Sunday, May 25, 2008

Do You Want Paper or Plastic?

This story has it all: a giant corporation, deep faith, small-town America, a cell phone camera, an aspiring writer, questionable reporting.

John Wasendorf might just remind people that Lone Tree, Iowa (A TREEmendous place to live), is on the map, thanks to this Wal-Mart Virgin Mary/face of Jesus plastic bag. After returning home from shopping, according to this Press-Citizen report, Wasendorf put away the groceries and then tossed the bag. This was on April 13. The article reports: “Two days later, while resting on his couch, Wasendorf looked over at the bag and saw the religious figures.”

The article continues:

He said the house was warm the day he went shopping, so he opened the blinds. He said that the sunlight coming in though the windows helped create the image. He believes on the right it is almost the head-to-toe image of the Virgin Mary. To the left, he sees the face of Jesus.

Does this confuse you, too? If Wasendorf discovered the image two days after he went shopping, what does the weather on the day he went shopping matter?

Stranger still, the fact that the bag’s shape made such an impact on Wasendorf that he took the time to snap the photo with his cell phone, but then lost track of the bag: “The picture is all that remains. Wasendorf said he doesn’t really remember what happened to the bag, but guesses he or a friend ‘must have picked it up and thrown it away.’”

Wasendorf claims that visions have come to him since he was young. When he was 4-years-old, a Jesus statue spoke to him after his grandmother had taken him to a hospital chapel to pray for his mother, who was about to have gallbladder surgery. His dreams also are rife with religious symbolism, from figures dressed in white to a scroll with a poem written with gold lettering. Wasendorf also makes it a point to mention that he has been on the wagon since 1979.

According to the article, the photograph of the bag was shown to hundreds of people before it was shared with the media. Some people thought it was a plastic statue, others thought it had to have been manipulated by Wasendorf and some saw the figures.

Because his life has been filled with sights and visions that not everyone else can see, Wasendorf wants to write a book. Never one to thwart the dreams of others, I say, Write on, John, write on. As you engage the process, however, come up with a better story for what happened to the bag.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Nixon Rock

I’ve been waiting for an excuse to drag out this Presidential pareidolia: the Nixon rock. What’s my excuse? All of the publishing hoopla surrounding Rick Perlstein’s new book Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. You can read an excerpt from the book here. I haven’t read the book, and it’s a pretty safe bet that I won’t read it, especially since the topic strikes me as one that has already been put through its paces. I don’t understand what makes for a best-selling book (it is certainly about much more than the actual writing), the same as I don’t understand what causes certain people to see iconic forms and figures in unexpected places. Both phenomena seem to rely on a convergence of circumstances that is not always logical or traceable, but herein lie the mysteries of life.

Located on the southern tip of Taiwan near the town of O Luanpi, it has long been thought that this rock resembles a sail. Many people also think it resembles Richard Nixon, in profile. Of course, Nixon’s mug is one of history’s most maligned – its craggy definition found in the nose and chin. Local lore claims that after Nixon made his 1972 trip to China his head was cut off and put in this spot, destined to stare at China forever.

Madonna of the Toast includes an examination of the President Kennedy rock in Hawaii. I have been searching, in vain I fear, for the Calvin Coolidge cashew, from which protrudes a node that is the spitting image of Coolidge’s nose, one of the largest to ever reside in the White House.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Get Your Rocks Out

Dena Patterson, a resident of Brooksville, Florida, came across this rock in 1996 while walking through the woods in West Virginia, according to this Hernando Today report. Found near a stream, the rock caught her eye because of the shape worn into its surface. Recently, Patterson took the rock to Peter Harries, an associate professor of geology at the University of South Florida, Tampa. She had thought it was granite, but Harries thinks it is shale or silt stone – some sort of fine-grained sedimentary rock. He attributes the pattern to the “preferential cementation of grains, or water percolating through sediment after it has been deposited.”

Harries goes on to share that the geology department does get periodic visits from folks with objects “that they feel are particularly unique or symbolic.” His perspective, however, is more scientific than spiritual. The fact is, mimicry is a very salient aspect of nature, which of course leads to the phenomenon of pareidolia.

For years, the rock has been a doorstop in Patterson’s home, but now she wants to sell it on eBay: "I expect to get a lot of money . . . This is a rock. It's not like it's a piece of cheese.""

Of course, she is referencing fellow Floridian Diana Duyser’s epic Virgin Mary grilled cheese windfall, though I doubt Patterson will receive $28,000 for this object, especially in light of all the other Virgin Mary rocks currently up for grabs on eBay.

Like this one from Oregon:

Or this one from Canada:

Patterson is 79-years-old and says her health is declining. Her desire to make money off this rock is directly linked, as she tells it, to wanting to be able to make a trip to West Virginia to visit family before her health becomes any worse. Regardless of how much the rock sells for, if it even sells, I hope she gets the chance to make one more trip to West Virginia.

