My Best Cat and Dog Writing, 2016

December 2016 marks three full years that I’ve been an SEO writer for pet lifestyle sites Dogster and Catster. What is SEO? It stands for “search engine optimization,” and involves locating terms and phrases that people search for in their thousands, and attempting, through a number of strategies, to get my sites’ posts to come up as high as possible when people look for info on search engines.

When I first started, it was sort of like playing MadLibs; I’d try to work a particular phrase or word in as often as I could. Technology moves quickly, and search engines caught up with that particular tactic, also called “keyword stuffing,” and began counting that against sites. In any event, as a lifelong writer, trained researcher, and all-around perfectionist, I was well aware that most SEO writing was crap, and have always tried to give my essays a bit more flare, a bit more style, like this baby puppy.

this baby puppy got a new baby sweater for christmas!

A post shared by Melvin Peña (@melvin__pena) on

 

I’ve come a long way since the very first piece I wrote for Dogster, “Ringworm in Dogs: Detection, Treatment, Prevention.” From roughly the second half of 2015 through the first half of 2016, there was a dude who was pre-selecting phrases and topics for me, and they all sucked. They all seemed to be either about horrible diseases or bizarre medications, with the end result that my work was a constant slog of despair.

Once they let me off the leash, though, earlier this year, and I could do my own keyword research and determine my own topics again, I started to flourish anew. Since then, the stuff I’ve been writing has been stranger, more eclectic, and more outlandish than ever, while still hewing close to the needs of SEO. These are my 5 best cat and dog pieces that were published this year.

Top 5 Catster pieces

  1. How to Draw a Cat,” January 12: Because of the paucity of compelling topics on the pre-established SEO list, I saved ones like this for special occasions. I love to make art, and enjoy a new challenge, so I really put a lot of work into this one.
  2. How Do Cats Taste?,” February 9: Talk about a tone-deaf phrase. Clearly geared toward a lurid curiosity about places where cats are on the menu, I decided to make use of the shockingly high numbers on that topic to steer people toward an essay that is actually about how cats tongues work, and how they experience the sensation of taste. That approach also allowed me to makes clear in the intro that I’d been listening to a lot of Lovecraft on audiobook.
  3. 18th-Century British Poems About Cats,” March 15: The prompt was “poems about cats.” Since I trained as a scholar of 18th-century literature, the essay’s content suggested itself quite easily. Pretty sure I did more leg-work and research on this piece than almost any other this whole year. I wouldn’t say the financial reward was worth the effort, but the process was intellectually satisfying!

    poems about cats

    Love Me, Love My Cat” via Yale Center for British Art

  4. The Cats of Doctor Who,” May 10: Talk about relevant to my interests; I don’t know if a single piece gave me more pure joy to research, write, and locate art for than this one. Granted, there were more than enough comics and Big Finish audio dramas to satisfy even the most desperate fan. However, as there were no new TV adventures from last Christmas until this, Doctor Who fanatics like me had to make our own fun in 2016. Even more gratifying, it was featured in BBC America’s weekly roundup of Doctor Who news about a week later!
  5. My 6 Favorite Cat Power Songs,” July 13: Nothing at all to do with cats, really, but Chan Marshall’s enduring popularity and general awesomeness means that “cat power” is a high-value search term. I was ecstatic to write about Marshall’s influence on me and my listening habits over the last two decades.

Top 5 Dogster pieces

  1.  “Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?,” May 17: I love a pleasing head tilt in a dog. Every once in a while, I also like an open-ended question to play around with. My favorite of the reasons I offer in this one is shame/embarrassment, because I got to use a picture of my baby puppy wearing a little sweater and giving me earth-shattering side-eye.
  2. Are Pigs Smarter Than Dogs?,” September 14: So much good came out of this piece, it’s an easy choice. First, my cover model and star of the piece’s photo selections is my friend Kelsey’s pet pig on a leash, Jolene. Next, it gave my friend Shalla and I the idea for an art project I’ll be working on more in the new year, inspired by the early-modern subgenre of bucolic portraiture in which women were painted as shepherdesses.

    are pigs smarter than dogs

    Pig on a leash.

