29
Aug 15

More French word nerdery

I’m back from Paris! Eventually I’ll go into detail about the stuff we did and saw, but right now here’s part two in Parisian word nerdery. (And here’s part one if you missed it.)

An orange museum? One day I visited the Musee de l’Orangerie, and when Yiannis said, “The Orange Museum?” I realized I had no idea why the museum was called that. Did it have to do with the Principality of Orange in the south of France? Was it once swathed in orange like some kind of Christo and Jean-Claude exhibit? Neither as it turns out.

The name comes from the orangeries that used to be on the grounds of the nearby Tuileries Palace and were once considered fashionable to have. The structure was built to shelter the orange trees, and was used for everything from lodging soldiers, to housing sporting and musical events, to displaying exhibitions of animals, plants, and yes, paintings.

The building officially became a museum in 1921, and is perhaps most famous for Monet’s Nymphéas, his large panels of water lilies.

Who’s Sully? It seemed that everywhere I went in Paris I saw the name Sully, which made me think of Captain “Sully” Sullenberger who, as you probably remember, was integral to the successful crash landing of a US Airways flight in the Hudson River.

Needless to say, the Parisian Sully isn’t that Sully. So who was he? The Duke of Sully, otherwise known as Maximilien de Bethune, Henry IV’s “faithful right-hand man” who had a role in “building a strong centralized administrative system in France using coercion and highly effective new administrative techniques.” He also has lots of streets and at least one hotel named after him.

What’s a grisette? Where we were staying wasn’t far from the Grisette statute, which we passed every day. But who — or what — is a Grisette?

According to this blog post at Invisible Paris, the Grisette, along with the Lonette, were two female myths that emerged due to an 1830 “influx of males to the city from rural areas attracted by work in the new industries.” Such an influx caused a drastic change in the female to male ratio — 90 women for every 100 men — and subsequently, a shift in power. Women now had the upper hand and “intended to make men pay.”

On the surface, the Grisette (the word originally referred to the “cheap gray dress fabric” worn by such women) was a working class girl or young woman, but she was also someone with “easy morals” who, as Invisible Paris puts it:

spent more than she earned, but who had an elder male ‘friend’, a shopkeeper or wholesaler who would pay her debts. Her other male friend, a much younger painter or student, was the weekend friend, her passion and the one who would take her to fashionable balls and restaurants.

A Lorette, on the other hand, was a woman “supported by her lovers,” and who devoted “herself to idleness, show, and pleasure.” (The name comes from the church of Notre Dame de Lorette, near where apparently many Lorettes lived.)

As for the Grisette statue, it was made by sculptor Jean Descomps in 1909, and features one bodacious woman bun.

An apple of love? The French seem to have the coolest words for junky carnival foods. First, there was barbe à papa for cotton candy. Then at Disneyland (yes, we went to Disneyland), I noticed caramel apples were called pommes d’amour, or apples of love.

It’s obvious where barbe à papa comes from — cotton candy kind of looks like a dad’s long (pink) facial hair — but what do caramel apples have to do with love? Short answer: I don’t know. I couldn’t find anything explaining the connection, although there are a couple of theories as to why pomme d’amour also refers to a tomato.

One theory is that it’s due to the former belief of the tomato’s aphrodisiac properties. Another says that pomme d’amour may be a corruption of the Italian pomo de’Mori or Spanish pome dei Moro, both of which mean literally “Moorish apple.”


23
Aug 15

Word nerdery, the Paris edition

A photo posted by actung9 (@actung9) on

In case you didn’t know, I’m currently vacationing in Paris. My travel buddy, Yiannis, and I have been doing lots of Parisian stuff, including a visit to the Centre Pompidou; hitting a carnival where we rode the Ferris wheel and (dangerous) log flume (how dangerous? the only thing keeping us from flying out of the log were physics and hanging on for dear life); a boat tour of the Canal Saint-Martine; a visit to Parc de Bercy; and seeing American Ultra (at least the subtitles were Parisian).

But as two language buffs, we’ve also been noticing and wondering a lot about words.

Puce. When Yiannis went to use his credit card, the sales woman instructed him to put it into a different slot in the machine since his card had a puce, or microchip. That got him wondering about the word puce, which in French also means “flea.”

