25 Mar

Isn’t Tolkien Reading Day every day?

Happy Tolkien Reading Day, folks. Held on March 25, this is generally the time each year that I decide to re-read at least one of the novels related to Tolkien's Middle Earth (I normally choose The Hobbit; it has always been my personal favorite). J.R.R. Tolkien is a pretty amazing dude who did a whole lot with his life. He served during the first World War and began to write many of his stories while injured. He studied linguistics and history, both of which inspired his works.

"Hey, I get it. I'm not here to learn about some English dude. I want to read about orcs and goblins!"

How rude, informal reader. But, alas, let's talk books. Well I am talking. Typing technically. You get it.

The father of high fantasy

J.R.R. Tolkien (source)

Never read a drop of Tolkien before? I would start with The Hobbit (1937). The Hobbit is a wonderful story, a fantasy novel written, in a lot of ways, like a historical epic (this trend is always present in Tolkien's work, and I would wager it is the reason his stories are so well done). It is a children's novel primarily, and that lends to its credit. Many of us read it when we were young, and the themes of adventure, excitement, and fear help us remember a time when we also saw the world as Mr. Bilbo Baggins does: frighteningly large and exciting. This book has a soothing quality around it and truly puts me at ease. The characters are all very real, which is essential for a world that isn't. If we can't relate to anyone, why should we care? If someone is the best at everything and has no faults, then I will stop reading.

"Uh, what about Gandalf?" you may ask. Oh dear reader, Gandalf has to be great and powerful and mysterious. He alienates us, the readers, to a degree. Also all the wizard really does is set pine cones on fire, so how great is he? The version you buy most anywhere will not be the original. Tolkien edited it when The Lord of the Rings was being made so it fit in with the world (hello retcon).

I won't take offense if you duck out now and go read The Hobbit. I am half tempted to. But for those who want something a bit meatier and meant for adult audiences, then how about this little ol' collection called The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955)? Three different books each made up of two parts, it will take a bit to read, but the journey is worth it.

"Hey guy, I watched the movies. I know the story." Hey, I hate to be that guy who goes on and on about how the books are better than the movies (I don't hate to be that guy), but that is what I am going to do. The movies had this problem where they had to fit 20 hours of content into a single movie. And they had to make it more exciting for the typical movie-going audience. And while the movie has an amazing soundtrack, wonderful cinematography, and a great cast, there's just some stuff that didn't translate.

Let's take one of my favorite book scenes. Strider (yes, Strider) is discussing the Last Alliance of Men and Elves and becomes lost in his thoughts. "Suddenly, a low voice murmured:

Gil-galad was an Elven-king.
Of him the harpers sadly sing;
the last whose realm was fair and free
between the Mountains and the Sea.

His sword was long, his lance was keen.
His shining helm afar was seen;
the countless stars of heaven's field
were mirrored in his silver shield.

But long ago he rode away,
and where he dwelleth none can say;
for into darkness fell his star
in Mordor where the shadows are."

Gil-Galad from the movie

Gil-Galad screen time: about 3 seconds? (source)

This is narrated by none other than Samwise Gamgee, who is fascinated by elves but doesn't even know if they are real. Strider goes into it more, but I hope you get the point by now. This one snippet developed multiple characters all at once, in many different ways. We know Strider is even more mysterious and knowledgeable than before, we know Sam wants to believe in something magical about the world, and we know this world is filled with established poems and sad tales. This poem has a beautiful sadness to it, which has stuck with me since the day I read it. And these stories are magical because moments like this happen everywhere. These very real characters, whom we relate to, live and fight and hope and dream, and die, and we feel for them. It feels more real than most fiction because of this. While I do enjoy the movies, this is one of the things it gets wrong (not out of choice I am sure, but necessity. You only have so much time).

