It seems that from about September until January, everything in the world mysteriously appears in a pumpkin spice variety. It wasn’t always this way. Just a few short years ago, the only thing you could get in pumpkin spice flavor was pumpkin pie. But then the slow pumpkination of the world began. First it was pumpkin spice coffee, then pumpkin spice donuts. The pumpkin spice muffins came next, followed shortly by pumpkin spice bacon. Everything is good when it’s baconated, but I fear that baconation in combination with pumpkination could produce a dangerously unstable compound.
That wasn’t the end, though. They also started making pumpkin spice shampoo, pumpkin spice deodorant, and pumpkin spice bath bombs. Not only could you eat pumpkin spice, but you could also bathe yourself in it and smell like it all day. You could quite literally be a giant walking mess of pumpkin spice for at least five months out of the year.
This was all well and good, but then it happened. They went and pumpkinated the last thing that had, until recently, escaped the plodding progress of pumpkination: they started making Pumpkin Spice Oreos. I could ignore the pumpkin spice bread and the pumpkin spice butter, but once pumpkin spice founds its way into the beloved Oreo, I knew I had to investigate.
The first thing I had to do was trace the source of this pernicious piquancy. This would have been quite difficult for most people, but my previous experience with the Vast Soursop Conspiracy had given me a lot of practice in finding secret lairs and obscure hideouts. When I had completed my calculations, I was shocked to realize that this vast pumpkin-spice operation had been operating almost right under my nose the entire time. I’d always wondered why that one part of the local shopping mall had suddenly been walled off, removed from the map, and never spoken of again. As it happened, that was the very place where all of this pumpkin spice was being made.
I arrived at the mall and began looking around, while pretending to be an innocent shopper with no interest in pumpkin spice whatsoever. No one really seemed to notice until I began asking a few innocent questions about what happened to the rest of the mall. At that point, people started to get a little nervous. They told me that I must be confused, and that the area had been closed some time ago, and that in fact it had never existed at all. Clearly I wasn’t going to get a straight answer, so I was going to have to investigate on my own. I needed to find a way into this secret space that everyone said had never existed. I needed to create a diversion.
I thought about it for a moment, and then I came up with the perfect idea. As loudly as I could, I pointed toward a random store and shouted, “Oh my god! They just released pumpkin spice toothpaste!” In an instant, everyone began running toward the promise of yet another pumpkin spice product. This gave me the chance to slip through a door and into the terrifying world that lay behind it.
What I found was a vast, dimly lit factory filled with rumbling machines, bubbling vats, and enormous pipes. I moved stealthily at first, but I soon realized that no one was taking any notice of me. It was as if the idea that anyone could even locate this place, let alone actually get inside, was completely incomprehensible to whoever was running this operation.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realized that the factory was staffed, not by humans, but by creatures that I can only describe as pumpkin spice elves. These weren’t the happy little elves that make toys for children at Christmas; these were the hideous, menacing elves that appear in your nightmares. They shuffled about, turning valves and stirring mixtures. They seemed almost completely oblivious to anything other than their role in the production of pumpkin spice.
After I’d observed them for a while, a gong sounded. The creatures who had been tending to the machines and working with the ingredients stopped what they were doing and began to shuffle away. Moments later, a new group of creatures took up their positions and continued the pumpkin spice production. I followed the group that had just stopped work to find out where they were going.
After taking a few turns and passing several unidentifiable spice-making machines, I found myself in a large, open room. In the center of the room was what appeared to be a throne, and seated there was a being that I don’t even have the words to describe. All I know is that she (I’m assuming she was a she) was clearly the ruler of this little kingdom: she was the Queen of Pumpkin Spice. One by one, the elves, or whatever they were, approached her. She said something to them in a language that I couldn’t understand, then then gave each of them a small vial. Each elf immediately opened the vial and frantically drank the contents. Shortly thereafter, the elf appeared to enter a state of extreme euphoria, as if whatever were in the vial was the elixir of life itself.
At one point, the queen appeared to admonish one of the elves, and refused to give it a vial. The elf became panicked and distraught, and seemed to plead with the queen to change her mind. When it became obvious that the queen would not change her mind, this unfortunate elf collapsed to the floor, writhing and screaming. The rest of the creatures ignored it, and seemed focused only on obtaining their own share of whatever substance the queen was handing out.