We guessed a chip was is so-called because it’s tiny like the blood-sucking insect, but then I wondered if the English color word was related too.

“Maybe it’s the color after you smash a flea,” Yiannis joked.

He turned out to be pretty close. The English puce does indeed come from the French puce meaning “flea-colored; flea,” which comes from the Latin pucilem, “flea.” The Online Etymology Dictionary goes on to say, “That [puce] could be generally recognized as a color seems a testimony to our ancestors’ intimacy with vermin.”

Bateaux-Mouche. While we were sunning ourselves along the Seine, we saw several boats called Bateaux-Mouche. From my high school French – and context clues – I knew that bateaux meant “boats,” but I didn’t recognize mouche.

Yiannis looked it up and saw a meaning of mouche was “fly” so we thought maybe it meant that the boats were fast (although they’re not). I dug a little a deeper and found that mouche also means “patch, beauty spot”; “bull’s-eye” (faire mouch means to hit the bull’s eye); and that a bateau mouche is an excursion or pleasure boat.

However, that mouche has nothing to do with a fly, beauty mark, or bull’s eye. Bateau mouche was a registered trademark and referred to where the boats were once manufactured, namely “the Mouche area of Lyon.”

Barbe à papa. At the carnival, Yiannis noticed a sign for cotton candy that read barbe à papa. “What does that mean?” he wondered, and looked it up: papa’s beard.

That got us curious about how cotton candy is referred to in other languages. According to this BBC forum, in British English it’s “candy floss”; Australian English, “fairy floss”; and in Dutch, suikerspin which translates as “sugar spider.”

Then I started wondering if the Japanese cream puff chain, Beard Papa’s, has anything to do with the French phrase. I didn’t find anything definitive, only speculation that the name is probably a literal translation.

And to complicate things further, cotton candy in Japanese is watakashi, which translates as, well, “cotton (wata) candy (kasha).” In more watakashi trivia, Amaicho Watakashi is a “character” associated with Utau, a Japanese singing synthesizer application.


19
Aug 15

NYC adjustment

I’m settling into life back on the east coast. After a few days at my parents’ house (which was somehow both relaxing and stressful), I’ve moved into a share in Brooklyn. While I’m doing fine, there are some things I’m still adjusting to:

The heat and humidity. I knew it was going to be bad, but I forgot how bad. Like can’t-sleep, about-to-pass-out-on-the-subway-platform, constantly-sweating bad. Meanwhile, it’s in the 60s in San Francisco (wah!).

The lack of open space. From my old apartment in Oakland, all I saw were trees, hills, and, in the distance, the Pacific Ocean. Then I’d see the ocean again on my bus ride across the Bay Bridge and on my walk from my bus stop to the Caltrain. Now while there are some trees where I live, it’s mostly concrete and buildings.

Studies have shown that nature is restorative. I’ll have to find another way to get my nature fix.

Not everybody knows my name. At the Starbucks I used to go to, many of the baristas knew me by name and knew my usual drink. Right now I don’t have that, but that may be just a matter of time.

Along with everything I’m adjusting to, I’m also grateful for a lot of stuff.

A place to stay. Looking for an apartment in New York from the west coast would have been possible, and commuting from my parents’ house (as well as staying with them for longer than a week) would have been a huge headache. Having a roommate situation set up in advance has made life a million times easier.

A place to work. Working from home is fine, but having an office to go to (with a not bad commute) is better.

Stuff to watch. This is very silly but having access to my Netflix and stuff is such a comfort. I can keep up my old routine of rewatching all of the Gilmore Girls, catching up on Doctor Who, and watching random anime and British mystery shows.

Friends and family. Of course this is the main reason I moved back. It’s really nice knowing that my parents and many of my friends are just a train ride away. By tomorrow I’ll be in Paris with a good friend, and when I get back, I’ll have the chance to catch up with others.

Now if only it wasn’t so damned hot.


08
Aug 15

Goodbye, San Francisco

cropped-baybridgeview1.jpegI’ve been planning this for several months, and now it’s finally here: my time to go.

Those of you who follow my blog (and know me in real life) know that I moved to San Francisco from New York back in the fall of 2009. I was lucky enough to have the support — financially and emotionally — to quit my boring corporate job and pursue writing full-time.

