Film Gems, Part Trois: Some Choice Holiday Movies and TV Shows

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, now that Thanksgiving is over, I am turning my flittering attention to Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice, and the celebration of the New Year. Of course, I have much to do: presents to buy, create, wrap and ship, house to decorate, parties to go to (maybe, if I’m invited), family and friends to enjoy, newsletter to write and send, along with last year’s which never got sent, addresses to update, cards to buy and write in and send, catalogs to recycle (I’m still wondering how I got on the mailing list for “All Things Golf” — I don’t golf and I know only one person who does and he’s already got golf clubs — really not in your demographic, guys), and gluten-filled baked goods to sigh over and not eat.  So what I’m doing this last Saturday in November is writing a blog about holiday movies.  If nothing else, I’m good at misdirection — I’ll sneak up on the other holiday doings somehow and somewhen.

Christmas in Connecticut

Christmas in Connecticut (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s start with a long-time favorite:  “Christmas in Connecticut.” Barbara Stanwyck portrays a columnist in a women’s magazine who pretends to be a happy housewife and cook when in reality if it weren’t for S. A. (“Cuddles”) Sakal (who owns and is chef in the Hungarian restaurant downstairs from her New York studio apartment), she wouldn’t have a thing to write about.  Meanwhile, a sailor rescued from a raft in the Atlantic (all this takes place during WWII), played by Dennis Morgan, sits in a VA hospital and dreams about food, reading the column and drooling because he’s been starving for so long they won’t let him eat what he wants to eat.  (Well, and it’s hospital food, anyway.)  All of this comes back to bite Barbara, who ends up having to pretend in real life at her stick of a fiance’s weekend house in Connecticut that she really is the happy housewife, mother, and superb cook.  It’s funny, charming, shows off  Warner Bros. deep field of character actors at their best, and it gets very very complicated with rocking chairs, horse-drawn carriages, a preacher who has to be smuggled in and out of the house, and two babies instead of just one before the girl gets the guy right at Christmas. If you haven’t seen this one, just skip right by “It’s a Wonderful Life” and try “Christmas in Connecticut”. You’ll be glad you did.

Another oldie but very goodie: “The Apartment.” This one is all the way Billy Wilder, so it’s sharp, cynical, sad-edged, funny and ultimately very positive.  The film stars Jack Lemmon as the mid-level accounting nobody who is working on getting ahead at work by passing around the key to his apartment to his co-workers who want a private place for some private canoodling, Shirley Maclaine as his crush, who herself hopelessly loves Fred MacMurray (who was always at his best cast against type as a selfish, even evil manipulator), and a cast office workers who still resonate today as being way too realistic.  The apartment itself is practically a character in the movie, beautifully realized as a Victorian parlor in a brownstone on West 65th in NYC that has come on slightly seedier times.  Lemmon discovers that Maclaine has tried to kill herself in, duh, his apartment, and the complications that ensue result in a black eye, a fractured compact, a raise and promotion, and a resignation that’s just in time for the happy ending.  And it has Billy Wilder’s second-best last line ever (the first is from “Some Like It Hot”, but that’s not a holiday movie, unless you count the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre): “Shut up and deal.”

English: Screenshot of Jack Lemmon and Shirley...

Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine,The Apartment (1960) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This one, too, is a lovely old film that manages to be cynical about Christmas and yet the holiday spirit finds the way in spite of everybody involved: “Miracle on 34th Street.” (The 34th Street windows of Macy’s in New York still always have decorations about this movie in them, no matter what the other decorations may be.)  Is the gentleman known as Kris Kringle really Santa Claus? Or is he not and he’s actually scamming the populace? In the end, the courts and the United States Post Office state that he is indeed Santa Claus, and who are we to quibble? Especially with Natalie Wood (in one of her first roles while she was still a little girl) getting what she never thought she would, a new daddy and a house, and everybody else in spite of themselves getting what they really need and sometimes actually want.  You’ll like it, I promise.

Miracle on 34th Street

Miracle on 34th Street (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A movie more recently made is “White Christmas”, a star-studded, music-filled, all dancing and singing spectacular from the 1950’s, and one I have to watch each year at least once.  The stars are Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen (was anybody’s waist ever actually that small?), and Danny Kaye, the music is by Irving Berlin, mostly, and the songs and dancing are terrific.  It’s about a two guys who met in WWII and who are now the toasts of Broadway, with one of them (Danny) trying to get Bing married off so that he can have some time off, a sister act in Florida who have to get out of town the quiet way since their landlord wants to sue them for something or other, who cares, since the way they get out of town requires the guys to cross-dress, a train trip to Vermont where there’s no snow, and the classic “we’ve got a barn, let’s put on a show” finale.  The romantic complications between Bing and Rosemary have to do with trust and angles and using other people, but it all comes out right in the end as a holiday movie simply must.

Cropped screenshot of Bing Crosby and Danny Ka...

Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, White Christmas (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also during this time period they shot a film called “My Three Angels”, which stars Walter Slazek.  The film shows three convicts who are repairing a roof on a shop and overhear the shopkeeper and their family trying to find their way out of major difficulties.  The three fix the problems and Christmas happens right on schedule.  I can find very little about this 1959 small gem, and I hope they put it on DVD so I can watch it again.

Then, there’s “While You Were Sleeping.” One of Sandra Bullock’s more charming comedies, which is saying something, it’s about a woman who is alone at Christmas and longs to be part of a family.  While she thinks she’s falling in love with the guy she saves from being run over by a train (and who ends up in a coma for most of the film), she’s really falling in love with his quirky family and, more important than that, his slightly disillusioned brother.  Wonderful supporting performances, many funny lines, and Sandra simply watching as a happy family shares Christmas fill this film with joy and longing.  The theme song is now used for a computer dating service, so every time the commercial comes on, I think of this film, which is not a bad thing.

While You Were Sleeping

While You Were Sleeping (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Love, Actually” is truly one of my favorite films, one I watch when I’m feeling there’s no love in the world.  As Hugh Grant says right at the very beginning, however, there’s lots of love, and some of it is sad, some of it is funny, and a lot of it is hopeful.  Great performances by British actors it’s impossible not to enjoy (and some terrific Americans too), really nifty songs (including “All I Want for Christmas Is You” sung by a truly talented teenager and “The Trouble With Love” by Kelly Clarkson), and Bill Nighy portraying as only he can a has-been rock star trying for a comeback which somehow seems to involve getting naked on TV.  It’s beautifully shot, too, making modern-day London as much of a holiday destination as it would have been for me in Victorian times.  And Colin Firth.  Ahem.  A movie with Colin Firth in it? I’m so there.

Love Actually

Love Actually (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And, by the way, while the primary plot of the movie has to do with the other end of the story, the very beginning of “Ben-Hur” has a gloriously shot nativity pageant at its very beginning with some of the loveliest music ever.  Well, the whole movie is the best of the huge spectaculars and in many ways, one of the most moving.  They’re planning a remake, but I just can’t see how they can improve on the classic.

I finally saw “A Christmas Story” a couple of years ago.  So I now know why there is such a thing as a table lamp made to look like a high-heeled female leg in the world and why you will never get a BB Gun for Christmas (because you’ll put your eye out).  The truly terrifying scene with Santa became an instant favorite and the excruciating (because I did it once when I was a very gullible small child) moment of sticking a wet tongue on a frozen flagpole are all now part of my holiday vocabulary.  This film not only shows us the importance of Christmas to a small child, it fills Christmas with hysterical laughter and still a sense of the wonder of it all.

Two Red Ryder BB Guns in box. These are a rela...

Two Red Ryder BB Guns in box. These are a relatively recent reissue. The boxes promote the gun as being “just like the one your Dad had!” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve talked about how much I love “The Lion in Winter” in another blog about Film Gems, but yet another reason to watch it is its deliciously cynical (realistic?) portrayal of family Christmas:  “Well, now, what shall we hang, the holly or each other?”  So that’s another one for the list. And one I remember enjoying, too: “The Santa Clause”, with Tim Allen, who portrays an unhappily separated father who discovers he’s actually been tapped to be the next Santa Claus and there’s nothing he can do about it, although he tries.  He finally embraces his fate and  takes over in the (ahem) “nick” of  time. Yet another pair of films that occur to me are not specifically about the holidays, but are rather set during them: The first two “Die Hard” films starring Bruce Willis. (Oddly enough, the primary crossover talent in this area is Alan Rickman, who appears in “Love, Actually” and in the first “Die Hard.”)

All of the above have to do with Christmas, I’ve been noticing, and many of them seem to be about love among the commercialism, cynicism and annoyances of the Christmas holidays in modern times.  And you will notice I’ve not mentioned “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I don’t happen to like this film much and the plot holes in it, well, Santa could easily drive his sleigh through them without touching the sides.  I also haven’t mentioned, except in “Ben-Hur”, that Christmas is a Christian holiday, about the birth of Jesus Christ.  There aren’t all that many films, however, based on the Winter Solstice (which is the holiday most people celebrated in deepest winter and which Christianity co-opted), or on Kwanzaa, or for that matter (and this surprises me) Hanukkah.  I would be very interested to hear from my reader about such films.  I’m sure they exist.

There are also many television films, specials and cartoons about the holidays, most of which have a Christmas theme, but are based on Santa, Frosty, and other non-religious Christmas icons.  An exception is “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, which is still occasionally shown on network television and which I can recommend for its lovely music and its theme of the people — that is, all of us unknown and sometimes unhappy and distressed folk — that Christmas is supposed to be about.  And don’t forget “A Christmas Carol.” For me, this is a read-aloud yearly treat, but it has been produced as a film or TV special many times and they’re all fun to watch.  Maybe the best is the one with the Muppets.

The best of the Christmas TV specials for me are “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and, of course, the original cartoon TV version of “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.” So enjoy the holidays, whatever you celebrate, and if you’re so inclined, have some fun watching a few of these classics.  Maybe, like the Grinch, our hearts are sometimes “two sizes too small”, but these films and TV shows just might help us expand our hearts to the size they should be during this season and all year through.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Colorado Gold

The state of Colorado has many colors and is often called “Colorful Colorado“.  The very name (taken from the river that springs up in the western part of the state) is Spanish for the color red or reddish, which is the color of the water in the Colorado river, coming from particles of the red sandstone that is part of the state’s geological heritage.

But more than anything else, Colorado is known for gold.  The gold dug out of the mountains that brought Caucasians and their culture first to Colorado and that kick-started its economy, yes.  But the gold that Colorado is famed for now is the gold of autumn in the high country, the gold of the turning leaves of aspen, their final glory each year before the leaves fall and winter sets in.

On Saturday, I took a drive/hike/walk in Rocky Mountain National Park to see the color (that’s what we call it around here, “going to see the color”). And with just a few comments, I’ll mostly let these photos speak for themselves.

Long's Peak in the distance

Long’s Peak in the distance

My special mountain, Long’s Peak, but look at the patches of gold on its lower flanks.  Those are aspen.  Aspen have some unusual, even fascinating facts, information to share.  For one thing, a grove of aspen does not consist of separate trees, but of one organism connected via a root system and appearing to be individual trees.  Aspen are a member of the birch family of trees, with paperwhite bark and heart-shaped leaves.  These leaves are attached to the twig in such a way that each individual leaf quivers in the slightest breeze — so much so that the tree is often called a “quivering aspen”.  Aspen are first growth trees.  In areas of land with very poor soil or little topsoil, or land that has been burnt over or clear cut, the first trees that will grow on such land are the aspen.  They will seed themselves after scrub oak and other lower, ground-covering bushes and plants, and will help to prepare the soil over time for the more needy pines that, in our part of the world, are considered the “mature” forest.

So, in a sense, aspen are placeholders, but such beautiful placeholders.  Mostly, during fall weather, when temperatures get low enough, the aspen turn gold, with some trees for reasons that are unclear, at least to me, turning orange, rusts or even nearly red.

Small aspen grove

Small aspen grove

Artist and Aspen

Artist and Aspen

Moraine Park View, Aspen Groves

Moraine Park View, Aspen Groves

Moraine on Bear Lake Road

Moraine on Bear Lake Road





Rocks in the River

Rocks in the River


Be Careful What You Wish For

This blog was written, but not published, very soon after the flooding that affected about a quarter of the state of Colorado.  Now (December 16, 2013), according to observation and the latest news (I get updates on Facebook, Twitter and email from the Town of Estes Park and Larimer and Boulder Counties), we are returning to normal.  Virtually all the county, state and national roads are in some kind of repair and are usable, the FEMA office is closing, we’re back to “normal” status, whatever that is, regarding all emergency services and even Fish Creek Road is being repaired.  There are still some people who have lost their houses, some who can’t get to them (I think primarily in Little Valley and Glen Haven), some of the reason for which is that the roads in those places are private and the money for repair is quite limited.  It isn’t the normal we had, but we are reaching for a new normal that will be workable, we hope, for Colorado.  So what follows is, more than anything, the way it felt to me.  The way it still feels.  I’ve decided to put updates in italics and brackets throughout this blog if I have new information.

