Music · Uncategorized

Terrible Tunes Tuesday

Or, a Case for Diction in Popular Music

This may be the first in a series of several rants posts about popular music.

I often listen to the radio, especially while driving. My current listening tastes extend to a select few local music stations – I refuse to pay a single dollar for XM Radio (however nice it might be to have, their spam mail is incredibly annoying so I refuse on principle), and I can’t listen to talk radio because it stresses me out.

Strangely enough, two of my most frequent stations are for “popular music” – or, to be funny, I like to describe it as “what the kids are listening to these days”. I have mixed feelings about the music on these stations. I generally listen to keep abreast of the current music scene, to occasionally hear a nostalgic favorite, and because for as many songs as I don’t care for, there will be a song or two that I like, or at least find myself singing along to.

Mostly, I’m listening for the words. Music lyrics are a form of poetry, more or less, so beyond a catchy tune or beat, I’m really keyed in to the message of a song. I regard most of the messages I hear in the popular music scene as drivel (at best) but every once in a while I’ll hear something very earnest and genuine, something that if you took the music away would still be poetry worth reading aloud, which makes wading through all the other nonsense worthwhile.

But that’s not what this blog post is about.

This blog post is about diction. Or rather, the tragic lack of it in modern music.

Americans are notoriously lazy in their speech patterns. For example, while in British English the “t’s” in “letter” are generally pronounced clearly and crisply (though it depends on your particular British dialect, I’ll admit) Americans are much more likely to gloss over the “t’s” and turn them into “d’s”. Letter = British, Ledder = American.

I know I’m making sweeping generalizations here – but blogs are about brevity so I’m rolling with it.

I can’t tell you how many times I listen to popular music and the only reason I can understand the words is because I happen to be a native speaker of English. Just today, I heard a song (that may have inspired this post) that included the words “hot” and “stop” in the lyrics. But that is definitely not what was actually said. I will try to recreate them phonetically:

Stop = St-aaaaaaaah

Hot = H-Ah

I solemnly swear that that is what I heard.

This is only one of limitless examples. Now, I fully admit that pronunciation can be a stylistic thing. In certain instances it would sound stuffy and stilted to over-enunciate every syllable of every word. But in the above example, there are consonants at the ends of these words that aren’t simply being glossed over or lazily expressed, but downright ignored.

There’s a reason that there are entire classes devoted to diction in classic vocal training. Because if your audience can’t understand what you’re saying…then what, I ask, is the point?

Lazy or nonexistent diction is also why, I kid you not, whenever I hear Taylor Swift’s song Blank Space instead of hearing the actual lyrics (Gotta long list of ex-lovers) I can only hear her saying:

“Gotta love those Starbucks lovers.”


On the other hand though, I do enjoy laughing at examples of misheard lyrics, which we wouldn’t have if every vocalist had perfect diction. It’s a dilemma…more laughter, or proper pronunciation? I’m torn.

I’ll close with one of my favorite examples of misheard lyrics I was ever told from the The Beach Boys’ classic, Barbara Anne:

“Went to the dance, looking for my pants, saw Barbara Anne so I thought I’d take a chance, Barbara Anne, Barbara Anne…”

I laughed for days.

Have favorite misheard lyrics? Leave them in the comments below!


Raptor Red: The Book I Can’t Give Up

I love dinosaurs.

Who doesn’t?

In the wake of the latest installment of the Jurassic saga, now is the perfect time to bring up one of the strangest books in my collection – a random thing I picked up in a secondhand bookstore when I was in high school that has survived the ensuing years of book-purging so well that I think it will still be on my shelf decades from now, garish amongst my more dignified tomes in its bright red, glaringly 90’s dust jacket.

It is a book about dinosaurs, but not just any book…a novel.

Told from the dinosaur’s perspective.

Hear me out.

I always feel vaguely ridiculous whenever I mention this book to anyone, mostly because of the way the first part of the explanation reads: Guys, DINOSAURS. It’s SO GREAT. But there are other successful, critically-acclaimed books written from the point of view of animals, so why should this one be any different? Perhaps its because dinosaurs are so far distant from us – the fact that they’ve been extinct for centuries elevating them to a sort of mythos, despite the fact that we know perfectly well that they were once real. It’s like talking about a book about dragons, without the magic. We can learn what we can from their remains, but our knowledge remains imperfect, and it’s in those gaps that our imaginations thrive.

