Four and a Half

Donation

Dear Persephone,

You are four and half years old today. We have continued our tradition, now well-established, of giving away stuff for your half-birthday. This year you didn’t need any explanation; you’ve absorbed the concept from years past. Over the last few weeks you’ve been selecting from amongst your possessions. You filled up a bag, and this morning we dropped it off at Goodwill on the way to school.

Ah yes, school. That’s probably the biggest news in your life over the past month. You’ve started at a new school, a public school much closer to home than your old school. It’s my hope that this school works for you and us. If so you will be there for the next ten years. Wow an entire decade, that just dawned on me. I hope they are happy years.

Also of note, you were fascinated with the Olympics, and watched gymnastics, swimming, volleyball and sprints. I gather there were more women in these games than ever before. You certainly got into the spirit of competition. After watching the American gymnasts, you exclaimed, “When I grow up I want to do that, but I will be from New Lorlens.” (You still say it that way. You also say “lellow” instead on “yellow.”) After the first week of Olympics all week, you started saying things like:

  • “I may look small, but I’m very strong! My hands are very powerful!”
  • “Dada if you tickle me I will kick you in the face. Because I don’t like tickling.”
  • “I can see through walls. I can see through walls a hundred miles away. And you can’t.”
  • “I’m almost so powerful I can pull my hand off. I’m almost that strong.”

You’ve also asserted, more than once, that you grow more powerful each time you win a race. Far be it from me to point out that you’ve never really won a race. You talked about how you wanted to race your two best friends, Lala and Lily. You were certain of victory. “I’ll just get ahead of them.” They are both quite a bit bigger than you; getting ahead would be a challenge. I didn’t point this out either. Your confidence in your own abilities is inspiring.

One night before bed, you told me your stuffed tiger was going to race some Russian tigers after breakfast the next morning. “They’re very fast and mean,” but you were sure you’d win the gold. “I’ve got hundreds of gold medals, and twenty more. If the Russians don’t win I’m going to give them mine.”

At least once a day you amaze me with a bizarre or unusual idea. For example, one evening around dinnertime you asked me: “Dada, what if someone put on a mask that looked like their own face?”

Also, you’ve started to get into zombies lately. I’m not sure where you even learned about zombies. Anyhow, it’s quite amusing to see you lurching around the house, arms outstretched, moaning “Braaaaains…” One night all your stuffed animals became zombie animals. “They can help us look for brains.”

B-Line

The first thing I did when I got to Bloomington was to ride the B-Line. Lucky me, I have generous friends who let me borrow a bicycle.

Trailhead

The B-Line is the local greenway, a recently constructed urban rail-trail, 3.1 miles in length, running alongside an active rail line for its final stretch. Does this sound familiar to New Orleanians? It should.

Of course I took some photos.

B-Line Bridge

I was frankly astonished at how nice the B-Line was. Lights, public art, landscaping, interpretive signage, bridges, the works. I saw lots of people enjoying it too.

People on the B-Line

My most astonishing moment on the B-Line came when I saw a groundskeeper zoom up in a little motorized vehicle, hop off, pick up two microscopic pieces of trash with a damn forceps, and then ride off.

Groundskeeper

Did I make a wrong turn and end up in Disneyland?

I found this salient quote on the website of the City of Bloomington:

“This is the most significant economic development project on the City’s agenda. It’s monumental in its scope and importance.”
– Mayor Mark Kruzan

Anyhow, I hope the citizens of Bloomington appreciate the B-Line. I know I did.

How We Celebrated the Summer Solstice

We went way up to the mountains of northern Alabama, to Monte Sano State Park.

Monte Sano

No elaborate rituals. No goat sacrifice. Just hanging out in the woods. Well, we did make those solstice stones earlier. But mostly we just hung out in the woods.

I don’t think we’ve ever done that, as a family. It was good.

We stayed at a cabin built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. I’m fascinated by stuff built by the CCC and WPA, and I wonder why we don’t implement programs like that now, during this time of economic crisis. Anyhow, the cabin was small and charming. The stone floors are delightfully cool in the summertime.

Weenie Roast

We did our cooking over an open fire. Hot dogs and s’mores. Yum.

Early in the morning of the longest day, Persephone and I made a short hike to a nearby playground.

After horsing around for a while, I tried doing a chin-up. Maybe I should have limbered up first or something, because I pulled a muscle in my shoulder and neck. Ouch! I was practically immobilized for half the day.

Actually I was able to move around and even go an a slightly longer hike later in the day. We hiked out to a firetower only to find it was locked up. But at least we got to see some wild creatures along the way.

Black Snake

For me, anyhow, this was the best way to celebrate one of the most sacred days of the year.

So this is how our summer vacation began. After a couple nights Monte Sano, we made our way up to Indiana.

Happy May Day

Happy May Day

Workers of the world, take a break and celebrate International Workers’ Day or as I prefer to call it: May Day. It’s a day to remember the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago. It’s good to recall that the eight-hour work day was not always a given, but something for which workers had to fight and even give their lives.

Absurdly, the US government has installed something you never heard of called Loyalty Day on the first of May, “a special day for the reaffirmation of loyalty to the United States and for the recognition of the heritage of American freedom.” It’s a laughable attempt to undermine the celebration of May Day.

