Author Archives: Breanna Barnhart

A Very Blind Engagement (Japan)

My grandmother was first told this story by her mother-in-law, my great-grandmother, roughly fifty years ago.  The account is actually about my great-grandmother and how she met her husband, my great-grandfather.  Ever since she heard the story, she has retold my aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters and other relatives as a piece of interesting family history.  With this entry, my goal is to illustrate the “telephone effect,” or alteration of the original story, that can occur after only three generations by interviewing my grandmother and my brother.  My brother has heard the story from both my grandmother and my mother, so his version is expected to be different from my grandmother’s.

The story as my grandmother tells it goes like this:

Your great-grandmother, Mitsuno, was born in Hiroshima and was the eldest child in her family.  Because she was the eldest, she was responsible for her younger siblings, so she stayed at home while her siblings went off to school everyday.  One day, when she was in her twenties, she heard about an opportunity to go to the U.S. and meet a husband.  She was probably eager to experience life outside her hometown.  She was given a picture of her husband-to-be and took a ship to Los Angeles.  He was from Hiroshima too.  It was common back then to marry within your region of Japan…  It was frowned on to marry outside your city… But anyways, when she got off the ship… Boy, was she surprised!  He was much older than the picture!  So… she got right back on the ship and went back to Japan.  Well, your great-grandfather, Sakuichi, went all the way over to Japan, found her and convinced her to come back to the U.S. with him.  She eventually did, they got married and lived in Los Angeles.  But it certainly wasn’t a happy marriage!

When I interviewed my brother, the story was altered a bit and also condensed:

I don’t think I’ve heard that story in a couple years or so… I interviewed Grammy for one of my Asian-American classes.  Um, I don’t really remember who it was or how we’re related to her, but it happened during the early 1900s, when there were early forms of ‘mail order brides’… Basically I think she wanted American citizenship, so she blindly traveled from Japan to the States to meet her husband.  When she got off the boat, she took one look at him and convinced the boat crew to take her back to Japan.  I guess he didn’t just take that lying down, and he sailed to Japan to bring her back….”

The two versions of the story present the same plotline, but are noticeably different.  My grandmother offers more information and descriptions, while my brother omits specific names and also adds some other details.  My brother seems to put it into his own context becuase the last time he said he heard the story, he used it to relate to an Asian-American Studies course.  These contrasting stories are expected though, since my grandmother knew my great-grandmother and learned the story first-hand.  Yet, still, my grandmother’s version may be very different from my great-grandmother’s account, and that account may be very different from my great-grandfather’s account.  After just three generations since the original story was told to my grandmother, only the “punch line” of the narrative has survived.  The case study demonstrates the multiplicity and variation that commonly defines folklore and how stories are transformed over time.

Hockey: After a Trade, The Player Must Be Shaved

“I’ve heard that in the NHL, when a player is traded, his new teammates shave him from head to toe.”

My informant says he first heard of this ritual when he was on a hockey team while in high school in the 1980s.  He says that hockey is full of superstitions so initiation rituals are common, especially for rookies and traded players, but not necessarily for hockey veterans.  Some “newbies” go willingly and others are sometimes forced by their teammates.  He also explained that if this ritual is still practiced, it is one of the mild forms of initiation; others can be pretty sexual, grotesque and/or humiliating.  Nevertheless, this hazing tradition appears to be a type of purification ritual that literally cleanses the player of anything and everything he physically had while playing for his previous team.

Urban Legend: A Dead Body Hidden in a Hotel Mattress

 “Once there was a couple who decided to get away for a couple days.  They decided to stay at a motel and as soon as they entered their room, it smelled horrible, like maybe a rat died in there.  So, they complained to the front desk, but the concierge assured them that the room was just cleaned and the cleaning staff and even the previous occupant never complained about a smell.  The couple then asked to switch rooms, but the motel was in the middle of nowhere and completely booked.  There was nothing they could do about it, so they started to track down the smell for themselves.  The smell was coming from somewhere near the bed.  They looked under it, behind it, behind the bedside tables and still couldn’t locate the smell.  Finally, they decided just to check underneath the mattress.  When they pushed the mattress off, the found a rotting human body in the box spring.  The body was there for days, maybe weeks until it was found.”


