Sunday, February 23, 2014

Russian Hockey Meets Andrew Lloyd Webber

Today mental_floss ran an article about great sports cheers and jeers from around the world. It was a fun read, but the best part by far was a little surprise at the end, where the article's author, Hannah Keyser, covered the popular Russian hockey chant, "Shaybu, shaybu!" which translates literally to "Puck, puck!"

Keyser illuminates the popularity of the chant by informing us that in the lead-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russian pop star Irina Allegrova orchestrated the production of a music video featuring many notable Russian hockey players singing a musical take on the popular call to icy action, and embeds the video for our viewing pleasure. What Keyser may not have been aware of, however, was the striking melodic similarity between the shaybu song's verses and the song "The Lady's Got Potential" from the movie Evita.

So moved was I by this similarity that I could not resist putting together a mash-up. My editing software kept crashing, so I didn't bother with cropping down the frames or adjusting the levels. The result is rough, but illustrates my point effectively enough.

"The Lady's Got Potential" is a four-minute-and-twenty-four-second-long wonder of musical exposition that (like the song "You Must Love Me") was not featured in the original Broadway cast recording but was added to the movie version. So now you can enjoy rugged Russian hockey players singing along to a tune that borrows heavily from a song sung by ruggedly good-looking Hollywood pretty boy Antonio Banderas in a movie starring Madonna adapted from a Broadway musical. Something tells me the machismo machine of Russian athleticism might prefer to overlook the resemblance, but that would be a pity - nothing says tough like a little Andrew Lloyd Webber!

We have to give Allegrova credit though - the "shaybu, shaybu" chorus of her song is very catchy, and, as far as we know, bears no resemblance to any number of the Broadway canon.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

On Sinkholes

Photo: Zora Duntov, used with permission.

By now you have heard of the sinkhole that opened up earlier this week in the National Corvette Museum, right? If you haven’t, go read up really quickly. Caught up? Let’s proceed.

Some time back, when another notable sinkhole was making headlines (though I can no longer recall which), I was so struck by the event’s ability to boggle eyes and slacken jaws that I began sketching out ideas for a book with a secondary plotline centered on the weird and awesome phenomenon. That book, like its innumerable brethren, was abandoned in infancy, but its theme has remained lodged in my craw, and, in the wake of the latest sinkhole news, has renewed its persistent plea for examination. Well, it won’t be getting its own book. Not from me, at least. But let’s consider, shall we, just what it is about these gaping earthmaws that fascinates and terrifies and excites us so.

“Security cameras were rolling Wednesday when a sinkhole opened up underneath the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, KY,” opens Mark Memmot’s coverage this morning for NPR’s The Two-Way. “As we reported earlier, eight of the iconic sports cars were sucked down into a hole about 40 feet deep. The museum has now posted videos of the hole opening up, the cars disappearing and what it looks like inside the pit.” 

Well now. If that doesn’t read just like an excerpt from the script of a summertime action/adventure flick! All sinkhole stories share common elements that connect them inextricably to the narrative of our modern society (you’ll have to bear with me on that), but this sinkhole, the Corvette Sinkhole – have General Motors’ PR people begun branding it yet, or is the word "sinkhole" too rife with negative connotation to willingly associate it with your product? Anyway, this sinkhole paints those connections in such bold hues that even the most pedestrian among us can’t help but catch a glimpse of their gleaming lacquer.  

The National Corvette Museum, a nineties-era monument to the Chevrolet sportscar model born in the early fifties, sits on fifty-two acres adjacent to the only manufacturing plant in the world that builds the cars today. LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art), for comparison, a seven-building complex considered the largest art museum in the western United States, takes up twenty-three acres of LA real estate. Granted, massive building sites in Bowling Green likely come at a slightly lower premium. Weighing in at 115,000 square feet, the NCM, as its patrons sometimes call it, pales in comparison to another American Mecca, that Minnesotan mall that measures its square footage in the literal millions. Still, it’s pretty large, which is the point of all these crunchy numbers. asserts that the museum is “recognized world-wide for its space-age design and sweeping lines.” (No word whether that space-age design included environmentally-friendly building practices, minimized energy consumption, or any other efforts toward sustainability. We do know, however, it wouldn’t look out of place sketched into an episode of The Jetsons.) 

Let’s pause here briefly to address that dot-org domain. And no, I haven’t forgotten about the sinkholes. The National Corvette Museum, despite its being a veritable shrine to a commercial car model still in production, despite its mission of “celebration” of a specific for-sale product, somehow maintains the status of a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit foundation. I won’t pretend to know anything about nonprofit law, so I’ll just leave it at the fact that I found this rather amusing. This not-for-profit is, by the way, accepting tax-deductible donations, if you are so inclined.

