day long.

Then comes Halloween—a bittersweet celebration of light and dark. On the one hand it's about the things that delight us: kids, eating candy, dressing up and having a good time. On the other hand it's about the things that scare us: horror movies, monsters, haunted houses, and ultimately, death itself. Halloween is about that grey area between happiness and sorrow that's strangely comforting to all of us.

I'm worried that no kids will come to my door this Halloween. That I've become an adult living in an adult world. I wonder, though, if we've really matured into these responsible got-it-all together versions of our child selves, or if we've really just gotten bigger and now need alcohol as an excuse to express our natural childishness. Maybe adulthood is the costume we wear throughout the year.

We call it "growing up," but really most of life is growing down, shrivelling and falling ever-closer to the permanent holiday we spend a few feet under the ground.

So maybe life is Halloween. It's wearing adult masks to ward off the ghost of adulthood's inevitable end. And though this appears to be a morbid thought, maybe the strange joy we gain from Halloween is the same strange joy we should revel in all year long.

This was originally posted in 2008, but I had to republish it without images because of a takedown notice, presumably by the photographer who people said such nice things about in the comments.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Two Thousand and Sixteen

Everyone is saying 2016 was a bad year, but my controversial, contrarian opinion is that: 2016 was good. I started a new job that kicks ass, moved forward with my writing (get my new book The Arborist), and most importantly, avoided anything terrible happening directly to me.

Much of the "bad year" sentiment comes from shared events that everyone is aware of, such as celebrity deaths. I propose that people like me, who are in the privileged position of being able to mourn the loss of influential strangers, must actually be having a pretty good year. If I can sit at my kitchen table and shake my head at social media because something bad happened in Los Angeles, then I have shelter, I have free time, and I have the resources to be accessing information from halfway across the world. With those things alone, I'm doing better than most people on Earth, and much better than most people throughout history. 2016 isn't so bad.

Next year could be worse, of course. The tragedies that don't directly affect me now, like Brexit and Trump, could start having real, worldwide consequences. I remain a techno-optimist though; technology has, without fail, improved exponentially regardless of who is in power or how dumb the general population is. And technology is the main driver behind life, on average, continually getting better. There is no reason to think that will suddenly stop.

Anyway, here's my year in review, celebrating good stuff that entered my brain.

Most Listened-To Music:

As I do every year, here are the top 20 albums I listened to most, according to Some of these might not have come out in 2016, but I discovered them this year, so, whatever. This list actually looks pretty good this year; I recommend listening to any of these you haven't already heard.

20. Tycho - Epoch
19. Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein (SURVIVE) - Stranger Things Soundtrack
18. Tove Lo - Lady Wood
17. Groenland - A Wider Space
16. BROODS - Conscious
15. I Monster - Bright Sparks
14. Wolfmother - Victorious
13. David Bowie - Blackstar
12. Brandy Clark - Big Day in a Small Town
11. The Weeknd - Starboy
10. Zeds Dead - Northern Lights
9. Lady Gaga - JOANNE
8. Ariana Grande - Dangerous Woman
7. M83 - Junk
6. Black Stone Cherry - Kentucky
5. Glass Animals - How to be a Human Being
4. Britney Spears - Glory
3. Lindsey Stirling - Brave Enough
2. The Avalanches - Wildflower
1. Nothing But Thieves - Nothing But Thieves also provided some cool new stats about my listening habits this year:

The new job started in June, which obviously had an effect on my listening habits.

Best Television:

I watched a lot of TV in 2016. I don't really remember what I watched, but off the top of my head, the things that stuck with me most were:
  • Stranger Things
  • Black Mirror
  • Making a Murderer
  • Luke Cage
  • Westworld
  • Halt and Catch Fire
  • Sense8
  • Mr. Robot

Best Movies:

Again, I don't remember every movie I watched, or which actually came out this year, but here are the ones that come to mind when I think back:
  • The Greasy Strangler
  • The Lobster
  • 10 Cloverfield Lane
  • Captain America: Civil War
  • Rogue One
  • The Invitation
  • Don't Breathe
  • Green Room
  • The Conjuring 2

Best Books:

This is another category where I have a record of everything I took in, thanks to Goodreads. Here are the books that came out around 2016, and that I liked:

  • I Will Rot Without You by Danger Slater
  • Authority by Jeff Vandermeer
  • A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
  • City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett
  • Ritualistic Human Sacrifice by C.V. Hunt
That's all! See? There was a lot of good stuff this year even though David Bowie is probably responsible for inspiring half of it, and he died. But maybe the next David Bowie was born this year. Maybe it's your crappy kid. You never know.

Happy new year to each and every one of the five people who still read this. See you when the pixels turn to 7.


