Trip report: Campbell, California

The goal of treating the place I’m from as though I were a tourist continues! The most recent stop on this itinerary was the Campbell Historical Museum, located in the old firehouse in Historic Downtown Campbell (TM), together with the nearby Ainsley House, former retirement residence of fruit canning magnate J. C. Ainsley. I lived in Campbell for a year and never went to either of these places — I couldn’t even have told you what the Ainsley house was, despite having been in the adjacent Campbell Public Library at least once a week every week I lived there.

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The Historical Museum is titchy!
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It has recreated grocery store shelves!
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And a 1921 electric car!
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And a cool Oddfellow’s Hall door with a staring divine eye!

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Caaaaaaanned gooooods!
Caaaaaaanned gooooods!

It’s a museum, it’s historical, and it’s in Campbell. It’s basically one big room, and it costs $2 to go in, which is 1/3 less than the Pez museum. Clearly a key point for the economy-minded California history enthusiast. It’s mainly aimed at helping young people appreciate what life was like in old-timey Campbell, so there’s a lot of emphasis on domestic life and also the economics and technology of fruit growing, drying and canning.

The Ainsley houses costs $6 per adult (about £4), which includes a fact-filled guided tour. Our docent was really friendly and knowledgeable.

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The roof of the house is supposed to look like a thatched roof, but with shingles. It’s completely bizarre looking and was recently recreated at the cost of $250,000.
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The paneling in the foyer is awesome, as are the pointy arches. It’s all very arts-and-crafts-y.
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Life was good in the fruit-canning tycoon world.
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The clanking machinery for this refrigerator was down in the basement to minimise noise. This was a pretty early refrigerator (as opposed to an icebox).

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The maid’s quarters.
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Apparently one of the grandchildren got a little enthusiastic while making a fire.
I really like this -- this is Ainsley's radio, on which he pencilled in the positions for his favourite radio stations.
I really like this — this is Ainsley’s radio, on which he pencilled in the positions for his favourite radio stations.
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The pointed arches are even in the bathroom.

The house is so well-preserved (it really is in remarkable shape) because the Ainsleys only lived in it for a short time; after he died in ’37, she moved out and died shortly thereafter, and so the house remained in the family but wasn’t inhabited. That’s how you want to keep your historical houses historic. There are a few reconstructed bits and pieces, but quite a lot of it is original and the guide is good about pointing out which is which.

In any event, there’s a heady vibe of nostalgia around the Ainsley house, the kind of thing that makes you want to be the sort of person who wears high collars and gazes nobly into the middle distance, contemplating his many hard-won achievements. Kind of boringly, though. If I had a fruit-canning fortune I like to think that I’d do all the paternalistic things that Ainsley did for his employers, with the housing and the child care and so on, but after that I think I could find something more fun to do than fish and play golf. Of course, maybe they don’t mention the booze-fuelled orgies in the guided tour.

Anyway, it’s an odd and splendid house, and it’s even more odd and splendid that they actually picked the thing up in one piece and moved it to its present site; there’s a video of that in the visitor’s centre and it’s really impressive.

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Trip report: Campbell, California

Batman, Buddhism, and the trajectory of pop ideas

In a previous post I mentioned going to a talk by Ian “Cat” Vincent at Treadwell’s Books about popular culture and occultism. During this talk, he mentioned a point about the idea of the tulpa in Tibetan Buddhism, a point I’ll return to later, and I mentioned that there was actually a Batman villain in the late 1980s who was a tulpa. I mentioned it briefly in the last post, but yesterday I found 20 issues of the Grant/Breyfogle run on Detective Comics for a quarter each, so now I can talk about it in a little more detail.

Our story runs from Detective Comics 601 to 603 and, as I mentioned before, is written by Alan Grant, pencilled by Norm Breyfogle and inked by Steve Mitchell. In it, we start out with a mysterious robbery committed by a young man who crumbles to bits when Batman catches him. Later, an identical-looking young man tries to rob Wayne Manor. Batman investigates and discovers that these are tulpas or thought-projections sent out by Tenzin, a young Tibetan man who is desperate for money to repay the gangsters his father owed $5,000 to.

