It may not look like much, but this is the start of my Mardi Gras costume:
I wish I had some idea what I was doing.
My birthday. 38 is the first number I’ve hit that sounds old to me. And given my game knee, which doesn’t feel any better after two days of rest, I’m feeling kind of old too.
Today is also Martin Luther King Junior Day, but of course MLK was born on January 15th, not the 17th. You know you’ve arrived at icon status when they celebrate your birthday on a different day each year.
Benjamin Franklin was born on this day, as well as Al Capone and Muhammad Ali and Vidal Sassoon and Eartha Kitt and James Earl Jones and Jim Carrey and Kid Rock and lots of other famous people. Ladan and Laleh Bijani were born on this day, seven years after me. They died in 2003. That kind of puts thngs in persepective.
Tonight is Twelfth Night, or so I thought.
Everybody’s heard of the Twelve Days of Christmas, but few people (in America, at least) know that these are the twelve days after Christmas, starting on December 26th and ending with Epiphany, also known as Little Christmas, which is January 6th, today.
These days, with the commercial focus on shopping and gifts, all the build-up is beforehand; when Christmas rolls around, many people have had their fill of holiday spirit. But in merrie olde England, the twelve days after Christmas were a wild and wooly time when everything was turned upside down, authority was mocked, people swapped genders, and so forth. (I hear in Latin America they go for forty days, until Candlemas on February 2nd, but I digress.)
I’d always assumed that Twelfth Night, as immortalized in Shakespeare’s famous play, was the night of the twelfth day of Christmas or January 6th. But it turns out that in ye olde England they counted kind of funny. Maybe they still do. They started with the evening before, so that the twelfth night of Christmas was actually the evening of January 5th. That’s when the crazy, upside-down season ended, and things got back to normal with the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th.
That may seem complicated enough, but hold on. I live in New Orleans, and here Twelfth Night is indeed observed on the evening of January 6th, and it marks the beginning, not the end, of a period of debauchery.
Yes, today is the first day of Carnival. The season of king cakes, masked balls, cheap plastic beads and endless parades is upon us.
Tonight, the Phunny Phorty Phellows (an organization that supposedly goes back to 1870) will ride the St. Charles streetcar and get the party started. The season culminates with Mardi Gras — Fat Tuesday — which always falls on the day before Ash Wednesday, which begins the season of Lent and is forty days before Easter, and Easter of course falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the Vernal Equinox. Hell, everyone knows that.
What this means is that the beginning of Carnival is fixed, but the end floats around. This year, it’s almost as short as can be. Mardi Gras falls on February 8th. Why, that’s barely a month. So all the festivities will be compressed, and maybe there will be fewer frat boys here for the big day.
And I still don’t have a costume…
Getting there was hellacious. We faced two major traffic blockages and two major downpours. We were rear-ended — just a tap, no damage. We ran over a large mysterious object. Our windshield wipers stopped working midway through the second downpour.
And, quite frankly, Xy is not a great traveling companion. We had a number of arguments, including a highly comical fight about the merits of Christmas music. Xy despises such music, but I’d made four tapes (six hours) of weird Christmas music to listen to on the trip. (I was inspired by Liza.) This conversation ended with an agreement to skip any Christmas celebration entirely in 2005. We’ll see how that goes.
We had a really good Vietnamese meal in Jacksonville, Florida, and stayed at a Days Inn north of town where the water stank to high heaven. I took a shower and it made my hair stink.
The next day we made it to Kiawah Island, South Carolina. It’s a posh resort island. You can’t just drive in; there’s a gatehouse, and you need a pass. There weren’t many people there at Christmas time, so it was an island full of empty summer homes. As my dad said, it’s a place for people who don’t have to worry about money.
But the ocean is the ocean, and when I stood on the beach staring out at it, I knew I was looking at a vista that hasn’t really changed for thousands of years. That did my heart good. Being on the Atlantic beach in winter reminded me of scenes from one of my favorite books, Mockingbird by Walter Tevis. Xy was keen to go down to the beach at every opportunity, day or night, rain or shine. She collected shells, starfish, sand dollars, sponges and driftwood. We saw one or two tremendously large horseshoe crabs, still alive at the waters’ edge.
The weather sucked. It was wet and cold and damp and nasty. But, of course, we didn’t come for the beaches or the weather. We came to be with each other. Despite my trepidations, that did my heart good too. Not because I love all these people so much — I don’t really know them, seeing them so infrequently — but because of the sense of continuity and shared history.
My cousin Tami said it well: “I always dread these things beforehand, but then when I get there, I remember how nice it is just to be with the family.” Something like that.
Being surrounded by family gave me a renewed sense of who I am and where I come from. I’d like to say it helped me understand where I might be going as well, but that would be pushing it.
