Monday, December 02, 2013

Moving Day

It's not quite 3:30 of the day the movers come, and I'm awake. I've been awake for more than an hour, but it's too early to do much. I need to move boxes around and run the washer and do other things that are going to make noise, and in a building where people are sleeping I don't feel I can do that for a couple of hours.

The boxes are packed but not sealed -- a couple more than I'd expected, but still representing only about half of the stuff that was crammed into my apartment. At least half a dozen boxes are books and promotional materials that belong to one of my clients, and those are getting shipped by UPS so that I don't have to pay to move them myself. This afternoon someone will come to take most of my remaining furniture away, I hope, and I'll be carting bags and boxes to the library and Goodwill throughout the day. Leaving tomorrow morning is starting to feel over-optimistic; I may need one extra day to pack the car and clean. I'll make that call mid-afternoon, I figure.

It takes time to dismantle nine years, and for someone who pretends not to be acquisitive I'm kind of amazed at how much I managed to accumulate in that time. People keep asking whether I'm excited, but that isn't the right word. I'll feel exhilarated when I turn onto 295, either tomorrow morning or Wednesday morning. Right now I'm anxious, nostalgic, a little fearful, and tallying up the gains and losses.

The balance sheet is in my favor, always. As a friend once said, I live a magic life. I try not to take that for granted, and yet I trust that the net will appear when I leap because it always has before. I am wealthy not in funds but in the extraordinary tolerance, affection and support of a vast network of family and friends. I'm acutely aware of how much this process has drawn on those resources, and anyone who comes to me in the next 12 months and says, "You owe me," will be right.

As I get ready to leave, I think about what I was looking for when I came to Maine. It seems to me that I found almost all of it. I wanted four seasons, and to regain the sense of the passage of time, because time doesn't pass the same way in Los Angeles. I wanted to be part of a smaller community. I wanted to live in a place that was entirely new to me. I wanted room — physical, emotional and temporal — to figure out what was important to me, free of the expectations of the people I love. With the remarkable synchronicity that's run through my life, the move to Maine coincided with a nearly miraculous, life-changing reunion I'd been waiting more than 20 years for, and I needed the relative isolation of Gardiner to let me ponder all those things in my heart.

I'll always come back to Maine, because Maine is now part of who I am. Some piece of me will stay here, and I hope that some piece of it will come with me.

For the last nine years my refrigerator door has borne a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins that I found around the time of my last move. My new housemate doesn't put things on his refrigerator, so the card has gone into my memorabilia box; the ink had gotten almost too faded to read, anyway. The poem is called "Heaven-Haven," and is about a nun taking the veil.

 I HAVE desired to go
      Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
    And a few lilies blow.
    And I have asked to be       
      Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
    And out of the swing of the sea. 

The title hints at the truth: this earthly plane doesn't really offer any place like that, not even in a cloister. But Gardiner, Maine has come pretty close for me. As I jump back into the swing of the sea, I'm grateful to have been here.


Thursday, October 31, 2013

Five More Books that Scared Me

The tradition of telling scary stories in the month of November is one that goes back to pre-Christian days in Europe. The ancient Celts believed that at this time of year, before the winter solstice, the barriers between the physical world and the spirit world thinned, making it possible for the evil and the unwary to cross between.

Up in central Maine, it's hard to argue with that theory. Piles of leaves hide living creatures and their dead prey; trees stand skeletal against a sky the color of limbo.

In real life I am scared of mice, permanence, being unwelcome and becoming dependent. I prefer to take my scares on the page, where they seem more manageable, and can usually be defied by simply closing the book. I've been reading scary stories since I could read, pretty much; Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman remains one of the most terrifying and suspenseful books I've ever read. I've already posted one list of five books that scared me, but here are five more.

1. Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan (1974). I am happier than I can say that Lizzie Skurnick Books is reintroducing Lois Duncan to a new generation. In eighth grade, I read every one of her titles in the Norfolk Academy library; this one, her only Gothic, remains my favorite. When her mother remarries, Kit Gordy is sent to Blackwood Hall, a boarding school for gifted students — but she has only three schoolmates, and it turns out that their gifts are very strange indeed. Just writing about it makes me want to track this book down for a reread.

2. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959). The best horror novels repay rereading by changing along with the reader, because they're a sort of mirror in which we find the things that scare us. This book affects me in a much different way now, in middle age, than it did when I first discovered it in high school. Eleanor belongs nowhere; she gets an invitation to be part of a group of psychic investigators at Hill House, because she is special, because someone has noticed her at last. Finally, she thinks, she has found a place where she belongs. And the house, as it turns out, may think so, too.

3. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962). My mother told me this book was scarier than Hill House, but when I first read it —at 14, I think — I didn't understand why. Merricat, her sister Constance, and their Uncle Julian live together in an isolated house that has seen terrible tragedy, and Merricat moves tensely among townspeople who think they know too much about her family. As it turns out, the scariest secrets are the ones we keep even from ourselves.

4. Ghost Story by Peter Straub (1979). Possibly the first book that made me cry from sheer fright. Four old men - the Chowder Society, as they call themselves - are lifelong friends whose friend Edward Wanderley has recently died under mysterious circumstances. When Wanderley's nephew Don comes to town, they invite him into their group, where they comfort themselves with ghost stories - ghost stories, it becomes clear, that have a great deal to do with what's happening to them now.

5. Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon (1973). I read a lot of Thomas Tryon all in a row, and while The Other has its own horrors and Crowned Heads is a pulpy tour-de-force, Harvest Home was the book that gave me nightmares. Ned and Beth Constantine think they've found a new home in the picturesque New England village of Cornwall Coombe; the neighbors, especially the Widow Fortune, are so friendly! If I learned anything from Rosemary's Baby, it's that you can't trust those friendly neighbors.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Question of Home

Warning: This post may include some oversharing. Proceed at your own risk.

Many years ago, when I was in college, I was blathering on about something when a friend got impatient and asked, "Where are you actually from?" 

It shut me up for a moment, as was undoubtedly his intent — I did have far too much to say, with far too little content, back in those days — but then I had to admit, "I'm not really from anywhere."

I was born in New Rochelle, New York, a city I never lived in; my mother was staying with her parents in Larchmont while my father was in the South China Sea, on the USS Duncan. Six weeks later, Mom took my twin sister Kathy and me across the country to San Diego, where we lived on Coronado Island (before the bridge was built) for two years. My earliest conscious memories are of a rented house on Galveston Boulevard in Norfolk, Virginia, where we got a dog and my sisters Peggy and Susan were born (events listed in the order of importance to my two and three-year-old self). But before I turned four, we'd already gone up to the Bronx to stay with my father's parents for a few months while my mother waited for the birth of my brother Ed. We landed in Fairfax, Virginia in early 1970, but moved again in August 1973, this time to Virginia Beach.