In the almost six years since then, a lot of good things have happened. My writing career has taken off. I found a job where I can put my love of words and stories to good use. I made some friends (MGP for life!). I learned how to throw a decent punch and an even better kick. I had the chance to travel to Paris, London, Madrid, and Barcelona, as well as Orlando, Seattle, L.A., Atlanta, Boston, and of course New York and New Jersey. I moved into a fabulous apartment with a gorgeous view.

But some tough things happened too. My grandmother passed away and my dad got injured (he’s okay now). A relationship ended. I realized I suck at making new friends and I missed the ones I already have. My parents keep getting older (how dare they) and I feel just too far away. That was when I knew it was time to move back home.

I’ll certainly miss the Bay Area. I’ll miss the weather — the mild summers, mild winters, and of course Karl the Fog. I’ll miss the calmness and seeing the Pacific Ocean on a daily basis. I’ll miss my fabulous apartment. I’ll miss the wild turkeys that live in my apartment complex, and the goats and sheep that graze on the grassy hill nearby. I’ll miss the million Asian restaurants (which seems silly since it’s not like I’m moving to Idaho). I’ll miss my new friends and being able to see my brother so easily. I’m sure there are a hundred other things I’ll miss, and which I’ll only think of later.

Change is scary, but luckily for me, some things will stay the same. I get to keep my job and work remotely. I’ll still be writing. The online me will still be here. I’ll still be watching tons of TV, running, and traveling the world (next stop, a return to Paris later this month!). But some things have changed, and not just the fact that I actually cook now (well, “cook”).

My writing is stronger. And not just my clip file. Before I left New York, I was having a hard time breaking into the writing biz. Now I feel much more confident. I’ve honed my skills and have a lot more contacts. Not only that, I’ll be back in the center of the writing universe.

I’m much better about being on my own. I’m pretty independent so it feels weird to say that, but for those few years I was living alone in New York, I wasn’t very good at being by myself. I enjoyed my alone time sometimes, but mostly I was pining for a relationship, which I had almost always been in one since I was 21.

These past two and a half years have really been the first time I’ve been completely on my own, not in a relationship, nor just out of one, nor starting — or trying to start — a new one. It’s been just me and my own interests and ambitions, and I’ve really enjoyed it (maybe a little too much).

I’m more appreciative. I was telling a friend that years ago, right after my divorce, when I was finally living my dream of being on my own in Manhattan, in close proximity to several friends whom I saw regularly, I was still lonely. I’d be coming home from a party, walking to my apartment, and I’d be filled with loneliness.

Now I want to shake that person and say, “What’s your problem? Don’t you know how good you had it?” because while now I’m very good now about being my own, it’s not something I want that all the time.

I’m excited to be the person I am now returning to a place I once lived. It almost feels like a do-over.

~ ~ ~

In a few days I’ll be on a one-way flight to Newark. I’ll spend a few days at my parents’ house in New Jersey before moving into my room in Brooklyn. Then just another few days later, I’ll be off to Paris.

My friend asked me if I feel like I’m ending a chapter of my life. I do feel that way, and I’m a little sad about it, but where one chapter ends, a new one begins. I can’t wait to see what it says.


30
Apr 15

More ’80s Movies Redux: ‘Better off Dead’

betteroffdeadFor a few posts now I’ve mentioned wanting to watch Better Off Dead. The other night, I finally got my fix.

But unlike The Sure Thing and The Breakfast Club, and like Pretty in Pink, the movie is much worse than I remember.

Better off Dead came out the same year as The Sure Thing, and as always John Cusack is hilarious. (He was only 16 or 17 when the movies were made.) But unlike The Sure Thing, which is a simple focused story, Dead is all over the place.

As a kid I read a review that called the film “uneven,” and uneven it is. It’s as though it can’t decide what kind of movie it wants to be. Romantic teen comedy? Slapstick? The Karate Kid but with skiing? All three? And let’s throw in some animated burgers and cheesy saxophone playing while we’re at it.