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Worried that the gangsters are going to kill him, Tenzin creates yet another tulpa, drawing on his own anger and resentment at the criminals and gives it the form of Mahakala, the protector of the faith. Mahakala is an emanation or projection of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara who has a frightening, demon-like appearance but is actually a good guy (a letter in the letter column of issue 604, complaining about the comics’ misrepresentation of Tibetan Buddhism, points out that in this respect Mahakala is actually similar to Batman). However, the comic is quick to point out that this is not the Mahakala, but merely a physical representation of Tensin’s negative emotions in the form of Mahakala.

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This is comics, of course, so Mahakala gets a slight redesign, complete with a bitchin’ huge axe.

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Anyway, the gangsters shoot Tenzin, then run off, pursued by Mahakala, while Batman tends to the injured youth. Cue a load of Batman running around Gotham trying to stop the crooks from being murdered by the tulpa. Since this is a mystical matter, Bats tries to enlist the help of Jason Blood, the human host of the Demon, Etrigan, but Blood, who as we all know hates Etrigan, is having none of it. Breyfogle gets to draw some angry-ass Batman eyes.

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Blood’s psychic sidekick Randu goes along with Batman, though. Batman hits Mahakala with a wrecking ball.

Comics!
Comics!

But the tulpa ain’t dead, and when Randu gets in trouble, Blood has to overcome his reservations and intervene as Etrigan. Grant loves writing Etrigan and Breyfogle draws the hell out of him, so this is pretty good news.

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Anyway, Etrigan takes out the tulpa, then decides he’s going to kill the gangsters, but Batman tries to intervene. Etrigan whups him too, but then lets him win in one of his fits of demonic whimsy. The End.

So, other than that I got a chunk of my childhood for $5.00, which is a pretty great deal at today’s prices, what’s the relevance of this story? I think the point that Vincent was making in his talk was that the popular conception of a tulpa, shared by occultists and comic fans alike, is of a sort of physical manifestation of a concept, and that this conception originally derives from the work of Alexandra David-Neel.

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However, David-Neel’s description of the tulpa seems to be not quite right in Buddhist terms; they’re not really imagined going around smashing stuff and cutting off one of Batman’s ears with a big damn bronze axe. Instead, they’re a sort of tool for thinking about things, and it’s all much more complicated, which may make for great meditative practices but not such good comics. I know next to nothing about Buddhism, so I’ve read this big summary of what a tulpa actually is, but I’m afraid I’ve just come away with “not like in the book; much more complicated.” If I’ve got a detail wrong, please forgive me.

But that’s always the way: the reality of a cultural or religious practice is always much more complicated than the summary of it — just look at the difference between the popular conception and actual practice of “selling indulgences,” for instance — but it’s the popular conception that stays with you. These ideas take on a life of their own, regardless of the original intent, and often outlast their originators.

seriously didn’t intend for that paragraph to say that Alexandra David-Neel’s interpretation of the tulpa is kind of like a tulpa, but it’s worked out that way a bit, hasn’t it?

Anyway, I just thought I’d expand on a point of trivia from an earlier post at great length because I do like talking about Batman.

Additional:

On a sadder note, the artist who drew this issue and so many other great comics, Norm Breyfogle, recently suffered a stroke, leaving him partly paralysed, including his dominant left hand. A fundraiser raised $100,000 to cover his medical bills, but sadly that’s only half of the needed total (my non-US readers are reminded to be appreciative of our health care systems). However, apparently the Hero Initiative are also getting involved, and DC Comics are releasing a hardcover of his work earlier than scheduled. Breyfogle is posting messages to Facebook and seems to be on the path to recovery, so that’s all good news. But this just demonstrates how precarious the existence of an artist can be; that’s why the work of the Hero Initiative and others is so important.