Flooded Creek - 34

Flooded Creek – 34 (Photo credit: Nikkayla Green)

Be careful what you wish for.  You see, last year, in 2012, Colorado was in a state of drought so terrible that we thought the entire state was going to burn down.  We had fires all over the place, ranging from a little baby fire that nevertheless destroyed over 20 homes and caused the evacuation of hundreds right here in Estes Park (including me), all the way up to fires that torched thousands of acres and hundreds of houses and other buildings.

So we all thought a little rain would be nice.  Wet things down and make it a bit harder for the pine trees to burn like fireworks.  So whether we prayed and prayed or hoped and hoped, or just wished for it (or as is more than likely, our individual and collective thoughts and prayers had nothing to do with it), this year we got it.  It rained.  And then it rained some more.  And then it really settled down and started raining.  Building an ark kind of rain, cats and dogs kind of rain.  Three weeks ago come Wednesday [this was first written on October 6, 2013], it started raining again and it rained all night and into the next day.  I remember going from window to window (apparently in the hope that I would find a window where it wasn’t raining outside) saying to myself and out loud “Oh, this isn’t good.  This is really bad.”  Having lived here for long periods at various times in my life, I already knew, as do we all who live here, two things:  First, that this was not normal Colorado late summer rain and second, that the Rocky Mountains are called that for a reason.  Underneath the three inches of gravel that we fondly call topsoil is rock.  Not a bunch of rock, but one big solid rock.  And rock is not really good at holding moisture.

This map shows the incorporated and unincorpor...

This map shows the incorporated and unincorporated areas in Larimer County, Colorado, highlighting Estes Park in red. It was created with a custom script with US Census Bureau data and modified with Inkscape. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Plus, Estes Park sits at the top of a series of canyons carved out by normally cheerful bubbling streams of water plashing over rocks and providing beauty and recreation and a fish or two thousand.  But there’s this little thing called gravity (according to physicists, it’s a “weak” force; I’m sure they have their reasons for calling it “weak”, but obviously they’ve never been downstream of a flash flood) and water is heavy.  So because the land can’t absorb it, and gravity pulls it to lower ground, there’s nowhere else for water to go except down those narrow canyons.  And if it really rains, water swells those sweetly flowing streams into raging torrents that climb up the canyon walls and take out anything lying around loose or even attached that isn’t actually bedrock.  Including, in both the primary canyons with the main roads coming up to Estes Park, the roads themselves.  Sometimes wall to wall.

Highway 34, from Loveland to Estes Park, is a scenic highway at the bottom of a steep canyon that usually runs side by side with the Big Thompson River.  It’s 22 miles from Loveland to Estes Park via this highway.  In one night of rain, 17 miles of that stretch of road were torn out by the Big Thompson River, either partially (one lane) or literally wall to wall.  The town of Drake was nearly wiped out and the residents of cabins and streamside houses from Estes Park to Drake were evacuated to Estes Park, while those below Drake were evacuated to Loveland.  The north fork of the Big Thompson, which runs through the tiny hamlet of Glen Haven, virtually removed Glen Haven from the map during the flood, took out the switchback road from Estes Park and tore out all the electric lines to Glen Haven and to a rural mountain community known as The Retreat.  [Highway 34 is now open, but from what I hear will still require up to as much as $48 billion in permanent repairs to guard against another such flood from destroying it again.  I believe that residents in the Big Thompson Canyon and in Drake have returned to their homes, those that weren’t destroyed, but many people in Glen Haven are dealing with private roads (as mentioned above) and are still not able to live in their homes, although power has been restored.  Also, just to be clear, I didn’t know any of this, none of the people up here knew any of this, until several days after it took place.]

Highway 36, from Lyons to Estes Park, is a bit longer, maybe 24, 25 miles.  It is a wider road, and designed for heavy-duty traffic, since it is Estes Park’s main supply line from Denver, Longmont and Boulder (the staging areas for mail, food for grocery stores and restaurants, FedEx, UPS and other deliveries).  The damage to Highway 36 was initially harder to determine, primarily because the little town of Lyons, at the base of the canyon road, seemed virtually destroyed by the flooding.  The St. Vrain river there cut a new channel, taking out the sanitation department, the lighting and power department, and natural gas lines.  So although, thank heavens, in the end only (ONLY!) 25% of the houses in Lyons were destroyed, it took weeks to be able to get Lyons up and running again.  [On November 20, I drove down the reopened Highway 36 to see flood plains where before there had been meadows and a much narrowed roadway where the river had taken out big chunks.  Lyons is now open for business, but it’s sad and brutal to see the smashed houses and the heaped up wreckage of cars still piled by the roadside.]  Bridges were washed out, cutting off the hamlet of Pinewood Springs, and several small earthen dams were destroyed in the neighborhood of Big Elk Meadows.  [Residents of Pinewood Springs are back in their homes now, with electricity restored, and their community is fully functional again. I have no information about Big Elk Meadows residents.]

Saint Vrain Canyon

Saint Vrain Canyon (Photo credit: Ed Ogle)

This was a major disaster for those of us who live in Estes Park (as it is for everybody who lives in the watershed area of northeast Colorado), especially with the government shutdown [now thankfully over, at least for the moment], because of the only two roads that remained open and actually left the area to get somewhere else.  One of them is Trail Ridge Road, which is the highest continuous roadway in the United States and runs from Estes Park through the center of Rocky Mountain National Park to Grand Lake.  RMNP was closed during part of the shutdown and reopened using state funds before the shutdown ended.  Thus one of our two lifelines to the outside world was, just like that, closed.  Thank you, Congress.  [Please also note that by this time, December 16, 2013, Trail Ridge Road would be closed for the winter in any event and was, in fact, closed for the winter by the end of October.] The Governor of our state, John Hickenlooper, earned my vote in his re-election bid next year and my undying respect, by the way, for stating that Colorado would use Colorado emergency funds to keep the National Guard working on repairing the roads into and out of Estes Park and reopening Rocky Mountain National Park.

The other road we had, a combination of roads including Highway 7 to Allenspark, then switching to Highway 72 to and past Nederland, going all the way down to Central City and then getting on I-70 to Denver, or turning back on flatland roads to Boulder or Longmont, was, during the emergency, held together with spit and bailing wire by the constant efforts of CDOT (Colorado Department of Transportation).  This high mountain road was never designed for heavy traffic and for some time was our only means of getting in or out or getting supplies in or out.   Apart from anything else, the loss of Highway 36 until November 4th when it reopened ahead of schedule turned a pleasant 30- to 40-minute drive down to the front range cities of Colorado into a marathon that could take as many as five hours (one way).  After Highway 36 reopened, life (or at least travel and resupply) returned to something like normal in Estes Park, although it’s not exactly the same normal it used to be.  The trip takes longer than it used to because the road in places is narrower, with sharper curves, and there is still ongoing reconstruction, which often results in delays as they reduce the road to one lane in order to work on the other lane.  We’re still too grateful to complain, believe me!

Estes Park itself didn’t actually lose any houses and only a few business buildings were condemned, for which we are all deeply thankful, but our major rivers–Fall River, the Big Thompson River, the North Fork of the Big Thompson River, Fish Creek, and the St. Vrain River, which all come together in downtown Estes Park (except for Fish Creek, or as we not so fondly called it for weeks Fish Raging Torrent)–left devastation in their wake.  Most of the digging out and gathering debris is over by now and a lot of the shops are doing business (while for others clinging to hope, the floods were the last straw).  We have two sanitation districts up here and one of them, the Upper Thompson Sanitation District, had to work frantically for weeks to repair the huge breaks in their major sewer line (which followed the creekbed of Fish Creek), with residents on both sides of Fish Creek living in a “no flush” zone so that raw sewage would not go into the watershed.  Porta-potties became the new black up here, very fashionable, although like a skimpy little black dress, they quickly began to get real chilly, especially after dark.  One of the favored Halloween costumes for grown-ups at the Halloween festival Estes Park holds every year was something to do with living with Porta-potties.  [This, thankfully, is over with and all the sanitation facilities are working properly again.  Perhaps this helped the popularity of the slogan (printed on t-shirts and sweatshirts and bumper stickers) that we up here are “Mountain Strong.”  I got real sick of that phrase.  As one of my friends said, she’s a “mountain weenie”.  Well, so am I.] 

Porta Potties On South Beach For Winter Party 2011

Porta Potties On South Beach For Winter Party 2011, but Estes had lots more than that (Photo credit: Phillip Pessar)

Other than that, if there can be said to be an “other” to losing one of the basics of modern life, we’re doing a lot better than many communities downstream.  The town itself did not lose power (until after the flooding was over, when a transformer blew) or internet, although cellphone service and landline phone service were out for several days.  [Outlying areas, especially Glen Haven and parts of Fall River, if I remember correctly, did lose power and that was the first priority the Town of Estes Park made in terms of repair.]  In my part of town, several crawlspaces were flooded and had to be pumped out, although that did not happen to me.  Two sets of friends were in the “no-flush” zone, which ended up being more boring and inconvenient than anything, according to them.  Another couple had their basement flooded so severely that they spent days, even weeks, in the clean-up, trying to salvage possessions and furniture.  During the emergency days, and again I am grateful for this, that’s official, my own worst problem was not being able to find out any information about my friends and determine whether they were all right and if they needed any help I could offer (weak back, weak mind, but I can still carry stuff, and did).

The most remarkable circumstance up here in Estes was that unless you got as close to one of the rivers as the barriers would let you, it didn’t look much different.  The aspen turned gold, the effect against the blue sky was startling (now wind and snow have stripped the aspen for another year and we’re in deep winter, with the bears denned up, a huge snowstorm and the beginning of the wind that will be our constant, if not much-loved, companion until March or April).  The mountains stand as they always did, now with a frosting of snow that’s getting thicker and more beautiful with every storm.  It’s underneath and behind that you see the effects.  The edges of Lake Estes are piled with debris.  [Cleanup of this debris has been ongoing and is nearly finished now.]   (The town, in an excess of what can only be called highly creative common sense, scooped out a lot of the debris from the lake to use as crushed underlayment to fix the roads next to Fish Creek and going down to Glen Haven, thus lowering the burden on our then one frail highway supply line, not to mention the costs of rebuilding Fish Creek Road.)  Fish Creek is twice as wide as it used to be and is still flowing as if it were spring and not fall (the rock underlying this portion of the state, having absorbed more water than it can manage, then started percolating that water UP to the surface in the form of spontaneous springs (most of which seem to be situated under people’s houses), so the streams ran very high, quite near the tops of their banks).  [NOTE:  This was written in  November — because of the deep freeze we’re in now, the streams have drained back to their winter levels.]  We got mail service back after five days (because of a heroic convoy over Trail Ridge Road to pick up mail that had been piling up in the Grand Lake post office), FedEx and UPS were back so quickly, it seemed they were never gone.  We have new and beefed up cell towers, landlines have been fixed, Safeway (also heroically — can you imagine in a town meeting the biggest applause going to the Safeway manager?) kept us supplied with all normal foodstuffs, prescriptions and so forth.  Restaurants are open for business, and so is RMNP.  And certainly the elk are cooperating by spending their winter all over the place, especially, it seems, in my front yard.  However, we would love tourists to come up here and see for themselves, stay a few days, help us out by buying some Christmas presents or fall souvenirs here, have a nice dinner out.  Because economically Estes will be having problems for years.  Many businesses did not have (because they could not get) flood insurance and it turns out flood insurance does not pay for loss of business or inventory.  Convenient, right?  For the insurance companies, that is.  Also, in terms of businesses and homes, you don’t have to get it if you’re not on a flood plain, and to everybody’s surprise, some of the worst damage to homes were those definitely not on flood plains but on the sides of hills that could not absorb one more drop of rain.

All the above is just one small, not truly important except to us, story in this vast disaster.  The floodwaters, having scoured the canyons and picking up debris (everything from logs to pieces of highway to rocks to propane tanks), then hit the foothills cities, which were (of course) built next to the watersheds for water and sanitation.  From the northernmost (the Cache le Poudre River, the flooding of which was worsened by the fact that last year’s fire had already scoured the ground so there was nothing to hold the floodwaters back, going through Ft. Collins like a wet freight train off its tracks) to the middle portion (the Big Thompson took out ALL the bridges on north/south streets in Loveland and for several days even closed I-25 while the St. Vrain played with Lyons like a destructive child whose building blocks were actual buildings) to the more southern tier with Boulder Creek rising to a point where the University had to be closed because of flooding.  And there were lots of little tiny streams, most of which are usually dry this time of year, wreaking havoc with small settlements, backing up septic systems, eating away at narrow dirt roads, pulling down power lines, all through the foothills and mountains east of Highway 7.

