[The Alienist has no good excuse for the silence of the past 18 months. He promises to do better in the future]
Mount Everest is an infamously unforgiving environment. Since the Hillary-Norgay expedition first put a man on the summit in 1953, there have been no fewer than 7000 attempts to climb its sheer walls… and at least 280 deaths. This isn’t hard to understand when one realizes the atmosphere above 26,000′ – in other words, the final ~3000′ of each attempt – is located in the so-called ‘Death Zone,’ wherein bitter cold combines with oxygen pressure one-third that at sea level.
In short, there is almost no room for error in such harsh surroundings.
Predictably, when climbers expire, they are usually left where they fall. As the temps remain below 0’C, the bodies become freeze-dried to the ice underneath, serving then as familiar, albeit macabre, semi-permanent road markers for future expeditions, and usually ID’d by features of their appearance.
There is Rainbow Ridge, a section of the North Face with at least ten dead climbers along a short span. It is named such because of the colorful nylon parkas that many of the corpses still sport.
There is Hannelore Schmatz, who expired in 1979, a mere 330′ above base camp along the Southern Face. She was frozen to the ground for years, but lately has been missing, having either blown into a precipice, or covered by a drift. Her corporeal remains were located close to those of Scott Fisher, who died 17 years after Schmatz in a freak blizzard along the same ridge, and at last check is still there.
There is ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ thought to be Francys Arsentiev, a woman with long flowing (now frozen) hair whose demise came just shy of the summit in 1998, and who was on display until 2007 when she also went over a cliff edge.
Perhaps the most famous – and anonymous – of the body markers is called ‘Green Boots,’ on the North Face. There are those who believe this to be Indian trekker Dorje Morip, whilst others believe it to be his countryman Tsewang Paljor. People actually argue this point. Either way, the body appeared in 1996, neon-colored footwear and all, at 27,887′, but has not been seen in the past five seasons, having fallen victim to either gravity or avalanche.
And right next to Green Boots’ erstwhile spot is David Sharpe and his green-and-black checkered backpack, who joined the roster of immortal dead in 2006.
In short, in the absence of more conventional means of divining direction and measuring distance, travelers will use whatever is at hand.
Bringing it back to sea level, as I live in a rural part of the country, there are long stretches of state highway along which there are NO gas stations, road signs, or services. So I’ve developed an early-warning system whereby objects scattered en route serve as markers that tell of conditions and dangers.
Heading on SR 264, over one twenty mile stretch, a traveler encounters the rotten wooden sign for Randy’s Produce, long gone, the ad now hanging at a 45′ angle. Next is a small white shipping container in a ditch of the median strip. Shortly thereafter, on the southside of the byway, a crumpled billboard left over from a past hurricane or tornado displays forlornly in a field, its message no longer visible to those passing. Several crushed cars on a large platform – a ‘safe driving’ PSA? – are just beyond the billboard. Then one sees an abandoned boat and trailer located 1.5 miles from the crushed cars, right across the median from a dangerously listing mobile home with only half its roof remaining. A burned mattress (these are used to build smoldering fires for pig pickins) is visible near the treeline near a nameless mailbox that is likely long abandoned. At approx the halfway point, there is a vehicle bumper in a ravine that appears from a small 1990s-vintage red model, perhaps an Asian import. And one mile past that is a stack of three truck tires with no nearby business or structure to explain their presence.
I have learned the following:
During rainy weather, cell coverage is poor between the crumpled billboard and the listing mobile home, and also at the truck tires, and calls will likely be dropped.
If my daughter is heating dinner, as long as I call her before reaching the crushed cars, heading east, she will have enough time to get it on the table by my ETA.
If I make it as far as the burned mattress no later than 6:47 p.m., I will be able to reach the county dump before closing, if I have garbage in the back of my pick-up of which I want to dispose.
I’ll be able to hear the entire NPR newscast and the headline story before arriving at the office if, driving west, the announcer begins no later than the abandoned boat and trailer.
And most importantly, if the orange ‘critically low gasoline’ light does not start blinking on my dashboard before I can see the vehicle bumper in the ravine, I’ll be able to limp into town without running out of gas. And I might even be able to stop at Hardees for breakfast.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
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[Copyright 2013-2018 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Snap! Crackle! Pop!

[The Alienist apologies to the legions of fans who have inquired re: the silence of the past five months. Nothing bad… just newly assigned professional duties along with advancing age and decrepitude]

I was cleaning the garage recently, and ran across some items that brought back memories from a very long time ago.

For starters, what Baby Boomer does not remember this?

“Snap, what a happy sound
Snap is the happiest sound I’ve found
You may clap, rap, tap, slap but
Snap… makes the world go ’round.

“I say it’s crackle the crispy sound
You gotta have crackle or the clock’s not wound.
Geese cackle, feathers tickle,
Belts buckle, beets pickle,
But crackle… makes the world go ’round.

“I insist that pop’s the sound
The best is missed unless pop’s around.
You can’t stop hoppin’ when the cereal’s poppin’,
Pop… makes the world go ’round.

