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In the old days, I would've held on to an idea like this for a while: polished it, come up with some extra riffs on it, built a whole GILT or two around it. But now I think I'll just toss it out there while it's amusing me. Remember Harry Smith, the eccentric artist/alchemist/derelict who assembled the Anthology of American Folk Music? And do you remember the anecdote I shared the very first time we mentioned Harry Smith in these pages?
Smith's parents were Theosophists, Smith's grandfather was a leading Mason, and his great-grandfather was one of many nineteenth-century mystics to refound the Knights Templar. Smith's mother sometimes claimed to be Anastasia, last of the Romanovs, and she told Smith that his true father was Aleister Crowley. On his twelfth birthday, Harry's father (or his step-father, if Harry's mother was telling the truth) presented him a complete blacksmith's shop and commanded that he turn lead into gold.
Twelfth birthday? Mysterious parentage? Lead into gold? I can't believe it took me four years to come up with the mash-up: Harry Smith and the Sorcerer's Stone.


Photo & caption by Allen Ginsberg: "Harry Smith, painter, archivist, anthropologist, film-maker & hermetic alchemist, his last week at Breslin Hotel Manhattan January 12, 1985, transforming milk into milk."
robotnik2004: (The Professor)

Tags: IM IN UR COLONY GOIN 2 CR0T04N, the Midge of colonial U.S. history, Great Dismal Glister Societies, Lord Fernando Strange.

Cliopatria is hosting a symposium tomorrow on the 400th Anniversary of Jamestown, and the question “Why has the American national narrative characteristically taken New England / Puritans rather than Jamestown / Virginia / Anglicans as its foundation touchstone?” I’ll link to the symposium after it’s up, and this post should be there, bringing down the general level of discussion. But as I may not be around the internets tomorrow I’m jumping the gun and giving you my entry now. [Edit: The symposium is now up. I’m afraid my entry is at the top, but it’s well worth scrolling on down to see the contributions of my colleagues–who actually address the question asked.]

Can you hear the drums, Lord Fernando?

Plymouth or Jamestown! They’re the Betty and Veronica of colonial U.S. history: where does America’s “national narrative” begin? Frankly, I’m not sure we have to choose. If the Pilgrims and Puritans were a pious clutch of religious zealots, Jamestown was a kind of get-rich-slow scheme, a dot-com start-up where half the techies starved before hitting on the colony’s (cough cough) killer app. Surely American history displays a family resemblance to both forebears?

Read the rest of this entry »

Cross-posted from Old is the New New. Comments welcome.
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Attention Unknown USAkateers: John Hodgman is Ben Siegel.



That is all.

get it? PC? like player character?
robotnik2004: (Default)

Originally published at Route 96. You can comment here or there.

On the morning of my actual birthday, Pete and Derek bought me admission to the granddaddy of all mystery spots, the Oregon Vortex. First discovered by the white man in 1864, the “natural, historical, educational, scientific, authentic” Oregon Vortex is, we were told, the oldest and “most respected” gravitational vortex in America. The science behind this authentic natural wonder is a little too educational and historical to get into here, but suffice to say the vortex is a “famous” circular area with “unique” phenomena: balls roll up hill, squirrels fear to tread, and the harsh mistress of gravity takes a nap on the job.

Read the rest of this entry » )
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Originally published at Route 96. You can comment here or there.

New Mexico: It’s The Newer Mexico

Do you think they ever get tired of jokes like that in New Mexico?

The picture they don't want you to see.<--The picture they don't want you to see: me witnessing an alien autopsy, or Jonathan Frakes hosting a crappy special on Fox? You be the judge…

(Don’t Go Back to) Roswell

You may not consider it anything to brag about, but I was a UFO geek long before a certain alphabetically named television program brought the wonderful wide world of ETs, MIBs, and EBEs into America’s living rooms. And–with the possible exception of Nevada’s Area 51, which is in the middle of a missile testing range and not real hospitable to roadtrippers–Roswell, New Mexico is the Mecca of UFO geekdom.