"Character development isn't plot, Mr. Man" you may say. Well let's assume you are right. I did promise significant plot discrepancies between the films and books. Let's look at one (I don't want to spoil too much if you haven't read the books yet). Generally the same stuff happens, but in different ways. In the film The Return of the King, Aragorn leaves with Legolas and Gimli for no real reason and asks a bunch of ghosts to kill the bad guys in a city. Well ok, maybe I am oversimplifying a tad, however this has stuck with me since I saw the film. Aragon doesn't really deserve this victory; it is given to him. Kings should earn their kingship, birthrights are what the bad guys have. At the end of The Two Towers book, Strider meets some fellow rangers. He, Gimli, Legolas, and the rangers meet some ghosts. Because they are ghosts (you know, incorporeal) and can't really touch stuff, they scare a bunch of Southrons off of their boats, which Strider and co. use to approach Minas Tirith from the back and they liberate the city. They do it. They fight and die and earn the victory. When Strider becomes Aragorn, becoming king, you feel he is the rightful heir and has escaped the curse of Isildur. This is the kind of depth you can only get from reading the book.

Watercolor of the lonely mountain

Tolkien's paintings have this level of charm that you just don't see anymore (source)

Wait....you read these four books and you want something else? Well, on the Tolkien nerd flowchart, we now go to two different books: The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales. These books were never finished. Christopher Tolkien, J.R.R.'s son, edited and published these stories (and most of his other short stories, letters, and poem collections which are also worth looking up). The Silmarillion is a history book, make no mistake. But it is a history book about elves and their related adventures. Many of the scenes added to The Hobbit movies came from The Silmarillion. It goes in to a lot of detail of who Gandalf and the related wizards are and what they do as well. There is so much content I can't even scratch the surface, so I hope that you will take a look. Unfinished Tales is basically a book of short stories and drafts. It is an odd read because going in you know what you are reading will never be finished, but it isn't a bad one.

"You can't tell me that he didn't write anything else?!? I read all of this 10 times!" Look, dear reader, I feel you. Sadly, as the elves left for the Grey Havens, our journey is coming to a close. Tolkien has many critical essays written involving old poems and epics. He knew his stuff well, and if you are a fan of Arthurian legends and such, worth a read to see where his inspiration comes from. Many poems and stories here and there involve Middle Earth, as well, but, alas, that will be left for you to find.

Congratulations if you made it this far, but don't you have something to read by now? I know I do. Time to find some Old Toby and my own Glamdring. Now where did I put that Lighting Brand.....


21 Mar

And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul!

March 21st is International Day of Forests, which has honestly got to be one of the best and most important days ever implemented by the U.N. Here's a link to the Wiki article, if you're interested in the boring technical stuff that they do.

I want to go to here.

Forests are amazing.  I have loved them since I was a kid, exploring what I perceived as the rugged wilderness of my grandparents' suburban backyards.  And while I grew to understand that the small stretch of woods between properties in Hampton Township did not constitute a forest, I have yet to outgrow my awe of, connection to, or love of, wooded areas.

Mmm, tropical rainforest. Yes, please.

Did you know that 80% of Earth's terrestrial biodiversity is found in forests?  And that while tropical rainforests cover only 10% of the Earth's surface, more than half of all terrestrial species are thought to live there?  And don't be fooled by the phrase "thought to" in that sentence.  Half is probably a significant underestimate, since new species are being discovered all the time, and many of the rainforests throughout the world remain largely unexplored.

Temperate Rainforests are totally rad, you guys.

Also! When people hear the word rainforest, they usually think of the jungles of the tropics, but did you know that there are rainforests right here in the USA?! On the West Coast of the USA and Canada is what's known as a temperate rainforest, stretching from Kodiak Island in Alaska to Northern California.  Temperate rainforests are also found on the southern tip of South America, in Australia, Northwestern Europe, and Northeastern Asia.

Though most people think of leopards as coming only from warm climates like the African Savannah, the Amur Leopard is native to a region of Siberia that boasts extermely harsh winters.

