A writer's online journal of
opinion, observation and musings.
Archive: January - June, 2003
Click on the date that corresponds to the topic,
It has been a while since my last entry. I've been busy on the road, and away from computers. I had a great 4th of July weekend in New Bedford Mass. at the Summerfest Folk Festival. (Thank you, United Airlines for sending my clothes and CDs to Reno Nevada instead of with me on the plane.) And I had a blast at the Hiawatha Festival in Marquette MI last month. I saw so many old friends I hardly had time to play music, I was so busy catching up. Likewise at the Spirit of the Woods Festival in sleepy little Brethren, MI on the Summer Solstice. Couldn't ask for a friendlier day of music. My wife and I took the dog, stayed in a log cabin across the road and spent the day before watching dozens of snapping turtles basking in the Manistee river.
Tomorrow morning I'm flying off to West Virginia to teach songwriting at Augusta Heritage, then a week after I return its off to New Hampshire's Lake Winnepesaukee to the SAMW camp for more of the same with my friends from New England. A busy summer to be sure.
And the summer is very much like other summers. The smell of the air after a thunderstorm on a hot day. Peaches eaten out of hand over the kitchen sink. A lazy day at the beach swatting flies and the long humid evenings of tireless daylight fading into fireflies.
Yet every summer is unique. In August, the planet Mars will be closer to Earth than it has been for the past 70,000 years, I'm told. This past week, it has been rising soon after sunset and is a bright red jewel in the southeast sky. I'm neither an astronomer nor astrologer, but I take a certain pleasure in the night sky and keeping track of a few old friends. Sunset here in Kalamazoo tonight was at 9pm, noticeably earlier than just a week ago. It is a rapid decline in August -- by the end of the month the days will be much shorter. And it won't be long until old Orion, the hunter, will be throwing his leg over the horizon in the early evening.
But Mars will do for now. The god of war. The god of Tuesday. The place where men are from -- as opposed to women. The planet we still look to as a hopeful life partner to our earth -- microscopic fossils in the hidden Martian ice if not little green monsters building canals and death rays.
No, we have all the canals and death rays we need here on this planet. And with our current "faith-based" war still grinding on just north of the garden of Eden, between the Tigris and Euphrates, I wonder if maybe old Mars, the ancient god of war, is maybe even closer than we think.
That's the slogan I think Arnold "Total Recall" Schwarzenegger should be using for his campaign to be the new governor of California. It says it all. He's come to liberate the Republican faithful from the godless commies -- he's a Kennedy inlaw -- and he's got a sense of humor. Delivered with a true Tutonic accent, it also sounds menacing and Hitleresque. (He's quoted as admiring Hitler as a public speaker.) It simply says it all.
Arnold looks like a shoo-in this week, according to the polls. He had a bad day today, though. Seems there has been some groping and fondling of boobies in public places with non-appreciative females. "Ahnold" gave a public apology today more along the lines of Jimmy Swaggart than Jack Kennedy. No, he should have just smirked and said "Ich Bin Ein Kalifornian" and then winked and flexed his own boobies for the camera. Now that will get you elected.
Speaking of boobs, it was a bad day for Rush Limbaugh today too. He was forced to resign from his television football commentary job at ESPN, because of his blatant racial remarks last weekend. It seems he thinks that black people only get to be sports heroes because the liberal press -- that's that notoriously liberal sports press -- is doing the affirmative action thing. Huh? Half of the jocks in America now think he's a racist nut and the rest think he must be high on drugs.
Which might just be true. The other "Rush" news on the wire today is that his former maid down in Florida claims Rush has been forcing her to buy him thousands of hits of black market Oxycontin and other addictive narcotics at the Denny's parking lot. She says he's a pill-popping doper and that she has audio tapes to prove it. It ran in the NY papers today and will be the talk of the airwaves tomorrow, no doubt. Florida drug agents are said to be investigating, but have an official "no comment." Ah, Florida. It always comes back to Florida.
And the hat trick for Republican hot water this week leaks from the White House itself. Seems somebody there outed a CIA undercover agent to a right-wing columnist in order to get back at the spy's husband, a known Democrat and outspoken critic of the Bush WMD shell game. This is Nixon-worthy dirty tricks and the cry has gone up for a special prosecutor, and the whole thing stinks like a dead carp.
To top off the day, Bush's boy in Baghdad has given his report on WMD discoveries so far. And the word is -- "there ain't none." Spent $300,000,000 on this special search alone, not to count the cost of the war itself. Bush has asked for $600,000,000 more just to be sure. After all, as he has said so many times, Iraq is a country the size of California.
Or should I say, "Kalifornia."
As I write, it is the eve of Thanksgiving, 2003. A most peculiarly American holiday, only vaguely religious and open to all creeds. It's about eating, and it's about thanks. Feel free to thank anyone you wish. I myself thank the turkey. Others more squeamish may dine on "tofurkey" made of soybean curd, but I'll be roasting a real one in the morning. This year we found a free-range bird fed a healthy diet and allowed to have as much fun as a turkey knows how to do.
