April 27, 2012

Words of the Month - A Word From Our Sponsors

        The linocut or linoleum block prints that I feature from time to time are not only a wonderful relief printing medium - they're also an example of a genericized trademark, or proprietary eponym.  Eponyms, you recall, are words derived from proper nouns, and today the proper nouns in question are brand names of products.  Linoleum, a fabulous new floor covering material named by Frederick Walton in 1864, is generally credited with being the first product name to be ruled a generic term.
Humble flooring material reaches its apotheosis as relief print medium.
        In some ways you'd think a corporation would be delighted to have their product be so dominant that its name trumps every other brand in the field.  The down side, however, is that once the courts rule a trademark generic, then competing brands get to use the word for their own version, too.  As far as everyday speakers are concerned, it's just a word.  You know the process of genericization is complete when most people don't realize the word was ever a trademarked brand name - and when the actual original generic term sounds unfamiliar and silly!  Some of the words on this list are still legally registered trademarks, while others have lost their trademark status, but all are used as generic terms at least in my idiolect.
adrenalin (Parke-Davis, epinephrine)
aspirin (Bayer, acetylsalicylic acid - It's no surprise that so many chemical and medicinal brand names become generic, because it's simply so hard to say - and spell - them by their proper chemical names.)
bubble wrap (Sealed Air, inflated cushioning)
dumpster (Dempster Brothers, Inc., front loader waste container)
escalator (Otis Elevator Company, moving staircase)
heroin (Bayer, diacetylmorphine)
hula hoop (Wham-O, toy hoop)
laundromat (Westinghouse, coin-operated laundry shop)
ping pong (Jaques and Son, now Parker Brothers, table tennis)
plexiglass ("Plexiglas," Altuglas International, shatter-resistant polymer or acrylic glass)
popsicle (Good Humor, ice pop)
realtor (National Association of Realtors, real estate agent)
styrofoam (Dow Chemical Company, extruded polystyrene foam - and another medium for relief printing!)
thermos (Thermos, vacuum flask)
yo-yo (Duncan Yo-Yo Company, spinning toy)
zipper (B.F. Goodrich, continuous separable fastener)
        There are also many words that people generally know are technically brand names, but which we still use in a generic sense.  Examples of these include:
band-aid (Johnson & Johnson, adhesive bandage)
chap stick (Wyeth Consumer Healthcare, lip balm)
frisbee (Wham-O, flying disc)
jacuzzi (Jacuzzi, hot tub)
kleenex (Kimberly-Clarke, facial tissue)
Q-tip (Unilever, cotton swab)
velcro (Velcro, hook-and-loop tape fastener)
xerox (Xerox, photocopy - Xerox corporation have worked aggressively to retain control of their name, but its use as a generic is eloquently demonstrated by the fact that it can now be a verb, too.)

Relief printing fun with "extruded polystyrene foam."
        Which trademarks become proprietary eponyms varies widely between regional dialects.  Sometimes this depends on which brands are prevalent in an area.  For example, the brand name biro is a generic term for disposable ballpoint pen in the UK, but the brand is unknown in the US, so of course the word isn't used here.  When I lived in Ireland the other kids thought I was nuts for saying I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, because for them "jelly" was the term for the gelatin dessert that in my dialect was called by the genericized trademark jello.  (Plus, back then peanut butter was practically unknown in Ireland, too!)  Hoover is another example of a brand name that's genericized in the UK but not the USA, although I don't know why, since the company is US-based.  In the UK it's not only a noun but a verb, too.
        There are tons more examples, which you can find by googling… so I'll leave you with that recent addition to the lexicon.  The Google corporation is working hard to maintain their brand status, but the verbification of their trademark is both a badge of their success and a danger sign of potential generification.  So stay tuned into the language as we continue to gain more words from our sponsors…

[Pictures: Finial and Madonna and Child, linoleum blocks carved by AEGN, 1998 and 1987;
Dragonflies and Fish, styrofoam blocks carved by AEGN, 1999 and 1998.]