Lloyd (Cusack) and Monique (Diane Franklin who, by the way, isn’t really French) each have too much going on too. Lloyd can ski, play the sax, and draw. Monique is a tomboy who likes the Brooklyn Dodgers (which by the way had been the Los Angeles Dodgers since the 1950s), knows car repair, and effortlessly skis the most difficult ski slope, the one that plagues Lloyd and puts the ski shop owner in traction.

While Williams and of course Cusack are youthful, the actors who play Beth and Roy look about 25.

However, there’s no denying that Dead is a beloved classic (although not beloved by Cusack himself apparently), especially for those of us who grew up with cable and watched it five billion times. Every ’80s kid knows the catchphrases, if not whole swathes of dialogue, by heart.

“French…fries. . .French…dressing. . .French..bread.”

“Christmas…Christmas…!”

“I’m really sorry your mom blew up, Ricky.”

“He’s skiing on one ski!”

And of course, “I want my two dollars!”

If only there were no sax playing or romantic ski duet.


23
Apr 15

More ’80s Redux: ‘Tootsie’ and ‘The Sure Thing’

SureThing_817Ever since rewatching The Breakfast Club, I’ve been on an ’80s kick, at least where movies are concerned. So earlier this week at my parents’ house with Netflix for some reason not working on my iPad, I settled for Amazon Prime and YouTube instead and watched for the billion time two ’80s classics: Tootsie and The Sure Thing.

Tootsie

Dustin Hoffman’s female-impersonation vehicle, I’m happy to say, still holds up. On a recent episode of The Americans, a couple of characters see the movie and the one from Russia says, “That would never happen in the Soviet Union.” The American answers, “That would never happen here either.”

And it’s true. While the film is hilarious and great storytelling, “Dorothy” is clearly a man in drag. There’s no way that absolutely everyone would be fooled.

But all the actors are wonderful, and although I’ve seen it so many times, I still laughed out loud at certain parts, like when Julie, flustered by Dorothy’s advances, answers the phone but picks up a corn cob instead.

“That’s a corn cob,” Dorothy says.

Or when a dejected Michael watches a mime “balancing” on the curb for a few minutes before pushing him over.

I also love that Bill Murray plays straight man second fiddle to Hoffman. You kind of forget that it’s Bill Murray. I read in the IMDb trivia that he agreed to omit his name from the opening credits so that audiences wouldn’t expect something like Caddyshack or Meatballs.

Some other takeaways: Dabney Coleman plays sleazy very well, and Terri Garr was rather Jennifer Aniston-esque, or rather Aniston is Terri Garr-esque.

The Sure Thing

As I said in my Breakfast Club post, I’ve been obsessed lately with 1980s John Cusack.

While I was really in the mood for Better Off Dead (as a short dark-haired Chinese girl, I always identified with the short dark-haired French girl), I only now just found that it’s available for free on YouTube, so I made do with The Sure Thing (also free on YouTube).

While there are a few very ’80s aspects about the movie — the music for one as well as the guys’ short shorts — it holds up well. Cusack was only 17 during filming and Daphne Zuniga was four years his senior, but they’re a good match and have good chemistry. While Zuniga’s character is supposed to be uptight, I actually love her preppy L.L Bean outfits, which unlike Cusack’s turned up collars and rolled up shirt-jacket sleeves, don’t seem dated.

But enough about the clothes. I’m always a sucker for a good meet-cute and two characters who hate each other but end up falling in love, and that’s what Gib and Allison are. What makes The Sure Thing well above average is that Gib and Allison have convincing character arcs as well — not only do they fall in love, they change, which makes the falling in love possible.

Next up in my ’80s queue are Better Off Dead, One Crazy Summer, Moonstruck, and 9 to 5.


22
Apr 15

Beantown Birthday

This past week or so I’ve been on my annual east coast birthday trip.

While I usually visit New York, this time I felt like doing something different, namely visiting my pal ES in Boston.

Getting There

While I got my tickets to New Jersey pretty early, I hemmed and hawed for the longest time about how I’d get to Boston from NJ. Flying seemed inexpensive but I hated the idea of going to the airport so many times within a 10-day period. The bus is super-cheap, but my back hurts if I sit too long. That left the train, which is pretty expensive and takes as long as the bus.