This book is not exactly Watership Down – though both stories are narrated in the third person, Watership Down is more of a fantasy, where rabbits speak to each other using actual words translated to English (there’s even a glossary of the “lapine language” at the end) and have a highly complex culture and social system, including folklore. The characters in Raptor Red don’t mimic human consciousness in this way, but the narration does explore the thoughts and experiences of the prehistoric creatures as they struggle to survive.

The book was written (and thus, presumably narrated) by paleontologist Dr. Robert T Bakker, who incidentally was directly involved in the making of the first Jurassic Park movie. In fact, during production, Steven Spielberg wanted the raptors in the film to be about ten feet tall – a great deal bigger than actual Velociraptors in real life. He consulted far and wide for any shred of scientific fact that could back his inclusion of such creatures in the film, but was met with disappointment. However, while they were filming, a set of bones was discovered in the plains of Utah – the bones of a giant raptor. Spielberg’s idea thus justified, they were included and made infamous in the film, though incorrectly named – I’m pretty sure they call them Velociraptors in the movie, but they are in fact, Utahraptors (not the most original or poetic name I’ll admit – Velociraptor sounds way more intimidating).

As you might have guessed at this point, a Utahraptor is the star of this particular novel, and Bakker refers to her (as you also may have guessed) as “Raptor Red”, for the especially bright patch of red on her snout. I’m not sure how much biological evidence Bakker actually had at his disposal to be assigning such colors, and there is in fact, some debate about the veracity of some of the details Bakker utilized, but the earlier point I made about blurring the line between fact and fiction stands as a testament to the story’s appeal, at least for me.

I can’t say that the writing is exceptionally exquisite, or that the storyline is always deftly executed – in fact there are several ambiguous plot twists and narration shifts that still leave me a little confused to this day. But its a story about survival, and dinosaurs, and oddly enough, relationships, all subjects which interest me. The book opens in violence and tragedy – while a pair of raptors execute a daring hunting raid, a freak accident kills Raptor Red’s mate, leaving her alone and afraid:

“The female raptor sits stunned for hours – she has just lost the mate she had chosen for life. They had hunted together successfully hundreds of times. They made countless kills without either raptor being injured in the slightest. She does not know what to do.”

How’s THAT for an opening conflict?! How could you NOT being intrigued? I turned the pages eagerly, needing to know more, and was not disappointed. Raptor Red’s journey had only just begun.

Have a similar interest in dinosaurs? Leave your favorite prehistoric reads below in the comments!


I’m Back…?

Is this blog ghostwritten by an actual ghost? Can I get through even a month of blogging without taking a year-long hiatus? These are the questions. They do say third time’s the charm. Or is this…the fifth? I can’t remember.

A good friend of mine has this really awesome blog that gets more and more awesome every time I stop by. Her witty, insightful writing seems effortless, her topics interesting, amusing, and thought-provoking.

By contrast, I struggle to come up with content that is engaging, but not overly top-heavy with research, or crippled by my need for narrative perfectionism. The end result is generally a time-consuming effort that ends in discouragement, allowing the pressures of living life like a Normal Human Being to talk me out of this thing that I’m convinced that I want and yet seem powerless to execute. Thus, my attempt at a blog fades into oblivion.

But something keeps bringing me back…as Thomas Edison once said, the surest way to succeed is to try again, just one more time…or something like that.

I have things to say! So let’s talk about some things.

Who says blogs have to have a theme? I think that kind of mindset is precisely what’s been tripping me up in the past. So I hereby reserve the right to write (ugh, homonyms, English, why) about whatever errant thoughts drift through my brain. True Confessions of a a Hopeless Pedant might be a better name for this blog, but I’m hurting for continuity enough as it is, so Tempest in a Teacup it remains. Here we go again!

Possible posts to look forward to:

  1. Dinosaurs
  2. Adventures in All-Natural Skin Care
  3. Asking the Real Questions: Why don’t people use sun visors in their cars more often?
  4. Star Wars Episode IX: The Force Makes No Sense

Hope you’re as excited as I am, because it’s gonna get lit. As in LITERATURE! Ha! (Why am I still awake.)


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Ron Doesn’t Get Enough Credit

Though I’m sure many readers are familiar with Harry Potter, just in case you aren’t, potential spoilers ahead.

As the season turns colder and the days turn darker and more mysterious, the holiday spirit begins to stir. And while more hardcore fans may disagree, for me at least, winter is the best (and most socially acceptable) time of year to engage in a Harry Potter movie marathon.

