“A wandering mind unsticks us in time.”

Screen Shot 2015-12-27 at 4.31.32 PMNeed something to read in your post-holiday downtime? Here are a few interesting things from around the web, including the story of a very fancy French dominatrix, a theory about the real Jack the Ripper, and an article on why your brain needs to chill. Here we go!

A smart, obsessive screenwriter from England thinks he has figured out who Jack the Ripper really was, and he has a convincing theory as to why police never caught him. He suggests there was a massive cover-up born out of the cop’s connections to freemasonry (and the politicians and royals, too). The real Ripper was a philandering songwriter named Maybrick (in my head, I picture him like an old timey Mark Ronson):

In 1992 a diary surfaced in Liverpool, ostensibly written by a man named James Maybrick, in which he confessed to being the Ripper. Maybrick – who also happens to have been a Freemason – was a cotton trader and serial adulterer who died in 1889 as a result of poisoning. In one of the most controversial trials of the era, Maybrick’s wife Florence was convicted of the murder.

The diary was dismissed as a hoax. But reading it, something struck Robinson as a little odd. ‘It was written in three acts. Nobody writes a diary in three acts, because you don’t know what the third act will be. But the middle act, talking about the homicides, was so potent, so powerful, it got me thinking it could have been written by the murderer.’ But not by James Maybrick. Jack the Ripper, Robinson believes, was Maybrick’s brother Michael.

Michael Maybrick was a hugely popular singer and composer in the Victorian era, who is virtually forgotten today – for reasons that Robinson believes are no accident. He was particularly well known for his sentimental seafaring songs, written under the pen name Stephen Adams, among them Nancy Lee, the sheet music of which sold more than 100,000 copies in two years, and – ironically – They All Love Jack, which was written in 1887, the year before the Ripper killings began. His composition The Holy City sold more than one million copies, making it the best-selling song of the 19th century.

This Vanity Fair feature about a French author/dominatrix is straight-up bananas. It’s kind of over-written in that fancy, Voguey kind of way, but trust me, it’s still a reallllly good read. Here’s a taste:

Catherine embodied his lifelong obsession with young girls, resembling a little girl in her height, size, and manner. “Alain always said, ‘She’s my wife and my children,’ ” says Catherine. Well into her 30s she was regularly mistaken for Alain’s daughter. (Vladimir Nabokov met Catherine when the Stanley Kubrick film of his best-selling book was being cast and abruptly announced, “I want her to be Lolita!” He was sorry to learn that she didn’t speak English and so couldn’t play the role.)

Here’s an interesting detail about her book, which was published sous la table (a completely unnecessary bit of French is par for the course with this kind of rich-person profile. Note to self: Never do that!):

Susan Sontag named L’Image, alongside Story of O, as an example of pornographic books that she regarded as “belonging to literature.” And the book uncannily foretold Catherine’s own future erotic switch—17 years later—from submissive to dominant… L’Image was banned upon publication. The police arrived at the office of the publisher, Jérôme Lindon, demanding to know who was this “Jean de Berg”? “I have no idea,” lied Lindon, and, under their orders, he handed over copies of the book, which were burned. However, he continued publishing the book sous la table.

While we’re on the topic of sex, here’s a weird question: How does one design a cover for the book Lolita? Obviously, it is a difficult task, since designers need to chose imagery that nods at the subject matter but doesn’t glamorize it or sexualize the character. Many have tried. (And many have failed—too often the book looks like it’s about a consensual love affair between a precocious, sexy teenager and an older man, which very, very much misses the point.) Here’s an entire website devoted to Lolita covers, and here’s a great New Yorker article on the topic.

dee-nickerson-freedom-2015-30x40cmFinally, let’s all read this Scientific American story on why your brain needs more downtime and then immediately after, we’ll all close down our computers and go for a walk. Logically, I know I need to take breaks in between working and playing, but it can be really hard to make time for nothing. I’m great at doing things but I’m less adapt at just chilling, solo, without turning on some sort of stimulating device (TV, computer, podcasts, etc). But this article makes a great argument for taking out your earbuds, closing that book, and just… thinking. Without distraction. Here’s a good bit:

In making an argument for the necessity of mental downtime, we can now add an overwhelming amount of empirical evidence to intuition and anecdote. Why giving our brains a break now and then is so important has become increasingly clear in a diverse collection of new studies investigating: the habits of office workers and the daily routines of extraordinary musicians and athletes; the benefits of vacation, meditation and time spent in parks, gardens and other peaceful outdoor spaces; and how napping, unwinding while awake and perhaps the mere act of blinking can sharpen the mind. What research to date also clarifies, however, is that even when we are relaxing or daydreaming, the brain does not really slow down or stop working. Rather—just as a dazzling array of molecular, genetic and physiological processes occur primarily or even exclusively when we sleep at night—many important mental processes seem to require what we call downtime and other forms of rest during the day. Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life. A wandering mind unsticks us in time so that we can learn from the past and plan for the future. Moments of respite may even be necessary to keep one’s moral compass in working order and maintain a sense of self.