  3. Confession: I Have a Pet Crush on Someone Else’s Dog!,” October 05: To make a bit of extra money — indeed, it would be difficult to work any harder and make any less than I already do — I was encouraged to pitch some first-person pieces on bringing up my baby puppy. This one’s basically about how my jealousy over a tiny dog I follow on Instagram caused me to realize I wasn’t giving my own baby puppy a fair chance.
  4. Can Dogs See Ghosts?,” October 11: I went deep for the research on this one. The vast majority of SEO pieces extant are either inane, anecdotal, or simply repetitive. To differentiate my work, I drew on actual scholarship on links between dogs and the supernatural in anthropology, cultural studies, and folklore. I couldn’t have been more psyched than when I found out the piece had been shared by Coast to Coast AM, alongside reports on terra cotta warriors, dinosaur extinction, dwarf planets and what the Pope may have told Hillary Clinton about aliens. I’ve never felt more like Mulder!

    can dogs see ghosts

    Scully, it’s clearly a case of demon fetal harvest!

  5. Art History and Pug History: Pugs in 18th-Century Art,” November 22: It’s sort of a toss-up between this one and the one about 18th-century cat poems above for the piece I’m most proud of and found most  stimulating to research and write. I started thinking about Pugs in portraiture when I was at the National Gallery in DC in the Fall of 2015, and spent a great deal of time thinking about the little Pug in Goya’s painting of the Marquesa de Pontejos, so the concept had been gestating for a while in my mind. The original prompt was something about the history of Pugs, but having seen that one of Dogster’s sister sites, Petcha, had a piece on exactly that topic, I panicked a bit before changing directions.

That’s that! Ten of my favorite, and of my best, pieces of dog and cat writing during 2016! Was the one you like best among my selections? Did you like another one better? What kinds of common dog or cat questions or topics are constantly pawing at the back of your mind?

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hiss-golden-messenger-melvi

“an eerie yellowing photograph” by Melvin Peña

 Happy release day to Mike and the whole Hiss Golden Messenger family! The new record, “Heart Like a Levee,” is out now on Durham’s own Merge Records!

No less a luminary than David Bowie once called Hiss Golden Messenger’s music “mystical country,” synaesthetically comparing the sound to “an eerie yellowing photograph.” That may have been true of “Bad Debt” (2010) and earlier, maybe even as late as “Poor Moon” (2011), but not anymore.

Go listen to “Haw” (2013), “Lateness of Dancers” (2014), and now “Heart Like a Levee.” You’re going to find warmth, welcome, and increase of joy.

Go see Mike and the crew play when the tour comes to your town; those shows are vibrant, pulsating, and alive.

All the same, to celebrate the new record, I reinterpreted its cover art to reflect Bowie’s words on mike’s art. It’s one of the black and white photos by William Gedney which were the original springboard for the Duke Performance events last fall that gave way to the album’s creation.

Listen, buy, or stream; however you listen to music these days, spend some time with this record and enjoy it!

Pre-order Renee Engeln’s “Beauty Sick”!

Coming Spring 2017 from HarperCollins, it’s Renee Engeln’s “Beauty Sick“! Pre-order it now from your favorite local bookstore!

beauty-sick-engeln

Cover art for Renee Engeln’s “Beauty Sick” (HarperCollins, 2017)

Speaking of which, I’m crossing my fingers that the book tour will bring her to The Regulator here in Durham and to Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh!

This book’s going to be a best-seller and Renee’s going to be on talk shows with Sia and Idris Elba, I just know it!

From the author:

This book would be perfect for:
– Women and adolescent girls who want to worry more about the shape the world’s in than the shape of their bodies.
– Parents who want to think about how to raise healthy daughters despite a toxic beauty culture.
– Anyone interested in pushing back against a culture that defines women by the way they look instead of what they say and do.

