A Few of My Favorite 2018 Things

To paraphrase John Mulaney, 2018 was “an on-fire trash can.” But it’s been this way forever: to paraphrase another great philosopher, every year is trashy/fiery in its own way. To be sure, lots of bad things happened in 2018, but that’s not why I’m here today. My initials are CGB, not CNN. I’m here to bring you goodness, not unending coverage of an orange menace. Puppies, not plutocrats.

In semi-chronological, semi-I did what I wanted order, what follows are some of my favorite 2018 happenings, both from the world and large and closer to home.

Arm reloading

This one is first for a reason. It doesn’t get any better than an ARM RELOAD. “Mission Impossible: Fallout” was a lot of things, but this punch prep was the absolute best bit of acting in it. I saw this movie twice, mostly so I could see this in large format again. Henry Cavill is fighting dudes in a French bathroom, getting smashed into some porcelain and pipes, and has a confusing mustache that Tom Cruise may or may not have ordered in a fit of insecurity. But the context of why he’s doing this doesn’t even matter; the gesture stands on its own as a power move for the ages. He is reloading his guns so he can crush you into a jiggly figgy pudding. I for one am still crushed by association.

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Locking and loading

Getting Jeni’s in the mail

In February, the bleakest month of the year, I received a dry ice-encased surprise in the mail. There it was, a sherbet-orange box, with the sacred name “Jeni’s” inscribed on the side. Inside were three flavors of the best ice cream this city has to offer. It may as well have been sent from heaven, a place I’m never going because I have a handbasket already reserved in my name. It was an insanely sweet gift pulled off by a master of the delightful and unexpected, a tasty version of the arm reload I’m still reeling from. A poster in the box informed me that “these ice creams are made to be devoured, shared, paired, spooned, licked, lopped, and loved.” Which is exactly what I did.

Anything written by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

One of my favorite authors kept putting out hit after hit in 2018, like she’s a girl group from the 1960s. Seemingly every other week, we got another excellent profile from Taffy. Early in the year, she gave us a dive into the mind of Tonya Harding, then explained what is going on with Jimmy Buffet. She even went to Gwyneth Paltrow’s house and ate dinner the GOOPster herself helped prepare. Taffy brought us Bradley Cooper insisting he hates celebrity profiles even as he sat down for one. Her portrait of Melissa McCarthy is not to be missed. Ethan Hawke, for god’s sake. There are too many to list in full. In all, Taffy gives us what we want – what are these famous people up to? – right along with what we need – what really goes on inside these various machines? She observes the manic panic, the drive and verve, involved in operating on such a public level. And then there was the news her first novel is coming out in 2019, and I don’t know what we did to deserve such a bounty. This woman is epically prolific, and I am thankful for it.

Fergie’s rendition of the national anthem

When the Dutchess (that’s how she spells it) sang the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game in February, ears across the nation experienced a sonic experiment. Fergie jazzed it up, slowed it down, and inserted a cascade of extra syllables. Players listening couldn’t suppress laughs. After she got dragged over the internet coals for daring to switch it up, Fergie apologized: “I’m a risk taker artistically, but clearly this rendition didn’t strike the intended tone.” But who’s to say we shouldn’t let musicians take a public risk now and then? That “ba-ya-ner-yer” yet waves. (There was also a remix, naturally.)

Bob Ross on Netflix

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I’m not sure if episodes of Bob Ross’s famous “Joy of Painting” series appeared on Netflix in 2018 or before, but this year is when it came to my attention. How long I have I spent watching him fluff out happy clouds and conjure idyllic scenes? Well, the insides of my eyelids are now each painted with a Bob Ross original. His voice will put out the fires in your brain. I was so enthralled by the colors in one of the episodes that I wrote about it, bought a domain name, and here I am still, contributing more obscure drivel to the Interwebsticles.

