Friday, February 24, 2017

NEITHER SNOW NOR RAIN



Here's another little essay with a bit of interesting history.

On February 20, we marked the 225th anniversary of President George Washington’s signing of the Postal Service Act in 1792, establishing the United States Post Office, the foundations of which were established in July 1775. Today we call it the Postal Service. Coincidentally, in August of this year we will mark the 490th anniversary of the sending of the first known letter from this side of the pond, Newfoundland to be exact, to England, from Master John Rut, mariner, to Henry III. Though there were various methods and offices to handle the mails, including having Benjamin Franklin, working from England, act as Postmaster General, not much speeded up the mail in the 265 years between those two events. There’s not much more to be found on line to say who carried the letter to Henry VIII or even how long it took to get to him, but postal service has improved over the years. It improved, certainly, with newer and faster methods of transportation and organization, but these days it’s showing definite signs of decline and disuse.

At the website about.usps.com, you will find this:
  “The United States Postal Service is an independent establishment of the Executive Branch of the Government of the United States and operates in a business-like way. Its mission statement can be found in Section 101(a) of Title 39 of the U.S. Code, also known as the Postal Reorganization Act: The Postal Service shall have as its basic function the obligation to provide postal services to bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people. It shall provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and shall render postal services to all communities.”

Those are lofty ideals, but it seems to us these days that the Postal Service carries only catalogs, annual reports, fast food fliers, and miscellaneous junk mail. On line we can get email, ecards, online billing, banking, and bank statements. Just as our use of cash is declining because of the almost universal use of debit and credit cards, so too, one day there will probably be little need for a government postal service. Carriers like United Parcel Service have trucks and personnel on the roads every day, and are already picking up mail deliveries. In the name of conservation of our natural resources, perhaps our laws will one day outlaw paper catalogs and reports. Even today, most of the information in them is easily obtained on line. These days it isn’t really essential that our regular postal carriers deliver to us each day – even three times a week could suffice – but carry on they do.

Unless it is stolen or mislabeled, very little mail is undelivered these days. We Americans are fortunate in our postal service. But if you are a postal employee in far off places that consist of dozens of nameless inhabited islands or vast tracks of land, finding the proper recipient can be a trial. Now, a new London-based company has developed what3words. (see them at http://what3words.com/ ) The system divides up the planet into 3x3 meter squares, roughly 10 ft. by 10ft, identifying it with a unique string of three words. For The New York Times office in Manhattan, it’s “zest.ropes.along.” For the Tonga Post headquarters, it’s “international.bashfully.placidity.” Identifiers will also come in French, German, Russian, Spanish, and many other languages. If the sender knows the recipient’s three-word address, the local postal office can deliver. (And agencies like the Red Cross will be using it to pinpoint areas in need of disaster aid.)


Did you know that what you thought was the motto of the U.S. Postal Service isn’t their official motto at all? You know the one: “Neither snow nor rain no heat nor gloom of night…” This quotation from Herodotus, this apt tribute to the postal workers, especially the wonderful ones we have delivering the mail here in SCCL, was a chance selection. It was made in 1914 by one of the architects involved, to be inscribed over the entrance to the new 8th Avenue Post Office building in New York City. The motto’s great visibility in one of the busiest areas of the city insured its connection with the postal workers from then on. 






Saturday, February 18, 2017

THE AMERICAN BREAKFAST




Breakfast as we Americans know it today might not be the same if not for J. Harvey Kellogg, born 165 years ago this month. Kellogg was not the first to have the dry cereal idea: the Native Americans introduced their breakfast of popcorn to the English colonists in the 1600s.

The Michigan-born John Harvey Kellogg was an M.D., a surgeon a well as a nutritionist, educated at New York University. Along with his younger brother, Will Keith Kellogg, a businessman and industrialist, he ran the Battle Creek Sanitarium. The sanitarium, owned by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, was a place for patients to regain good health while learning, according to the church’s tenets, to exercise, eat, and eliminate properly.

One of the beliefs at the sanatorium was that bland foods would lower the libido. A regular staple of the breakfast meal, part of a strict vegetarian diet, was boiled grains. The story goes that one morning the wheat grains were badly overcooked. What to do? In the spirit of “waste not, want not,” the brothers decided to dry and roll out the cooked wheat to make a dough. What they got wasn’t a dough, but flakes – wheat flakes. The patients liked it. That led to making flakes of corn, and thus corn flakes, were born. Kellogg’s has become synonymous with corn flakes.

Actually, the first to market corn flakes was C. W. Post. Post had been a patient at the sanitarium, and he ‘acquired’ the process and began to make and market flaked corn as Post Toasties. A year later, Will decided to do the same, and with his brother John, founded the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company, later known as just Kellogg’s.