April 24, 2012

I Give You Athanasius Kircher

        Athanasius Kircher (c. 1601-1680) is one of those scholars I envy because he was among the last of the "Renaissance men," from the era when fields of study were broad and overlapping, and one could actually aspire to master all knowledge.  (Of course, this was also the era of the Thirty Year's War, the Roman Inquisition, and the inability of a woman to be much of any sort of scholar at all, so I wouldn't really want to be living in the seventeenth century, but still…)  Kircher's interests were right up my alley, and not only was he curious about all sorts of things but, like me, he delighted in drawing parallels and connections between subjects that in the modern academic world are considered completely unrelated.  As one of the top Jesuit scholars of his day, he was also the repository and clearinghouse of the combined studies of the entire global network of Jesuits, and ran a museum of all the coolest quasi-scientific stuff anybody could lay hands on.  I won't bother listing all the subjects he studied and wrote about (you can check out the overview of his life in the Wikipedia article), but I do want to mention some of the highlights of our shared interests.
        Linguistics - Kircher  learned at least twenty languages, including Hebrew and Coptic and some other more unusual ones, as well as Latin and all the standard modern languages.  I'm so jealous!  He was especially fascinated with Egyptian hieroglyphics and set himself to decipher them.  This being long before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, his interpretation was pretty much nonsense, but he was correct in considering the phonetic values of hieroglyphs and naming the relationship between the hieroglyphs and Coptic, so he gets credit as the father of Egyptology.
        Gadgetry - Kircher was a tinkerer and built all sorts of machines that were mostly kind of useless but undeniably nifty.  He didn't invent much from scratch, but he made improvements on lots of different sorts of novelty machines of the time.  Examples include aeolian harps, water organs, speaking automata, magic lanterns, and magnetic clocks.  He also made a clock from a sunflower growing on a floating cork, and designed (though never built) a cat piano.  Meow!
        Dragons - In his book Mundus subterraneus Kircher wrote about all sorts of topics (many of them not subterranean at all), and among them were the creatures that lived underground, including dragons.  (As one of the last serious scholars to believe in dragons, Kircher could be scoffed at today, but to be fair to him, everyone's rationalism tends to be a little sporadic, and Kircher was on the right track about many things, including the germ theory of disease, principles of volcanism, and even a sort of proto-evolutionism.  Descartes accused Kircher of being "more quacksalver than savant," but as this was apparently based at least in part on Descartes's own misinterpretation of one of Kircher's inventions, it may say as much about Descartes as it does about Kircher.)
        And now it's time for my confession.  The original point of this post was to present a couple of Kircher's accounts of dragons… but I couldn't start without telling you a little about the man himself, could I?   And by now this post is already more than long enough.  So, I'll share the dragon stories and pictures another time, and for today, how to justify Athanasius Kircher as a suitable topic for this blog in his own right?  Well, first of all, Kircher's books and treatises were famous for their illustrations.  (The illustrations of dragons are, of course, what first caught my eye.)  Like most illustrated books of the era, the engravings are anonymous and it's unclear who was the artist.  Most likely Kircher was responsible for the general design, and then different people drew the pictures, carved them, and printed the books.
        But in addition to the prints he published, I also think Athanasius Kircher deserves some fantasy love.  Compare him with John Dee, an inspiration for writers of fantasy since Shakespeare, who may have based the character of Prospero on him.  More recently Dee appears in Wrede's Snow White and Rose Red and The Kronos Chronicles by Marie Rutkoski, among many others.  And then steampunk loves its Nikola Tesla.  Well, I think it's time for Athanasius Kircher to take his place among them.  His life is perfect for adaptation to alternate histories, demon incursions, cursed mummies, contact with dragons of both Europe and China, and speculative fiction of all sorts.  His real life included a number of death-defying adventures, ranging from accidentally falling into a mill, to capture by the enemy during the Thirty Years War, to being lowered into the active Vesuvius as part of his study of geology…  He looked into everything, and corresponded with everyone, and provides plenty of fascinating factual background to build on.  So come on, writers of historical fantasy!  Athanasius Kircher's time has come!

[Pictures: Frontspiece, engraving from Sphinx mystagoga, 1676;
Sunflower clock, engraving from Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae in Mundo, 1671;
A dragon and a tiger, engraving from China Monumentis, 1667.
(Images from fulltable. com.)]

