Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A List of Bastards in Tall White Hats

Current Pope Benedict IX hamming it
it up for the cameras. Try not to
pinch that cheek.
            Recently I was intrigued to hear that the Pope’s beverage of choice was orange Fanta. For some reason this amused me. Perhaps it was the thought of the old boy decked out in all his sacred vesture, pointy hat and all, holding his relic of a staff in one hand and sipping from a gaudy orange can in the other while his foot taps in rhythm to the Fanta Girl tune. “Wanta Fanta. Don’t-cha wanna wanta Fanta?” Maybe it’s just me, but it almost seems like it would be against pontifical etiquette to partake in such a commercially flashy drink. I mean, shouldn’t the Pope live off nothing but bread, water, and sacramental wine? This led me to ponder the other things I had been taking for granted about his Holiness. Soon, I was on a fact finding mission and quickly enlightened on a great many things concerning the Pope.
            Now, I know what you’re thinking, and I think I can answer. Yes, the Pope poops, but it’s odorless, invisible, and cures leprosy. It’s also called Excrement with a capital E and even has its own theme hymn. Probably. During my investigation, however, I came across a few popes who were guilty of some much fouler smelling shit. Not only were their reigns crappy, they could be more accurately described as fecal atrocities. Pope Benedict XVI’s Fanta crush is hardly noteworthy compared to the scandal that surrounded these guys. Without further ado, here is my list of the top five worst popes:

5. His Fickleness: Pope Clement VII (1523-1534)
            By the 16th century, the Papal States of Rome had become a powerful entity able to field armies and exert massive amounts of pressure on the monarchs of Western Christendom through the threat of holy interdictions and excommunication. So, when Pope Clement VII took the holy chair, his political pandering was nothing new. In fact, he had inherited a responsibility from his predecessors to intervene over the affairs of Europe’s warring monarchs in order to ensure stability and secure the power of the Catholic Church. What Pope Clement VII is remembered for is how poorly he did it.
            In an attempt to play his enemies off of one another, His Holiness flip-flopped more times than a stoner staring at a drive-thru menu. In the process of his indecision he made many powerful enemies, ultimately undermining the Church’s social and political influence and alienating all his allies. As a result Rome was brutally sacked and occupied multiple times during his reign. His ineffectualness added to the growing view of the Catholic Church’s culpability and strengthened support of Protestantism throughout Europe. By not accepting Henry VIII’s request for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Clement VII convinced the English monarch to break away from the Vatican and establish the Protestant Church of England.
Perhaps Clement VII is merely an unfortunate figure. He came to the pulpit during a tumultuous period of war in which he was forced to play too many factions. Whatever the case, his reign will forever more be remembered with scorn. However, he isn’t a character completely devoid of appeal. In his later years he was known for his long beard, worn in mourning for the ravages Rome had suffered in his lifetime, a fashion that became papal tradition well into the next century despite the previous forbiddance of facial hair mandated by canon law. He died quietly in his palace only days after commissioning Michelangelo to paint his Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.

4.  Corpse-Spanker: Pope Stephen VI (896-897)
            Of all the rotten men to have cheated, deceived, and fought their way to the papal throne, none are pettier than Pope Stephen VI. Immediately after being elected, he committed an atrocity so great it was to become the defining episode of his short reign. Stephen VI had his late rival and predecessor Pope Formosus exhumed from his grave. Formosus’ corpse, still dressed in rich burial attire, was seated before a courtroom and put on trial. In a rather one-sided case, Stephen VI had Formosus condemned and all of his acts as pope annulled. As posthumous punishment, Formosus’ clothes were stripped, the three fingers from his right hand (those used in consecrations) were cut off, and his body thrown into the Tiber River. However, Formosus’ body was rescued by a faithful monk and later reinterred.
Stephen VI was to pay dearly for the vicious treatment of his dead enemy. After the scandal he was imprisoned by those he had offended. Ironically, he in turn faced trial which ended in a rather heavy sentence. He was strangled, and like his opponent before him, cast into the Tiber River.