Oatmeal, farina, and such had always been available, but the dry cereal was less expensive and quicker to get to the breakfast table. After the advent of the corn flake, grains that were popped, pulled, puffed, or made into tiny o’s were healthier replacements for the eggs and meat, and maybe kippers if you were British, often eaten for breakfast.

For most people, on most days, breakfast, dried or frozen, now comes in a box. Dried cereal, sugared or not, is beginning to make way for new forms of ready breakfast foods that can be cooked quickly. Pop Tarts and Eggos aside, and both have been around for over fifty years, the selections have expanded to include things like breakfast burritos, filled croissants, stuffed hash browns, French toast sticks, and even steak and eggs. Corporate test kitchens are working overtime. Breakfast is an important meal, and it is becoming easier and easier to eat well while on the go.

Both John Harvey Kellogg and his brother Will died at the age of 91. They must have been eating right for all those years.

The All-American artist, Norman Rockwell, did
illustrations for the All-American breakfast.




Thursday, February 16, 2017

MR. TRUMP AND SCIENTIFIC METHODS




In the ages of man, especially in the years BCE, scientists have discovered many truths. Prior to previous beliefs, we now believe, we now know for sure, that the earth is round, that it is not the center of the universe, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, that everything is made up of atoms and molecules, that living things carry their biological heritage in their DNA, that planes can fly and so can bees, and what goes up must come down. We thank Galileo, Newton, Crick, and so many others who used what we now call “scientific methods” for discovering these things.

We’ve come to trust the truths, confirmed again and again, that scientific methods uncover for us. Why doesn’t President Trump? Why does he doubt global warming and man’s part in it? Why does he question verified truths of various kinds? Doesn’t he believe the world is round?

     

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

THE NEW YORK TIMES CROSSWORD PUZZLE AT 75

No pencils please! We do it in ink.

I see that today is the 75th Anniversary of the New York Times Crossword Puzzle. It took them about 28 years to get on the bandwagon.
I posted this blog in December of 2013, and since that time I have begun to do the Wednesday NYT puzzle, they're getting trickier.  I still forego the Monday and Tuesday versions. And when my red ink pens ran out, I took to doing the puzzle in whatever color was at hand. I think the crosswords help keep my brain in some semblance of order.


Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the modern crossword puzzle. I was made aware of this last year when Slate made spoof predictions on which other publications would do articles on the anniversaries coming up in 2013.

I’ve been doing the Sunday crossword for untold years – well, ever since I could buy my own Sunday Times.  Before that time the Sunday crossword was always ‘owned’ by my mother. She and her brother were great fans.

We got the Times only on Sunday. If there were crosswords in our daily paper I don’t recall Mom doing them. She was strictly a Sunday Times fan. On serendipitous occasions I would come upon a daily Times, perhaps left behind in a Long Island Rail Road car, and over the years I came to ignore them if they were the Monday to Wednesday variety – usually too easy.

And what’s too hard? Any day’s puzzle from The Times of London – those folks went off on a tangent that my mind could never follow.

Some people would call it cheating, but when I don’t know the answer to the clue I look it up. I’d be cheating myself if I passed up an opportunity to learn something. “When in doubt check it out” is my motto.  A neighbor and I, from where we once lived, agreed that this was a good way to way to learn something new. I still keep an atlas and dictionary right by my chair – but there’s a laptop there too, so Google and Wikipedia have become my best resources.  I’m pretty well read, but I know absolutely nothing about
“Gyllenhall of Brokeback Mountain” or a “New Mexico State athlete.” So if I can’t get them by filling in the answers I do know, I consult my handy-dandy online references. 

To me, one of the great benefits of the internet is having access to the New York Times crossword puzzle.  Now I print out the Thursday through Sunday puzzles. The service costs about $40 a year, and it is well worth it to me, especially since delivery of just the Sunday paper here in South Carolina would cost over $200. Saves on paper too. Another new motto of mine: “Save a tree, read the news on line.”

My uncle did the puzzle in ink.  I remember him peering over his eye glasses at me and commenting that it was the only fair way to do it.  So, to be fair, I do it in ink too – red ink, so that I really see those mistakes. When I do finish one with no errors it’s like I’ve given myself a Christmas present.





                                                                                  
C
H
MERRY
I
S
T
M
A
S

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

CELEBRATIONS, COMMEMORATIONS, AND OBSERVATIONS – ST. VALENTINE'S DAY




We can understand the basic differences in the meanings of the title words. On some special days we celebrate: think of occasions like Christmas, Hanukah, Thanksgiving, or the Fourth of July. We commemorate, rather than celebrate, on Veterans Day or Memorial Day. The more solemn days like Yom Kippur or Easter are observances. It’s really not too clear if we celebrate or observe Halloween, but that’s another story and it depends on the age of the people you poll.