Here’s the facts, sort of. In July 1947, something crashed in the desert northwest of Roswell. A U.S. Army press release said that the army had recovered pieces of some form of “flying saucer.” The next day a second press release declared that the object was in fact a weather balloon, and that’s been the official story ever since.

Now, maybe “flying saucer” was just a poor choice of words by some dumb Army Press Department hack who has been peeling potatoes for his screw-up ever since. Or, just maybe, the Roswell Crash is one lone crack in the facade of a fifty-year coverup engineered by a massive and ruthless conspiracy stretching to the highest level of government, if not the very stars!

Now, which explanation do you think brings more tourists to Roswell?

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Originally published at Route 96. You can comment here or there.

Eureka Springs redeemed itself, in a manner of speaking, with Miles’ Music Museum. We pulled in on a whim, Derek hoping we might see some nifty old guitars or tube amps or something. But Floyd Miles, a Southern patriarch who bore a remarkable resemblance to a (more) evil Colonel Sanders, proved to be something other than the Ozark Brian Eno.

The centerpiece of Miles’ Music Museum was a collection of what I guess you’d call nickelodeons: big mechanical orchestras that ran on rolls of punch cards like player pianos. Apparently these were quite the thing in dance halls and bawdy houses around the turn of the century. You kids might “dig” that “rockaroll music,” but you ain’t heard nothing ’til you’ve heard a steam-powered circus wagon of automated trumpets and bells and accordions lay down the fat groove to “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.”

'The Royal Pant' is an anagram for... anyone? anyone?

I sketched this ‘artist’s conception’ of one of the museum’s big autocthodeons in our roadtrip scrapbook. There were half a dozen of these beasts, each one the size of a minivan.

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Originally published at Route 96. You can comment here or there.

Luke... I am your father.

Of course we went to Graceland.

I sang a medley of Elvis favorites (also at maximum volume) to get Petey and the still hung-over Derek in the mood, and we stopped on Elvis Presley Boulevard for a kingly brunch of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, biscuits, gravy, and a small side order of lard. By the third helping I think Derek was really communing with the Big E’s burnin’ love.

I tell you, friends and neighbors, Graceland was like the United Nations, with people from all over the world and all walks of life: from blue-haired old ladies (”Elvis was a bad postured hooligan, if you ask me, but he did love his mother.”) to green-haired young punks (”I wanna see the toilet where he died. Do you think they flushed it?”). There were busloads of Japanese tourists with cameras, as per the stereotype, plus a carload of old drunks who see something amazing, think they’re hallucinating, and throw away the bottle. A number of minibike twins were also in evidence.

Instead of tour guides, they have cassette tapes of Priscilla Presley leading you through the house. It only heightened the quasi-religious atmosphere of the place to see everybody shuffling through the Jungle Room in complete silence, listening to their little walkmans. If you took your earphones off, you could hear a dozen out-of-synch Priscillas whispering, “I remember one time Elvis ate nothing but meatloaf… meatloaf… meatloaf… for six months straight… straight… straight…”

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Not GILTy

Mar. 16th, 2006 10:33 am
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Hey, what happened to all the game idea posts? There was a lovely harvest of them early this week and then nothing. Is it because arctic weather snapped back into effect?

There ought to be a name for that last blast of winter that comes after a week or so of premature warmth, just when you start to let yourself think that spring has arrived. It's like Indian Summer's evil twin. I've heard people call the sneaky warm period "Strawberry Spring", but I don't know if that's real or just from a Steven King story. I was thinking something more like "Fuck You Winter".

Yeah, you're probably going to say, where are my game idea posts? Good point, but I did just put up 1300 words on Superman, sex pulps, and the secret history of weightlifting. That ain't knockwurst! I do have a few new GILT ideas, or reworked old ones, but they don't seem to come as fastly and furiously when you're living in gamer exile. Actually, there was a period, about two months after leaving Boston, when I felt like I was generating scores of beautiful mad ideas a day. I think I was sweating them out of my system or something. But now, not so much. Maybe I need more structure to bounce things off of. If I started up something like [livejournal.com profile] bryant's old weekly idea mash-ups, would people play along?