Met Gala theme

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Speaking of focusing on the bright side of things, no one does fashion like the Catholic church. 2018’s Met Gala theme, “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” highlighted the holy haute couture this strain of Christianity has produced since before there were runways. Wait, the nave is basically a runway, priests are the supermodels prancing on them, etc., so this was a natural symbiosis since the beginning  (Pope Francis, don’t come for me.) Met Gala invitees don’t always do very well with the themes – see Sarah Jessica Parker’s headpiece in 2015, the entire set of outfits at 2013’s “Punk: Chaos to Couture,” as just a couple examples. But this one was both accessible and high stakes. Anyone can throw on a gown with a headpiece and call it an homage to the Virgin Mary, but art by and for the Catholic church through the years is a dauntingly rich area for expression. This red carpet did not disappoint: Zendaya in an armor dress as Joan of Arc, Chadwick Boseman as decked-out clergyman, Ariana Grande’s Sistine Chapel gown, Lena Waithe’s rainbow cape, Janelle Monae’s homage to her album. Frances McDormand’s body terrarium. And perhaps most deliciously, Rihanna christened herself Pope. 2019’s theme is camp, and I’m already excited for the possibilities that holds. We’ll see about the execution.

Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer in “Killing Eve”

Sandra Oh in a leading role is always a good move, and in the BBC show “Killing Eve” she shone as an under-used, neurotic MI-5 worker bee whose persistence lands her a secret gig hunting down the female assassin Villanelle (Jodie Comer). The two chase each other across Europe in a spiral of obsession and intrigue. Despite the heavy subject material, Oh and Comer are simply great fun to watch as they circle each other, and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge gives them a spicy web to weave together. Waller-Bridge leavens the proceedings with enough absurdity that we want to keep pushing into this insane yet everyday world. Lines like “Over there I saw a rat drinking out of a can of coke. With both hands. Impressive,” and “You tiresome think bucket” make me want her to take over all TV. Not to be overlooked: Oh’s fantastic hair and Comer’s zeal in embracing the couture-loving side of her assassin – she gets some of the TV year’s best fashion moments.

Emergency Contact – Mary H.K. Choi

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Mary H.K. Choi wrote one of the best books of the year – my thoughts here.

World Cup

France won, as expected, but for a little while I got to pretend like Croatia was going to win something. I also took this opportunity to revel in some good old bad hair.

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Marathon sign

For my first Grandma’s Marathon, my sister made me this excellent double-sided sign. My mom got a video of me when I caught sight of it, running past the 24-mile mark or so and wheezing in surprise and delight. I am beyond thankful to share genes with this genius human. Not only did she come to northern Minnesota from many miles away, she Crayola’d her heart out on a poster board and created the perfect motivational message.

The most special outfit

One thing I learned this year is that I am a social gambler. I like to think of ridiculous propositions and see how they play out. I bet hard, and mostly lose. But this instance was one of maybe two times it paid off and I didn’t have to ask a stranger about their fashion choices, take a shot of some heinous mixture, or reenact a Vine in a crowded bar. During a vicious game of “odds,” I asked my brother the chances he would  let my sister and I pick an outfit for him from a local Ben Franklin store and wear it all day at work on a Friday. For some reason I’ll never know, he said 1 in 3. When we counted down, we both said the same number, and a cherished memory was born. We marched him over to the enigmatic establishment and chose a winning ensemble for him. Who doesn’t need a camo hat with a zippable front flap and a deer cornucopia shirt? To make the pot even sweeter, my dad knows my brother’s boss, and asked him to make sure he fully carried out the bet. It was marvelous.

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Chicago Marathon

It rained, my shoes betrayed me, and I started to fall apart. But I made it. You certainly spend a lot of time alone training for a marathon, but on race day, everyone’s cheering and it’s a buoying feeling. When you cross that finish line, your legs and your brain are both useless after a long battle; you just know you somehow ran that far. I especially lost it when the British man who gave me my medal said “Outstanding work out there, well done you!” How did he know? 😉

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Leah and Rex

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Sometimes this person and this horse tolerate my presence for a morning or afternoon, and it’s glorious. Just look at these two. Also, have you ever fed a peppermint to a horse? It’s everything you’d hope for and more.