St. Valentine’s Day should fall under the category of observances. It is really just the observance of the day of the death of the saint now associated with romantic love. St. Valentine was a martyred, third century Roman who was often confused with other saintly Valentines who lived during the early centuries Anno Domini. Not much is known about any of them, but the saint who died on February 14 was singled out in the fourteenth century by one Geoffrey Chaucer. He used him in a work of fiction, Parlement of Foules, (Fowls), writing about the fictitious traditional celebration of St. Valentine’s Day as a day for lovers.
What started as fiction almost seven centuries ago has become a fact, and a lucrative, commercial one to boot. On a cold February day, one could wish that Chaucer had selected an otherwise-obscure saint who was born in the spring – maybe a day in May. You know the line from Tennyson: “In the spring, a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”  Yes, the spring would be more conducive to romance: flowers are in bloom, the birds are singing their mating songs, and every other living thing is tuned in to the beautiful weather. Birds do it, bees do it.

Christmas tinsel is hardly swept away when the stores explode with red and pink, gearing up for Valentine’s Day. Greeting cards run the gamut from packets of little cards meant for school kids to exchange (remember that?) to over-large, velvet-tufted expressions of undying love. And don’t forget the stickers. Kids love them.

There is an ever-expanding range of choices for gifts for our sweethearts, as well as an ever-expanding effort to get us to buy, buy, buy, lest we disappoint our significant other. Flowers and the traditional heart-shaped box of chocolates, and, of course, the Whitman Sampler (the caramels are mine!) have been joined by teddy bears, pajamas, and other personalized gifts. Jewelry has always been popular, and the more glitter the better. We hope money is no object. 
For us Seniors, it may all be getting to be a bit too much. We’ve heard of the couples who take themselves to the card store where each selects a card for their spouse, presents it to them, and has them read it. They exchange a hug and a kiss, and then put the cards back in the racks. Fun and inexpensive, and no tchotchke to find a home for.

The lasting legacies of the romance of Valentine’s Day are those born in mid-November, as I was.  We are all Valentine Babies.


Friday, February 10, 2017

WELL, I MEAN




Well, I mean,  good grief and holey socks, where did “well, I mean” spring from? On a racing news program a few days ago, an interviewer asked a race car driver what it meant to miss out on the championship. The driver began with “Well, I mean, …”  It wasn’t the first time I’d heard someone begin their answer with “Well, I mean…” He hadn’t yet said anything that needed further explanation or qualification. I’ve even heard one or two start off with “Yes, no, well I mean…” Why do so many interviewees start their reply as though they’d already given an answer?

Not every interviewee on the planet starts off with this strange qualification, but there are enough of them to notice a trend, and to have it really annoy me. 






Wednesday, February 8, 2017

CHOOSING UP




In a boatyard in Rapallo in 1998

in other words: eeny, meeny, miney, moe!


(It's pronounced  ahm ba ra ba, chi chi, coco, and it is fun to say!)
Eeny, meeny, miney, moe - what will you do with your day today?


Choices, choices - make good choices!


Originally, I posted this bit in July of 2014.  Just a while ago though, I surprised my younger granddaughters with this Eeny Meeny ditty that I learned long ago:

   Eeny – meeny – titsee -  teeny
   Ooo -  gah – gagh go lini
   Atch – patchi – goo go latchi
   Out goes Y – O – U!





Friday, February 3, 2017

JAMES MICHENER

The Cheapeake

If you want to know about a place, read a James Michener book: he did all the research for you. Among other places, in superbly crafted fiction, nonfiction, and masterful blends of both, his books can take you to

        Alaska
        The Caribbean
        The Chesapeake
        Colorado
        Hawaii
        Iberia
        Israel
        Iberia
        Poland
        Texas
               
To quote Dr. Seuss, another favorite author of mine, “Oh, the places you’ll go!”

Today is the 110th anniversary of Michener’s birth. I will celebrate appropriately by re-reading one of his many books – Hawaii, my favorite.
            Or do I like Chesapeake best?



Wednesday, February 1, 2017

CRIMPLENE LADIES



Wood Street, Waltham Forest, London

Crimplene ladies sing dis song. Doo dah! Doo dah! With apologies to Stephen Foster, I can just see these to ladies breaking into song, and dancing their hearts out when they spotted Philipp Ebeling* and his camera.