April 20, 2012

Dancing With Animals

        Ancient religions all around the Mediterranean and Near East had versions of a goddess called by Homer Potnia Theron, or Mistress of the Animals.  A deity of this type was worshipped because prehistoric and ancient people, just like people today, wanted to have dominion over nature - to make it be warm when they wanted warmth and cool when they wanted to be cool, to have food animals come easily when they wanted meat, and dangerous animals fear them and stay away…  Nowadays we use science to try to do these things for us, but before modern techniques of controlling nature had been devised, we worshipped the Mistress of the Animals.
        Earth Day is this weekend, and I am reminded of a piece I made more than ten years ago concerning the relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world.  When I learned about the Mistress of the Animals in mythology it occurred to me that it's time that we moved beyond our need to dominate animals.  It's time for us to learn a new way of fitting into nature instead of trying to change it to suit our short-term desires.  A modern version of this goddess would show the harmony of creation that should be our ideal.  So I decided to make, instead of a Mistress of Animals, a sort of Dancer With Animals.  The place of the goddess is taken by a human, with a little animal tail instead of wings, to show that she's just another one of the mortal creatures of earth, with whom she dances as an equal.  (True, she's at the center, but after all I am a human and I do see things from the human point of view.)  I wanted all the animals - predators and prey, mammals, birds, insects, and all - to look like they are enjoying being together.
        Happy Earth Day, and may we all learn to dance just a little more lightly on the Earth!

[Pictures: Dancing with Animals, wood block print by AEGN, 1999.]

April 17, 2012

Write What You Want to Read

        When I talk to kids about writing, one of the things I tell them is to try to write the kind of books they like to read.  That's how I write.  [I know that a more professionally viable technique may be to write the kind of books that publishers want to publish.  But I figure there are plenty of other people working that angle, and the readers who like the same kinds of things I do are the ones I really want to please.]  Of course, in order to write the kind of books you like to read, you need to read… a lot.  And you need to think about what it is about the books you like that makes you like them.
        Is it the main characters who draw you into the story?  Do you like characters who are brave, or silly, or clever, or shy?  Characters who are sort of like you, or characters who are practically the opposite?
        Is it the setting that intrigues you?  Do you like to read about things happening in an ordinary elementary school?  Or some other time in history, or another place in the world?  Outer space?  What about imaginary fantasy worlds or made-up planets?
        What kind of stories do you like best?  Mysteries?  Adventures?  Do you like funny stories or sad stories or scary stories?  Do you like happy endings?  (Personally, I insist on happy endings.  But I think I'll do an entire post on this another day.)
        Every story has to have trouble: a problem to be solved or a conflict to be overcome -- so think about what kind of trouble is interesting to you.  What kind of problems do you want to see solved?  And how do you like to see problems getting solved?  By trickery?  By hard work and persistence?  By epic battles?  By detective work?  By cooperation and getting people to work together?  By funny coincidence?
        I believe that if you consider these questions honestly for yourself, there's no wrong answer.  [It may be that not too many others share your taste and your story won't have a particularly broad appeal… but I figure it's better to write the best story you can according to yourself than to try to appeal blindly to tastes you don't share.]  Of course, when I'm talking to kids, my concern is to help foster a love of writing, not to launch them all on commercially successful writing careers.  But the real issue for the school students I speak to isn't whether or not their ideas are commercially publishable, but the fact that they're usually not given freedom to write whatever they want.  If this is the "realistic fiction" writing unit, then no "fantasy" will be allowed.  So how can you write what you love to read if this is the unit on a genre you don't care for?
        First of all, much as I sympathize with my kids forever being told to write realistic fiction when all they want is to write fantasy, I believe that it is important to make students try all different styles and techniques, not just the ones they're most comfortable with.  How can you know what you like if you never try?  How can you stretch your abilities if you always stick with your comfort zone?  That said, I still encourage writers to find ways to make every assigned genre their own.  No matter what genre you're working in, you can still choose the elements of your story to reflect what interests you.
        I give a version of this speech as part of my presentation to third and fourth graders, but today I'm talking to you.  Whether you want to write your own story or not, think about what it is you love in your favorite books of all.  Now appreciate the writers who shared that taste, because if they're anything like me, that's what they really wanted -- to reach out to all the others who might share their vision, and make a connection.