Of course, there’s an even older history to May Day that goes way beyond 1886. Europeans brought this tradition with them to the New World as early as 1627. It’s a cross-quarter day, halfway between the equinox and the solstice. Technically the halfway point falls on Friday evening, so maybe we should extend our celebrations all week long. There are a cluster of old traditional holidays around this time that have interesting stories. Many are seasonal observations with an emphasis on fertility and the coming of summer, and some are a little spooky, which I like. May Day — Beltane — Walpurgisnacht — Vappa — Roodmas — Whitsuntide — whatever you want to call it — I’d celebrate them all if I knew how. I’d like to combine the pagan and labor traditions, the “green root” and the “red root” into a single holiday. A protest, a party, a ritual — all in one.

Hopefully if you’re in New Orleans you can make one of the marches planned here. No matter where you are, there’s probably something going on near you. Get out there.

May Day 2012

Happy Candlemas

I drew these candles and asked Persephone to color them red with yellow flames. She understood my instructions perfectly, but it seems she has a mind of her own.

Candles

Happy Candlemas!

XLV

Here I am on my 20th birthday, with my mother and sister.

Birthday XX

My hair was thicker then.

That was 25 years ago today.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve contemplated my mortality on an almost daily basis, yet I’ve often behaved as if I think I’m immortal. I’ve frequently envisioned myself as an old man, while clinging to an extended adolescence.

Those aren’t really the contradictions they might seem to be at first. Nor do I think of myself as particularly morbid. In fact it makes perfect sense if you look at it the right way. Youth and age are linked. Life and death are not mutually exclusive. They are necessary correlates. You can’t have one without the other.

An acute sense of my own mortality has stimulated me to live life fully. It has given me the impetus to courage when I needed it.

Yet time marches on, and I’m no longer young. I’m somewhere in the middle of life, or so I hope. I’m happy to have made it this far, and with any luck I’ll have some ways to go before my inevitable demise.

A game I play at each birthday is to double my age and see what that sounds like, to think about what it means to be halfway there. So now I am halfway to 90, and for the first time I have to admit that’s a pretty intimidating number. For the first time, I have to admit I may not make it that far. My great-grandfather Paul Hollmann did, and then some. But you don’t see a lot of 90-year-olds over six feet tall. Maybe us tall types bump our heads too often. And so for the first time (ROX #88 notwithstanding) I have to admit, I may be past the halfway point of my natural lifespan.

On each birthday I have also gotten in to the habit of taking stock of how my body seems to be holding up, and generally congratulating myself on feeling young. When I turned forty, I said to myself that I felt like I could be thirty. I could be twenty. That era has ended. I’d mark the change as beginning around my 43rd birthday but as with any long slow process, it’s hard to be exact. I’ve never been especially robust; I’ve always had my aches and pains. But they have started to accumulate. The challenges faced to my lower left extremity are a case in point.

I’m getting my first hints of what life will look like through the other end of the telescope. When I was younger, I’d suffer sudden visions of my old age, almost overwhelming in their visceral clarity. When I am truly old, if I should live that long, perhaps I will be haunted by my youth, just as in my youth I was haunted by my dotage.

Right now, though, I’m in that gray middle place. Middle aged. Middle class. A little thicker in the middle from accumulating belly fat. That’s a lot of a middle for a guy who claims to value the periphery over the center.

I still get the willies when I contemplate my mortality, but I have to admit it doesn’t thrill me like it used to. Part of that may be parenthood. There is now someone else to worry about and care for, someone for whom I’d lay down my life without hesitation. That’s represents a profound shift, and it’s dulled the edge of the old fear considerably. But I’d also like to think that I’ve grown somewhat more accepting of life’s natural cycle.

Enough of that. I’ve survived another year, and that is of course a cause to celebrate. I was in a bit of a slump for a few years there: My birthday tended to suck, and I didn’t care. But last year my birthday was a blast, and this year I’ve actually got presents. I baked myself a savory cake for dinner tonight and some clove cookies to share with my co-workers. I’ve got to work late, but it’s a meeting of the Saint Katharine Drexel Book Club, so that’s a pleasure.

Forty-Six Months

Gingerbread

Dear Persephone,

It’s the holiday season. But and also (to paraphrase David Foster Wallace) you are 46 months old today.

On this night, the longest night of the year, you are fully expecting Santa to pay us a visit. Santa is tricky for me, as a parent. He reveals certain weaknesses in my ontology. How do we relate to and understand mythical beings? On the one hand, Santa is fun, and a good story. On the other hand, the very way we define “real” vs. “imaginary” in our culture seems a little messed up. It doesn’t leave room for myth and other ways of being that are, perhaps, somewhere in-between, or something else entirely. I’m still thinking through this. Tonight I told you a story, inspired by my old friend Brad Wilhelm, about a man who played Santa and visited a family in need. The point, I think, is that Santa is a spirit we can all enter, a spirit which can enter into any of us. In other words: Thou art Santa.

On a related note: One month ago we were celebrating Thanksgiving. This is a holiday which has troubled me for years, but this time round we offset that by delivering meals to people in need, on behalf of the West Jefferson YMCA. Your mother even got in to the act. I’m not trying to imply that we saved the world, but I do hope we did some good, and I hope we’ve taken a first step toward something more meaningful.

Also on Thanksgiving, you saw the 610 Stompers in the Macy’s parade on television. A few days later you put on a headband and said, “I’m gonna be a Stomper, aren’t you?”

Forthwith, a random sampling of memories from the past month. I’m sorry if this seems a little scattered. It’s the holidays, and my mental fabric inevitably gets frayed.

You had your first taste of mustard. You liked it so much, you swore off ketchup – forever!

Here’s something I never wanted to hear my daughter say: “Dada, can you shave your butt?” That one took me by surprise. “Can you put shaving cream on it?” Upon further investigation, I learned you were repeating something you’d heard on the radio, some morning drive-time shock jockery.