This is no longer an agrarian society, so I -- again thankfully -- didn't have to breed, dispatch, and dress the fowl. A nice family beyond the edge of town did that and I paid them. And thanked them.
Just yesterday our Republican senate passed a "sweeping reform" of Medicare, probably ensuring that by the time I would be eligible, a dozen or more years from now, the benefits will likely not exist for me. That is why one Democrat senator yesterday denounced the bill as a "turkey."
Yes, a turkey is a large, sometimes delicious bird to those who carve it up. In the wild a crafty and elusive creature. In civilization, a rather pathetic and stupid animal. Bred that way, to be sure, but large and stupid nonetheless.
That's why I would summarize this as the year of the turkey.
We have a turkey for a president, who sold us a bill of goods to go to war this year to search for the terrible "weapons of mass destruction" -- a turkey of a war for a turkey of a cause. (Iraqis in the resistance are now firing small rockets from donkey carts -- "weapons of ass destruction?") Nope, this Texas turkey can't find Ossama, can't find Saddam, can't find the WMD, can't find the leaks in his own staff, and can't find a way to explain his foreign policy to anyone except his most loyal (gobble-gobble) followers.
His supply-side economy is a turkey of massive proportion. He has cost the US more jobs than any president since Herbert Hoover. There has very recently been an apparent surge in economic indicators, but don't be gullible and buy into the fable. This recent surge of activity is not real growth, but the result of massive government defense spending, manufacturers drawing down inventory and misled Americans squandering their cheap re-mortgage money -- borrowing more than their houses are worth in many cases. Spending the cash today. And losing their jobs tomorrow. Personal bankruptcies are at an all-time high and Wal-Mart is the largest employer in the world. (Always Low Wages. Always!) The dollar is on the skids, the trade deficit is at record levels, and the national debt is a black hole sucking wind. Welcome to the United States of Turkeyville.
Our largest and most dysfunctional state, California, elected an action hero helium balloon-man for a mid-season replacement of their governor. Even the GOP leadership smells the new turkey roasting in Sacramento (plenty of breast, however).
And the Democrats are in a heated debate trying to find the most politically correct way to lose the White House again next year. Southern fried turkey on a stick.
Television is a prime-time turkey this year. Our most popular amusements seem to be watching other people eat worms and goat testicles for prize money, watching other people deceive lovers for prize money, and watching large men pumped full of hormones, steroids and other drugs throw and chase small projectiles -- for prize money.
But politics and mass culture aside, life goes on in America. Last weekend I flew to Lincoln, Nebraska, to give a concert. A great and humble town, Lincoln. The home of unicameral democracy. Pretty much dead center in the country. The land is flat and the weather fearsome. The folks are smart and hardy. They get things done without a lot of fuss and bother. And if the folks in New York and Los Angeles sneer and snicker at all their corn and hogs, Nebraskans know how to take a joke and have a quicker wit than most of the bi-coastal hipsters I've met.
But Lincoln is considered "fly over" country by the powers that be. And that makes it a hard town to fly to. And it is our air transportation system in America that is my "turkey of the week." My best option was to fly into Lincoln on United Airlines' dog-and-pony show called "United Express." (In this alternate reality, "united" means disorganized and "express" means delay.) I spent most of the weekend -- both legs of the trip -- at the O'Hare airport shuffling from gate to gate trying to find why one flight was cancelled, the next left early, and where & when my next flight might someday be boarding.
The United gate-keepers and the ill-tempered customer "assistance" people are all way past caring and they are way, way past pretending-to-care. I wonder if any of them can remember a time before they gave up apologizing for the constant state of SNAFU. Imagine the sheer fatigue of beginning each-and-every sentence each-and-every day with the phrase "I'm so very sorry..." No, the calluses are thick. They stare past the complaining hordes with a gaze fixed on the far wall. Their tone of voice says "what the f*ck is your problem -- I live with this sh*t every day." They use their most condescending voice to call names of unfortunate passengers "to approach the podium" (lovely turn of phrase, that. Reminds one of Nero or Pilate).
I had a lot of time to think as I whiled away my extra hours at the airport. After all, it was just 100 years ago this very season, this very year, that Orville & Wilbur Wright stood on the dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The brothers must have stood in wonder that morning as they read the wind and readied their machine. They must have wondered, would this day be the day our machine lifts off -- will this be the day we fly? And they must also have wondered, would this be another day of failure, a day of bitter disappointment -- will this be the day we admit defeat?
And now, a full century later, as the jets zoom overhead and satellites cruise the heavens, United Airlines brings that same sense of wonder to every traveller every day.
There is an old-world holiday seldom celebrated in America anymore -- St. Nicholas Day. It was just this past Saturday, December 6. I can remember when I was a child in the 1950's, only a few of the older German families in my hometown -- including my Uncle Wilmer's -- still gave St. Nick's day a token nod. A few presents for the kids, maybe some early Christmas cookies, and a sort of "kick-off" for the holiday to come.