3. Milk Spiller: Pope Benedict IX (1032-1044), (1044-1045), (1047-1048)
            You might have noticed something strange about this pope already—he occurred three times. Out of the hundreds of popes who have taken office, he is the only one to have reigned more than once. His first term commenced when he was eighteen to twenty years old after his father, an influential Italian noble, finagled the papal throne for him. You might expect a spoiled aristocrat’s son to be unprepared for the responsibilities of guiding the entirety of God’s flock, but the extent of Benedict IX’s immaturity was shocking.
            The young pope used the power that his father had bought him to dictate petty personal murders and force himself on other men’s wives. His contemporaries had nothing good to say of him. In one account, St. Peter Damian calls him a “demon from hell in the disguise of a priest,” while Pope Victor III writes, “His life as a pope was so vile, so foul, so execrable, that I shudder to think of it.”
The opponents of Benedict IX became so appalled they forced him out of Rome and elected a new pope. He returned that year with an army, no doubt after pandering to his father’s powerful allies, and deposed of his replacement.
Benedict IX’s impropriety is no further demonstrated than when he sold the holy office only one year after winning it back. In a notorious case of Indian-giving, Benedict IX decided he missed being pope and re-demanded his purchased seat. I guess his staff and hat looked more fun when somebody else was playing with them.
Although, Benedict IX was formally declared deposed along with his rivals, and a new pope was elected to start afresh, the wayward pope would not relinquish his claim, to the extent that when Clement II died after a very brief reign, Benedict IX marched on the city and seized the Lateran Palace. The very next year, Benedict IX was removed from office by armed men and never made another attempt for the papacy.

4. The Pornocrat: Pope John XII (955-964)
            Born Octavianus, Pope John XII took to the papal throne at the prodigious age of eighteen. You might be wandering how he proved himself worthy of the holy chair. Was it his generosity and compassion? Or maybe his gentleness and mercy? Perhaps it was an immense spiritual strength that empowered him to abstain from a life of indulgence to enjoy one of modesty, celibacy, and devotion? Not very likely from a man who was later accused of robbing pilgrims, wearing swords, and committing more adulteries than Tiger Woods and Jon Gosselin combined. Actually, he was only made pope after his aristocratic father called in some favors and made a few threats. In a time when the papal throne could be so easily bought, it’s hardly a surprise that a delinquent like Pope John XII could come to power.
            Like Pope Clement VII he failed miserably at politics by flip-flopping allegiances, something that got him deposed by German emperor Otto I. When John XII returned at the head of an armed host, he seized Rome and kicked his replacement out. Before Otto I could make it back to deal with him, John XII was found dead, murdered by the vengeful husband of one of his mistresses. His death ended a dismal period of papal corruption which scholars have come to refer to as the Pornocracy, or Reign of the Whores, in which prostitutes were thought to have imparted significant influence over the Pope.
            Interestingly enough, Pope John XII’s womanizing seems to have given rise to a legend of a female pontiff, Pope Joan. In the legend, Joan rises to the top of the Church hierarchy by disguising herself as a man. But she could not keep her feminine tendencies suppressed forever and, while riding a horse in procession, she fires a baby out of the oven and a mob kills her. Supposedly, this Joan is based off one of the prostitutes that John XII kept at the Vatican by the same name, who exercised considerable influence over his decisions. Her legend long served as a fable to discredit the value of female leadership. Even stranger, the legend is thought to have given rise to the use of the sedia stercoraria (dung chair), a chair with a hole in the seat used in the process of enthroning new popes. When the incumbent pope sat down, the cardinals would peer up and determine whether or not he was in fact a man.

5. God’s Li’l Sweetheart: Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503)
            The same year Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the most depraved pope in recorded history took his papal vows. Pope Alexander VI represents the pinnacle of ecclesiastical corruption. Though the record of crimes committed by earlier popes sometimes suffer from obscurity, incompleteness, and exaggeration, the details of this tyrant’s reign are extensive. What’s even more amazing is the public disclosure of his sins and his unapologetic indifference to them.
            Alexander VI had twelve illegitimate children whom he openly claimed as his own. While still a cardinal, Alexander VI arranged daytime liaisons with the married daughter of his chamberlain. As a result of the affair, Cesare Borja was born, his birth certificate acknowledging the scandalous details of his conception. Cesare would become Alexander’s favorite and second-in-command, a clever, cruel and savage individual who helped lead the depredations of the Borgia dynasty. While still a teenager, Cesare murdered the chamberlain (his mother’s father) and arranged his head on a pole before Alexander with an inscription that read, “This is the head of my grandfather who prostituted his daughter to the pope.”  Alexander arranged for Cesare to become a bishop and subsequently a cardinal. Later, he made Cesare the head of the Vatican military in Alexander’s campaign to extend the power of the Papal States.
            Of all the statements you can utter about Alexander, you can’t say he didn’t love his kids. You could, however, say he loved them a little too much. He partook in a long-term sexual relationship with his daughter Lucrezia, and even fathered children by her. He also openly abused his authority by extorting titles, wealth, and power for his many children to a degree of unmatched hyper-nepotism.
            Alexander held sumptuous parties, dances, and plays in the holy palace. He also hosted a great deal of sexual perversions and entertainments. Cesare often brought courtesans to the holy palace so that he, his father and his entourage could partake in lavish orgies. One in particular has been recorded in great detail and become a thing of infamy. During what has become known as the Night of Chestnuts—an evening begun by feasting and obscene dances—lighted candles were placed on the floor of the holy palace and chestnuts strewn about. Prostitutes crawled about naked among the candles picking chestnuts up with their mouths, and after the pope had awarded them with prizes of clothing and jewelry for their efforts, everyone took partners, Cesare, Lucrezia, and Alexander included.
            Maybe worse yet was Alexander’s policy on the production of art and literature. As one might imagine, people were at this time becoming disillusioned by the Church, and manuscripts started circulating that discussed the place of the Vatican in its representation of the Christian faith. Alexander’s fear-induced reaction to this challenge was to issue a holy edict that demanded any publication had to pass ecclesiastic inspection. This act of censorship led to innumerable, priceless manuscripts and works of art being burned. Alexander also used it as an opportunity to carry out brutal executions on anyone who even modestly criticized his authority.
            The full laundry list of this guy’s sins is beyond the scope of this blog, but some of the notables include his validation of slavery in Africa and the New World in a bid to profit from it, as well as his justification of institutional sodomy within the Church and among European nobility as an ancient Greek tradition. Wow, I know.
            If it makes you feel better, he died horrifically. One of the Borgia family’s favorite ways of dealing with people was to poison them with the use of trick drinking vessels. These goblets had compartments with toxic components that could be activated after the drink had been poured. It has been suggested that Cesare accidentally poisoned himself and his father after both of them took ill at a meal together. After an intense illness Cesare recovered, but the then seventy-two-year-old Alexander did not. His stomach and limbs swelled with fluid, his skin turned red and started to peel off, and his bowels bled profusely. Alexander died after a week of agonized coughing and convulsive fits. When the body was displayed to the people the next day it was so dark and grotesquely swollen it didn’t even resemble a human being. Even in death he was a stubborn bastard. It took a tremendous deal of effort to jamb his bloated corpse into its coffin, the whole while putrid gases came squealing out of every orifice. He was so unpopular, only four attended his Requiem Mass. As a final insult to his reign, his body was later moved from St. Peter’s Basilica to a church in Spain where he was from.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Turtle Power: A Survey of Mutant Ninja Favortism