Batman, Buddhism, and the trajectory of pop ideas

Trip Report: Burlingame Pez Museum

The first day of my holiday included banned toys and a glimpse at the origins of museums. I think we can say that’s going pretty well so far.

Resolving to do lots of stuff on this visit to the old homestead, my wife and I looked around for ways to do tourist stuff in the place we’re from. It turned out there were quite a few local attractions we’d never been to, but perhaps the most eye-catching thing was the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia.

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I don’t usually appear personally on the blog, but when I do it’s in front of some approximate images of PEZ dispensers.

First off: “museum” might be a strong word. It’s really a toy shop specialising in Pez and Lego, with a room in the back that covers several different themes in the history of toys. You go in, you browse around the selection of things, and then you pay your $3 (about £2) and get the tour, by which I mean you go into the back room and someone from the shop explains to you what everything is.

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I know that sounds a bit blah, but it’s absolutely fascinating. You start with the basics — Pez was invented in Austria, the names comes from “Pfefferminz” even though you can’t actually get them in peppermint any more, the original dispensers didn’t have the cartoon heads on them, etc., etc. Then you get shown some of the various Pez dispensers throughout history, from beloved childhood characters to outright nightmare fuel.

Lots of rare ones, oddities (including guns that shoot Pez), custom jobs, little dioramas, etc., etc. I think my favourite was this psychedelic example:

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You also get to see the Museum of Banned Toys, which is really just the Cabinet of Banned Toys, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in terribly, terribly bad ideas.

The "Buckle Gun" was a fold up cap gun you wore against your belly. It occasionally went off by itself.
The “Buckle Gun” was a fold up cap gun you wore against your belly. It occasionally went off by itself.

Consider, if you will, the Yard Dart:

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A weighted metal projectile with a sharp, heavy tip? The ideal children’s toy!

The highlight of this section has to be the Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab:

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Released in 1951, this bad boy came with a Geiger counter, a build-it-yourself cloud chamber, and four samples of radioactive ore. All that and a comic book called, and I swear I am not making this up, Dagwood Splits the Atom!, in which Dagwood Bumstead, together with other King Features Syndicate characters like Mandrake the Magician, explain nuclear physics. With a foreword by Leslie Groves, which may make it the 1951-est thing ever to exist. Funnily enough, this thing only stayed on the market for about a year, although some sources suggest that it wasn’t the radioactive isotopes so much as the whopping $50 price tag (a lot of money in those days) and high complexity level that made it unpopular.

There are lot of other toys that can choke you to death, put your eye out or shatter into razor-edged plastic shards, but I think those were my favourites.

And then you’ve got the Classic Toy Museum, which is to say again, Cabinet Full of Lincoln Logs and Barbies and Stuff, which is clearly just what you have left over when you’re an avid toy collector but not everything you have fits within the other two main categories.

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I was particularly taken with the ad copy for Lincoln Logs:

That's the kind of gut-grabbing ad copy you got in 1918.
That’s the kind of gut-grabbing writing you got in 1918.

I had no idea they were created by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son.

There’s more, including a copy of Famous Funnies #1, effectively the first newsstand comic book, which was pretty cool.

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Now, some might say that this isn’t a museum per se. It’s a collection that you can pay to go in and have a look at. But, of course, this is how museums got started. This is basically a highly specific consumerist wunderkammer.

Just if everything here were made of bright plastic.
Just if everything here were made of bright plastic.

And I don’t know about you, but I like that idea a lot. More weird little museums would be great. I’d love to buy my video games from a shop with a games museum in it. I would drive quite a long way to go to a miniatures museum (I kind of intend to, in fact). More guerrilla museology would be badass. I realise it’s easier to do on the internet, but I don’t know. I quite liked the physicality of it.

Anyway, that was the first full day. I thought it was pretty good!

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Trip Report: Burlingame Pez Museum