Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Fates

                                   Because I could not stop for Death,
                                            He kindly stopped for me;
                                            The carriage held but just ourselves
                                            And Immortality.
                                                                         --Emily Dickinson

The Three Fates

They’re old. They’re ugly. And they want to run your life.

No, not your in-laws.

The Three Fates of Classical Greek Mythology, of course.

Atropos loses again.
Their names? I like to call them Spool, Tape, and Shears, but more accurately they are. . .
  •  Clotho – spinner of the thread of life
  •  Lachesis – the one who measures the thread
  •  Atropos – the one who cuts the thread.
Clotho is sometimes pictured with a spindle or a scroll. Lachesis carries a staff (a measuring rod), and Atropos frequently carries a pair of scissors.  When these girls were in grade school, Atropos would invariably lose at Paper, Rock, Scissors. Somehow the other two could always guess which she would choose. Go figure.

Together, they are known as the Moirai.

According to myth, three nights after the birth of a baby, the Moirai would appear and decide the fate of the child. This girl will be a raving beauty. This boy will excel at sports. This child will have seasonal allergies and marry a used car salesman. And nothing could change your fate. Think of poor Oedipus, doomed to murder his father and marry his mother, even though he worked so hard not to fulfill the prophecy.

The Fates show up in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth as the Weird Sisters. You remember—the witches who are cooking a can of Cream of Creepy Soup, while chanting. . .

Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and howlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Banquo and Macbeth meet the Weird Sisters
(Remind me not to invite these ladies to the church potluck.)

The Weird Sisters meet Macbeth and Banquo on the road and deliver a juicy-sounding prophecy:

           All hail, Macbeth, thou shalt be king hereafter!

The Weird Sisters do "the wave" for Macbeth.

Wow! This was the very thing Macbeth wanted to hear. He would be king.

I’m sure it was an oversight when the witches forgot to mention that, somewhere between soliloquies, Mr. & Mrs. Macbeth would commit murder and mayhem in order to get the crown. Or that they would wind up dead and disgraced, not necessarily in that order. 


The Weird Sisters, by Johann Heinrich Fussli
When I was growing up, my brother had a catchy retort to shield him from any suggestion that he might have done something wrong: “I didn’t ask to be born.” This argument did not impress my father. 

No one asks to be born. And surely, if we could choose the hour of our death, we’d all just want to live indefinitely. The real point is that life is a gift. It has a beginning and an end, and we need to make the most of the middle.

Ancient Zodiac from Beth Alpha, Jezreel Valley

My advice? Don't let warty witches or horoscopes or even well-meaning busy-bodies try to dictate your life. We have choices to make for ourselves. Search your own heart. Pray for guidance. Use common sense. Consider the gifts you have been given. And don't be afraid to work hard.

The Fates don't run our lives. The stars are there to give us something to reach for! Some things are beyond our control, but destiny is there for the taking. Carpe diem!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Man Behind the Curtain

Illustration by W. W. Denslow
The Tin Man wants a heart. The Scarecrow wants a brain. The Lion wants to find his c-c-courage. And Dorothy? She just wants to go home.

We know the author L. Frank Baum because of his big success--The Wonderful Wizard of OzBut for most of his life, Frank seemed to fail at everything he tried. And not just little boo-boos. We're talking epic fail.

Once upon a time (well, May 14, 1856, to be precise), Lyman Frank Baum was born to rich parents, who lived on a rose-covered estate in New York state. Great beginning to the story, but then those pesky plot complications beset our hapless hero.

At age 18, Frank decided to try acting as a career. One company took him on—but only on the condition that he would bring along a trunkful of very expensive costumes. The cast members kept “borrowing” his costumes, but Frank still didn’t get to act in any of the plays. 

So he started his own theatrical company. He wrote the plays and played all the lead roles. Only one production was a hit—The Maid of ArranBut first his bookkeeper stole all his money, and then the props were burned in a fire.

Frank raised poultry for a while. Then came another disaster. He tried being a traveling salesman, selling lamps and oil. One day he returned to the office to find the head clerk dead. He had shot himself after gambling away Frank’s money.

Baum's Bazaar, 1888

When he was 26, Frank married Maud Gage. The Baums moved to South Dakota, where Frank failed first at operating a store, "Baum's Bazaar," and then at running a newspaper.

Frank and Maud had four sons, and Frank spent a lot of time playing with them and making up stories for them. Soon the children were inviting their friends over to hear the stories their dad told. Frank noticed that the kids paid attention when the stories had action, but they weren’t as interested in sissy stuff like romance between princes and princesses. 

Eventually Frank’s mother-in-law suggested that he should write his stories down, and he wrote a book of stories (Mother Goose in Prose) and a book of nonsense rhymes (Father Goose). But what to do next? 