            More than a while ago, my brother introduced me to a guy that was the doing some construction for my dad. He was a tall, plain-speaking, country fellow in his fifties. He wore boots and jeans and a denim shirt. He wasn’t filthy but he was dusty from working hard all day. When he told me his name, he shook my hand firmly and gave the right size of a grin. He was pleasant enough to talk to, spoke in proverbs you’d heard a thousand times before but were still as true the first time they’d been uttered. When it was time to go, he said it was “nice to meet me,” told me I should “take care” and tipped his hat on the way out, just like a good ol’ boy ought to. He hopped in a Chevy that rumbled like a trusty old mare and set off into the evening sun.
            As I watched him pass on to the next village, I felt an elbow in my side. I looked up at my brother who had broken the trance. He was grinning and holding something out for me to look at. I saw it was a business card. Printed across the top was the name of the man I had just met. Below that was the name of the man’s company and his contact information. I looked up at my brother a little confused by the extent of his smile. He soaked in my bafflement for a few more seconds before he flipped the card. On a glossy white background, in neat green letters, the card read: “Home of the Mutant Ninja Hillbilly.”
            Apparently the entire meeting had been a long set-up to this punch-line of a slogan. My brother couldn’t resist, and I couldn’t blame him. Somehow I’d missed what Brokeback Mountain had been saying about cowboys being full of surprises. Or I was mistaken. I guess he wasn’t a cowboy after all. It was right there on the card in Times New Roman. He was a mutant ninja. When I looked back up to the horizon where he had dwindled, I found myself thinking, I wonder who his favorite turtle is. Naturally, the encounter led me and my brother into a debate over the ranking of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by order of popularity.
            And that’s my long set-up to a blog on the four ninja siblings. Since, I have conducted some research to find out which ninja turtle is the overall favorite. More than that, what does our turtle partiality say about us? I decided to conduct my study by putting out a poll on Facebook, but the only thing it taught me was that fans of TMNT don’t like to fill out polls. Instead, I started asking everyone I knew (and a few puzzled others) which of the four reptilian pugilists was their favorite. I followed that query up by giving the interviewees a chance to argue amongst each other and express, in terms as long or as short as they cared to, why they loved that turtle best. I aimed for 100 responses, figuring that was enough to be able to discern a pattern in the selection process. I think the tally might surprise some of you, but the tidbits I uncovered along the way are, in my opinion, the real points of interest. Let’s break down the results, turtle by turtle.