Springsteen on Broadway

I was extremely lucky to be able to see this show. I’ve loved Bruce unabashedly my whole life, and seen him perform in multiple phases of his career – with the E Street Band (with and without Clarence Clemons), solo turns, and with the Sessions Band. This show is Bruce come full circle – all the stages of his career knit together and presented in one night. He performs like a shaman, reaching back into each consciousness he’s held and channeling a strong energy to always tell stories. It was enthralling to be totally and completely in a space, in a moment, in those notes. It’s as close to church as I’ll ever get.

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Cakes

The people in my life really came through with the cakes this year. First my parents trolled both of my siblings in one racoon-themed birthday cake. Then I won a bet (only the second success out of many attempts) and a gelatin-filled wonder appeared. Pictures presented without further comment.

John Wick riding a horse through the streets of Brooklyn

As far as I can tell, Keanu Reeves’ life is one long excellent adventure. If you’re not riding horses in strange places, what are you doing? As part of filming “John Wick 3: Parabellum,” Reeves took to the streets and showed us all a bit of horsemanship. Not a bad way to get around.

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Shark Gnome

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There are times you don’t know you need a thing until it’s right in front of you. Or until you drive by it. I caught a glimpse of this beautiful monster on a suburban street on a sunny fall day in Minnesota, and I’ve never been the same. This sculpture (?) was prominently displayed at the forefront of a yard sale. When have you ever seen an artistic rendering of an aquatic animal wearing a Hawaiian shirt, serving something invisible on a platter? What surf and turf restaurant did it swim out of? To paraphrase Mr. Mulaney again, “but ohhhhh, the things it has seen!” So badly did I need to find out, I made my dad drive by the sale again so I could get out and ask the man running things, who was petting a cat, what he was asking for this specimen. “$450,” he said, with no trace of irony in his voice. “$750, if I had finished it.” While he regaled me with stories of how he acquired sundry other treasures in the yard, I let my mind wander over the mysteries of shark statue pricing. I had planned to offer $20 for it so I could laugh at it forever, but this man wasn’t going to have it. I slunk back off to the car, settling for the memory of Shark Gnome, forever deprived of his presence.

Maya Rudolph’s pronunciation of “bubble baths”

Maya Rudolph is a national treasure. She is what’s written on the back of the Constitution in invisible ink, despite what Nicolas Cage might think. In one of several star turns this year (see also: “The Good Place” and “Forever”), she gave voice to the Hormone Monstress in the animated series “Big Mouth,” and gifted us with a phrase I want on my tombstone. “If you need me, I’ll be in the bubble bath,” she intones, melting the syllables into gold. Her mellifluous cooing is a universal band-aid. Rudolph is the daughter of the late Minnie Riperton, so this isn’t surprising. Someone made this into a medley of sorts, and I love them for it. If you need me, I’ll be listening to this on repeat in the bubba baff. Bonus: Caity Weaver’s profile of Madame Rudolph is masterful.

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First ever viewing of “The Last Waltz” on Thanksgiving

On Thanksgiving Day, 1976, The Band put on what was billed as their final performance as a unit at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Martin Scorsese filmed it. This concert has it all: giants of music from the late 1960s and into the 1970s, hours of indelible performances, a surprise alto sax appearance, obvious yet tamped-down infighting. Much has been written about how “The Last Waltz” is the quintessential Thanksgiving experience. People who may not love each other as much anymore come together to create something everyone can love. The underlying sadness of something ending, a ship sailing. Dynamics of long-standing friendships tested by fame and “the road.” I agree with all of that. But we need to talk about the outfits, and Van Morrison doing multiple high kicks whilst visibly intoxicated. About Mavis Staples stealing the show. How adorable Levon Helm is, especially when he yodels. It’s a Thanksgiving celebration full of Easter eggs: Joni Mitchell in a resplendent maroon ensemble, Muddy Waters tearing it up, Emmylou Harris, Van Morrison’s purple suit. The overall effect is an uneven cornucopia (what even fits in the back of those things?), but the buffet satisfies. As Mavis whispers at the end of “The Weight,” it’s “beautiful.”