[Pictures: Romance, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009 (Commissioned for Penelope’s Romance Reviews);
Old King Cole enjoys his favorite book about fiddling, design for bookplate, adapted from rubber block print by AEGN.]

April 13, 2012

Wood Engravings by Phipps

        Howard Phipps (b. 1954) is a British wood engraver in the traditional style.  His works demonstrate incredible mastery of the medium, both in their design and in their carving.  He's especially interested in landscapes and beautifully portrays both wide vistas and intimate vignettes.
        This first one is quite charming - in fact, if it were a painting it might be in danger of Quaintness.  But the dignity of carving and of printing in black and white keeps it from sentimentalism.  It's got a terrific range of textures, too: the sky, the thatch, the stones, the plants in the foreground…

        This next one exemplifies serene pastoral beauty.  I love how the water has movement but still feels calm.  I love how Phipps has given the scene an impression of dappled light.  In fact, let's talk about shadows.  In this print of a greenhouse Phipps shows his particular skill for shadows.  Remember, on a relief print, unlike a painting, you can't shade in after the fact.  You have to know exactly where the shadows will fall, and deliberately carve away the wood in smaller
amounts, either thinner or fewer white lines (or both).  When the shadow falls on something textured, as it does on the grass in this piece, you have to keep a look of the same texture while in fact carving differently enough to allow different proportions of black to white.

        Remember that wood engravings tend to be quite small, because they're done on end grain rather than planks.  All of these are smaller than 5 inches along a side, and this arrangement of garden tools, almost a still life, is only two inches square.  Putting so much care into such a tiny view of such an unimportant part of the world feels like a love song.  It makes you realize that it isn't so unimportant after all.
        And finally, I've still got rabbits on the brain.  This is a March Hare, but clearly a perfectly sane one, wary but unpaniced.  I think he (or she?) is just gorgeous.  And notice the tiny church away in the distance across the fields!  Isn't it perfect?

[Pictures: Fishing Huts at Prussia Cove, wood engraving by Howard Phipps;
Homington Water Meadows, wood engraving by Phipps;
Old Greenhouse, Little Bredy, wood engraving by Phipps;
Corner of the Garden, wood engraving by Phipps;
March Hare, wood engraving by Phipps.
(All images from Bircham Gallery.)]

April 10, 2012

Jackalope's Eve

        According to some references on the web, tomorrow is National Jackalope Day, in honor of which today's post will be about jackalopes, walpertingers, and other lagomorphic chimeras most commonly seen when Under the Influence.  (Besides, I'm still on a rabbit kick from last post.)
        The jackalope is a jackrabbit with antelope horns or deer antlers, and sometimes a pheasant's tail and/or hind legs.  It is native to the American west.  Like many mythical beasts, jackalopes are difficult to study and information about their habits is largely anecdotal.  However, they are said to breed only during hail and lightning, and to produce milk with medicinal properties.  They are shy, but highly dangerous when threatened.  They have even been known to mimic the human voice in order to throw pursuers off their trail - or to join in the mournful campfire singing of cowboys.
        Douglas, Wyoming claims to be the site of the first jackalope sighting, in 1829, and the home of the first taxidermy jackalope, created around 1932.  The Douglas Chamber of Commerce issues jackalope hunting licenses, but the jackalope hunting season is only one day each year: June 31.  Moreover, the hunter may not have an IQ greater than 72.  (They also promote Jackalope Days in June, so I can't figure out whose idea the April 11 date is.)  The state of Wyoming has trademarked the name, so I suppose I ought to be writing about the jackalope™ and awaiting a court order to pay a licensing fee.  Bah.  I don't need their lousy jackalopes when I want horned rabbit chimeras.  There are plenty more of those in the world.  Here are a few of the jackalope's many relatives.
        The Huichol people of central Mexico report a species of antlered rabbit - or possibly a rabbit and deer duo that share antlers back and forth.
        From the alpine forests of Bavaria, the wolpertinger has the body of a rabbit or sometimes a squirrel, plus antlers and large fangs and, most notably, wings.  The closely related Austrian species is the raurackl.
        From the region of Sundsvall in Sweden, the skvader is a mountain hare with the back, wings, and tail of a wood grouse.  It was first hunted in 1874, and the first specimen on display dates to 1918, but the creature may have migrated north from the Alps, where it was allegedly described as the "rabbit-bird" by Pliny the Elder in the first century CE.  (I think this must be Pliny's description of the lagopus.)
        In central Germany can be found the Rasselbock, another horned rabbit, and from areas of Germany bordering France comes the Dilldapp, which has the
antlers of a deer and the body of a rabbit, ferret, or hamster.  It feeds on potatoes.
        Rabbit-like beasts with gazelle-like horns are indigenous to Tannin Island… (Wherever that is.  Tannin is a word used for "dragon" in the Hebrew Bible.)  All I know is that the inhabitants of this Tannin Island presented one of their horned rabbits to Alexander the Great after he saved them from a dragon.
        And finally, Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku wrote in 1747 that "The horned rabbit and the furry turtle cross the nowhere mountain," clear proof that a jackalope relative of some sort was known in Japan, too.