The picture speaks to me of a completely different life than my own. These two ladies, curled and coiffed, properly wearing crimplene frocks and nylon tights, with their handbags and carriers, were probably on their way to the local Tesco, then on to the café for a cuppa. It’s London. It’s England. And, though I first thought this a picture from the fifties, from the looks of the cars on the street, it’s now.

I live in what is euphemistically called an “active adult community.” We’re all over 55, and some of us are ten, twenty, even thirty years older than that minimum. While a few of us do sport canes, or walkers when we’ve just had our knees replaced, not one of us would dress the way these two ladies do. We dress more like our daughters than our grandmothers.

Different places, different customs, different expectations. Interesting.


*You can see more of Ebeling’s extraordinary work here. The picture above is from his London Ends collection.






Friday, January 27, 2017

FIFTY FRIENDS

Well, maybe not this many 

Last year in January I read this in The Writer’s Almanac on the 16th:    

It’s the birthday of novelist, essayist, and cultural critic Susan Sontag (books by this author), born Susan Rosenblatt in New York City (1933). She grew up in Tucson and Los Angeles. She was a voracious reader from the age of three, and the first book she remembered being thrilled by was Madame Curie, which she read when she was six. She remembered lying in bed as a child and gazing at her bookcase: “It was like looking at my 50 friends. A book was like stepping through a mirror. I could go somewhere else. Each one was a door to a whole kingdom.”


Fifty friends – oh, more than fifty!  Books have been a necessity for me, like love and food, since I was aware of them and able to hold them. I’ve had many books given to me, and I’ve spent a tidy sum on books ever since I had the means to do so. It follows that I’ve also given away many, many of them. I’ve had only so much room in the homes where I’ve lived over the years. There are also a few real treasures that have “grown legs” over the years, and I do miss them terribly. But my very old-time friends are still on my shelves. Just a passing glance at one of their spines brings the whole story back to me in an instant. The flavor of the book runs a quick video through my memory. I can’t say the same happens when I see some of the newer books on my shelves. Old Friends are the best friends.

Friday, January 20, 2017

PIE AND A POEM

I was going to write a blog piece, I used this poem instead. You know I’m not a fan of free verse, but this one speaks to me. Grace Paley took the alternative and turned it into a poem.  In effect, she had her pie and a poem too – clever!

If I have to choose a pie, it will always be pumpkin.
I didn't get enough of it at the end of last year.


The Poet’s Occasional Alternative

I was going to write a poem
I made a pie instead      it took
about the same amount of time
of course the pie was a final
draft      a poem would have had some
distance to go      days and weeks and
much crumpled paper
the pie already had a talking
tumbling audience among small
trucks and a fire engine on
the kitchen floor
everybody will like this pie
it will have apples and cranberries
dried apricots in it      many friends
will say      why in the world did you
make only one
this does not happen with poems
because of unreportable
sadnesses I decided to
settle this morning for a re-
sponsive eatership      I do not
want to wait a week      a year      a
generation for the right
consumer to come along



Friday, January 13, 2017

THE ONCE DANISH WEST INDIES

Here's another piece I wrote for our community magazine. This one was a labor of love because one of my most memorable vacations was at Caneel Bay on St. Johns, way, way back in the day when, the week before I got there, Frank Sinatra, Roz Russel, and Bennett Cerf and their spouses stayed there. (I got a lot of: "Guess who was here last week?")The place was elegant, the food fabulous, and the relaxation complete. From what I see in the images, it is still a wonderful resort.

This looks like where I stayed at Caneel Bay


One hundred years ago, as of January this year, give or take a month or more for signing, ratification, and proclamations by each of the countries party to the treaty, the United States, after years of negotiations, purchased the Danish West Indies from, of course, Denmark. The price, which has proved to be worth every ounce, was a nice, round figure of $25 million in gold, worth over twenty times that in today’s currency.

The final impetus for the purchase was the fear the Americans had that the Germans would take over the islands and have a foothold in the western hemisphere, and the concern the Danish had for their people there in the troubled months before and during World War I. The continued neutrality of the Danish was insured when the final transfer was made just days before the United States declared war on Germany.

Today we know the Danish West Indies as the American Virgin Islands: St. Croix, St. John, St. Thomas, and the many other small islands and cays.
The history of the islands is quite interesting and includes Stone Age peoples, the more recent Arawaks and Caribs visited by Christopher Columbus, the colonizing Spanish, French, and Danish, and ultimate purchase by the United States.