"Virginia Beach" is what I usually say when people ask me where I'm from, because it's where I went to school — but I left Virginia Beach for good in the fall of 1982, when I went off to college as a 16-year-old freshman. And then I stayed in the Washington, DC area for the next 17 years, but I was notorious among my friends for moving, on average, every two years. I lived outside the Beltway and inside the Beltway: I lived in Fairfax County, Alexandria, south Arlington, Adams-Morgan, on the outskirts of Shaw, in Palisades.

Friends of mine got married, bought houses, had kids. I never quite figured that out; I did everything out of order, though that's a longer story for another time. I looked around as the last century came to a close and decided to make a big leap — this time across the country, to Los Angeles. At least in Los Angeles I lived in one single apartment for five whole years.

But Los Angeles isn't home for anybody, as near as I can tell. I do, in fact, know people who were born there and have lived their whole lives there. I have friends who are raising their children there. It doesn't change my feeling that Los Angeles is almost by definition a city of transients, a destination for people who want to reinvent themselves and escape whatever roots were tying them down.

Five years was enough time to spend in Los Angeles, a city I love and will always be grateful to/for. A friend from Washington had moved to Maine and suggested I try it, just for a season; that was nine years ago, and it's the longest I've ever lived anywhere, in my whole life. The longest I've ever lived in a single apartment, the longest I've ever lived in a single town. I got here the week the Red Sox broke the curse . . . and now it looks as if I'll be leaving not too long after the last bit of the curse is broken for good.

Because I'm going back to the Washington, DC area, on or about the first of December. The decision had been brewing for a while, but it all came together very quickly only last month. I'm finding an apartment with a beloved former housemate, and affiliating myself with a consulting firm run by an old boss and mentor. (The nature of my work is not going to change, and as far as I know I'm keeping all my clients.)

I'm glad to be going, but oh, so sorry to leave. I'm sad to be leaving Gaslight Theater. I'm sad to be saying goodbye to the ESL student I've worked with for eight years, and to the weekly literacy lab I work with at Literacy Volunteers of Greater Augusta. I hate leaving Team Clueless, the pub trivia team I play with at the Liberal Cup. I'm going to miss the river and the woods and the fact that the Gardiner postmistresses ask me for reading recommendations.

Tonight I'll be at The Liberal Cup, central Maine's best brewpub, for what will probably be my last appearance as guest host of the weekly pub trivia night. It's one of a string of "lasts" that will continue throughout the month of November. I expect to laugh a lot and cry a lot and tear out big chunks of my hair.

And then I'll go home. I hope.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

What I Learned From Stephen King

When my twin sister and I were eight or nine years old, we were visiting our grandfather and step-grandmother (also my great-aunt, but that's another story, and not scandalous) in Charleston, South Carolina. We were driving through the Lowcountry when we passed a caravan of red-haired people who looked unusual, almost like circus folk. I asked who they were.

"Those people are tinkers," said my step-grandmother Rita. "You stay away from them. They steal children."

Now I know those people were Travelers, probably going to the beach the same way we were, or maybe heading to some construction job. But as a child the idea of a child-stealing band of tinkers made my blood run cold, and Stephen King's latest book, DOCTOR SLEEP, brought all that back to me.

DOCTOR SLEEP is the long-awaited and much-anticipated sequel to THE SHINING by Stephen King, and went on sale today. Through the generosity of a friend, I've already read a review copy, but will be buying my own finished copy as soon as my bank account recovers from Bouchercon.

The question to be asked of any sequel is whether it's necessary. THE SHINING leaves little unresolved at its conclusion — an ending, by the way, that differs considerably from the movie's. But Stephen King has said in interviews that people would occasionally ask what happened to Danny Torrance, the mysteriously gifted child at the center of THE SHINING, and one of that book's survivors. He says he wrote DOCTOR SLEEP, in part, because he wondered that himself. The world can be a dangerous place for gifted children, and an extraordinary child's gifts don't necessarily equip them for adulthood. DOCTOR SLEEP is built around these two insights, as well as the central premise of King's classic novel PET SEMATARY: "Sometimes, dead is better."

Danny Torrance, whose gifts were so terrible — but also saved his life and his mother's — grows up to become a wreck of a man, a drunk and a drifter and even a thief, before he arrives in a small New Hampshire town that offers a chance at redemption. With the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, Danny builds a new life for himself as a hospice orderly with another special talent: the ability to ease the dying into their final sleep. But he still shines, and nearby is another child with the same extraordinary gift, perhaps even more powerful. This is Abra, and it's not too long before Danny realizes that Abra's talent has made her the target of some very nasty people indeed.

DOCTOR SLEEP holds its own as a powerful, insightful horror novel, but also reminds me of how much Stephen King has taught me about the way the world works. SALEM'S LOT was my introduction to his works, sometime in seventh grade or maybe the summer after. I had never been so scared by a book, and rushed to read everything else I could find — at the time, only CARRIE, which was terrifying for a whole different set of reasons, and THE SHINING, which I checked out in hardcover from the library on the Naval Amphibious Base. In the years that followed I read every book as it came out, saving up my money for hardcovers (although, like some others, I never committed to The Dark Tower).

I am not exaggerating when I say that Stephen King taught me what to expect from the world: from friends, from family, from employers, from love, from loss. From THE DEAD ZONE, which I reread at least once a year, I learned that true love doesn't always end in marriage, and that sometimes you have to do what's right even if people think you're crazy. From CHRISTINE I learned that lifelong friendships can't always last, and from IT I learned that sometimes they can. From CUJO and PET SEMATARY I learned about the lies parents tell themselves and the lies husbands and wives tell each other. From MISERY I learned — well, I keep those lessons in mind every day as a publicist and author's assistant.

DOCTOR SLEEP continues my education about life. King returns to themes he's explored in earlier novels, but is powerfully insightful about the nitty-gritty of redemption and mercy. This book taught me more about the mechanics of AA than I've ever known, though I have friends who have been in that program for decades. But most of all it taught me about how one comes to terms with the end of a life, and how peaceful and welcome that can be. DOCTOR SLEEP is the work of a man who's thought a lot about the end of his own life — understandable, given his near-death experience in 1999 — and is curious and at peace about whatever comes next.

Let's hope that whatever that is, he doesn't find out first-hand for a long, long time. Thank you, Mr. King, for my education.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Bouchercon 2013: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The 44th World Mystery Convention, also known as Bouchercon (say it BOUGHchurcon) happened this weekend in Albany, New York. It's a unique gathering, organized and produced by fans of crime fiction to create an opportunity for readers to mix with their favorite mystery authors, honor the genre's heroes, and share their recommendations for what to read next. Even now in this age of social media, when everyone seems so accessible online, Bouchercon is a mystery fan's dream come true, and anyone who's seriously interested in the genre should try to get to one. A list of the next five meetings is here; one's probably not far from you.