You can always stroll down memory lane with my de.icio.us/robotnik/gilt tag. All of my old LJ games-I'd-like-to are there, and a number of yours, although I know I'm missing some goodies.
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My requisite Katrina blah blah blah, cross-posted at Cliopatria and Old Is The New New.

What has happened down here, is the wind have changed...

One of those odd synchronicities that accompany natural disasters like spooked horses and whining dogs: the week before Katrina, I happened to be reading up on the Louisiana flood of 1927, in James Cobb’s The Most Southern Place on Earth and John Barry’s Rising Tide. The American Studies course I’ll be teaching this year is built around a series of “places in time.” Each week or two, we’ll examine an event or site or moment where “America” and what it meant was constructed, contested, or otherwise up for grabs: the Boston Tea Party, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Mississippi Freedom Summer, and so on. I wanted to get a little farther off the path beaten by textbooks and survey courses, and I’d thought about including the 1927 flood. But with a historian’s unerring sense of topicality, I decided not to, three days before Katrina hit.

Oh yeah - I forgot about these lj-cut things... )
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I'm filling out a lot of immigration paperwork this month in hopes of not getting booted out of this country when I graduate. ("Check all that apply: Tired. Poor. Huddled. Difficulty Breathing Free.") One form asks for the birthplaces of my parents. I joked to my mother that the Department of Homeland Security was never going to believe Flin Flon—the remote Manitoba mining town where she was born—is a real town. Her reply:

Subject: The Secret Origins of Parental Units
Brace yourself, my dear, it is in fact Flin Flon. You can explain, if you dare, that it was named for the deathless fictional hero Flintabadias Flonaton, protagonist of a paperback novel discovered on the wilderness site by prospectors who in the next day or so discovered the fabulously wealthy mineral deposits also there, although they were never able to find out how the book had actually gotten there, 500 miles from the nearest bookstore, in the first place. When you're in the wilderness, you seize on any reading material you can find and don't worry an awful lot about provenance. The Bureau of Vaterland Security cannot be any less dubious about the name than the Swiss were when I was a student there. I had to carry an identity card with me at all times listing my place of birth, which they pronounced with a double nasal (Fla Flo) and the tightly pursed lips of the deeply offended.


Point one: My Mom is cool.

Assuming she was making this up, I decided to post Mom's email to show off how goofy ("the deathless hero Flintabadias Flonaton," indeed) and droll ("in the wilderness you don't worry an awful lot about provenance") she is. But a little Googling revealed that, while Mom may be exceedingly clever ("the tightly pursed lips of the deeply offended," hee hee), the goofiness lies in her forebears, not her. Because other than a forgivable spelling error in the name, the story is entirely true.

The town's fictional founder is in fact "Professor Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin," hero of a turn-of-the-century dime novel by J.E. Preston-Muddock called The Sunless City. In the novel, Professor Flonatin, aka Ol' Flinty, aka Flin Flon, builds a home-made submarine to explore a bottomless lake, and ends up discovering a golden city at the center of the earth.

Then, back in real life (more or less), when prospectors were exploring northern Manitoba in the 1910s, they mysteriously found a tattered copy of Preston-Muddock's novel out in the wilderness. Keep in mind we are talking about a region seriously north of civilization. When they also found deposits of gold and copper there, the prospectors named their camp "Flin Flon," after the prospecting hero of the book, which they read around the campfire each night. Then in 1929, the Canadian National Railway telegraphed the mining camp established there to say that, unless they heard differently, the dumbass name those original prospectors had given them was going onto the official maps. Nobody bothered to reply, and in this stirring fashion, the town of Flin Flon was born.

I can't believe Mom never told me this story before. She says she did, but I know I would have remembered. I don't know which part of the story I like best—that Mom was born in a remote mining town named after a dime novel science hero, that the prospectors just found the book out there on the tundra, or that the name stuck because nobody bothered to come up with anything different. ("The CNR wants a name for this place. 'Flin Flon' okay with everyone?" "Eh.") I guess the part I really like best is that I am half Flin Flonian. (And if I end up immigrating, will that make me a Flin Flonian-American?)