Explorers once delighted in naming places they visited, regardless of whether they’d already been named by the indigenous people. We owe the name of the Virgin Islands, the US and the British, to Columbus. The whole system of islands and cays reminded him of St. Ursula and her thousands of martyred virgins, and he named the larger islands for saints and such. Some day we may see these places revert to their original names, as has Uluru, formerly Ayres Rock in Australia, and Denali, formerly Mt. McKinley in Alaska.

The principal economic factor of the islands had always been the production of sugar and rum. This production declined significantly in the late 1800’s with the rise elsewhere of the cultivation of the sugar beet. Today, the principal economic factor of the islands is rest and relaxation, the enjoyment of good food, great beaches, and abundant sunshine: tourism.

Tourists from all over the world flock to the Caribbean and the Virgin Islands. The peak tourist season, with appropriately elevated prices, is December to March. The best time to visit is off-peak April through June, and even later in the summer when it’s off off-peak. Many northerners wouldn’t consider a Virgin Islands trip in the summer. What they forget is that the islands’ daytime temperature, even in summer, is usually around 80° and it’s usually cooler there than up here. It is certainly breezier there. Yes, there can be hurricanes, and yes, the temperatures may get a bit higher, but it’s usually a serene time in the islands. There is plenty of elbow room and plenty of beach room. There are museums and plantations to visit, duty-free items to buy in a relaxed shopping atmosphere, and swimming, hiking, and snorkeling everywhere, especially in the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park. For further information, start googling.



Friday, January 6, 2017

FOODS FAST FORWARD

Ah, yes - here's another two-fer.  I wrote this one for this month's community magazine, and I've had a few favorable comments on it. We've all been speculating about the answer to the last sentence.

Image result for lobster newburg delmonico's
Lobster Newburg - I haven't had this in years!
Ingredients include cream, sherry, cognac, butter, and, of course, lobster.
Scrumptious!


Do you remember Lobster Newburg, Salisbury steak, Chicken a la King, and that all-time favorite Creamed Chipped Beef on Toast? This last one was also known to many of us as Sh..  …well, let’s just say that time marches on and, fortunately for us, so have the trends for what we eat.

We were accustomed to calorie-dense foods, foods that were relatively inexpensive but filled us and provided the calories for hard work and play. Noodles, pasta, potatoes, and bread played a big part in our diets. Unless it was spaghetti night, supper was meat, a starch, and a veg. Salads made very rare appearances on our plates. Farmers markets were few and far between, and unless your family maintained a vegetable garden, your veggies were days, even weeks old. The butcher, the baker, the green grocer, and the milk man, were the common independent purveyors who now find themselves under one roof in the supermarket.

Sundays were the days for a huge roast, perhaps leg of lamb or fresh ham, and all the accompaniments. Mom spent a lot of the morning preparing the roast, and the rest of the family spent the late afternoon working or snoozing off the effects of the meal. Today, such large roasts are served mostly on holidays. Many Baby Boomers don’t even remember a fresh ham, thinking it’s the non-canned variety of a smoked ham.

While weeknight desserts were things like jello, chocolate pudding, or tapioca, Sunday desserts were presentations: pound cakes, layer cakes, pineapple upside-down cakes, coconut cream pies, pies of every flavor, and, in season, things like buckles and cobblers. In summer there might have been a treat of home-made ice cream.

In the Fifties, while we on the western side of the Atlantic were eating these traditional foods, people like Julia Child were over in France learning new ways to cook. No longer was Chinese cooking just chop suey or chow mein. No longer was Asian cooking just Chinese. No longer were chop suey and chow mein or spaghetti and pizza the only international foods on our plates.
Television, advances in freezing foods, and widespread transportation meant that we were getting a larger variety of fresher foods and were learning new ways to prepare them. No longer did one cookbook cover everything we wanted to prepare. Fanny Farmer, Better Homes and Gardens, or the Settlement cookbook, have been joined on the packed shelves by hundreds of others. The vast variety of subjects to be covered in individual cookbooks meant that book stores moved the few cookbooks out of the Reference section, and began to devote whole sections of their shelves to them.

Today we aren’t as reliant on seasonal foods, although eating with the seasons, becoming a “locavore” and cooking with what is readily available from nearby sources, is the latest trend, especially for restaurants. Many restaurants don’t have freezers, preferring to use only the freshest ingredients for their menu. And that’s another difference in the way we eat today: more and more we choose to eat out. Rather than stock our kitchens with all the ingredients for international cuisines, we go to the local places that satisfy our tastes. Just in our area we can have Asian, Italian, Greek, Mexican, New York Deli, Southern, you name it, breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and it’s nearby. So much food, so little time!