Bouchercon moves around every year, as local organizing committees (LOCs) bid on a chance to welcome 1,500 fans and authors for a four-day party. Although Bouchercon has a standing Board of Directors, everyone involved with it is a volunteer. The meeting pays expenses for its Guests of Honor, but otherwise, everyone attends on their own dime, and all the organizers work for free. It's a community that forms because of a shared passion, which is the best kind of community, and once you go to one Bouchercon, you're part of that community forever.

I've been going since 2005, when the meeting was in Chicago; I missed Anchorage in 2007 (too far) and St. Louis in 2011 (my daughter's wedding), but have been back every other year since. It's a chance to see clients and colleagues, and actually marks the beginning of a new business year for me; it's where I hear about what's coming my way, pick up industry gossip, and get a sense of whether or not my clients are happy with me. But most of all it's a party with my friends. I can't even list the lifelong friends I've made at Bouchercon, for fear that I'll leave someone out — but my hotel roommate at this meeting, Judy Bobalik, and one of my primary clients, Joseph Finder, were both people I met at the Chicago Bouchercon.

This year's Bouchercon was good, bad and ugly.

The Good: I got to moderate a panel called "A Matter of Trust," asking what's fair and not fair when it comes to literary tricks: unreliable narrators, shifting time lines, twist endings, etc. Just as casting is 80% of directing, the panelists are 80% of moderating, and mine were a moderator's dream:  Megan Abbott, Laura Lippman, and Jennifer McMahon, all of whose books you should be reading. (Sadly, Lori Roy, who was also scheduled for this panel, had to cancel at the last minute because of a family emergency.) Bouchercon's panels were great, thanks to the efforts of the aforementioned Judy Bobalik and her programming partner, Jon Jordan.

This year's Guests of Honor were Sue Grafton (Lifetime Achievement), Anne Perry (International), Tess Gerritsen (American) and Steve Hamilton (Toastmaster), with Chris Aldrich and Lynn Kaczmarek as Fan Guests of Honor. It's rare to get a chance to listen to a master discuss her craft, and the guest-of-honor interviews I saw (Anne Perry and Tess Gerritsen) were fascinating. As a bonus, Lawrence Block made a surprise appearance, and gave an impromptu Q&A session on Saturday at lunch time.

Oh, and Books to Die For, which launched at last year's Bouchercon, picked up Macavity and
Anthony Awards for best Nonfiction/Critical crime book of 2012. Since the book's editors, John Connolly and Declan Burke, were not at this year's Bouchercon, I volunteered to pick up the prizes on behalf of them and the book's 116 other contributors, many of whom were in Albany as well. Thank you, thank you, thank you to Mystery Readers International (who vote on the Macavity) and the members of Bouchercon (who vote on the Anthony) for honoring the book, which was a labor of love for everyone involved.

The Bad: The reason I didn't see all of the Guest of Honor interviews was that they were scheduled at night, two hours after the day's panel programming ended. This might not have been a bad choice if the programming had not been in the Empire State Plaza, blocks away from anyone's hotel and from any place to get dinner. It was too easy to decide not to return to the Empire State Plaza after dark, and attendance was sparse at the evening events I did attend. That's a rotten thing to do to one's Guests of Honor. If those interviews had been scheduled in the lunch hour, they'd have been standing room only, and they should have been.

Downtown Albany, like downtown Augusta, is a ghost town outside normal business hours. The Empire State Plaza's food court closes on weekends, and the food trucks that line the plaza on weekdays disappear. Worse, the restaurants and even the Albany Hilton go to skeleton staffs, even though they knew (or should have known) that a convention of 1,500 people would be staying until Sunday and needing food and drink. The staffing decisions of the Albany Hilton, in particular, were baffling, not to say enraging. I felt terrible for the overwhelmed bar, restaurant and kitchen staff who just didn't have the numbers they needed to serve an impatient crowd.

The bar is the beating heart of Bouchercon, and Bouchercon's bar requirements are pretty specific. First, the bar needs to be adequately staffed. Second, the bar needs to allow for mingling, but also needs space for people to sit down, and the option of a quiet corner for people who don't want to shout at each other. Atrium bars are terrible: they never have enough seating and they require people to shout at each other, with no possibility of a quiet conversation. The Hilton Albany's is an atrium bar. 74 State, a hotel around the corner, had a much nicer bar, but remained a well-kept secret to most.

The Ugly: The accessibility arrangements for this year's Bouchercon were disgraceful. Trekking to and from the Empire State Plaza, especially at night, was inconvenient for me and the other able-bodied Bouchercon participants, but it was almost prohibitively difficult for anyone in a wheelchair. The Empire State Plaza, built in the late 1960s, is accessible only according to the letter of the law. Ramps are hard to find, doors and entrances are narrow, elevators are scarce and wheelchair lifts are awkward and tucked away. "Shuttles" ran back and forth between the hotels and the Plaza, but these were ancient school buses with steep, narrow boarding stairs; I never saw one that looked accessible to the mobility-impaired, although I assume at least one of those was running. Shuttles let people off on the far side of the Plaza, where people had to navigate at least half a mile to the Convention Hall entrance, over uneven paving stones. I know of at least two people who didn't attend everything they wanted to see simply because it was too hard to get there, and that's not okay. That's shameful, and future Bouchercon organizers need to make physical logistics a priority.

Next year's Bouchercon is in Long Beach, California, November 13-16, and I seem to have signed up for the organizing committee of the 2018 meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida. Hope to see you there!

Friday, August 23, 2013

Happy Opening Night!

Celebrated: Today in Hallowell, Maine, by the cast and crew of William Inge's Picnic at Gaslight Theater  

Today's post is a cheat, as it's a reprint of my Director's Note from the PICNIC program. Tonight's performance is at 7:30 pm at Hallowell City Hall; performances continue August 24, 25, 29, 30 and 31. All performances at 7:30 pm except for Sunday, August 25, which is a 2:00 pm matinee. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and students. To make your reservations, call 207-626-3698 or click here.  

Picnic was originally published in 1953, but I first encountered it in 1985, when my college theater group (Georgetown University’s Mask & Bauble, long may it flourish) performed it. I auditioned for that show but was not cast, and wound up serving as costumer — just like Gaslight, everyone involved in that organization wore many hats.

What I loved about Picnic, then and now, was/is the depth of its characters. You’ll often see it subtitled as “A Summer Romance,” and on the surface it’s a simple love triangle: Alan courts Madge, Madge falls in love with Hal, hearts are broken as the price of true love. But the word “romance” applies to so much more within this play. Every one of the characters, even those we see for only a minute or two, is driven by some powerful emotion or desire. They all long for something, and that longing plays out in unexpected ways over Picnic’s three acts.