“Snap Crackle Pop Rice Krispies! Kellogg’s Best to you!”

From the Kellogg’s website: “Snap! Crackle! and Pop!, the animated cartoon mascots for Rice Krispies, were created by illustrator Vernon Grant in the 1930s. The original gnome-like Snap! first appeared in 1933 on a package of Kellogg’s Rice Krispies. Crackle! and Pop! came later, and since 1939, the three have been together in many forms of advertising, including radio, movie shorts, and comic strips. They are the first and longest-running cartoon characters to represent a Kellogg’s product.”

[sidebar: just as the company name Yahoo! includes the exclamation point – it was not the addition of an overly exuberant copy editor – apparently Kellogg’s gnomes originally had exclamation points as integral parts of their nomenclature which, unlike Yahoo!, were lost over time]

No one seems to know exactly when the Rice Krispies ditty was created. In 1953 it was not yet being aired:

But by 1960, it is recognizable, albeit in rather primitive form, as the song most of us remember:

What, you might ask, does this have to do with my garage?

In the mid-1970s, a group of bored medical students at my alma mater decided on a (rather risky) prank. Three of them planned on interrupting a dull lecture by singing the Rice Krispies song unannounced. The risk: because the ballad is written for three who are not singing together until harmonizing at the very end, the first chanteur was going to have to start singing with no back-up. If his colleagues chickened and didn’t join at the appointed moments, the first would be left looking pretty darned foolish in front of >100 stunned classmates and one probably very annoyed professor.

The day came. The troubadours planted themselves in different rows on opposite ends of the cavernous lecture hall. The professor droned on and on. “Questions?” One hand shot up and was recognized. A student rose.

“Snap, what a happy sound…”

The audience fell totally silent. The professor stared.

The second and third crooners stood and entered right on cue.

The song finished.


There was a momentary pause, and then the hall erupted into wild applause.

The professor burst into laughter

The gamble paid off. And the Spinal Chords were born.

From the University of Virginia School of Medicine student life website: “Founded in 1977, this a cappella singing group is made up of male medical students who bring music and mirth to the hospital and the community-at-large. The Spinal Chords practice twice weekly a repertoire that ranges from barbershop favorites to current hits and everything else that won’t land them in jail! They enjoy tremendous popularity for their performances in class, on the wards, and throughout the state. In addition, the Chords raise funds for the Children’s Medical Center which are presented each May during the CMC telethon. Membership is open to all male medical students. Auditions are held each fall as the older Chords are “retired” by graduation. Enthusiasm more than talent is the major requirement.”

[sidebar: by the 1980s, there started a mirror-image women’s group, the Palpitations, but those divas never really caught on]

I was a proud member of the Chords from 1980-84. Our uniform over that span: khakis, docksiders or penny loafers, cotton buttondowns with bow ties, and white lab coats. Everyone in the medical center recognized us. The Chords delivered singing telegrams in our spare time. We were requested as evening entertainment at pharmaceutical functions and medical meetings. We even traveled the state to perform at conventions. Those were heady days indeed.

(and an amazingly low-effort way by which to get female nurses’ phone numbers, although we never had groupies per se)

I had located a box in the garage filled with Chords ephemera. Even one of our tour t-shirts. And the memories came flooding back.

Unlike our long-lived cartoon alter-egos, and despite our Warholian 15 minutes of fame, the Chords apparently didn’t have staying power. On the UVa website, under the description noted above, there is a sad disclaimer, “currently inactive.”

And even more sad: in the pre-YouTube days, I’m not certain that we were ever recorded. If anyone ‘out there’ has a Chords video, please contact me.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

The Girl In The Cake

[Today’s post is sponsored by my dear friend and colleague, Oreana Harless LCSW, inarguably the best social worker in all of Idaho. She tells me she like Vegas, she likes kitsch, she likes history, and she likes to eat. Therefore, this tale seems a natural to dedicate to her]

When one thinks about it, having a grown woman jump out of a baked pastry is rather odd. Where did this practice originate?

As with most things decadent, we have the Romans to thank, although they merely got this ball rolling, and future generations of lecherous males perfected it. To the Romans, food WAS entertainment. Wealthy hosts tried to outdo one another with exotic fare: peacocks, ostriches, and rare songbirds were oft on the menus. Then, someone thought up the idea of stuffing one entree inside another, and the fad caught on. A host might carve the belly of a beef only to reveal an entire roasted pig inside. Petronius wrote of dishes that were staged to make the animals appear that they were still alive: baked fish arranged to be swimming in a sea of sauce, for example, or a roasted rabbit with a fowl’s wings attached to appear as Pegasus taking flight.

With the passage of the Roman Empire, the wealthy of medieval times and the Renaissance kept up the practice. Peacocks grilled and then adorned in their original plumage. Fried roosters decked out in (thin paper) armor doing battle with equally cooked suckling pigs. You get the grotesque picture.