Get a sense for her work by watching Renee’s TED talk from 2013:

Melvin’s Top Songs, 2015 Edition

As with 2014, my list of favorite songs from 2015 is put together according to a certain loosely-structured formula. The songs are first arranged by sheer volume of plays as compiled by my last.fm account. Duplicate artists are excluded — a dictum that doesn’t apply if one is a cover — as are songs that tally as perennial favorites.

01. Burial, “Temple Sleeper” (358 plays). I write freelance for a living, so I listen to music constantly as I research, draft, and edit. This year, I wrote and wrote and wrote until I burned out a week or so ago. There were entire days this year during which I listened to nothing but this song by Burial. I’m bonkers about Burial anyway; I’ve never yet gotten tired of listening to “Untrue” (2007) on repeat. When the “Temple Sleeper” single dropped in January, it became an instant favorite.

02. Sia, “Chandelier” (284 plays). “Hostage” was my most-listened to Sia track in 2014, and this year, I found that the more I listened to “1000 Forms of Fear,” the more wonders, comfort, and karaoke ecstasy I drew from it. For a sold-out Pinhook karaoke in February, a benefit for the LGBTQ Center of Durham, hosted by Sylvan Esso, I wanted to sing “Hostage.” Of course, the only Sia that the Singsnap app had available at the time was “Chandelier,” so I devoted myself to learning it, having not really paid attention to it while the song was busy conquering Earth previously.

My friends Alexis, Julia, and Derek agreed to do backup dancing during the performance. In front of a packed Pinhook, my friends and I went to town. It was an absolute highlight for me; one of the best moments of the entire year. Our mischief was mentioned in the Indy, and that article gave a title to what became, not only one of my favorite art-pieces, but the banner image for most of the episodes of Pinhook karaoke that followed.

coordinated outfits and choreographed routines

“coordinated outfits and choreographed routines,” by Melvin Peña

That Sia record hasn’t been long out of my ears. I keep returning to it, song after song, and locating within it all of the things, among them, strength, empowerment, perseverance, and release. It’s just a glorious pop monument.

03. Badbadnotgood & Ghostface Killah, “Ray Gun (feat. DOOM)” (224 plays). Despite an erratic release schedule for his own projects, I don’t think there’s been a year since 2004 that the metal-faced villain, DOOM, hasn’t appeared in my list of top or favorite tracks, usually in a guest-starring role. That’s certainly the case here, as he pops up for a touch in my favorite hip-hop record of this year, “Sour Soul.”

The album is a collaboration between Toronto’s jazz/hip-hop trio BadBadNotGood and Tony Starks of the Wu-Tang Clan. As another writing-friendly record, I’ve probably heard the entire thing through at least 60 times this year, and this song way, way more than any other.

04. Felicia Day & Neil Patrick Harris, “My Eyes” (122 plays). Pinhook karaoke matters to me, and little brings me more unfiltered joy than taking the stage and rocking the mic. When Alexis asked me to duet with her on a song from “Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” in July before she moved away, I had a lot of work to do.

I still haven’t heard the entire production, which I know is shameful. I’ll work my way around to it at some point! I loaded the particular song she wanted to sing, “My Eyes,” onto my mp3 player and listened to nothing else until I mastered it utterly. Our karaoke performance ruled! It was so much fun being the NPH to Alexis’s Felicia Day.

my eyes

“my eyes,” photo by Maria Williams

05. Flash Chorus, “Elastic Heart” (109 plays). You know what else is excellent, liberating, and restorative? Choir practice. When my first Monday-night drinking choir dissolved in the spring, I felt a little bereft. Good things and pure joy are rarely long-lasting. I knew that successor Flash Chorus would arrive with autumn, but had no idea whether it would be as fun or transportive. Well, on our first night in September, the first song we sang happened to be exactly the one I was most absorbed by at that moment — Sia’s “Elastic Heart” — and the results were magnificent.

