Bad Sweet Potato

In the landscape of seasonal food, few things are as disappointing as a bad peach in the summertime. Summer food is meant to be fresh; the really good stuff, you don’t even have to cook. But come fall, about the only things good to pick up and eat without cooking are apples, nuts and some greens. And even those taste better with a toss or two in a skillet with some melted butter.

I had a bad sweet potato while dining out a couple weeks ago, and I must say that is worse than a disappointment. It’s actually kind of a shock that you never get over. Look, when you pick up a peach in the summer, if you didn’t see it come off the tree with your own eyes, some part of you is nervous about what will happen when you bite into it. You can squeeze it and sniff it all day long, but the true test of its ripeness and sweetness is in that first bite – and this is where it must be said that I am not a peach peeler. Peeling the peach is a cheap spoiler, a defiler of the mystery that is a summer peach.

But who can see a bad sweet potato coming? How do you screw that up? This is how I normally cook sweet potatoes.

1. Peel the sweet potatoes. (I am a sweet potato peeler.)
2. Chop them into a half-inch dice.
3. Toss them with sea salt, pepper, a generous drizzle of olive oil, a splash of balsamic vinegar, and about half-a-teaspoon-per-sweet-potato of brown sugar. Maybe a quick squeeze of lemon or lime juice.
4. Bake at 400 degrees for 45 minutes.

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No matter what your method is, sweet potatoes cook faster than their more versatile and popular distant relative, the potato. You can cook them on the stove in a skillet, too, but at some point you’ll need to cover the skillet until they get soft. You can deep fry them; sweet potato fries are great! You can bake them in their skin. You can even twice-bake them and stuff them. They are versatile and delicious…but they must be soft.

So what is up with a restaurant that serves sweet potatoes al dente? Is that some new hipster thing? Whatever it is, it sucks, and it must stop. Crunchy sweet potatoes are gross. If you serve them like that, you are perhaps acting out of some post-traumatic flashback to the stuff your mother or grandmother used to make you eat as a kid: the fluffy, over-sweetened goo that was usually topped with marshmallows. If you were forced to eat that candied gunk as a kid, I guess I can see how, once you matured as a Southern foodie, you felt like you had to throw some new spin on sweet potatoes, and the way you did that was to toss them in curry and coconut milk after a safflower oil sauté. The whole time, your mind crackled with nightmarish visions of your grandmother heaving one more pile of sweet potato glop on your plate because it was GOOD FER YE.

I get it. You had to be your own cook. And you had to be groovy. You didn’t start tying your hair back with bandannas and get those lotus tattoos because you wanted to be just like Granny, and you sure as shit ain’t gonna cook yer sweet taters like she did.

But here is where orthodoxy and objective truth prevail over innovation and relativism: A sweet potato must be cooked until it is soft in order to be good. There is a spectrum of good and evil in the realm of sweet potato cookery. Good is on the middle rack, at 400, for about 45 minutes. Evil is on either end of the spectrum: in the gooey quicksand of molasses and marshmallows on one end, or in some pre-seasoned open skillet with faddish ingredients like Sriracha, cardamom flowers and agave nectar on the other.

Forgive Granny, just let that whole thing go. When you have the time, dig up the yellowed index card with her sweet potato casserole recipe and bake it to her specifications. Take one syrupy bite. No water. With the marshmallow froth still oozing down your esophagus, take the entire casserole out to a crossroads and bury it.

Then go home, light some candles, and start a new batch. And cook ‘em till they’re soft.

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Monastic Foodie

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I am kind of a foodie, which as far as I am concerned just means I care about what I am eating. I don’t just like it; I want to understand and respect it. Just the other day I posted a New York Times recipe for pork schnitzel that I had tried out, mentioning that I had “Southernized” it by adding sweet potatoes and green beans as side dishes, along with the recommended lingonberry preserves and sweet pickles. The day before that, I had prepared tagliatelle with a mushroom cream sauce seasoned with rosemary from my herb garden. For lunch that same day, I prepared omelets with chopped, leftover ribeye and grilled red onion, grated cheddar and chopped thyme. I like good, homestyle food, and I like to cook. My husband and I only occasionally go out for dinner, because we like to go to restaurants that serve really good food. Places like Cheddar’s or other chain restaurants just don’t cut it for us.

I’m by no means a gourmet, but I am certainly not an ass about food. Purists alarm me. I understand restrictions based on health and ethical concerns, but restrictions based on snobbery piss me off. When I’m on the road, I’ll stop at McDonald’s or Burger King. Yeah, I know the food is bad, but I’m the road and for a quick lunch, it’s OK. It isn’t great, but it tastes all right and once in a while won’t kill you. When my stepson wants Sonic, I will totally go for the onion rings. Because they taste good.