Thus I found myself a few nights ago watching the second movie in the saga, The Chamber of Secrets, with my family. I wasn’t really watching, mind, I have to confess to being much more engrossed in online Christmas shopping. But one scene in particular held my attention, and lead to this blog post.

In the scene, Harry and his friend Ron travel deep into the Forbidden Forest on a mission to find out what happened at Hogwarts fifty years ago when the Chamber of Secrets was opened, and who is responsible for opening it now. Their path leads them to the dwelling of the giant spider Aragog. Harry begins to interrogate Aragog, and while major plot points are being revealed through the dialogue, Harry’s friend Ron repeatedly interrupts him, making frightened noises. Irritated, Harry finally turns to Ron to see what he wants, only to discover that while they were chatting, the other spiders of the hollow have been creeping steadily closer.

Taken at face value, this scene shows Harry (the hero) getting the job done, while Ron (his blubbering sidekick) merely makes a nuisance of himself. Right?

Well…maybe not.

Perhaps it was the fervor of my reckless spending spree that induced such a spurt of abstract thought, but suddenly I wasn’t watching two kids on a crazy adventure in a magical forest. When I thought about that scene, I was seeing a medieval warrior in the hall of his enemy, under an uneasy flag of truce, while his trusted right-hand man scans the crowds of restless enemies pressing ever closer, hands on their weapons.

I’ll get back to that thought. But while Ron is not always my favorite character, he is undoubtedly an important one, and, I think, a tad underrated.

Ron gets a bit of a bad rap through the series for being a bit of a scaredy-cat. Much of this (in the movies, especially) is for the benefit of providing some comic relief. But I’m ready to make the argument that despite appearances, Ron’s role in the scene with the spiders (the film version, anyway) was actually critically important to the success of the mission.

During the scene, Harry’s attention was completely monopolized by Aragog, who revealed that Hagrid was framed, while also dropping some hints about the true nature of the creature currently stalking the halls of Hogwarts. Short put, Harry just doesn’t have time for anything else but what Aragog is saying – the welfare of his friend Hagrid, and the safety of the entire school, depends upon it.

But while Harry is busy listening, he’s let his guard down. Now Harry’s welfare depends upon the fact that Ron is watching his back. And when you’re face-to-face with spiders the size of cars, that’s a pretty big responsibility. In short, while Harry was accomplishing the mission, Ron was busy making sure that they survived the mission long enough for it to mean something.

Because discovering what’s in the Chamber of Secrets doesn’t mean a darn thing if you immediately get eaten by a giant spider upon learning it.

Another thing I’d like to point out is that Ron hates spiders more than anything. Which means that following a trail of spiders into a dark and creepy forest in order to go find MORE spiders would probably be his worst nightmare. But you know something? He went anyway. That takes some serious guts.

The moral of this story is that every hero needs a friend to guard their weak side, and that weak side could be any number of things depending on the situation. Whether you’re a medieval feudal lord embroiled in a bitter border war (which is where I went with the analogy, surprise surprise) or a young teenage wizard fighting the baddest man on the planet, a hero needs a friend, and initiative, courage, and heroism come in a variety of guises.

Another takeaway? Don’t let your guard down around giant talking spiders.

You might just get eaten.

I’ll close with this pearl of wisdom from my father. While we were watching Harry and Ron escape back through the forest with a horde of spiders hot on their trail, I was struck by the urgency of their situation.

Me: *struggling to find the right words* They’ve been outflanked!

Dad: When you’ve been outflanked enough, it’s called being surrounded.

Thanks dad. Glad you’ve always got my back!


The Speedboat Goes to War

Each family is unique, and my family is no exception. Where other families might be sports aficionados or agricultural gurus, my family deals in military history. As an example: when I was about eight years old, I saw a tie-pin in the shape a plane that I wanted to get my dad for his birthday. I collaborated with mom, and later snuck off to buy it. When I pointed to the tie-pin and accurately identified it as a B-17, the old-timer behind the counter looked at me in surprise, and asked me how I knew what it was. I don’t remember how I answered, but I remember being confused. To me, it was obvious, why wouldn’t I know what it was?