Sensing an opportunity to make a significant discovery, I decided to take a risk and get in line with the rest of the creatures. Within a few minutes, I was standing in front of the Queen of Pumpkin Spice herself. Without so much as a second glance, she handed me a vial. I carefully opened it, and the smell was familiar. I carefully put the tiniest drop on the tip of my finger and touched it to my tongue. With the intensity of a bolt of lightning, all of my senses were overpowered with the essence of pumpkin spice: I tasted pumpkin spice, I smelled pumpkin spice, I felt pumpkin spice, I saw pumpkin spice, I heard pumpkin spice. For a brief moment, I think I actually was pumpkin spice.
I immediately realized what was going on. These creatures, whatever they were, were completely addicted to pumpkin spice. It seems likely that they are born that way. This gives the Queen of Pumpkin Spice a virtual army of laborers who will do her bidding without question in exchange for a concentrated sample of the very product they work to produce. Whatever she is, and whatever they are, they seem to have a relationship somewhere between symbiosis and slavery. The elves make the spice, she keeps them docile by giving them some of it, and then she sells the rest to the pumpkin-addled public. I never did figure out what she gets from this arrangement. Maybe she just thrives on the sense of power, or maybe there is some even more powerful spice that she is working to attain.
After all I’d witnessed, I felt it best to make a quiet retreat before I was noticed. I slipped out the same way I’d come in, and tried not to let anyone see the look of horror on my face. One thing is certain: this operation, as efficient as it was, could not possibly supply all of the world’s pumpkin spice. There have to be others like it, with their own nightmarish crews and their own nightmarish queens. So next time you see a store that’s been inexplicably boarded up, or part of a building that is suddenly and permanently closed, you can remind yourself that there is probably a perfectly reasonable explanation for it. It’s probably not filled with rumbling machines, bubbling vats, and enormous pipes. There probably aren’t any strange creatures shuffling around inside, desperately hoping to earn the approval of their hideous queen. Just tell yourself that it’s probably not a pumpkin spice factory. It’s probably not a pumpkin spice factory. It’s probably not a pumpkin spice factory…
As you might have guessed by my lack of recent contributions, I’ve been thoroughly engrossed in the task of learning the Mangoustani language. After poring over Volume 1 for many weeks, I thought I might actually be making some progress. Then I opened up Volume 2, only to find a brief explanation stating that the analysis of the Mangoustani language is still underway, and that the remainder of the books were blank. They were apparently included merely for their aesthetic value. Along with this enervating explanation was a coupon that I can return in order to receive the actual books once they are written (shipping and handling not included), as well as a suggestion that if I need to learn Mangoustani right away, I should probably enroll in a linguistics course and learn how to analyze the language myself.
Faced with such a dilemma, most people would simply throw the blank books away and start binge watching Breaking Bad. Unfortunately, the political tension in the former East Mangoustan makes such a decision impossible. And besides, I’m never one to pass up a good challenge. After several weeks of learning the ins and outs of phonology and morphology, I arrived at the unit on syntax. I learned about the linguistic theories of Leonard Bloomfield and Noam Chomsky. Suddenly, the whole world made sense.
The linguists studying the Mangoustani language are obviously trying to understand it based on Bloomfieldian structural linguistics. That’s obviously why there were so many examples of rote phrases and so much emphasis on the surface structure of the Mangoustani language. In case you didn’t know, Bloomfield’s approach emphasizes “explicit systems of relations between linguistic units” rather than focusing on the mental processes that people use to generate the things they say (“Linguistics” para. 3). Once I’d learned about this distinction, I understood the reason that the Mangoustani language textbooks were so full bizarre phrases and a were based on a “rigid set of learned rules” (Rowe & Levine, 138). I’d love to share some of these phrases with you, but I haven’t yet installed the Mangoustani language pack on my computer.