Now look, I’m not down on Corvettes or the people who love them. I happen to love a lot of people who love Corvettes. But without a little background, this story’s not complete, and the fact is, the National Corvette Museum, inside of which a forty-foot-wide sinkhole has recently opened up, is a massive monument to modern industrialism. And that is relevant.

We Americans love our cars, no doubt about it.  And for many Americans, it’s a love that speaks to something much larger than an affinity for automobiles themselves. This isn’t news, but if it’s something you’ve forgotten, you will be reminded rather effectively in looking back to this year’s controversial Super Bowl ad in which a legendary voice of the American counter-culture, Bob Dylan, baffled many of his fans by “selling out” to hawk Chryslers. The entire spot, if you don’t recall, harkened to the spirit of America so many of our compatriots have long invested in our automobile industry. “Is there anything more American than America?” Dylan asks in the commercial. (Fun fact: Chrysler is now wholly owned by the Italian company Fiat!) 

The troubadour-turned-trader (and, to much of his fan-base, poor Dylan, -traitor) goes on to suggest that “what Detroit created . . . became an inspiration to the rest of the world. Detroit made cars, and cars made America.” Cars made America. That’s no small statement, and though the ad received plenty of flack, very little of it came by way of disagreement with that assertion. “We believe in the zoom. And the roar. And the thrust. And when it’s made here, it’s made with the one thing you can’t import from anywhere else: American Pride.”

Okay, point made. In America, we have a great big car thing, and suffice it to say, it’s not just about cars. Here is where people who are annoyed with the direction I’m heading will counter “No, it’s not just about cars. It’s about innovation. Determination. Grit and glory. Creativity, ingenuity. It’s about the marriage of grace and power. It’s about that American Pride.” But we’re not writing car ads here, people, we’re just looking at the facts.

Facts are, Americans are car-crazy, and cars are big expensive machines that many people pour huge portions of their time and money into. Cars are human inventions that have become so intrinsically linked to our every-day lives that few people can imagine a world without them. A world without roads. A world without the behemoth factories that produce the cars that populate our roads, and the industry that extracts the crude, and the industry that refines it into gasoline, and the industry that sells it in the gas stations that line those roads. A world without commercials to sell us on cars, and financing plans to help us afford them, and giant salesrooms in which to shop for them. And that's understandable. But with the emergence of the Corvette Sinkhole, the earth upon which we small humans have built all of this has issued us a reminder. “Before you, there was me,” it says. “All you have, I have given you. And I can take it all away.” Upon the wild face of this sphere we came into being, and we have altered it drastically to accommodate our whims, investing, as we did, vast quantities of pride in our accomplishments. The Earth, with its sinkholes, advises us not to allow that pride to blind us.

“When the ground begins opening up beneath our feet and plunging unsuspecting mortals into the abyss, some may be tempted to reach for the Bible and start predicting the End of Times (and a quick online search reveals that several of the wackier sort of website have not hesitated to do just that). But biblical as the story sounds, the sinkhole . . . was not an act of God but of geology,” we are reminded in Jon Henley’s fascinating article for The Guardian, What causes sinkholes?

Sinkholes are part of the amazing destructive and regenerative powers of the earth itself, like volcanoes, floods, and earthquakes. And with these geological disruptions to the daily routines our society has established for itself on the surface of this planet, Earth reminds us we’re not really the ones in charge here.

But as Dr. Anthony Cooper, principal geologist at the British Geological Survey, points out, "since extremes of sinkhole-affecting weather – long periods of drought, for example, followed by spells of unusually heavy and persistent rain – are widely predicted to become more frequent as the Earth's climate changes, ‘we would certainly expect there to be more sinkholes in the future’.” (The Guardian)

So what’s the bottom line? Sinkholes are mind-blowing geological occurrences not just because they have a way of catching us off-guard, producing dizzying photo-ops and oh-so-clickable headlines. These occurrences are stunning, in part, because of what they represent beyond their immediate implications. Sure, in tragic scenarios sinkholes occasionally swallow up human beings. More often, they make headlines for their destruction of property. Sometimes, we humans forget where the line is. “It is with heavy hearts that we report that eight Corvettes were affected by this incident,” reads the National Corvette Museum’s blog dedicated to the topic, in language commonly reserved for the loss of human life. 

In the aftermath of the sinkhole that has opened up the ground underneath a giant, man-made institution honoring some of the man-made machines that contribute significantly to the rapid change in climate spurred largely by human activity on the earth’s surface, it is worth considering that the terrifying awe experience when we gape at the photographs of these geological incidents can be attributed, in part, to a subconscious recognition that our superficial human constructs are tenuous. The legacies we have written in concrete and steel are not impervious. The Earth is more powerful than we who populate it. And if we do not move forward with greater respect for our planetary home, we may well destroy it. Or vice-versa.