And when I am a guest in someone’s house, I eat what they serve, and I am grateful for it.

I would say that the food being served at my retreat house at the Gethsemani monastery is nothing to write home about, but I am pretty much obviously writing home about it. These monks observe a vow of poverty, and they eat simple food. They employ a small staff of lay people to prepare the food for retreatants, and as the brother who conducted our orientation explained, meals are part of the cooks’ pay. They eat what they prepare, half and hour before we retreatants show up for our scheduled meals.

Yesterday, my first meal was supper (the evening meal is called supper; the midday meal in dinner). I’m pretty sure the beans came out of a Van Camp’s can, but it was a hot meal and the tossed salad was fresh. The bread, notably, is baked by the monks, who also make the fruitcake and fudge offered as dessert at every meal because the monks at Gethsemani are kinda famous for it. I should add they serve samples of the cheeses they make, and they are pretty good.

Today’s main dishes were a little more complex than Van Camp’s. Decent eggs scrambled with veggies for the dinner (I skipped breakfast), and glazed carrots. For supper, there was some meh hash of ground beef with tomatoes and green beans, rice with veggies, and cabbage. But again – the pretty awesome array of cheeses, bread, and desserts. They’re great hosts.

Simple meals for a simple life of service and contemplation. They eat simply, but they also create and market food for the pleasure of us outsiders, to include not only the aforementioned cheese and sweets. I bought a bottle of this hot stuff (from a monastery in the Southwest) in the visitor’s center today.

monk sauce

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Gethsemani

The Trappist brothers of Gethsemani monastery – situated in the heart of Bourbon country near Bardstown, Kentucky – have a history of pacifist, ascetic, environmental stewardship. Here they are in a photo from a few years back, hosting Buddhist monks for an environmental conference.    G3Group1

Aerial shot: G3Group1JPG

I arrived at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani ahead of a storm front said to be about to tear across Kentucky and Tennessee. The winds have been kicking up all day, and after wandering around the nineteenth-century graveyard at the Abbey’s entrance, I sat down on a park bench in a grove of old oaks whose limbs writhed and hissed, blowing leaves and acorns. I meant to read in peace, but the scene started feeling altogether too theatrical, and I let my mind wander, and next thing I thought, I really don’t want to wind up impaled by some wild oak javelin from one of those treetops right in front of an abbey boneyard. Guess I’ll go to retreatant orientation.

The monk who led orientation for the week’s retreatants is Bronx Irish, in his early eighties. He says he actually likes to talk and only really gets to for the hour a week he conducts the session. And I’m really only talking about him because he told a cute joke. He was explaining that monks pray at certain times of the day, every day, a system called the Hours that used to literally correspond to the Latin words for them – Terce was at 3; Sext at 6; None at 9, and so on. But now it’s different. “We have Sext at 12 and then we have dinner.” Rim shot. Get it? Everybody was like, har har.

The monk is not the only person who cannot talk here. We can’t, either, except in designated “talking” areas. There is one smoking area, and you can’t talk there, either. I don’t smoke, but I think it’s funny they won’t permit two vices in one place. There are signs up reminding you to stay silent. You can’t talk – or socialize – in the rooms (which are tiny, like little European micro hotel rooms, only with bibles, icons, and in my case, a third-story view of the Kentucky woods in autumn). You can’t talk on your phone. You can’t talk in the church (other than prayer responses, which are all sung). You can’t even talk during meals. I sat next to an old man with my plate of pinto beans and tossed salad and read an article in The New Yorker. Nobody else was reading so I’m not even sure that was cool.

Meals are strict. You want to eat? Breakfast at 7, sharp. Dinner 12:30, sharp. Supper, 6. The monks have to wash the dishes, they have Hours to keep, and there’s a work schedule.

They work. They are almost completely self-sustaining. I’ll post more about that later. But one source of income is this retreat – which is, by the way, utterly free of charge. You make the reservation, you show up, you have free room and board. You don’t even have to be religious, though almost everybody is Catholic or at least from a Catholic background. You just have to respect their religion and follow their rules. Donations are graciously accepted, and as far as I can tell, deserved. This is a lovely place.

NB: There is nothing in the rules against staying connected, but the only wireless area is in the library, and it only functions during the day. I am posting thanks to a handy 4G box that doesn’t make a sound;-)

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TROLL!

