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The Beatitude of Gratitude

In tough times, we all have reasons to be thankful. Orwell favoured the toad, for example.

Dorothy Woodend 24 Dec 2021TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

In amongst the doomscroll of the daily news cycle, the occasional good news story pops up.

It’s not always what you think it’s going to be. Sometimes, it’s the discovery of a hitherto unknown species of dinosaur. Other times, it’s a reminder that novelty songs can bring stupid joy. Toss them in your stocking along with other randomly available reasons to be grateful.

All the usual candidates — family, friends, health — go without saying. I’m talking the surprising bits of pleasure, big and small, that remind us that the wonders of the world are still multiple, plentiful and often close by. Here’s my list, which happens to include an obnoxious frog.

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Giant dinosaurs

It seems like every few months there’s a brand-new discovery about the prehistoric world. Most recently, the discovery was a millipede the size of a small car.

News of this find stopped me in my tracks the other day. Like many archeological discoveries, this one came about almost by accident when a group of graduate students and their supervisor took a social trip to Northern England and literally stumbled across the fossil in a cliffside.

The new prehistoric beastie bumped the largest known arthropod, Jaekelopterus rhenaniae, commonly known as a sea scorpion, from the top spot.

Prehistoric creatures just keep getting bigger and more exciting, as witnessed by the recent size revision of prehistoric sharks. With help from a bunch of high school kids, scientists took another look at the dental records of the ancient ancestor of the great white shark, the Megalodon (Otodus megalodon) and rethought the method that had previously been used to estimate its size.

As teeth are often the only thing that remain from ancient sharks, the length of their teeth has historically been used to extrapolate the length and size of the animal. The largest specimens of Megalodon were thought to have been up to 15 metres in length. But using the width of the teeth, gave rise to a much larger creature, closer to 20 metres.

I find it strangely thrilling that the world was once filled with car-sized millipedes, enormous sharks and big-nosed dinosaurs. When humans have been sloughed off the planet, who knows what creatures might rise in our place. Chihuahuas the size of skyscrapers? Hamsters as big as boulders? The sky is the limit!

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Fantasy series

Speaking of giant sea scorpions, I’m sure that such a creature is bound to make an appearance in the current crop of fantasy series that have proliferated like mad on premium cable channels and streaming services. Bring it on, I say.

This year, limited series offered up some of the keenest pleasures available. Even if the production values were atrocious and the plot convoluted, all that mattered was that destiny needed to be fulfilled before the entire fictional kingdom got an ass-kicking from the forces of darkness. Only a group of normal villagers with secret powers could save it. (For the folks who celebrate the season with an annual screening of The Lord of the Rings series, I salute ye!)

The Witcher, The Wheel of Time and LoTR share a lot of common narrative ground. In each world, there is usually a dark one, some prophesies, wizards, elves, trolls and magic — all the stuff that makes life better and infinitely more exciting. Plus, everyone gets to ride horses, swing swords and sweep about in cool cloaks. It doesn’t matter if the show looks like it was filmed on an iPhone or makes one lick of sense — sign me up, I want all the epic fantasy I can take.

To be blunt about Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, available to stream via Amazon, it’s patently terrible. From star Rosamund Pike’s defiantly non-emotive performance to the spats of bitchy women in the form of the female leadership known as the Aes Sedai, it’s like a bad high school production. And I love it.

The original series ran to 15 different books, so the show’s writers have plenty to pull from. In addition to introducing a bevy of plucky youngsters who are destined to save the world, Wheel spends a lot of time parsing the political catfights of the women in charge. The diverse chapters of the Aes Sedai are differentiated by colours and proclivities. Reds are a bunch of mean lesbians, blues are spooky little spies, and yellows are goody two-shoes healers. Greens, I can’t really figure out just yet. In other words, just like high school.

Toads

After reading author Rebecca Solnit’s new book Orwell’s Roses on the life and times of George Orwell, I re-read Orwell’s essay on the common toad. Anyone who is currently beating back the darkness, I heartily endorse this extraordinary work to aid in your quest. Like much of Orwell’s writing, it is humble and glorious and also kind of horny. Hence the expression about amorous amphibians, I guess.

The resilience of nature set against the ongoing contrariness and orneriness of humans is the subtext. It’s an idea that echoes strangely in our current moment, with Orwell’s plainspoken assessment of how both the right and left seek to suck the joy out of life.

He writes: “Is it wicked to take a pleasure in Spring and other seasonal changes? To put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible, while we are all groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what the editors of left-wing newspapers call a class angle? There is no doubt that many people think so.”

So, things haven’t changed all that much. I’m not sure why this truly comforting, but it is. Perhaps because in spite of all the human drama, the natural world has always had its own issues to contend with. Sex, food and basic survival. Thus was it ever, even when giant millipedes roamed the Earth.

When everything feels unrelentingly grim, you can comfort yourself with the thought that long after humans are gone, in the distant future, a toad the size of a bus might emerge from a muddy bank, gemstone eyes aglint with lustful thoughts and set forth on an amphibian love mission.

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Perfume ads

’Tis the season of completely bonkers perfume ads. How I love them, let me count the ways. One of the most cuckoo banana-pants is the commercial for Burberry’s new scent starring actor Adam Driver and a horse. Or maybe Adam Driver is a horse? Does he smell like a horse? Whatever horsey attributes are best, you can be sure the man has them. Take it in, all the glorious insanity, drown in the gonzo madness. Ride that Adam Driver. Drive that Adam Rider. I don’t know anymore.

Perfume ads often share a few commonalities. There is usually a lot of whispering in French with plenty of glamorous women and well-suited men. Whatever universe these folks live in, I would like to go there, running through wine dark streets, plunging into swimming pools, becoming a horse and staring pensively out a window, while somewhere in the distance a moody ’80s ballad plays.

Many a film auteur have directed perfume commercials, including Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher. The best is still Spike Jonze’s take on smelly madness. I love every moment of this strange little creation, especially when the woman in the centre of the action messes up Tyler Perry.

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Lo, he is risen

One of the all-time giants of novelty songs is having a resurgence. Welcome back, Crazy Frog.

The dearth of novelty songs has been a blight upon the planet. Long gone are the days when entire record companies like K-Tel were dedicated to issuing collections of insane songs. Looney Tunes of old with classics like Ape Call and the one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater. The disco era had its fair share of ridiculous hits like Disco Duck and in the ’80s, Weird Al made the genre his own cottage industry.

But it wasn’t until the rise of the mighty frog in the early aughts that a genuine novel music virus re-emerged. Like Orwell’s toad, the frog has returned just when we needed him most.

Whatever your pleasure: imbibe, investigate and inveigle a bit of seriously silly stuff as a reminder that life is still worth living. To borrow Orwell’s words: “The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the Earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”

Amen brother George!

Happy holidays, readers. Our comment threads will be closed until Jan. 3 to give our moderators a break. See you in 2022!  [Tyee]

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