More Flin Flon Flun Flacts to come!
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The Arrogant History of White Ben, by Clemence Dane
This is an odd one. Cited by the Great and Terrible Ken Hite in his Suppressed Transmission column about scarecrows, it's a weird forgotten novel from 1938 in which a scarecrow comes to life and becomes the King of England. The scarecrow's name is White Ben, and entirely by coincidence, Ben is also the name of the Scarecrow Who Would Be King in our Unknown Armies game. So obviously I had to track this down.

It is a strange book, musty and seemingly out of its proper history, not unlike good old Harry Smith's anthology. I think I was the first person to check it out of Widener since the late 1940s. In the book, there is a war on, and has been for as long as anyone can remember. With Germany, one presumes, though it might as well be the Hundred Years' War—nobody remembers what the war started for and nobody expects it to come to an end anytime soon. It's just something that England endures. Then Ben, the scarecrow, comes to life. And he hates crows. That's pretty much his sole motivating passion. But when he talks about killing crows, everyone assumes he's talking metaphorically about whoever it is in society they don't like. So they believe he's giving voice to all their hatreds and prejudices, and they love him for it. It's like the Anti-Being There. White Ben is the evil opposite of Chance the Gardener. Ultimately, they make him King or something and he presides over a bloody holocaust where everyone suspected of being a "crow" is killed. It has a storybook quality to it that is a little reminiscent of Oz, but it's dark as hell.

"The night was a noisy one. More were killed than even Ben had proscribed, in his astonished anger that there still existed such monsters, scums, filths, dwarfish horrors. In short that there existed people who would not agree with him. … Ben's plan for testing a crow had become known, and many were flung from roofs and windows to die slowly on the pavements or to be trampled under the looters' feet. Houses were set on fire, and men and statuary shot to pieces. Nevertheless there was a certain good-humoured regret about the business, a general feeling that the fun couldn't last forever."

I must admit I didn't make it cover to cover. I read to page 182, but that took weeks, then skimmed the rest. The musty unworldliness of it all put me to right sleep within pages every time I picked it up. As occasionally happens with books of this sort, the fact that the book exists is probably cooler than the actual activity of reading it. (But I haven't returned it to the library yet—so if anyone local wants to take a crack at it...)
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We played Unknown USA last night. Fun session (for me, at least—I hope all that sitting around the cornfield wasn't too passive for the players) with more guy-hanging-from-a-ferris-wheel comedy than you might think possible. It's great to have Brant back, too. His animated disgust at just about everything that happens to his character is like ambrosia for a GM.

[livejournal.com profile] bryant and [livejournal.com profile] jeregenest, both of whom are genuine published RPG authors, with all the wealth and status that entails*, have been telling me, half seriously, half in jest, that we should write up and submit our game as a possible sourcebook for Atlas Games. Knowing me and knowing my schedule, I don't think that will really happen, but their praise is flattering, and it's fun to think about.

Like I said, it's not going to happen. But if it did, it might go something like this... )

*OK, that sounds sarcastic, and the "wealth" part is, but they do have genuine status in my eyes at least for having both the creativity to come up with such cool stuff and also the stick-to-it-ness to turn that cool stuff into genuine published work. I leave it to you, gentle reader, to guess which of these two qualities I myself possess, and in which quality I am lacking. Speaking of which, once I post this, didn't I have a dissertation I was supposed to be working on?
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Be a Volunteer Minister! Follow the link to a lavishly illustrated guide to the Church of Scientology (plus a brief history of all the world's religions) published circa 1976. Check out the secret wisdom. Check out the production values. Check out the groovy threads. Forty-four pages, and each one has something to offer, so take your time. At least until the Church's rabid attack lawyers take the page down.

(Courtesy of [livejournal.com profile] jwz.)
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My interests in weird history, old music, and RPG geekery combine:

In the UA game last night, the PCs got a hold of an occult text in the form of six vinyl LPs: the Anthology of American Folk Music. The version you can buy from Amazon on 6 CDs might not be quite as unearthly as the one I imagine in our game world, but it's pretty darn close.

You can read about it here and here and here, but the best source for the Anthology as occult text is Greil Marcus' The Old, Weird America (and how could I not pick up a book with that title?). Marcus writes about music the way Reese Beulay talks about roads. Some people can't stand it (note the little dig in the Salon article); I like him a lot.