Nowadays I know better, so for your reading pleasure, I present to you a small piece of history: the PT boat of World War Two. These Patrol Torpedo boats were instrumental in both the early days of our involvement in the Pacific, and later in both the Pacific and European Theaters. High-hulled, streamlined, and small, the PT boat looks exactly like an enlarged speedboat mounted with 50 caliber machine guns. They were motored by aviation engines that required aviation grade fuel, and their main armament consisted of four torpedoes. And I have to say, seeing footage of these little boats racing across the water is a pretty stirring sight.

uss_pt-105Public Domain,

They were small and fast, and, now might also be a good time to mention, made of plywood.

Yes. Plywood.

In an age where the wooden ship was all but history in terms of warfare, these little wooden boats were one of the last defenders of the American forces in the early days of the Pacific. Aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers, submarines, even supply barges were made of metal. But not the indomitable PT boat. Needless to say, just one hit from a bomb or torpedo, and it was pretty much over for a boat and her crew. And the razor-sharp coral reefs of the South Seas could tear out the hull of such a vessel with frightening ease.

Knowing this makes the men who served aboard them even more impressive in my mind. I can’t even imagine the courage necessary to take one of these wooden boats to war, but the crews of the PT boats distinguished themselves time and again – iron men in wooden ships.

pt-109_crewBy Collections of the U.S. National Archives, downloaded from the Naval Historical Center [1], Public Domain,

See anyone familiar? No? Read on…

The Japanese called them the “devil boats”. A PT boat carried General MacArthur out of the Philippines right before the surrender of Bataan, and one carried him back into Manila Harbor in 1945. John F. Kennedy served aboard one (crew photo above – he’s on the far right), and an account of his service can be viewed in the film PT-109. Another excellent film featuring PT boats is They Were Expendable, starring John Wayne and Robert Montgomery, which I highly recommend. And, on the lighter side of things, the comedy tv series McHale’s Navy revolves around the various shenanigans of a mischievous PT crew.

But alas, as an ignominious end to this otherwise inspiring story, at the end of the war the remaining PT Boats were dragged onto a beach, and burned.

*Insert Indiana Jones screaming: “That thing belongs in a museum!”*

Now, I won’t pretend to be all-knowing about the motives of the military. But that one just doesn’t sit well with me. What a waste, right? Similar things happened to all sorts of planes, ships, and vehicles after the war, but we won’t get into that right now (I can feel my blood pressure rising just thinking about it…)

Fortunately, all is not lost, for a few PT Boats survived. PT-658 can be viewed in Portland, Oregon, and about twelve others still remain, cared for by restoration groups in various parts of the country.

So, that’s my small piece of history for the day. Know of any good movies or books on the subject that I missed? Let me know in the comments!

Books and Movies · History

The Rat Patrol: Defying History, with Style

Desert warfare. Unbeatable heroes. All in color.

Some months ago, my dad and I were debating about what to watch on tv one night.

“I know what we should watch!” he exclaimed suddenly. “The RAT Patrol!”

I looked on with amusement on as he rooted around our DVD case for the set of discs. I’d seen a few episodes of his beloved childhood show a few years earlier, but hadn’t thought much of it then, and was preparing to be just as under-whelmed this time around. Therefore, as the first episode began to play, it was with a kind of tolerant disdain that I observed two jeeps dramatically cresting a sand dune, catching air, and thundering into battle while theme music blared. The show started. I watched on. But this time I really watched it.

And it was amazing.

The Rat Patrol (link to IMDb) was filmed between 1966 – 68 and was the first WWII television series that was aired entirely in color. It depicts the struggle between Axis and Allied forces in North Africa through the adventures of a small band of desert warfare specialists. The “Rat Patrol” are allegedly part of the real-life Long Range Desert Group, which you can read about in the book Stirling’s Desert Raiders.  However, as will be discussed in later blog posts, this is actually a historical improbability of epic proportions.

But more on that another time. This band of heroes is made up of four hunky men, two jeeps, and a lot of snappy one-liners. If I had been in charge, I would’ve called it Hunks and Jeeps. Less inspiring, maybe, but accurate. The show views best when it’s not taken too seriously, and for what it is – a live action comic book. I have by now watched the entire series, and consider the time highly well spent.

While fans are consistently disappointed in its lack of a third season (and a fourth, and a fifth…) there’s plenty to like about what was made. Each 24 minute episode fills a pretty tall order for such a short timeframe: quasi-feasible plotlines, compelling characters (more on them in later posts), and plenty of hair-raising stuntwork (back in the good old days when safety was for the weak).