One night you drew a picture for your mama. “These are ornaments for our mind.”

Your friend Lily had fake snow at her fifth birthday party. It was so bizarre to me to see kids (and adults) have to be taught how to make a snow angel. That’s just something I take for granted, having grown up some 800 miles north of here. Kids love snow, and I sometimes feel bad that you will grow up with a snow deficit. Nevertheless on cold days here lately you have said, “I don’t like winter. I can’t wait for summer.” You take after me that way.

You spent a few perplexed minutes one evening trying to look at your teeth without a mirror.

I am reading you The Magician’s Nephew, chapter by chapter, as a bedtime story. I tried The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe about half a year ago, I think, but it was over your head, and we gave up after just one chapter. I wasn’t really sure you were ready for this now, but you seem to understand just enough to stay interested. Now we’re more than halfway through.

You’re almost finished with your Halloween candy. I think your favorites have been Dum-Dum suckers, Sour Patch gummies, and small boxes of Nerds. Your parents are not such big fans of these last, because a lot of them inevitably end up scattered across the floor. Upon eating your last box the other night you offered the following statement: “The Nerds are dancing in my mouth. It’s like there’s a fairy in there. Every Nerd has a fairy inside, and if you drop it on the floor it dies.

And then tonight just before bed you asked: “Dada, can I call you Big Goofy Face?” Uh, OK.

Finally, here is my solstice present to you and your mother and myself — a family portrait from the incredibly weird imagination of Matthew Allison.

Family Monster (color)

Forty-Five Months

Forever

Dear Persephone,

You are forty-five months old today.

It seems like you’ve packed a lot of living into the last month. Especially around the holiday: We had fun making simple skull garlands out of paper and decorating the house. You had a blast on your first real round of trick-or-treating. (Afterward you wanted to wait up on the porch to see some “real goblins,” scratching their heads, unable to find you in costume.) You also enjoyed our Ancestor’s Dinner and now have some idea who at least one of your great-grandparents is. And on Día de los Muertos the whole family visited the neighborhood shrine to Santa Muerte and left some candy.

You’ve been very disciplined about rationing out your candy. We generally limit you to one item per day, after dinner. You’ll often select your desert in the morning and look forward to it all day. But you derive great pleasure simply from sorting through all that candy, again and again. I think you enjoyed that as much as actually eating it.

Candy

However, you have gotten even more picky in your general eating habits. I know it’s perfectly natural, even healthy in some ways, but it still bugs me. You wouldn’t even take a single bite of my kumquat chutney.

And then there was the morning when you threw up in bed. No wonder your appetite wasn’t so good the night before. You were quite distressed. I don’t think you’d vomited once since that time when you were nine months old. Three years is a pretty good run. We got you cleaned up, and you seemed to be feeling better. Only, oops, not quite. Let me tell you for future reference: Nothing beats stepping out on your front porch on a Sunday morning with a toddler in your arms who then vomits all over herself and you. Yuck. You had a fever for a couple days, and then, just as you were feeling better, I got sick myself. There’s a stomach virus going around your school and the city.

The biggest development of the past month, by far, is that we dismantled your crib. (Many thanks to the indefatigable R. Stephanie Bruno for the extended loaner.) You slept in your own “big girl bed” for the very first time after three and a half years. We didn’t exactly plan it, but this ended up being on the same night as the time change. We set our clocks back an hour, meaning the natural proclivity we all have to stay up and sleep in a little later gets authorized for a brief humane interval. This worked out very well.

It didn’t take you long to discover that you can now get out of bed all on your own. It’s been a pleasure to wake in the morning to the patter of your little feet running from your room to ours. Once or twice you’ve even managed to get out of bed, go to the bathroom, and get back in bed, without any assistance.

That’s all well and good. What I’m dreading is when you start wandering out at night, when you should be drifting off to dreamland. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time. A couple nights ago, as I was trying to fall asleep, I kept imagining that I heard your footsteps. Three times I thought I heard you, but it was just my imagination or a dream. Then I heard your steps again, and I swear I saw your shadow at our door. You weren’t actually there, but I was convinced you were.

So obviously I have some anxiety around your increasing mobility. Just imagine how I’ll feel when you get a driver’s license.

Xy had a conference for a couple days and that meant you had no ride to school. The easiest thing seemed for me to take the days off work, and so we had a couple days together. I thought we could see a movie. Turns out IMAX Under the Sea in 3D was the only G-rated flick in the greater metro area. Amazing but true. We took the streetcar downtown and checked it out. At first you didn’t want to wear the funny glasses, but once you got comfortable with them you had a blast, and so did I. A pulsating jellyfish is a perfect application of this technology. I think the eel garden was my favorite part. And the streetcar ride was every bit as much fun as the movie.

On the next day you joined us for the Mystic Toast of Eleven Times Eleven. I made you a “kiddie” version of the No. 11 Cup cocktail. Afterward we stopped by Goodwill so you could donate a toy pony, a duplicate handed down by a friend. It was your own idea.

You certainly keep busy with activities at school. It seems every day you are coming home with worksheets and art projects. Last week you showed me a brown cone you’d made, exclaiming, “A cornucopia is a horn of plunty!” I was mighty impressed to discover you are now able to draw a decent circle, and I got a further demonstration of your abilities at Where Y’Art last Friday.

Comp

Both of these pieces are inspired by the site-specific mural “Forever,” by Odili Donald Odita, now on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art. The top piece was created as an example by one of the art teachers at the Friday night activity table; the bottom piece was created by you, with a little help from me.