Having to always up the ante, eventually it was decided to use live animals. An Italian cookbook from 1474 had one Maestro Martino explaining how to make a hole in the bottom of a pie’s crust such that

“some live birds, as many as it will hold [can be put inside], and the birds should be placed in it just before it is to be served; and when it is served before those seated at the banquet, you remove the cover above, and the little birds will fly away. This is done to entertain and amuse your company.”

Robert May, author of a 1660 British cookbook, describes how these birds would tend to flap everywhere, creating “a diverting hurley-burley amongst the guests.”

[sidebar: this trend may have inspired the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” in which four-and-twenty blackbirds are presented in a dish to the king]

[sidebar: today, this practice lives in the form of “pie birds,” diminutive ceramic figurines placed in pies to allow steam to escape]

Once again, in keeping up with the Joneses, in 1626, the Duke and Duchess of Buckingham presented Charles I with a pie from which emerged a dwarf.

You see where we’re going with this, don’t you?

Depending on the social mores of the age – think Stuart Restoration, think pre-Victorian Hanoverians, think Edward VII, think the Roaring Twenties – attractive women began to replace mere birds and dwarfs, not surprisingly as such banquets were thrown by rich males for other rich males, all of the dutiful wives staying at home. One particularly debauched party was thrown by Stanford White, a prominent NYC architect, in 1895. His enormous pie contained a nearly-naked 16 year old beauty, one Susie Johnson, much to the delight of the diners. This is now known to history as the Pie Girl Dinner… go ahead, Google it. I’ll wait.

[sidebar: White’s excesses were the eventual end of him, since he was murdered by the enraged spouse of a former pie girl – White, you see, apparently performed this schtick more than once. The fact that White had deflowered the maiden before putting her in a pie didn’t help his case with said enraged spouse]

By the 1950s, it became downright mainstream for office blow-outs and alcohol-fueled conventions to feature an attractive woman in a giant cake, usually in a skimpy bathing suit or completely nude, depending on the audience and event. The girl-in-cake trend became so pervasive that it was even featured in Marilyn Monroe’s landmark 1959 film Some Like It Hot.

And while a few still made actual cakes – one 1975 AP story said that a baker in San Francisco would create just such a confection for $2000, plus $50 for the jumper – it became cheaper and more convenient to fabricate a ‘cake’ out of cardboard.

Political correctness, media coverage, and shareholder oversight sounded the death-knell of such festive gatherings in business venues, surviving today mostly by the patronage of denizens of the Vegas bachelor party scene.

I just wish I could expunge from my memory the visual of James Franco and Seth Rogen popping out of a cake to celebrate Jimmy Fallon’s birthday. Yuck.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Clowns After Midnight

[Our day-sponsor for this post is arguably my youngest subscriber, Lucas Artigas, of Apex NC. Lucas, don’t read this when you should be paying attention in class. I know it’s been rough these past four months, but it’ll get better. If not, the motel might need a manager. Stay in touch.]

“There is nothing scarier than a clown after midnight”

That quote has been attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, Stephen King, and Vincent Price. Regardless of the source of the bon mot, it reveals a truism. Clowns, in the dark, tend to be disturbing.

And of course, we all know that cemeteries, in particular old spooky ones, give just about everyone the willies.

So let’s combine them on your next roadtrip, in Tonopah NV.

Little more than a widespot on SR 95 at the halfway point between Vegas and Reno, Tonopah, the seat of Nye County, boasts a population under 2500. The town itself, then called Butler City, was founded in 1900 by the eponymous Jim Butler, a miner looking for a lost burro. Angry at the dumb beast, he picked up a rock to throw at it once located, and noticed the unusual weight of the projectile. It turns out that he had stumbled across the second richest silver lode in Nevada history. But it was not Butler who was to strike it fabulously wealthy. One George Wingfield, a faro player briefly turned dealer at the hamlet’s soon-to-open saloon, used his winnings to invest in the Boston-Tonopah Mining Company, which, within five years, netted him a bank account of $30M.

Fortune seekers flooded into this hardscrabble town in the middle of nowhere. There was a plague that went through the population in 1902 – the etiology remains mysterious – which killed many of the inhabitants. The town’s only cemetery filled quickly, and by 1911, it had over 300 interments, then-rivaling the living population of the downtown. The boneyard was closed because it had run out of space.

Wingfield predicted the town’s imminent demise, cashed out, and moved elsewhere. Industry died. By 1920, Tonopah and the immediate environs contained less than half the population it had boasted fifteen years earlier. Things went from bad to worse. Unless you work at the now-nearby Tonopah Test Range and Nuclear Site, there’s not much economic activity in the area once the easily mined ore had dried up.

But people do need a place to stay when passing through, esp if they don’t want to drive another 70 miles to the next wide spot. And that brings us to the Clown Motel.

The Clown Motel

Not only is the inn’s lobby filled with images of clowns, but each room keeps the unsettling theme as well. From Bozo to Ronald to Punch, they’re all there in one form or another. And folks who have weathered the night as guests swear that the eyes of the pictures and figures follow you as you move around the premises.

what a view!