It seemed that the theories of Noam Chomsky would be a much better way to understand this confusing cant. Instead of analyzing language in terms of mimicry and the production of fixed phrases, he explained that language learning was an innate capacity of the human mind. His mentalist approach to linguistics suggests that all people mentally form ideas in a similar way (the “deep structure” of an utterance) before applying subconscious grammatical transformations to generate the actual sentence (the “surface structure”). (Strässler para. 5) It seems like this would be a much better way to understand the complexities of the Mangoustani language, and it would avoid spending months memorizing dubious phrases such as, “this cow is disrespectful to most hedgehogs.” Under the Bloomfieldian model, one would have to hear that phrase before he or she could use it in a conversation, but the Chomskian approach shows that the productive nature of language would allow a competent speaker to produce this utterance spontaneously if the need arose. And in the former East Mangoustan, that need seems very likely to arise.
“Linguistics.” Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2003. Credo Reference. Web. 4 October 2014.
Rowe, B. and Levine, P. A Concise Introduction to Linguistics Boston: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2009. Print.
Strässler, J. “Mentalism.” Key Ideas in Linguistics and the Philosophy of Language. Edinburg: Edinburgh University Press, 2009. Credo Reference. Web. 4 October 2014.
With our search for Mr. Brown entering its second week, the trail seemed like it was getting cold. Just when we were about to give up and accept our Croatian clown consequences, we received another baffling ballad from Mr. Brown:
Halfway to here and halfway to there,
A circle’s a loop unless it’s a square.
A double construction of dubious fame:
One like the other, exactly the same.
A river, a lake, and cars down below,
I can tell you no more. Do you know where to go?
Well, of course I know where to go. I really don’t see why Mr. Brown had to spend a whole week being so coy about it.
After arriving at the (in)famous Marina City by way of Chicago Midway Airport, it was a simple matter for me to locate Mr. Brown’s unit. I rung the bell, and the door slowly opened to reveal an imposing figure in a large chair surrounded by small blue cans. Suddenly it all made sense: Mr. Brown’s hideout on Blue Mountain was nothing more than a big stack of Mr. Brown Blue Mountain Blend Iced Coffee cans. I started to say something to him, but before I could, he spoke with a booming voice:
“At last you have found my Blue Mountain lair.
Perhaps you would like to pull up a chair?”
That one really sounded a bit forced, but I obliged, and took a seat in front of his makeshift coffee fortress. “So, I’m here. What were you going to tell me about the Croatian Clown Conglomerate?”
His voice boomed again:
“The clowns that you seek…”
Then there was a pause, and he started fiddling with something in his ear. In a much less intimidating voice, he muttered: “It’s not working. I told you it wasn’t working. I told you three times this week. Why didn’t you fix it?”
Mr. Brown’s intimidating voice returned, and he continued:
“Uh…the Croatian clowns are…around…someplace you don’t know.
And they also have a hiding place…and there’s this one clown….named Joe. Named Joe!”
I must have gotten a derisive look on my face, because Mr. Brown started to get upset. He bellowed:
“If you…think you can laugh at me like that…I won’t help you with the clowns!
And then you’ll be sorry because…they’re Croatian clowns!”
While Mr. Brown was stumbling over his words, I looked off to the side and saw some activity behind a curtain. I pulled it back and found what appeared to be a graduate student frantically trying to fix a microphone. Mr. Brown raged:
“Don’t touch that…that curtain!
Because…I’m getting…very angry!”
Just then the hapless graduate student appeared to have made a breakthrough, and he whispered into his microphone:
“Ignore the strange man standing behind the curtain.
Heed my words, or your defeat is certain!”
A moment later, Mr. Brown regained his composure and belted out the same words:
“Ignore the strange man standing…”
At that point, I interrupted him: “Wait. Stop. What’s going on here? Is that guy telling you what to say?”
The graduate student behind the curtain seemed to be mouthing words to himself, trying out various combinations. But Mr. Brown realized that his secret was out, so he stepped down from his throne looking dejected.
“Oh, it’s true,” cried Mr. Brown, who suddenly seemed much less intimidating. “All of the elusive supervillains speak in couplets. I just wanted to be taken seriously, so I hired a bunch of graduate students and paid them with an unlimited supply of Mr. Brown Blue Mountain Blend Iced Coffee. It was working out so well until you came along.”
“So you’ve led other people to your hideout with your…his…cryptic poetry?”
“Well, not really. You’re the first one who ever managed to find me. No one else could ever figure it out. Or maybe they just ignored me altogether.”