Not a big fan of found-footage movies. Like, I hated The Blair Witch Project. I never bought into its stupid premise, nor thought it was scary for one minute until – credit where it is due – the final chase scene into that creepy backwoods hell house. I was annoyed that anybody believed the film was really found footage. I enthusiastically suspend disbelief for horror movies, but in the case of BWP, I found the reactions of the student filmmaker characters to be distracting in their lack of authenticity. I remember a bunch of yelling and dog-cussing one another, but little in the way of the kind of real, bone-chilling terror that ought to set in once you realize your disorientation is being caused by a malignant, murderous supernatural entity.

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(Eeeee….I am holding a camera on myself despite the imminence of Pure Evil….)

Everything that followed was even worse. Those effing ridiculous Paranormal Activity movies (Young Critic Boy is kinda long-winded but he is young and critical and also right).

This is the level of imagination befitting suburban audiences: a concept of horror in which in-home security cameras capture the spontaneous combustion of a Ouija board. There followed an ongoing parade of film plot variations on White People Moving into Houses Possessed by Evil Spirits; and while most of those are not “found footage” films, they compensate for that failure by insisting on the formulation of some half-ass rational explanation of the evil presence. Which almost always involves some Witchy Woman way back in the olden days.

What these movies called for was the perfect send-up. Not a silly, obvious parody, but a scary, straight-up monster movie with a slightly comedic edge that doesn’t undermine the serious thrill-chill factor and that employs the found-footage device to pwn the whole genre. And that is exactly what Trollhunter does. The film opens with a claim that the following footage was found abandoned and was later analyzed and found to be authentic, yadda yadda yadda.

So we’re in Norway, way up in the fjords, where three young student filmmakers (heh) have set out into the remote landscape to investigate a suspected bear poacher (Otto Jespersen). The scenery is gorgeous and ominous – a misty, overcast Nordic forest in perpetual twilight or darkness (which my guess is about right for Norway in late autumn). The kids are nervous and geeky but persistent, and they track the hunter deep into the forest one night, filming everything, of course. And it is that night they discover that the real prey of the “poacher” is a troll – like, of the mythical Norse creatures that live in caves and inside mountains and drag Christian wayfarers under bridges late at night. Trollhunter is the only man in Norway who can do the job, which is, of course, a secret government-sponsored plan to keep trolls inside their territories and control their population.

trooll

The kids don’t believe him until another dark, predawn forest scene, where the hunter makes them grease themselves in troll-scented foul slime to throw off troll suspicion, and also makes them swear none of them is Christian – because trolls really can smell the blood of a Christian Man (or woman, I guess). So when a three-headed OG ancient troll standing forty feet high tramples down towering birch trees to come roaring after the terrified documentary makers that night, the camera man has the presence of mind to keep his night vision on for us to get a good look at the gargantuan, menacing monster that will eat anything from rocks and coal chunks to goats and humans.

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Trollhunter leads the kids through similar adventures to a final showdown with a 200-foot tall abominable “Jotnar” (for whose species the entire network of electrical power stations and lines really serve as a covert state containment fence for trolls). Throughout, the film builds tension in scene after suspenseful scene, each one paying off with a heart-racing chase and unexpected (and often very darkly funny) plot twists. It is only silly when it means to be silly, but for fierce delivery of savage monster thrills, it qualifies as a Halloween movie.

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Halloween Movie Marathon Day 1: The Ninth Gate

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I started my pre-Halloween month of horror movies with Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate. I’d seen it when it came out in the late nineties, but wanted to see it again because I remembered it as more of a murder mystery with a medieval satanic twist, than as a straight-up horror film. It got mainly bad reviews whose main gripe – that it falls apart at the end – was pretty fair. But I still think if you haven’t seen it you should give it a chance, and here’s why.

The story is about a book written and engraved by a Renaissance occultist who may have been literally in league with the devil. Since we’re talking about a sixteenth-century demoniacal book, we’re talking about a handsome, leather-bound Latin masterpiece with mysterious, Tarot-like engravings and a five-pointed star on the cover. Only three exist, and the protagonist, Corso – an unscrupulous rare books dealer played by Johnny Depp – undertakes to acquire the two volumes his client is determined to join with his own copy. Frank Langella plays the client, Boris Balkan, an erudite plutocrat who gazes out over the Manhattan skyline from a penthouse containing his prized collection of ancient and priceless books about the devil. One gets the idea he regards those three copies of a book co-authored by Satan as his tool kit for finally mastering all that he surveys. And, that he is batshit crazy.