Other people had more trouble getting there than we did, because when the rain that we encountered coming off the Gulf hit the cold air coming down from Canada, it became the Blizzard of 2004. My sister and her family couldn’t get out of Indianapolis at all; she was very disappointed.
But thirty of us made it there. Eleven households — three major branches of the Seddelmeyer family. We stayed in three separate villas, all a short distance apart. And we cooked for each other, which was a great way for people to come together. My jambalaya was consumed with apparent gusto.
Everyone went to Charleston for church on Christmas Eve, except for Xy and me. I still don’t feel comfortable participating in worship services for a religion I don’t believe in. I enjoy seeing old traditions in practice, but there is little provision made for nonbelievers in such churches. It seems supremely disrespectful to gawk at the sacred observances of other people. So I choose to stay away.
On the secular front, I discovered to my delight that I have at least a few relatives who share my political perspective. In fact we seem to be a substantial minority, perhaps a third or a quarter of the adults. I actually heard someone mention, as a casual aside, that all drugs should be legalized. Another person asserted that he was (gasp!) not a capitalist.
My favorite remark came when my cousin’s husband was describing the lack of Bush signs in Portland during the recent election season. My aunt (his mother-in-law) said, “Yes, but all the best houses had Bush signs — the people who keep the economy going.” There may have been a fair amount of intentional irony in this comment, but I believe the underlying sentiment was genuine, and it indicates the orientation of the family’s other faction. It also underlines the fact that this is, by and large, a very prosperous family; some branches of the family are wealthier than others, and this will be an increasing source of tension for future reunions.
But I don’t want to overemphasize the political aspect. Most of my family is pretty apolitical and would prefer not to talk about such matters. But perhaps for those very reasons it felt liberating to me to realize I was not the only one skeptical of global capitalism.
Xy won a bet with me: The family did indeed sing “Happy Birthday Jesus” before Christmas dinner, just as she remembered from ten years ago in Jackson Hole. I seem to have blocked that memory. It conjures images of Full Metal Jacket.
On the way home, Xy and I finally got to eat some South Carolina Barbecue, at Duke’s in Summerville. Perfectly delicious. We also made a stop in Athens, Georgia, to visit the Tree That Owns Itself. Then we drove like demons to get back to New Orleans before one o’clock the next morning. Turns out we missed the first Christmas snowfall here for over fifty years!
On New Year’s Eve, 1963, my grandparents’ house burned down.
They rebuilt. Their three daughters (and their husbands) came from around the country to join them in Fort Wayne, Indiana for Christmas, 1964, in their new, three-story farmhouse. I hadn’t been born yet, but I think one or two of my older cousins may have been there. Apparently my grandfather, Rudy Seddelmeyer, enjoyed the holiday so much that he said we should repeat the experience in five years.
And so, in 1969, we did. I was only two years old, so I don’t remember it. But I had more cousins to play with. By this time my family had moved back to Indiana, so we were now much closer to the farm on Tillmann Road in Fort Wayne than anyone else. We visited frequently, and I have many fond memories of playing in that farmhouse, which seemed so huge to me. And of course the farm itself seemed to be almost infinite.
In the summer of 1973, all three daughters and their children (numbering six now) visited the farm. My mom made a Super 8 film of the grandkids helping milk the cows.
In 1974 we did the Christmas reunion again. I was seven. I think this may have been the time when Grandpa Rudy made a tape recording of the event. He interviewed everybody there. I haven’t heard it for years, but I remember my cousin Tami, who had been adopted that year and was still just a baby, reciting a prayer in Korean. Had Stuart been born yet? I’m not sure.
In 1979, Grandpa Rudy was killed in a terrible farming accident. He was seventy. That Christmas, we continued the tradition and had our reunion. It must have been a bittersweet event, but I can’t say I really recall much of it. I was twelve. All eight grandkids were definitely there; my generation was complete.
In 1984, we had another reunion. I was seventeen. I was going through my high school Thespian phase and I guess I was a bit of a ham, because I emulated Grandpa Rudy and made a tape recording. We had our first in-law at this reunion, as my cousin Ross was married.
1989 was the last time we celebrated Christmas together in the old farmhouse on Tillmann Road. My memories of the event are indistinct, but I think that we now had too many family members to all fit comfortably in the farmhouse, so some of us had to bed down in a nearby motel.
Some time shortly thereafter, Grandma Mildred sold the farm and moved into the Lutheran Home.
In the fall of 1994, my mom and I shot some interviews with Mildred, walking around the cemetery of Concordia Lutheran Church, looking through old photos, visiting the farm on Tillmann Road, and the older farm where she’d grown up (known in the family as Cut-up Acres when Ferguson Road was put right through the middle of it). Unfortunately there was a problem with the camera, so the video flickers a bit and the audio has an annoying buzz.
