The cuckoo bush, Bob Dylan & monster trucks
By Locke Peterseim, Britannica.com
Special to ABC Sports Online

Where Sylvia Plath drowns the eels in a hacky sack ...

The set-up: Miller explained that the city of Minneapolis was in need of some good news in light of MLB commissioner Bud Selig's efforts to eliminate the Minnesota Twins.

The quip: "By the way, Bud Selig looks like Harry Potter in the 83rd volume in the series, 'Harry Potter and the Magic Prostate.'"

Bud Selig
Bud Selig, the mayor of Minneapolis.
The read: After hours of frustrating, painstaking research, my assistant and I were unable to find any information on a "Harry Potter." In the end we determined that it was Miller who was confused, most likely mixing up veteran character actor Harry Morgan with Morgan's most famous role, Colonel Sherman T. Potter on the hit television series "M*A*S*H." The reference makes perfect sense: like Bud Selig, Col. Potter wore round, wire-rim glasses and did his best to maintain order while overseeing an organization full of misfits and nimcompoops. We forgive Miller for his understandable slip -- after all, you can't be on top of everything all the time.


The set-up: Miller commented on how the New York media has hounded Giants running back Ron Dayne for his performance this season.

The quip: "They'll get you from many angles up there in Gotham."

The read: It was Washington Irving who first used the term Gotham in reference to New York City, in a series of political essays he published in 1807 under the title "Salmagundi." Irving was looking for a clever way to describe what he considered to be the foolish lives of New Yorkers, and so he drew upon an old English folk tale. According to legend, in the early 13th century the inhabitants of Gotham, a village in Nottinhamshire, England, wanted to discourage King John from visiting their town. They were afraid that if John and his royal entourage set up residence in the town, the locals would go broke from having to provide services and goods gratis to the king and his court.

In order to scare off the monarch, the Wise Men of Gotham, as they came to be known, feigned madness, setting about such tasks as trying to drown eels and building a fence around their so-called "cuckoo bush" to trap the birds, which of course flew away. Faced with such complete zaniness, King John detoured around the eel-drowning town and Gotham was spared the expense of playing host to him.

These tales of the "foles of Gotham" spread and were eventually collected and published in the 16th century. In calling New York "Gotham," Irving was pointing out a similar "method to the madness" of the city's inhabitants, who acted foolishly so that outsiders would leave them alone. Of course that other Gotham needed no such elaborate shenanigans to deter outsiders, as archvillians like the Joker, Two-face and the Penguin, as well as the addition of nipples to the batsuit, were enough to keep the feint of heart away.


The set-up: Miller commented on the size of Vikings wide receiver Randy Moss' hands as he caught a touchdown pass.

The quip: "His hands make the football look like a Hacky Sack."

The read: "Hacky Sack" is the brand name for a popular version of the footbag. As with most other modern sports, versions of the sport of footbag can be traced back to ancient times, in this case to almost every early culture, including east Asia and Native America. The idea, through the ages, was simply to kick a small leather bag filled with pebbles or sand back and forth without it touching the ground.

No pepper, and no hacky sack.
The current version of the footbag was created in 1972 when two guys in Oregon, John Stalberger and Mike Marshall, started kicking a tiny bean bag around -- Stalberger had recently undergone knee surgery and was looking for some rehabilitative exercise. Naturally, they called this activity "hacking the sack." Marshall died in 1975, but in the great American tradition of turning backyard hobbies into corporate empires, by 1977 Stalberger was producing and marketing the "Hacky Sack," selling 77,000 in eight months. In the '80s, he sold the Hacky Sack trademark to Wham-O, home of the Frisbee flying disc.

Lest you think the Hacky Sack is just something the guys down the dorm hall with the funny smelling room kicked around instead of going to class, you should know that there are competitive footbag sports, governed by the International Footbag Committee. "Footbag net" is a lot like tennis, except the ball is filled with beans and you hit it with your foot instead of a racket, while "footbag freestyle" is a lot like figure skating, except there's no ice or skates, and instead you gracefully hit a bean-filled bag with your foot. There is even a Footbag Hall of Fame that includes such luminaries of the sport as Lori Jean Conover, the first competitive female footbagger; Garwin Bruce, "one of the finest coaches the game has ever known;" and Mark Hill, "one of the first to master the use of both feet equally."