Thus begins Corso’s odyssey through fin-de-siècle Spain, Portugal and France, where the final notes of a defunct nobility echo from an impoverished old don’s violin, through the empty chambers of his ancestral mansion. And because money doesn’t mean anything to gentlemen of breeding, that old don will not sell his copy of the demon book at any price. Meanwhile, Lena Olin is the rich, sexy dame whose dead husband sure enough sold her copy to Balkan right before he hanged himself, and she’ll do what it takes to get it back, including dispatching her Ducati-drivin’ Euro-Trash boyfriend to chase our antihero down a few dark roads from Toledo to Paris, where the third extant volume of the Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows resides in the library of a posh apartment on the Ile-St.-Louis. There, an elegant one-armed baroness (Barbara Jeffords) writes books about the Prince of Darkness, whom she has worshiped since her teens, when she claims she met him and fell in love. So she won’t sell at any price, either. Throughout Corso’s odyssey, he is shadowed by a scrappy, otherworldly beauty played by Emanuelle Seigner – in a raincoat, sneakers, and hair by Da Vinci – who might just be his guardian dark angel.

The climax occurs, fittingly, in a stately old château full of black-cloaked new money in a scene fit for a celebrity wedding reception, or in this case an invocation of the devil (which I personally find less offensive). The dénouement rather frantically gets thrown into the final scene in a crumbling medieval castle ruin in the mountains, where Corso will confront his own, er, demons, as it were. As the credits roll, and an animated sequence of unquenchable fire rolls along with them, you’ll probably wonder what the hell that was all about, but I think you’ll be glad you went along for the ride.

NB: Polanski’s film is based on The Club Dumas, a superior adventure/mystery novel by Arturo Perez Reverte that I cannot recommend strongly enough. I have always considered it unfair to compare films to the books on which they are based because the art forms are so completely different as to be barely relatable. The book Reverte wrote – without, as far as anyone knows, the oversight of Lucifer – is a book that is more about books than about evil. More to the point, the history of Alexandre Dumas and his Adventures of the Three Musketeers is central to the story, with offshoots about book forgery and demonology – almost all of which is absent from Polanski’s film adaptation. Any bibliophile, adventure reader, or history nerd will love The Club Dumas.

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Essay on Fuel Addiction, Degenerating Suburbs, and Their Casualties

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(Photo credit: “By the Bus Stop,” by Richard Hooker)

I live in a city with no meaningful public transportation system. There is a bus system servicing mainly inner city areas on a pretty regular schedule, but once one ventures into the sprawl of roads and highways leading into the suburban areas, the buses tend to run on a limited schedule for people who don’t have the ability to drive an automobile for whatever reason. Some people out in the ‘burbs can’t drive due to disability, or poverty, or because they don’t have a license.

The inability to drive makes for a hard life in most places in car-crazy America, but in my city, Knoxville, owning and driving a car is essential for the vast majority of citizens. I know people from my previous life – when I dwelled in a trolley ‘burb near downtown – who make a point of riding the bus to and from work or other places too far to walk. These same people have crafted a lifestyle that forbids all but the rarest occasions for venturing into the “chain retail hellscape” of four-lane suburban thoroughfares dominated by big box stores and conglomerate-owned restaurants for consumers who will drive around a parking lot for ten minutes to avoid having to walk for more than one. That’s no kind of life for my urban-dwelling friends, a few of whom don’t even own cars, and those who do might ride their bikes more often than they drive.

I now live in a suburb so far removed from downtown Knoxville that it isn’t even a part of the city. It’s a town called Farragut. But it was designed as a satellite bedroom community in the postwar automotive boom, so there is no small town feel of any kind. There isn’t even a center. My husband, the Frenchman, drove around Farragut for half an hour not long after he moved here wondering where the hell the central square was. He saw lots of church towers – usually a sign of some kind of town center in Europe – but they were all in residential neighborhoods.

The public bus system used to have a Farragut express line. I sometimes noticed it on my drives home from my office near downtown, and after sunset in winter the interior lights of the bus might show two or three riders, max. I knew with energy costs as they were, that wouldn’t last. The line closed a year or two ago.

Meanwhile, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars. The culture of suburban Knoxville seems indifferent to the rising cost of fuel, and willfully ignorant of the undeniable fact that it will continue to rise as we continue to drain dwindling and quite finite fuel sources around the globe. And there seems to be no thought of how to live more efficiently as a suburbanite. Look, there will always be suburbs, and I have to bite my tongue or tap my computer mouse to resist arguing with New Urban dreamers who see central downtown living as a mandate for the entire human species rather than as merely a more efficient and sustainable lifestyle choice – especially if you don’t have kids or the need for good public schools.

I argue that you can live in the suburbs efficiently and sustainably. First, if you live in a town like Farragut, you have to treat it like a town and not a residential interstate rest stop. The culture and its mentality have to change. People should be car-pooling. I live within a five-minute drive of two colleagues in my office. We ought to at least look at our calendars and plan for days when pooling is feasible. I have to drive my car a lot in the performance of my job duties (as do my colleagues), but maybe we could work something out there, too.