But then I hemmed and hawed for so long that the plane tickets ended up being too expensive, and I took the train anyway.

The four hours didn’t feel long at all. It helped that I had no one next to me so I was able to spread out; that there was free wifi that worked (well, mostly); and that we actually got to Boston on time.

Since it was only about three, I headed over to ES’s workplace. Our other buddy, AY, had come in the night before so she was already there. While ES finished up some work, AY and I snacked, spaced out, and browsed our phones.

After we headed out, we almost immediately we ran into one of my must-sees:

Hello Mr. Poe #edgarallanpoe #boston

A photo posted by actung9 (@actung9) on

When I saw the statue from far away, I admit I was a little disappointed that it was “small.” But actually upon closer inspection, I loved that it’s street level and person-sized.

Me and Mr. Poe #edgarallanpoe #boston A photo posted by actung9 (@actung9) on

Next we strolled through the Boston Common and then down Newbury and Boylston Streets, eventually ending up at the marathon finish line.

At the finish line, pre-race #boston #bostonmarathon

A photo posted by actung9 (@actung9) on

I wouldn’t be going to the race so I was glad to at least see where it ended.

That night we had a yummy Italian dinner at this place called Vinny’s in Somerville. From the outside it looked a little hole-in-the-wall-ish, but the food was really good. We shared a few dishes: a calamari salad, the stuffed calamari, the Sicilian rabbit, and a side of angel hair pasta. Everything was delicious but I especially liked the rabbit (very tender and not gamey at all) and the angel hair.

Museum, cider, and ramen

The next day was packed with activities. We spent the morning visiting various food shops (two bakeries, a Greek grocery, and a cheese shop) before heading out to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which, AY, found out, was free if it was your birthday, which on that day it was.

It’s been many years since I’ve been at the Isabella Stewart. I was glad to see the new wing — isabellastewartgardner — and the old courtyard, as lovely as always —

Courtyard #isabellastewartgardner #boston A photo posted by actung9 (@actung9) on

After the museum, we hit a couple of hard cider tastings. I’ve never had hard cider before, and it turns out I like it. The first was at at Bantam Cider

bantamcider

— and the second was at Downeast, which was out on the docks. After a bunch of cider, I was feeling sassy:

Being sassy at the cider bar #boston #downeast

A photo posted by actung9 (@actung9) on

We capped off the day with a late dinner at Santouka Ramen in Harvard Square, another AY find. Apparently Santouka is a well-known chain in Japan. I got something with a little kick:

Long spicy noodles for a long spicy life.

Maine

On Sunday we drove up to Ogunquit, Maine.

While it was freezing (luckily ES had a winter coat in her trunk for me to borrow), it was absolutely beautiful. We took a walk down the rocky shore —

Rocky Maine coast #maine #ogunquit #atlanticocean

A photo posted by actung9 (@actung9) on

— and had a seafood lunch. AY and ES had lobster rolls and lobster stew while I had clam chowder (I also had an excellent hot dog when we first got there). We also saw a lighthouse:

Cape Neddick Light #maine #capeneddick #lighthouse A photo posted by actung9 (@actung9) on

It was so lovely just to walk around, get lots of sun, and breathe in the fresh salt air.

By the end of the day, we were pooped. We had dinner at a Mexican place near ES’s — shredded pork, yum! — and then crashed.

And back home

The train back to NYC was a bit more crowded and about 15 minutes late, but I managed to get some work done in between dozing off. An upside to getting into Penn Station was that I could just run across the platform to catch another train back to my parents’.

Since Monday I’ve been catching up with work and being a lazy bum. On Thursday I head back to San Francisco.


12
Apr 15

Review: Gwendolyn, by Diana Souhami

gwendolynWarning: lots of spoilers.

First I want to admit I haven’t read George Eliot since high school. But I remember enjoying Silas Marner and Middlemarch so when I had the chance to read historian Diana Souhami’s Gwendolyn, which is based on a character in another one of Eliot’s novels, Daniel Deronda, I snatched it up.

At first I thought I had made a huge mistake.

The book starts off slowly, probably much in the style of Eliot and not in a style that I’m used to reading as of late. It didn’t help that I had just finished Gina Frangello’s A Life in Men, which was fan-fucking-tastic. So Gwendolyn, Souhami’s first foray into fiction, had a lot to live up to.