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The kick is high

“Sound of Music” initiation

I saw this movie for the first time recently, and it delivered on many levels. It also left me with numerous questions. I recorded my thoughts here.

Puppies

No matter what else happened this year, puppies were always there to guide the way. We always found a cute bundle of joy to pet and feel better about the world.

Theresa May dancing

Brexit is terrible, horrible, no good, very bad. It’s not funny. But Theresa May trying to dance her way through public appearances and diplomacy is.

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“The Sound of Music” – A Novitiate’s Impressions

Somehow I made it this far in life without seeing “The Sound of Music” the whole way through. My own mother saw it in a Detroit theater in 1965, so I’m not sure how I missed getting it burned into my brain at a young age. But I parked myself in an antique movie theater seat for three hours recently to watch this beloved musical, and it was a spiritual journey complete with nuns. As usual, I had a lot of questions, especially: why did Julie Andrews not win all the Oscars for this? The Dame almost got blown right off a mountain by a helicopter while singing her heart out, and the Academy just didn’t care. Other than that oversight, here are some other impressions upon seeing this movie for the first time.

1. Nuns won’t hesitate to roast you down into hell

It has come to my attention that movie nuns get the sickest burns. They may already be married to the son of God, but they are also endowed with the incalculable power of Ya Burnt. Maria is a problem that just can’t be solved, and they let us know. While discussing her incorrigibility, Reverend Mother responds to the search for the wayward nun with a curt “Sister, considering it’s Maria, I suggest you look in someplace unusual.” They had also likened her to a cow in an earlier burn. Then the nuns conclude a litany of her faults with a simple “Maria’s not an asset to the abbey.” My face melted off. These Jesus brides are singing a nice little song but it’s going to take a while for me to recover from their barbs. Nuns can see right through your shenanigans and don’t you forget it.

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No one is safe from this heat

Also, at the end of the movie, they stealthily steal car parts from Nazis so they can’t chase the Von Trapps, so they win at history, too. (“Reverend Mother, I have sinned.”)

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Bonus: Marni Nixon gets her only film appearance here in the flesh as Sister Sophia. (She had done voice work for Audrey Hepburn (“My Fair Lady”), Debra Kerr (“The King and I”), and Natalie Wood (“West Side Story”), among others.) It does make me sad that she has to appear in a nun costume, her visage partly obscured. Force of habit, I guess.

2. 1938 Austria was a fashion paradise

I’m pretty sure the historical accuracy of this is questionable, but apparently everyone in pre-WWII Austria had some fabulous frocks. Even their drapes could be used for fashion purposes. The dresses in this movie are just so good (thank you, Dorothy Jeakins). Let’s start with Maria’s novice dress – nothing too special, but it had big pockets and the skirt was roomy enough for frolicking in the mountains as an escape from external restrictions so I stan it as a feminist fashion moment. Defy the patriarchy with your clothes and then take over the system, I say. Then there are the nuns’ habits, which do count – one must be practical but fabulous for Jesus.

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Liesl’s pink dress – let’s forget about her falling in love with a Nazi for a second to appreciate this confection. It fits her character so well. Seems a little risque for a sixteen-year-old in the 1930s but again, we are not going to talk about what the late 1930s in Austria was really like.

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Ew, Rolfe :/

Curtain clothing – just the fact that Maria took a page from Scarlett O’Hara’s book and used drapes to make a defiant sartorial statement is enough. I do wonder how she managed to make seven outfits for different-sized children seemingly overnight – is the abbey a secret sweatshop?

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Maria’s I am the Captain Now dress – also appears like former upholstery but she gets to drape herself all over Christopher Plummer while wearing it, so it fits the scene.

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The Baroness’s Satan dress – I know everyone hates her but she rises to the occasion and dresses like the villain she is, complete with cigarette holder. This red sparkly vision showcases her dishy devilry. I choose to believe her hairstyle was meant to mimic devil horns.

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Maria’s I’m Your Mom Now suit – Julie Andrews somehow makes mustard yellow and bell sleeves look chic. She’s married to a man who drives boats so she has to look the part.