I was about to ask him to at least make good on his promise to help me defeat the Croatian Clown Conglomerate when I noticed big red clown nose on his desk. I pointed at it and asked, “Are you…?”
“Yes, it’s true,” admitted Mr. Brown. “I’m the Croatian Clown Conglomerate. I’m not even Croatian, but it seemed like a good way to get your attention.”
“But why would you go through all this trouble?” I inquired. “Why put that hidden message on the bag of Kras Ki-Ki if there wasn’t even a Croatian Clown Conglomerate to begin with?”
“Because,” he said, and his demeanor became more serious. “Because there might not be a Croatian Clown Conglomerate, but there really is a secret world in the realm of snacks. You’re one of the only people who can actually see it. Everyone else looks right past it and just gobbles down the junk food, but you understand the secret messages and the underhanded machinations. I wanted to be sure you were still keeping an eye out for those things.”
“Of course I am,” I replied. “It’s my job.”
After taking several cans of coffee as a souvenir, I left Mr. Brown’s secret hideout and returned home. It had been quite an adventure, even if it seemed rather pointless in the end. At least I can say that one coffee connoisseur will sleep better tonight, secure in the knowledge that the FBFCR is still keeping the snack food world safe.
We spent much of the day attempting to decipher the strange message we received from Mr. Brown. We picked apart every word, translated it into several different languages, played it backwards, and even fed it into the giant 1960s-era computer that fills about half of the basement at the FBFCR headquarters. All we learned from that is that my Mangoustani language lessons aren’t really paying off, and that when played backwards, the message sounds a bit like, “Sell your soul to the Great White Peccary.”
Thankfully, one of us had the good sense not to sell his soul to the Great White Peccary. While my colleague was off spending his soul money on oversized decorative furnishings, I continued to examine the vexing verse. Several hours passed, but I was no closer to a solution than when I started. (Also, the FBFCR headquarters now has a nine-foot tall lava lamp. Apparently that’s what people sell their souls for these days. Giant lava lamps. Go figure.)
Just when I was about to give up and accept that we’d never find Mr. Brown, he sent another message:
What’s in a color? What’s in a name?
I hope that you know this isn’t a game.
There’s no time to wait, not a moment to lose.
Don’t tarry, don’t dally, don’t linger, don’t snooze!
Come to Blue Mountain, it’s where I await.
I’ll rescue you from your Croatian fate.
But heed my words closely and follow my themes,
For a mountain is rarely the thing that it seems.
“A mountain is rarely the thing that it seems?” Is this guy for real? I’m starting to think that Mr. Brown doesn’t even exist. He’s probably just some persona created by one of those crazy Internet people who writes bad blog poetry. Because if he is real, his rhyming clues aren’t helping things much. I mean, first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain? Is that what he’s trying to say? How am I supposed to find him if there is no mountain? I really can’t deal with this. And then there’s that lava lamp. It’s just…so…big. I can’t get away from it. No matter where I look, I still see it.
Why? Why does there have to be bad poetry and a giant lava lamp on the same day? I just…I can’t handle this right now.
You might have noticed that we haven’t been quite as prolific in our production of playful punditry lately. Of course there was a perfectly good reason for this. You see, a bit of acronym confusion caused us to get mixed up in a bit of a situation. You might recall that the countries of East Mangoustan and West Mangoustan were happily reunited some time ago, at which point we thought our involvement with them and their politics had come to an end.
Unfortunately, relations between the government of unified Mangoustan and residents of the former East Mangoustan have become quite strained. The former East Mangoustanis feel that they aren’t gaining the economic benefits that they were promised during the reunification process. One resident was heard to remark, “Before, everyone could afford corn and mustard, but no one could afford Shocking Popping Candy. Now, everyone can afford Shocking Popping Candy, but no one can afford corn and mustard!”
In an effort to resolve these mounting tensions, the Mangoustanis enlisted the help of the FBFCR. That is, the Federal Bureau of Foreign Cultural Relations. But, as you can see, that FBFCR shares an acronym with our FBFCR. As you’ve probably guessed, their specialty is cultural, and ours is culinary. But when the assignment arrived in our mailbox, we didn’t ask too many questions. We needed the money, and we’d dealt with the Mangoustanis before. Besides, how hard could it possibly be to appease a few angry Mangoustanis?
