Welcome back to Banter Latte. We apologize for the brief interruption of service.
Long time readers will remember that we answer questions about the Mythology of the Modern World — the mythological underpinnings that lie beneath the surface, which explain how the universe works in a way that is comprehensible. That the universe is in fact explainable via science has little bearing, since as we all know science is only useful if you actually want to learn something, build something, do something or cure something. Myth has the advantage of doing none of these things, and often being entertaining in the process. Also, there is significantly less math.
We pause to let the engineers in the audience stop swearing. The physicists generally accept the above with good grace. After all, they know the score. And they’re calling the shots. And they know that too.
Regardless, in this weekly roundup we strive to answer questions — questions which often (but not always) begin with the words “why” or “how.” Why is the sky blue? (Answer: you’re seeing God’s enormous iris, and the sun is his pupil. Which is why you should only sin inside windowless rooms or on overcast days. Yes, he has blue eyes, and dark skin, and actually keeps his white beard trimmed into a lovely goatee. No, he is not a hipster, though admittedly he was into literally everything before it was cool. And no, sinning at night is no good, because he can see your reflection off the moon. That’s what it’s for.) Why is the grass green? (Answer: grass is trying very hard to camouflage itself so it can blend into the forests, so that ravenous packs of horses, cows and sheep don’t devour it. It is more effective than you might think — go into a dense forest and look for grass. Can you find it? Generally not. The problem is, they only have the one camo suit available, so sitting out in fields it’s dead obvious. Honestly, it seems like a waste of money to me.) How are babies made? (Answer: ask your mother.) And so on and so forth. You can ask these questions via the contact page you see over to the right. There are no guarantees, of course. All rights are reserved.
Today’s question comes from an old friend named Anonymous. Anonymous and I go way back — Anon (the preferred nickname. ‘Mous’ is frowned upon) is the author of many great poems, songs, stories and internet rants. In this case, Anonymous says:
“Hey — about the whole modern myth thing. It’s cool and all I guess, but aren’t you just ripping off John Hodgman’s deal?”
Now, you will notice that the question doesn’t start with “why.” I frown on answering those, but as we’re just returning, it seems like a brief discussion touching on where these myths come from is in order. Further, given the scurrilous attack upon my character that the question implies, I think it only mete that I respond, to defend myself and the integrity of the mythology that is being formed here, and the ways in which it is distinct from the seminal, brilliant work by writer, actor, advertiser, expert and bon vivant John Hodgman, of which much has been said. His books can be found here, if you’re willing to buy from Amazon, and… well, other places, if you are not.
But I am getting sidetracked. This impugnation upon my work must be answered. Am I just ripping off John Hodgman?
The answer, of course, is yes. Shamelessly.
However, there are mitigating circumstances of which you might not be aware. You see… I am John Hodgman.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Eric,” you think — though it’s unusual to address someone in your thoughts, “isn’t John Hodgman significantly more famous than you? Doesn’t he lack your beard? Doesn’t he have a family that is different from yours? And, on a somewhat sultry night in Brookline, Massachusetts, upon the launching of his book tour in support of More Information Than You Require, weren’t you actually seen in the same place at the same time — indeed, did he not sign your copy of the book and jokingly dub you ‘Mister Eight Hundred?'”
Yes. All of those things are true. However, they are not relevant. You see, I am a much later incarnation of John Hodgman.
John Hodgman was born as most people are. However, early on he realized his perceptions of the universe were significantly better refined than most people’s. He discovered swiftly the ancient back-ways and routes to the backworld where the stage crew keeps the so called Real World everyone can see running efficiently. He learned the true history of the world and drank deep of the cup of wisdom at a party in 1989 which was mostly notable for the neriad who totally chunked in the hot tub.
Now, most human beings who learn the ways of the backroutes are changed by their experiences. Honestly, we’re changed by all our experiences, so there’s no reason to think this would be any different. However, no matter how much they see or do, they still remain essentially human. A very few become one of the Locii — the hidden foundations of the world — but there is evidence to suggest the universe decides that independently of whether or not someone knows the secret shortcut that lets you go from Birmingham, Alabama to Nome, Alaska in under thirty-five minutes by dirt bike. People generally can’t choose to change themselves into something they’re not, barring being cursed or doing something unimaginably stupid, and in those cases it really doesn’t work out for them.