LEONARADO—Leonardo leads
Popularity Rank: 4th
Color: blue
Weapon: two katanas (swords)
Quote: “Turtles fight with honor!’”
Those who prefer the straight-laced leader of the group tend to cite his management and honor as the reasons for their partiality. They also, tend to give the most long-winded answers. One voter, for example, when asked why he liked Leonardo responded, “It’s a complicated social dynamic. I liked being Leonardo because I was tired of being the second pick. My older sister didn’t necessarily want to be Leonardo and in that way, for once, I got to be the blah blah blah.”
 He is considered the most technically skilled at ninjitsu because of his training ethics, and apparently the only turtle that thought he might have to actually kill something when he started packing two katanas as his weapons of choice. Like all the turtles, his greatest assets were also his biggest weaknesses. His sobriety and adherence to discipline meant a lack of spontaneity, and made him, at times, egregiously boring. So boring, in fact, he bored children right out of loving him. That’s why, out of 100 votes, Leonardo received only 7. These kids were probably the ones who took themselves seriously as hall-monitors. You know the type, standing rigidly at attention when they weren’t writing some kindergartener up for running instead of abusing their power like the rest of us to talk to their friends between periods or intimidate that kid who farted next to them on the bus. Either way, they’re a rare breed, but absolutely essential. Leonardo was the structure of the group, and I commend the kids who had the foresight to realize that honor and leadership were traits worthy of emulation. It was Leonardo that kept the other turtles focused, directed, and in fighting form. Besides, Splinter’s hairy ass wasn’t going to kiss itself.

RAPHAEL—Cool but crude
Popularity Rank: 3rd
Color: red
Weapon: two sais (three-pronged metal instrument)
Quote: “You’d better or else I’m gonna get sarcastic.”
Growing up, if you liked your mutant ninja with a little sass and wit, Raph was the turtle for you. He is the strongest fighter and the group bad-ass. He is officially the turtle who came closest to cussing on the cartoon (“What the shell?”). Raphael’s appeal is obvious—he’s tough and doesn’t take crap from anybody. He added a bit of drama and dimension to the group through his stubborn-headedness which invariably led to tiffs with Leo. Worth mentioning, Raphael is the number one second favorite turtle. Those who thought to pick a second favorite four out of five times chose Raph.
 His main drawback among those who cared to answer, was surprisingly not so much his arrogance, selfishness, or his ability to threaten team unity. It was his weapon choice. Though many voters gave choice of weapon as the reason for their favorite turtle, Raph was never selected on the basis of his. Thus it seems that the least popular weapon among ninja turtalists is the sai. And for good reason. It’s hard as hell to get the reach on a guy with a lazer rifle when you’re holding forks. You’d think the turtle most likely of ripping Krang out of his cockpit and smashing him on the floor would choose a weapon that didn’t look like a gardening tool (Krang was the brain that rode around in the belly of a robot which resembled Goonies’ Sloth wearing 3D glasses). Perhaps, that’s where Raph’s real beef with Leo lies—a bad case of weapon envy.

All hail Krang, Lord Pimp of Dimension X

DONATELLO—Does machines
Popularity Rank: 2nd
Color: purple
Weapon: bo (wooden staff)
Quote: “Well, simple. I determined the coefficient of energy measured in URMs, I triangulated the approximate location, then coordinated it with the grid.”
This was the big surprise for me. I don’t remember anybody who wanted to be Donatello when it came down to picking turtles. In fact, when my older sister, brother, and I would play, we pretended Shredder had captured Donatello, or worse, he was represented by a pillow. Colored by my childhood prejudices, I was startled to see Donatello in the number two spot, even if it was just barely so. Interestingly, there were few people who changed who they liked best from adolescence to adulthood, however, all of them converted from Michelangelo to Donatello. But why is that?
Donnie is undoubtedly the smartest turtle. You’d think the turtle who loved to tinker would be named after Renaissance inventor, Leonardo da Vinci, but I digress. Many are attracted to Donatello because of his stupendous talent with technology. I mean, he came out with some impressive stuff...some suspiciously impressive stuff. What’s Donatello’s story anyway? How’d he know so much about jet-propulsion technology without even cracking a book? With just a little trial and error in the sewer he discovered inter-dimensional atomic transportation. On top of it all, he pioneered knowledge that would humble humanity and have it reconfiguring its place in the universe as though he had washed the car, “Hey guys, I just finished the time-portal.” All while in his tender, teenage years, no less. For shame Einstein. Tesla, you putz. And where was he tapping his resources? Were we supposed to think that he had perused the local junkyard when he found the sophisticated computer components that kept every inch of the city under surveillance, or that he merely stumbled across the nuclear cores he needed to power his various time and space jumping technologies. I’m beginning to think Donatello was tangled up with Libyan terrorists.
Perhaps my favorite invention of his is the blimp. What better way to practice the art of stealth and discretion than flying a zeppelin over New York spray painted, undoubtedly by Michelangelo, with the word 'KOWABUNGA' (sadly, a misspelling of his own catchphrase, ‘Cowabunga’). Where did they park that monstrosity? Come to think of it, where did they store any of it? April’s apartment?
Despite his stunning aptitude for science, Donatello is the most hesitant fighter. He’ll get in there when he needs to, but he puts off fighting for as long as possible. He’s always the one trying to figure out the code to open the door while everyone else is bashing robots. Nevertheless, one of the top reasons Donnie fans chose him was because they thought he had the best weapon. I never thought about it, but he and Mikey were the only turtles that could really light into their enemies without eviscerating them. If you go back and watch the old cartoons you’ll notice that Leo and Raph basically only use their weapons to block or turn off conveyor belts that are feeding April O’Neil into industrial furnaces. Most of the damage they deal to anatomical opponents is with their own gnarled fists and feet. Donnie's extra reach in the video games didn’t hurt anybody’s opinion of him either.
It has to be pointed out that the Donatello of the movies is a different character altogether. Without much room for his far-fetched technical wizardry in a live-action plot, he was relegated to a sort of poor man’s Michelangelo, both spewing Mikey's typical pro-pizza blather. For the entirety of those who hailed Donatello above the other turtles, Hollywood’s rendition did little to influence their affection, other than a few who appreciated that he was voiced by Cory Feldman.