I drew some initial guide lines in faint pencil while you positioned and held a ruler. Then we colored it with markers and pencils. It was in making this together that I discovered you can now trace lines with a modicum of accuracy, something you could not even approximate a short while ago. Your fine motor skills and manual dexterity are improving by leaps and bounds at Pre-K3.

Finally, a word on meditation. I’ve been encouraging you to meditate with me some mornings when you’re not rushing off to school. It made me very happy a couple weeks ago, when you said, “Let’s meditate, Dada. I love to meditate!” A few days ago your take was quite different. “I don’t like meditating because we have to sit quietly.” At your age I can hardly fault you for a lack of constancy. To show the variety of contemplative techniques, we’re chanting now instead, a very simple chant based on the four ancient elements. Yesterday’s element was air, today was fire, tomorrow will be water. We just repeat the name of the element while visualizing it. Keeping it simple.

Unmasking

Ancestor’s Dinner

A bit discombobulated and disconnected for this recent holiday. Perhaps that’s because I was traveling just before — the POD Network traditionally has their conference at the end of October, and this one was combined with the annual conference of the HBCU Faculty Development Network, and we mustered our biggest contingent (four) ever. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

I got back to New Orleans last Sunday and immediately baked some pumpkin bread. Persephone came home from a friend’s with a Disney Snow White costume on. “Uh oh,” I thought. Sure enough, she refused to wear the costume lovingly made by hand by her grandmother (an Air Princess) because she was dead set on Snow White for Halloween. It’s amazing how much Disney princess stuff has infiltrated our lives even though we haven’t bought any. Truly, we live in the Age of Cheap Crap.

Even so, it was magical to follow my daughter around on a short jaunt through the neighborhood. It was her first night to ever do this and she was enchanted, as befits Snow White. Many of our neighbors were waiting on their porches, enjoying the flow of kids in costume. It’s a tradition to cherish, even as rampant commercialization threatens to spoil it and everything else we celebrate.

Masking

But I have to wonder: How many of my neighbors understand what Halloween really is? The “een” part gives us a clue. “E’en” is a contraction for “evening,” as in the evening before. So many of these ancient holidays begin the night before. The actual event is the next day. Christmas Eve has always seemed to me one of the most magical nights of the Christian calendar. How many of my neighbors celebrate the day after Halloween?

Well, actually, quite a few. This is New Orleans after all. The next day used to be a holiday at the University and dammit, I took the day off. It should still be a holiday in my opinion. When I passed by St. Patrick #1 on a quick errand that morning I saw plenty of people tending their family crypts.

My main activity of the day was masking of a different sort: covering up some lead paint. There were two strips on either side of our porch, about one inch wide and maybe ten feet tall, which the painters missed. I’ve been meaning to address these areas for a couple years now, ever since I noticed them. I used duct tape to remove as many paint flakes as I could. Then I covered everything up with a thick coat of high-quality primer, and ultimately a topcoat of paint.

Given that these two strips face outward to the sides of the house, where we never spend any time, this was probably not a critical fix, but I certainly feel better now that it’s finally done. I’m confident the lead paint will stay contained for years, by which time Persephone will be past the most vulnerable phases of her development.

Ancestor’s Dinner

That night we shared a delicious family dinner. Corn and tomatoes with bread. Our special guest: Glenn Dee Petty, 1923-1990, Xy’s dear departed grandmother. The main dish was one which Xy remembers Glenn Dee preparing. We had a place set for her with a photo on display. As we ate, Xy shared various memories. Since Persephone never met any of her great-grandparents, this is the only way she can really come to know of them. For that matter I never met Glenn Dee either.

It was a festive and sweet moment. I think we will expand on this concept and do it again next year.

Unmasking

Several weeks ago, a friend and co-worker, Dr. Mark Gstohl, was planning to shut down his Facebook account. He was finding some of his interactions more aggravating than enlightening. He has a wide gamut of friends across the political spectrum, and he was experiencing a lot of negativity. I offered to swap accounts with him. At first I made the offer in jest, but I became more intrigued as I considered the idea, and so I offered again. We agreed to give it a try just for the month of October. We briefly discussed the ethics of such a maneuver, but the issues at stake didn’t seem very serious. So we went ahead. We continued to use Facebook as we usually did, but we were logged in to each others’ accounts. So, Mark (who is an ordained Baptist minister) was posting Bible verses in my name. Further muddying the waters is the fact that we both have numerous third party services tied into Facebook. We didn’t swap any other accounts, so both our Facebook feeds comprised a mix of items generated by one or other of us. At the end of the month we took off the masks and reverted back to our real selves. Most people laughed it off, or scratched their heads in confusion, but my old high school chum Georgie said she felt “betrayed and tricked.” Maybe we should have taken the ethical issues more seriously. For what it’s worth, I apologized to Georgie and I think she’s forgiven me. This episode raises some questions about identity and expectations in the age of social media.

Forty-Four Months

A Song for the Dead

Dear Persephone,

You are forty-four months old today. I am forty-four years old. I guess that means I’m roughly twelve times as old as you.

Your big dramatic moment of the last month came when you locked yourself in the bathroom. It was on a Saturday morning. You went into the bathroom, insisting that you can do it all by yourself. “I don’t need any help, I just need some privacy.” This has been your habit lately. I’d noticed the day before that you’d actually shut the bathroom door, and I thought to myself, not a good idea, but I didn’t do anything about it. Saturday morning you also shut the door, but this time it was locked. Your mother tried everything she could to spring you, but to no avail. You were pretty upset. Finally she called me; I was out giving a walking tour of the Lafitte Corridor. I ran home as fast as I could. In the end we had to send your mother in through the window. Afterward we has a lesson on how to operate the thumb-turn, and also on the wisdom of leaving the door ajar.