John Hodgman, however, was different. He saw something. Or learned something. Or did something. What? I cannot say. I know, of course. After all. I was there. I am John Hodgman. But I cannot say. I will give you one hint — it involved creamed spinach being used in a way that might surprise you.
And when John Hodgman walked away from that experience, he was different. He had changed. And it was not a curse. He was the first post-human master of time and space.
He was not the first master of time and space of them all, of course. The gemas were first. He was just the first post-human. But that’s another story.
All of time and space was now John Hodgman’s plaything. Where he could wander before, now he could blaze trails. No secret was beyond his questing eyes, no moment so momentous that he couldn’t modify it. For a while, the temptation to play God was overwhelming, but over time he found it was unrewarding. Besides, he wanted to be something more important than a deity. He wanted to be a reporter. He wanted to tell the story of what he found beyond the edge of the world, and he wanted to do it in a way that normal human beings might understand. To facilitate his efforts, he constructed the fabulous Time Zeppelin, filled with aether and coated in stardust, rather than the combination of hydrogen and thermite someone actually thought was a good idea when designing Zeppelins.
(And yes, I’ve seen that episode of Mythbusters too. But I ask you — were they there? For I was, in an earlier incarnation. As it turns out? Not that fun to watch.)
So, he made his first attempt in his initial, glorious body. He had symposia and salons where he could wax eloquent upon the things he had discovered. From his observatory he wrote, feverishly at times, trying to codify in the limited language of humanity the images that burned within his thoughts. But the sad fact is, from the perfection of his mind, John Hodgman had difficulty fully comprehending the limited perceptions of humanity.
He did his best. He affected glasses, much as Clark Kent did, in an effort to ‘see’ by pretending to have an astigmatism. He mostly wore Earth tones, in an effort to seem ‘down to Earth,’ which is actually a phrase he coined much later on in the past. He willingly spent much of his time in New England — a nasty habit I seem to have picked up anew.
Still, it was all for naught. Do you need proof of this? Consider — John Hodgman pretended to be a computer in many two-minute long short films on television over the course of three years, from 2006 to 2009. Not only was he beloved in this role, but no one questioned its authenticity. When he said that he was, in fact, a personal computer? Everyone believed him. This, despite his lack of a keyboard, CPU, monitor or Intel Inside sticker. In a later advertising campaign which has not actually taken place as of now, but will within your lifetime, he pretends to be a can of baked beans. This is cut short when the crew on-set ravenously attempts to eat him, forcing a fast Time Zeppelin escape to 1957.
Finally, sometime in the next few decades — I don’t remember the exact date, as it was some time ago by my recollection — he decided that the only way he could possibly perceive the universe the way humanity does would be to wreath himself in the very flesh of humanity. And so, he spent long hours slaving away in the laboratory of brass and wire beneath his observatory, until he developed a fabulous machine that allowed him to literally sublimate his being into a new Incarnation, granting it the ability to Re-Incarnate as necessary. And that is where we get the word.
And so, John Hodgman moved throughout time, Re-Incarnating into a new body and inserting himself into history, where he would both observe and tell the great myths and explanations to those who would hear. With his new perspective, he was able to relate in new and exciting ways, though that perspective out of necessity was limited compared to his original unsurpassed visualization of the cosmos.