Something else that got on my nerves at first was Gwen’s referring to Deronda as “you” throughout the book. I understand that the novel is in the form of a letter, but all the you’s got pretty tedious after a while, especially in the scenes with Deronda, who seemed like a high and mighty killjoy if you ask me.

But then something happened. Deronda left the picture, and the book got a whole lot more interesting.

Every single other character was a hell of a lot more interesting than Deronda, from Gwen herself, to her cruel and sadistic husband, Grandcourt, to the unique and artistic friends she makes post-marriage, to George Eliot herself, who while a celebrated author is also nosy, judgmental, and insecure.

The story of Gwen’s marriage to Grandcourt is horrific yet gripping, and I found myself rooting for her escape and, afterward, her growth and freedom without rescue from a “prince.”

I also kept anxiously waiting for Grandcourt to show up on her doorstep, alive and well, since his body, post-drowning, never washed up on shore. But as Gwen gained strength and confidence, in addition to her new circle of friends, I was less anxious, not that Grandcourt wouldn’t show, but because I thought she could handle herself if he did.

The sign of well-done historical fiction for me is when while I’m reading or immediately afterward, I look up all the “characters.” That happened with The Paris Wife and it happened with Gwendolyn.

Right after I finished I looked up George Eliot to find out more about her longtime companion George Lewes, with whom she had an open relationship although she liked to be called Mrs. Lewes, and after his death, her marriage to a man 20 years her junior — in the book, it’s said she called him her “nephew,” weird — who during their honeymoon in Venice “jumped from their hotel balcony into the Grand Canal.” (He survived.)

Another “real” character is Paul Leroy, a French painter who lives with his probable-lover Antoine. Julian, a trapeze artist who cross-dresses as Juliette, might be based on the “female impersonator, high-wire performer” Barbette, who, like Julian, was born in Texas (although many years after Julian would have been) and performed in drag, only revealing himself as male at the end of his performance. That could be a whole book in and of itself.

Overall I enjoyed the book, and think that fans of Eliot and especially Daniel Deronda will enjoy it even more.


04
Apr 15

Rewatching ‘The Breakfast Club’: Some Takeaways

MSDBRCL EC016I recently rewatched The Breakfast Club (purely for research, I swear).

While it’ll always be my favorite John Hughes movie (Sixteen Candles has a bit too much broad humor for me and Pretty in Pink just doesn’t hold up well), I couldn’t help but be bothered, and also surprised, by some things.

Bender’s verbal assault and sexual harassment of Claire. Or perhaps verbal and sexual assault?

It’s well-known that Judd Nelson stayed in character and continued to abuse Molly Ringwald when the cameras stopped rolling. While Ringwald “knew what he was doing” and so wasn’t bothered by the terrorizing, John Hughes was “fiercely protective” of her and almost had Nelson fired.

What’s extra disturbing is that Claire ends up with Bender, which is what we all wanted as teenagers, but now I worry that the abuse wouldn’t have ended, and might have gotten worse.

Ah adulthood, ruining everything.

I forgot how cute Emilio Estevez was. He was truly the nice guy in the movie, and for the billionth time, I was glad when Ally Sheedy’s Allison ended up with his Andrew Clark.

Ally Sheedy and Anthony Michael Hall are really good in this. So are the others but those two especially. And Hall was only 15 when shooting started!

I identify much more with Allison now than before. When I was younger, I probably wanted to distance myself from someone like her, but now that I’m older, I really admire her, dandruff, purse full of tampons, and all.

How did the library not reek of pot smoke? And while we’re at it, wouldn’t have the principal noticed the broken glass of the language lab?

I’m now obsessed with imagining John Cusack as Bender. Apparently John Cusack was close to getting the role of Bender. Ringwald said Cusack was great but different, “funnier and more sly and cute,” and, it seems, “not enough of a dick.”

Now I can’t stop imagining an alternate Breakfast Club universe with a cute, funny, sly Cusack version of Bender, rather than the scary and dangerous Nelson. I guess I’ll have to make do with One Crazy Summer, Better Off Dead, The Sure Thing, and Say Anything, all of which I guess I’ll have to rewatch as well.