A couple weeks ago, when it was time for bed, you protested that it was “not fair!” It was the first time I’ve heard you complain about fairness. You must have picked that concept up at school because I don’t think we have ever talked about fairness at home. I smiled to myself, because I know this is a refrain I’ll be hearing repeatedly in the years ahead.

Speaking of bedtime, we have been reading from Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book just before lights out. Actually, just after lights out: I use a flashlight for the reading. This book was a gift from local artist Jane Brewster. (When we were at Fall Fest at the Botanical Garden this weekend we saw Jane and she let you pick out one of her artworks as a gift. You chose Moon Over Bywater.) I thought it would be over your head, and while it’s a stretch, I think you’re just old enough to enjoy it. You do interrupt sometimes to ask questions about terms you don’t recognize. I think the fact that you don’t completely understand what’s going on helps lull you into sleepiness.

A couple nights ago, as I was tucking me in, you offered the following:

We love our bread,
We love our butter,
We love each other,
But most of all,
We love our blankets.

You’re having a good time in pre-K3, but it’s already time to start thinking about next year. We’d like to get you in a public school. Earlier this week we went to an open house for a local school, a public charter with which your mother and I are fairly impressed. We toured the facility, met some teachers, and really liked everything we saw and heard, and everything we’ve been hearing for the last year or two. The only bad news is that there will be a lottery, and the odds are against you (or any given child) getting in. We will apply and hope for the best. We will also be applying at a number of other schools. They all have a different application process, even though they are all public schools in Orleans Parish. Such is the state of our school “system” after the floods of 2005. It’s going to require a good amount of research and preparation, but it’s worth it, considering how much of the next phase of your life will be shaped by your school. I’m trying to stay on top of this without getting too anxious about it.

After the equinox, we revived our habit of cemetery picnics. You love them. I was surprised to learn that this was once a popular activity in Victorian times, and may be making a comeback. We sought and found the grave of Maunsell White, and took a photo to fill a Find A Grave request.

As we prepared to head home, we heard birds singing in the trees. “Maybe they’re singing a song for the dead,” you said. We went home and listened to Fauré’s Requiem. It was a beautiful day.

Balancing Intentions

Equinox Symbol

Equinox

It’s a precise moment that happens twice a year, when the equatorial plane of the earth intersects the center of the sun. That’s the equinox. This year it came at 4:04 AM (local time) on the morning of Friday, September 23rd. For this moment only, the earth’s axis was not tilted one way or the other with regard to the sun. Sounds complicated, but it’s easy to illustrate with a flashlight and a globe, and I’m happy to demonstrate to anyone who cares to listen.

My understanding of the solar holidays continues to evolve. I used to have a vague idea that the solstices were a time to celebrate nature, while the equinoxes were a time to celebrate our humanity. The solstices represent the extremes of the sun’s wandering path across our skies. (See the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and the arctic circles for more details.) The equinoxes represent the halfway point between these extremes. And who cares about halfway points? We humans do.

That’s what I used to think based on sheer intuition. That was before I knew about the cross-quarter days, which are even more deeply human and culturally constructed. Now I see the equinoxes as somewhere in-between, a time to celebrate and reflect on the balance between nature and culture. Equinox means “equal night,” i.e., the time of year when day and night are the same length, or nearly so. Dark and light in equal measure.

Harvest

Living in the subtropics, I don’t feel the same sense of bittersweet melancholy I associate with autumn in the temperate zones, but there’s no doubt the squash harvest is coming in with a vengeance. There are a lot of harvest festivals around the world that occur around this time of year. Some, like Harvest Home and סוכות (Sukkot) don’t fall precisely on the equinox, but others like 추석 (Chuseok) and Mabon do.

Here in the United States our big harvest festival is Thanksgiving. I have some issues with the holiday. Leaving aside the usual political grousing, it’s too late in the year. It’s too close to the winter solstice and Christmas and all that. It’s too nationalistic. It’s annoying when people call it “Turkey Day.” Above all it’s too gluttonous. But then most of our major national holidays seem out of balance.

We invited some friends over for an equinoctial feast. I took the day off to prepare the meal: jicama, curried tomato bisque, cornbread, stuffed squash, Haver cookies. I kept Persephone home for the day too. Our friends are vegan; cooking without eggs or butter was an interesting exercise for me. They brought sweet potato muffins and some roasted squash as well. We had plenty to eat.

But I’ll say this about a vegan banquet. It just didn’t feel as heavy as meat and animal by-products. It felt entirely moderate, not excessive. At the end of the meal I felt full and satisfied but not overstuffed.

So I think it is possible to celebrate balance and celebrate the harvest at the same time. I think that’s more conducive to a spirit of thanksgiving than eating a bunch of turkey and collapsing in a food coma.

I had a short grace prepared, but I forgot to say it.

Balance

I’ve had the equinox in mind as a new starting point for a couple weeks now.

Maybe I should have started at Lammas; the completion of one revolution would seem to be a propitious time for starting another. Maybe the solstice would have been the best time; I made a case for that a few years ago.

Time slips away. Now I’m thinking the equinox might be the very best occasion. This is a symbol of balance, which is central to my aspirations.

Gus diZerega makes a convincing argument that balance is a key spiritual value in certain traditions, on par with salvation and enlightenment in others. Gus is writing from an explicitly Neopagan perspective, but note that balance is also one of the main principles of Taoism.

One of my favorite films of all time is Koyaanisqatsi. It shows that as a society, we are living a “life out of balance,” which is what the title means in the language of the Hopi.