For those who were curious, here are just a few of the Incarnations that John Hodgman has been, over the centuries:
- Homer: Perhaps the first well publicized mythologist, 750-650 BCE: Homer laid out many of the foundations of mythology as we understand it today — though for reasons passing understanding even by me, his later incarnation, he chose to do it in hexameter. He is best known for his epic works the Iliad, about the Trojan War, and the Odyssey, about a guy who got lost and slept around after said Trojan War. The Odyssey in particular has resonated through the ages, though sadly the retelling of the tale was done through the oral tradition, which they felt was superior to ‘writing things down,’ and so the nine months Odysseus spent among the wise if violent Brotherhood of the Crab People got left out by a reteller who found it ‘trite,’ causing that fascinating digression to be lost to the ages. Known in legend to be blind, though in fact Homer only had a rather common red/green color blindness caused by John Hodgman’s decision to make his ‘limited perception’ literal. This became inflated to full blindness through the evolution of story which today we call the children’s game ‘telephone,’ but back then was called ‘running and telling a guy something and not waiting to see if he got it right.’
- Bradley Tate: resident of Porlock, 1754-1816 CE: Bradley Tate is not well known to history under this name. He was a kindly, if tweedy fellow who decided to discharge his first obligation — the retelling of myth to explain the universe — by teaching schoolchildren and telling them stories, then hoping they would spread those stories out into the world. He is most famous to us not by his name, but by one of his actions — being the infamous ‘Visitor from Porlock’ who interrupted Samuel Taylor Coleridge during his composition of “Kubla Khan: or a vision in a dream.” Coleridge, the story goes, had awakened from a dream about lines of poetry (often considered to have been an opium haze) which he was frantically trying to transcribe when Tate stuck his head in, shouting “it is what it is, Sam,” and then proceeding to go on about trivialities for considerable time, including the warm weather, the bad fish he had eaten for dinner the night before, just how nuts that William Blake was, and what hot a slice of crumpet Coleridge’s sister in law Edith Fricker was. By the time Coleridge returned to his work, the vision had dissipated, and the story went down through history as a cautionary tale about the disruption of inspired creativity. When asked about his reasons for interrupting Coleridge and droning on about banalities, Tate replied that Coleridge was “a fucking asshole. Seriously. Fuck him.” Elected to reincarnate in 1816, after Coleridge went ahead and published the damn poem anyway.
- Joseph Campbell: Writer, Lecturer, Mythologist and known Bill Moyers associate: 1904-1987 CE. Both a celebrated mythologist and a critic who codified the universal underpinnings of the monomyth — also called the hero’s journey — explicating the themes that recur in legend and fiction over and over. The hero is born, he is given the call to adventure, but resists until forced. He descends into the underworld, being changed by what he finds but bringing the panacea to heal the world with him. He auditions for an off-broadway show but his hopes are dashed, until he makes it into the chorus and then has to take the lead dramatically on opening night. He accidentally makes a date with two girls for the same night and tries to keep them both with hilarious results. Et cetera. You know the drill. Of course, the monomyth was codified mostly to cover for John Hodgman’s incarnations tending to repeat themselves a lot, but what the heck? Its influence is perhaps best known in modern times for inspiring a young George Lucas and forming the structure of his legendary film Howard the Duck.
- Terry Nation: Screenwriter and novelist, 1930-1997 CE: It should come as no surprise that an incarnation of John Hodgman was at ground zero for the creation of the enduring show Doctor Who. Obviously, many of the defining characteristics of the Time Lord from Gallifrey were modeled after John Hodgman himself — the essential authority of the First Doctor, his mastery over time and space, his habit of ‘regenerating’ into entirely new actors, his employment of sonic based devices to do household chores more easily done by hand, and so forth. Nation enjoyed working on the project and found it flattering that he himself had become a mythological archetype, though he almost quit when he quite rationally explained that the Doctor and his Companions should travel the ineffable time vortex by way of Time Zeppelin, only to be told that the budget wouldn’t support it and they were going to go with a cheap wooden police box prop instead. Still, he stayed long enough to create the Daleks — the most enduring and frightening enemies of the Doctor, who were also perhaps the first truly alien aliens on television. The Daleks were terrifyingly effective, despite the fact that they — or more properly, their armored shells — were distinctly portly. Went on to do many other things before reincarnating. Russell T. Davies, like all showrunners entrusted with Doctor Who, was sworn to secrecy about the seminal involvement of the legendary John Hodgman in the show. Despite this, he put a sly reference to that early disagreement between Nation and the producers in “the Next Doctor,” when a man calling himself the Doctor traveled by gas balloon. He pushed for a zeppelin, but the damnable bean counters at BBC Cardiff said the CGI would be too expensive, the prospect of renting an actual zeppelin or at least a blimp for the day not having occurred to anyone.