Saturday, December 10, 2016

A Deep Exploration of a Weird Doll From a Sketchy Second-Hand Store

My girlfriend came back from an expedition to the bad part of town, and shouted "I got you a gift! You're going to love it!"

She was correct.

This is Auntie Virus. The first thing you'll notice is that she is extremely dirty. Just soaked in various fluids. That's because she has been sitting on the shelf of a second-hand store for a very long time; if I had to guess, I'd say since the 90s. Meg thought she might have bed bugs or worms, so she lived in a plastic bag for a while.

Why would I assume she's from the 90s? Let's dig into Auntie Virus's true purpose.

At first glance, she appears to be a nurse with a computer for a head, but that would be doing her a disservice. Auntie Virus has layers. She is a Friendly Computer Companion that is also ... wait for it ... A PHOTO FRAME!!! The idea here is that you cut out a tiny picture of someone, then stick it in Ms. Virus's computer monitor head, like some horrible Silent Hill cyborg nurse that wears your loved one's face.

And she sits on any computer! At least she did, in the 90s. I think she'd have trouble balancing on the 6.1mm-thick computer I'm typing this on in 2016.

Apparently computers were seen as so soul-sucking that you needed another fake computer on top to "keep you smiling." With the idea of social media still a few years off, the only companionship to be found while surfing the web was a doll named E-Male who cruelly imitates your boyfriend, promising "you'll never be lonely when I'm on your computer."

N E V E R  B E  L O N E L Y  A G A I N

That's right, Auntie Virus is only one member of the WebHeads family. All the classic early Internet stereotypes are here, like the aforementioned e-MALE (a person with a penis who is online), The HACKER (a hacker), WEB SURFER (lol he's a literal surfer), eve SHOPPER (an online shopper who still needs bags?), WEBMASTER (a superhero for some reason?), and Dot E. COM (um ... a person with a plant on her head ... ???).

I wanted to meet them all, but unfortunately, is no longer in service. WEBMASTER ain't so super after all.

I said Auntie Virus has layers, so let's go one layer deeper. You may have noticed that she has pins sticking out of her chest. Those weren't mentioned anywhere on the box, were they? Oh, what have we here ... the doll came with a note:

We're venturing outside of WebHeads lore now, because I believe this note was put there by the owner of the second-hand shop. This person, presumably a powerful witch or warlock, seized the full potential of putting an actual person's face on a doll. Auntie Virus's purpose has been hijacked; she is no longer designed to make you smile, but to remotely murder your enemies.

I guess the pure WebHeads experience wasn't moving this thing off the shelf, so this person thought "maybe this will be a must-have holiday item if I, by hand, transform it into a Voodoo doll."

It worked! Now I own an Auntie Virus Voodoo doll. Don't fuck with me.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Why Walking is Good

I try to walk a lot. My step count has gone down since I started working from home, but I still get out and wander the neighborhood at least once a day, and use my feet as a means of transportation whenever I need to be somewhere else. Through years of walking, I have come to realize something:

Walking is good.

Not only for the health benefits, which certainly do exist, on days I don't use hitting my step goal as an excuse for an extra slice of cheesecake. But while walking is good for the body, I think it's better for the brain, the spirit, and even the community.

Walking is good for the brain because it doesn't use it. Driving and other forms of getting around generally require (or should require) near-100% concentration. Walking doesn't. The brain is free to take in the sights around it and learn something, even if it's just where the coolest outdoor cats hang out, or how many shades of orange trees go through in autumn. It is also free to take in more traditional intellectual pursuits, like podcasts, audiobooks, or online courses. Transportation time becomes brain time.

Walking is good for the spirit, whatever the hell that means, because walking time can be used for things other than pure intellect. There is a lot of evidence that occasionally shutting off the brain is good for mental health, and when you combine that with physical activity, it can reduce the stress that crushes so many spirits. It's also a time to let the mind wander, which is a critical phase in any pursuit that requires creativity—because nobody comes up with good ideas by sitting down and staring at a blank screen labeled goodideas.docx.

Walking is good for the community, because it gives an accurate sense of place. A long walk can meander through various neighborhoods, each with subtle differences in the people, the buildings, the feel. Those differences are missed when they fly past in a car. More importantly, there is a sense for how far apart those neighborhoods are, how they border on each other, how one leads to another. Slowly taking in the story of a city is a better way of getting to know it than always rushing through it to a specific place, which is akin to reading the beginning and ending of a book then claiming to understand what it was saying.

And maybe that's good for the community, because when the community isn't really understood, it's hard to make good decisions about it.

Not everyone can walk, or walk everywhere, or walk far, but when possible, walking is good. Not bad. Good.