We are so not making any of this up.


The set-up: Vikings defensive tackle Stalin Colinet bats down a pass from Giants quarterback Kerry Collins.

The quip: "Stalin Colinet's taking no Bolshevik off anyone tonight."

The read: In the early 1900s, dominant members of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party, led by Vladimir Lenin, assumed the name "Bolshevik," which means "one of the majority." (Their opponents in the group were "Mensheviks": "those of the minority.") Over the next decade, the Bolsheviks gained the support of the workers and soldiers and eventually took over Russia in the October Revolution of 1917 (better known in film schools as "The Revolution Where the Woman with the Baby Carriage Got Shot in the Eye"). A year later Lenin, Leon Trotsky (who'd started out as a Menshevik, but switched sides), and the Bolsheviks had pushed all other revolutionary groups out of power and changed their name to the Russian Communist Party (later the Communist Party of the Soviet Union).

Working with Lenin and Trotsky in the early days of the movement was a young rabble-rouser named Joseph Dzhugashvili who was good at getting workers into bloody fights with the police. Realizing that "Dzhugashvili" would never fit on posters and statues, Joseph soon changed his last name to the Russian word for "steel": "Stalin."

Josef Stalin
Stalin, the Selig of Russia.
In 1922 Stalin became secretary general of the Communist Party's Central Committee, a position of power from which he could run the country. Lenin died two years later, and two years after that Stalin ran Trotsky off (eventually having him assassinated in exile in 1940). For the next 25 years, Stalin industrialized the Soviet Union, named cities after himself, helped win World War II, ordered tens of millions killed in bloody purges and built a totalitarian Soviet empire throughout Eastern Europe.

Stalin's winning streak ended in 1956, when a crowd in Budapest, during the Hungarian Revolution, cut down his statue with blow torches, painted "WC" on Stalin's head and dragged it through the city behind a tractor. Later, the Hungarian flag, sans Communist symbolism, was stuck inside the statue's boots.

Stalin's legacy was trampled again, in 1991, with the end of the Soviet Union. Children now use his immortal butt as a park bench in Fallen Monument Park in Moscow.


The set-up: Al Michaels asks Miller for his theory on the success of the Chicago Bears this year.

The quip: "They bring in these two monster trucks, Traylor and Washington, and they keep guys off Urlacher."

The read: Ever since a Sumerian goat farmer decided that around 4000 B.C. that it might be easier to move his sledge full of dung if he attached a couple of rollers underneath it, any major advancement in ground transportation has been soon followed by a single thought: "I wonder how many (cars / wagons / chariots / sledges / goats) I can drive this over?"

Big Foot
Those boys and their Tonka Toys.
Almost 6000 years later, a humble construction contractor in St. Louis had a dream. He merely wanted to reinforce his 4x4 Ford pickup truck enough that it wouldn't break whenever he wanted to drive it at high speeds over ditches, fallen trees, or goats. Unable to find repair parts for his truck, Bob Chandler opened his own 4x4 supply business and continued tinkering with his own truck, reinforcing the frame, jacking it further up and putting larger tires on it. Soon folks were coming from miles around to gawk at the giant truck, which Bob called "Big Foot."

So, like those guys kicking the bean-bags around, Bob did the American thing: he decided to start charging people. Big Foot began appearing at paid events in 1979 and two years later Chandler took that natural next step: he decided to start driving Big Foot over other cars. A star was born. Big Foot appeared in the movie "Take This Job and Shove It," easily outshining its costars Robert Hays and Art Carney, and soon "monster trucks" were replacing Pet Rocks in America's heart. With the arrival of such oversized automotive brethren as Bear Foot, Grave Digger and Reptoid, we soon had monster truck racing, monster truck pulling, monster truck sumo wrestling, monster truck modern interpretive dance and monster trucks running over things just for the hell of it.

Now, if only the Special Forces could figure out how to get a monster truck into a cave.


The set-up: Coming out of the commercial, the "Monday Night Football" producers played the song "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" quietly in the background.

The quip: "What was that bum-out music, man? I felt like Sylvia Plath there."

The read: Sylvia Plath has become so associated with the stereotypical image of the neurotic, suicidal poet that her name has become literary shorthand for the type. Meanwhile academics have argued for decades over Plath's life, work, death and mostly her relationship with her husband, British poet Ted Hughes.