North Platte River

North Platte River in normal times (Photo credit: J. Stephen Conn)

And then the waters really got going.  All the northern rivers in Colorado east of the Rockies pour themselves into the Platte, which is a major river system that eventually goes through Nebraska and feeds into the Missouri and then the Mississippi (south of Colorado Springs, mountain streams one the eastern side feed into the Arkansas which eventually itself feeds into the Mississippi).  The Platte, which is on a very flat flood plan and usually is a fairly wide, shallow river, crested at over 20 feet in places, a bulge of water that can only be compared to a large rodent being digested by a python.  Evans lost its sanitation system completely and so many houses were pushed off their foundations that I don’t think all of them have actually been counted even yet.  [I have no new information on that, although I suppose by this time they’ve gotten housing organized again.]  Weld County, watered by the Platte and irrigated, usually, from the Big Thompson, is the second most productive agricultural county in the United States (topped only by Fresno County in California).  I read that somewhere and having lived near Greeley as a child, I see no reason to doubt it.  It was about to go into harvest, vegetables, fruits, orchard fruits, so many delicious things.  I’m fairly certain the flood waters destroyed the entire crop for virtually all the farmers in Weld County.  Not just by drowning the growing things, but because by the time the waters got there, they were a really ugly soup of feces, sewage, chemicals, debris, all churned into the water and impossible to separate out.  I wonder how long it will take to clean up the soil in Weld County so that it isn’t toxic.  The flood waters also knocked oil and natural gas tanks off their foundations and that got added to the stew.  For a long while, quite a few agricultural towns remained cut off, their bridges out or their roads turned into asphalt kibble.  [Latest news I’ve heard is that all county roads in Larimer County have been repaired to some degree and are open, but I don’t know about Weld County.  All news is local news.]

But the waters weren’t finished yet.  Up they went, north with the Platte, to mess up Sterling’s sanitation plant and evacuate quite a few more homes and businesses.  Other news has taken over, of course, as it always does, but I would imagine that Nebraska did not enjoy its part of the Great Colorado flood.

Nearly one-fourth of the state was directly affected.  It was the greatest natural disaster in regional history, second only to the last time Yellowstone blew itself up with an earthquake and rearranged that portion of the geography of the west.  And, because of the news cycle and because of the even worse horror that the Philippines also underwent, it is already a more or less forgotten disaster to all but those of us affected by it.

Heavy Rain Shower

Heavy Rain Shower (Photo credit: AlmazUK)

And what will be the aftermath?  All of this has made me think a lot.  Part of that thought is that I’m not real fond of myself right now.  I wasn’t directly affected, my house was and is dry and kept all its services, both in and out, except that I lost cellphone for a while, and basic cable for a few days.  Oh, poor me, right?  So there’s survivor guilt.  And there’s the fact that for a long while I couldn’t get out of here.  I have a bladder disorder and the longer route had very few facilities along its length.  So I was basically going stir crazy.  There is nothing like not being able to get out of a place to make you want to get out of a place.  Desperately.  I was irritable and unable to concentrate and biting my own head off, not to mention having to be very careful about what I said to friends.  And (and I stress this)  I didn’t have any problems.  I was thinking it was just mostly me and that I was a selfish narcissistic bitch (old cartoon based on a combination of those fifties-style romance comic books and Andy Warhol–gorgeous blonde with a tear in one eye and the caption says “Nuclear war?  What about my career?”), which of course being an “artiste” I pretty much am–narcissistic, that is, although I do try to work on the “bitch” part.  But I’ve discovered there are a lot of us with this less than comely combination of irritability, survivor guilt and cabin fever up here.  In my case (and for so many this wasn’t possible), a trip to New York City to see friends and, well, just get out of town, helped immensely — ironically, of course, three days after I got back, I got snowed in, but thank heavens for the break; otherwise, the snowed-in week would have resulted in my cowering in a corner, gibbering nonsense and picking at my cuticles.

That whole internal reaction got me thinking, though, not just about my not being the saintly strong wise tough (but funny) person I’d like to pretend I am, but also about the fact that no matter how awful the disaster actually is, it stops feeling like a disaster, the critical right now crisis reaction stuff in your mind and heart, and starts being mostly a huge inconvenience.  And it doesn’t take long for this to change.  It apparently is a constant in human nature throughout history.  After 9/11, many pundits were saying that the spirit of cooperation, of help, of getting things done would mean a long-range change in the way people in the US behaved.  Uh, well, no, it didn’t.  The horror became yesterday’s news, none the less horrible and tragic, but not immediate any longer, the emergency energy that filled us and made us help and work and cooperate returned to our usual baselines.  We want normal.  I hate to say this, it seems so callous, it is so callous, but even when death comes into the picture (and Colorado’s flood left us incredibly lucky, comparatively), the desire for normal grows and the grieving, while it leaves holes that are never filled, has to become a background to living, and we have to go on.  We want normal.  The disaster recedes and becomes a monumental clean-up job, an inconvenience to our lives.

San Andreas Fault 1101

San Andreas Fault 1101 (Photo credit: DB’s travels)

I was in LA during the Northridge Earthquake, and it surprises me still to realize how quickly I went from terrified to worried about my friends and relatives, to helping out in the neighborhood, to getting really sick and tired of being in the house, to wanting things back to normal, even if the “new” normal was different than the old normal to, finally, annoyed at Caltrans for not getting the I-10 fixed faster.

Somebody from another planet would, I imagine, think of human beings as adrenalin junkies, always going after conflict and terror and excitement.  After all, it’s on the news each night (even if some of it feels manufactured), it’s the central tenet of all our entertainment, even the so called “reality” shows, it’s the primary topic in the newspapers and magazines.  We must live lives of incredible emotion, not just fear but terror, not just love but ecstasy, not just anger but rage.  All the time.  But most of us, let’s face it, want all that adrenalin to stay where it belongs, on the other side of the TV screen or movie screen.  Even the most naïve of us really do know that when the Gladiator dies so bravely at the end of the movie, the director yells “cut” and the actor gets up, grinning (we hope) to the plaudits of the other actors and crew for a job well done.  And goes back to his trailer and calls his sweetheart, or wife, or kids, or maybe agent (“hey, get me a gig where I don’t have to die, okay?”).  In other words, his normal life.  And ours.  We leave the theater, having felt all the Gladiator feels, our hearts bumping with terror and rage and ecstasy and loss and all those adrenalin-filled emotions, and then we go home, kind of wrung out if the movie was really good, and we’re very glad that our homes are working normally, that we are in our usual and normal state of health, that our families and friends are living what to that visitor from another planet would consider to be lives of amazing boredom.  We want normal.

But we never wish for normal, do we?  We wish for excitement, for drama, for love, for rain when it’s dry and clear skies when it rains and maybe we overdo the wishing part, not realizing that we don’t really want all that excitement, we want normal, with maybe just a hint of novelty and fun, but we’ll go to Disneyland or the movies for that if necessary.

So maybe we should think a little when we wish.  Maybe even wishing for normal is too much.  Because the world isn’t normal.  It is filled with all sorts of things, events and movements that are not normal.  I’m not suggesting that there is a clearing house up there or out there that listens to our wishes and gleefully or even absent-mindedly leaves the water running (“they want rain, we’ll give them rain”), although that’s how it feels lately in Colorado.  Just that I’m going to try to wish a little more carefully for a while.  You know, there is something called the law of unintended consequences.  You want something and you wish for it and you work for it, and you get it, hooray!  And instead of a lovely summer of no fires and plenty of wildflowers and growth, you get floods.  That happens in human transactions, too.  You can’t always see all the consequences.  But it may be a good thing to at least take a few of them into consideration when you’re wishing and hoping and praying and working for something or someone you want desperately.  Be careful what you wish for.

Estes Park Colorado

Packaging and Other Little Annoyances of Modern Life

Corrugated shipping container, one type of &qu...

Corrugated shipping container, one type of “cardboard box” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Grrrrrr.  I just received a package from a clothing company (one nice, if expensive, thing about losing weight is requiring new underwear, hopefully sexier than the prior bigger pieces, or at least stuff that fits).  Now if I told you what and how much I ordered, it would be too much information, but in any event each and every piece was separately packaged in plastic wrap that had the toughness of rhinoceros hide, taped shut with invisible (no, truly invisible, meaning unfindable) tape AND with a hanger.  Now, who in the world hangs up underpants and bras?  I certainly don’t.  So the plastic hangers will be thrown into the recycling after, well, no use whatsoever, as will the plastic bags (each of which is of course plastered with printing stating that it is not a toy and that it is dangerous to wear over one’s head–more on that later).  After I tediously ripped and tore and pulled the garments out of the packaging, it seemed to me that the packaging no longer fit in the box, there was so much of it.

A few weeks ago, with great anticipation, I awaited the delivery of two pieces of furniture I ordered for my living room.  At no place in the website did it say that the pieces of furniture would arrive, indeed, in pieces, in several pieces each.  But they did.  The pieces (a coffee table and a side table in Arts and Crafts style) arrived in two immense boxes, left at my front door because I did not order the “platinum glove” service, which would have doubled the cost of the furniture.  The story of my putting them together, just me and me little Allen wrench, is undoubtedly more humorous, if more strenuous, than my point here.  But that point is that the amount of packaging would have provided anyone temporarily bereft of a roof and walls with all the protection from the elements they could have desired, including plenty of insulation.  Although the wood in the furniture weighed more than the styrofoam in the packaging, the volume of the packaging was much greater than the actual furniture.  And, by the way, for those who don’t know, styrofoam (whether those awful little peanuts or big blocks of it) is NOT recyclable.  I don’t know why, it just is NOT.  The cardboard, of which the packaging was plentifully supplied, is recyclable, but for furniture, the cardboard is large enough to be actually hard to lift and move around without sweeping all untethered objects from all surfaces in the house.  The packaging alone, after I was finished pulling and tearing (and that was just hair out) and lifting and dragging just to get the pieces out of the boxes, filled my entire dining room and none of the styrofoam could be fitted back into the cardboard boxes.  (Old Fred Allen (I think) joke:  If you plan to recan a can of worms you’ve opened, you’ll need a bigger can.)

It took longer to figure out how to get the packaging into small enough pieces and concentrated enough to fit into the back of my car so I could take it to the dump (ahem, sorry, transfer station, we don’t have a dump here in Estes Park) than it did to assemble the furniture.  And then, if not for the help of a true gentleman, it would have taken me just as long to get the cardboard, which had expanded in transit, out of the car so it could be tossed on the proper heap.  The styrofoam, meanwhile, simply took up all available room in my trash bin for several weeks.  Remember, it can’t be recycled, just popped into a landfill, where it will be found by archaeologists (possibly with six legs, the way things are going) thousands of years from now who will undoubtedly assume that it is filler to separate the layers of trash.  What else could it be for?

Plastic Ocean

Plastic Ocean (Photo credit: Kevin Krejci)

Now I may be justifiably considered by my readers (either of the two of you) to be grumpy and ungrateful.  After all, I can afford to buy furniture and underwear and have it sent to me in the privacy and comfort of my own home.  (Who said I could afford it, by the way?)  But I don’t think it’s particularly ungrateful to be annoyed at (and concerned by) the amount of packaging that seems adrift in our civilization (if we choose to call it that).  After all there are now miles wide garbage patches in the northern part of the Pacific and at some place in the Atlantic where all this plastic, much of it packaging, seems to go to rest, twirling peacefully around, breaking down (very very very very slowly) in the sunshine and being ingested by krill (who can’t apparently digest it).  And each increment of packaging uses up petroleum resources (that’s where plastic comes from, folks) when we could, after all, be burning it up in our oversized and underefficient SUVs.  (All except mine, of course, which is a Nissan Murano that gets very good gas mileage, thank you very much.)  And cardboard comes from trees which we are cutting down by the hectare (nifty word for a whole lot of acres) to make stuff like cardboard and toilet paper that just gets tossed out.  And, by the way, our landfills are getting, guess what, filled (although a lot of them seem to be turning into sources of natural gas, so there’s something good in everything).

Okay, enough with the serious stuff.  This blog is supposed to be, if not funny (which I’ve discovered I’m not always capable of achieving), but at least light-hearted.  So let’s get back to packaging as an annoyance.  In fact, let’s get right to the most annoying portion of packaging, those little styrofoam peanuts mentioned above.  They may work wonders for getting Great Aunt Maudie’s cut crystal vase from one part of the country to another without the treasure arriving in lots of little sharp pieces, but they are maddening.  First and foremost, they adhere like post-it notes to anything they touch except each other.  Plunge your hand into a box filled with styrofoam peanuts and you may or may not pull out one of the items packed therein.  I guarantee that you will pull out a hand festooned with styrofoam peanuts.  And while it is fun to watch a kitten attempt to get a feather (or a styrofoam peanut) off its paw, it is not fun to scrape the darned things off your hand only to find they’ve attached themselves to the other hand.  And when you finally get them  off your person, you discover that they have sprinkled themselves all over the table, floor, chairs, in fact, anywhere and everywhere in whatever room where you’ve been so foolish as to open the package.  Even more, styrofoam peanuts are not transparent and if the package contains small items or more than one thing, the effort to find all the hidden objects in the box without pouring out or scattering the styrofoam peanuts over the immediate world can be truly comical–that is, to anybody who is not actually engaged in the process.  Finally, disposing of styrofoam peanuts is simply impossible.  If you try to pour them out of their cardboard box into a plastic bag, you will be living with styrofoam peanuts attached via static electricity to every surface of your home for months.  And you would be surprised how few people and businesses actually want more styrofoam peanuts, even packaging businesses.  And, again, they cannot be recycled.  So it often seems as if when you get a package from someone protected from breakage by styrofoam peanuts that the actual package, the permanent shipment, is of styrofoam peanuts and only incidentally Great Aunt Maudie’s cut crystal vase.  Grrrrr indeed.