Probably the coolest forest, though, is the taiga.  Taiga refers to the biome found just below the tundra at the Earth's north pole.  There's not really southern taiga because Antarctica is surrounded by oceans, but the Arctic region is surrounded on a few sides by North America and Asia, and the land below the Arctic Circle is home to the taiga. Taiga is characterized by thick forests of evergreen, mostly coniferous trees, and weather patterns that can most easily be described as tundra-lite.  Winters are long and severe, summers short and mild.  Despite the harsh living conditions, though, the taiga is still home to plenty of awesome plants and animals.  The Asian taiga is home to the Siberian Tiger and the Amur Leopard, two of the rarest big cats in the world.  The taiga also contains approximately one third of all the trees in the entire world, and produces about one quarter of the oxygen we breathe.

"Come to the woods, for here is rest. There is no repose like that of the green, deep woods." - John Muir

Basically what I'm saying, people, is that forests are totally amazing and are probably the best thing on this entire planet of Earth.  With the way things are going, it's likely that the entire concept of forests is going to radically be changing in the next 50 years or so, so take the opportunity now to experience forests as they are, and maybe participate in some of the ways that people are trying to preserve and protect them.

Here's another one of the taiga, because it's awesome.

You can learn more about the United Nations' Day of Forests efforts here.

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18 Mar

You Are Special To Me: Happy Birthday, Mr. Rogers!

An Ode to Mr. Rogers

March 20 is Won't You Be My Neighbor Day, in honor of the one, the only Mr. Rogers's birthday! Generations of children grew up listening to the soothing voice of Fred Rogers on his public broadcasting television program, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which ran from 1968 to 2001. For millions of children like me, Fred Rogers was much like Mom and Dad; he had no first name. To suggest he was more than Mr. Rogers, the cardigan-wearing, goldfish-feeding friend I visited almost every day, would be blasphemous. But as I have learned since moving to Pittsburgh, Mr. Rogers' actual neighborhood, he was much more than the man I knew.

Born Fred McFeely Rogers (yes, as in Mr. McFeely, from the Speedy Delivery Service!), Mr. Rogers had a bachelor's degree in music composition, was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and attended University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Child Development. He also held 40 honorary degrees from colleges and universities across the country. Not one. Not two. FORTY. In 2002, President George W. Bush presented Mr. Rogers with the highest civilian honor in the country, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for a career encouraging the well-being of children through lessons of kindness, compassion, and learning. He passed away in 2003 at the age of 74, leaving behind his wife, Joanne, of more than 50 years, two sons, and millions of children whose childhoods wouldn't have been as magical without him.

If for any reason you might want to visit Mr. Rogers' "imaginary" friends, including Daniel Striped Tiger and King Friday the Thirteenth (and 'by any reason' I mean 'why wouldn't you?'), they are housed in Pittsburgh's Children's Museum alongside one of his iconic sweaters (which his mother knitted), and his sneakers.

Mr. Rogers, thank you for being our neighbor, our mentor, our friend. Happy birthday, with love.

At Home With Mr. Rogers

Pittsburghers, nostalgia should be hitting you right in the feels, now, and you're probably thinking 'Man, I miss Mr. Rogers.' He may not be around town anymore in person, but his spirit is still alive. It's always a little thrilling when a customer catches sight of one of Kards Unlimited's Mr. Rogers products and begins to regale me with a tale of meeting, dining, or actually being a neighbor of the Rogers family.

For the rest of us, we can keep Mr. Rogers alive in our own households with officially licensed Mr. Rogers gear. My favorite? Mister Rogers Sweater Changing Mug. Featuring all of his most heartwarming quotes, add a warm beverage of choice, and his sweater changes between an iconic blue cardigan and yellow cardigan. Some days, it's the little things that make a person feel good, and this touch of magic is a great way to start off the day on the right foot.