15
Mar 15

Obsessed: Stuff You Should Know

StuffYouShouldKnowWhile I’ve been a longtime fan of This American Life, I’ve never really been into podcasts. I wasn’t against them, but I just never gave them much thought. Then came Serial, and everything changed.

But after 12 short weeks, Serial was over, and I felt like I had nothing to listen to on my longish commute to and from work. This American Life is only once a week, and there are only so many times I can listen to the same 100 songs on my phone.

Somewhere along the way it suddenly occurred to me that there were probably a gazillion free podcasts out there for me to listen to. However, a gazillion is a lot, and I had no idea how to get started.

Then I happened upon this article in Mental Floss about noteworthy podcasts. Jackpot! I tried a bunch, and while I like Criminal and Here’s the Thing (Alec Baldwin has his own podcast, who knew?), what I really like is Stuff You Should Know.

Some of you might know I love trivia about random stuff (someday I’m writing a book called The History of Random Shit — you’d buy it, right?), and that’s exactly what SYSK is. The hosts are Josh Clarke and Chuck Bryant, two normal dudes who happen to be interested in a lot of different things. They’re also pretty hilarious.

I don’t know how many episodes I’ve listened to so far, but I’ve gone way back to the beginning when the podcasts were super short, ie, less than 20 minutes. Now they’re about 40 minutes, give or take, and include more banter and off-topic meandering, which I actually kind of like. For instance, one or both of them almost always ends up mentioning some movie that reminds them of the topic, and I end up jotting down the movie to watch later.

I’ve enjoyed all the episodes, but here are 10 that I particularly liked, and which you might want to start with if you’re interested.

How Pizza Works!

The guys cover the history of pizza is from 17th century Italy, to Italian immigrants setting up pizza shops in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, to the Big Pizza industry. Warning: this episode will make you very hungry and very much want pizza.

How Muppets Work

According to Josh and Chuck, this is SYSK’s most popular podcast ever, and understandably so. It’s fascinating stuff, and in fact, inspired me to write a piece on Muppet lingo.

How Jim Henson Worked

This is a really nice companion piece to the above.

How Foot Binding Worked

Learn about when a whole country had a (gross) foot fetish.

How Charles Darwin Worked

Listening to this episode, I realized I didn’t know much about Charles Darwin. When he was in his early 20s, he got invited to accompany this rich dude on his ship and explore exotic lands for five years. Darwin recorded everything he saw, and many years later, that became the Origin of the Species.

He was also very nervous — often throwing up out of anxiety — and so he didn’t enjoy the fame and notoriety associated with his famous work. In addition, he married his first cousin before they knew about the possible negative affects of inbreeding, and when I say “they,” I mean him. Darwin was the one who discovered that while married to his cousin, who by the way was a devout Christian so there was that whole conflict.

What makes a one-hit wonder?

This is a fun episode if mostly because of the walk down ’80s memory lane (remember Kajagoogoo?).

What makes a serial killer?

I’ve always been fascinated by serial killers (although in a guilty way) so this episode was a must-listen for me. Josh and Chuck give some history, describe what distinguishes a serial killer from, say, a mass murderer or a spree killer, and discuss some of the most famous serials killers, including Son of Sam, the Green River killer, and Jeffrey Dahmer.

What’s the deal with Rasputin’s death?

The guys clear up the lore around the death of the “mystical faith healer,” namely that he wasn’t some sort of unkillable vampire. He was a pretty tough mofo though.

Capgras Syndrome: You Are Not Who You Think You Are

Capgras Syndrone is a neurological disorder in which you think your loved ones are imposters. In other words, you see a man who looks like your father, but you feel like he’s just someone wearing a Dad-costume.

This might have something to do with a misfire in the brain causing you to not feel emotion when you see someone you know, which your brain chalks up to, “Must be an imposter.”

Taste and How It Works

The guys talk about taste beyond salty, sweet, bitter, and sour, how taste buds work, and supertasters, that small part of the population who taste certain flavors super-strongly.

Those are just a handful of hundreds of information-packed episodes available. You can get the SYSK podcast via the app, Podcasts. Not all the episodes are available there, but they are all available on their site.

Happy listening!