Category Archives: Journalism

Then I Saw the Fnords

Between Adam Weishaupt and Dan Brown at the conspiracy banquet table sits Robert Anton Wilson, keeping the conversation lively.  He and Umberto Eco provide the best banter all night long.  In the wake of the Da Vinci Code, you might think that a few of the conspiracy classics could creep onto the bestseller lists, but we are a fickle people.  Wilson is responsible for some of the most engaging entries in the secret societies library: The Illuminatus Trilogy (co-authored with Robert Shea), along with a shelf worth of related tomes (The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles, Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy).  As opposed to Brown, Wilson was never satisfied with one or two hidden puppet masters.  His work tries to find the synchronicity between every bit of vaguely believable real-world idiocy (Casanova and Watergate, for instance), those edge-of-vision unbelievable facts (North American Vikings, Nazi occult research), and the full-blown manic wah-wahhs (Area 51 aliens, Templars in space).  Despite the weight of all this combined weirdness, Wilson succeeds where so many have failed because he uses levity to significantly lighten the load born by his prose.

If his name otherwise sounds familiar, Robert A. Wilson was a quasi-celebrity a few years ago when the officials in Santa Cruz, California, made him their first citizen to receive medical cannabis, which had been recently legalized.  That was a short-lived experiment for Wilson once the federal government intervened.  Sometimes the conspiracies are large and thoughtless.

Sometimes the conspiracies are miraculous and blessed.  Nowadays, Wilson is in the process of dying from post-polio syndrome.  Word went out a few weeks ago that he had been reduced to destitution.  A community of Internet angels conspired to let one of the good guys die at home in peace by raising funds for his continued care.  Fnord.

October, 2006

The Yogi, the Duke, and the Bambino

I did not know what “larrupin’” meant five minutes ago.

Nicknames, like secret handshakes, have always been a way to say that you’re one of us.  Yet, baseball monikers once felt like a nationwide hug shared between fans and athletes.  And everyone was a fan to some degree.  The sports pages may have been the best-written and most accurate part of the newspaper.  You could argue with anyone anywhere about the Yankee Clipper without worrying that the words “sails” or “DiMaggio” would creep into the conversation.

In the days of radio play-by-play, glorious baseball nicknames were woven from situation and alliteration.  Often granted by sportswriters to meritorious rookies, the practice seems to have fallen out of favor (otherwise we’d be talking about “The Big Syringe” and “The Baltimore Cuckold”).  The golden era of baseball nicknames gave us the Sultan of Swat, the Georgia Peach, the Big Train, Three-Fingered Brown, Cool Papa, Yogi, Stan the Man, Dizzy, Daffy, Charlie Hustle, the Bird, Space Man, and the Human Rain Delay.  Often, parental given names were lost to common usage- who refers to Laurence Berra?

In the twilight of the nickname era, the best-known handle of an active player likely belongs to Roger “the Rocket” Clemens who’s been plying his trade for over two decades, though fans will know the Big Unit (Randy Johnson) and the Big Hurt (Frank Thomas), who have also been around for eons.

Perhaps we are simply too sophisticated nowadays to make sport of our sports.  Who is no longer on first and we have only ourselves to blame.  Apropos of Larrupin’ Lou Gehrig, it means “a blow, especially one delivered with a lot of force,” which I had intuited as a child, though adulthood required definition.

July, 2006

The Sharp Edge of a Lonely Planet

I have been in a large room filled with people in colorful costumes and wearing odd bits of plastic upon their face.  I have sat with them and listened to them talk disconsolately about a proposed re-write of a fictional universe that would alter the “history” as previously composed.  I sympathized until my pupils contracted to mere dots.  I write this by way of saying that I have seen the reeking armpit of obsession.

Enter one Samuel Birley Rowbotham, who went by the name “Parallax” for obvious reasons.  He is the progenitor, not the obsessive in the story.  Parallax toured the U.K. teaching “zetetic astronomy,” which argued that the Earth is flat with the North Pole at its center.  Next, we meet John Hampden, who read Rowbotham’s Earth Not A Globe and, you guessed it, became obsessed when it turned on so many light bulbs in his head that ships could navigate by his nose.  Hampden offered £500 to anyone who could prove that the Earth was round.  Alfred Russel Wallace, scientist and all around swell guy, won the bet easily on March 5, 1870.

1870?  Obsession breeds obsession.  Hampden found like-minded loons and started a movement based on the premise that libeling Wallace was better than scientific proof.  Good hullabaloo moves easily across the ocean.  Locally, Buffalo resident Alexander Gleason published Is the Earth a Globe? (1893) in which he demonstrated that Lake Eerie showed no sign of convexity.

The modern flat earth movement blossomed again in England with Samuel Shanton, who founded the International Flat Earth Society.  The presidency passed to American Charles Johnson on Shanton’s death in 1971.  Whether anyone agreed with him or not, Johnson was known for his reliance on fact in defending the Society’s agenda.  He died in 2001, leaving the flat earth ship without a rudder, adrift along the treacherous edge of the planet’s border.  Be wary of Flat Earth Society impostors on the Internet.  As you might imagine, the topic lends itself to satire.

December, 2006