OM132 - Mike the headless chicken

Bands named after food (OM132)

Mike the Headless Chicken sounds like a 1990s white Rap rocker. John once played a show with a band called Jimmie’s Chicken Shack, a very popular Southern Virginia style East Coast Funk band. They were fun and very popular out East, but didn’t make much of a dent culturally on the West Coast.

Ken likes bands named for food in general, like for example:

The drummer of Fountains of Wayne (Brian Young) played the drums on the first Long Winters record (see The Long Winters).

Ken’s ancestors (OM132)

Despite his exotic shrimpy Cap’n Geeky appearance, Ken is from hearty Mid-Western pioneer stock and his ancestors would be ashamed of him because he doesn’t own a hatchet. He doesn’t actually know what they were up to, but it was for sure agriculture. When Ken was a kid, his dad’s dad who sold pet food up in the great Northwest (see OM80) decided he wanted to go back to the land to the Texas panhandle of his childhood. They bought 20 acres (80.000 sqm) in Oregon and they had effectively a farm, although it was pretty much just the neighbor’s cows and chickens. They did not subsist on it, but they were gentleman farmers, except they didn’t farm, so they were just gentlemen. They had one of those big 20 feet (6 m) satellite dishes out in the backyard that felt like rural America and they could watch scrambled Cinemax after dark.

Ken's grandparents owned this place since the 1970s and Ken would always spent the summers there. He does think of it as the old farm, but that is an illusion because it doesn’t go back in the family annals. There is a story of Ken’s mom’s sister from when she was visiting for dinner, eating hamburgers, and everybody but her knew the name of the cow. She got very upset because she felt that cows should not be known personally, or at least they shouldn’t be mentioned. It is the meat agreement: You are supposed to pretend it just came out of a box.

John’s mom’s origins (OM132)

John is an aspiring member of the Sons of the American Revolution. His mom is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, which used to be a major social group among white ladies while the sons were just a thing that nobody cared about. At some point they sent John a letter because his mom was a member of their sister-organization, asking him to join, but it is way too complicated.

John’s mother’s family are not New Yorkers who have been living in the city since 1780, loaning money to other people, but they are Ohioans. Her earliest ancestor to arrive in Ohio was in 1804 or something when it was still the Northwest territory before statehood. John's mom grew up on her grandfather’s farm who had inherited it from his grandfather, it really is a century of the Priddy family (see RL62), but she is no longer a Priddy and shook off that mortal coil when she became an immortal Roderick. She is still quite striking and and hearty! John’s dad married her because she had her hair dyed blond and looked like Doris Day and he had a crush on Doris Day.

John’s mom was born in the 1930s, their house had an outhouse, no hot running water, and a wood stove. They didn’t live out in Wyoming and were close to the town of Van Wert, Ohio, but it was before electricity and indoor plumbing became widely adopted in the Middle West. Their first phone was a party line and when you picked up the phone there was a good chance that someone within a 5-mile radius was on the phone already and you had to say ”Let me know when you are off!” When the phone rang it would ring with a certain pattern so you knew which house the call was for.

John’s mom grew up as a farm girl and has a lot of stories about what it was like to be on a farm in that way that has mostly passed into the fog of history in the United States. Post-war technology mostly did away with the frontier-lifestyle, for example in the winter they would hang their wet clothes out on clothes lines to dry where they would freeze. Then they would hit the frozen clothes with bats and break the ice off of them and after a couple of times the clothes were dry and they could bring them in.

Eventually the city of Van Wert would extend sewers and electricity out to the farm that was 4 miles (6.5 km) away and they were going to join the modern world, but John’s mom and her grandparents rather moved to town. After her father died she inherited the farm and they kept it and let it farm by a tenant farmer. Farms started getting consolidated, farming became an industrial process, and with the aid of tractors and modern farming techniques one farmer can farm multiple lots while the people who live on the farm, the gentleman farmers, have jobs in town.

John’s mom eventually sold the family farm to the tenant farmer who wisely started offering all these people who’s farms he was managing to buy their farms. He is now probably a land baron in the area around Van Wert who owns all these different 40-acre (160.000 sqm) farms.

John's mom has a lot of stories from growing up on a farm that all communicate an unsentimentality about nature, animals and life. It is also the last vestiges of a time when people had 15 kids with the expectation that 5 of them would die. There was a much more sanguine attitude about how sacred life was and to what degree animals were here to serve us as opposed to being their own sentient and soul-filled beings. Middle-class people today have many layers of safety-net and are not conscious of how far they would have to fall in order to be at risk of starvation. Anyone consuming podcasts as a form of entertainment is probably not on the verge of starving every winter.

John’s mom had 40 cats on the farm, none of them had names, and they wouldn’t let you pet them. They were there to do a job: to kill rats. Maybe one of the dogs had a name, but they were there for various things and they would never let them in the house. Animals were on the farm to work and there was no such thing as feeding cookies to a dog and thinking of it as your soul mate that you would take on an airplane. Dogs had jobs! The reason that we now cleave these animals unto our bosom now is that we don’t have real work to do and we are very alone and do no longer have 12 children or big families all living in one house. If you were struggling to put food on the table, putting delicious home-cooked kibble on your cat’s plate would be the last thing you thought of.