When I was 19, I empathized most with Rosemary, the teacher who grew old while she was busy being independent. Now I’d probably audition for the role of Flo, who wants so much for both her daughters. As I’ve directed the show I’ve decided that the author’s own spokesperson is Millie, who dreams of a literary life in the big city. But ultimately it falls to Mrs. Potts, the beloved, slightly comic, slightly tragic neighbor, to speak for all of us.

“I think we plan picnics just to give ourselves an excuse,” she says to Flo Owens, “to let something thrilling and romantic happen to us.”

“Such as what?” Flo asks.

“I don’t know,” Mrs. Potts says. “That’s what’s so exciting.”

 It has been an honor and a delight to work with this cast and crew, and I hope this is an experience that they — and our audiences — will always remember.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Happy Tech Week!

Celebrated: At Gaslight Theater before every opening night

For once I have a good excuse for my long absence from this blog: rehearsals for William Inge's Picnic, which I am directing for Gaslight Theater. We open on Friday, which means that this week is tech week, a series of rehearsals that lets us put the actors together with lights and sounds and costumes and props before the audience shows up (I hope) this weekend.

Community theater types will often refer to this time as "hell week," but that's not a phrase I ever use, and I tend to snap at people who use it around me. Yes, tech week is a lot of work. It's tedious and chaotic and frustrating, with too many people needing too many things, and too many last-minute decisions to be made. But at Gaslight Theater, at least, we're all volunteers, which means that we're all doing this for love of the process. As crazy-making as tech week can be, this is the fun part — the mysterious alchemy of 11 actors and half a dozen crew members coming together to make something that is far more than any of us could imagine or create on our own.

A friend asked last week why I do this, and this is why. Directing a play is an object lesson in control, or the illusion thereof. I started this process with a vision of what the play would look like, sound like, feel like. Over the last two months, I've had to give up a lot of those visions in exchange for something that turns out to be better than anything I could have come up with on my own. Every person involved in this production has contributed something I could not have imagined or demanded, of their own free will and the sheer joy of theater, and I'm overwhelmed by the magic of it all.

We had a costume parade last night, under the lights, and it literally took my breath away to see how my friends and neighbors have transformed themselves into William Inge's passionate Kansans. I'm impatient to get back to the theater tonight for our first full dress rehearsal, and I can't wait to show it all to an audience on Friday. Come see us.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Happy St. John's Day

Celebrated: In traditionally Catholic European countries

Today is the Christian feast of St. John the Baptist, the last great scriptural prophet before the public
ministry of Jesus. In Europe the feast of John the Baptist is combined with pre-Christian midsummer celebrations, so St. John's Day is a day of bonfires and fireworks and the ritual harvesting of medicinal plants. (Yes, St. John's wort is traditionally harvested on June 24, and that's how it got that name.)

If most people know anything about John the Baptist, they remember that he was beheaded at the request of Herodias's daughter, known to tradition as Salome. Herod had taken up with his brother's wife, specifically forbidden by the Law, and John told Herod he was sinning. Herod didn't want to hear it, but John had become such a popular and famous figure that Herod couldn't kill him off. Matthew tells us that the daughter of Herodias danced for Herod's guests and pleased them so much that Herod promised her anything she wanted. At her mother's urging, she said, "Bring me the head of John the Baptist."

But the truth was that John was annoying and obnoxious, and his days were numbered as soon as he started talking. Even the gospels admit he was weird and scary; he dressed in camel's hair, he lived off locusts and honey, and people thought he was possessed. But they could not look away, and he drew larger and larger crowds. Something about him demanded attention, because he Would. Not. Shut. Up. Ultimately, it was his privilege to introduce Jesus to the world.

Saints aren't demi-gods, in the Catholic tradition. They're humans who are supposed to serve as role models of grace by their extraordinary gifts and their extraordinary sacrifice. The example of St. John the Baptist feels more relevant to me today, this year, here and now, than it ever has.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. This blog has been more or less moribund for the last couple of years, for a variety of reasons that include distraction, laziness, and — yes — cowardice. It's perfectly rational, of course: the world is loud and crowded, everyone seems to be shouting, and why should any reasonable person waste her time and risk her dignity by shouting along with the rest?

What John the Baptist tells us is that we need to speak up, all of us. We need to say what we see, even if it gets us mocked and jailed and beheaded. We cannot worry about being weird and obnoxious if we know the truth when other people deny it. Truth lives on, even if we don't; we're going to die anyway, so why not speak while we can?

To my surprise and dismay this has become a particular issue for women over the past couple of years. I look around and I see smart, talented, loving women taking themselves out of the conversation because other people — mostly men, but women too, to my pain and shame — tell them to shut up. John the Baptist tells us to keep talking, to shout it out.

It would be appropriate to close this post with a link to the Godspell opening number — John the Baptist calling people to prepare the way of the Lord — but instead I feel like calling on Aimee Mann's hymn of rage for every silenced woman out there. (Nigella Lawson, that's for you.)

Friday, June 21, 2013

Happy Midsummer

Also known as: Litha  
Celebrated: Worldwide in the Northern Hemisphere

Today, June 21, is the longest day of the year. Throughout much of Europe the celebrations are combined with the feast of St. John the Baptist on June 24, but that's a different holiday with a different purpose, and deserves a post of its own.

I've always wondered why they call this Midsummer. The calendar says it's the beginning of summer, and the middle of the season falls at the end of July/beginning of August (another holiday on the Celtic calendar, but that too will get its own post in time). Calling this Midsummer harks back to the days before we lived our lives by the paper calendar, and divided the seasons into two instead of four.

Today is as sunny as things will get, up here at the 44th parallel. It's a beautiful day with temperatures in the high 70s, not too humid, exactly what the Maine Office of Tourism wants you to believe a Maine summer is like. The whole summer isn't like this, but enough of it is that it reminds us all of why we live up here. We celebrate with a river festival that began on Wednesday and will run through the 4th of July, with parades and fireworks and live music and art fairs. It's also strawberry season, for about the same stretch of time, and once again I will set out to discover exactly how many I can eat before I break out in hives (somewhere between one and two pints, depending on external factors I'm still investigating).

It's precious because it's all so short. By mid-August we'll be noticing how much shorter the days are up here, and the fleece will probably be out again by Labor Day.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Happy Memorial Day

Celebrated: In the United States since 1866

I am — just barely — old enough to remember when Southerners called it Decoration Day, and when it was always May 30 instead of the last Monday in May. In elementary school they told us it had even started in Richmond, during the Civil War, when Confederate mothers and widows went to the cemetery to decorate the graves of their dead, and decided to decorate the graves of the Union dead as well.

Because Memorial Day isn't about celebrating military service, or even honoring those who serve. It's about remembering the dead, whether or not we believed in the cause they fought for.