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Maria’s wedding dress – I like to think the nuns made this for her because it is divine. It’s got a mock turtle/V-neck going on and seems like an homage to Grace Kelly’s own wedding dress from 1956. The veil whispers over the train and everyone faints. It’s a fairy tale in God’s house. Which reminds me: why do the nuns have to stay behind the cathedral grate? Are they prone to rage in the cage? Are they afraid to accidentally get shadow married to the Captain? Additionally, did the Austrian pope marry them? Did no one tell him the Papal Schism ended in 1417?

3. Christopher Plummer’s hair is a supporting character

The Captain spends a lot of time in Vienna, ostensibly on official business doing boat stuff and unofficial business romancing the Baroness (boo). I think there’s more to the story, because those caramel highlights didn’t come from nowhere. The Captain is straight out the salon with one of the best haircuts 1938 could buy. I don’t think he could have put in this performance without it, as he and his coiffure do some top-rate cinematic giggling and winking. (I’m also a bit confused about his role in the Austro-Hungarian Navy but I’ll let that slide.)

4. The famous “Lonely Goatherd” puppets are amazing but terrifying

I’m sure these puppets took many hours to make and follow some sort of storied Austrian tradition, but they will haunt my dreams forevermore. There is lipstick on these goats. The mountain men are carrying pick axes and seem kind of murder-y. Two balding dudes at a table elongate their necks like a premonition of “Exorcist” nightmares to come. The lonely goatherd song is delightful and I can’t get enough of the yodeling, but this scene scares me more than nun burns. Also, how did Maria teach seven children from ages 5 to 16 perfect, intricate puppetry? Did any of them suffer from night terrors as a result of interacting with these beautifully made, scary-as-hell marionettes?

5. How did no one die from being blown off an Alp by a helicopter?

I’m not a pilot but I have seen “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” more than once and those helicopters generate a lot of wind. Picture yourself climbing up a mountain with one of those machines flying alongside you – how do you stay upright? How did Julie Andrews not perish from the earth because the blades were whipping wind at her so hard? And then when the Family Von Trapp (spoiler alert) escapes the Nazis over the mountains at the end, one would think a whole line of children would be like helicopter bowling. Yet another reason Dame Andrews should have gotten her Oscar for this movie. She put herself in grave danger and didn’t get the gold. She would go on to win for “Mary Poppins,” and thanked America and Walt Disney in her speech. Dame went high. No helicopter can blow her off the lofty perch she sits on.

 

Put Some Swash in That Buckle: Princesses, Brides, and the Story of Everything

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Farm boy! As you wish.

I think about “The Princess Bride” probably every day. I don’t especially care if that’s too much; it’s a pair of lungs to me now. So it was an unexpected loss of air to hear that its storyteller, William Goldman, recently passed away. I never knew this person, but his work was a joy that seeped into my own life.

My love for this movie (and the book that preceded it) is complete and all-encompassing. Its lines and ethos permeate all of my days – my need to rhyme with “peanut,” my knowledge to never get involved in a land war in Asia, my tendency to overuse the word “inconceivable” even in the most conceivable of situations. Buttercup and Westley gave me a love that’s as fun as it is deep. A sense of humor is key when dealing with the forces of evil. The Dread Pirate Roberts knows this.

I’m not sure of the precise moment “The Princess Bride” arrived in my life; like most lasting cultural touchstones, it seems to transcend origin and simply exist across planes of time. My existence has always been wrapped around a VHS tape that brought me this story. I know it came to my family’s house one Christmas, but I don’t remember its manger-like presence under the tree. My awareness came later. I’m not positive on when I first popped that tape into our tiny white TV unit, that moment of discovery. I do know I’ve never been the same.