Popularity Rank: 1st
Color: orange
Weapon: nunchucks
I can see network executives sitting around discussing the show after they bought it off of its original comic book creator, lavishing details on Michelangelo’s character:

“Let’s make this last one the lovable one.”
“Well, how do we do that?”
“We’ll just make him love all the things kids love these days.”
“Like what?”
“I dunno...skateboards, sunglasses, pizza, and...”
“Birthday parties!”
“Yeah. Nobody will look as good in a party hat as this guy!”

And you know what? It frekin’ worked. To this day, Michelangelo is the overall favorite turtle. Back during the heyday of TMNT, there was always more than one kid who wanted to be Michelangelo, whether on the playground or at the arcade. In a little kid way, he’s the quintessential partier. Mike liked to skateboard, he liked to wear shades, and somehow, between four turtles who subsisted off of nothing but the stuff, he loved pizza just a little bit more. And don’t tell me it was because he was the only turtle that was still growing. They were all stuck at 5’2”. I think pot is real reason for his munchies. It would also explain a general lack of focus, and his way with words, “Dude! It’s like...heavy!”
When most Mikey fans cast their votes, if they actually thought to give an explanation, their most common response was that they liked that he liked to party. No shit! It says it in the opening credits, “Michelangelo is a party dude.” Now, I will also disclose, that if I had taken this poll while we were all still kids, the results would be more lopsided in favor of the fun-loving turtle. Several people admitted to liking Mikey as kids, simply because everyone else did. Having had time to reflect on their poor choices they have since changed tastes in favor of Donatello. You can draw your own conclusions there about these so-called Donatello fans. Wishy-washy? Too cowardly to stand up for what they feel like on the inside? You tell me.

So here’s the exact number of votes:
Mike: 37 (We won!)
Don: 29 (Hmm...interesting.)
Raph: 27 (Aww man, you mean we’re more mainstream than Leonardo?)
Leo: 7 (No one understands honor.)

Let’s be honest, we were all a little bit stupid for loving the turtles. I still am. Go back and watch the cartoons. They’re terrible. The stilted animation, the hokey plotlines, the same regurgitated formulas (every episode ended with a bubble-gum wrapper punch line followed by a chorus of forced laughter). But they're also awesome. They tapped into a creative world of mutants that appealed to the enthusiasm of children. They outlined and color-coated one of the most iconic dynamics of 80s heroic culture. We can sit and argue which turtle is best, but in the end all of their personalities are stronger and benefit through the uniqueness of the others. Besides, it’s Raphael.