Of course, slightly cheesy television shows from the sixties aren’t for everyone. I, myself, will be the first to point out the improbability of their historic usage, the first to laugh when a karate-chop to the throat completely incapacitates someone, and the first to raise an eyebrow over a glaring plot-hole. But despite these faults, I think the show still delivers its money’s worth of entertainment value.

As Obi-Wan so wisely stated in The Empire Strikes Back, and as with many things in life, my experience with The Rat Patrol depended entirely on my point of view. When I first watched the show it didn’t fit my twenty-first century standards for entertainment – I focused only on its faults and disregarded any virtues it may have had. But when I watched it without that prejudice, I fell in love with the characters and found a story worth sharing. If you’re into hunky guys, comic book plotlines, and laughing at sometimes-but-generally-not-very-accurate WWII history, then this is the show for you!

History Crush

History Crush: Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians


I first met Aethelflaed in gradeschool, from a Scholastic book called Edge on the Sword. I read it many times, and though it managed to end up in a giveaway pile during one of my raging episodes of room-cleaning, the story has remained with me.

Aethelflaed, (which is pronounced ethel-fled, according to Youtube) was the daughter of King Alfred the Great (who is himself quite the historical figure), and eventually married Aethelred (ethel-red) of the Mercians. As an aside, the prefix Aethel, or Ethel, is an Old English word that means “noble”, perhaps derived from the Latin word “aedilis”, which meant a magistrate of some kind. The addition of it to a name indicated the social status of the person, first used for any high ranking noble, but soon after restricted to members of a royal family. So if you know anybody named Ethel, you’d best be showing your respect!

But back to my main theme. While I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the novel, the impression I got was of a young girl finding ways to overcome the societal restrictions placed upon her. The novel begins with her finding out about her engagement to a complete stranger, and the realization that she must soon leave her home and family forever. This dilemma, paired with her active and curious mind, made Flaed a compelling character to me, both then and now. In the novel she rides horses, seeks out military knowledge and the history of her people, and then is able to put that skill and knowledge to the test when she and her retinue are attacked by marauding enemies. She ends the novel by arriving triumphantly in Mercia, where the people respect her for her ingenuity, and where her husband-to-be appears to be a kind man that she can grow to love, despite the fact that he is quite a bit older than her.

I have no idea exactly how much was fictionalized for the benefit of the novel. But I do know that Aethelflaed became a beloved ruler to her adopted people, who referred to her as “The Lady of the Mercians”, and that she and Aethelred seemed to share the burden of rule in many respects, in addition to functioning well as a couple. Aethelred eventually fell very ill, effectively making Aethelflaed the sole ruler of Mercia, both before and after his death. During Aethelflaed’s rule, she worked in tandem with her brother, Edward the Elder, to lead military campaigns against the marauding Vikings (and they kicked some serious Viking butt, just for the record). After her own death she was succeeded by her daughter, Aelfwynn, who ruled for only six months before being deposed by her uncle, Edward. I always found this last detail to be a jarring and unfair ending to a story that, until that point, had featured a woman that became successful, revered, and powerful in an age when those attributes were generally reserved for men (I mean…rude!?). Sadly, after the time of her deposition, Aelfwynn seems to disappear completely from history, and the Mercians who loved their Lady hero lost their independence. But who knows? Maybe she wouldn’t have made a good ruler anyway.

In any case, Aethelflead has become quite the figure in Anglo-Saxon history, and is, apparently, the only known female ruler of the period. Her status as a queen figure who could wield actual political power, even during Aethelred’s life, is quite unique, since most women of status, even her own mother, were never granted such prerogative. In a time were women were all but invisible, Aethelflaed’s name and legacy have shined brightly for over a thousand years (give or take a few).The 12th century English historian Henry of Huntington penned these words of her:

     Heroes before the Mercian heroine quail’d:

     Caesar himself to win such glory fail’d.

Cooler than Caesar huh? That’s a pretty big deal, I’d say.

This humble blog post presents only the briefest sketch of this amazing lady and her importance to early history – if you’re interested, the Wikipedia article gives a much more thorough overview, not only of her, but the intrigues of the period. And if you know of any books or other sources on the subject, be sure to mention them in the comments!

I, for one, am always a sucker for female characters that overcome the odds. And I’ll admit, my admiration for Aethelflaed is probably colored a great deal by the novelization in The Edge of the Sword. But I’m also willing to bet that most people haven’t heard of her, so, for your reading pleasure, here’s a no-nonsense warrior queen from the tenth century. What’s not to like?