It’s a powerful statement, made without words or any conventional narrative structure. It manages to be intensely beautiful at the same time. Highly recommended. I just wanted to touch on the fact that balance is not merely an inner experience. When our lives are out of balance, the consequences are manifest in the material world.

But how to find that elusive sense of balance? Patrick McCleary recommends a number of simple practices: breathing exercises, meditation, prayer and prioritization.

To me setting priorities is the best way to start. Although it can be the toughest to accomplish.

This advice caught my attention because I’ve been doing a number of those things already. In particular I’ve been prioritizing.

Intentions

So here I am, at a point of resolution and determination, of self-authorship and self-transformation. I’ve been sifting through what it is that I feel I need to do now, and over the year to come.

Three things keep coming out on top:

  • to deepen
  • to strengthen
  • to integrate

Naturally, one might be inclined to ask, “What the hell are you talking about? Deepen what?”

Everything. My actions. My relations. My daily habits and practices. My inner and outer life.

And most of all, I want to be full of intention.

This may seem vague at first glance, but it’s really just abstract. There’s a difference. What’s missing is the next piece, which I’ll get to eventually, the concrete practices that put these into action.

But hold on just a minute. Isn’t that religion? A set of practices designed to develop our natural faculties for meaning, purpose and values? But I have no religion. I’m an atheist, an anarchist, a spiritual rogue.

So I’m setting for myself a one-year project. When I was younger, a year seemed like a long time. Now I feel like I could do anything for a year. I could stand on my head for a year. Instead of standing on my head, I’ll dedicate myself to this, make a project of it, give my best sustained effort to realizing these intentions. And at the next equinox, we’ll see where things stand.

I’m no longer scared of the R word. If religion is the wrong word for what I’m about, I’m perfectly happy to discard it. Words are important, but it’s the intentions behind our words that matter most. I’m using the term broadly, as I’ve come to realize the variety of religious experiences is beyond all my preconceived notions. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” This will be a year of discovering my religion. Or inventing it.

No Handles

In coming to this pass, I’m inspired by Project Conversion, so I’ve got to give props to Andrew Bowen. For the current calendar year, he’s converting to a different religion each month. Right now he’s a Sikh. He calls it “twelve months of spiritual promiscuity.” I’ve been following his story for the better part of the year so far, and it’s truly an amazing journey. I wouldn’t miss a day.

While I can’t hope to compare, I kind of wish I had a handy handle, a catchy catchphrase, something fun that other people could wrap their minds around. “My Year of DIY Religion” or “The 49 Stupidities of Editor B” or something like that.

But I don’t. And that’s fine too. If it’s meant to have a name, that can come in time. Maybe I’ll know what to call it when we come back to the autumnal equinox again.

Of course, I’m open to suggestions.

Eighteen Years

Xy and I celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary on Sunday. As a gift I gave her a necklace.

Seeds of Demeter

It’s called Seeds of Demeter, a beautiful piece of work by Rhonda King. (Buy her jewelery.) Demeter is, of course, the mother of Persephone and the goddess of the harvest, so I feel this piece resonates with both the time and the person. I gave it to Xy with wishes that she will reap a beneficial “harvest” as she labors to teach her students.

I also took that occasion to talk briefly about the many ideas that have been swirling around me lately, of which I have written here. One might think the person closest to me would know all about this, but it’s not so. We’ve always given each other plenty of mental space.

I appreciate the freedom in our relationship, but I do worry. I worry for Xy’s general welfare. I worry about potential fractures and fissures. In this as in all things I will seek a tighter integration, to strengthen and deepen the bond between us. My soul has been on fire with joy, and I yearn to share that. It’s tempting to draw on another equinox metaphor of light and darkness, but I will forebear.

As I fumbled my way through my intentions, with far less eloquence than even this tortured prose may suggest, I realized just how far we are from a Married Master Mind. But I also see the promise and the possibility. We have a lot of work to do.

I’d also hoped for a little loving tenderness, but the time wasn’t right. We ended up with something a little more torrid and wild, a passion almost violent in its intensity. Not what I’d had in mind, not at all. But oh well. I’ll take it.

Certainly marriage is a balancing act.

Equilux

Earlier, I alluded to an odd factoid: The day of the equinox doesn’t necessarily have exactly twelve hours between sunrise and sunset. It might, or it might not, depending on where you live on the planet. In New Orleans, that day was yesterday, September 27th. Sunrise was at 6:51 AM. Sunset will be at 6:51 PM.

Some people, astronomy buffs I suppose, have started bandying about a new word to describe this day: the equilux. I like the idea. The equinox is a fuzzy concept in most minds. Why not make it fuzzier? Even better, I like the idea of extending the celebration from equinox to equilux, with our anniversary right in the middle. Now more than ever, we need more time to find balance in our lives.


Tangents & Footnotes: This is where I’ll add afterthoughts and anything else that may come up.

The neologism “equilux” is hardly well-established, which may cause confusion. Case in point: The Ehoah philosophy proposes Equilux as a new name for the vernal equinox, as well as the beginning of the year, as part of the beautiful Pandion calendar.

Listen to my Autumnal Equinox 2011 mix on 8Tracks.

Forty-Three Months

Lumps

Dear Persephone,

You are forty-three months old today.

You’ve just completed your first full month of school. Every day you are coming home full of songs and dances, art and ideas. You learned a new favorite phrase there too: “Everyone makes mistakes; that’s how they learn.” I had to point out that your mother learns a lot.