Sometimes the world can seem like a scary place. Mr. Rogers always had a way of making his viewers feel a little more courageous. He taught  us how to be gracious for what we have. He knew exactly what to say to make life a little easier. Day to day, I wish there were more people like him, ready to give me a one-liner to help me through a challenge, but he's still there for me. When I need a boost of confidence before a meeting, I can pull out my Encouragemints. The unbeatable combo of fresh breath and an encouraging "Why? Because I like you!" calms the nerves. When I'm facing a deadline at school, nothing helps me take notes better than Mister Rogers' Neighborhood sticky notes.

But the greatest gift we have from Mister Fred Rogers will always be the words he left for us. When life gets a little complicated, turn to any one of three volumes of Mister Rogers wisdom: Life's Journey According to Mister Rogers, The World According to Mister Rogers, and Many Ways to Say I Love You. These books prove that, though Mister Rogers may be gone, he will always be our friend.


15 Mar

Straighten Up, Richard!

March 15 is National Penis Day, and let me be the first to tell you, this holiday will grow on you. Both men and women can take time out of their busy schedule to appreciate this above-average day. Men around the world need not hide their manhood; today is a day of reflection, speculation, and basking in the glory that is your penis. You think with it, you show affection with it, and sometimes, if the time is right, you put it in a fresh apple pie.

Your penis deserves to have its veil pulled back and shown what it has accomplished.  Your penis's greatest accomplishment is probably not getting hard when your cute co-worker dressed up as Hermione for the Halloween party, but there have also been penises made famous in movies, TV, and even had molds cast of them, preserving them forever. Bet you feel pretty inadequate.

The cinema: a wonderful world of culture, action, and symbolism. Where anything can be considered "art" if you say it is. Some consider art beautiful cinematography, others how well the movie is edited, or the color palette. But some of the most artistic cinematic moments are when an actor hangs dong. Take the classic movie Boogie Nights. Mark Wahlberg exposes what is now known to be a prosthetic penis, but still shocked audiences, nonetheless. And who could forget when Hodor from HBO's Game of Thrones let it all hang out, showing us the baby arm he's been hiding.  Though this is my personal favorite penis scene in a movie [NSFW].

Now how awesome would it be if your Johnson was cast in plaster for everyone to ogle over? Pretty friggin' sweet if you ask me. Most of us won't be so lucky, though, unless you were a rock star in the 60's and 70's. If you happen to fall into the latter category, there's a good chance Cynthia Plaster Caster took a mold of your naughty bits. She is a groupie turned artist, taking plaster molds of every rock star she came across, most notably Jimi Hendrix. I cannot think of a better way I'd want my guy remembered; I just hope the plaster isn't too cold.

So, let's say for your family vacation you want to go somewhere that will impress Craig in HR, because his family just went to Denmark and he won't shut up about how great it was. You look on Kayak and see flights to Iceland are pretty cheap. You arrive in Reykjavik, only to have your family complain the whole time how cold it is, that the food is weird, and how much longer is this hike? Bunch of ungrateful brats. You storm off in a huff and decide to make your own adventure in Iceland. After some brews at one of the many bars in town you stumble around until you see a building that catches your eye. As you get closer, yes, it does say that. You have found The Icelandic Phallological Museum.

This museum has over 200 different penises from land and sea mammals that inhabit Iceland. I'm not sure you can get any more appreciative of the penis. The wild world of animal penises will truly make you stand back and marvel at what Mother Nature has given the world to create with. Though the collection was missing a human penis, the founder of the museum was determined to find one. I will not go into that story, though, because there is already a documentary about it called The Final Member, which chronicles the strange story of how a human penis ended up in the museum.

Today is a day to rise up, let it all hang out, and pull out all the stops. There is something pure, uncut about National Penis Day. It's like looking into your Long John Silvers bag and seeing they gave you extra crab cakes. It's just a silly little holiday that has grown into something that all people can appreciate, for about seven minutes, maybe ten if you're lucky. So men, pull out those nut-hugger jeans, wear sweatpants with no underwear, or put your penis in the fridge for a little just to see what happens. Enjoy the day, it only comes once a year.