Lastly, in more news of the Virgin Mary showing up in unexpected places, the Los Angeles Times ran this slideshow recently. I can’t figure out why, but it’s just another indicator of how Madonna of the Toast is culturally relevant, in far-flung suburbs as well as in big cities.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

That's Gotta Hurt

Cannery Row in Monterey, California, made famous by John Steinbeck, flocked to by tourists for the dramatic coastline, popular aquarium and fresh seafood. Now, add to the list of Cannery Row points of interest the place where Marc Lipton (the man whose knee you see above) lost control of his motorcycle, sliding 50 feet, according to this KSBW story. The scrape, to Lipton, looks like the Virgin Mary and he cites the resemblance as the reason why he did not suffer a more severe injury. Lipton was close to home, so he wasn’t wearing leather chaps. The scrape does have that hooded Virgin Mary shape. Lucky as Lipton was, that really has to hurt. I can't imagine getting home and going right for my camera. I wonder how it will scar. No word on the condition of the bike.

Many Madonna of the Toast stories originate in California, which makes sense since it is the state that bore many iconographic American images (thanks, Hollywood). Steinbeck certainly played a hand in crafting California into the American psyche with his astounding and acute renderings and responses to Manifest Destiny.

Steinbeck did cast his gaze beyond the US, however, so here is some extra credit reading: a travel essay written by him about Positano, Italy, which first appeared in a 1953 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. The piece details the drive from Rome and the goings on of this ancient Amalfi Coast town. The writing is straight travelogue with ample examples of the local color (like the embittered cobbler who is convinced that all of his shoe designs are stolen by the designers in the cities).

Germane to this blog, however, is this story of the town’s very own Virgin Mary sighting, involving the church above, Santa Maria Assunta (no reason to paraphrase Steinbeck):

Like most Italian towns Positano has its miraculous picture. It is a Byzantine representation of the Virgin Mary. Once long ago, the story goes, the Saracenic pirates raided the town and among other things carried away this picture. But they had no sooner put to sea when a vision came to them which so stunned them that they returned the picture. Every year on August 15, this incident is reenacted with great fury and some bloodshed. In the night the half-naked pirates attack the town which is defended by Positanese men-at-arms dressed in armor. Some of this fighting gets pretty serious. The pirates then go to the church and carry the holy picture off into the night. Now comes the big moment. As soon as they have disappeared into the darkness, a bright and flaming image of an angel appears in the sky. At present General Mark Clark is the sponsor of this miracle. He gave the town a surplus Air Force barrage balloon [my hyperlink]. Then very soon the pirates return their boats and restore the picture to the church and everybody marches and sings and has a good time.

I love the fact that the "flaming image of an angel" is achieved using a World War II leftover! War and religion have always walked hand-in-hand I suppose.

Anyone else in the mood for a trip to Italy?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

UK Representing!

That’s a rock in a Welsh garden. The owner’s niece was out playing and came into the house to ask who the man in the garden was. The girl’s aunt didn’t see a man, but she did see the face of Elvis Presley on the slab of slate. This story comes from, and even goes so far as to link Elvis to this area in Wales. But first, the rock.

The owner has asked to remain anonymous, concerned that swarms of fans would otherwise descend on her property, disrupting the bucolic tranquility. Apparently, she has already been offered close to $2,000 for the rock, but even though she is not a big fan of Elvis’s music, she has become attached to the iconic visual manifestation.

Bought as an ornament, the owner of the stone says that the image was not there at first. It took six months for the face to appear. In her words: “We left it alone, imagining it would disappear as quickly as it had come, but that hasn’t happened. It’s still there.”

According to the article, a whole body of academic research already exists linking Elvis’s familial lineage to this western portion of Wales that sits in the shadows of the . . . Preseli mountains! Apparently Druids used rocks from this area for Stonehenge.

Here’s what the article says:

Cardiff academic Terry Breverton claimed in 2000 to have new evidence that Elvis’ ancestors came from Wales, citing the link between the names Presley and Preseli.

Supporting his theory was the legend of St Elvis of Munster, who apparently baptised St David. Mr Breverton claimed the Presley family could well have had links with a Pembrokeshire chapel dedicated to St Elvis, the only one known in Britain.

And he pointed to the Welsh names of Elvis’ mother Gladys, his stillborn brother, Jesse Garon and his grandmother Doll Mansell, who may be descended from the famous Mansel family of Gower.

So, has Elvis returned to his roots? Think he’s thirsty for a Jesus cider?

The Daily Mail reports that Michael Cartwright, a taxi driver from Darlington, was at Tanners Hall, his local pub, with some mates when the “barmaid” brought the group’s drinks to the table. As soon as she popped the top off Cartwright’s bottle, the face of Jesus puckered up in the foil. His buddies saw it, too. And the barmaid must have as well, as she cleared the bottles, leaving Cartwright with nothing more than memories and a tummy full of cider.

Bully for you United Kingdom! I downed many pints of lager in London a few weeks ago, but I didn’t see Jesus, Elvis or many barmaids. In Madonna of the Toast, there are several stories from the UK, including an Oscar fish from Allah, a Michelin Man carrot and the face of Rasputin in a cat’s ear. You’ll have to buy the book to see those!