Friday, February 4, 2011

A Modest Discourse on the Origins of American Football

It’s Superbowl weekend, so I thought I would talk about something that is often brought up during the festivities, usually by somebody who’s not really interested in the game or sports in general, for that matter. Still, it gets the rest of us thinking. The insinuation is that we’ve named a sport ‘football’ when kicking is only a marginal aspect of the game. To deepen the controversy, there’s an older sport by the same name that uses feet almost entirely and hands are in fact a little-used body part. Instead, we refer to that sport as ‘soccer.’ So many people mistake our usages of the terms as a fault of American arrogance or ignorance. However, there’s an interesting explanation for all of this. Please note that for the remainder of my spiel, I will refer to American football as ‘football’ and Association/European football as ‘soccer.’
            The root of American football lies in soccer. That’s right, the granddaddy of the hard-tackling game you watch every Sunday is the same sport you bemoan for its foul-acting. Similar foot-to-ball sports have been played for centuries around the world, but modern soccer is derived from a particular English medieval variety. Records reach as far back as the 12th century of a sport called ‘football’ that was played between whole towns trying to force a ball as much as a few miles toward one end or another. Ironically, records indicate that the sport was played with the hands perhaps more than the feet, so that the sport resembled American football more so than soccer, or at least a lawless form of it. In actuality, a match of medieval football was probably more like the fans of two football teams climbing out of the stands to square off and do battle in the streets. Games were basically mob-oriented and little could be done to enforce penalties, so for the most part, anything went. Games were often violent and certainly destructive. On numerous occasions, the sport was banned by local and royal edict.
It is important to note that, early on, this was a sport for commoners. Those who considered themselves noble would not have stooped to playing in the streets with the vulgar classes. In fact, some scholars believe that the name ‘football’ derived from this social distinction. The elite sported on horseback (polo, hunting, jousting, etc.) because they were wealthy enough to own horses. In general, the peasantry was too poor to afford all the upkeep that came with equine ownership. Thus, they played their games on foot, hence football.
            Whatever the case, mob football proved to be irrepressible fun. No law could squelch it, and it persisted into the sixteenth century when it underwent a revolution. Though still starkly there, that hard border of aristocrat and peon was blurred somewhat by a developing middle class. Boys from the middle and upper classes mingled in the academies that were also becoming more commonplace as the importance of education extended. A love for the game transitioned to the posh and developed structure to adapt to scholastic and aristocratic convention.
For tactical reasons, kicking became a more prevalent part of the game since the leg is stronger than the arm and more capable of the distance and power needed to pass or shoot long spans of the field. Over the next few centuries the use of hands was relegated from a standard of the game to rare instances such as blocking. Eventually, only one individual could be designated to stop the ball with his hands and he was limited to do so only in front of the goal. As hands were used less and team sizes shrunk, tackling had less to do with the game. These days only slide tackling and a healthy dose of contact is allowed in soccer.
Though soccer went through middle and upper class English boys’ schools to earn its current arrangement, it has proved to be a sport for the masses. Since the game is simple, and all that is needed to play is a ball and a few willing pairs of legs, the popularity of the sport is widespread including some of the most underprivileged areas of the world.
So, that’s soccer, but what about American football? How did it go from a medieval tackling sport to one fixated on kicking? Rugby is the missing link.
Once more the transformation occurred at an English academy. Early in the nineteenth century, every school played soccer with slightly different systems because the rules had still not been standardized. Matches between schools were often played with the home team’s rules in the first half and the visiting team’s rules in the second. Rugby School began to play a particular variety where you could run forward with the ball in hand and punt it in stride. Also, tackling was a major facet of its mechanics. Thus the game of rugby was born.
When football began in America, it was played between universities. These colleges found the same problems of varying rules between institutions as the English academies. Initially, there were teams playing with rules more similar to soccer, others to rugby, and some with an odd breed of hybrid. During the late nineteenth century when football began to become more organized and standard rules were adopted to better allow inter-school competition, those using rugby-based rules won out. Even after, there were teams that competed with soccer-oriented rules, but, perhaps for aligning to one of the most prestigious universities at the time, they all eventually adopted the rugby rules that Harvard used. Many of football’s current rules came years later from Yale coach Walter Camp who initiated a line of scrimmage, a stoppage of play on downs, and a set number of downs before turnover.
Personally, I love both soccer and football, and have even had the pleasure of playing rugby while studying in Scotland. It’s harder to see how football evolved from soccer until you see how rugby evolved from soccer into football. If you’re a football fan and you get the chance, I recommend that you watch a match of rugby. Even if you can’t make out the rules for all of their Harry Potter vocabulary, you can glimpse how something like a line of scrimmage or a quarterback came from a tweak of the rules.
There’s tons of different kinds of football today. If you’re interested to see what soccer might have looked like in the interim stage of limited tackling and handling check out Australian football or Gaelic football. Sometime early in the competitions between American universities, Canada developed some different rules like only allowing three downs instead of four before turnover. I was baffled watching footage of what I thought was a minor league football game where a player received a punt only to immediately punt the ball back to his opponents who kicked it back again. My bafflement was answered when the commentator said ‘aboot’ and I realized that it was Canadian football.
So this weekend while you’re sucking on your wing stained fingers, eyes glued to the TV, take a second to soak in the spectacle of centuries of athletic innovation and marvel how different football could be if its path to the present had varied even the slightest degree, if just one thing different had occurred to transform its millennial legacy of competition. Or you could pass me the Doritos.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Haggis Night