According to legend, after the battle of Fredericksburg, General Robert E. Lee turned to Lt. General James Longstreet and said, "It is well that war is so terrible—we would grow too fond of it." You'll find several different versions of this quotation out there. Military historians love it, but it wasn't recorded at the time, and was first cited in a biography of Lee published five years after the war. Maybe he said it, maybe he didn't. It gets quoted because it's true.

My thoughts about these things are not well organized, after a week that included the President's remarks on drone strikes and a viewing of the ultra-violent latest Star Trek movie. Humans have always turned war into entertainment. I could argue that The Iliad was the ancient Greeks' version of a summer blockbuster. But no matter how you glitz it up or adorn it with high principles and sacred honor, the one permanent truth about war is that it kills people. People die, and they leave parents and spouses and children to mourn them. We cannot allow ourselves to forget this. We cannot fool ourselves that anything we do — drone strikes, for God's sake! — absolves us of the personal moral responsibility we all bear for joining in or supporting any enterprise that is going to get people killed.

I'm not saying war is never justified. I grew up in a military household, and I do believe some things are worth dying for. But Memorial Day is a day for us to count our losses, to face them with all the wild grief they deserve, so that we can honestly answer the question of what might be worth more of those losses in the future.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Happy Feast of St. Bernadette

Celebrated: By Catholics since 1933

Bernadette Soubirous died of tuberculosis at the age of 35 on April 16, 1879. On February 11, 1858, when she was only 14 years old, she sat in a grotto to take her shoes off and saw a dazzling light, and a small lady in white. This lady, who never identified herself to Bernadette, appeared to her again three days later, and asked Bernadette to come back every day for a fortnight. This Bernadette did, and the apparition called for penance in the only language Bernadette spoke — a dialect of Occitan, a Romance language spoken in small areas of France, Spain and Italy. As a symbol of her repentance, Bernadette was to drink from the muddy spring in the grotto, and eat the plants that grew there — but as Bernadette did this, the waters ran clear.

Even at the time, people thought that Bernadette was crazy. The lady told Bernadette that a chapel should be built on the site, and Bernadette relayed this message to her parish priest. The priest asked for proof, as any of us would.

Bernadette had another vision, during which she held a candle until it burned all the way down — but did not burn her. During this vision, the lady finally identified herself. "I am the Immaculate Conception," she said, the one human being born without original sin, the link between the Almighty and us: Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Things can be true even if they never really happened (ask any novelist). Things don't need scientific explanations to be revelations. I am a gatherer of facts and a stickler for accurate reporting, but I understand that some truths cannot be contained in the physical.

This is always a tricky time of year for me — spiritually, financially, emotionally, every which way. The lovely and talented Claire Bea was born 27 years ago last week. It is tax time and spring time and Eastertide and in general a time of year when I tally up gains and losses, and measure what I have and who I am against the things I meant to do and the person (people, in fact) I wanted to be. But I look at the story of Bernadette and I see that things can sometimes be simple, and that in such simplicity we can find clarity, grace and healing.

The Catholic Church, which is more rigorous about these things than skeptics might believe, has confirmed 67 cures at Lourdes as having no reasonable medical explanation. Sixty-seven among tens of thousands might fall within the standard deviation; but what is a miracle, if not rare? And does a miracle exist at all if it goes unrecognized?

Our lives are full of miracles we no longer even notice, from internal combustion engines to ice in our cocktails. You may say that these are not miracles; they are simply things I'm too ignorant to understand.

And I would say: Exactly.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Happy Easter!

Celebrated: By Christians for approximately 1,980 years

Humans would not be human if we were perfect, because that would make us no different from God. In creating us as separate creatures, God had to make us flawed, and the instrument of our difference is free will. We are born with free will, and what we trade for that free will is exile from Paradise. But that would be too lonely, and too sad, and too permanent. There had to be a way for us to get back home, and Easter is the revelation and the promise of that road home.

It's also the first holiday I have any conscious memory of: April 14, 1968, in our new home in Norfolk, Virginia. I had a blue coat and a white hat with a black ribbon woven into it, black patent leather shoes and my own tiny handbag. My twin sister, Kathy, had a spring green coat (to go with her red hair) and a yellow hat I envied, although in retrospect I see that it would not have gone with my coat, as Mom told me at the time.

We were not quite two and a half, and Mom was newly pregnant with what would turn out to be our sisters Peggy and Susan, born two days before Thanksgiving that year. Dad was home that weekend between training exercises on the USS Austin, an amphibious ship that was in and out of port but at least wasn't going to Vietnam. That Easter, Dad gave us a German Shepherd-Alaskan Husky puppy, a ball of white fur my mother called Boyfriend. Boyfriend, Kathy and I were toddlers together, and he was the gentlest, sweetest dog imaginable, though he grew to be enormous. (Enormous to a three-year-old, at least; I have no idea how big he actually was, because I've never seen a picture of him as a grown dog.)

I don't take pictures and I'm not good about keeping pictures, but somewhere there's a photo of Kathy and me and Boyfriend that Easter, and I wish I had it. We had to give Boyfriend away when Dad got transferred a year later, and the thought of that still makes me cry, more than 40 years later.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Happy Holi!

Celebrated: By Hindus around the world, but especially in places associated with Lord Krishna

Celebrated on the day after the March full moon, Holi is also called the Festival of Colors and the Spring Festival. It commemorates the death of Holika, a female demon whose brother, Hiranyakashipu, was king of demons and burned her to death, and the immortality of Hiranyakashipu's son Prahlada, who was burned but did not die because of his devotion to Vishnu. Holika's sacrifice and Prahlada's survival demonstrate the power of good over evil, and the triumph of spring over winter.

Holi also celebrates the romance between Lord Krishna and his lover, Radha. Krishna and his friends traveled to Radha's house to tease her and her friends, and Krishna painted Radha's face so that she would be dark, as he was. Holi is thus a festival of pranks and painting people with bright colors, through a combination of colored powders and water.

It would be a gross oversimplification to say that Holi is the Hindu version of Mardi Gras, but parallels exist. During Holi, traditional rules don't apply. "Bura na mano, Holi hai," is what people say: "Never mind, it's Holi!" Castes mix, people eat and drink too much, and bhang — Indian marijuana — is smoked, eaten and drunk. The festival usually lasts two days, but can last for weeks before and after in the Braj region, the land of Krishna.

Central Maine feels very far from any celebration of Holi, and I could use a little color in my life right now. But the last of the snow is melting, and the sky is more blue than gray, and it helps to know that spring has arrived in some parts of the world.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Happy Passover

Celebrated: For more than 3,000 years, by Jews and followers of successor faiths (including Christianity), from the 15th day of Nisan to the 22nd day of Nisan

Chag sameach, everybody. Passover and Holy Week don't always fall during the same week, but they should, and this week they do. From a theological standpoint, it's critically important that Jesus died during the Passover festival; he was the firstborn who sacrificed himself so that everyone else could be saved. But that's a longer discussion than I'm up for this morning, so we'll move along.