The only real sticking point has been lunch time. One day you wouldn’t eat the pasta that was served in the cafeteria. “It’s not Tuesday, and I only eat pasta on Tuesdays.” Since then the situation has deteriorated. You rarely eat much of your cafeteria lunch. It seems most of the three-year-olds are in the same boat. I’ve been offering you stickers as a reward — stickers are like gold to you — but so far no dice. If you don’t start chowing down soon we’ll have to start packing a lunch for you.

Speaking of mealtime, one evening at dinner I stretched to pick something off your plate, and you were amazed. “I didn’t know you could reach all the way across the table!” Out of sheer curiosity we got out the measuring tape. My arms are still more than twice as long as yours: 17″ vs 36″. That bears out the general principle that armspan is roughly equal to height. I’m 6’4″ while you are just half an inch shy of three feet.

Also on the topic of eating, one evening at bedtime you told me that “I don’t want to eat and drink anymore because I’m tired of going potty.” Fortunately you forgot about that resolution by the time breakfast rolled around.

One morning you ended up sleeping in our bed. I noted at one moment you were sound asleep, and then the next thing you were smiling and giggling. But your eyes were still closed. You were having a dream. You were laughing so loud I had to wake you up and ask what the dream was about before your forgot. You told me you were dreaming of a chipmunk. The funny part? Her name was Pencil.

You still love singing nonsense songs. You also like speaking in your own special language. You tried to pass this off as Spanish at first, but you’re actually learning Spanish at school, and this is distinct from that.

Special Language by Editor B

You’ve also started inventing your own exclamations. The first one I heard you say was “Oh, suckers!” But you’re happy to incorporate anything in your line of sight. “Oh, bicycles!”

Your favorite game right now is, without question, pretending to be lost. This follows a pretty strict formula. You’ll hide somewhere, under the table or in the bathtub usually, and start calling, “Help! Help! I’m lost.” When your mother or I come to your rescue, you’ll explain that you left your old home because your mother was mean. That’s standard fairy tale stuff — lots of mean mothers in those old stories. We offer to take you in and let you live with us. In your scenario, I’m a fisherman and Xy is the fisherman’s wife. I think you got that from the myth of Perseus.

You had a day off school recently, but Xy did not, so I took the day off work. We made a picnic lunch and took it to City Park. That was great fun. While we were eating, I saw an animal climbing in one of the huge live oak trees. I thought it was an anteater at first, but I didn’t say anything. I just pointed to it. When you saw it you exclaimed, “It’s an anteater!” Of course, it wasn’t. But it sure looked like an anteater, or else we have a shared congenital propensity to misrecognize raccoons.

Later, you asked me to tell everyone that you’re brave. “I’m not afraid of coyotes or werewolves or African wild dogs.” You are aware that I use my phone to send messages “to everyone,” i.e. the public internet, i.e. Twitter. So I posted that on your behalf. My network was very impressed.

After lunch, we went to the playground and you frolicked with some other children. You seemed to have a great time, but on the bike ride home you told me one of the girls shushed you. Apparently you’d made a loud noise that scared away the pigeons. “She said shhh!” You kept repeating this story. I asked how it made you feel. “Rotten,” you replied. It’s the first instance of social anxiety I’ve seen from you. There will probably be a lot more of that in your future if I know girls.

One day I got home from work, walked in the door and announced, “I’m home!” Your immediate reply: “Thanks for the warning.” I laughed pretty hard at that one. This could well be your first expression of sarcasm, though I’m not sure you really understood what you were saying. You might have just been repeating something you’d heard at school. Nonetheless it’s heartening. We have a friend who calls you “sassy,” and though she means it in a good way, it reminds me of how often I got called out for “sassy backtalk” as a kid. I honestly never understood why I was getting in trouble. I don’t think “talking back” will ever bother me. In fact I encourage it. The challenge for you will be to understand that not everyone feels the way I do.

Tales Highlights, Part IV

Yes, a month after the fact I’m still recovering from Tales of the Cocktail. Here’s my fourth and final installment.

I learned some fascinating stuff from Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. For example, I didn’t know that the legendary founder of the Tiki Craze, Don the Beachcomber, came from New Orleans. (Wikipedia says otherwise but I have it on good authority.) It was also a treat to see Ian Burrell do his ninja shake.

I also learned the true origin of the Mai Tai cocktail. So that was all highly edifying. No complaints there.

But after this session I had to hurry over to another on the Gin & Tonic. Does the idea of Tiki drinks followed by G&Ts sound appetizing to you? I have no one but myself to blame, of course, as I made my own schedule.

As long as I’m bellyaching, look at this Powerpoint slide.

Powerpoint

It’s so bad the presenter even made fun of it. I’m tactfully omitting her name to prevent further embarrassment. But at least I got to see a bunch of rare and unusual products which I most ardently desire to possess. If you want to get me a special gift (and why wouldn’t you?) anything pictured here will do.

Wish List

Next up (Saturday morning actually) I was shocked and awed by a seminar on vinegar. This paired nicely with Wayne Curtisseminar on colonial American drinks, because we kicked things off with a Haymaker’s Punch, also known as switchel, a beverage made with vinegar and sweetened water which “originated in the Caribbean, and had become a popular summer drink in the American Colonies in the late 17th century,” according to Wikipedia. I gather switchel was a non-alcoholic drink popular during the temperance movement, but I’m pretty sure they put some rum in this version. Presenter Kelley Slagle called it “the original sportsman’s drink.” All I could say was, “Wow.” I really liked it.