In the weeks leading up to the Flash Chorus premiere, my excitement for choir practice was at fever pitch. All through the summer, I’d missed the community and camaraderie that inevitably manifested every Monday. On anticipation alone, I designed an art-piece blending the album covers of the two tracks we were slated to sing; the aforementioned “1000 Forms of Fear” and of Montreal’s “The Sunlandic Twins.”

so many red flags

“so many red flags,” by Melvin Peña

If “Chandelier” got the most plays by numbers alone, the songs that did the most work for me this year off that Sia record were “Elastic Heart” and “Big Girls Cry,” both of which I’ve trotted out at various Pinhook karaokes. Even now that the fall season has ended, that first song and that first Flash Chorus video remain my very favorite of the whole run.

06. Daddy Issues, “Fuck Marry Kill” (108 plays). When a track plants a flag in my ears on first listen, no matter when it comes out, it’s almost guaranteed to make the year-end list one way or another. Greensboro’s Daddy Issues released their first and only LP, “Fuck Marry Kill,” in early November, a couple of months after the vicissitudes of life meant that the band’s dissolution had already occurred.

Just like their live show, the entire record is wonderful, full of life, happiness, and wild energy. The band announced ahead of time that, with no tour forthcoming — and thus, no need to invest the record’s earnings back into the live act — they’d donate all sales to Girls Rock NC. At only $7, you really have no excuse not to buy it immediately.

07. Axons, “The Athlete” (99 plays). It’s inspiring to me when people I know maintain a consistent dedication to both their work and creative lives. Civil rights lawyer by day, rock star by night, how Chicago’s Adele Nicholas keeps these balls, and many others, in the air is beyond me. One of Adele’s several musical projects, Axons, released “Unmanageable” in December 2014.

I went bonkers for “The Athlete” this year. It’s marvelous and speaks to the simultaneous rush and peril of lives in constant motion. With too much to do and too many goals to meet, the weight of expectation and risk of failure, when do we make time for reflection or connection? I had this song on quite a lot as I bounced back and forth between Raleigh and Durham and it always made me happy.

08. Mikal Cronin, “Change” (96 plays). I have neither the time, energy, or patience to hear every new record as it comes out just for the sake of staying current. The way I listen to music now means that, while I listen to tons of it, I do so based on what catches my ear, feels comfortable, or fills a particular need. Mikal Cronin’s “MCII” came out in 2013, but it wasn’t until fall of 2014 that certain tracks really started to connect with me.

I knew that 2015 would bring with it a number of significant changes and departures. What I didn’t anticipate was a flood of others that I was ill-prepared for and ill-equipped to handle on my own. I’ve been stronger in the past, and better at embracing the idea that “faith in change is something you can find.”

09. Phil Cook, “Ain’t It Sweet” (84 plays). If you know anything about me, you know that, to my mind, North Carolina is the best. The music of North Carolina started calling to me when I was visiting the Triangle during a school break in 1997 and heard a tune from Whiskeytown’s “Strangers Almanac” on local radio. Ten years later, on a different stopover in NC, my brother Peep and I went to see Megafaun play at The Pour House. Once I moved back in 2009, I started seeing Phil and Brad Cook everywhere; if there was a band I liked, one or both seemed to be playing with them.

For his own part, Phil Cook, whether he is supporting another artist or playing on his own, is a perpetual purveyor of ecstatic joy in performance. Perhaps my favorite 8 minutes of live music all year was at Duke Gardens in June. Backed by an all-star roster of talented musicians, including Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath, Phil and his pals delivered an all-conquering rendition of Willis Alan Ramsey’s “Northeast Texas Women.” All props to Dan Schram, who preserves these incredible moments, conferring boons upon us all.