My co-workers live all over the county, but why shouldn’t everybody, in every line of work, design some kind of opt-in car-pooling schedule? For the on-the-job trips we make to the same places, perhaps we could launch our own little shuttle system. Making something like that work would be disruptive in the short term, but much more economical in the long term; all it takes is determination, cooperation and shared sensibilities. But we just ain’t there yet.

People rarely change until they have to change. Right now, nobody out in suburbia seems to tally up the thousands of dollars a year their families spend on fueling their cars. Or if they do, they don’t seem to care. I guess they’re just glad they have cars to spend most of their lives in. And it explains why – by the time they get out to their slice of paradise on the southern rim of I-40 – they’re too damn tired to think about ways to turn their town into a community, rather than a roster of homeowners’ associations.

They won’t have time to think about that until they really start feeling the drain of energy over-use on their personal energy reserves. As the costs of the water they consume and the food they buy continues to go up, they might notice that they’re economizing on the things that nourish the bodies of their families in order to preserve the health and longevity of their automobiles. Maybe then, they’ll start thinking about how much easier everybody’s lives would be if there were a reliable bus or tram service for getting us to the big box stores on Kingston Pike, or a show downtown.

On my lunch break not long ago I stopped at a Fresh Market near my office to pick up a birthday card for my mom and a salad for my lunch. In the line at the cash register, I noticed the reaction of the woman in front of me when the cashier said her total was around $25. The woman winced. She didn’t say anything, but her face said, “Holy shit, really?” She paid the money with cash from a little change purse. I spotted in her weathered face the passage of hard times, but her expression was one of resignation. I thought about how little $25 meant to me, and how seldom I even pay attention to the price of food I buy for my family. I guess that makes me lucky, but it also makes me irresponsible. I should pay more attention.

I got into my car and drove out of the parking lot onto the road toward the post office so I could mail my mom’s card. As I did, the woman from the cash register line was just turning, on foot, out of the parking lot and onto the sidewalk. I got stuck at a traffic light near the intersection with a bus stop. When the woman walked past my car and reached that bus stop, she sat down on a bench to wait for her ride, holding on her lap her single bag of items worth most of the cash she had on her that day. I wondered why she couldn’t drive. Then the light changed.

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Season of the Spider

stargazing

When I was a kid, my father used to lie outside in a lawn chair at night and look out at the heavens while he smoked his pipe. Once in a while I’d hang out with him. He was one of those guys who could point to constellations and tell you their names and explain how they moved through the sky.

One night he pointed to a very distant star and explained what “light year” meant. I think it was the North Star, or Polaris. I thought I was traveling back through time just by looking at the light emanating from Polaris, and imagined a girl my age back in the 1500s gazing at the same star right as the light flickering above me had been cast. I imagined some future kid, 434 years on, catching a glimpse of the light shining off Polaris on that night I lay side by side with my dad in vinyl weave lawn chairs circa 1979 or so. Anyway, that’s how kids think when their dads tell them stuff like that.

Of course, the heavens don’t really move for us; they move more or less with us. It is our Earth’s position that determines our seasons, and with them our view of our galaxy and beyond. I was reminded of this recently when I saw pictures of the Tarantula Nebula made by the Hubble telescope.

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The Tarantula Nebula is so far away – 160,000 light years – that until the 18th century it was thought to be a star, before a French astronomer somehow figured out it was a luminous cloud of star clusters and gases. And it isn’t even in our Milky Way; it is part of the Large Magellanic Cloud that satellites our galaxy, and which appears as merely a faint cloud in the Southern Hemisphere of Earth, though it spans a diameter of 14,000 light years.

All of this might throw some folks into Ye Olde Existential Crisis, but being an Earth critter, I leave mind-blowing reminders of my insignificance to the armchair, or lawnchair, astronomers. The Tarantula Nebula got its name because it looks like a great big glowing arachnid. But I won’t be able to contemplate its “glowing filaments resembling spider legs” because I live too far north. I suppose I’ll have to be satisfied with our friendly neighborhood Pole Star for the time being.

As Earth goes about its business of tilting my chosen hemisphere away from the Sun, so go the seasons. The days are already noticeably shorter: It’s darker in the morning when we get up, and despite the humidity and heat, the plants aren’t fooled. The dimming of the summer is on.

And wouldn’t you know, the smartest Earth critters are getting ready now – I’m talking about the Real Arachnids. And in particular, the “writing” spiders who have shown up on my porches, wherever I have lived, like clockwork every August to September to set up a feeding and breeding ground that will keep their species competitive for light years to come.