L. Frank Baum
For a long time, Frank had been telling stories about an imaginary place called “The Emerald City,” featuring a little girl named Dorothy and her dog Toto. One night a girl asked Frank where all of these characters lived, and his eye fell on a filing cabinet labeled O—Z. He announced that they all lived in the Land of Oz. He turned his stories into The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and it was published in 1900.

Movie poster
One year at Christmas time, the Baum family was in need of money. Frank stopped by his publisher’s, hoping to get a check for $100 to help them with holiday expenses. He popped the check into his pocket without looking at it and went home. 

His wife was ironing when Frank handed her the check. Smoke rose from the burning shirt as Maud stared at the check for several thousand dollars! At last Frank Baum was a success.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz topped the charts in children's books for two years, and Baum went on to write thirteen more books about the Land of Oz. Eventually he retired to Hollywood, to a mansion called Ozcot. He still told stories to children who came to visit. He died of a stroke in May of 1919, just nine days before his 63rd birthday, and other authors continued writing books in the Oz series.

Theatrical, musical, and movie adaptations have been made of Baum's work. The book and Broadway musical versions of Wicked are based on Oz. The main character’s name-- Elphaba--is derived from LFB, Baum’s initials.

Frank Baum was not an overnight success. He worked hard throughout his life--sometimes failing, sometimes being cheated--but in the end, his persistence paid off, and--like his heroine Dorothy--he found the right path, the one that leads home.

"There's no place like home."

The Stark Raving Mythopath recommends The Dreamer of Oz, a made-for-tv movie, starring John Ritter as Frank Baum, and The Road to Oz: Twists, Turns, Bumps, and Triumphs in the Life of L. Frank Baum, by Kathleen Krull.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Real Super Heroes

Look, up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. Oh never mind. . .it’s just Dad cleaning out the gutters.

He can’t fly. He can’t morph into the Hulk. He can’t spin spider webs with his wrists. Some mornings, he can’t even find the car keys.

But Dad is a super hero, nonetheless, and he does have super powers. Some of which may include. . .

  • Leaps from bed in a single bound--to go to a job he hates, to provide for a family he loves
  • Walks the floor with a collicky baby
  • Fixes a clogged toilet, armed with only a wrench, a plumber’s snake, and duct tape (Sure it might take him three tries, but he gets 'er done--clean-up is optional.)
  • Gives his newborn a baseball glove, a soccer ball, a hockey puck, and a hunting rifle--and that's for a girl!
  • Tells bedtime stories, complete with character voices and alternate endings
  • Adds marshmallows to Cheerios--voila!--instant haut cuisine!

• Gives up his poker night in order to see his son as a singing porcupine in the school production of “Forest Creatures Are Our Friends”
• Comes home from work dog tired but still works on the car (aka "the money pit")
• Takes the kids to church, instead of just sending them
• Stays up all night Christmas Eve putting the dollhouse or bicycle together--with parts to spare!
• Wears a feathered hat while hosting a tea party for three little girls and a stuffed walrus

So maybe he can’t fly, but when you’re little, he can lift you up in his arms and help you fly.

He may not use “church words” when the hammer hits his thumb. But sometimes he knows just what to say to make the monsters disappear from your room at night.

He may not always know the answers to the "stupid questions" on your homework, but someday you’ll be amazed at how smart he really was.

A good dad is someone you never forget. Even when you grow up and become a dad or a mom yourself. Even when he’s no longer around, he will speak to you from beyond the grave:

     “You’re not hurt. Get back on that bike and ride.”

     “Look a bully right in the eye.”

     “Always wash out your brushes when you’re done painting.”

     “Because I said so.”

     “Hey, you’re not gonna leave that mess for your mom to clean up, are you?”

     “Don’t worry, Honey. I can fix it.”

     “I love you, Son.”

The Stark Raving Mythopath salutes the unsung super heroes, dads all around the world. You guys are freakin’ awesome! You are the stuff of legends, Warrior Dads on the battlefield of  family life. Happy Father’s Day!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Spud Stud

He’s no Brad Pitt. 

Anyway you slice it, he’s kind of pudgy and his nose is too big. But Mr. Potato Head, born in 1952, was destined for super-stardom. 

George Lerner, who invented the tater toy in 1949, had a hard time selling his idea to toy companies. The memory of World War II was all too fresh in people’s minds, and it seemed wasteful to use vegetables for toys. You see, the original Mr. P. was a pile of plastic parts (eyes, ears, etc.) that kids stuck into real potatoes. 

In 1952, Hasbro made the first Mr. Potato Head, which sold for 98 cents. But after complaints about kids playing with rotten veggies or getting poked with the sharp pins, Hasbro included a plastic potato to hold the parts.

Not only was Mr. P. the first toy ever advertised on television—he was also the first product marketed directly to kids instead of to their parents. This idea changed advertising forever, and more than a million kits sold the first year. But even with his success as a television personality, something important was missing from Mr. Potato Head’s life.