So if you get a bit unnerved and need fresh air, you can walk outside… and gaze at the overflowing cemetery sharing the common property line.

Oddly enough, the Clown Motel gets a 3.5/ 5 star rating on Trip Advisor.

Time to keep driving to Carson City.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

An Ethical Quandary

Physicians are almost always opposed to abdicating clinical decision-making to non-clinicians. Just ask any practicing doc what she thinks of administrators or insurance adjusters getting involved in patient-care scenarios, those that doctors feel should be solidly in the purview of medicine. I already know the response.

I attended a professional meeting recently, and the presentation of one of the speakers – the chair of the ethics department at a major east coast university – reminded me of an interaction I had thirty years ago, and have never entirely resolved in my own psyche.

In the 1980s, I was in my training at the University of Virginia. At that time, the University Medical Center had a well-established ethics consult team. Coming in the immediate wake of right-to-die cases such as that surrounding Karen Ann Quinlan, the University wanted to engage ethicists and those of related fields – social work, theology, patient advocacy – on the front end of potential problems in order to ‘do the right thing’ and avoid messy entanglements that might register seismically with the national media. CYA.

I recall being a senior medical student on the neurosurgery rotation, and rounding with my team in the NICU. We came to one unfortunate patient; I’ve forgotten the details of the patient’s situation, but I do recall that it was grave at best. The family was emotional and divided, the nursing staff was up in arms, and the attending physician was uncertain how to proceed. Being at that time an idealistic neophyte, I turned to the chief resident and asked if we should obtain an ethics consult on this unfortunate patient?

“No. And don’t let me ever hear you say that again.”

Despite being fully aware of my low rank in the food chain, I was nevertheless caught off guard by his dismissive response. The ethics team was regularly convened for just this reason, and I thought the scenario at hand was as clear-cut for such a consult as I was likely to encounter. He read my perplexity and continued:

“If you call for an ethics consult, you’ll have a bunch of non-clinicians coming down here, pontificating, and then rendering a decision on a clinical situation. Once it’s written, we’re screwed, because if we decide to proceed in a way not recommended by the consult, we’re de-facto ‘unethical.’ It’s a huge risk management and liability issue, and I think the team can come up with a sensible decision and avoid getting outsiders involved who then will be back-seat drivers.”

That exchange occurred ~1988. I’ve thought of it since, but have never yet engaged an ethicist for her input.

So, at the recent meeting, I stood to ask this question of the presenter. His reply:

“Certainly there are some ethicists – hopefully fewer now than was the case 30 years ago – who author poorly-worded consults. A good ethicists will never tell the medical team what they should do. A good ethicist will explore with the team the actual question at hand, and weigh with the team the pros and cons of each available avenue. Remember, a ethical dilemma is usually not about good and bad. It’s about two options – choices that likely each have good facets – that must be balanced against each other.”

This answer reminded me of what I have long said about a savvy psychotherapist: such a practitioner should never tell a patient what to do, but instead should guide the patient in exploring the situations at hand and aiding that person in coming to the decision that works best for her.

Of course, that’s in theory. I know of many therapists who cross the line, and I’m sure there are ethicists who do the same.

In the law, there is a type of civil determination called a declaratory judgment. In such a situation, a court will resolve uncertainty through a conclusive preventative adjudication, essentially affirming the rights, duties, or obligations of one or more of the parties in a non-criminal dispute. It is rendering an opinion on a hypothetical that has not yet been formally brought before the court.

But not all courts will pass declaratory judgments. And I doubt ethicists will do so either. One can hardly approach an ethicist and say, “I’d like to submit a consult on a sticky situation, but only if you’re not going to hog-tie me clinically. Perhaps you can give me a pre-decision off the record, and then I can decide whether I want to submit a formal consult or not.”

In reality, as the old saw goes, one pays one’s money and takes one’s chances.

So, three decades later, I still don’t have a good retort to the chief resident’s premonition.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

Coins Hitting The Pans

My earliest recollections of slot machines – not that I was actually playing them back then, mind you – involved lights flashing, sirens wailing, and the delightful sound of clink-clink-clink as coins dropped into the metallic catch pans below. From Vegas to Atlantic City to cruise ships, it was the same. Even if the actual dollar amounts weren’t princely, it sure sounded that way.

But then technology interfered.

There are just under 1,000,000 licensed slot machines in operation in the United States at present, and hardly any of them spit out coins anymore. Things changed in the 1990s. Now, you insert your club card or paper bills into a machine’s feeder. When you win, the machine still makes noise – sometimes even poorly-simulated recorded metallic clanking sounds – but out comes a slip on which is a barcode, and that is what you take to the cashier’s cage to redeem for real money.

No more buckets full of quarters. No more dirty hands. It’s all so sterile and lifeless.