When it is time to clean a turkey on Thanksgiving or whenever it is time to process a chicken carcass in some way shape or form, John’s mom just dives into it with the kind of familiarity that a FIAT-mechanic would have in rebuilding a carburetor (poultry in motion). She does not have any of John’s modern squeamishness about dealing with a dead animal. If you would put a dead thing in front of John and told him to process it into usable food, he would work at it and figure it out and do it, but it would not be his milieu. He would be much more likely to say ”Is there an opportunity to write a poem about this? What if I write a song about it while you guys cut it up and put it on the grill?” (see story in RL15 about grilling a whole lamb in a hole in the ground)

John’s dad would pick a chicken and chop its head off on a stump and that would be the chicken they ate that night. In a division of labor thing, she and grandma would de-feather it, clean it and cook it. It was a typical farm-type relationship to things where everybody had a job. Grandpa would sometimes kill the chickens in the basement and John's mom and her brother used to go down and find a place to hide. Grandpa would cut the head off the chicken and the chicken’s body would run around, spurting blood out of its neck, until it ran out of blood when it would plop down. She and her brother would laugh and giggle with glee at this horrific sight of an automatic chicken. The wings were going, the feet were going, moving in every direction, like someone had set off some fireworks. They were not sure if they were going to get splattered with blood, but that was part of the fun.

John’s mom hated chickens. She is still very prejudiced agains them and thinks that they are dumb, unfriendly and unwise. She saw the movie Birds by Alfred Hitchcock when she was at an impressionable age and does generally not like birds, but chickens were the bird she had the most first-hand experience with (some ice was falling off the roof of John’s house as he was talking) and she has no love for them.

Behaviors controlled by the lower brain (OM132)

If you cut the head of a human, the head would stay conscious for a few seconds. The French scientist Antoine Lavoisier allegedly said that when he gets guillotined, he will blink as many times as he can so the guys could tell how long consciousness lasts, but that story is not true. If you cut the head off a turtle, they will continue to swim. A lot of animals have reflexive behaviors encoded into their brain stem. A chicken doesn’t have that much to do and a lot of its walking, scratching and pecking behaviors are located further down the nervous system. Those behaviors are unconscious and in the same category as breathing or the heartbeat.

The swimming motion of a turtle is not a learned behavior, but it does it from the moment it is born. Humans don’t have a lot of that and babies come out and can barely do anything, you have to manually roll it over so it doesn’t choke to death, except Ken: He skittered up a tree immediately after his birth. There are animals who can do that kind of stuff when they are born. A giraffe stands up immediately and skitters up a tree.

Some of these behaviors are much more rote in those animals and when you behead them, depending on where the cut happens, if enough of the lower brain is retained, it can continue to perform those functions. We have that lower brain as well, but our cerebral cortex, the stuff we use for everything good, got bigger and bigger in a way that chickens and turtles did not, which is why a human being can be brain dead and lay in bed in a coma state for years.

Because chickens have such big eyes and such weird skulls, their skulls are built at an angle and their brain is high up in the skull and isn’t laying flat like we think our brains are doing. They have pointy little heads and big eyes and the skull has large openings for its eyeballs. The brain has to fit in there somewhere. Eyes play an important role in a chicken’s life, it learns by seeing, not by hearing. There are instances where a chicken has faced the ax that has cleaved the chicken’s head from its neck in such a way that enough of the chicken’s brain was retained by the body that the chicken could perform chicken-like behaviors before it died.

One example is Mike the Headless Chicken, a rooster born in the United States in Fruita Colorado in April of 1945 when Hitler was still alive. In September of 1945 the Olsen family decided to have a chicken dinner and because Lloyd’s mother in law loved chicken necks, Lloyd tried to chop the chicken’s head off in a way that would leave the longest neck. Mike did the normal chicken thing where he was going to run around for a minute, but he actually just jumped down and behaved like a chicken. They decided to not hit Mike again and the next day he was with his lack of head tucked under his wing and fast asleep and as he woke up he rejoined his chicken behaviors. Lloyd started to feed Mike with an eyedropper down his throat. He was a star at state fairs until he eventually died 18 months later when he choked on a piece of grain.

Breeding brainless chickens (OM132)

In 2012, an architecture student in the United Kingdom by the name of Andre Ford proposed that Mike the Headless Chicken might give us some insight into actually raising a generation of chickens with no forebrain. We could eliminate suffering on the part of food-source chickens if we could raise chickens with no brains, which seems eminently possible.

It is a simple procedure at birth: You cut the front of the brain off and then they don’t feel pain when you raise them in cages. You would have to feed them through some sort of Matrix-style chicken wall with chickens that have tubes stuck in them, but he was an architecture student, so this might have been more of a provocative art project / academic joke. He was hoping to be one of the young architects who actually got a job somewhere, instead of spending 25 years of just doing blue print work.

There was also a headless chicken in Thailand in March of 2018.

Eric Corson's ringtone (OM132)

Eric (Corson), the bass-player of The Long Winters had the sound of the soloed vocals of David Lee Roth on Hot For Teacher as his ringtone. Another guy in the band liked it so much that he got it as his ringtone as well and it became a big fight in the van because Eric claimed it as his ringtone. It is like wearing the same jacket or getting somebody else’s tattoo! Then the other guy Jonathan (Rothman), the guitar player, was like ”I don’t know what you are talking about, it is a great ringtone!”

Random facts (OM132)

Ken had to learn to swim and it was bull! He didn’t like it, but his dog can just swim. John is not a very good swimmer either. It might be why Ken has this turtle jealousy.

Peacocks were fashionable animals for rich people to have during the fin de siècle era. Their sound is horrible, like a screaming woman.

Ken wrote much of his first book on the campus of the University of Utah, walking to the library to look at the microfilm records.

Ken had Budgies when he was a kid, named Simon and Garfunkel and he assumes all birds are great. They could fly from curtain rods to the bookshelf and back again.

John once dated a girl who had two Budgies and a Chickadee and the Budgies really doted on the Chickadee.

John has been in Hawaii in February of 2019 when this entry was released and turtles and roosters were major theme from his trip (See RL324, RL325 and RW140).

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