For Christmas, 1994, we had our seventh reunion in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where my aunt and uncle have a winter home. We rented condos. There were now 25 people in attendance — plenty of great-grandkids. We went for a giant sleigh-ride. We snowmobiled in Yellowstone. I was in my full ROX phase, so of course I shot a video about it.
Mildred died in 1997. When I attended her funeral in Fort Wayne, I thought to myself, I will probably never visit this city again. And I haven’t.
Xy and I moved to New Orleans in 1999. But just before I left Bloomington, one of my last acts at the Daisybrain Media Center was to edit the video I’d shot in Jackson Hole. For Christmas that year we reunited in Scottsdale, Arizona. No one in the family lives in Scottsdale, which was the whole point: Neutral territory meant no one would have to bear the burden of playing host to such a large group. Dealing with eleven households can be a bit of a strain! So we all stayed in a hotel, but everyone agreed this was not conducive to visiting with one another. It was also our first Seddelmeyer Family Reunion without a living Seddelmeyer present. I showed my video and gave everyone a copy on VHS.
In a couple days Xy & I will depart for Kiawah, South Carolina, for the Ninth Seddelmeyer Family Reunion. We’re renting condos, and the plan is to dine together each night, taking turns providing meals for each other. I’m cooking Jambalaya for Thursday.
My mom prodded me to finally get off my ass and do something with the video that I shot of Mildred ten years ago. I’ve been working on that, off and on, for the past couple weeks. And now I’ve got a stack of DVDs to hand around. The DVD contains not only the interviews with Grandma, but also the Super 8 film from 1973 and the Jackson Hole video from 1994. I’m pretty happy with the final product, even though the Mildred interviews are marred by technical problems.
All this family history might make it seem like I’m looking forward to the reunion with rapt anticipation. But I’m not. My feelings are complicated and hard for me to understand myself, much less put into writing. I can’t contemplate my family without an overwhelming sense of melancholy detachment; I face this reunion with anticipation and dread.
I’m not really that close to my immediate family; my extended family is so geographically dispersed and so seldom seen that they are almost strangers. Many of them seem to be devout, church-going Lutherans; I am not. Many of them seem to be conservative Republicans; I am not. All of them have kids, except for Cousin Stu, who’s single. Xy and I will be the only child-free couple there. I think that, in my mind, my family is emblematic of an America from which I feel deeply alienated.
(While working on this DVD, it struck me that, as marginal as I may feel, I am also playing a central role as a sort of family historian. There’s an attractive power in such a role. The pale ghosts of memory can’t compete with the vivid images of video. What do I remember from all the reunions past? Mainly, I remember what was recorded. Everything else fades.)
But what, exactly, am I afraid of? This is the question I’ve been asking myself lately, attempting to plumb the depths of my soul. I don’t really like what I find, because it suggests I’m a somewhat shallow and selfish person. But in the spirit of radical honesty, here goes: I think I’m afraid of not being known and loved for who I really am.
This reunion is not all about me, but even if it was, we might still not have enough time, over the course of three or four days together, to fully explore and examine all the nuances of my personal anguish and resentment. Yet, strangely, that’s what some part of me wants. I want them to know my pain. Perhaps that’s infantile; I don’t really know. I’d be more than happy to return the favor, to listen as each member of the family bares his or her soul. Only then could we really come to know and love each other. Or so it seems to me.
I did this with my father in 1997, and it was hell, and it took a whole year, but our relationship is so much the better for it.
I need to face up to the fact this sort of deep encounter is not going to take place with my extended family. Even if everyone was game — and they’re not — it would be impossible to achieve such a level of intimacy with so many people at once. But it might be realistic to have just a few heart-to-heart exchanges with just a few relatives. If I could leave feeling that I’d come to better know a few of my relatives, and they me, I think I’d be satisfied.
Still, it is a daunting prospect.
MAD’s posted a great rant about the True Meaning of Christmas. I’ve long subscribed to the notion that the particular date for the celebration of Christmas was chosen because of pre-existing solstice festivals, but Wikipedia suggests a number of other theories. (Thanks to Anne for recommending the article. I turned her on to Wikipedia in the first place; apparently she printed out this particular article and posted it at the prison where she works.)
Yestereen Xy and I rode our bikes down Canal Street and took the ferry across the Mississippi to Algiers Point for the annual Christmas bonfire.
This is without a doubt the biggest fire that most people will ever see in their lives. It is quite impressive. Imagine a large wooden house on the bank of the river, constructed entirely of wood; but where a house would have big empty rooms, this thing is full of more wood. Then imagine that house set on fire and allowed to burn freely.
People line up along the levee to watch the fire, but when it is lit, they quickly retreat, because even from many yards away, it’s like standing in front of a blast furnace. The fire department stands by and regularly hoses down the grassy slope of the levee and the metal police barricades. The water turns to steam.