In the 1990s, technology abbreviated as ‘TITO,’ or ‘ticket in ticket out,’ became widely available. It’s not that the casinos were necessarily killjoys, but TITO allowed them to cut down on the manpower needed to run their businesses. Apparently it takes a lot of staff to keep the change machines filled, keep the slots stocked (the average quarter machine, for example, holds $1k worth of coins at any given time), and then fix the machines when the inevitable jams occur. When it all changed over to paper – card/bill in and slip out – far fewer staff were needed, helping the casinos’ bottom lines.

Indeed, the migration away from coin machines was motivated by reasons even beyond mere maintenance and having to stock change on the casino floors and back rooms. From a casino’s point of view, the key to successful slot play is to separate the player from his money as efficiently as possible. So when a gambler inserts a $20 bill into today’s slots, the money buys “credits.” The gambler is now playing with (emotionless) numerical credits, just numbers on a screen, and not hard-earned cash. And there’s less incentive for one to cash out when a win is registered because that player ends up with a piece of paper in hand, not money. Sure, the paper can be taken to the cashier’s cage. But it’s much easier to just insert it in another machine and play until it’s all gone. Casinos like that.

It’s unlikely that TITO will be rolled back in favor of coins on a large scale. The current system is just too convenient for both casinos and hardcore gamblers. But, as Mike Spinetti, owner of a Vegas gambling supply house, recently offered, “a certain segment of the population still loves playing the old slots; they’ve really had a resurgence in the past couple of years.”

So, the last time I was in Vegas, I spoke to locals and went on a search to see if there even were any coin operated machines left in the area.

None of the high-profile casinos on the Strip could be bothered with them. The only place on that famous boulevard that still has coin machines is Slots-A-Million, owned by and adjacent to (the decidedly run down and dated) Circus Circus. This place needs a good steam cleaning, and even a nostalgia hound such as myself was turned-off, clanking $1 and 25c coin machines or not.

Moving toward Fremont Street, The D Casino has a so-called Vintage Room on the second floor that has a number of coin-ops still in operation. The Golden Gate also has a smattering of the older machines, though none that date as far back as its founding in 1906. Sadly, Bugsy Siegel’s former place a couple of blocks away, El Cortez, claims to have antique coin-ops on site, but in actuality has them on display in the lobby, and when I was last there, none were functional.

Traveling further from town, the Eastside Cannery Casino, past McCarran International Airport and the I-515 connector, was the first establishment to bring back the coin-op machines following the widespread introduction of TITO, and twenty years later there are still a few on the premises.

And for the adventuresome who are traveling out-of-state, 30 miles south of the Strip in the middle of the desert on I-15 is the wide-spot/ rest stop town of Jean. This is the home of the Gold Strike Casino (as well as the Bonnie and Clyde Death Car exhibit) and not much else. However, over half of the 400 machines at the Gold Strike are of the paperless variety.

So yes, with a little effort, one can still find a slot into which to drop a coin in southern Nevada. If readers know of any other places, please let me know.

[Have an idea for a post topic? Want to be considered for a guest-author slot? Or better, perhaps you’d like to become a day-sponsor of this blog, and reach thousands of subscribers and Facebook fans? If so, please contact the Alienist at]

[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

The F-Bomb

This post references an earthy and impolite word that is usually employed to describe human coitus, though it can also describe a state of total disarray, despoilment, or the act of cheating.

Whether you view the oath as vulgar or merely part of the 21st century lexicon, it has segued from an utterance of the ill-bred to a commonly employed descriptor, for better or for worse. Try going to ANY R-rated Hollywood release, watching most anything on cable TV, or visiting certain websites on the Internet, and NOT encountering it!

As a student of human behavior and history, I am curious as to how this came to pass.

Called by some the duct tape of the English language, the F-Bomb can be a noun, both a transitive and intransitive verb, an adjective, an adverb, an interjection, a freestanding expletive, an element of compound expression, or even an in-fix (i.e., inserted between two syllables of a longer multi-syllabic phrase). It is used as an intensifier, to express distaste, as an insult, or just to spice up conversation. It may in fact be the most versatile word in the entire dictionary.

And yes, it has been in dictionaries for longer than you might think. Though it appeared in A New and Complete Dictionary by English lexicographer John Ash in 1775, it was duly asterisk’d as “low” and “vulgar” speech. Interestingly, after that initial debut, the profanity did not appear in any known printed reference from 1795 (the year of the last edition of Ash’s work) until 1965. By 1972 it had made the cut for inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary, by 2005 it scored the Canadian Press Caps and Spelling Guide, and by 2012 it went mainstream in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

Of course the Word-That-Should-Not-Be-Spoken still existed from 1795-1965. Aside from generally accepted cultural sensitivities and proscriptions, one reason it vanished from ink in the English speaking world was by statute: in the U.K. and U.S., the Obscene Publications Act (1857) and the Comstock Act (1873) respectively made it criminally punishable to print that nasty imprecation. This was one basis for banning James Joyce’s Ulysses in the U.S. for more than a decade, from its publication until the mid-1930s – the tome’s racy content included not one, but two of the nasty F’s!