The God of the Old Testament is an angry, scary God — usually just, but not always. I was five or six when I first understood the Passover story, and what caught my imagination was not the promise of redemption but all the blood and guts that preceded it. God wanted Pharoah to liberate the Jewish people who were held in slavery, and when Pharoah rejected Moses's message, God sent ten successive plagues to show the futility of human opposition to God's will.

The tenth plague was the death of every firstborn son of Egypt, but God told Moses he would spare the Israelites — as long as they marked their doors with the blood of a lamb. After Pharoah saw this devastation, he ordered the Israelites out of Egypt, setting things up for the next 3,000+ years of wars over real estate.

Even when I was five or six, though, it did not escape me that the Jews weren't spared the first nine plagues, and those were horrible enough:
  1. The plague of blood - the water of the Nile turned to blood, killing all the fish and leaving everyone with nothing to drink.
  2. The plague of frogs - the Nile teemed with frogs, which invaded every room of every house in Egypt. This plague was so terrible that Pharoah actually agreed to liberate the slaves, though he changed his mind as soon as the frogs died.
  3. The plague of fleas (or lice, or gnats) - Egypt became infested with small insects. If you've ever suffered a flea infestation, you know they don't care about their targets' religion.
  4. The plague of flies - God sent swarms of flies to attack the Egyptians' livestock. According to the Torah, this plague did not affect the Land of Goshen, where the Israelites lived, but everyone would have suffered from the death of livestock.
  5. The plague of disease - After the flies, a mysterious disease killed all the Egyptians' livestock, though the Israelites' cattle were spared. Even if this were true, Israelite slaves in Egyptian homes would have suffered from this, wouldn't they? 
  6. The plague of boils - Moses and Aaron threw soot into the sky, and every person or animal touched by it was infected with boils. Presumably Moses and Aaron weren't.
  7. The plague of hail - Thunder, hail and lightning fell on the entire land of Egypt, the worst storm in recorded history. Again, according to Exodus, the Land of Goshen, in the northeastern Nile delta, was spared.
  8. The plague of locusts - Before the eighth plague, God actually told Moses that he would harden Pharoah's heart just so Egypt would have to suffer through the last three plagues. That bothered me in first grade, and it bothers me still. Why? And locusts are gross. 1972 was a cicada year in northern Virginia, where we were living, and I still remember the horror of stepping on a cicada shell with bare feet. They look like prehistoric monsters. They are prehistoric monsters. I don't care that they're edible, or even kosher.
  9. The plague of darkness - Moses stretched out his hands and caused the sun to disappear from Egypt from three days, and the Land of Goshen was not exempt. 
My 1972 summer of locusts was also the summer of a total solar eclipse. The connection was not lost on my six-year-old brain. I was an anxious child to begin with, and for the first time in my life I was grateful to be the second twin, and a girl. If anyone was going to be killed, it would be my (older) twin sister, Kathy, or better yet, my two-year-old brother, Ed, who was no use to anyone, as far as I could tell. (Sorry, Ed.)

The lesson I took from all of this — which I still think is the lesson we're supposed to take from all of this — is that the universe, also known as God, is a random, angry place, and even the righteous can't count on being spared.

But sometimes we are spared. And when we are, we should celebrate and be glad, and thank the Power that Is, and feast while the food's available. Which is the point of the Passover festival. Where's the afikomen?

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Happy Susan and Mike's Wedding Day!

Celebrated: Today and for many years to come

My sister Susan and her fiance, Mike, are getting married in Richmond today. Most of our extended family has gathered, glad to have a reason to get together that isn't a funeral. The weather is perfect, presumably arranged by our mother from wherever she's watching.

I like weddings. I believe in marriage, in a way that may be possible only for the congenitally unmarried. I believe in it as both a social construct and a sacrament, the only sacrament that two people bestow upon each other. In standing up and making that promise before the community, two people create something that is separate from them and more than they could ever hope to be alone. A new family forms from two old ones, and humanity's story continues.

It's a lovely thing to be asked to witness, and I am glad and grateful to be here. Best wishes to Susan and Mike as they start this next phase of their life together.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Happy Inauguration Day

Celebrated: In the United States, every four years since 1789

Greetings from Washington, DC, where President Barack Obama just took the oath of office for a second term as 44th President of the United States of America.

I've been reading a lot lately, for work and for pleasure, about the pervasively corrupting force of nationalism, and how nationalism can become a pretext and an excuse for the worst of human behavior. I have never been entirely comfortable with the idea of being proud to be an American, because my American identity is an accident of lucky parentage.

And yet today reminds us of why and how it is possible to be proud of being an American — because the American identity is not about bloodlines but about the joint, collective agreement that all humans are created equal, with basic rights that include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It's right there in our founding document, the Declaration of Independence: "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

To be an American is to accept the obligations of that as well as the rights. The American Dream is not about having more but about doing better, in all the ways it is possible to do better: building not just prosperity, but knowledge and kindness and courage and strength. We aspire, and that aspiration is a great thing, even if we fail along the way. "We must act knowing that our work will be imperfect," the President said today.

We can learn and we can change, not only as individuals but as a nation. That is something to be proud of, as we celebrate the election of the mixed-race son of an immigrant, on the national holiday that honors Dr. Martin Luther King.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Happy National Soup Month

Celebrated: In the United States, origins obscure

A broad consensus agrees that January is National Soup Month, but I can't find any information about who declared it so, or when. But of course January is National Soup Month; soup is what you want to eat in cold weather. A food website I won't embarrass notes that soup dates to prehistoric times, and again I say of course: soup was probably the first recipe of any kind.

What is there to say about soup? "Only the pure in heart can make a good soup," wrote Ludwig von Beethoven, and the Irish poet Brendan Behan once said that if it were raining soup, the Irish would go outside with forks. But any literary discussion of soup begins and ends with the late, beloved master Maurice Sendak.
In January it's so nice
While slipping on the sliding ice
To sip hot chicken soup with rice
Sipping once, sipping twice
Sipping chicken soup with rice
That link goes to a video of the Carole King song, which I almost embedded. But then I remembered my all-time favorite TV commercial of any kind, ever, which YouTube unfairly labels as "Creepy Alien Commercial." It just happens to be for Campbell's Soup, and I am delighted to have an excuse to post it here.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Happy National Apricot Day

Celebrated: In the United States, origins obscure

I admit I didn't spend much time this morning looking for the origins of National Apricot Day, but it seems to be another industry-backed commemoration. I'd like to ask someone why this day falls in January, when the growing season is summer; if I want to buy apricots today, they'll have to be dried.