[Pictures: Antlered rabbit, hand colored intaglio print by Jacob Xaver Schmuzer, from Instructive and Amusing Pictures for Youth by F.J. Bertuch, c 1803 (from University of Washington Libraries);
Plate 77, I'm assuming a hand colored woodcut, from Animalia Quadrupedia et Reptilia, 1575/1580;
Road sign for a skvader crossing in Sundsvall, Sweden, photo by Sendelbach, 2005 (from Wikimedia Commons);
The dragon and horned rabbit of Tannin Island, ink and pigments on paper, possibly by the scribe Muhammad ibn Muhammad Shakir Ruzmah-'i Nathani, 1717 (from the Walters Art Museum).]

April 6, 2012

Fantasy Rabbits

        In honor of springtime feasts, let's talk about rabbits!  Rabbits are one of those creatures that cultures all around the world invest with special significance and fantastical traits.  Coincidence?  Surely not!  Rabbits must truly be more than the common, humble prey critter they at first appear to be.
       First there's that whole fertility thing, based on the fact that rabbits can indeed pump out babies at a prodigious rate.  This makes them a great symbol for the rebirth and fertility of spring.  Hence the Easter Bunny, which sometimes does mundane rabbits one better by actually laying eggs, making it, I
suppose, a monotreme instead of a lagomorph.  I'm not generally a huge fan of the Easter Bunny (particularly not in its role of commercially secularizing Easter in the cheesiest possible way) but I will admit that I really love the picture book The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward.  I get choked up every time I read it.
       Next up, the trickster archetype.  Trickster rabbits and hares appear in stories around the world, including India and Tibet.  Popular in Western, Central and Southern Africa, the trickster rabbit may have come to America on slave ships and made a new life for himself as Br'er Rabbit.  But many Native American traditions, including Creek and Ojibwa, also have mythical trickster rabbit figures, which must have blended and reinforced each other.  Joel Chandler Harris put together the most famous compilation of Br'er Rabbit tales in his Uncle Remus Stories, but there have been many retellings, including Jump! an adaptation by Van Dyke Parkes and Malcom Jones.  And Br'er Rabbit, in turn, was clearly a major influence on Bugs Bunny, the most wascally wabbit of all.
       Then there's the matter of luck.  Rabbit's feet have been considered lucky in Europe since about 600 BCE, but of course they're lucky for the rabbit itself only when still attached.  The rabbit Motu claims to have a lucky foot in my Kate and Sam and the Chipmunks of Doom.  But rabbits were deemed unlucky in the Isle of Portland, UK, where apparently they're sometimes referred to by riddling names such as "long ears" or "underground mutton" in order to avoid the unlucky taboo of saying the dreaded word.  (Rabbits are genuinely unlucky in Australia and New Zealand, where they're an invasive introduced pest that wreaks havoc on the native environment.  Remember that whole high fertility thing?  Not so good where they don't belong.)
        In the far East, especially China, Japan, and Korea, the rabbit is seen on the moon, where he's pounding in a pestle.  He was put there as a reward for his willingness to sacrifice himself, giving him another important trait: generosity.  And it must be true that there is a rabbit on the moon, because Aztec mythology sees him, too, (except that in the versions that are parallel to the Eastern myth, the rabbit in question is female.)  The Aztecs also have a couple of other explanations for how the rabbit got on the moon, but you can be assured that, being Aztec and all, every explanation involves painful death.  There's a Cree legend putting a rabbit in the moon, too.  There are many retellings of these moon rabbit folktales from around the world, but I'm sorry I don't have any particular ones to recommend.  However, tonight is the full moon, so I suggest you go out this evening and give your regards to the rabbit in person.
        In addition to being fecund, clever, and self-sacrificing, some lagomorphs are also insane: March hares.  The saying "mad as a March Hare" is based on the erratic and odd antics of hares at the beginning of their breeding season… although some people claim that accounts of such behavior are somewhat mythical, too.  In any case, though, the most famous mad March Hare is obviously the one in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
        I suppose I should at least acknowledge such fantasy rabbits as the Energizer Bunny, Twix cereal rabbit, Playboy Bunny, and Nesquik's bunny.  While perhaps not worth much in their own right, the fact that there are so many rabbits in popular culture certainly reinforces my argument that rabbits are much more mythically powerful than you might expect from their humble status in nature.
        And finally, a couple of other fun places to find super-power rabbit info:
• Terri Windling has a much longer essay on The Symbolism of Rabbits and Hares which you might enjoy.
• The idea of rabbit show jumping cracks me up.  Check it out here for some basic info and some videos.