9 Mar

I know you think you have a favorite instrument, but you’re probably wrong.

Well, it's that time of the year again. March 10th marks International Bagpipes Day!  I know most of us are (obviously) great bagpipe lovers already, but for anyone out there who has ever thought, "Wow, bagpipes are totally amazing, but I wish I knew more about them!" this post is for you.

The Pittsburgh Firefighters Memorial Pipe Band at a competition! (My dad isn't not in this photo...)

Let's start with some basic bagpipe facts.

Piper Bill Millin, badass extraordinaire of WWII

  • Bagpipes were invented in the Near/Middle East, evidence suggests some time before the Roman era.  The exact timeline is unknown, but references to bagpipes and bagpipers are made in ancient Greek plays and Roman writings. There are sporadic mentions of the instrument in earlier texts.
  • Although the Great Highland Bagpipe of Scotland is the most widely known bagpipe in the English-speaking world, bagpipes are actually fairly common across all Indo-European countries, with most every region sporting several examples.  In addition to the Great Highland Bagpipe, pipes from the British Isles include the Scottish Smallpipes, the Border Pipes, the Irish Uilleann Pipes, and others. In Europe, instruments include the zampogna of Italy, the biniou of France, and the Dudelsack (yes, really) of Germany.  There are also bagpipes indigenous to India, Iran, Greece, Turkey, Russia, Poland, Norway, Sweden, and pretty much every other European country you know.
  • Bagpipes were used on the battlefields of Scotland and England as early as the 16th century.  Bagpipes were used in a manner similar to the use of the bugle by the cavalries of Westerns, with different types of tunes to denote marching to battle, retreating, reveille, etc. The commonly known music of the Great Highland Bagpipes today comes mostly from the tradition of martial music; bagpipe competitions strongly emphasize marches specifically.
  • Gratuitously sexy bagpiper? Don't mind if I do!

    While different types of bagpipe vary greatly in their tones, the instruments have an underlying unity to their sound, which is due to the way they are played.  Almost all bagpipes consist of a chanter, which plays the melody, and at least one drone pipe, which plays a single note in the background (hence the name). The piper fills the bag with air, either blown in by mouth or pumped in by a bellows, and then squeezes the bag, which forces the air through reeds in the pipes, which produces the notes of the instrument.

    From Wikipedia (because I tried to say this as concisely and failed): "The chanter is usually open-ended, so there is no easy way for the player to stop the pipe from sounding. Thus most bagpipes share a constant, legato sound where there are no rests in the music. Primarily because of this inability to stop playing, technical movements are used to break up notes and to create the illusion of articulation and accents. Because of their importance, these embellishments (or 'ornaments') are often highly technical systems specific to each bagpipe, and take many years of study to master."

  • Bill Millin, personal piper to Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, piped British soldiers ashore at Normandy like a total badass.  After the battle he asked some captured German snipers why they hadn't shot him and they told him it was because they thought he had gone insane.  What other instrument has a story like that?! None other.

That's about enough of the educational stuff!  Here are some bagpipes for you to listen to!  Enjoy!

Pipe Major Brian Donaldson and Willie MacCallum, two of the best pipers living (and two of the nicest people you'd ever hope to meet!)

The late Pipe Major Alasdair Gillies, last Pipe Major of the Queen's Own Highlanders, and possibly the greatest piper of the 20th Century.  (Also a fantastic person.)

Here's some Italian bagpipes!  Wtf?!

Russian Bagpipes!  Ah!

That's all from your favorite bagpipe lover for today!  Haste ye back! <3

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8 Mar

Nevertheless, She Persisted

Yeah, you heard me.

In honor of National Women's Day, I wanted to share some super cool cards we just got in that feature badass women. (Well, at least I think they're cool, I designed them.) It all started with Elizabeth Warren and what has become a battle cry taken up by women all around the globe. The women featured on these cards are personal role models of mine, each are strong in their own way.