What a treat and a pleasure it was when anticipation started to build for Phil’s first major solo record, “Southland Mission.” As with many of the things and people that I spend a deal of time contemplating or treasuring, Phil’s record inspired its own celebratory art-piece.

dem cook boys, tho

“dem cook boys, tho,” by Melvin Peña

10. Sweden, “Waterloo” (81 plays). As far as making art goes, one of my secret dreams and goals has long been to design an album cover. I was fortunate enough to be handed that opportunity in 2015. A group of my pals — Will, Rochelle, Alexis, Julia, Andrea, and Ricky — got together at various times to record an album of folk covers of Swedish pop hits under the aegis of Sweden – Band.

sweden - band

“sweden – band,” by Melvin Peña

I still can’t believe that a piece of art I created is visible all over the planet on services from Spotify to iTunes. By far, my favorite track on the record is a cover of ABBA’s “Waterloo.” Every time it comes on, it makes me smile and laugh, and I can’t hear it once without having to listen to it several times in succession. Same goes for the video version, which is totally bonkers. It’s a song and a record that sound like friendship to me.

Honorable Mention!

The Mountain Goats, “Blood Capsules” (67 plays). It wasn’t the next one in the queue as far as play-count goes, but this is my list and I can do whatever I like! I — and my baby puppy — love that 2015 Mountain Goats record, “Beat the Champ.” One of my deepest hopes is that Flash Chorus one day takes a crack at “Foreign Object,” which, in concert, became an instant shout-along classic.

beat the champ

“beat the champ,” by Melvin Peña

That said, the track that made me feel the best this year was actually from the 12″ that came with the deluxe package from Merge Records, “Blood Capsules.”

Hooray for music! Listening to it, singing it, playing it, or witnessing it being played, music rules. I’m looking forward to what jams I’ll be overwhelmed by in 2016!

Why is Lil Bub a Life-Changing Cat?

From Alien Cat Matilda and Venus the Two Face Cat to Grumpy Cat and the late-lamented Colonel Meow, since I began writing for Catster two years ago, I have learned more about Internet celebrity cats than I ever thought possible. Of all the cats in the online pantheon, none has made a greater impact on me than Lil Bub. Every time Bub pops up on my Instagram or Facebook feeds, her wide-set eyes and lolling tongue make me feel calm, peaceful, and happy.

When it was announced that Lil Bub and her owner, Mike Bridavsky, would be giving a talk in Raleigh as part of North Carolina State University Library’s Creativity and Technology Symposium (CATS), I claimed my ticket immediately. Even though the event itself was disappointing and poorly executed, I was more impressed than ever by the actual, practical outcomes of Bub’s mission.

Anticipation

I arrived at the James B. Hunt Library on NC State’s campus just after 5pm and was the first person in line. By 6:30, well over 100 people had already gathered in the building’s lobby. As a former academic and denizen of university libraries, I felt certain that the place hadn’t seen so many people milling about this late in the day since finals week of Spring semester. It amused me, as well as curious passersby I chatted with, that all these people were gathered to see a cat.

One woman I spoke with — a burlesque performer whose stage name is Melody Magpie — drove from Richmond, Virginia, just for the chance to see Lil Bub. Just so you appreciate the effort and dedication, that’s a 3-hour drive in traffic. She does a routine as Bub, and brought her custom-made papier-mâché Bub mask to the event, in addition to wearing a Bub t-shirt and sporting a freshly-inked Bub tattoo on her thigh. Without question, Lil Bub is an impactful cat who means a great deal to people, most of whom will only ever see her on their computers and mobile devices.

A haphazard program

The event page for “A Life-Changing Cat: Mike Bridavsky and Lil Bub” promised only that attendees would “hear from Mike and see Lil BUB in person.” The university setting, the CATS symposium’s themes, and the moderator’s role as a user-experience librarian raised some expectations for me in the month leading up to the talk. I imagined that what we’d hear would be some inside-baseball related to the Lil Bub phenomenon: “a business that is based on and requires a very detailed understanding of social media, archiving, and technology.”

While I hoped to learn something about these technical elements of Lil Bub as a viral celebrity, I’m sure most people just wanted to see the cat herself. What we got was very little of either. The presentation showcased a melange of poorly-sequenced slides and video clips, interspersed with rambling conversations about anything but Lil Bub, creativity, or technology.