Styrofoam peanuts

Styrofoam peanuts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

About that warning regarding “this is not a toy and do not place over one’s head, suffocation hazard”.  I understand that the warning is meant for, say, parents or pet owners so that they will keep plastic bags away from children and pets.  I get it.  But it just seems, on the face of it, that since the intended possible victims can’t read, putting the notice on the plastic bag is a little, well, dumb.  And for those who can read, possibly the Darwin Awards people should weigh in on this issue.

Which brings me to the other annoyances of modern life I was hoping to share with you today.  Warning labels have reached beyond all common sense.  There are warnings on electric hair dryers not to use them while in the bathtub.  (I would imagine it would be a very quick way to get a permanent.) There are warnings on coffee makers that contents, when brewed, will be hot.  There are warnings on frozen food that the food must be cooked before being eaten (salmon popsicle anyone?).  Extension cords have tags on them warning that it is an electrical hazard to chew on the cord when it is plugged into the wall.  (And here I thought it would go so well with my salmon popsicle.)  Knives now have warning labels stating that they are sharp.  (Heavens, I was trying to make sure I bought the special, safe, dull knives.)  Public restrooms assure one that the hot water tap issues hot water.  Right-side rear view mirrors announce that objects are closer than they appear.  (Gee, the fact that the approaching semi is a toy car from the right rear-view mirror and a behemoth from the left rear-view mirror wasn’t my first clue?)  I can think of many more, as can you.  Which leads to the really annoying parts of this, and there are two of them:  First, when everything has a warning label, nobody reads them and nobody pays any attention, so what purpose do they serve?  And second, and here’s the purpose they serve:  consider that each and every warning label you read came about, without a doubt, because some genius did just what the label warns against and found a lawyer to file suit against the company that manufactured the item.  It could not possibly be the fault of the, ahem, not-quite-up-to-average-intelligence, uh, person who put a cup of hot coffee between her thighs as she was driving away from the MacDonald’s that she got burned, now could it?  MacDonald’s should have made the coffee less hot or at least put a warning label on the cup.  (I believe they actually do now.  Yikes.)  And just think how annoyed the lady in question would have been if the coffee were lukewarm.  I’m surprised that they don’t have a warning label stating that liquids in open cups could possibly spill.  Somebody’s bound to sue about that if they don’t.

Foam Cup

The only safe way to serve liquids in a foam cup (Photo credit: pmeidinger)

And, briefly, a final annoyance (well, not final, there are lots of others, but this is the last one I will inflict upon you today):  Items that one orders that require assembly.  Is it just me, or do the instruction sheets, in no matter what language or how many of them, seem to be written by three-year-olds?  And again, is it only I who always discovers they’ve left something out of the instructions, usually along the lines of just how they expect you to insert the dowels attaching two heavy pieces of wood when they provide no hints about how to brace the wood.  (Okay, most of these items should be assembled by two people, at least, but after all I live alone with two very uncooperative cats who don’t like constructing furniture, laundry carts, or electronic items (they like disassembling them with their claws, but that’s a different story), and the piece of furniture, laundry cart or whatsit doesn’t actually come with another person to help with the assembly.)  And, of course there’s the simple fact that I have never, no, not even once, ordered a disassembled anything that had a complete roster of parts.  With the coffee table and side table, still fresh in my memory, each one was short one tightening washer and it’s a good thing I ordered both, because the side table did not have an Allen wrench that fit the bolts.  Grrrr.

And, by the way, everything I’ve said regarding packaging, assembly and warning labels does not apply to any product manufactured by Apple.  Just so you know, the packaging is beautiful, the information is succinct and complete, and they come fully assembled and ready to go, with cords and patching cables that are interchangeable.  So, here’s yet another reason to love Apple.

Okay, I am now going to have my dinner (salmon popsicle and electric extension cord casserole) and a martini (no warning labels about possible intoxication, hmmmnh, interesting, no wonder they call liquor an adult beverage), which should pull me down from assembly hell into the comfort of new underwear and fully assembled furniture.  May it be the same with you.

English: Plastic Bag Farm Ever wondered where ...

English: Plastic Bag Farm Ever wondered where all the plastic bags come from? Not a good crop this year! The bags are supposedly scaring off birds in a field adjacent to the A171 (as you can see on the left it isn’t working). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Vote! (Early and Often)


Voting (Photo credit: League of Women Voters of California)

For the humor-impaired (and at this end of the election season, there are a lot of us, especially me), the title is a very old joke, actually based on the sad truth that the votees in days long past would do anything up to and including finding, registering and voting citizens then residing in the cemetery in order to win.  Ahem.  Of course that doesn’t happen these days.  Never, ever, ever.  (That being said with a straight face, which was hard, nothing really changes about human nature.)

But while this post is, as always, about human nature (I’m a human, or so I’m told, so everything I write is from that perspective), and while I promised not to write about politics (oh yeah, right), it is mostly about voting and about doing so, once only of course, on Election Day (or if you’re lucky enough to get a mail-in ballot, as soon as you get it).

So, we’ll be discussing two broad categories relating to voting.  The first encompasses what voting is, how it came about and what it’s supposed to do.  The second is why you should vote.

As usual, I’ll start, as a professor of mine once complained, from the egg.  If history bores you, please go ahead and skip this part.

Human beings started out in very very very small groups.  It is estimated by anthropologists that the first tribes of human beings back in Africa numbered from 40 to no more than 150 individuals each.  They  made their living nomadically, by hunting animals and gathering other foodstuffs; they had very few possessions but had rich languages and oral histories.  In such a small group, true consensus was possible, especially considering that in these groups, the tribe was far more important than any individual in it.

Nomadic Camping

Nomadic Camping (Photo credit: Hamed Saber)

As time passed, hunter-gatherer tribes gradually morphed into small and then larger migratory hunting and herding tribes or into sedentary agricultural tribes.  Depending on the circumstances, the “big man” began to make his appearance.  The big man would bargain with others in the tribe to work for him, tending his crops and herds, in exchange for protection from other tribes, the elements, and the demons or inimical gods.  He got either a percentage of everything the others created or, more likely, most of it.  I would imagine that the others entering into this bargain believed it to be a kind of insurance policy against the hazards of living.  The original bargain would have been one on one with each tribesman.  But as time went on, descendants lost the ability to survive on their own as work became more specialized.  In addition, such descendants often would discover that great-great-great grandpa’s bargain with the big man involved their own loss of freedom of movement and that of their children, in apparent perpetuity.  And so the big man, in consultation with his priests and generals and administrators, made all the decisions for the tribe.  Until, of course, another big man came in with more troops and better gods and more or less mopped up Mesopotamia with the first big man as the mop.  Allegiance by the tribespeople would be switched, forcibly, to the new big man.  Hopefully, at least a few of them would survive the excitement.

None of this sounds very much like voting, and it isn’t.  The original bargain would have been a business decision made between relative equals.  After the decision was agreed upon, of course, one party would find that equality was indeed very relative and that somebody had pulled a fast one.

This evolving form of government led to kingship.  Oddly enough, kingship often did use a kind of voting.  For most of human history (in the Mediterranean basin at least–China, India and the Americas had different ways of developing their sophisticated civilizations), it was by no means a given that a son or daughter would succeed his or her father as king or chieftain or pharaoh or whatever.  The generals, nobles, administrators, priests and other highs and mighties would have a say in who became the next king upon the defeat or incompetence or death of the current king.  That is, a vote.

By the way, the term “queen” was a dynastic and companionate term, meaning primarily that the children of such a designated person were legitimate children of the monarch.  Rulers were kings.  Even if they were female.  While it happened seldom, females did succeed to thrones.  For the most part, sadly, after the hunter-gatherer period, most tribes and civilizations, while honoring the female principle more greatly than they would later, thought of women as dynastic necessities and, at best, personal companions.  And didn’t I put that nicely.

David and Saul

David and Saul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Considering tribal chieftains becoming kings, in the Bible, there is the story of Saul and David.  Saul was chosen by God to be king over Israel.  Now, Saul, like any proper king at this time, had a harem, not just as a perquisite, but as a necessity of diplomacy and government.  Obviously, he had sons and probably many more of them than were ever listed in the texts.  But instead of any of those sons, the next king was David, also chosen by God, to rule over Israel and make of it an empire.  Was this “voting?”  If you assume that God had the biggest vote, yes, it was.  The generals, administrators, and whatnot had to agree with God’s choice.  Whether they voted with their feet (by this I mean either moving across a line in the dust to stand with or against David or what we mean now by that phrase of leaving town and not letting the gates hit them on the rumps as they did so) or with differently colored pieces of rock, or with force of arms, they voted and David became and stayed king.  For the most part, in these situations, the vote took place once and was not called a “vote”.  Moreover, after the procedure that ratified the kingship, those that voted against him probably did not fare so well.

(Eventually, in societies that voted in any sense at all, this realization of the consequences to those that voted against the winner led to the idea of the secret ballot, first usually done with black and white pieces of rock (we still use the term to “blackball” somebody), and later by voting booths and ballots with no names on them and so forth.  We’re still struggling with this issue, by the way, especially as we get into a more and more electronic age.  Those that win want to minimize the numbers of those that vote against them.  Those that lose want to convert more voters and all those being voted upon think knowing who is doing what would be useful and convenient.  But the original problem remains.  The consequences of voting “wrong” can still be anything from mildly annoying (more political phone calls anyone?) to dire (no bridge for your town, sonny!).)

A little more history, and, if you’re lucky, a little less commentary.

The School of Athens - fresco by Raffaello San...

The School of Athens – fresco by Raffaello Sanzio (w) Español: La escuela de Atenas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the reasons that we honor Greece is that at least one of the city states that made up the country–the City of Athens–was one of the first known (or at least the first written about) civilizations that, for part of its history, has citizens that routinely voted on the issues of city government.   While this was very nice, it didn’t last for long.  Most of Athens’ history consisted of tyranny (which term simply meant that one person ran the place and thus didn’t have the negative connotation it does now–although some of the tyrants that ran the place helped give the word its current meaning).   But yes, the first true democracy we know of (or that I know of, at any rate) took place in Athens.  In this sense, “democracy” has a limited technical meaning of rule by everyone entitled to vote.  Now, getting real, this didn’t mean every person who lived in Athens.  Only citizens (those male Greek persons born or naturalized into the city–and usually only those that owned property) could vote and thus only citizens could have a voice in the running of the city-state.  It wasn’t a very large number of people and the theory, or so we are told, is that all of them would gather in the agora (marketplace) and everything, absolutely everything, of concern to the government of Athens would be put to the vote of the citizens and the majority would rule.  (I would imagine that simply for convenience’s sake they would first vote for a person who would run the meeting.)  So, everything from when and if to attack Sparta again to upping that pesky tax on sandals would be literally voted on by all citizens at the meeting.  Even with the few entitled to vote, it must have been quite cumbersome.

And, as happens so often in such cases, the citizens began to be not quite so noble, reverent, thrifty and brave as they had used to be.  They started voting for higher taxes for non-citizens and for such things as hiring mercenaries to fight their wars for them.   And so Athens’ experiment in democracy devolved (or evolved) into the citizens voting for a tyrant (see above) who would make many of these decisions for them, thus letting them actually get on with their symposia or supervising their crops and protecting them from their own tendencies to vote in ways that would be bad for Athens even if good for the citizens individually.  And then, of course, the tyrant realized that the current state of emergency (there was always and there always will be a convenient current state of emergency) meant that a change of leadership would be dangerous for the community, so the voting process became, shall we say, redundant.


Rome (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn_BE_BACK_on_10th_OCT)

Rome is the next example in the civics textbooks.  We are told that when Rome was young, before Julius Caesar and Mark Antony and Octavian and others like them, Rome was a republic.  The term “republic” means that citizens (notice a theme here?) vote not directly, but through representatives (in Rome called Senators) to handle the reins of government.  This turned out to be somewhat less cumbersome than direct democracy, but since one voted for a person who then might go to the Senate and vote only his own interests, not those of his constituents, it was slightly south of perfect.  Obviously, however, in Rome as in various republics from that day to this (including our own because our form of government is, I believe, considered to be a representative democracy, which is basically what “republic” means), prospective or current Senators facing re-election would attempt to get the citizens to vote for them instead of their challengers, using all the forms (from bread and circuses to promises of more major goodies that may or may not be kept) of campaigning that we have used ever since.