My informant is from Pasadena, California and first heard the story when she was in grade school in the 1990s.  She heard it from her friends at school and also saw it in a comic book version of urban legends that she read when she was younger.  While researching this story, it turns out the story is very popular.  My informant’s version is very similar to other’s I came across online.  All the stories involve a couple, a foul smell, a search to find the smell and the discovery of the body.  However, other versions include different descriptions: the couple is on their honeymoon, the story takes place in Las Vegas, the cleaning staff cleans the room while the couple is off sightseeing (but the smell remains when they return) and sometimes there is no complaint, just a discovery.  The story of the body in the mattress has many different versions, but nonetheless, is the same story.

The most surprising and interesting discovery I made during my research was the fact that the exact same incident occurred at a Travelodge in Pasadena, CA in July 1996!  I first found this information on, which prides with the statement: “the definitive Internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation.”  According to, the motel staff discovered a woman’s body ten days after her murder after multiple complaints from occupants.  In another source, the body was found by a Honolulu native, while she and her brother were on vacation (“The Body in the Bed”).  Although unreliable sources, the two websites illustrate common variants found in folklore.  In order to really confirm the urban legend from Pasadena, I went to the City of Pasadena’s online archive.  The archive only publishes the headlines of newspapers, but the title “Body found in motel room identified: Woman, 23, is named using dental records,” dated to August 2, 1996, verified this story.  The urban legend was most likely a popular story already, so the incident may have simply been a reenactment of the legend.  Furthermore, the event may have also revived the story, which is why my informant heard it while in grade school during the 1990s.


Emery, David. “The Body in The Bed.” Urban Legends. 20 Apr. 2012. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <>.

Sharfstein, Daniel. “Body Found in Motel Room Identified : Woman, 23, Is Named Using Dental Records.” Pasadena Public Library. City of Pasadena. Web. 20 Mar. 2012. <>.

“The Bawdy Under the Bed.” 18 Mar. 2010. Web. 20 Apr. 2012. <>.

“If You Step on a Crack, Then You’ll Break Your Mother’s Back!” (Annotation)

My informant first heard the American expression when she was in elementary school.  The saying is pretty popular and is easily recognized by most Americans.  She says that she commonly used the expression on the playground at school or while playing with friends.  Also, it is not something that you merely say, but “is a rhyme that you kind of sing.”  She remembers saying the phrase while hopping over cracks.

When she was younger, my informant explained that it was not something that she necessarily believed.  She had stepped on plenty of cracks and nothing bad ever happened to her mom.  However, she did say that it was considered bad luck.  However, my informant was and is not very superstitious.  So although she knew the saying, she personally did not think it was bad luck, “especially since there were so many cracks on the ground at [her] school!”  My informant, now an elementary school teacher, also said that she has overheard her students using the expression as well.  The American proverb seems to still exist and remains a traditional “playground” proverb.

The famous adage has been used and continually reinforced in film.  The 1988 children’s movie The Land Before Time shows a variation of the expression with the character “Ducky” saying: “Don’t step on a crack, or you’ll fall and break your back.”  Nevertheless, the scene shows how it is used in child’s play.  The characters Ducky, Cera and Littlefoot hop over cracks as they rhythmically say the line.  The movie, made almost twenty-five years ago, is still popular among kids today, especially for those who become interested in dinosaurs.  The Land Before Time’s popularity helps perpetuate the continuation of the well-known American adage.


The Land Before Time. Dir. Don Bluth. Perf. Pat Hingle, Gabriel Damon and Judith Barsi. Universal, 1988.

“Between A Rock and A Hard Place” (Annotation)

My informant said he has heard his parents say this expression ever since he was little; however, he did not understand the meaning behind it until he was “probably a teenager.”  He says it refers to “being in a tough spot,” or getting caught in a predicament where either of the two outcomes are unfavorable.  The expression “between a rock and a hard place” presents a visual to this dilemma.  He also mentioned a synonymous expression: “picking the lesser of two evils.”