Princess (and General) Leia Organa. My first role model. I so wanted to be like her when I grew up, confident and take-no-shit attitude.

Ellen Ripley. Surviving xenomorphs   AND mansplaining.

Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt Queen of the... you get the picture.
Also, Mother of DRAGONS!

Lady FUCKING Mormont!
(I don't know what her actual middle name is, but if it isn't this, it should be, cause that girl is a stone cold badass.)

Hermione Granger.
There is absolutely no way Harry Potter would've survived without her.

Maeve Millay of Westworld.
I wish I could be half as smart and cunning as this host.


Ladies, I salute you. You have, and always will, persist.

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4 Mar


Your probably sitting their on you're couch reeding this like, "I'm a native English speaker I don't knead a lessen in grammer."

If that sentence made you want to die on the inside, then this blog is for YOU! Let's get some things straight though.

First rule of grammar club:

We DO NOT make fun of incorrect grammar usage by someone who speaks English as a second language (ESL) because

you probably can't explain why it's wrong. I've rarely heard someone laugh at a poorly written sign and say, "HAHAHAHHA MORPHOLOGY STRIKES AGAIN!"

A person who uses ESL probably knows more about English than you do; as a native English speaker we take the rules for granted and don't question them, but someone learning English is like "THIS IS THE STUPIDEST LANGUAGE" and in many ways, it is! Remember this old gem?

and this classic:

A lot of the rules we were taught growing up (and by we I mean 30-somethings and above who remember diagramming sentences in grade school. If you were me, it was the BEST! If you were a normal person, it was the worst...but if you're reading this, you're in the former camp).

But here's the thing (ack! I started a sentence with but! Shame!) the reasons we were told we couldn't do certain things are not relevant anymore. For example, one of these ancient rules is "you must not split an infinitive." WHY MUST WE NOT??????? Because (eeek I started a sentence with 'because'!! I FEEL LIKE A MILLENNIAL!!! I'M GONNA STAY UP PAST 9 TONIGHT!!!) Latin.  The infinitive in English takes the form 'to (verb)' as in "to go". So when Captain Kirk says "to boldy go" he is splitting up that sexy infinitive coupling with a motherfucking adverb. WTF amirite? Here's the thing though, in Latin, "to go" is only one word, "ire"...BUT WE DON'T SPEAK LATIN ANYMORE.

{Can I side track to nerd town for a sec? K thanks. Before I went to graduate school for Speech Language Pathology I had to brush up on some basics, but I realized that these basics weren't exactly basic to your average native English speaker. I fell so deeply madly in love with my Phonetics textbooks (and teacher, ahem) and as a result fell so SO back in love with language.

Getting outside the realm of grammar specifically, here's an example of a super awesome thing: an allophone! So in English, we've got these letters that makes sounds, let's take the letter /t/for example: it's called a phoneme; it represents a sound. When you weren't looking, /t/ went out and made a family! That's right, /t/ has it's own fucking family, and they are called phones. The [t] in tar is different from the [t] in star; if you put your hand in front of your mouth when you say "tar" you will feel a puff of air, and that is called an aspirated [t] and has it's own separate symbol! The [t] in "writer" sounds like a [d] when spoken, so that gets ITS OWN SYMBOL (called a flap) and this goes on, AND THAT'S JUST ENGLISH! These other /t/ sounds are allophones of /t/, aka, bastard children.

And don't get me started (yep I started a sentence with AND; screw you, Ann Landers) on how beautiful actual 3D depictions of spoken language are.}

End side track...you forgot you were in brackets didn't you! We're back to sassy town.

The 2nd rule of grammar club:

We DO make fun of the president of the United States if he makes a grammatical error, and here's why:


Going to leave you with a couple wonderful links: one will take you to a twitter account called TrumpGrammar...no explanation needed, and the second is a link to a study by CMU that found Trump's grammar to be just below a 6th grade level, Aslan save us all.

PEACE OUT (that's right I'm ending on a preposition. EAT IT.)

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