(Photo: Blue Lion Training)

A friend of mine reminded me that the Advent of Fall is a good enough meditation for us, whatever brilliant light celestial clouds have to offer. And I think she’s right. But I don’t mind considering the glimmer of eternity in the spidery spectacle of a distant nebula while I share space on my porch with an orb weaver just looking for a warmer, dryer spot to hang out before the Earth tilts further on. As the alchemists and witches used to say: As Above, So Below.

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The Groundhog Day Massacre, and Other Tales of Candlemas

I was reminded on this Groundhog Day of the cosmic significance of February 2nd. Knoxville writer Elaine Oswald explained that the traditional feast day is called Candlemas, and that as the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, people through the ages celebrated “the notion of shedding light into darkness.” People who had had to work by candlelight all winter long could put the candles away and work by daylight until the fall. And she included this superstitious rhyme folks used to sing:

If Candlemas day be dry and fair/ The half o’ winter to come and mair/ If Candlemas day be wet and foul/ The half of winter’s gone at Yule.

In other words, if it’s a rainy foggy day like today, the Groundhog won’t see his shadow and we’ll be drinking Mai Tais poolside in a matter of weeks. If the sun is out casting Marmot shadows, however, we’ll be in for more of the sort of treatment the South has been getting in the past few weeks, with temperatures cold enough to burst my pretty porcelain parsley pot to bits….

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(They told me it was weather proof. Not arctic weather proof, I guess.)

Well, Punxsutawney Phil may have seen his shadow up in Pennsylvania, but looking out my window on this damp, foggy day in East Tennessee, I choose to boost my optimism with belief in the folk tales. (Sorry, Northerners. You usually get the bitter end of the weather stick.)

As with most seasonal festivals, the roots of Groundhog Day/ Candlemas go deep into our pagan past. The Goddess and Green Man web site just linked offers a fun overview of the meaning of the old Celtic holy day of Imbolc (pronounced, I think, IH-mulg), one of the four seasonal midpoints between solstices and equinoxes. The others are Beltane/ May Eve (April 30th), Lammas (August 1st), and Halloween/ All Souls’ Eve – which needs no introduction, of course.

There’s been a lot of reconstruction of the old holidays by the Judeo-Christian religions and also by Neopaganism, the latter an outgrowth of 19th century romanticism’s theosophical societies. (By the way I’m not vouching for that link’s claim to being the “real” Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but it’s a fun browse.) Candlemas is one such reconstruction; the feast of St. Brigid (or Bridget) is another. Brigid (or Brigit), a Celtic goddess, was even remodeled as St. Brigid, who probably really existed but whose feast day, curiously, was placed to coincide with Imbolc.

In the Catholic and Orthodox religions – and I think it used to be this way in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition – women who had given birth didn’t go to church for forty days. Forty days being roughly six weeks, which is roughly the span between Christmas and Candlemas. You see where I’m going with this. Forty days after childbirth, mother and child appeared in church together for the first time, and that is why Candlemas as a religious holiday commemorated the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, forty days after his birth.

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That Hans Holbein sure had an eye for color.

I suspect modern pagans make a bigger deal out of Imbolc than their pre-Christian forebears, who probably saw it as a more practical signal for farming and animal husbandry. Imbolc came at a time when the fields should be prepared for planting, and the animals for bearing offspring. No doubt rituals were involved back in the old times, but if they did, their animal costumes were probably made from real skins, which I’m not sure most modern-day Wiccans would really approve of.

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I have a feeling there was a time when it wasn’t safe to be a groundhog on February 2nd, but at least people seem to have lightened up a little, so to speak. I guess the point is to use lots of symbolic light and invoke spirits, whatever your religious credo may be. If it makes springtime come around faster, I’ll donate to your cause.

I can’t let this topic go without pointing out that there was even a(n) historical event called The Candlemas Massacre. I had never heard of it until today. It’s more accurately called the Raid on York, and of course a Frenchman was to blame for it. The date was a week before February 2nd, but I think the reference as Candlemas had something to do with the calendar being used by colonists at the time.

Speaking of the French, their word for Candlemas is La Fête de la Lumière (or des Chandelles), or La Chandeleur. It has exactly the same significance. But if you ask the average French guy what Candlemas means to him, he’ll say, “Well, first of all, we celebrate the day when we led an Indian charge against the heathen Protestants in Maine….” Sorry, bad joke. He’ll probably say he doesn’t remember, and offer you a crêpe, because February 2nd is celebrated in French-speaking countries by the frying and consumption of crêpes.