- Neil Gaiman: Novelist, Screenwriter and Comic Book Writer: 1960-2054 CE: The well regarded author of such graphic novel sensations as “Sandman,” “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader,” “Black Orchid” and “Cheeseburger Surprise” (unpublished), as well as many bestselling novels and screenplays and you get the idea. Noted for his use of monomyth underpinnings and the retelling of the old tales in forms distinctly modern. (See a trend yet?) This incarnation was mostly due to John Hodgman’s desire to spend at least one lifetime looking good in leather, appealing to goths, and spending time with hot red haired indy rock sensations. And who are you to judge him for that?
- Justin Long: Actor, 1978-2067 CE: This incarnation was more or less a lark for John Hodgman. He was also the Mac, you see.
- Eric Burns-White: Systems Administrator and Blogger: 1968-2073 CE: And here we arrive at me.
As for my own story in all of this, well — it starts in the usual way, with the conversion of Hodgman’s last incarnation (Robert DuBois, 19th century French literary agent and editor, most notable for having done some early editing work on Nostradamus’s writings before giving up in frustration when Nostradamus couldn’t take even the slightest criticism. Examples: “wrong!” “That won’t happen!” and “Who taught you scansion — a Labrador retriever?”) After the customary conversion into pure energy and returning to the ideal form of John Hodgman, he passed through the fabulous copper, brass and crystal arch of the Infinities, causing the sublimation of self into a form set down in the ancient book of Being, which in this case was a fat, enbearded systems administrator with literary pretensions. Passing out into the world, he — meaning I — landed in 1968 in Northern Maine. As you would expect, I proceeded to walk into the home of a married academic couple, announcing I was their son. Naturally, they took my word for this, and my life proceeded as expected. My sister, it is worth noting, was somewhat dubious — expressing such doubts with phrases like “he’s not your son!” and “he just showed up one day!” and “he’s in his forties!” However, persistence has a habit of wearing down such things, and by today we have settled into an amiable routine where she leans close to me, pierces with me a stare, and says “I’m onto you, Mister,” followed by her pointing at her eyes, then gesturing towards mine.
As for the aforementioned meeting between myself and John Hodgman (and you will note he is always ‘John Hodgman,’ not either his first or last names. This is because his name is itself a phrase of power, and to truncate it is to invite disaster) that fateful night in Brookline? That was a moment of indulgence, naturally enough. He recognized me, of course — in his original, idealized form his entire future history is his to perceive — and our banter was knowing and full of in-jokes, not the least of which was his dubbing me “Mister 800.” You might think this was a reference to my being the eight hundredth incarnation, but not so — I am, in fact, the forty-seventh John Hodgman. No, that was a reference to another lifetime, when several of John Hodgman’s incarnations got together and drank heavily and partied all night in the year 800 CE. Other luminaries were there as well, and let me tell you something. Charlemagne was a great guy, but a right bastard when he was drunk.
Obviously, I lack John Hodgman’s prodigious powers, writing skill, perception of the universe and Hollywood contacts, and only have limited access to his mighty and mysterious artifacts. I can only visit the fabulous Time Zeppelin and I’m not allowed to bring guests (Wednesday excluded, of course. But that’s a special case.) I am barred from the observatory and the vault of many wondrous things. But, though I am not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven; that which I am, I am. (It’s okay — one of John Hodgman’s earlier incarnations totally knew Tennyson, and he said it was okay to use the line.) And as such, I must do what I can to use my limited, human understanding to bring knowledge of the secret, ancient world to light.
So you see, I’m hardly “ripping off” John Hodgman. I am merely continuing his — which is to say my — work, elucidating some of the myths that form the conceptual foundations of our shared reality. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to head home. I have reason to believe Jonathan Coulton may be killing my cat.