Ash’s dictionary didn’t invent the expletive, but because the F-Bomb wouldn’t usually have been written in the sorts of documents that have survived from earlier epochs, it has proven difficult for linguists to determine exactly its antiquity. Experts have opined, though, that the word is indeed very old. The challenge of finding extant primary sources notwithstanding, there are a few surviving documents from the 15th and 16th centuries that inarguably employ the root.

The first, from ~1410, is a manuscript now in the Bodleian Library that attacks the chastity of a group of Carmelite friars then in Cambridge: “Non sunt in coeli, quia fvccant vvivys of heli,” or “they will not go to Heaven because they fuck the wives of Ely.”

From a century later, the Scottish poet William Dunbar is recorded as having dropped the F-Bomb in Old English: “Yit be his feiris he wald haue fukkit, ye brek my hairt, my bony ane,” or “his behavior, his fucking, has broken my heart and bones.”

And, a now-anonymous and assuredly disgruntled monk was the first known to have employed the adjectival form at his boss; in a 1528 copy of Cicero’s De Officiis in Yale’s collection, a period marginal note reads, “fucken abbot.”

Who were Ely and his wives? Who was the abbot? Who was breaking Dunbar’s heart? We are not certain. But we do know that, esp in the Scottish example, the spelling of the word in question suggests a northern European or Scandinavian etymology. This makes sense when one discovers words such as Old German ficken (to mate), Old Dutch fokken (to breed), Old Norwegian fukka (to copulate), and Old Swedish fock (the name for the male organ) in ye olde thesaurus.

What we also know for certain is that two mid-20th century urban legends about the origin of the F-Bomb are entirely false.

1. Forceful and Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. The theory holds that this phrase is a late 17th century legal term for rape, and that it was abbreviated in period court documents as F.U.C.K. Sounds good, but totally bogus. Sorry, Van Halen.

2. Fornication Under Consent of the King. Another attempt to finger jurisprudence as the source of the vulgarity, this is another weak suggestion that an acronym – based on supposed royal permission for abandoned women to again enter into intimate romantic unions – gave us the malediction-in-question.

Besides, while abbreviations did exist in centuries past, pronouncing the resulting acronyms as neologisms is a relatively modern phenomenon. Scholars point to the only known pre-20th century example of such: Colinda, which rhymes with Melinda, and was coined by Fleet Street from the truncation of the Colonial and Indian Exposition, a world’s fair of sorts, held in London in 1886.

But back to the original question: how did a tawdry exclamation become today’s commonly employed descriptor?

Such verbal segue is not entirely unknown, and linguists actually have a term for it. A dysphemism treadmill describes a scenario in which words that initially carried highly pejorative or ribald connotations, with repeated use, are rendered less vulgar, import diminished shock value, and finally become in time more publicly acceptable.

Proving, at last, that familiarity does in fact breed contempt. Or at least meh.

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Let’s Do The Time Warp Again!

When I was a pre-teen, I went to Disneyland and enjoyed an attraction called Mr Toad’s Wild Ride. I thought it was the most amazing thing ever. The little cars in which visitors sat careened left and right through narrow faux-Victorian streets whilst barely missing lamp posts, carriages, curbs, suits of armor, and other obstacles. It was fast-paced, frenetic, and thoroughly enjoyable. I must have ridden it a dozen times over the days my family was at the Magic Kingdom, and I remember desperately wanting to go back almost as soon as I had returned home.

I didn’t get a chance to return to southern California until the last year of medical school, probably 15 years after the initial visit. I couldn’t wait to see Mr Toad after all that time! But when I got there, everything seemed smaller and less impressive than before. The ride was slower, more sophomoric, and less exciting than I remembered. After disembarking, I had no desire to repeat, and I found myself wondering why I had been so taken by it in the first place.

Welcome to the ‘You Can Never Go Back’ phenom.

When I was a freshman in college, I was invited in my first weeks to go to a midnight movie by dorm friends, one of whom had a car at his disposal. I asked what we were going to see, and was told The Rocky Horror Picture Show, then a flick only four years old. I had never heard of this movie, but I knew that anything that involved 1. leaving campus at night, 2. driving somewhere strange, and 3. seeing a purportedly hip and experimental film was something I did not want to miss.

For those of you who may not know, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (RHPS) is an Anglo-American movie released in 1975 and based on the London musical stage production of essentially the same name from several years earlier. It was designed as both a parody and a tribute to Hollywood’s grade-B science fiction and horror films of the 1930s through 1960s. In essence, it is a very loose retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, except that the (androgynous) scientist who animates the monster Rocky is actually an alien transvestite, and Rocky is to be his adult plaything. The film contains much allusion to non-hetero sex and violence. There is cannibalism, there is oiled skin, there is S/M leather, and there are oddly costumed characters of dubious gender throughout.