Wednesday night before Christmas, Drewbacca, Q.T. and I decided to finally eat the cans of haggis that’ve been in my cupboard for the past year. The haggis was given as a gift, kept neglected and half-remembered until that night. We had been putting it off. Always between workout programs, consuming 1500 calories and 80 grams of fat in one sitting had seemed egregiously backward to our goals. But for the third time we were starting over, getting ready to train our balls off. We were waiting for after Christmas to start exercising again, so until then, anything was fair game.
We checked the expiration printed on the cans. Just a little past the store date, but not so much that we weren’t going to at least sample our present. Now I’m no expert when it comes to haggis, but I’ve had more of my share than your average white boy. Although it came out of a can and looked like wet dog food, the haggis really tasted pretty good. Once it warmed up in the pan, it smoothed out, softened up, and started smelling delicious.
For those of you who don’t know what haggis tastes like, the best comparison I think I could give it would be something akin to livermush. And for those of you who don’t know what livermush tastes like, haggis tastes sorta kinda like soft sausage. At first description of its components, haggis doesn’t sound at all appetizing. Made from sheep’s liver, heart, and lungs, it’s cooked with onion, oatmeal, and spices. Haggis is sometimes prepared in the casing of a sheep’s stomach, though this is not to be eaten and is less common these days. To your average American, this all sounds pretty unwholesome, but I think most would be surprised at how tender and tasty haggis can be. For one thing it doesn’t look like what you’d expect. It’s not very sinewy, bloody, or fleshy. Instead, it looks more like an unintimidating portion of cooked ground beef. As someone who really enjoys the savory flavor of mutton, I really appreciate this hearty dish.
Traditionally, haggis is eaten with neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes). As part of the gift, we were given cans of diced rutabagas and potatoes. Rutabagas are the closest thing to Scottish turnips, so I’m told. We were well aware that we could go to the grocery store and get vegetables that hadn’t been hibernating in saline broth for the past year, but the canned goods were part of the pre-packaged experiment and it seemed wrong to exclude them. We drained as much of the salt juice as we could before heating the rutabagas and potatoes in the oven. They came out soft, warm, but still a tad salty. To be honest, I would never eat them on their own but they were a good compliment to the haggis when they were mixed in.
Perhaps what saved the meal from being too salty was the haggis sauce. It was made and sent from Edinburgh, Scotland just for our little meal. It might sound weird, but the best way I can describe it is a steak sauce mingled with redcurrant jam and, of course, just a hint of whiskey. We spread it over the top of our meat and veggies. The sweet bite of the sauce delivered a little slap-and-tickle to our taste buds. I’ve since found it to be a versatile topping. Afterward, I used what was left spread thinly on different sandwiches and have continued to enjoy the potent flavor.
Now, I’ve had better, but I must say the whole main course was pretty damn good considering it had been sitting in the cupboard for months. A bit salty, but pretty damn good. The dessert was a different matter entirely.
Drambuie cake was the final ingredient for this little feast. It too came in a can, and a huge one at that. We cut open the lid and turned it upside down. A sagging mass of whiskey-soaked bread fell from its aluminum casing in the shape of a sand castle turret. We dubbed it ‘dump cake’ before taking our precautionary bites. The nickname only seemed more apt afterward. It tasted like syrup with a drinking problem. One bite and your tongue was drunk while the rest of you was high on sugar. Needless to say, we left the cake leaning frumpily on the plate where it had landed—a soggy monument to disappointment.
Excluding its toe-curling finale, haggis night proved to be a victory. I encourage you, if you ever get the chance, to let down your hair and try a bite. Haggis is even better fresh-made. Make sure you get some beer to wash it down with, for the same reason salted peanuts or pretzels are best with a bitter beverage. The real lesson—one that probably seemed unavoidably obvious to you—is never eat cake straight out of the can. Never forever.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