Bridavsky and the moderator spent an inordinate amount of time discussing minutiae related to the Bloomington, Indiana, indie-rock scene of the late 1990s. For the most part, Bub herself was tucked away in Bridavsky’s lap, out of sight, both of the assembled audience and the cameras that livestreamed the event.

Internet celebrity cats and the illusion of intimacy

When we did see her, Lil Bub more than lived up to expectations, inasmuch as she is a small and adorable cat. Anyone who photographs their pets knows that you may have to take and then root through 50 photos to find even one worth posting. Over time, Bridavsky’s careful and painstaking cultivation of Bub’s online persona has had an effect on me. My experience of Lil Bub is a kind of mediated intimacy, the image of her face staring directly at me through countless photos and videos.

I thought that being in Bub’s presence would be a special, emotional experience. Sitting in the front row of the auditorium, not even 10 feet from Bub, though, I felt terribly distant. The audience was forewarned not to applaud, squee, or burst into tears to avoid startling the cat. Internet celebrity though she is, with the full gamut of meanings that people project onto her, Lil Bub is still a cat. A muted audience, a largely off-topic conversation, and a lap-sequestered cat put the entire audience at several awkward removes from a very public figure.

It was announced well ahead of time that the event would not include a meet-and-greet, which typically involves sizable financial investment from participants. This made perfect sense, since managing these personal interactions is a part of the Bub phenomenon that Bridavsky finds most taxing, both on the cat and on himself. He explained that, while he feels bad that not everyone can afford the donations, their relative expense limits the stress on Bub and maximizes charitable donations to Lil Bub’s Big Fund.

Lil Bub, charity, and practical outcomes

For most of the audience, the best part of the evening was certainly the end, when Bridavsky invited people to come down to the stage for a few minutes and take photos of Bub while she ate a snack. Let’s face it, 200 people did not come to a university library auditorium on a cold and wet late-October night to hear about the struggles of Midwestern indie-rock bands, nor to see Bub photos and videos that are readily available online. They came to see and be near a cat who has only ever existed for them on screens.

Perhaps the next public lecture or discussion might feature Bub on a dais or raised platform of her own, on full view for a respectful crowd. I don’t intend to come off as sour. It was not the cat that let me down, but the way she was presented. Make no mistake, as an example of the right way to handle, manage, and convert viral fame into positive communal action, Lil Bub is a true role model.

What truly redeemed the event for me, even more than the elation of the people standing in the line beforehand, was the practical outcome it had for shelter cats in the Raleigh-Durham metroplex. NC State Library and Lil Bub partnered with Raleigh’s Safe Haven Cat Shelter and Clinic to host a food and supply drive. Safe Haven — a non-profit, no-kill shelter — was one of the very first recipients of the ASPCA-managed Bub Fund grant money. Their volunteers and hand-cart were stationed right next to the Bub merchandise table.

Half an hour before the talk started, the cart was more than half filled with donations. As I sat outside the library afterward, trying to process what I’d observed, I saw the Safe Haven volunteers pushing the cart out into the night. For weeks in advance, I thought I’d start weeping uncontrollably at the first sight of Lil Bub in the flesh. It wasn’t until I saw those volunteers leaving with their cart, now stacked high with food and supplies for Safe Haven, that I became emotional.

Why is Lil Bub a “Life-changing cat”?

Ultimately, my disappointment in the talk was inconsequential. She was not there to satisfy my expectations. Lil Bub is not a “life-changing cat” because Bridavsky now has a hectic travel and appearance schedule. Lil Bub is a life-changing cat because her innocent visage inspires people to create and to give. Whether it’s fan works, body art, or burlesque routines, the joy that Lil Bub brings makes them eager to share that joy with others.

On a more practical and immediate level, as a lightning rod for donations — be they gifts of time, money, food, or supplies — Bub’s very existence is producing positive outcomes and making a substantive difference in the lives of animals from Massachusetts to Montana, and from Ringoes, New Jersey to right here in Raleigh, North Carolina.

GOOD JOB, BUB!

Flash Chorus Premiere: Sia’s “Elastic Heart”

This is extraordinary and I’m never going to stop sharing it.