The Boston-born Plath was a precocious young writer whose poetry was published in the Boston Herald at age eight. She continued to accrue publishing successes as she entered her 20s, but she also began struggle with depression, as marked by several suicide attempts. In 1955, at age 23, Plath went to England to study at Cambridge, and it was there she met the moody Hughes. They began a tumultuous, passionate relationship (it's said she bit his cheek and drew blood upon their first meeting) and married a year later.

And here's where things get sticky. The feminist take on Plath and Hughes is that she sacrificed her talent to support him domestically, professionally and emotionally. Plath had two children with Hughes, and while he gathered greater and greater success and recognition, her muse gathered cobwebs. In 1962, Plath learned Hughes was having an affair with Assia Wevill and she left him, moving with the children into a small London flat. There followed for Plath a burst of productivity, as she finished up her autobiographical novel "The Bell Jar" and the poems that would later be published as the collection "Ariel." However, most scholars characterize this creativity as a last manic beating of the wings -- on February 11, 1963, Plath carefully set out food for the children and opened the window of their room to let in plenty of fresh air. She then locked herself in the kitchen, used towels and tape to seal off the door, and turned on the oven.

The publication of "The Bell Jar" and "Ariel" gave Plath a strong posthumous cult following, and the movement to damn Hughes for supposedly driving her to her fate gained momentum when six years later Assia Wevill also killed herself (and her two-year-old daughter, whose father was Hughes) with a gas oven.

However, it's unlikely that's the cheerful association the MNF producers were going for when they spun "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." They probably just intended a friendly nod to Minnesota native Robert Zimmermann (a.k.a. Bob Dylan).


The set-up: Vikings running back Michael Bennett tried to slip through two Giants tacklers.

The quip: "That showed some savvy on the young man's part. Did I say young man? When did I turn into Hume Cronyn?"

The read: Don't say we never do anything for you, dear reader. We're about to help you make some easy Tuesday morning cash. We are going to hand you a nugget of sure-fire bet-winning information that you can use to sucker the hard-earned coin from any coworker of yours who doesn't read the ADM (assuming you can find such a rare bird). Are you ready? Pencil and paper in hand? Here it is:

Hume Cronyn is not dead.

Nope. Not dead. Still alive as of this writing. Ninety years old and scooting right along, God bless him. And please don't take our teasing the wrong way -- Cronyn seems to be, in addition to a fine stage and screen actor, a very kind and likable man. So it's not like we were wishing he were dead -- just the opposite, we're very glad he's with us. So let us repeat, Hume Cronyn, the loveable 'old coot' star of "Cocoon" and "*batteries not included" and widower of the lovely Jessica Tandy, with whom he formed the "first couple of the American theatre," is still very much alive.

Harry Morgan is still with us, too, by the way, at age 86, last seen in infomercials scaring other old folks out of their wits to sell them some insurance.

But we presume Col. Sherman T. Potter has passed on to that great "police action" in the sky -- he'd be pushing 110 right now.

The set-up: A Vikings sack knocked the ball from Kerry Collins' hands, almost causing another Giants turnover.

The quip: "Kerry might as well be holding the ball with isotope arms out there, it doesn't even look like it's tethered to him."

The read: We can handle history, literature, movies, pop music, obscure TV shows and monster trucks. But we admit it, we're just not that strong with the really hardcore sciencey stuff. Deep down, we don't know an isotope from an Isotoner. So we're going to go with a straight quote from the Encyclopaedia Britannica on this one because if we try to paraphrase or explain it, we're just going to screw it up. So here goes: an isotope is "one of two or more species of atoms of a chemical element with the same atomic number and position in the periodic table and nearly identical chemical behavior but with different atomic masses and physical properties. Every chemical element has one or more isotopes."

Most elements have pairs of both stable and radioactive -- or decaying -- isotopes. For example, it's because of this decay that we can carbon date things, since the radioactive isotopes in carbon decay at a very slow, steady, predicable pace, allowing us to measure how old something is by how many "parent" isotopes have decayed.

So there. Simple, huh? Of course, short of some weird image of Kerry Collins' arms decaying, or some brainy variation on "alligator arms," we still can't figure out what the hell Miller meant.

Locke Peterseim is a senior editor at Britannica.com.

Research assistant: Dave Ihlenfeld


 
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