In 2004, Aron Ralston used this phrase for the title of his autobiography, which retells his experience while “canyoning” in the Utah desert.  For Ralston, “between a rock and a hard place” sums up the predicament he found himself in after a boulder trapped his arm.  While hiking deep into the Utah desert, away from regularly used trails, Ralston suddenly fell into a ravine and a boulder crushed his arm.  He was forced between two options: amputate his arm himself or die from thirst or starvation.  After being stuck in the ravine for over five days, he finally decided to cut his arm with a dull knife.  Therefore, “between a rock and a hard place” is a play on words and quite literal interpretation of what happened to him.  Ralston’s book also influenced the 2010 movie adaptation 127 Hours, starring James Franco.  The popularity of the movie brought even more fame to Aron Ralston’s book and continued to circulate the American saying.

127 Hours. Dir. Danny Boyle. Perf. James Franco. Fox Searchlight, 2010.
Ralston, Aron. Between a Rock and a Hard Place. New York: Atria, 2004. Print.


When Eating Breakfast Reflects A Poor Man’s Custom

Informant:  “…I’m sure you’ve seen me do this at breakfast.  Whenever I order eggs, sausage, and hashed browns, I’ll cut it up and mix it all together in a kind of mash.”

Interviewer: “How long have you been doing that?”

Informant: “Oh um, ever since I was really little.  That’s the way I’ve seen my dad do it throughout my life and I guess it just caught on.  It wasn’t until high school when I got called out for it.”

Interviewer: “Called out for it? Why?”

Informant: “Well, when I was at boarding school… it was a pretty ritzy school, I had a scholarship to go there, but it was full of kids who uh, came from old money or whatever…  But anyways, me and my classmates went out to breakfast one day, I ordered the usual – eggs, sausage, hashed browns – sliced it up and mashed it all together.  I started eating, and my friend says to me in this judgmental way… ‘You know…that’s the way a poor man eats….’  I was really embarrassed… I didn’t know what she was talking about.  I thought she was just being a bitch… so I kept mixing it all together.  But… I was kind of offended.  When I came home – it must have been during a holiday vacation – I went out to breakfast with my family, and my dad and I, we ordered our usual and started eating it in the same way we had always done…  But this time, I told him what my classmate said and… you know what… he actually told me that she was right!”

Interviewer: “What? …Really?”

Informant: “[laughs] Yea, I know…  I was surprised too, dude!  So… supposedly, it’s a custom that came from the Great Depression.  Mashing it all together, it was a way to hide rancid meat…

Interviewer: “No way!”

Informant: “Yea, my… great-grandfather lost his business and lived in one of those, those little shantytowns in the Midwest, so that’s supposedly where it all started.  My dad said that that’s how his dad ate and how his grandfather – my great-grandfather – did too… I had no idea it was such a long tradition.”

Interviewer: “That’s pretty crazy… that just a way of eating can survive generations.”

Informant: “Yea, it’s pretty cool.  And I don’t even care that it’s a symbol of ‘lower-class.’  Whatever…  I think of it more now as a type of historical family custom…”


The notion that people were forced to eat rotten meat after losing everything during the Great Depression makes sense since they didn’t have the means to buy better quality meats.  In some cases, they practically had to scavenge from the bottom of the barrel to survive.  Whether or not her family custom of eating dates to the Great Depression, the tradition shows how behavior can also be treated as folklore since it can be passed down vocally and visually.  This is also an example of nonsensical folklore, not because it doesn’t make sense, but because there is no underlying meaning to the action; it is simply done because that’s the way it has been done, “because that’s the way my father did it.”

“If You Toss a Penny Off the Top of the Empire State Building, It Will Kill a Person Walking on the Street Below”

My informant first heard this “fun fact” when she was about seven-years-old.  It was a common piece of information that was spread across the playground.  It is such a common urban legend that most of my other informants and I, too, have heard the same declaration.  From when she was younger, her general understanding is that when dropped from the top balcony of the Empire State Building, the penny will gradually increase in velocity.  As it gets closer to the ground, it will reach the speed of a bullet.  If by chance the penny strikes a person in the head, the penny will go straight through and kill the person.


She also says that there are variations of the legend: it will put a hole in the cement sidewalk, the coin will break to pieces, and even, that it has been used to purposefully kill someone.  She laughed when she said the last variant saying: “I have no idea how or why someone would strategically plan to kill someone with a penny… on the top of the Empire State Building.  You wouldn’t even be able to identify the right person from that high up! [laughs] …I don’t know, it was just something I heard from grade school.”