Kelly came to vinegar as a bartender. One of the other panelists, Karl duHoffmann, came at it from a medicinal angle. I’m probably recalling incorrectly but I think his family had connections to homeopathy back in the day. (I found this doubly intriguing because I was reading The End of Mr. Y at time, a science fiction novel in which homeopathic medicine plays a central role. I cannot recommend the book, alas.) Karl cracked me up when he compared volatile acidity in wine to “a woman of great beauty with flaws but no faults.”

Acetic Acid

Truly, it was astonishing the level of passion these folks brought to the subject of vinegar. They even presented original research, trying to correlate acidity, pH levels and subjective taste. Their results were inconclusive, but I love that they tried.

Cardamom Club

Then, at last, it was time for “The Journey of Artemesia Absinthium.” Attentive readers may recall that, though I conducted a pre-interview with the presenters, I was not at all sure I’d be able to wangle my way into the seminar itself.

But wangle I did, and a good thing too. This session was my second favorite of the whole conference. We went all the way back to 1552 BC, which is the date of some written references to wormwood, on papyrus no less, and we worked our way forward from there. I’m probably dense, but I never realized why we call it wormwood: It’s a traditional cure for intestinal parasitical worms. We learned why vermouth has a Germanic name despite its Italian origin. We learned how absinthe was invented and why it was really banned. Fascinating stuff, brought to life by Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller.

Jared Brown

(By the way, I sure did notice a lot of seersucker at Tales.)

I couldn’t get a good photo of Anistatia. She was far too animated.

I was also suitably impressed by Giuseppe Gallo, who uttered the following quotable: “Our recommendation is to drink responsibly — but drink everything.”

We also learned:

  • Génépi is a liqueur similar to absinthe, made with artemesia. Chartreuse is derived from génépi. There are hundreds — perhaps thousands — of génépis made by families in the Alps and Pyrenees each year, which are not widely available on the market, and in most cases probably not available at all.
  • Does Campari contain Artemesia absinthium? The precise ingredients are top secret, but in a word: yes. Also gentian.
  • Speaking of the bitter mountain herb, gentian liqueur has been known sometimes as the Yellow Fairy.

And there you have it. There were no Sunday seminars this year, so I was effectively finished with Tales on Saturday. I’m sure they curtailed the Sunday activities for any variety of sensible reasons, but a part of me already misses the hangover jokes requisite to an early Sunday morning cocktail seminar.

On a more personal note, I found myself fielding one question from most of the people I met at Tales thus year: “What’s your blog about?” My typical reply was: “It’s all about me!” I’ve been a unabashed and unapologetic self-centered egotistical narcissist for so long that such an answer comes very naturally. But at the same time it’s got me thinking that it may be time to make some changes. More on that later.

What the hell, here’s a “parting shot.”

Samogon Cocktail

‘Til next year.

Smokey Haze

I’d heard there was a marsh fire out east, but we didn’t smell anything until Monday morning. By the time I left for work, I was surprised to see the streets of Mid-City were shrouded in gray smokey haze. It was bad enough that I wore a bandana over my face as I rode to campus.

Bandana

When I got up to my office on the fifth floor I could see the smoke extended as far as the eye could see.

Smoky

I guess the wind changed direction or something because it cleared up later in the day. Tuesday morning was also clear, but by mid-day it was smokier than ever.

Smokier

The smokey haze reminds me of my encounter with Joe Horn last Monday at WWL-TV.

Joe Horn at WWL-TV

He was cooking up something and the studio was filled with a smokey haze. The difference was, his haze smelled good. The smoke from the marsh fire smells nasty. In fact it’s sending people to the hospital.

In this morning’s paper I read that the area on fire is twice the size of City Park, which is mind-boggling to me. City Park is 1300 acres.

I see NOLA Defender beat me to the obligatory Neville Brothers reference but neglected to post a video, so… enjoy.

A Necessary Failure?

Circle of Chairs

Over the past year or two I’ve become increasingly interested in the idea of contemplative pedagogy. This is the notion that we can foster a more thoughtful way of living and learning in our students and in ourselves by cultivating reflective and meditative practices in our teaching.

To this end, I’ve relished the opportunity to engage in a series of discussions on this topic with faculty, and I’ve challenged myself to incorporate contemplative practices into these sessions whenever appropriate.

Most recently I had the opportunity to lead a short discussion with participants in the Faculty Communities of Teaching Scholars. Our theme this year is “Promoting Critical Thinking and Self-Authorship in the First Two Years.” Contemplative practices seem like a perfect fit for developing self-authorship, and so once again I attempted to teach by example. As we were thinking so intensely about our students’ needs and capacities, I decided to conduct a loving-kindness meditation. Also known as Metta Bhavana, this is an ancient practice from the Buddhist tradition. I modified the typical practice to focus specifically on our students.

In some ways, I may have been overreaching. I am not a practicing Buddhist, and more to the point I had never done Metta Bhavana before. Nevertheless, I went forward with it. I even went so far as to rearrange our classroom into a configuration more conducive to the practice.

I was fairly pleased with the results. Certainly I did get some good feedback from the participants, with at least one person saying she repeated the practice later on her own time. That’s wonderful.

All the same, in some ways I consider the exercise at least a partial failure. The problem was not the practice itself, I think, so much as what followed. I was so intent on preparing for the Metta Bhavana itself that I did not attend to the context. I failed to make a strong connection between the meditative practice and the larger conversations that had been emerging in the classroom over the previous days. That left some participants wondering what to make of it all.

But if this was a failure, at least it was an educational and perhaps necessary one. I learned a valuable lesson. Several in fact. Always attend the context. Always make the connection. When trying something new, don’t neglect these important basics.

Cross-posted at CAT Food (for thought)