Think Halloween meets La Cage Aux Folles

Despite its catchy soundtrack, the movie was critically panned on release, though Rotten Tomatoes gave it a surprising 80%. Its original eight-city U.S. release was quickly scaled back because of very small audiences. However, the following year, it was decided to try RHPS as a midnight movie at select theaters, the first being the Waverly Cinema in NYC. Quickly it became a campy cult classic amongst the costumed fans who took to acting out scenes in the aisles and yelling back at the screen with comic/ vulgar commentary. RHPS is to this day the longest-running theatrical release in movie history, never having been pulled by Twentieth Century Fox over more than four decades. Against all odds, it was even selected by the Library of Congress for inclusion on the National Film Registry – those works deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” – in 2005.

[sidebar: the Library of Congress ‘honor’ aside, I’m certain that then-unknowns in the film who became bigger stars in later years – think Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, and Meatloaf – would prefer that modern audiences basically forget that they appeared in RHPS]

Anyway, my dorm friends and I drove from tiny Williamsburg to larger Newport News to attend the show. As I wasn’t driving, I did partake of adult beverages on the trip, so was not entirely of sober demeanor during the screening. To be honest, I don’t even recall the ending from that first experience, as I nodded off sometime after Riff Raff started engaging in elbow sex. But it didn’t matter. The movie was so shocking, so kitschy, so non-conservative! This, I thought, is what it means to be in college and experiencing things so radical!

[sidebar: it’s funny the things one does remember. The girl sitting in the backseat with me on the trip was a punk rocker named Cindy, and the driver was a fellow named George – I rarely saw them afterward. The stereo was playing Golden Earring’s Radar Love. Why those factoids remain with me decades later is a mystery]

As with Mr Toad, one recent Saturday night I decided to go see RHPS at midnight just for old times’ sake, at an indy theater in downtown Tucson that is said to be the flick’s longest running venue in Arizona (1978). The difference, of course, is that I was entirely sober, married, graying, and 36 years older this time around.

I was planning to write a commentary on the movie itself, but driving home at 2:30 a.m. and thinking back on the two hours just passed, nothing particularly insightful came to me. I felt, if anything, curmudgeonly. The movie sets looked cheap. The costumes, while flamboyant in their day, were nothing compared to modern Mardi Gras. The subject matter was a yawn. The dialogue was dumb. The story was contrived. And the cavorting audience members and their running commentary in the theater were immature and goofy. That about sums it up.

In retrospect, the scourge of AIDS opened the door and brought into public discourse subjects that were never mentioned in the mass media prior to the epidemic; discussions of gay marriage, internet porn, gender-reassignment surgery, and public bathroom access and LGBTQ rights appear in print today in ways never imagined when Jimmy Carter resided in the White House. And just as a 21st century denizen viewing formerly ‘racy’ Victorian swimwear might instead see such attire as now more suitable for matronly bathers, topics that were taboo pre-AIDS are no longer viewed by most as forbidden subjects of conversation.

Predictably, with that change in societal mores did RHPS lose some of the creative campiness that made it so unique and naughty.

As I noted, you can never go back.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

The Great Stink

London in the 1850s was arguably the capital of the world, situated at the nerve center of the Victorian Empire at its pinnacle. But the municipal authorities of the magnificent city hadn’t quite figured out what to do with the tons and tons of, er, waste that the metropolis produced on a daily basis.

And it wasn’t just (phenomenal) amounts of human refuse. It was also the raw and unfiltered effluvium from the city’s slaughterhouses, along with run-off from the breweries and paper mills, solvents from the Industrial Revolution, and everything else imaginable that escaped composting or reuse. It all wound up in the Thames.

The thought at the time was that the debris that sloshed into the river would be ejected out to sea; thus, as long as the river kept flowing, no one thought there was a problem (unless, of course, you were downstream and depended on the river for potable water). The problem, though, is that the Thames is a tidal river, and the rotting garbage it contained didn’t always flow quickly to Poseidon. And oddly, this fact was noted as early as the mid-17th century, but in classic human form, no one did a thing about it for more than two hundred years.

Cesspits overflowed. Sewage ran in the streets. People dumped directly in creeks, streams, and channels. And it all found its way to the Thames.

In the first half of the 19th century there were several widespread cholera outbreaks in London, the particularly bad one of 1849 resulting in over 2000 deaths per week! Still, nothing was done. This inaction was compounded by the fact that people thought the odor – the miasma – was the cause of the illness, not the contaminants in the water; thus, they’d stay away from the river itself, but nevertheless drink its water when brought from a ‘safe’ distance.

One John Snow MD decided that, as cholera was an illness of the bowels and not the lungs, it made more sense that the disease was cause by ingestion and not inhalation. He wrote an article on this… and was entirely ignored.

[sidebar: the anti-intellectual anti-science crowd existed then too]

Undeterred, the good doctor enlisted the help of a man of the cloth, one Rev Henry Whitehead, and the two crusaders mapped where cases of cholera were discovered. In one neighborhood near Broad Street, they focused on a water pump that had been dug mere yards from a cesspit. Cases were all around it. They petitioned the local authorities to shut down the pump. It was, and within days, cases of cholera plummeted.