My informant told me that she remembered this “fact” so well that when she actually went to New York when she was in high school, she asked one of the tour guides if it had ever happened: “The guide told me that he got that one a lot, but he reassured me that it wasn’t even possible.  Supposedly, since the building is so tall, the updraft will slow the penny’s speed as it falls and won’t cause any damage.  He also said, though, that people have thrown pennies off the side in the past, but they end up landing on other terraces on the lower floors.”


After hearing this, I was curious and did a little more research.  After checking a few different sources, it turns out the urban legend is in fact completely false.  According to the book Empire State Building, a penny tossed from the top of the Empire State Building will never even hit the ground.  The updraft effect pushes falling objects against the building and end up falling only a few stories below.  The coins that are dropped from the 86th floor simply land on the 80th floor and are collected by electricians when they change the lights on the outer side of the building.  Furthermore, according to an experiment that was performed for the ABC show “20/20,” even if the pennies dodge the 80th floor landing, the pennies are still harmless to pedestrians below.  After sending a large weather balloon into the air with an attached penny dispenser, Louis Bloomberg – a University of Virginia physics professor – spit the pennies one by one through a remote control device.  Several pennies hit Bloomberg but “it was like getting hit by a bug…it was noticeable, but nothing more…these things are just fluttering down.”  Another experiment was performed on the show “Mythbusters” that tested the degree of impact at terminal velocity (the speed at which the penny would fall if no other factors such as friction acted upon the coin) on asphalt, cement, concrete and an anatomically correct human head replica.  The experiment revealed that the penny would not penetrate any surfaces.  As far as the human skull, a penny at terminal velocity may break the skin, but will not break through or fracture the skull.  So as the crew of Mythbusters would say, this urban legend is “busted!”



Hyneman, Jamie, and Adam Savage. “Mythbusters: Penny Drop MiniMyth.” Mythbusters. Discovery Channel, 2 Feb. 2011. Web. 12 Apr. 2012. <>.


Peterson, Sheryl. Empire State Building. Mankato, MN: Creative Education, 2007. Print.


Stossel, John, and Gena Binkley. “Can a Penny Dropped From a Building Kill a Pedestrian Below?” ABC News. ABC News Network, 03 May 2007. Web. 12 Apr. 2012. <>.

Old Farmer Expressions

My informant told me about two new expressions that I had never heard before: “scarcer than hensteeth” and “some days you get the chickens and some days you get the feathers.”  She says her father still uses these phrases to this day, but they derive from the early 1900s.  She has heard her father use them since she was really little, but her father said they were sayings his great-grandfather had said (my informant’s great-great grandfather) and it just “passed down the line.”  Surprisingly, her great-great grandfather who was from Nebraska didn’t own a chicken farm, but instead a corn farm that apparently had a lot of chickens.

As told by her grandfather and father, the first expression – “scarcer than hensteeth” – was a Great Depression metaphor.  She explained the meaning: “Obviously hen don’t have teeth, so if you have anything less than that you’re screwed.  For example, if a conversation was like… ‘How’s the money going?’  And you respond, ‘Scarcer than hensteeth,’ it basically means you don’t have shit.”  Oftentimes, she still uses the phrase “just to make a point.”  She also said that even though the phrase is just shy than a century years old, people still understand the point she tries to make.

The second expression – “Some days you get the chickens and some days you get the feathers” – deals with a gambling type of situation, which could most definitely be directed toward situations like with farming.  To take the phrase literally, it means that some days you go hungry, while other days you can have your fill.  She related this saying to: “sometimes you get the bear and sometimes the bear gets you.”  Recently, though, she had a conversation with her father about the expression and a new outlook was presented.  She said that she also noticed a more positive spin; that either day, it doesn’t matter if you got the chicken or the feathers, “you end up getting the filling for a pillow.”  In other words, you make use of what you wind up with in the end.

These expressions have been such a part of my informant’s upbringing that she tries to integrate them into everyday conversation whenever she can.  She is very in touch with her family history and in an effort to someday impart these historical familial idioms on to her children, she tries to maintain them in conversation.  These sayings may have just been popular during the time period of her great-great grandfather, but the fact that she, her father, grandfather and great-grandfather have continually used them through their lives illustrates a vocal transaction that can survive generations.  The fact that they have actively tried to preserve these expressions shows a type of folklore that can be limited to family.