So Happy Groundhog Day, Candlemas, St. Brigid’s Day, or Imbolc…wherever you’re coming from, and enjoy some delicious crêpes (with your Super Bowl chicken wings;-)

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Inmates of the Weather Asylum

I noticed the Weather Channel in the mid 90s. I remember making fun of its round-the-clock attention to national weather patterns, but I came around to relying on its “Local on the Eights” forecasts in a time when internet access was a lot slower and websites were less dynamic than TV shows. Back then, if you were planning a cross-country trip and wondered what the weather would be like at your destination, the Weather Channel was the only really widely accessible source for getting that kind of information.

Like most other media sources in the 1990s, the Weather Channel was a calm, reasonable place to find information. When it was snowing outside and you checked on Local on the Eights, the musical accompaniment was a canned jazz tune with a flute solo that made you think of snowflakes bouncing around in an elevator. With every change in the weather or the seasons, there was a cornball tune for it.

Other than that, it was just solid weather reporting around the nation. The woman anchors always seemed to be pregnant; I remember thinking the employment contracts for women must have had nice benefits for working moms or career women who wanted to have kids. The guys looked like NASA geeks, and they explained every minute stage in a droplet of water’s descent through the atmosphere to your house. Watching the Weather Channel in those days was kind of like taking a noncredit adult ed class at the local college. It was a place to learn something new, get a little smarter about something that you probably wouldn’t have figured out on your own without a library book.

A lot of dramatic changes in television and the internet have happened since then, and an unfortunate casualty of those changes has been the value of learning. Look at what happened to The Learning Channel, which used to actually be about educational topics. That’s where you now go to watch Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. Arts and Entertainment is now the home of Duck Dynasty.

The History Channel – whose main fault used to just be its sole obsession with World War II – is now your go-to place for interviews with the victims of alien abduction and men who hunt Hogzilla and Bigfoot. Once in a while HC airs a documentary about actual history, but only scary history, and then only if they can pay a few associate professors whatever their pimps’ rates are for predicting the imminent danger that scary history is about to repeat itself tomorrow, and how colossally bad that will be for all of us doomed losers watching at home.

The sad fate of Bravo – conceived to showcase fine art and films – is mirrored in the dull, dead eyes of housewives who find meaning by appearing on reality shows that have consumed Bravo like toxic mold in a suburban modular home that began as some dreamer’s idea of an artist’s cottage.

The Food Network suffered the most hideous fate of all, and not just because its vision of advancing culinary life in America has been poisoned by the sporting-arena mentality of contemporary entertainment: the idea that nothing matters unless there are winners and losers. I remember getting a kick out of Iron Chef when the Food Network formatted the original Japanese concept for American audiences. I was pretty naïve, though, to have thought then that such an idea would not transform the whole programming model into a schedule of shows about cooks reducing themselves and their craft to games and parlor tricks for mass consumption. No, the Food Network’s worse fate is that it exported that mentality to other cheap excuses for TV programming, and now almost every basic cable channel has a show about some big ass slob with bad hair and a soul patch seeing how much cheese steak or bratwurst he can shove down his throat without vomiting. Food as Worthy Adversary: only in America.

I used to watch the Food Network for Two Fat Ladies and A Cook’s Tour (the great and now inaccessible show based on Anthony Bourdain’s best-selling book). I doubt a program about two frumpy, gruff middle-aged Englishwomen traveling around the UK in a motorcycle and sidecar to actually cook for the sheer joy of preparing food and sharing it would last nowadays. And we know what happened to Anthony Bourdain. The Food Network sure showed him. They fired him. So he proceeded to rule the Travel Channel for several years with No Reservations before getting his own show on CNN.

I hope the Travel Channel will still dominate the world of travel by continuing to air Ghost Adventures, where every episode promises a black-light adventure in a basement or attic and the lines, “OH MY GOD! WHAT IS THAT?” or, “WHAT WAS THAT?” (Maybe the Travel Channel will start a fan club with mail-order boxes you can program to help you smell and feel ectoplasm whenever somebody starts screaming.)

Meanwhile, back at the Weather Channel. Which has matured, over the years, into the biggest freaking drama queen of them all. Those smart, sensible moms and impassive poindexters of yesteryear, calmly explaining how a hurricane works and what precautions one should take should one live in its projected path, were apparently buried in a mass grave a long time ago by the inmates of the insane asylum who now direct and star in Weather Channel programming.