Durham, North Carolina’s Flash Chorus had its premiere outing at Motorco on 14 September, 2015. We sang one of my favorite pop songs, Sia’s “Elastic Heart.”

I’m so proud of how this came out. We ran it through, practiced it for about 45 minutes, and then recorded it. I was surrounded by friends and having the best time. Monday night choir practice is such an absorbing experience. I’m so glad it’s back.

If you’re in the triangle, you should come along and try it out. If you’re not, but have a pal who is, send them along!

Flash Chorus:

site: http://www.flashchorus.org/
twitter: https://twitter.com/FlashChorus
instagram: https://instagram.com/flashchorus/
facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/flashchorus/

Let Us Reconsider Burglekutt From “Willow”

burglekutt willow ron howard

some cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood” by Melvin Peña on Flickr.

Epigraph: “It is time to go on a great adventure with our friend Burglekutt! From the village, we shall follow the river until we reach the Daikini crossroads.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about Ron Howard’s epic fantasy film Willow lately. To be fair, I’ve probably been thinking about Willow since 1988. Increasingly, my thoughts have turned to Burglekutt, prefect of the Nelwyn village, played with scenery-chewing gusto by Mark Northover (1950-2004). In the movie, Burglekutt is a petty tyrant, always looking to gain the leverage necessary to impound the Ufgood family land and claim it for himself.

Of course, the prefect gets his comeuppance, and more than once. I readily admit to laughing every time Elora Danan vomits on him during the journey to the Daikini crossroads, and nodding with approval when the bird defecates on him at the film’s conclusion. If you search “Burglekutt” in Google Images, pay attention to how he’s portrayed. Nearly every picture, screencap, or piece of fan art shows him berating Willow, shouting in cowardice for Vohnkar, or just having baby or bird excrement showered upon him.

What if there’s more to him than we know, or think we know? Sure, he’s a bully, but I think it’s well past time to reconsider Burglekutt. The more times you watch a film, the more intimately you know the characters, and the more familiar you become with them. This includes and might be even especially applicable to the ones you love to hate.

Watching the movie again recently, I found myself drawn to some of Burglekutt’s smaller, less ostentatious moments. For instance, he gathers with the rest of the village to watch Willow’s magic show and the High Aldwyn’s abortive selection of a new apprentice. As crotchety as he is with Willow, it’s clear that he’s not just some reclusive miser. He’s seen associating with a few particular villagers, so he must socialize; he must have friends, and things he cares about beyond lucre and mere self interest.

What brings Burglekutt pleasure? Surely he must experience those innocent joys common to all. There are moments when we see him laughing — not always in spite — and taking pleasure in entertainments. Burglekutt may be brusque and abrasive, but he clearly enjoys food, drink, fun, and fellowship with other Nelwyns. Apart from what we see, I also began pondering what became of Burglekutt in after years, and how he was remembered by his community when he was, at length, laid to rest.

In the midst of these reflections, a passage from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751) sprang to mind.

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.

The applause of listening senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
And read their history in a nation’s eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscribed alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confined

Even if Burglekutt remained caustic to the last, the Nelwyn village must certainly be listed among those spots of bucolic existence Gray invokes when he writes about places “along the cool sequestered vale of life” where the small, meek, and forgotten “kept the noiseless tenor of their way.”

Willow isn’t The Lord of the Rings — it doesn’t necessarily mark the passing of an age of magic and wonder, nor the inevitable and ruinous rise of humanity in the form of the Daikinis. No matter how awful or crass Burglekutt seems in the film, contrast him with the ruthless, infanticidal ambitions of Bavmorda or the developmental arc of Madmartigan, from solipsistic rogue to hero.

With his petty tyrannies and narrow field of vision, Burglekutt seems quaint by comparison. If he was bad, at least he was not evil. If he was avaricious, at least the scope of his greed was restricted to an otherwise idyllic setting. I found pity for Burglekutt and hope he found some measure of peace before the end.