Folk Object: An Heirloom 1880s Bread Maker

Ever since a young age, (it seems that most folklore is transferred at an early age) my informant has known about this piece of furniture that has been dear to her family for generations.  Her grandmother and mother told her about the significance of the old bread maker, called a “hoosier cabinet,” that her mother has moved from house to house, city to city.  She says that she learned more information from her mother though, since her grandmother “was kind of out of it” from old age.

“It was made at the turn of the century, during the Industrial Revolution.  It was the first production-made cooking appliance, called a “hoosier cabinet,” from Pennsylvania.  I have no idea why they’re called “hoosiers,” but they’ve been called that for a long time now… It required a lot of metal parts; it had a metal funnel to sift flour, hinges for cabinets, a metal countertop… Do you know those “roll top desks?”  Well, this cabinet had roll top windows to keep utensils, rolling pins and other cooking tools, but it was designed to bake bread…  And it was the first compact idea of that.

“So in the 1880s my mom’s side of the family got one of these and in every generation since then, it’s been given to the best cook.  Right now, I have it in my dining room at my parent’s house.  Traditionally, it was painted white, white-washed white… like Tom Sawyer white.  But I guess in the 50s, the cabinet was refinished, so now it shows the wood.  But anyways, it followed down my mom’s side of the family, and reached my grandmother because she was the best cook, and then to my mom because she was the best cook among her cousins and sisters in her generation.  I recently found out that now the cabinet is going to me!  I guess it’s designated in my parents’ will.”

My informant explained that this was the first item that really has sentimental value for her.  It had been passed down so many generations, she felt really honored to have it: “It really is a big deal for me… I love to cook, but never thought I was the best at it in my family… I have a lot of ladies in my generation, two sisters and a lot of cousins… It’s has been a symbol of motherhood, care-giving and… maturity for so long and I feel like I’ve earned it… It’s really special.”  She then told me that when her parents owned a house in Cedar Glen, Lake Arrowhead, every single childhood thing she had – photos, toys, old VHS home videos – were lost during a forest fire that devoured their house.  It has been the piece of furniture that she has grown up with and the fact that it has such a rich history means the world to her.  She says that she can’t wait to pass it on to one of her children.  Because the story and sentimental value of the “hoosier cabinet” has transcended multiple generations, it has continued to connect her to her family and her family history.  It truly is a folk object.

A Climate Change Scientist and a Climate Change Denier Walk into a Bar…

“A climate change scientist and a climate change denier walk into a bar.  The scientist takes a seat at the bar and orders a glass of their finest scotch.  The bar tender brings him his scotch and the climate change denier asks, “What’s the percentage?”  The bartender turns to the denier and says,  “90 proof.”  The climate change denier then slams his hand down on the table, throws down his drink and storms out of the bar.  The climate change scientist then turns to the bartender and says: “Damn deniers! Even when you show ‘em the proof, they still don’t believe it!”


My informant first heard this joke on NPR (National Public Radio) a few years ago and thinking that it was pretty comical, he decided to share the joke.  Although a fairly recent topic, the joke may have been adapted from previous global warming jokes.  The issue and the term “global warming” has gradually received more media coverage since its first mention and prediction in Wally Broecker’s 1975 paper and when Jim Hansen’s famous stated in 1988 that “global warming is here” (Real Climate).  The debate over global warming is ongoing and is even a debate topic in the 2012 presidential race.  The joke, of course, takes the side of global warming scientists who have presented multiple scientific studies to confirm the presence of global warming, but despite the evidence in favor of the phenomenon, some skeptics continue to deny its existence.  The joke illustrates some critics’ denial and defensive attitudes toward global warming.  Since it is a joke, it depends on lumping all skeptics into a single category of ignorant defiance.  Over decades, a great deal of scientific reports has been published in favor of global warming and yet it is still a sensitive subject.  While the global warming debate has not been fully confirmed, the joke on global warming confirms the fact that folklore is adaptable and integrates social issues and other subject matter that apply to the modern age.


“Happy 35th Birthday, Global Warming!” RealClimate: Climate Science from Climate Scientists. WordPress, 28 July 2010. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <>.