If you find US-grown apricots in the supermarket, they almost certainly came from California. About 94% of the nation's apricots are grown in California, with most of the rest coming from Washington and Utah. They need a Mediterranean-style climate — long, dry summers and cool, wet winters — and did not thrive when English explorers brought them to the East coast in the 17th century.

They're one of the oldest cultivated fruits, so old that scientists aren't sure where they originated; I've seen claims for India, China and Armenia. Alexander gets credit for introducing them to Greece, but they're also mentioned in the Bible, and the "golden apple" that started the Trojan War might well have been an apricot. Today, most of the world's apricots are grown in Turkey, Iran and Uzbekistan.

Apricots are a stone fruit, of the genus Prunus, most closely related to plum. They're important to Chinese medicine, and medieval Europeans used dried apricots to treat constipation and induce labor (a plot point in The Duchess of Malfi). Their pits have measurable amounts of cyanide in them, though not enough to kill you unless you eat a lot of them. That cyanide is part of apricots' natural compound amygdalin, which some claim can be used to treat cancer; amygdalin is the basis of the drug Laetrile, banned by the USDA in 1977. The FDA calls Laetrile a "highly toxic product that has not shown any effect on treating cancer," and Steve McQueen died while on a Laetrile treatment program in Mexico.

This is not, of course, to say that apricots killed Steve McQueen.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Happy Kim Jong-Un's Birthday

Celebrated: In North Korea since 1983 or 1984, a national holiday for the first time last year

The North Korea state radio station reported that Kim Jong-Un was personally distributing two pounds of candy to every child in North Korea in celebration of his birthday — although it's not clear how old he is, or even that today is the actual date. Officially, he's 29 today. But January 8 is also Elvis' birthday, and wouldn't that be enough to make anyone claim it for their own?

At 29, Kim Jong-Un is the world's youngest head of state. The next youngest is Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, Dragon King of Bhutan, who rules over fewer than a million people and — as far as we know — has no access to nuclear weapons. North Korea, on the other hand, is a nation of 24.5 million, of whom approximately 9.5 million (39%) serve in the active or reserve military or some kind of paramilitary organization.

Serving in the military is the best way to get access to food. North Korea's Songun policy, or "Military First," gives members of the military priority when distributing any scarce resources. This policy was directly responsible for astronomical (though still obscure) child mortality rates during the great famine of 1994-98, when the World Health Organization estimated death rates at 93 for every 1,000 children. Even today, if Kim Jong-Un really did give kids candy, it might be the only food they get today; drought and flooding destroyed at least 13% of last year's grain harvest, driving speculation that the country faces another terrible famine. The U.N. reported last year that one in three North Korean children are already stunted by malnutrition.

North Korea is a human rights calamity that the international community can't do much about. It's been that way for 60 years, since the Korean Armistice Agreement of 1953 codified the border of North and South Korea and created the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between them. Under President Obama, the U.S. has reached out to North Korea to try to stop its nuclear program and feed its people, culminating in a "Leap Day" deal last February under which North Korea agreed to suspend parts of its nuclear program in exchange for massive amounts of food aid. That deal lasted less than a month; North Korea announced plans to launch a satellite in March, and by the end of the month, the US had suspended its aid programs.

It's human nature to accept one's environment as normal, whatever "normal" may be. Disturbing that equilibrium requires outside intervention of some kind; it's no coincidence, for example, that the Soviet Union fell within a couple of years of European MTV becoming available to viewers in then-Leningrad. (I'm not saying MTV led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the realization that the rest of the world didn't live in Soviet-style misery was a critical element in the collapse of the old regime.)

A large portion of the North Korean population, however, doesn't even have reliable access to electricity. What would it take to show them the possibility of a different way of life?

Monday, January 07, 2013

Happy Plough Monday

Celebrated: In medieval England, on the first Monday after Twelfth Night

Parts of England still celebrate Plough Monday, which marks the return of farmers to the fields after the 12 days of Christmas. It's always a Monday, following the traditional blessing of the ploughs on the first Sunday of the year. On this year's calendar, today is also Distaff Day, the female equivalent, although Distaff Day is simply the first day after Twelfth Night, and can fall on any day of the week. (Apparently, spindles required no special blessing for the year. And spinning wasn't something women spent all day doing; it was what women did during their theoretical spare time, whenever they might have 15 minutes to sit without something else in their hands.)

In any case, it's the day everybody goes back to work after the holidays. Can you feel it? I can, even from my seat on the living room couch. Normal service is resuming all over the world, New Year's resolutions are clicking into place (or not), and I'd guess it will be the heaviest e-mail traffic day of the year. It feels like 2013 starts in earnest today.

The effect goes double for me, because I've spent the last month not only celebrating the holidays but indulging my seasonal depression and my grief over Dizzy. That stops today. If you've been waiting to get something back from me, I apologize for the delay, thank you for your patience, and promise you'll see it in the next day or two.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Happy Feast of the Epiphany

Celebrated: in the Christian world since about the fourth century AD/CE

First, listen to T.S. Eliot read his own poem "The Journey of the Magi":

I've seen people complaining online about Christmas lights left up this week. I wish people would leave Christmas lights up even longer, but at a minimum, they ought to stay up until today.

On this day, twelve days after Christmas, Christians celebrate the visit of three Gentile wizards (the Magi, the Wise Men, certainly astrologers, possibly magicians) to the stable where Jesus was born. The twelve-day gap between Christmas and Epiphany is almost arbitrary, as indeed the calendar date of Christmas itself is. (This entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia refers to an early debate among church leaders over the actual time of year of Jesus' birth, which scholars pegged as May, not December.) The importance of Epiphany to Catholicism and the other Christian religions is that the announcement of the Messiah's arrival was not limited to Jews; a star in the sky, visible to all, drew these pagan priests to see the child whose birth would save humanity.

I find Epiphany one of the most moving of all Christian feasts, not only because it is all about gift-giving and generosity — the Almighty's generosity to humanity, the Wise Men's extravagant gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh — but because of what it must have meant to Mary and Joseph, to have strangers show up and affirm their belief. The angel of the Lord appeared unto Mary, and her whole life after that must have been terrifying. She was young, she was pregnant in a way she didn't understand at all, and the man who had promised to marry her had every right to send her away. Joseph, operating on nothing but love and faith, had taken Mary and her unborn baby on an 80-mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem so they could be registered together as a family. All that love, all that hope, all that faith overriding all that fear and shame and anger — and here come the exotically-garbed Wise Men to say, "We saw a star. We have come to worship the King of the Jews."

What profound relief Mary and Joseph must have felt, what wonder and joy, to have their faith confirmed in such an odd and unexpected way. Luke tells us only, "Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart."

