Before writing this essay, I had never heard of Kenny Baker. And, I venture to guess, neither have most people. But it turns out that Kenny Baker was one of the best known actors in the history of movies. Sort of. So let’s talk a bit more about him.
Baker was born in 1934 in Birmingham, England, to parents of average height. Baker, though, was a little person. Full grown he stood 3’ 8” tall. When he was 17 years old, he was approached by a woman who invited him to join a theatrical company of dwarfs and midgets. Later he joined a circus, learned to ice skate and appeared in a number of ice shows.
Nothing terribly exciting there. But then along came George Lucas, who was looking for somebody who could operate a little robot called R2D2, and movie history was about to be made.
My mother’s eyes sparkled as she looked at the dusty light brown round of cheese. “Liederkranz! My favorite!” she said, as she plunged in her knife to cut away a wedge. The crust parted, and a yellowish stuff oozed out on the plate. It didn’t look so bad, but – what an awful smell! I gave a howl of anguish and ran from the room. I must have been about 5 years old, and that was my introduction to Liederkranz.
In spite of its name, Liederkranz is not a German cheese. It was created in 1891 in Monroe, New York, by a Swiss cheesemaker named Emil Frey (he later created Velveeta, which smells much nicer). Frey made his cheese from cow’s milk, and was trying to make something that would taste and smell like Limburger. According to my mother, who has eaten both, the Leiderkranz isn’t as strong as Limburger (how could anything be stronger than that stuff you’re eating? my 5-year-old self asked), but has the same underlying flavor.
Did you know that the Egyptian word for “cat” is “miw”? Personally, I think that’s a lot better name than “cat.”
According to anthropologist Margaret Murray, cats have been loved and occasionally worshipped as gods throughout much of Egyptian history. DNA evidence suggests that they first self-domesticated around 10,000 years ago. They came to feed on scraps of food; the humans were happy to have them because they were also good rat-catchers, and the cats thrived on the food and the back-rubs.
Cats were venerated for their fertility (I guess cats haven’t changed much over the centuries) and were thought to be protectors of pregnant women. The Egyptians believed they carried a spark of divine energy within them. Bastet was the most popular of these almost-god cats, and at the height of the Bastet cult the penalty for killing a cat, even by accident, was death.
No entries in this blog for – how long? – more than a year. Not since July of 2020.
I could blame it on covid, I suppose. Someone told me that if years were beverages, 2020 would be a colostomy prep. Covid is a handy scapegoat for a lot of bad stuff, from gaining weight to child abuse. But even during the covid months I did make some entries during the first months of covid lockdowns, so that excuse won’t fly.
Whatever the cause, it’s over. I’m waking up the owls. And I have LOTS to share with you!
During the covid months (and they aren’t over yet, darn it!) a friend and I decided to keep each other sane and occupied by writing essays for each other. We took turns suggesting topics, and each of us had to deal with that topic – whether we liked it or not.
Well, we wrote quite a few essays. Some of them were pretty good (and some weren’t). Eventually, we gathered them up and put them in a big notebook, The CoronaVirus Papers, which still stands in the Eugene Abbey library. And, after that, we kept on writing. We still haven’t stopped, though we’ve slowed down a bit.
Looking over my own contributions to the Papers, I decided that they really belonged on my blog. I wanted to share them, not leave them languishing in a seldom-visited notebook. So, for some undetermined time to come, you’ll find a new weekly essay here in the Owl Attic. Some are serious, some are (I hope) funny; all sample some of the strange corners of the world (and beyond) that can be explored when a pandemic keeps you home with not much to do.
Walking along yesterday afternoon, enjoying the relatively cool weather and wondering how long it would last, I realized that I needed to write something to bring to my Writers’ Group. But what to write about? My mind was already occupied by listening to a Talking Book, and watching out for unmasked pedestrians that I’d need to avoid, and enjoying the wonderful scents of those tiny white flowers clustered on the bushes by the sidewalk – were there any brain cells left over to think about writing?
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a word popped into my awareness: “intransigent.” Where in the world did that come from? Not from the Talking Book; its hero was busy drinking vodka and singing Swedish folk songs. There were no other pedestrians in sight, masked or unmasked, and I can’t think of any reason to connect “intransigent” with the white flowers. It was simply a gift, a random hiccup from a couple of neurons that accidentally connected somewhere behind my forehead. But there it was, and I had to use it. Continue reading Intransigent
The boxes are about 4 feet by 4 feet, and 4 or 5 inches tall. They look like giant pizza boxes, but I’ve never seen a pizza box so I couldn’t make that comparison. I’m about 8 years old, helping my dad on his rural mail route, and on this spring morning we are delivering baby chicks to farms a few miles out of town.
The boxes have little holes in the sides, just big enough for a child’s finger. And there is a constant peeping noise coming from the boxes. I stick my finger in, and feel a soft, warm fluffiness. I want to bring it closer and pet it, but it moves away from my finger. Continue reading The USPS
I walked out of my bedroom this morning and stared at my work table. Littered with colored pencils, erasers, masking fluid, all the tools of the artist’s trade, it sneered back at me.
At various times in my life I’ve flirted with image-making. Back in high school, I tried oil paints. Later, it was water colors. Charcoal drifted into my awareness and became my medium of choice. Then Photoshop sang its siren song, and the convenience of digital techniques overwhelmed all the rest. And now it’s colored pencils. Continue reading Portrait of the Artist…
Smell. Scent. Odor. All words that refer to that most difficult to quantify of all our senses. And none of them captures the incredible, almost magical, ability that smell has to call forth memories. We all know about it, have experienced it: a waft of perfume, and we are back in the high school gym on prom night. Brush against a pine branch, and we see a Christmas tree with presents piled underneath, and kids saying “Now? Can we now? Is it time?”
For me, though, nothing is as evocative as the smell of early morning in early summer. That fresh, cool, newness, the newness of a world not yet awake, a day not quite begun. The promise of something good, something special, about to happen. Continue reading Morning
In the 1950’s when I was studying psychology at the University of Wisconsin, psychological research was quite different from what it is now. Psychologists were not so sensitive about the effects of their studies on those who volunteered to be “subjects,” and some were treated very badly. The infamous “Eichmann experiments,” for instance, led subjects to believe that they were administering painful electric shocks to someone in another room (where a confederate gave out realistic moans and screams of distress); the study was designed to explore how far a normal person would go when ordered to harm someone else. Philip Zimbardo, at Stanford, put students into a simulated prison; some were “prisoners” and some were “guards.” Zimbardo and his colleagues studied how quickly the “guards” began to behave cruelly and even sadistically toward their “prisoners.”
Animal studies, too, were conducted with only the most perfunctory concern for the welfare of the animals being observed. Laboratory rats had electrodes placed in their brains or were placed on electrified grids to study the effects of punishment. Animals have been starved, stressed, over-crowded, and even given surgical brain damage in the name of research. Continue reading Skin-Hunger
As the country begins to open up again, people are starting to flock into the countryside and into our parks and wilderness areas. Great for the people who are tired of being cooped up; maybe not so great for the animals whose homes are being re-invaded. Owls, for instance. I have a special Thing for owls.
I learned early in life that the Owl is a Wise Bird with a Messy Nest, and I’ve been trying to emulate him ever since. I have a small collection of owls, made of everything from wood to glass, from soapstone to alabaster, proudly displayed in my living room. At one time I even had owl wallpaper in my bathroom, and a bright red toilet seat with an owl painted on the lid (the story of bringing that toilet seat home to Oregon from the East coast, and how Katherine Hepburn got into the trip, is far too long to related here). Continue reading Owls