But, and this is unfortunate, representative democracy has as much potential for corruption and self-interest as direct democracy (oh well, it has less opportunity for corruption than monarchy, tyranny or dictatorship).  Representative democracy, just like direct democracy, has a tendency to devolve (or evolve) into something more “efficient”.  In Rome’s case, this more efficient government came about almost without notice because the Senate grew weaker as the military grew stronger.  Eventually, Julius Caesar, the general, was “elected” by the Senate as First Consul of Rome.  I used quotes around the word “elected” because Caesar had all the armies and I would imagine he ordered their spears pointed directly at the Senate chamber.  Please note that he was not elected Emperor and never actually called himself that.  That came with his successor, Caesar Augustus, Octavian that was, one of the men who conspired at his assassination.  In any event, the Senate remained to “advise and consent” (a position that they technically, according to the United States Constitution, still hold today in our country, among their other duties), but they lost the power to overturn or modify, except through persuasion, any of the Emperor’s dicta.

Cicero Denounces Catiline

Cicero Denounces Catiline (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Isn’t this fun?  So voting as such once again disappeared except as a kind of formality.  And as Rome declined (it didn’t fall at once and people still considered themselves citizens of Rome and under its protection until nearly 800 ad), tribes once again made their appearance in government in Europe.  Interestingly, for quite some time, in the Celtic and Germanic tribes that moved and settled all over Europe, a form of voting once again became a prominent part of government.  A chieftain would be acclaimed (which is a kind of vote, if very public) by his warriors and would run both the civil and military government of the tribe until his death or incompetence.  At that point, perhaps his son would be supported by a faction as the next chieftain, or perhaps it might be his daughter or nephew, or (and this was equally likely) it might be his greatest rival, or that rival’s son, nephew, brother or sister.  Particularly in Celtic tribes, there seems to have been no huge distinction between men and women in terms of their ability to lead a warrior band or run a village, so a sister, niece, wife or daughter might have been chosen.

It would be arrogant and mistaken to assume that these tribes and consortiums of tribes were primitive, barbaric, savage.  Well, okay, they were savage, but then again everybody was.  Most of the tribes wandering around Europe as Rome declined kept in very close communication with Rome.  Many of their nobles and upper classes, at least, spoke Latin.  As Christianity spread, many of the tribes became Christian.  Literacy, while not at the level it would have been in Rome during the first period of Rome’s empire, was not so completely lacking as we have been led to suppose.  Much was lost, of course, and the dark ages were dark in many ways, partially because as Rome pulled back into its own peninsula, the Pax Romana disappeared and the roads were no longer safe.  One was better off piling up rocks into a defensive formation soon to be called a castle and pull up the early equivalent of the drawbridge.  And the warrior chieftains slowly became barons, or earls, and, sometimes, kings (although kings often had less actual power than their chief earls).


Early Castle

The form of government most often adopted during the period of the middle ages has been called feudalism, although it might be better to use the term vassalage (which may not be spelled correctly, I’ve primarily heard it used in lectures in my history courses).  A “vassal” was somebody, usually a knight or above (meaning either a single horseman or a chieftain who had more than one horseman under his command) who owed fealty to a higher noble.  “Fealty” means exactly the bargain struck by the big man in the earliest civilizations with his tribesmen — do ABC for me and I will do XYZ for you.  Usually, this meant “fight forty days per year (the usual contract more honored in the breach than in the observance) for me and I will protect your lands from invasion and see to it that the roads are kept open so you can send your cattle to market.”  How does voting matter in all of this?  In many ways.  For example, King John, whose barons rebelled because John was raping every part of the countryside of Merrie Olde England (I’ve been watching Ridley Scott’s  “Robin Hood” wherein Russell Crowe truly kicks butt) for more and more revenue and destroying thereby the revenue sources of the barons themselves, could tell you.  He was forced to sign Magna Carta, which became the basis of many of the principles that have subsequently been voted in to protect the rights of anybody who wasn’t a king.  Let’s not get carried away and assume in ANY of these situations that anybody cared about the rights of those lowest in the hierarchy, by the way.  As I said somewhere above, human nature has not changed.  However, in any event, the barons definitely voted amongst themselves to rebel, to present the King with this document, and force him (because they had most of the knights at arms, the longbowmen, and what was left of the money) to sign it and like it.  (By the way, he apparently repudiated his signature, but there it was, for all who could read it to see.)

Charles I of England

Charles I of England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After that, it was a see-saw kind of thing between the kings, who claimed the divine right to rule from Charlemagne and past him, directly from God, to the barons and later the bourgeoisie who kept on voting, sometimes with ballot boxes and sometimes with weapons, to limit the power of the ruler without actually eliminating said ruler.  That is until, first in England, when Charles I left the throne in two pieces, head severed from his body, and second, for our purposes, the U.S., where we voted, first by our representatives to what we called Congress (the Continental Congress that declared war on England), and then by our militia, to get rid of King George III, at least his influence, and, most memorably (for Europe at least), in France where they got rid of an entire ruling dynasty which had pillaged the country for hundreds of years.   Or least started with them.  By the time the Terror had run its course, it’s amazing there was anybody left who could read and write.  All starting with votes.

Now it sounds very nice, doesn’t it, because it means the people have spoken.  Remember, above, where I talked about “citizens”?  In all of these cases, nobody thought it was a good idea for everybody to have one vote and for votes to be counted, willy-nilly, and the winner takes all.  My heavens, in that event, women could vote, horrors, and almost as bad, people who didn’t own property could vote, and you know they’d vote themselves all sorts of things that belong to the power structure, the landed gentry, the business owners, the people who count, who understand what’s what.  Women could vote themselves things like personal human rights, even to the use of their own inherited or earned money.  People who didn’t have property could vote that property be spread around a little better or at least that the property owners might have to pay more tax.  In either event, what’s the country coming to?

More than that, during the French Revolution, which came closer than any other modern state to a true democracy, the choice of the electorate (and/or “mob”) was to lop off the heads of anybody above them in the food chain.  This did not bode well.  And the United States (and all of Europe) took the lesson.

So let’s concentrate on us, or the U.S.   The vote, or suffrage as it is called, and I have no idea why, has always been a part of our way of government.  Of course, those of us who were already here, that is, the Native Americans who got here first, had their own ways of governing themselves.  And in any event, their choices didn’t count.  (By the way, another theme that keeps cropping up is the one where the way I do things is civilized and proper and ordinary and the way you do things is savage and barbaric and must be stopped.  We did that with the Native Americans and are still doing that with countries all over the world.  Ooops.  I sort of promised this wasn’t going to be political.  I lied.)  In New Hampshire to this day, the town meeting is the basic unit of government and actually IS, as far as anything can be these days, a true democracy in that all citizens of the town have a vote on all aspects of governance.  As populations grew in the colonization of north America, true democracies did not flourish; they couldn’t, the meetings, discussions and yelling would simply get too difficult to organize.  Representative democratic forms began to be used, and congresses, assemblies and parliaments to be elected, eventually coming to the notice of that big Parliament across the pond, in London, and to the notice of old King George, who didn’t like what he was hearing.  We here in the U.S. fought a revolution (okay, only partially, there were a lot of other less high-flown and noble reasons) so that the big Parliament couldn’t tell us what to do.

One of the primary grievances was that little nuisance called “taxation without representation.”  This is did not mean that we, meaning colonists (male and white and property owners, of course) in the Americas did not want to pay any taxes (well, of course they didn’t, but they recognized, more than some folk today, that government has a function and requires funds to operate and again I’m talking politics).  No, they did not want to pay taxes while not having any say either in what taxes they were required to pay, the amount of tax, or what was done with the monies gathered by such means.  The Tea Party of today perhaps has moved beyond the reason given very publicly by the original Tea Party that took place so long ago in Boston.  That Tea Party was convened because the English Parliament raised a prohibitive tax on tea (which was always imported because it didn’t then and it doesn’t now grow in the continental United States) to fund its perpetual and ongoing war with France.  Not only did this tax on tea unfairly target certain segments of the population except the poorest (who couldn’t afford tea anyway), nobody here in the colonies had any input whatsoever in creating the tax on tea or passing it or implementing it.  Nor did the colonies like the growing idea that the colonies and only the colonies (which had no quarrel with that country) were going to be paying for the entire damned war England was fighting with France.  The rebellion’s kindling point was that simple, although there was a lot of fuel for the blaze, things that had to do with other taxes, with tariffs, and with other governance that didn’t directly touch on taxation.  But mostly, it was about not having any representatives in Parliament, which meant not getting to VOTE about whether to institute a tax and not getting to VOTE about how much the tax would be and not getting to VOTE about how tax revenues were to be spent.

Constitution of the United States of America

Constitution of the United States of America (Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives)

So there.  So we became a country, and the vote was enshrined, as they say, in the Constitution, with a lot of compromises and, believe me, I’m not even going to touch the Electoral College in this or any other essay.  And it was still limited to white male property owners who were citizens.  Period.

Over the next couple of hundred years, it took wars and riots and demonstrations and constitutional amendments to get the franchise (another way of saying the vote) to all citizens who had not been convicted of a felony.  It was less than 100 years ago, no kidding, that women were finally enfranchised.  Less than 100 years.  Various laws and constitutional amendments have made it very clear (and very annoying to those who want the vote to go only to those people who are likely to vote for them) that one cannot require anything of a potential voter except citizenship, a clean police record (at the felony level) and an age limit (which is now set by law at eighteen).  One does not have to be literate.  One does not have to speak English.  One does not have to own property.  One does not have to declare a gender, a sexual preference, a political party (except for primary elections), anything except citizenship, freedom from present or prior incarceration, and age, to vote.  This has been hard-fought and nearly lost many many times, not just in the history of the world but in the history of our country.  It has been most recently on the block in what are called “battleground states” where public officials have passed laws restricting the franchise by requiring various kinds of “proof” that the potential voter is a citizen, such proof being an onerous and unfair burden on certain groups amazingly likely to vote for the other guy.  The courts have mostly shot this down.  But it is still possible for future elections.

And there we are.


Vote! (Photo credit: Steve Rhodes)

So now, let’s talk about why it’s important to vote, apart from the constant bubbling up of the issue, its twisting to suit certain groups, even its suppression, apart, if anything can be said to be apart, from the basic rightness of all human beings living in this world having some kind of say in how they are governed and what sort of lives they will live.

First, it is one of the very few duties or responsibilities that the Constitution of the United States asks of its citizenry.  Of course, it is not a requirement.   One of the primary principles of the vote is that it is up to the individual citizen whether or not to exercise it.  Other than obeying the laws of duly constituted governmental bodies, citizens of our country have it rather easy compared to those of many other nation states, especially since congress ended the draft a while ago.  Nobody HAS to sign up to be in a militia, nobody HAS to take part in work gangs to build public monuments or repair roads.  We are supposed to obey laws, stop at traffic lights, and, if we want to, vote.  This doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Second, and even more important, read my not-too-well abbreviated and biased history, above.  The vote is not granted from above.  In fact, wherever people have had the vote, they have had to fight and work to keep it, because those they empowered by voting them into office had a brutal and constant tendency to turn themselves into kings or tyrants no longer subject to the vote.  Voting is something that the people fight for and must keep fighting for or it is lost.

Third, if you don’t vote, you really don’t get to complain about the government that happens to you after that election day.  I remember once long ago when Nixon was president, a little something called Watergate happened.  There was a bumper sticker I almost put on my car (I don’t do bumper stickers any more than I do T-shirts with funny slogans on them) that stated “Don’t blame me, I voted for McGovern”.  I did vote for McGovern (there were three of us, I think, his wife and his vice-presidential candidate being the other two and I’m not sure about the candidate).  But those who don’t vote, well, they don’t get to say that the president or their congressman or their senator or their governor sucks.  They had a chance to vote the bums out and didn’t take it.

And fourth, in answer to those who say that their vote won’t count, just one vote, so why bother, I read recently that in the last presidential election, in Colorado, the vote went to Obama by the narrowest possible margin in each county.  Your vote does count.  It could be the one vote that tips the balance.  How do you know it won’t?  I do know that if you don’t vote and are eligible to vote, you are one of the reasons why this country is in the shape it’s in.  I’m not suggesting that we have the best of choices in front of us, from local magistrate up to President of the United States.  We have the choices we have.  But if we do not make them, if we do not vote, the quality of people who will run will continue to deteriorate and it will all get worse until it begins to seem almost reasonable to simply let a tyrant take over and run things, for “efficiency’s” sake.  And historically, although it may take hundreds of years, that never seems to work out real well.