Just wonderin’…   …Remember the party standby, deviled eggs? Just plain deviled eggs. Today, according to a recent issue of Saveur magazine, they marinate the whites in soy sauce and raspberry vinegar - just for fifteen minutes, mind you - and then fill them with the yolks that were combined with lump crab meat, avocado, and apple. Chefs are getting inventive. Food is getting fancy. It’s probably a good thing, but we have to wonder what “comfort food” will be to generations to come.








Saturday, December 31, 2016

MIRROR, MIRROR


I’ve got a file full of reflection jpgs. I love being able to flip the pix onto their sides and cropping them down to just the mirror image. I get some unusual pictures, but none as unusual as the first one I ever took. What better time to post this piece than the end of the year – we’re looking back and looking forward, these pictures look sideways too. Sorta…  

This might not look too interesting this way. It's just a picture I took from the
train going from Kristianand to Stavanger in Norway.
The year was 1981


When I was putting the photo in my scrapbook, I happened to flip it on its side
do you see what I see up there at the top?  Ugly fellow. 


So this picture put me on the lookout, all these years, for great reflection pictures.  I've seen several good ones, but none that I could save until these last years when I could keep them on my PC. Here are a few more: 

Another monster - this one from the camera of Jacqueline Donnelly.
She regularly posts wonderful pictures and stories
of her regular nature treks in her
blog Saratoga Woods and Waterways (SWW)


A Colorado specter from Jeff Howe -
it's fun when a reflection has 'eyes'


more...

interesting - another from SWW


and another from Jacqueline Donnelly, this of the Hudson River bank - 

Lots of things to think you see in this one


on and on...

Turn this sideways, and you'll realize that
this is Japan. Credit unknown.

and these two, just because I like them:

Rakotzbrucke Bridge, Kromlau, Germany
Picture from Designmilk, via Atlas Obscura


and this one I took in 1982 - I like it just because it was a wonderful place to be - at Peter Freebody's boatyard along the Thames in Maidenhead, England









Sunday, December 25, 2016

HAPPY HOLIDAYS...



...to everyone - Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and, to one special pal of mine who was born on this day many, many years ago and is still young at heart, I wish a very Happy Birthday.

Enjoy the day everyone. Here's a toast to a happy, healthy, busy year ahead, with not too much craziness on the political front.


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

CELEBRATIONS OF WINTER


The winter solstice, today, when the sun begins to shine for a longer time each day, was celebrated in almost all of the cultures of the northern hemisphere. Think of the many megalithic monuments that serve as calendars to insure the correct date of the solstice, and think of all the observation and study that went into the precise building of them. Inquiring minds wanted to know. Picture a tree growing from the base of the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. The rites of the celebrations were many and varied and usually lasted for days. Today’s winter celebrations are branches of that same tree. They are all holidays - festivals or celebrations - rather than holy days or solemn commemorations.

It is generally agreed that Christ was born when the shepherds were abiding in the fields, watching their flocks at night, so it would have been almost any time of the year except winter.  Most likely it was the spring, but the proselytizers, the spin-doctors of the early Christian era, in an effort to attract pagans to their way of worship and thinking, cleverly placed the celebrations of their major and most attractive events to coincide with those of the solar calendar. The spring equinox became Easter, and the winter solstice Christmas.

The winter event was celebrated as Saturnalia in Rome, Yule by the Germanic people, as Lenaea, the Festival of Wild Women, in Greece, and under many other names by people such as the Druids, the Buddhists, and the natives of our own southwest. Until the more modern spin doctors of the eighteenth century elevated it again and made it more lucrative, Christmas was celebrated as a very minor holiday; Easter was the major holy day. In some places, such as Cromwell’s Puritan England of the 1700’s, the celebration of Christmas was banned. Many Christian sects still do not celebrate it.



There is more real history associated with Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, than with Christmas. Starting on 25 Kislev, a date on the Hebrew calendar, Hanukkah, in its modern spelling, is an eight day festival commemorating an event in 165 BCE. On that day, the Maccabees drove the army of Antiochus IV, king of the Syrians, from the Temple in Jerusalem. In celebration, they rededicated the Temple and lit the eternal flame. They had only one day’s supply of consecrated oil, but it lasted for the eight days it took to prepare and consecrate a new supply. This miracle became a good reason for a winter celebration, and, minor though it was then, it was a good antidote to the Greek festival celebrating Zeus. Yes, it too was a minor holiday, but in the last century it came into prominence perhaps as another antidote - this time to all the Christmas hoopla.

Most winter symbols transcend religion. Greens, especially evergreens as boughs or wreaths in the north, were always a part of the solstice celebrations. Many rural homes shared their living space with the livestock.  In many homes the windows were for light, not air, so in northern climates the unglazed windows were covered over in winter. It was customary, probably downright necessary, to bring fresh-cut evergreens into the homes to freshen the air during the winter months. Candles too are part of the winter celebrations. Whether the eight on a menorah or the multitude on a Christmas tree, real candles or electric, they represent the light and joy of the season. 