MRS. Potato Head, of course! Eventually, in a quiet civil ceremony, Mr. Potato Head got married, and the happy couple got their own car, boat trailer, kitchen set, and pets. With the support of his spud spouse, the Mr.'s career really took off.

In the 1960’s, Hasbro introduced Mr. Potato Head’s friends — Oscar the Orange, Pete the Pepper, Katie Carrot, and Cookie Cucumber. In 1966, Hasbro also created Mr. Potato Head's Picnic Pals, including Willy Burger, Frenchy Fry, and Mr. Ketchup Head.

In 1986, Mr. Potato Head attended the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout in Washington, D.C. As National Spokespud, he turned in his pipe to Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, to encourage people to quit smoking. 

Then in 1995, Mr. Potato Head got his big break in show biz, with a starring role in the Disney/Pixar movie Toy Story (voice talent: Don Rickles). In 2000, he was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in Rochester, NY.

In 2006, Hasbro introduced themed sets of potato pieces—Rockstar, Pirate, Firefighter, Santa Claus, etc. And then came movie-themed characters: Optimash Prime, Taters of the Lost Ark, and some high-flying Spuds from Space--Darth Tater, Spud Trooper, and  R2 Potatoo! Now there’s even a Mr. Potato Head balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and we have to wonder if there's room in the next Avengers epic for the versatile and well-rounded Spud Stud.

Mr. Potato Head turns 60 this year. Maybe he’s no Brad Pitt, but he’s rich and famous and he brings joy to a lot of children. Perhaps someday he and the Mrs. will retire to Idaho, but for now, he’s no couch potato. No sir. This potato is hot—in a pudgy, nose-too-big kind of way.

Artwork from Pixar exhibition in Milan

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Letter from Beatrix Potter

Noel Moore
Five year old Noel Moore lay in bed staring at the patterns in the wallpaper. He could hear the other children having their lessons downstairs or playing outdoors. For in that summer of 1893, Noel had scarlet fever, a frequently fatal children's disease. 

Noel's family lived in London at the edge of a large park called Wandsworth Commons. Unfortunately, his mother Annie didn’t have a lot of time to spend with her sick child. She had other children to care for, and she was expecting again. Sometimes Noel felt sad and lonely.  Sometimes he couldn’t remember what it felt like to run and play.

One day in September, a letter arrived from a family friend. A letter for Noel. It was the very best kind of letter—big! With pictures! The letter said, “My dear Noel: I don’t know what to write to you, so I shall tell you a story about four little rabbits whose names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter.” 

1st page of letter

Beatrix Potter
Sound familiar? The Moore family had a special friend, a lady named Beatrix Potter. Though only three years older than Beatrix, Annie had been her governess, and now Beatrix liked to stay in touch with the Moores. 

Sometimes Miss Potter would come for a visit and bring her pet, a Belgian buck rabbit named Peter Piper. She had taught Peter to do tricks, but occasionally Peter was “naughty” and refused to cooperate. The children loved her visits, but it had been a long time since Miss Potter had come to see them. At least, it seemed like a long time to a five year old boy.

But this letter was almost as good as a visit—maybe better, because this letter was addressed to Noel. And it contained a story written just for him--a story about a naughty rabbit named Peter who went into his neighbor's garden and had great adventures and barely made it out again. The letter cheered Noel greatly. 

A few years later, Noel was sick again—this time with polio. And Miss Potter continued to send story-letters for Noel and the other children to read.

Noel’s mother told Miss Potter that she thought the stories ought to be published. So one day, when Noel was about twelve, Miss Potter asked to borrow the first letter she had sent. She had decided to try to publish the story about Peter the Rabbit, and she wondered if Noel had kept it.

Kept it? Of course he had kept it and treasured it. 

Miss Potter self-published the book in 1901, and it sold only a few copies. But then the publishing firm of F. Warne and Company took an interest in the "bunny book," as they called it. At the Warnes’ request, she rewrote the story, adding more scenes and more pictures. The time was right. Small picture books were just becoming popular, and the book was an instant success.

Beatrix later wrote: “It is much more satisfactory to address a real live child; I often think that that was the secret of the success of Peter Rabbit, it was written to a child - not made to order!”

Little Noel grew up to become a priest. He lived a long life and worked with children in the slums of London.

Beatrix Potter with her dog Kep

Peter's cousin, Benjamin Bunny
Beatrix Potter went on to become one of the most beloved and best-selling children’s authors of all time. Her beautiful books would bring delight to countless children around the world. And it all began because she cared deeply about one little boy named Noel.

The Garden Gate, inspiration
for Mr. McGregor's Garden

And if you'd like to know more about how Peter Rabbit came to be written, the Stark Raving Mythopath recommends The True Story of Peter Rabbit: How a Letter from Beatrix Potter Became a Children's Classic, by Jane Johnson. A delightful picture book.