Friday, January 04, 2013

Happy Burmese Independence Day

Celebrated: in Burma (also known as Myanmar) since 1948, when British colonial rule ended

President Barack Obama visited Burma last November, the first visit of its kind by a sitting U.S. President. (Warning: what follows is a gross oversimplification of a complicated political history that deserves further reading.) Between 1989 and 2011, the country was controlled by a military junta that changed the country's name to Myanmar (though the US and other western countries continued to call it Burma) and suppressed political dissent and ethnic minority rights movements. Before that, the country was controlled from 1962 to 1974 by a "revolutionary council" headed by General Ne Win, and from 1974 to 1988 by the Burma Socialist Programme Party, also headed by General Ne Win and his military cronies.

By 1988, Burma, a land of immense natural resources (among them oil, gas, timber, copper, and precious stones), had become one of the world's most desperately poor, oppressed nations. General Ne Win and his successors looted the country for personal gain; in 2011, Transparency International cited Myanmar as the world's third-most corrupt public sector, second only to North Korea and Somalia.

So why did the President go to Burma last year? Because things are — fingers and toes crossed — looking up. Two events permanently shook the government of Myanmar in the spring of 2008: a constitutional referendum, in April, and Cyclone Nargis in May, which killed more than 130,000 people. No one could deny that Burma's self-imposed isolation made that disaster worse than it needed to be; Burma's military leaders initially blocked offers of aid from the West, even denying visas to aid workers. General elections in 2010 were fraught with manipulation and deceit, but the military junta finally dissolved in 2011.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the Burmese opposition, was released from house arrest at the end of 2010, and took office last May as a member of the Burmese House of Representatives. President Obama met with both her and President Thein Sein, a retired general some call Burma's Gorbachev. The US has eased economic sanctions against Burma in place since 1997, and announced plans to appoint the first US ambassador to Burma since 1990.

We take democracy for granted in the United States, as much as it frustrates us, but it's not an easy system. The transition from any kind of absolute rule to democracy is daunting, because it requires a small number of people to give up what they have. Throughout human history, the traditional way of persuading people to do that has been violent revolution. Dead people can't own things. Dead people can't rule. The road toward peaceful democratic rule takes quantities of imagination and goodwill that don't come naturally to most of us, which is why we remember and honor the ones who show us how it's done.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Happy Fruitcake Toss Day

Celebrated: in the U.S. on January 3, at least since the mid-1990s (origins obscure)

Why so much hostility to fruitcake? I like it, and I'm not ashamed to say so. I thought about making my mother's recipe this year, but didn't get around to it, and no one else in my family did, either. It takes about six weeks to do it right, because after you bake the cake, you have to douse it in brandy and/or Grand Marnier and let it ferment for a while. You use high-quality fruit and none of those plasticized cubes, and it's great.

But I'm obviously in the minority, and some people feel pretty violent about this. Since 1995, the town of Manitou Springs, Colorado has held an annual Great Fruitcake Toss, similar to "pumpkin chunking" events held elsewhere in October. Contestants compete on distance, accuracy, and the ability to catch a fruitcake (weighing at least one pound) thrown by a mechanical device. (The rules specify, nothing gasoline-powered – safety first!)

Fruitcakes date back to Roman times, when they were a practical way to preserve and consume exotic fruits out of season. They represented wealth and abundance, and were traditionally used as wedding cakes. Their popularity peaked in England under Queen Victoria, who was especially fond of fruitcake and often served it at tea.

I'm always fascinated by fashions in food. How do foods come into style, and go out? Why don't we eat aspics anymore? (Other than the fact that they're gross, of course.) Will it ever be cool to like fruitcake again?

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Happy Braille Literacy Month

Celebrated: By and for the blind, although I'm not sure since when. National Braille Week is January 4-10.

Louis Braille (1809-1852) lost his vision before the age of five because of an injury-related infection that could probably be treated easily today. He learned to read using the HaĆ¼y system of raised letters, which substituted the sense of touch for the sense of vision. Braille took that idea one step further by adapting a military "night writing" system of dots and dashes into an alphabet based on a six-dot cell. The six dots can be combined in 63 possible ways, allowing for symbols for letters, numbers, and punctuation marks. Braille has evolved over the years to accommodate contractions and a kind of shorthand, with three "grades" available for beginning, intermediate and advanced readers.

Louis Braille published his system in 1839, while simultaneously working with the scientist Pierre Foucault on a typewriter-style machine that would emboss these dots on a page. The National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris, where Braille had been educated and later served as a teacher, rejected Braille's system, and he died of tuberculosis in 1852. Although schools for the blind in other countries had started to teach braille before that, the system didn't fully capture the world's imagination until Foucault introduced his Braille typewriter at the Paris World's Fair in 1855.

Braille is a medium, not a language. My Grandma Lamb spent her career as a kindergarten teacher at the Lavelle School for the Blind, where she taught kids basic life skills — including the braille alphabet. Some of my earliest memories are of braille flashcards and record labels; at one point I could recognize the 26 alphabet letters myself, though I couldn't do it now.

For more than 150 years, braille has made the world more accessible for the blind, but its use has been declining. Some of that is the collateral damage of good intentions: mainstreaming blind kids into the school system has made their social lives easier, but has cut the most important source of braille education, specialized teachers. Better, cheaper audio technology has made more material available to blind students, though it carries obvious drawbacks: it requires electricity, and it usually requires headphones, which isolate kids even more than blindness already does.

Also, as the American Foundation for the Blind points out, "listening to a book is not the same as knowing how to read it." More than a third of legally blind students (21 and under) in the United States are classified as "non-readers." They don't have enough vision to read enhanced print, but they're not literate in braille, either. They rely on audio resources for their information. As someone facing my own vision challenges, I find that an unacceptable level of dependency on technology and the kindness of strangers. The AFB is pursuing federal legislation to make more literacy resources available to students, but you can also help with private donations to them and to Lighthouse International.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Happy New Year!

Celebrated: Worldwide since humans started to keep calendars, sometime before the 21st century BC

(Source: StoryPeople)

I have a feeling this is how my year's going to go, whether I want it to or not. That's okay. I'm overdue.

Last night I saw a passing reference to the fact that Christian Scientists don't celebrate New Year's Eve, which I hadn't realized but makes sense. Christian Science holds that all is is spirit, and that the material is only a manifestation of spirit (which is not the same as an illusion). So they don't acknowledge the passage of time, because spirit is eternal.

But I think — begging to differ with Mary Baker Eddy, who's not around to defend herself — that the passage of time might be the most important way we know we and the world around us have been created, and thus are different from the Creator. The passage of time is not only what makes us aware of our creation, but grateful for it, because we're not here for very long, even if we live to be 100.

I'd think more about that, but I need to choose a pair of "dress pajamas" for the annual New Year's brunch at Slates. Here's to 2013.