However you celebrate the coming of Winter, I wish you and your family a meaningful and happy Christmas and Hanukkah – and in many of our homes it is both.





Saturday, December 17, 2016

WHAT THE DICKENS

Here we go again - I forgot to post this yesterday. This is another piece I wrote for our community magazine.  It was published this month, along with an article and pictures on a Dickens Village collector.

Not Dickens, but a dapper Washington Irving

Yes, what the Dickens.* Many believe Charles Dickens to be the first author to celebrate Christmas in literature. Not so. Dickens credited Washington Irving. Washington Irving, who, in turn, credited another source, was born in Manhattan in 1783, the same week the American Revolution ended. We know him best for his two most famous stories, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle. What is not well known about Irving is that one of his collections, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., the collection written around 1820 that contained The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, also contained five Christmas stories. These stories, later published separately and called Old Christmas Sketches, were the later inspiration for the Christmas festivities portrayed by Dickens in his 1843 novel A Christmas Carol. Earlier, in 1812, when revising A History of New York, Irving inserted a tale about a dream he’d had about Saint Nicholas soaring over the treetops in a flying sled. Sound a bit familiar? The dream idea, it’s said, can be found in that of Ebenezer Scrooge, and the flying wagon in “a sleigh full of toys and St. Nicholas too.”

Irving had his own inspiration from the notes he made while traveling in England and Europe for two years in the very early 1800’s. During one holiday he stayed at Aston Hall in Birmingham, England. Surely it was then he came upon The Vindication of Christmas, written in 1652, telling of the festivities and customs of the era. Irving’s Old Christmas Sketches idealized the traditions and made them popular among the new Americans who then revived many of the customs that had been forgotten over the previous two centuries. Though now part of the holidays, and introduced from Germany to England by Prince Albert in 1841, the Christmas tree didn’t make an appearance in A Christmas Carol. That work though, published the same year as the first printed Christmas card in England, did revive many other lost customs there too.

Imagine having to have a place to store all this, and having to set it all up,
and then take it all down? It's a labor of love that I wouldn't love to do.

On both sides of the Atlantic, Dickens’ works were much more widespread and popular than Irving’s. Basically, this is the reason we talk today about a Dickensian Christmas, or collect “Dickens Village” figurines. In December, we wonder as we wander through many a city or town’s creation of a Dickens Village of shops, crafts, foods and beverages. Alas, none of them are named for the American, Washington Irving.


*From The Merry Wives of Windsor, Act III, Scene II,   by William Shakespeare 

Friday, December 9, 2016

ANONYMOUS GARBAGE




I'd never seen such a range or recycling bins.
I'm glad we aren't required to have all these in our homes. 


I had to laugh at my own thoughts this morning – I tossed a used paper towel into the trash and wondered what garbologists of the future will think of what else I’d thrown out.

I know they’ll know my name and where I lived because of the section I tore out of an unsolicited form I was sent to apply for life insurance, a credit card, cable service, or some other thing I didn’t want in the first place. I recycled the rest of the form. I’m a conscientious recycler, but every once in a while I’ll toss out something that really could have been recycled. I have a momentary pang of guilt, but just momentary. And sometimes I hear someone in the future going “tsk, tsk.” But then I tell myself that they’ll find just this one thing in there and will know from the absence of any other recyclables that I was basically a good person. Yeah, right? It beats me why I sometimes think of what the future will think of me – I’ll be dead, why do I care?! It's a waste of time and brain power.

Do any of you remember this picture?



I’ve had this picture in my head for years. I named it “Our Lady of the Toilet Seat.” Perhaps that really was her title. I vaguely remember the story, so I googled “woman with a toilet seat on her head,” and came up with the picture and an entry from Mentor’s Reader.  The Picture comes from David Macaulay’s Motel of the Mysteries. I remember reading the book, but not owning it. (We did own and have passed on down many of his wonderful books like The Way things Work, Cathedral, City, Castle, and our favorite, which we still have, Mill.*) I recall that the folks in the fictitious future didn’t know what to make of the toilet seat. I wonder what other things might pose a question for garbologists.

I say garbologists, but in fact, garbologists study today’s waste system, it’s the poor archaeologists of the future who will be dissecting and studying the trash we bury today. By then it will be routine, and I’m sure that today’s archaeologists are delighted that they don’t have to study modern garbage dumps. Modern middens usually don’t interest them. Give ‘em a random pot shard, a bronze artifact, even an old bottle, and they are content.