The Anthology was a mystery ... an occult document disguised as an academic treatise on archaic musicology. ... It was an insistence that against every assurance to the contrary, America was itself a mystery.

The original Anthology was a collection of eighty-four performances on six LPs. The records, colored to represent symbolic elements (air, fire, water—and in our game also earth, silver, and gold), are illustrated with an alchemical etching of something called "the Celestial Monochord." The original liner notes contain quotes from seventeenth century alchemists like Robert Fludd. ("In Elementary Music The Relation Of Earth To The Sphere of Water is 4 to 3, As There Are In The Earth Four Quarters of Frigidity to Three of Water." ?!?)

Again, Marcus writes:
On the covers of the Anthology volumes the monochord was shown being tuned by the hand of god. It divided creation into balanced spheres of energy, into fundaments; printed over the filaments of the etching and its crepuscular Latin explanations were record titles and the names of the blues singers, hillbilly musicians, and gospel chanters Smith was bringing together for the first time. It was as if they had something to do with each other: as if Pythagoras, Fludd, and the likes of Jilson Setters, Ramblin' Thomas, the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, and Smith himself were calling on the same gods.

It's called an anthology of folk music and was a big influence on the folk revival of the 1960s, but it's much more the O Brother old-timey music than what I think of as 1960s folk (hang down your head Tom Dooley, poor Charlie on the MTA, that sort of thing). It throws together Delta blues and Southern gospel and Appalachian murder ballads and supernatural English and Scottish love songs going back two hundred years at least. Smith organized it all by subject, not by chronology or musical style or race, so we have a selection of women-murdering-their-children songs, then tragic accident songs, then judgment day songs, and so forth. The ballad of John Henry is on there, and the sinking of the Titanic, and Casey Jones' last ride. President Garfield gets shot by a hobo evangelist, Jesse James is laid in his grave, Stagger Lee shoots Billy Lyons in St. Louis, goes to Hell and shoots the Devil too.

Bob Dylan says:
Folk music is the only music where it isn't simple. It's never been simple. It's weird. ... All those songs about roses growing out of people's brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels ... I have to think of all this as traditional music. Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death.

If all this wasn't cool and weird enough, there's Harry Smith himself, the guy that put this little collection together. According to Marcus, he was a notorious moocher, a dope fiend and an alcoholic, a hunchback stunted from his youth by rickets. Smith's parents were Theosophists, friends of Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant. On his twelfth birthday, Smith's father gave him a lump of coal and told him to turn it into gold. Smith's grandfather was a leading Mason, and his great-grandfather, John Corson Smith, was one of many nineteenth-century mystics to refound the Knights Templar. Smith's mother sometimes claimed to be Anastasia, last of the Romanovs, and she told Smith that his true father was Aleister Crowley, with who she had a long affair in the 1910s and 20s. Harry studied Indian tribes in the 1940s and then fell in love with early recordings of blues and hillbilly music, which he collected in bootlegs of dubious legality that eventually became the Anthology. He roamed the country for years with no fixed address, though when he died in 1991 in New York, he had become known as "the Paracelsus of the Chelsea Hotel."

Glen: It's a crazy world.
H.I.: Somebody oughta sell tickets.
Glen: Sure, I'd buy one.
Raising Arizona
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After talking about it for ages, I'm finally trying to get an Unknown Armies game started. Everyone who reads this journal has, I expect, already gotten the e-mail about the game (except, I guess for [livejournal.com profile] mgrasso—feel like commuting to Boston for the game?), but I'll post it here anyway so I can point people to it online.

Unknown Americana Teaser )

I've got a handful of interested players, all of whom I know would be great. The X factor for everyone, including me, is scheduling. If we can't make it biweekly, I might end up running this as linked, monthly one shots, with a recurring cast of characters but a more episodic structure than your standard campaign. Like the annual Cthulhu games I ran in college—there were connectors between stories, but because the gap between games was so long, each one had to be a satisfying chunk of story on its own.

I'll post some character ideas and campaign frames I've cooked up soon. This game has been in my head for a while and I've generated a fair amount of stuff.

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