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Inconceivable!
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Continue reading “Put Some Swash in That Buckle: Princesses, Brides, and the Story of Everything”

Obsessed – Part 2: The Sloth is a Lonely Hunter

There is so much weirdness I think about all the time, varied and seemingly disparate things running through my mind. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)  I’ve always been inclined to dig further into the shiny bits and bobs that catch my eye, but what about when those things are…not too deep to begin with? For example, what stupid phrases could I caption every medieval painting in this gallery with? What happens when a stalagmite would rather be a stalactite? Why does pro tennis player John Isner appear both extremely boring and also evil as he is tall (6’10”)? I don’t shy away from this, as anyone I’ve ever talked to has learned. I’ve embraced the shallows. I’ll forever be drawn to what are perhaps life’s dumber moments, its lower brows, its cruise ship-caliber offerings. And I need an outlet for these preoccupations. This is part of a series of dispatches from the Mixed-up Files of Ms. Claire G. Brindley.

There are a lot of good things about the nature series “Planet Earth.” Sweeping earthly vistas. Important records of the world’s wonders. Dazzling sea creatures. Lizards that have to run from scary-fast snakes just to go to the beach. But my favorite part is less a visual smorgasbord of natural beauty and animal ingenuity and more a soap opera.  It’s trouble in paradise.

It’s the Islands episode of Planet Earth II. We’re on Escudo off the coast of Panama. Everything is beautiful and nothing hurts, except looking at the sky because it’s so dazzlingly blue. Enter the sloth (or “slooth” as David Attenborough intones). We’ll call him Slooth John B.

The camera swoops over the tiny island in all its jewel tones. Sunlight filters through neon-tropical green leaves and shimmers up waterways. David tells us we’ll see “the extreme lengths animals go to survive.” Here we have a variation on that theme: what happens when a man pygmy three-toed sloth loves a woman pygmy three-toed sloth very much? A special sloth hug? Let David tell you.

Continue reading “Obsessed – Part 2: The Sloth is a Lonely Hunter”

Obsessed – Part 1: The Peculiar Magic of George Washington Memes

There is so much weirdness I think about all the time, varied and seemingly disparate things running through my mind. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)  I’ve always been inclined to dig further into the shiny bits and bobs that catch my eye, but what about when those things are…not too deep to begin with? For example, what stupid phrases could I caption every medieval painting in this gallery with? What happens when a stalagmite would rather be a stalactite? Why does pro tennis player John Isner appear both extremely boring and also evil as he is tall (6’10”)? I don’t shy away from this, as anyone I’ve ever talked to has learned. I’ve embraced the shallows. I’ll forever be drawn to what are perhaps life’s dumber moments, its lower brows, its cruise ship-caliber offerings. And I need an outlet for these preoccupations. To borrow from one of my first obsessions, what follows the first in a series of dispatches from the Mixed-up Files of Ms. Claire G. Brindley.

I can’t learn about history without trying to insert a voice into historical figures’ heads. I can’t go to museums or landmarks without wanting to know what all the people involved were really thinking. Take when my sister and I recently went to Glensheen in Duluth, MN – we lost our minds making up things for the people in the old mansion’s paintings to say. (Try it sometime at a historic estate near you; it’ll really spice things up.) We probably remember so much more about the place’s history than we would have otherwise, albeit through a crazy lens of our own imaginings. This is why George Washington memes are so amusing and absorbing to me.

The internet tells me that these words in Comic Sans imposed on historical renderings of a certain Founding Father are called “Sassy George Washington.” Not what I’d prefer to call them – I like to think that these are the kinds of thoughts that went through the man’s brain as he commanded forces in the Revolutionary War, crossed the Delaware on a fancy barge, and struck epic poses for history. Through it all, he gets annoyed at his coworkers, has mad donut cravings, and he just wants to dance. So more like “George is just like us.”

In this world, Washington is a crabby man-child who would like some animal crackers and some peace. A vaunted figure is brought down a few pegs, but not to any detriment. (You can read more about how many enslaved people lived at Mount Vernon over the years for that.) Far from an idealized figurehead, he’s way more fun in these memes, a flawed human who could use a nap after ushering a new nation into the world. Midwifery is hard work, George would like you to know.

Continue reading “Obsessed – Part 1: The Peculiar Magic of George Washington Memes”