*As an aside, and just by coincidence, in double-checking the titles of the many Macaulay books we’ve owned, I discovered that in 2015 he published his work called Toilet: How it Works




Friday, December 2, 2016

GREETINGS...

                …and salutations!             

        

Here's one just out in our community magazine, held over from last year. I did use it in a blog last November, so I am cheating today. I must admit that I still like real cards - to receive and send. I make my own greeting cards, using photos like the one above that I've taken throughout the year. I enjoy planning and using just the right photo for each occasion.

Handwritten, hand-decorated greetings date back for ages. The ancient Chinese sent New Year’s greetings. Each year they had a different animal theme to work with. From medieval times on, handwritten cards like Valentines were sent in many European countries. By the Renaissance era, cards were available from the printing presses. During Victorian times the Christmas card became popular. The Victorians positively excelled at the greeting card, and inexpensive postage stamps help spread the holiday cheer. From the first British printed Christmas card in 1834 to the first electronic card in 1994, billions of printed cards wended their way around the neighborhood and around the world.

Gifts, a cake and candles aside, how do you like friends and family to help celebrate your birthday: a greeting card, a phone call, a surprise visit from a hired entertainer, or an e-mail or e-card? How do you like to send and receive December holiday greetings? Do you delight in amassing and displaying dozens of cards? Of course you delight in receiving some of the now-popular photo holiday cards, especially if they are of your grandchildren. Do you like to make and send your own creations, or send store-bought cards? Have you saved a tree and opted to email your greetings?

Even Hallmark - “When you care enough to send the very best” - has joined the ranks of Blue Mountain, American Greetings, Jacqui Lawson, and others in the field of e-cards. Yes, Hallmark. It was bound to happen. Most people, though they still prefer snail mail greetings, don’t mind e-greetings, knowing that the sender still cared enough to think of them. 
         
Some have opted out of the holiday mailings, but if you haven’t, whichever you choose to send, hand-made or boxed cards or annual letter, you can make life easier for yourself by tackling the job early. Right after the holidays, update your card list (be ruthless!), then save money by buying your cards at the January sales. If you make your own cards, the summer months spent indoors in air conditioning are the ideal time to begin creating. Begin working on your holiday letter as the newsworthy events occur. Start addressing the cards and finish the holiday letter just after Thanksgiving. Sounds easy and, when you start early and stick to it, it is.








Friday, November 25, 2016

FRUITCAKE - THE GIFT YOU LOVE TO HATE


                           

      

We never eat fruitcake because it has rum
And one little bit turns a man to a bum
Can you imagine a sorrier sight
Than a man eating fruitcake until he gets tight?

                                                                       The Chad Mitchell Trio’s version of The Song of the Temperance Union


Ah, fruitcake! The stuff of legends. Derided in song, derided in the media, it seems to be the ubiquitous non-comestible. To tell the truth, there are some very awful versions of it foisted on the public each year. These are the overly sweet, grossly dense, preserved-fruit-laden hockey-pucks-on-steroids available in every supermarket in America. Glacéd, crystalized or candied, whatever you choose to call them, the fruits and citron can overwhelm the taste buds. It is really a mystery why thinking people would purchase these cakes as gifts. It becomes a tradition to laugh over or to moan over. Just think of the waste when the rejected cakes get tossed into the trash. What will future garbologists think of us?

There are many, many verses to The Song of the Temperance Union. They suggest that there is little to be eaten or done, including drinking water and jumping rope, that can’t turn a man into a beast. The fruitcake lyrics might have been apt many years ago, but today, though they can be found, it is rare to find a good spirit-lace fruitcake for sale.

Oh, but you can certainly make a soused version in your own kitchen. Work with whatever fruit or nuts type cake or bread recipe you have. The key to a good soused version, be it done with rum, bourbon, or whatever tipple you prefer, is to have a good cake-to-fruit ratio: smaller pieces of fruit and nuts, easy on the citron, as with a good Italian Panettone cake, and with more cake to absorb the liquor.


The secret to the sousing is to start early. Plan on baking the weekend after Thanksgiving - I'll start mine tomorrow. Fill a spray bottle with your beverage of choice. Once your cakes are out of the oven and cooled, begin the process of spraying them thoroughly on all sides. Store them in air-tight containers or bags. Get them out once a week for four weeks, and spray them thoroughly again. By the holidays you will have a scrumptious fruitcake to give or keep - and keep it will. Some soused fruitcakes, properly kept in the bottom of the refrigerator, have been known to last, slice by slice, remembered now and then for a special treat, for well over a year.