Vote!  And by your vote let your elected representatives know what you want for this country.  Oddly, even when I disagree with your views, I want you to exercise your vote.  God knows, I could be wrong.  (Sigh.  It happens much more often than I like to admit.)  And our country, the United States of America, which is based on the idea that the majority of people have the right, the privilege and even the reason to move the U.S. in the direction the majority believes to be best, will undoubtedly survive if I am wrong.  I hope.


No-excuse early voting in U.S. states, as of S...

No-excuse early voting in U.S. states, as of September 2007. in-person and postal in-person only postal only none (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Men in Skirts

Estes Park Long's Peak Scottish/Irish Highland...

Estes Park Long’s Peak Scottish/Irish Highland Festival – Drum02 (Photo credit: elgreg)

This weekend brings the Long’s Peak Scottish/Irish Highland Festival to Estes Park.  There will be caber-tossing.  There will be bagpipes skirling.  There will be plaid all over the darned place.  (It’s a good thing we don’t have chameleons at this altitude.  They’d be going nuts.  And, yes, I do know they don’t in reality attempt to match a background, although I no longer know, if I ever did, what it is they actually do regarding changing color.)  There will be parades and tattoos (in this Celtic/Gaelic giddy context, a tattoo, while also being “ink”, is an evening presentation of pipe bands as the sunset advances).  But mostly, there will be men in skirts.

Caber toss - the real rules

Caber toss – the real rules (Photo credit: Travlr)

Slight but definite digression:  I would very much like to know, as a woman, why in a world where, except for George Clooney, men are supposed to be judged on higher qualities than looks (yeah, right), so often men will have shapely legs, long, thick eyelashes, and (when they have hair) gorgeous, unfrizzy locks that simply fall into place.  It really doesn’t seem fair.

Okay, back to the skirts.  First, of course, it’s not a “skirt”, it’s a kilt.  (Distinction without a difference.)  Kilts are not always plaid, by the way.  There are several men who live in Estes Park whom I’ve seen in the grocery store wearing khaki kilts for reasons that I have never had the courage to ask about.  But on this weekend of all weekends in the high, crisp, almost fall air, with the aspen beginning to turn golden and the elk moving into their full rut, all the kilts are plaid and there are a lot of kilts and a lot of plaids, and they’re all on (or mostly so) the men.  In the beginning of the wearing of kilts (as opposed to belted plaids, which we’ll get to a bit later), women were not supposed to wear an actual kilt, for reasons of both modesty (they’re knee-length, not floor-length) and because women are not supposed to wear men’s clothes.  Now, of course, because it’s one of the world’s cutest outfits, women wear kilts to these festivals quite a bit.  Especially the girls who are reeling.  No, I don’t mean after a few too many Scotches, but the performance of the dance known as the reel.  By the way, a Scot is a person, if you are a Scot, you are Scottish.  Scotch is the drink.  Technically, it is called Scotch whisky and is distilled only in Scotland (sure).  Whiskey (note the spelling difference) whether Irish, bourbon, rye, Canadian, or whatnot, is what is distilled in other parts of the world.  Another digression, sorry.

MacDonald Tartans [8]

MacDonald Tartans [8] (Photo credit: † Jimmy MacDonald †)

Returning from a refreshing sip of Scotch (which in Scotland is often called “a wee drappie”), let’s talk about the kilts themselves.  Those that are plaid are varied, many, and while most of them are beautiful, there are some that are downright garish (bright orange, teal, kelly green, brown and a thread of red, anybody?).  In every country that uses woven cloth there is such a thing as plaid.  It is a way of weaving a design using stripes on both the warp and the weft of the fabric (see picture to the left).

A quote from the Wikipedia entry will help us figure out what distinguishes a “tartan” from simply plaid.

“Tartan, however, is a pattern consisting of criss-crossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colours.  Tartan is particularly associated with Scotland. Scottish kilts almost always have tartan patterns. Tartan is one of the patterns known as plaid in North America, but in Scotland, a plaid is a tartan cloth slung over the shoulder, or a blanket.

“Tartan is made with alternating bands of colored (pre-dyed) threads woven as both warp and weft at right angles to each other. The weft is woven in a simple twill, two over – two under the warp, advancing one thread each pass. This forms visible diagonal lines where different colours cross, which give the appearance of new colours blended from the original ones. The resulting blocks of colour repeat vertically and horizontally in a distinctive pattern of squares and lines known as a sett.

“The Dress Act of 1746 attempted to bring the warrior clans under government control by banning the tartan and other aspects of Gaelic culture. When the law was repealed in 1782, it was no longer ordinary Highland dress, but was adopted instead as the symbolic national dress of Scotland.

“Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the highland tartans were associated with regions or districts, rather than by any specific clan. This was because tartan designs were produced by local weavers for local tastes and would tend to make use of the natural dyes available in that area. The patterns were simply different regional checked-cloth patterns, where of the tartans most to one’s liking – in the same way as people nowadays choose what colours and patterns they prefer in their clothing. Thus, it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that specific tartans became associated with Scottish clans or Scottish families, or simply institutions who are (or wish to be seen as) associated in some way with a Scottish heritage.”

Thank you, Wikipedia, as always.

There are hunting tartans and dress tartans, and “old” tartans, and “new” tartans.  Tartans for every purpose under heaven, I suppose.

And the kilt itself is made out of the tartan.  The front of the, darn it, skirt is flat, showing the entire pattern of the plaid, while the sides and back are pleated in such a way that half the design (normally one of the lighter stripes) is hidden by the inside of the pleat and shows only (and very attractively) when the person wearing it is walking or running.  The kilt is always in a worsted wool that will take a very sharp pleat, and the pleats are stitched down to the hipline.  It is also a wrap-around garment, with buttons in front to hold it together, and usually a decorative pin to keep the front panel from flying up at inopportune moments.  (Very old Scottish joke:  “What do you wear under your kilt?”  “A noble stretch of Scottish hide.”  This version is quoted from Frank Yerby (who was definitely not Scottish) in one of his very vivid historical novels.  I can’t remember which one.)  The best kilts, of course, are “bespoke”, which is a fine British term meaning custom-made, which in itself means fitted to the individual body that will be wearing it.

Scottish and British flags with Tam o' Shanter

Scottish and British flags with Tam o’ Shanter (Photo credit: The Laird of Oldham)

Whatever a gentleman wears on the inside of his kilt, outside of it is a “kit” (a military term meaning everything you’ve got on, basically, and almost never used regarding a woman’s clothing (which is called an outfit) unless referring to a military woman’s uniform), which is quite specific.  Starting from the top down, the kit will always include a hat of some kind, usually military, sometimes a tam o’shanter (which is Scottish for a knitted beret with a pompom on top), sometimes a “bearskin” (thankfully, today, mostly made of polyester), which is a very high hat that looks like bearskin and which will have a striped ribbon in the tartan colors festooned on it somewhere.  Faces are normally clean-shaven.  The upper part of the kit consists of a solid-color short and tightly fitted jacket in a color that blends (or sometimes doesn’t) with the tartan and is usually based on the jacket styles of British aristocracy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  For evening wear, the jacket is often black velvet.

During the day, however, the jacket will usually have a tight, upright collar and the underlying shirt or t-shirt will not be seen.  Over this is a plaid.  This might seem redundant, but it is the term normally used for the plaid sash going over the left shoulder (if the wearer is right-handed) and under the right arm.  Mostly, this plaid will match the plaid of the kilt, but sometimes, for reasons that I’m sure are deeply symbolic and not just color-blindness, the plaid sash does not match the kilt.

In front of the kilt at the, ahem, proper level, the gentleman will wear his sporran.  This has been stylized by this time to a point of having very little utility at all, but originally simply was the pouch of leather or fur a man would wear to put things in (kilts don’t have pockets).  Sporrans are normally made of white horsehair with usually two or three long hanks of dark horsehair in metal holders (from the horse’s tail and let’s hope no horses were harmed in the gathering of same, although they were probably considerably annoyed) as “decoration” (all in the eye of the beholder, after all).  The sporran still is a pouch that can hold things, of course, because kilts don’t have pockets.

Below the kilt (no, not underneath it, we’ve already explained that), the gentleman will wear, during the day, boots or walking shoes with usually white spats (I don’t know what else to call them) over them that have yet another band of plaid at the top.  For evening wear, the gentleman will wear mens dancing slippers which have strings that are wound around the lower leg over white stockings.  Whether daywear or evening, no Scotsman (or Irishman) would forget the proper accessory, which is a dirk that is scabbarded inside the stocking/spat on the right leg (if the gentleman is right-handed).  A proper highlander is always armed and dangerous.  The picture below of a Scotsman (presumably) in evening dress kilts shows the dirk tucked into his stocking.

English: Kilt and Sporran worn as formal eveni...

English: Kilt and Sporran worn as formal evening wear (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Somehow, the men who wear this kit manage to look killer:  masculine, almost ferocious, and not a bit “girly”.  Which is probably why women look so darned cute in kilts–that same sense that what makes a man look more manly makes a pretty girl look even more female.

Some of the men, of course, add the ultimate accessory–the bagpipe.  This is an acquired enjoyment, like caviar.  If you like pipes, you like them.  If you don’t, they sound like somebody torturing cats.  I like the sound, but I know very little about the types of bagpipes.  It is a kind of portable organ, using air passing through reeds in the pipes (sticking up out of the bag) to make the noise (ahem, music).  Most of the pipes are called “drones”, meaning they make the same noise, no matter what the bagpipe player is doing, and are tuned (or not, they don’t sound tuned) prior to the performance in some way which I will probably never need to know that badly.  The player then plays the bagpipe by moving air into the bag and out through the pipes.  The player has a pipe (some bagpipes use the player’s breath to fill the bag and to play the tunes, some do not and use a pumping motion by the arm to fill the bag) that has a tendency to look a little like an oboe, with holes and stops and whatnot for the player to manipulate to make a tune that comes out of one of the pipes, one that is obviously not one of the “drones”.  And this is not only more than I really want to know about a bagpipe, it’s undoubtedly more than any of you want to know about them.

Piping Band

Piping Band (Photo credit: Eglos)

But in mountain air, at a parade or a tattoo, they sound fine, although I’m sure they confuse the heck out of the wildlife.  (Bagpipes are also capable of being very loud, and their sound pierces through other sounds quite well.)

And so the Scots and the Irish come together in Estes Park to parade and compete in strange games requiring a lot of strength and toughness and play bagpipes, the playing of which (and the listening to which) also take a lot of strength and toughness, and they celebrate the Celtic and Gaelic heritage of the areas of the British Isles known as Scotland (that portion of the main island above Hadrian’s Wall, built by a Roman emporer (well, not with his own hands) in the early part of the Common Era) and Ireland, a separate island to the west which has always had its troubles (some of them quite violent) with being any kind of a part of the British Empire.  These areas were settled by Celtic tribes that moved to the Isles from various parts of the European mainland during any time from about 3,000 B.C.E. to 1,500 B.C.E.  And it is known to archaeologists that the Celts had weaving and sheep and often wove their woolens into plaid patterns (although bright orange, teal, kelly green were probably not among the dyestuffs they had available to them).  It is also known that they divided their people into tribes, clans, septs and families (from the top of the organizational pyramid down).  It is also known that they had cattle and horses, often worked as miners, probably had figured out the distillation process to raise alcohol content in mead or beer a long, long time ago, had gorgeous, intricate, well-crafted art, a complex religion and set of myths, and a sophisticated culture.  So, when we today celebrate a Scottish/Irish Heritage Festival, even if in a mountain valley thousands of miles away from their original homeland, then it’s a long, deep heritage with all the crafts, games and costumes based on a very long-standing history.

Except, of course, that some of it is just not true.  The stuff that we think of as BEING the heritage, mostly the kilt and the entire look of the costume, which is what it is, is an invention of the nineteenth century.  As stated above, tartans were distinguished regionally, not by clan, until the nineteenth century.  Plus, until then, nobody wore a kilt.  They (or at least the men) word a “plaid”.  Again, refer to the above quote from Wikipedia and I show a picture at the end of this blog of a man wearing a belted plaid.

Let me elaborate.

Cover of "Rob Roy"

Cover of Rob Roy

There is a wonderful movie,  “Rob Roy”, from some time in the nineties, starring Liam Neeson as the grand old rascal and Jessica Lange as his feisty, red-headed wife.  It shows Neeson, who is a fine broth of a boy indeed (his own ethnicity is Irish), very tall, standing on a highland meadow wearing his belted plaid.  I could not find a picture of this, which is a shame.  He has his legs wrapped in fleece for warmth, a rough linen shirt which was under- and outer-wear, both, and a long length of cloth sloppily pleated to make a skirt with a belt to hold it in place and with one end of the cloth thrown over a shoulder.  Nothing could be more male, and yet the actual draping of the cloth is almost identical to that of the Indian garment that make their women so lovely, the sari.  It’s shown as a plaid design, but the colors are dark and muddy and obviously the whole thing is undoubtedly filthy, since Rob uses it as garment, as bedclothes, and towel.  Magnificent.  Rob Roy, a historical character, lived in the eighteenth century, when British nobility was very much in the process of taking over (usually by squatting on a land grant that the King was probably not technically entitled to bestow, rather like land grants in the New World also taking place at that time) Scotland, highlands and low.  The Scots being dispossessed were not any happier about it than the Native Americans in the New World and they fought back, pretty briskly too.  They also stole their “overlords'” cattle, sheep, women, anything not nailed down.