When I first went to the bonfire two or three years ago, I chastised myself for not bringing a camera. And yet this year, I once again failed to bring a camera. But perhaps that’s a good thing. The heat might have melted the lens.
We met some friends there and, after the fire, we walked over to the Crown & Anchor and drank some good beer.
On the ride home, my bike tire got caught in the groove of the streetcar, and I almost went down. Somehow I retained my balance; the chain came off my bike, but I got it back on easily enough and we got home without further incident.
Yet I woke up this morning to find my knee was fucked up. (No, not the knee I fucked up a couple months ago — the other one.) I can’t fully extend my right leg without pain. I can get around pretty easily, but mainly I’m using it as an excuse to be lazy and spend the day reading and listening to music instead of shopping for groceries or painting the hallway ceiling.
I’m astonished to read a Newsweek poll that says 79% of Americans believe in the miracle of the virgin birth. That means you get five Americans together, and four will believe Jesus was born of a virgin. That just seems incredible.
And to think I just ordered my solstice cards.
According to the same poll, 55% of Americans say every word of the Bible is literally true. Christ almighty! I am not a Newsweek fundamentalist; I’m skeptical of these numbers. But perhaps that’s only wishful thinking on my part. America is full of people who believe stuff I think is just plain crazy.
I’ve been skeptical of Thanksgiving for years. There are two conceptions of Thanksgiving which seem to be etched into my mind from early childhood: The idea of giving thanks to God, and the idea of unbridled gluttony. Pilgrims, Indians, the whole historical thing — not so much. To me it’s always been about God and gluttony, and frankly neither concept gets me very motivated.
I thought about giving thanks to people who’ve helped me out over the past year. For example, I am thankful to Mike Leonard, for turning me on to Crystal body deodorant. But somehow that just didn’t seem inspiring enough to carry the holiday.
So this year I made a grab for the gluttony, and I failed. Yesterday’s Thanksgiving dinner was a severe blow to my self-image as a competent cook. Unlike most Americans, I did not stuff myself silly on good food, because there was none. I actually went to bed hungry and had to get up for a bowl of cereal at about 1:00 a.m.
Indeed, when I consider every Thanksgiving holiday I can remember celebrating, this one stands out as the worst on the culinary front. We had friends over (Jaylene, Scott, Erik) and that was fun. But I don’t think a single dish came out as planned. Some things were so bad they ended up in the trash; others were edible, at least, but everything was disappointing, except for the pies, which were store-bought.
My main responsibility was the turkey. We got an organic, free-range bird, about eleven pounds. I slathered it in margarine (because Xy bought it by mistake instead of butter) and Zatarain’s, mounted it on the vertical roaster, and smoked it on the Big Green Egg for about three hours, using pecan wood chips. I had trouble maintaining the Egg at a steady 300 degrees. It spiked to as high as 450 and as low as 250, I think, but eventually I got it stabilized.
For whatever reason, the bird was not a delicate golden-brown when I brought it in. It was more black. Not very appetizing. Maybe I should have put some water in the drip pan. The meat was a little dry, perhaps not too bad, but we had no gravy.
Oh well. It’s an indication of how fortunate I am that even my worst Thanksgiving is pretty good.
I still don’t know what to think of this holiday, though.
Xy usually grades papers downstairs, but for Hallowe’en she wanted to be by the front door to meet trick-or-treaters. (Yes, our front door is upstairs. It’s a New Orleans thing.) She set up a little table for her schoolwork, which I thought was sufficiently adorable to warrant a picture. She’s got her portable TV rigged up so she can watch the made-for-TV movie about the Canal Street brothel — a true story which took place in our neighborhood. (Xy says the movie sucked.)
I’m at work today. It is not a holiday here at the university. I’ve been told that it’s a Southern thing, or rather that Memorial Day is a “Yankee holiday,” since it was originally intended to honor soldiers who had died in the Civil War. Apparently Louisiana still observes Decoration Day on June 3rd. All Saint’s Day is also a big day to visit cemeteries around here.
I have a hard time believing that this historically black university is nursing a grudge against the North. But it may be a custom here in New Orleans to have people work on Memorial Day in order to make up for Mardi Gras.
Of course for many Americans, Memorial Day is nothing more than a three-day weekend.
On a completely unrelated note, I installed a Kenmore 10,000 BTU air conditioner at home last night. It works like a dream.
Mardi Gras has come and gone. It was fun, but there were also some tragedies. Three, in fact.
Listing it all out like this makes it seem trivial. Obviously my monitor dying is not in the same class as Xy’s grandfather dying. Actually Bilal’s death upset us the most, since it was so unexpected. Not having any kids you do get attached to your pets. We miss him a lot!