Sadly, Dr Snow died in 1858 and did not live to see his theories proven correct. Perhaps fortunately, though, he also did not live to experience The Great Stink of later that same year.

You see, the summer of 1858 was particularly warm and humid, and the water level of the river dropped significantly, exposing all manner of accumulated filth. It was said that people located miles from the nearest bank would be overcome with nausea and vomiting when the winds changed.

In 1858, London’s City Press noted that “It stinks [here], and whoso once inhales the stink can never forget it, and can count himself lucky if he lives to remember it.” Shortly before, The Times had stated that “near the bridges [over the Thames] the feculence rolled up in clouds so dense that they were visible at the surface…. The smell was very bad, and common to the whole of the water, it was the same as that which now comes up from the gully holes in the streets; the whole river was for the time a real sewer.”

When Victoria went outside, she carried a bouquet of flowers, dutifully handed to her by those in her entourage, and she kept it in front of her face the entire time.

Parliament was not so fortunate. After years of ignoring the problem, those lawmakers situated on the banks of the grand old river were forced to endure in stuffy and poorly ventilated chambers right next to the flow. They put pots of chloride of lime in meeting rooms to mask the odor. They debated moving the government to Oxford. And while many had hidden behind the time-honored political excuse of “it’s not my jurisdiction,” the Great Stink finally won their attention like nothing prior.

Following years of inaction, a bill was passed – after only three weeks – authorizing £3M to “refurbish the entirety of the River Thames.” Joseph Bazalgette, a famed civil engineer of the day, was commissioned to propose and execute a sewerage system. Once the twenty-year project was completed, not only did the odor improve, but cholera vanished and the death toll in the surrounding areas markedly decreased.

Bazalgette presciently planned on growth. He made everything more than twice the size estimated for then-current need. His system is still in place and working today.

He was knighted in 1875.

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Plot E

I have visited many American military cemeteries over the years, and I have always found them to be beautiful and humbling places. They are quiet and dignified edens wherein lie the honored dead who have defended the nation.

There is one cemetery, though, that doesn’t quite live up to this archetype.

Plot E of the Oise-Aisne American cemetery in northern France.

Go ahead and look. You won’t find it listed on the Veterans Administration website, nor any of the literature provided by the cemetery. Maps will show Plots A, B, C, and D only, those containing 6012 American dead from WWI. Google Earth will just show an expanse of green. It’s like it doesn’t exist, which is exactly what its creators intended.

But it’s very much there, and serves a necessary if somewhat unsavory purpose.

Plot E is where American servicemen are buried who were executed – by firing squad or hanging – for capital crimes committed in the European theatre during or shortly after WWII. Some of the victims were children. Many were women. Most are forgotten by the modern age, though at least one – Sir Eric Teichman, killed on his ancestral estate confronting two U.S. soldiers poaching on the land – was a prominent member of society who still has his own Wikipedia page.

Those capital crimes once included aggravated rape, murder, and desertion, though currently none interred in Plot E are deserters. More on that in a moment.

Plot E

Plot E

Plot E is located 100 meters from the main cemetery, and contains the remains of 94 servicemen. It is across a small road and deliberately hidden from view by a tall border of hedgerows that surrounds the 90′ x 50′ oval space. Because of the dense shrubbery, and the fact that there is no path nor gate, the only access to the area is through the back door of the cemetery superintendent’s office… and this is highly discouraged. There are no gravestones, nor any plaques with names – the graves are designated by white index-card sized stone markers with stark black numbers, in four rows, and all facing away from the recognized burial ground nearby. Plot E has been described by one cemetery employee as a “house of shame” and “the perfect anti-memorial,” esp as the original intent was that none of the individual remains were ever to be identifiable by name (it was only after a Freedom of Information lawsuit in 2009 that a list of grave numbers and occupants was released to the public). No U.S. flag is allowed to fly there, although there is a single small granite cross to one side. Nevertheless, it is maintained, with grass being cut and hedges trimmed, perhaps more for the aesthetic sensibilities of the superintendent than due to any niceties afforded the deceased.



Originally, the 98 condemned by the U.S. Army following general courts martial were buried near the sites of their executions, which took place at locations as far-flung as England, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Algeria. In 1949, however, it was decided to relocate all such remains to a single venue; that site is described by the Graves Registration as being for “the dishonored dead,” since, according to protocol, all had been dishonorably discharged from the service just prior to execution.

For reasons unclear, two of those executed during the 1940s never were sent to Plot E. Two others were buried there but later exhumed and returned to the United States. One of those was Private Alex F. Miranda, who came back to the U.S. in 1990, though details of the transfer were never made public.

The second was the former occupant of Row 3, #65, Private Eddie Slovik, the only man executed during WWII for desertion. His later became a cause celebre, as other soldiers deserted during the war, but Eisenhower decided to make a sole example of the rough street kid from Detroit on 31 January 1945. His remains were finally returned to the U.S. on order of President Reagan in 1987, and rest today at Woodmere Cemetery in the city of his birth, next to the grave of his wife.

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