But the whole tartan, kilt, sporran thing, that was a romantic vision of a world that never existed created by the English who were taking over the Scottish countryside in the nineteenth century and led by the English Queen Victoria and egged on by the romances written by Sir Walter Scott (who wrote about Rob Roy).  Yes, the whole kilt thing is that recent.  The Royal Family stated, I’m sure quite regally, that the Stewart (so spelled, although the Scots Royal family name was spelled Stuart when they became Kings of England) plaids could only be used by the Royal Family as their “clan” tartan.  So everybody else that had a noble title in Scotland and Ireland (usually not the natives, believe me) scrambled to catch up.  The romance continued with the creation of the kilt, jacket, sporran, bearskin and so forth, including the dirk (or at least its placement in a sock), most of which seemed to have been made up by Scott.

While Scottish warriors and natives wore the plaid, which looked rather like a short toga through the ages, most people wore something similar throughout Europe for much of its early history.   Women had more draperies, mostly, and they were longer, but men wore tunics, usually shorter than knee-length, with a wrapped robe very like the Scottish “plaid” over them.  Men who did not have to labor manually usually wore long robes, the natural outgrowth of the toga.  Catholic prelates and monks do so still, deliberately archaic. Trousers (or “trews” as they were called) are an outgrowth of the middle ages in Europe and mostly came about from two separate but similar issues:  For the laboring poor, short wrapped skirts lasted through time because (like Rob Roy’s plaid) they didn’t need to be fitted or sewn, which took time and money that didn’t exist and they could be used for a blanket or towel.  For knights at arms, however, the skirt, tunic, robe or whatnot was quite impractical because skirts and robes get in the way when you’re fighting from the back of a horse.  If your “skirt” was short enough to make fighting and riding a horse convenient, it would be too damned chilly for most of Europe, most of the time.

Later on, again because of the climate more than anything else, and because knitting is easier than sewing and requires less expertise and concentrated attention, stockings began to work their way up into becoming tights and the laboring poor began looking like we think of them in movies about the dark ages, with thick knitted trews and a tunic over that.

In any event, all the wonderful fancy that is the Scottish heritage, insofar as tartan plaids, kilts, sporrans and whatnot are concerned, is delightful, but it is a made-up heritage.  Those parts of the festival this weekend in Estes Park that truly have to do with the real, long-standing heritage of the Celts in Scotland and Ireland are the clans, the myths, the Gaelic language, the remembrance of a culture that was suppressed, sometimes ruthlessly, by the English (who were not Celtic, but basically a combination of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French), and probably the idea, at least, of the bagpipes.  The dances and songs and music, too, come from a time long, long ago, filtered through history.  It often happens when a people’s culture is suppressed by a conquering invader, the invader thinks that music and dance are frivolous and trivial and so the real culture, as well as the real justified anger, lingers on and is protected and remembered through the trivial song and the frivolous reel.

By the way, it may be completely apocryphal, probably is, but my favorite characterization of Scottish warriors brought in by the British to fight in various wars is “the ladies from hell.”

So, here we are, on an early fall weekend in Estes Park, Colorado, a place never formally lived in year around until Joel Estes homesteaded in 1865, and he couldn’t make it work, having a festival honoring the Celts.  Whether or not they wore plaid designs allocated only to their specific clans, whether or not they wore kilts or when they started to, whether or not the games and the books and the artwork and the things to buy and do and enjoy come from long, long, long ago, or the whim of Queen Victoria less than 200 years past, they are worth honoring, not just for lasting, as they have, but for being tough, continuing to work for and fight for their own versions of their homelands, and for having a very good and colorful time doing it.  So let’s all raise a glass of Scotch (or Irish whiskey, if that’s your preference) to men in skirts!


A belted plaid (rather than a kilt) as worn by...

A belted plaid (rather than a kilt) as worn by a reenactor of Scottish history. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)



September (Photo credit: Helgi Halldórsson/Freddi)

Today is the second day of September.  Thus begins my favorite time of year.  To be more precise, thus begins my year.  From here on to the end of the calendar year are all the holidays and celebrations I truly love, from friends’ birthdays and anniversaries to my own birthday, which for me begins the holiday season, to Hallowe’en, Thanksgiving, Christmas and finishing up with New Year‘s Eve.  Which last holiday is a kind of extra gift, a second chance at a new start on the year.

There’s rather a long history of starting the year at harvest time.  Or when the buds burst in spring.  Our current (and arbitrary) date for the New Year comes about partially as a result of calendar slippage over many thousands of years.  Humans started counting days and seasons in order to know when best to plant, cultivate, harvest, hunt, butcher and so forth.  It’s all about food, after all.  But the methods that they used didn’t quite match up with the realities.  If you count by the phases of the moon (the Lunar Calendar), it takes a few days less for the moon to make a full 12 circuits of the Earth than it does for the Earth to move around the sun, so in just a few years, the lunar months are not matching up with the realities of the yearly cycle.  So, even though the Lunar Calendar is the easiest method, most farming cultures started to use solstice reckoning.  This was actually more important to farmers, because how could humans be absolutely certain that when the sun disappeared on the winter solstice that it would come back.  The measuring of the slight incremental increases in daylight after the winter solstice became one of the first and most important jobs for the priests of a culture, and their magic spells and potions, their auguries, in fact, much of their worth, as measured by the culture in which they lived and worked, was their guarantee that the sun would come back and when it would do so.  Of course, the sun always comes back (or at least it has so far), so it was a pretty safe bet.  While I’m sure the priestly caste provided reassurance and emotional and psychological help, they were always basically conning the populace.

Nevertheless, the actual time from one winter solstice to the next is slightly more (about a fourth of a day or six hours) than the 365 days it was counted to be.  So, once again, the calendar kept slipping and after quite a few years, one was planting, technically, in July (not so-called back then, I’m sure) or some such.  (I probably got the slippage backward.  This sort of thing is not quite my forte.  I would have not done really well as one of the priests who did the measurements.)  This was solved, or at least temporarily resolved, by various kings, popes, heads of state and church, who would declare that as of such and such a date, the decree would be that that date was, well, a different date, and things would march more or less in step for a while.  We have historical records of such happenings, such as when the Julian Calendar, which was getting to be about two weeks off, was replaced by the Gregorian Calendar (I think–as I’ve pointed out long before, this blog becomes a lot less fun when I lose my amateur standing by looking things up), which happened during George Washington’s (and a lot of other people’s) lifetime and even now historians are perplexed about the date on which he was born.  At some point during this giddy moving about of dates, some genius (obviously neither Julius Caesar or Pope Gregory) came up with the idea of a leap day and a leap year, which we still use to account for that pesky extra six hours the Earth requires to circuit the sun every year.

Gregorian calendar

Gregorian calendar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every four years, our calendar gives us an extra day (six hours times four equals 24, which takes care of it), except for (and this I really should look up) some years that end in a double zero which do not have leap days because that extra six hours every year is not exact and the math still doesn’t come out right if you have leap years every four years.  Or something like that.  Anybody who would like to know the real deal is invited to look it up on Wikipedia or Scientific American or whatnot.

In any event, I’m trying to determine why we have New Year’s Day on a seemingly arbitrary day.  After all, if a culture believes that the new year starts when the sun comes back, then why not the day after the Winter Solstice?  Of course, for one thing, those first days after the Winter Solstice have exceedingly small incremental gains in daylight, difficult for early astronomers, let alone the average farmer, to measure.  So, instead, the date of the new year would be the first date any fool could tell that the sun was spending more time above the horizon than on the date of the Winter Solstice.  Or, about a week later.  Since New Year’s Day is 10 days after the solstice on our modern calendar, the rest of the days probably can be accounted for by calendar slippage, discussed above.

Whew.  So now we can get back to why not just me, but a lot of people through history, have started the year not after the Winter Solstice, but either in the spring when planting takes place or, slightly less logically, in the fall when harvest takes place.  All, of course, without looking anything up.  (This may not work out, but let’s see how far we get.)  First, it makes a kind of deeply human sense to start the year when every other living thing is–the connection to the burgeoning of life on the Earth is palpable and heart-stirring.  The Earth shakes off her winter torpor, the snow starts to melt, the rains come again, the streams swell, and all the greenery makes a new appearance.  And before long, the world seems filled with babies, everything hatching or being born at an early enough time to give the new animal the longest possible chance to grow up, find food and get ready for the next winter.  One culture that we do know of who started their year in the spring (my favorite early culture) was that of the Celts, whose Beltane holiday celebrated the spring with bonfires, foolishness and fertility festivals.  It came about in May and later sort of settled into being May Day.  (This holiday, by the way, was and still is, I think, a favorite in the British Isles, but has lost a step or two because of its latter-day association with the Soviet Union.)  I suppose that in the British Isles, particularly as the ice sheets receded and people began to populate it once again, May was indeed the start of spring, as it is in high mountain areas such as my home in Estes Park.  Later on, as the Gulf Stream reached its present course, spring came much earlier in many areas in Britain.

It is my understanding that the Celts used a more or less Lunar Calendar with the year starting in spring, in May; however, they used the huge calendars, the henges (the most famous of which is Stonehenge) at least partially, or so say the scientists, to determine exactly that moment after the Winter Solstice that the sun starts coming back.   Therefore, as often happened in sophisticated societies (“sophistication” here does not mean Noel Coward ennui, but rather has an anthropological meaning combining several aspects of human culture), there would probably be more than one calendar running concurrently, one used by priests (in this case Druids), one used by farmers, and so forth.


stonehenge (Photo credit: nyaa_birdies_perch)

Two notes on the above paragraphs:  One, the Celts did NOT build the henges.  They were the huge project of tribes (some of which are called by us because of items found in their graves the Beaker People) that lived in the British Isles long before the Celts came and which the Celts drove out or intermarried among (a nice euphemistic way to talk about such things as bride capture, which term itself is a euphemism for rape) to take over the land.  Two, some of what I’ve read indicates that the Druids were, themselves, part of a slightly different culture than the Celts.  In other words, the Celts migrated to their various new homelands all over Europe, finishing up in Ireland, the farthest away from their legendary homeland, which was probably in the steppes just north of the Black Sea or in Turkey somewhere (big scientific hoo ha over this which has not been resolved) without having Druids per se, just the normal shamans and priests.  How or where the Druids came is unknown.  Well, at least I don’t know it.

Oh, and scientifically, I should be saying that what really happens at Winter Solstice (or its opposite, the Summer Solstice) is that the Earth reaches the apogee (or is it perigee?) of its tilt and begins to tilt back, thus bringing the northern hemisphere more directly under the sun’s rays.  But that’s not how it feels to humans living on the planet, even today.  We may know (through the efforts of scientists throughout history) that it is the Earth’s tilt that causes the seasons, but our perception tells us otherwise.

Those human beings who begin the year in the fall (including me, which is why I’m doing this essay to start with) are a little trickier to understand intuitively, because it does seem that fall, autumn, harvest, whatever you call it, is the end of something,  not the beginning.  Except for one not so tiny detail:  a great deal of what we call the rise of civilization happened as a result of better and/or more food, or as a way to create better and/or more food.  It was, as I said above, as it still is, all about food.  And in the northern hemisphere above the tropics and in most places where we got started in tribes or cities or clans, food is harvested (whether by reaping or butchering) in the fall.  This is not just for the obvious reason that the food is ready to be harvested then, although that’s part of it.  It’s also because winter, as a cold time, makes it possible to preserve food, whether animal or vegetable, to be consumed continuously until spring brings about new sources.  And it follows nature’s rhythms for much the same reason that animals and plants time their full ripeness for fall.

So it makes a beautiful kind of sense, at least to me, that we should start the year when our granaries and storerooms are full, when we have harvested all the good Earth has provided and put it away in usable form for the hard months ahead.  The celebrations of Harvest Home are as old as Beltane, as old as celebrations of the solstices.  It is one of the few times that laborers, that anybody other than the very rich (who can hunt year round and who basically take their share (all right, much more than their share, the world does not change that much) at any time), can actually eat their fill of fresh food.

One of the most important cultures (and religions) but by no means the only one that starts the New Year at harvest time is of course Judaism.  (Islam does too, starting their new year, I believe, immediately after Ramadan ends (or just as it begins).  Or at least so I think.)  I would suggest that you go to and ask her for the religious and historical reasons why the Jewish year begins in the fall.  Suffice for this blog, I’m just very glad they do since I do too and so I believe they’re making a judicious choice.  By the way, Judaism still uses a Lunar Calendar and begins its count of the years with, and this time I’m really guessing, the building of the Second Temple (Solomon’s, I believe) or with the destruction of that temple.