California Odyssey

            My proverbial feet are aching after a return from Southern California. It was a short stay with a long last day of flight, and though I’m sad to leave my hosts and the warmth, like the fickle hermit crab returned to his shell, it’s good to be back at my desk. For the duration of the five day trip (two of which were spent mainly waiting in airport terminals or napping thousands of feet above millions of beds) I did very little work. As a matter of coincidence or age, my laptop has lost its capacity to recharge. Luckily my roommate has the same model Dell which he kindly allows me to use as a surrogate. So I used my computer to type for its roughly six hour lifetime, and then, intentionally not bringing any paper to substitute, I did not practice my vocation beyond daydreaming. Laziness is a vice, so I’ve always been told; but it can also be a reward...oh, such a sweet reward.
            My hosts only accommodated my premeditated stint of sloth. The intent of the trip was to meet my girlfriend’s family. Plenty of good food and company. I must commend them for being exceptionally generous and friendly people.
As for my impression of SoCal, I was immediately impressed by the sun. I had forgotten what it looked like after days of endless gray. Don’t get me wrong. There’s something starkly beautiful about a winter sky and its crisp atmosphere, but it was nice to be able to slap on some shorts and go running without muttering a prayer to the elements for mercy.
Having never been to the West Coast, there was plenty of things to see. Most of my time was spent east of L.A. in the suburbs of Rancho Cucamonga where the San Gabriel Mountains leap straight out of the earth. A fine place in its own right, devoid of all the glitz and oddity reputed of Southern California. But I wanted a taste of glitz and oddity. It seemed a shame to come within a few miles of L.A. and its famous surrounds to not glimpse some of what made it so flashy and unique.
My native guides were happy to oblige my requests and whisked me off...into hours of slow-moving traffic. However, everything was new enough to me it was easy to be patient with the aggressive constriction (that, and I fell asleep a few times when conditions got really viscous).
The first place I went was Huntington Beach because, having never seen an ocean other than the Atlantic, I wanted to witness the Pacific. It seemed a quintessential surfer’s beach, the kind that seems so lacking on the East Coast. Scores of surfers floated like colonies of kelp beyond the waveline, occasionally one or two drifting off from the pack on a cresting wave that ripped them to shore. Everything actually seemed pretty laid back here, but maybe it was because it was a winter weekday; although with the weather and casual mood of the place, it hardly felt like it. The brewery where we ate was aptly dubbed Huntington Beach Brewery (I think), and was thoroughly enjoyed through the prompt consumption of a heaping platter of fish and chips as well as a few home-brewed pints.
Hollywood was another stop on the tour. Many of the sights were so familiar (Hollywood sign, Chinese Theatre, the Walk of Fame) I felt like I had already been there before. Still, it was intriguing for how small it felt when compared to my initial conception of the place. Even though it wasn’t much of a tourist season, the street performers were out in droves. Break-dancers and chromatic mimes plied their trade behind tip jars. There were quite a few impersonators too. Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Gleason mingled with the crowd and the ghosts of Hollywood passed by in casual conversation. When I caught sight of Michael Jackson posing smug before his star for photos, I had to wonder, “Why only this Jacko?” Sure, I didn’t expect a swarm of look-alikes around Red Skelton’s star, but I figure a lot of people would want to play the Man in the Mirror. I expect impersonators have to get some kind of exclusive license for the day, or else a dance-off might break out between gangs of Michael Jacksons on Hollywood Boulevard. A quick shout out to the Hollywood Hard Rock waiter from Winston-Salem that was trying to make it as an actor. He brought home the idea that people had come to L.A. to make it big from all over the country.
Perhaps the most intriguing stop was Venice Beach. This place is truly a bazaar of bizarre. We parked at the beach in a small lot just a couple hundred yards south of Venice. A stroll up the beach sidewalk was frequented by rollerbladers, cyclists, skateboarders, and speedwalkers and flanked by debonair beach house architecture (jutting block floors, rock gardens, daring colors).
Soon we ran into a vibrant wall of humanity. The madness of Venice Beach erupted suddenly upon crossing a break in the sidewalk. Immediately sales pitches flew through the air for everything from buy-one-get-one-free tattoos to cheap tickets to a two-headed petting zoo. There were countless smoke shops offering medical marijuana licenses so that you could come in and purchase their product.
The diversity of odd was out in style. One guy went rollerblading by in a skirt and turban while attempting to serenade the crowd with a lyre. Clusters of homeless people rolled joints on the sidewalk while cops on glossy, beefed-up segways laughed in careless conversation. I also caught a chance to see the basketball courts where movies like White Men Can’t Jump were filmed. Right next to them was the original outdoor Gold’s Gym. All the muscle heads were pumping iron while banana-hammock wearing wannabes swarmed around them. You could almost catch the scent of steroid in the air.
 I watched a scarred-up, middle-aged skateboarder who looked like he had been out in the sun for far too long and fallen way too many times tie a pack of cigarettes to his board with some hemp and then take off with it dragging behind him. Ten minutes later, we came across the same guy standing baffled over scraps of what was left of his smokes, blood drying down his savaged knees.
In truth, there were so many wildly eccentric people to see that I’ve already forgotten things that would have doubtless stuck with me if they had occurred in isolation. Southern California already felt like a pretty diverse place, but Venice Beach was perhaps the most diverse. And I don’t simply mean race. Every age and economic standard was out there mingling. It's not at all odd to see a man in his sixties walk by wearing the same cap and skinny jeans as the kid skateboarding past him. I’ve never seen anything like it, and though it’s not really my scene, it was definitely worth the experience.
The trip back to North Carolina was uneventful but relaxing in its own way. I suppose I haven’t flown enough to be jaded by the long waits and terminal mix-ups. To be honest, I enjoy it. I’m definitely a window-sitter. Watching red veins of desert rock stretch out below for hundreds of miles was pretty stunning. Even people-watching in the terminal was pretty amusing. Just from hanging out in the airport for a few hours, I think I could’ve made a coffee book of unexpected ponytails. You know, the kind worn lavishly long by men who look like average dads and grandpas at first glance, but almost take your breath away as soon as they bend over to grab their bags and it comes sliding over a shoulder in all its vainglory.
            I hereby declare victory for this adventure. Thanks to my hosts for their gracious hospitality and making a small town kid feel at home under the big city lights.