Probably a few Dutch-American families still do St. Nicholas day. I found on a few websites talk of a neo-conservative Christian movement steering away from secular Christmas and "reclaiming" St. Nicholas on his day. The Reformed Church (RCA) also sees in St. Nicholas Day a way of reclaiming their Dutch heritage by celebrating "Sinterklaas" and not Santa.
Interesting history old Santa has. Nicholas was a bishop in fourth century Myra in Asia Minor -- now called Turkey. He was alive during the transitional period when the Roman empire went from persecuting Christians to venerating Jesus and persecuting everybody else. He, in fact, was present at the first council of Nicaea in 325 AD, where the question of Jesus' godliness was settled. That group of preachers decided the hot issue of the day -- that Jesus was not just any old son of God, but made of god-stuff himself. Yep, Santa Claus sat in on the meeting.
(Here's an interesting footnote -- Nick's tomb in Myra was renowned for its oozing a miraculous oil. Valuable oil, that. In 1087 some enterprising buccaneers from the recently occupied Norman colony at Bari, Italy, went on a raid to steal the bones of St. Nick and bring them back to Bari to work their mojo there. That's where Santa is buried today. Unless you believe the Venetians who said they snatched him from Myra 13 years later. Moving a relic is known in the biz as "translation" and for a fascinating 13th century account of that derring-do in 1087 of the translation of St.Nicholas from Myra to Bari, click here.)
Lots of legends abound about Nicholas. They say he saved three daughters of a poor man from a life of prostitution by secretly tossing money in the old man's window (or the hut's smoke hole) and the three bags of gold landing in the girls' shoes. That's why we hang our stockings by the chimney with care. (And it is why pawnbrokers have three gold balls in their windows.)
Coming from the eastern half of the Roman empire, he was, and is, a very big Kahuna in the Orthodox side of Christianity. The Russian Orthodox missionaries to the northern regions tried to relate stories of their beloved Nicholas in ways that the caribou-herders could understand. Like many of our own native American people, the nomadic people of the arctic had a religion based on shamanism. So Nicholas was sold to them as a great shaman. And like their greatest shaman he worked magic with his caribou (aka reindeer) and could induce his spirit to fly with the deer in the night to heal the sick and make good things happen.
See where that brings us? He wears cardinal red, because he's a bishop in the church. He got his white whiskers somewhere in northern Europe. And he came to America with the early Dutch and German settlers as Sinterklaas. A few poems, movies and Coca Cola posters later, and he's our own big fat Santa.
But I think there is more to his myth than we know. And I think it has more to do with the sun than the Son. We know that the Christmas feast -- God's birthday -- was fixed upon the solstice during the later Roman empire when Mithraism was the religious flavor of the day. The cult that worshipped Mithras -- the Persian sun god who was born at the solstice to a virgin -- had been all the rage in Rome before Constantine saw the light. The early Christian church pulled the old switcheroo and said, "Hey that's when Jesus was born, too." "Come on-a my church, everybody."
That's a pretty well established fact by historians, even if ignored by most Sunday school teachers. But here's where we get out the Old Farmer's Almanac and look at the rising and setting of the sun:
Most of us know that on or about the 21st of December, we in the northern hemisphere have our shortest day, the winter solstice. Most of us assume -- wrongly -- that on that same day the sun rises as late as it ever will and sets at it's earliest time. Uh-uh. The earth-sun rotational dance is not so neat as that. A look at the sunset times table shows that the earliest sunset of the year occurs on December 8 & 9. (Boston time 4:11 PM) After that, the afternoons get longer. By the 10th we gain a minute, and by the time Solstice comes around we've gained a full three minutes or more (4:14 PM Boston) and ever onward to spring. So Saint Nicholas Day -- the traditional kickoff for Christmas -- happens just before the shortest nightfall of the year. Hmmm...
But the days do keep getting shorter, because sun rise keeps happening later and later (something we working musicians usually ignore, as we roll over in our beds). The latest the sun will rise happens in January on the 5th. (Boston time 7:13 AM) and on the 6th of January it recedes back one minute and the mornings finally head in the right direction toward longer days. Whew! And what is the 6th of January, boys and girls? Epiphany! Three Kings, Twelfth Night, and the end of the Christmas season. Out with the tree and down with the tinsel and, oh yes -- it's Christmas in the Orthodox church.
Your nerdiest friends might explain this solar phenomenon to you as the Equation of Time, and then tell you about elliptical orbits and the incline of the Earth's equatorial plane to its orbital plane. But I can tell you that ancient people spent a lot more time sky gazing than we do, and surely tracked the oddness of the winter solstice long before the chronometer and observatory came along to take care of the business for modern man. And those ancient priests surely found a way to explain it all to their underlings. Burn this, sacrifice that, set that flat stone on top of those two big ones there...
So is Christmas just a pagan holiday in disguise? A lot of people have thought so over the years, though it's hardly the common sentiment in North American these days. Certainly there are plenty of neo-pagans ready to burn the Yule log under the mistletoe this year, and there are plenty of devout Christians who shake their heads at American excess and count the days until the truly spiritual holiday on the church calendar: Easter.
Named, of course, for the Teutonic goddess of spring and fertility.
copyright 2003 Joel Mabus