What I have learned from reality stories about tornadoes – other than that tornadoes are terrifying and can destroy homes and lives – is that most people who have experienced and survived them say pretty much the same thing about them. They say that tornadoes are terrifying and can destroy homes and lives. But the narrative of what actually happens, intoned by extreme weather dramatist Jim Cantore – who probably wears a black cape and plays a wind machine full blast at parties – more or less just replays the same action time after time. We just have to guess about which family member didn’t make it, or miraculously survived. It is the Weather Exploitation Channel.

Look at the website. Most of the time lately, when I check the homepage to see how the weather is trending, either locally or in some destination my family is heading, I am distracted by themes of chaos and panic in the headings of linked stories. Disaster! Ruin! Tragedy! Most of it totally unrelated to weather or the climate.

For the past few days stories are about the Evil Empire of DirecTV, which has apparently decided to drop the Weather Asylum in the aftermath of failed contract negotiations. The Weather Inmates accuse DirecTV of threatening the safety and lives of millions of Americans who depend on their channel to stay safe. They provide an essential service that nobody else can. Well, except you can find out pretty much anything you want to about national weather reports and warnings by visiting the NOAA website, which is apparently still inhabited by rational science-types.

DirecTV may be an agent of evil, but not the kind the Weather Channel, in its sad, perpetual hysteria, is freaking out about on its front page. DirecTV is the agent of institutions like the Weather Channel, and all those other Theaters of Drooling Imbecility. DirecTV isn’t threatening lives, just minds.

I am sure that if I chatted with a panel of DirecTV’s executives and told them what I thought of them, they would regard me with cold frankness and tell me exactly what they are saying to the inmates about why they are dropping the Weather Channel.

They’d say, “It’s just business.”

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Twelfth Night Retro Package

On the twelfth day of Christmas (Twelfth Night, Epiphany, la Fête des Rois), I finally took down the tree, and in doing so, became curious about the provenances of some of the ornaments.

I have collected some fancy ornaments over the years, but the more affordable, decorative glass balls that come packaged in boxes still appeal to my sense of seasonal humility. I am impressed by the extravagant and often thematic trees and other spectacular household decorations I see when I visit family and friends, but I’ve always been more inclined to a homier holiday scene, personally. That’s why our Christmas tree is strung with both white and colored lights, different colored beads, and ornaments ranging from cheap department-store brands that have been in my family for decades, to homemade hand-me-downs, to ornaments given as gifts by old friends from long ago and even a few departed ones. And of course, a few expensive numbers I catch at post-holiday closeout sales.

None of it “matches” or follows any particular theme apart from maybe “This is Your Life,” or more like “These Are Your Blended Lives,” since my spouse and I brought seasonal histories from two continents and many Christmas Pasts prior to meeting each other in our forties. This includes a single, four-foot segment of cheap, copper-colored tinsel he thinks he found in Germany when he was living there (We always stick it inside the tree and coil it up the middle and call it The Christmas Snake). It includes white ceramic “icicles” from family in France, a blue glass ball embossed with our son’s five-year-old handprint, and a silk Magus astride a silk and felt Arabian horse that an old friend gave me long ago. And other things, including loooots of glass balls.

To wit, these little atomic-age glass balls my parents bought over fifty years ago, probably at the old (and long defunct) King’s Department Store in downtown Johnson City, Tennessee.

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This is the original box, and on checking the label, the “European Craftsmen” appear to have been Romanians, but the company that distributed them was Canadian. They are about an inch in circumference, and the most precious ones – like the one on the top left – were mouth-blown to induce a “spherical cone” type indention I don’t think you can find easily nowadays. Sort of shows off the space-age, George-Jetson finish of early 1960s decor. Here’s a table tree I hang with them; you can see two mouth-blown ornaments center, and lower left.

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A quick online search reveals these vintage ornaments hold fairly decent value; I have about two boxes in good condition (a few having been casualties of two historic Christmas tree crashes).

Oh, well, sentimental value. I also have a few boxes from Christmas by Krebs, going back at least twenty years or so. I was very pleased to learn they still craft their glass balls in Roswell, New Mexico.

About ten years ago while vacationing in Santa Fe, I drove down to Roswell because, well, as a nerd, I felt it was my duty to pay homage to the International UFO Museum. Sorry for the sudden left turn, ladies and gentlemen. In a variation of Chekhov’s Gun principle, I don’t think one can mention Roswell in a blog post about space-age Christmas ornaments without talking about the Alien in the Room. I remember seeing extraterrestrial references all over the place. The Dairy Queen had an ET on its sign; even the banks had ET logos. The whole town is UFO Crash Camp Crazy.

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So you’d think Krebs would stock ET-themed ornaments, right? Dag if I could find one. But here’s a keeper from Tin Toy Arcade retro and classic toy shopping site.

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So there you go. Sadly, they’ve sold out.

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