Top image via Pinterest, artist’s page here. Second image by artist Dee Nickerson. See more of her work here

Painted ladies by Jessica Harrison.

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I love tattoos. I know they’re not for everyone, but I like ink on skin. I like the strange burning tingle of the needle. I like the ritualistic aspect of the tattoo parlor. I like the way my skin responds, raised at first, textured as it heals, eventually relaxing into a smooth surface, newly pattered, altered.

Part of the reason I love tattoos is because they afford a certain amount of control. Our bodies are so frequently outside our control. They get sick. They betray us when we’re anxious or scared, running on adrenaline, heart jumping, head spinning. Have you ever fainted? There’s nothing quite like the sense of slow descent, the edges of vision turning black, the unwilling fall into unconsciousness.

But I can control my tattoos. They let me tell the story I want to tell. They also feel like an easy rebellion, a way of saying that my femininity is my own. Traditionally, women weren’t tattooed. Women were delicate flowers. Tattoos were for hard men, criminals, sailors. Now, I can be all three. A woman, a rogue, a wanderer. I can wear it on my skin and broadcast my not-a-freaking-lady status to the world.

1_tattoo_painted_porcelain_sculpture_jessica_harrison8copyI’ve been meaning to blog about Jessica Harrison‘s wild ceramics for a long time, but I couldn’t think of what to say about them, aside from I LOVE IT. She takes a familiar object—those little ceramic figurines—and turns them dark, modern. Some are gruesome, with melted faces and zombie-hands. Others are just tattooed. I love all her work, but I admit my favorite are the painted ladies. Their subversion is more subtle than the Kahlo-like dancer, who holds her bloody heart in her cold, porcelain hands. They’re beautiful, with their big skirts and delicate ink. They’re lovely ladies and bold scoundrels, and I think they’re just great. 

Language is awesome: On thieves cant, glymmering, and “limber, lasting, fierce words.”

Crow_peopleYou’ve probably heard of cockney slang, where rhyme and word association comes together to create some seriously weird linguistic substitutions. The classic example is using “apples” for “stairs.” See, stairs rhymes with pears, and apples and pears are associated words, thus stairs becomes apples. Similarly, eyes are sometimes referred to as “mincers” (eyes -> mince pieces -> mincers) and wives become “trouble” (wife -> strife -> trouble and strife -> trouble). It’s confusing, but it’s meant to be. It creates a system of insiders who understand the slang, and outsiders who do not. Some people believe that cockney slang sprung up as a way for criminals to confuse police and better achieve their nefarious goals (though that’s not an entirely accepted theory).

Anyway, I was researching cockney slang when I came across “thieves cant,” a language of thieves that has this truly incredible Wikipedia entry: “It was claimed by Samuel Rid that thieves’ cant was devised around 1530 ‘to the end that their cozeningsknaveries and villainies might not so easily be perceived and known’, by Cock Lorel and the King of the Gypsies at The Devils Arse, a cave in Derbyshire.” Sadly, Wikipedia goes on to inform me that, while thieves cant most likely “originated in this period, the story is almost certainly a myth.” Bummer, right? But at least we got to read about the fantastically named Cock Lorel and his cozenings and knaveries and villainies (lions and tigers and bears, oh my!).

As it turns out, English isn’t the only language with a thieves cant. The Germans had Rotwelsch, which pulls in words from Yiddish and Romany languages to create a verbal hodgepodge. But it’s also a highly literal language without abstractions, so instead of calling winter by an arbitrary name, it’s called “Blibberling,” which is the word for “shivering.” (Also, how great is it that both shivering and blibberling feel incredibly onomatopoeic? Just imagine trying to stammer out blibberling between chattering teeth.) Similar, criminals in Yugoslavia once spoke in Šatrovački to hide their knaveries. Šatrovački seems a little like a Slavic pig-latin, in which words are distorted by changing around the order of the syllables. (For example: trava—grass, often used for marijuana—becomes vutra instead of vatra, meaning fire and pivo—beer—becomes vopi.)

It’s amazing how, while these languages were created for mendacious purposes, they’re still so damn beautiful. Another great word from thieves cant is “glymmer,” which means fire. Glymmer! How utterly lovely. I’m also struck by how poetic slang words can be, how vibrant and bold. This happens with American slang, too. Just think of all the words that are being coined on Snapchat right now by the youths! It’s pretty mind-boggling.

Plus, it’s extra cool because American English is basically just a big ol’ melting pot filled with pilfered phrase and made-up words. I’m going to quote this article at length, so click through…  Continue reading

I mean, yeah, it’s a bad idea. But it’s pretty.

crimes-art-marco-evaristtiA Copenhagen-based Chilean artist was just sentenced to 15 days in jail for creating the above work, which involved pouring a bunch of pink food dye into the Strokkur Geysir. On one hand, it’s kind of a dick move (and his “defense” makes him sound like a pretentious jerk—totally unheard of for artists, I know). On the other hand, damn. I kinda dig it.