When I arrived to speak with the leader of the East Mangoustani delegation, I discovered that he didn’t actually speak English. I was instructed to negotiate with him in his native Mangoustani language. Apparently the FBFCR (the cultural one) has several Mangoustani speakers on its staff. Our FBFCR (the culinary one) has smartphones with translation apps, which seemed to be just as good. I tapped on “Good Quality Translatorium App (Free Edition)”, set it for English to Mangoustani, and carefully typed a greeting for the East Mangoustani representative.
The next few seconds were a blur. The phone said something in its synthesized voice, and the East Mangoustani immediately looked angry and horrified. The next thing I knew, angry bodyguards with frighteningly big guns were hauling me out of the building. They tossed me in the street and shouted something that I couldn’t understand. After I had a chance to compose myself, I looked at my phone and found that it had translated my ordinary greeting as “behold the hedgehog!”
Normally a translational gaffe such as this one would only result in a bit of laughter. The problem is that to former East Mangoustanis, the hedgehog symbolizes the border guards who once occupied the towers along the Jaquier Wall. Obviously I didn’t intend to invoke such a bad memory, but the FBFCR refused to pay $1.99 for the upgraded version of Good Quality Translatorium App so I had to use what was available.
Back at the FBFCR office (the culinary one), Angie and the Helmuts had already heard about what happened and were scrambling to figure out how to avoid an international incident. Lil’ Willy was also trying to get in on the discussion, but no one ever listens to him. The Helmuts suggested that I should be publicly fired and replaced with a giant plush caterpillar. Unfortunately, Angie had another idea. She said that the only way we could possible rectify the situation is for me to learn the Mangoustani language and go back to negotiate with the faction leader in his native tongue. The idea of simply referring this case back to the FBFCR (the cultural one) never crossed her mind. Once Angie gets started on something, she never lets anyone else finish it.
So, to make a long story short, the FBFCR (culinary) ordered the 28-volume set “A Basic Introduction to Mangoustani” from the FBFCR (cultural). They wouldn’t spend $1.99 to get me an app that can properly translate Mangoustani, but they gladly spent $999.95 on books about learning Mangoustani.
I’ve only looked at Volume 1 so far. It includes a chapter on the seven “genders” of Mangoustani nouns: masculine, feminine, neuter, royal, canine, zephyrous, and quadratic. It also has a sidebar with some mnemonic techniques for remembering how to decline a zephyrous noun when speaking to someone who is wearing a fedora. I’m a little afraid of what might be in Volume 2…
People often ask, “Who exactly in charge of the Federal Bureau of Foreign Culinary Relations?” Usually this is in the context of questions such as, “Who’s in charge here?! I’ve been sitting in this waiting room for three months!” It also comes up when we are asked, “Don’t you ever get anything done? Where is your manager?!”
We normally don’t like to talk about this, since we prefer to think of ourselves as independent investigators who answer to no one, but the reality is that our agency is in fact controlled by a secretive quintumvirate that only rarely allows itself to be photographed.
Unfortunately, all of your recent complaints caused us to receive a surprise visit from the FBFCR leadership, and believe me, that wasn’t a pleasant experience. They berated us for our overall lack of productivity, and especially for our unhelpful attitude toward the Secret Society of Artificial Potatoes. Apparently we’re supposed to actually help troubled tubers instead of just sitting around eating junk food.
Before any more of you complain, I’d like you to see just what we’re up against. Pictured above, you see the managers who will punish us even more severely the next time one of you says that we’re a bunch of lazy bums who never get anything done. From left to right, our bosses are: Angie, Jerry, the Helmuts, and Lil’ Willy. You probably only have one boss. We have five different bosses right now. As you can see, Angie is the big boss. Jerry is Angie’s right-hand man, except when he’s on her left. The Helmuts always travel as a pair, so that reduces the effective number of boss combinations that we might encounter. But they’re still two bosses, and it’s like a full-fledged tag-team beat-down when they’re on your case. The only thing worse is when Lil’ Willy decides to take matters into his own hands. I don’t think I could survive that for a second time.
So, next time you have a bit of a disagreement with your boss, just think of us and our supervisory situation. At least you don’t have to spend half your time trying to find a place to hide from the Helmuts.