[Pictures: Three Rabbits, rubber block print by AEGN, 2009 (sold out);
The golden shoes, lithograph(?) by Marjorie Flack, from The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes by Du Bose Heyward, 1939;
Rabbit, linoleum block print by Chris Wormell, from What I Eat by Jonathan Cape, 1996;
Hare and Moon, linocut by Viza Arlington.  Visit her Etsy shop VIZArt;
Rabbits, wood block print by Antonio Frasconi, from Bestiary/Bestiario by Pablo Neruda, 1965.]

April 3, 2012

Serlio's Stage Designs

        Sebastiano Serlio (1475-1554) was an Italian architect who worked in France and Italy.  He's most famous, however, not for what he built but for a series of books he wrote about principles of architecture.  Serlio's emphasis on practical application for architects and builders was ground-breaking -- as was his lavish use of high-quality illustration, which is what interests me.  Alas, like many early woodblock-illustrated books, credit is given to neither the artists who actually drew the designs nor the craftsmen who cut the blocks.  These wood block prints therefore get credited to Serlio himself, although it's entirely unclear how much he had to do with them.  Some also attribute them
to Serlio's teacher Baldessare Peruzzi.
        The two pieces I'm featuring here today come from Serlio's second Book of Architecture, his 1545 volume On Perspective.  They are designs for stage sets.  Apparently they became very influential in Renaissance theater, although for all I know Serlio included them only as an excuse to demonstrate some nice perspective.  That's what I like about them, and of course stage sets are a perfect application of forced perspective.  Serlio's designs are intended to show great depth and distance in the relatively shallow field of a stage.  From a design point of view, it amuses me that comedy and tragedy should be set in different-looking areas.  Without being an expert on any of these fields, I'm concluding that very classical, formal architecture is deemed appropriate for tragedy, while comedy is best played in a more colloquial setting, with plenty of places for ins and outs and ups and downs.  From a block print point of view, I love the mathematical precision of these pieces - such a wonderful contrast from the rougher, bolder look that woodcut also does so well.

        One last note: one of Serlio's volumes from 1551, apparently a sort of appendix to the more general treatises on architecture, is entitled The Extraordinary Book of Doors.  For some reason that title really strikes my imagination!  I think it would make a fabulous name for a fantasy story.  I can picture the book being stood upright, with each page consisting of the detailed image of a different door (woodcut images, of course).  You turn to the page of the door you want, insert the key, and then when you open the door, instead of the next page… through the doorway you go into a different room, a different place or time, a different world…  I can picture chases in and out through the pages of the book, adventure, mystery, intrigue…  This one's going into the idea notebook!

[Pictures: Stage set for Comedy, wood block print from On Perspective by Sebastiano Serlio, 1545;
Stage set for Tragedy, wood block print from On Perspective by Serlio, 1545;
sketch for a Book of Doors, pencil on paper by AEGN, 2012.]
(Serlio's images come from The Steedman Exhibit of the St. Louis Public Library, where you can see more about Serlio and his books.  Thank you, St. Louis Public Library!)