That’s actually an interesting topic in itself that I will confine to a paragraph rather than the treatise it deserves: the way we count the years.  Currently, in this country and through most of what we fondly call, even if we are bragging, the first world, we count the years as B.C.E or A.C.E.  This means “before the common era” and “after the common era.”  When I was girl, it wasn’t quite so politically correct or religiously neutral.  It was B.C. or A.D., meaning “before Christ” (or the Latin version of that, which used the same initials) and “Anno Domini”, which means “year of our Lord”.  (I used to think it meant “after death” (not same initials), which would seem to leave out the 32 (36?) years of His life.)  Among the troubles this created was that it felt at the least puzzling and possibly at the most offensive to those in the world who weren’t Christian but were expected to count the years according to the birth of a (to them) probably mythical human.  But that’s not all, of course.  In the first place, according to the Bible itself, Jesus must have been born in the spring because the shepherds were out with their flocks and it was lambing time.  Apparently in that time and place, shepherds and flocks are not out in the pastures and hills in the middle of winter.  (Christmas was dated by early popes to coincide with the Roman Saturnalia (the Roman celebration of the returning of the sun and to give the plebs something to do other than riot) in order to camp on to the older holiday and turn it to their own purposes.  Perhaps wisely, the actual date of Christ’s birth not being listed or knowable to them, they made it in late December, at the time of the Solstice and gave the folk something to celebrate that wasn’t, well, Roman.)  In the second place, what with the calendar slippage we talk about above and various misreadings of the texts, it is exceedingly likely that Jesus was born either (and this I just can’t remember) about three or six years before the year that is considered for calendar purposes to be the year of his birth (or the same number of years after).  So, basically, Jesus was born before his birthdate or after it.  Oh well.  In any event, B.C.E. dates are counted backwards (thus, 3000 B.C.E. takes place before 2000 B.C.E.), which adds to the carefree, antic sense of confusion.  As I’ve made clear (or muddy), I’m not exactly sure what Day One is considered to be in the Jewish Calendar, except it has something to do with the temple in Jerusalem.  I believe in the Islamic world, the birthdate of Mohammed is Day One.  Chinese year counting has to do with the establishment of the First (I believe) Dynasty, which is a really long time ago.  Every culture has its own beginning date, of course, and they’re all different.

Bust of Julius Caesar from the British Museum

Bust of Julius Caesar from the British Museum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By the way, since we were talking about the Julian Calendar way up there at the top of this essay, I should point out that the Romans started their count with the date Julius Caesar became the consul of Rome.  I think.  Or it might have been his birthdate.  (Or even the mythical date that Rome was established by Romulus.  Whatever happened to Remus, by the way?) Also by the way, in an effort to help you win trivia contests, it is apparently not true that Julius Caesar was born via Caesarean Section (thus naming it), because while this method of birth did take place, it apparently always (or virtually so) killed the mother, and Caesar’s mother was very much alive until his adulthood at the very least.  Also, the word Caesar (from which we now derive Kaiser and Czar and other terms for kingship) was, first, pronounced with a hard “c”, so it didn’t sound like “seezar” but like “Kaiser”, second, simply one of his names and not a title until after Octavian changed his own name to the title/name “Augustus Caesar” many years later, and third, did not at any time in Caesar’s life denote his status.  Finally, he did not consider himself to be Emporer of Rome, but called himself (as did a couple of generations of his successors) First Consul of Rome.  Which is a distinction without a difference.

And this essay started out to be what I love about September and fall and the beginning of the year, so I’ll end just by saying that the ending of the hot weather, the starting of the turning of leaves and crispness of air and wonderful fall vegetables, fruits and so forth, are just the beginning.  Although I didn’t like school, I loved the getting ready for it.  The new clothes and shoes, the pencil box (look this up, you’ll be surprised, it was a Very Big Deal for little kids in my era), the new Chief Tablet (red cover with a black drawing of a Sioux Chief in war bonnet), notebooks, a school bag (not in my time a backpack, which only weird hikers knew about), plaid skirts and knee socks and saddle shoes, in short, all the accoutrements of being a grade schooler in public school in the fifties, I still remember them fondly and with nostalgia.  And I remember my mother’s wonderful fall meals, the stews and spare ribs and pork chops and potatoes, to mention nothing of her vegetable soup, her homemade bread, her chili, her apple and cherry and pumpkin pies.  Fall food is still my favorite–you get the last of the summer tomatoes and corn and all the new potatoes and beets and onions and carrots, plus the smells.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing, as wonderful as being a very hungry grade schooler on a chilly day running home and slamming into the kitchen where everything smells of freshly baking bread and a vegetable/beef soup that has been simmering for hours.  This is something (minus the bread) that I do for myself when it gets to be chilly enough weather even now, using a Crock Pot and one of my mother’s recipes.  It is truly wonderful.  It is how I imagine those old cultures like the Celts celebrated their relief that, no matter what, their tribe had enough to eat for the cold, drear winter, and I would imagine they had stews and soups too that drew the men, women and children of the family home to sniff and revel and eat, to roll themselves into fur robes and watch the dying fire and tell stories of great deeds until they slept, bellies full, food stored, frightening animals and humans kept out by palisades, safe and warm and ready for the next adventure, the new year.

Vegetable Soup

Vegetable Soup

(And I didn’t look up one thing, which is not something that in the ordinary course of events I should celebrate, I know.)

Have a wonderful fall, at whatever time of year yours takes place, and enjoy the Harvest Home.

Winter solstice
Winter solstice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


August full moon

August full moon (Photo credit: Stelios Kiousis)

It is now August and those of us who, whether by choice or simply because here we are, deal with tourists on a daily basis are beginning to grit our teeth when we smile.  It’s not actually the tourists’ fault, I suppose, it’s just that there are so many of them.  This is of course a very good thing for our small town’s economy, but a mountain valley town with one main street, no matter how hard we try, is not really well constituted to accommodate daily influxes of 85,000 or so people, none of whom really know the area and most of whom seem to think they’d lose their amateur standing if they looked at a map.

I have commented on the ways tourists behave in the supermarket before.  I have compared getting through Estes Park on its one street (Elkhorn) to attempting to get crosstown in midtown Manhattan.  I have pointed out that elkjams are a lot of fun for tourists, not so much for locals trying to get to the post office and probably not as much fun as advertised for the elk.  (Mostly, this time of year they’re in the high country, which is cooler, so they’re harder to spot anyway.)  So what is it that makes all this more interesting (I was going to write “annoying”, but I’m snarky enough right now and am trying to be pleasant) now than say, in June or July?

Traditionally, it is simply weariness.  When the tourists first come back (like the swallows to Capistrano and for the same reason), townspeople whose livelihoods depend on the tourist dollar are so RELIEVED.  The cash cow will moo once more.  And, let’s face it, there are moments in this paradise of ours, moments we call January, February, March and April, where paradise has some ragged edges, mostly brought about by the incessant wind.  And we get tired of our own company, too.  It never gets less strange being the only customers in a restaurant (survival tips for winter restaurant dining in Estes Park:  don’t go out on Monday, a lot of places are closed or should be; memorize when the Sysco truck deliveries are so you can be more sure of relatively fresh food; go to the several truly popular places because they won’t be holding on to the food as long as humanly possible and there will be other people there, although not on Monday; order something that would definitely have been frozen, since thawing a frozen entree can at least assure you of the smallest amount of bacterial life, whereas “fresh” definitely would not).

So, the tourists are very very very welcome and we worry when they’re not enough of them.  The shops furbish themselves up, the new shops put on their brave displays, and we smile benignly when the visitors stand in the middle of the sidewalk making it impossible to turn your car left, right or go straight.  They’re HERE!  Everybody smiles and it’s a real smile, and when the cash registers start to ka-ching, we hope it’ll be a good summer, because that means a winter in which we can actually make ends meet or at least wave at each other.  So June is good.

Then, as summer wends its way through July, fresh Colorado produce actually makes it all the way up here and turns up on restaurant menus and even in Safeway, the afternoon thundershowers keep things green and pretty and cut the dust (and pull the tourists into the shops until the big drops stop splatting) and the locals get used to not being able to make a left turn and figure out their favorite this-summer way to avoid downtown in their errands.  The summer residents come back, which sort of makes up for the fact that social life takes a nosedive because people are so busy running shops and catering to the tourists, and all the houses that can look a little empty in the wintertime have kids playing some kind of ball in the front yard, and chairs pulled out under the trees to catch the fresh breezes and look at the mountains.  Hikers are all over the place, most of them, thank heavens, staying on the hiking trails.  And the wildlife, looking sleek and well-fed, delight everyone.  (Estes Park, because it has a lake, is a favorite stopping off point for birds, especially, migrating to and from summer and winter feeding areas, so June and August are filled with birds you would never expect in the mountains so far from an ocean, including pelicans, ibis, egrets, even seagulls.  And of course we have the occasional trumpeter swan, lots of Canada geese, ducks, each lady duck trailing her own little comet tail of fluffy ducklings, our own bluebirds, Stellar Jays, hummingbirds (more than three species, all of which fight over any and every red flower and/or feeder–fierce tiny creatures), and eagles and hawks.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our mammalian wildlife ranges from miniature chipmunks who dart around almost too fast to see to moose, who are newly arrived and seem to like it here.  We have a couple of beaver dams in the Estes valley, although most of these industrious creatures stay well away from humans because they know how much we like (for various reasons) to disturb or destroy their dams.  We have predators too, of which most people see only the black bears (oddly enough, they look cuddly but are NOT, and in many ways are more dangerous than the mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes who are also make these mountains their home).  And elk, deer and bighorn sheep, most of which are sleekening up for the rutting season to come up in the high country.

Moose -animal - Wildlife - Alaska

Moose (Photo credit: blmiers2)

Estes Park, in addition to very few streets, a huge and glorious national park, lots of high mountains and tiny gem-like lakes, hiking trails and wildlife, also has two golf courses, a go-kart track, a “family fun” center (which is hideous but which apparently makes money hand over fist), miniature golf courses almost without number, an aerial tramway, and rivers that always are festooned with fly fishermen in the summertime.  We also have a “fairgrounds” (so-called, but all the signs say Stanley Park), with a horse show or an exhibition every weekend.  So there’s lots to do, and a lot of people to do it, and if they’re also spending lots of money and filling up the motels, hotels, B&Bs, condo rentals and restaurants, there’s a lot of smiles on the faces of the locals, even if they do start looking a little weary.  (If you run a shop or a motel, your daily worklife lasts at least 10 hours and usually runs from practically dawn to midnight.)


August (Photo credit: randihausken)

So now that it’s August, it isn’t that the tourists are, in themselves, worse.  It’s just that our smiles are wearing thin, the elkjams are getting annoying instead of charming, and why is it that nobody’s kids have any manners any more?  You see, now we all just want the visitors to come, look around and gawp, spend all their money as quickly as possible, and leave, preferably in about three days.  Or three hours, if we could manage it.  We’re tired.  And disgruntled.  And soooooo ready for them all to go home and back to school and leave use our town for ourselves for a while.

Of course, there will still be the blip that comes during the autumn color season and the elk rut, but that’s smaller and we’ve caught our breath a bit and quite a few of us have looked at the books and realize that winter will be a lot nicer if we get a whole lot of people coming to see the elk play and aspen turn.

And then, of course, being human, we complain that the tourists are all gone too early and we didn’t make our nut and what is winter going to be like?  And so it starts up all over again.

But right now, it’s August, and we really wish, in our hearts of hearts, that they all would just go home.

Estes Park, Colorado

Estes Park, Colorado (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Guesting in Colorado’s Summertime

Panorama of Estes Park, , , taken at an altitu...

Panorama of Estes Park, , , taken at an altitude of about 9,000 feet. Picture is taken from the mountains around Gem Lake, north of the town. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some very good friends visited me in Estes Park for about a week and a half.  They flew back to Los Angeles yesterday (in an airplane, of course) and Nico, Bella and I are still feeling a bit lonesome.  While I enjoy living on my own with a couple of cats, it was a real pleasure to have compatible and interesting people around to talk with while eating breakfast, strolling down Elkhorn to look at all the shops, and to drive to various other pretty places in Colorado to tour and take part in summer.

We’ve had, as a state, a frightening summer so far, as probably everybody knows by now.  Wildfires all over the place after a very dry spring and an exceedingly hot June, causing more damage and loss of property (homes especially) than ever before in our history, apparently.  During June, I was evacuated from my house for a few hours while they got the Woodland Heights fire under control (thank you, thank you, thank you to our fire fighters and the helicopters and tanker planes that spent those hours away from the High Park fire to contain our much smaller (but very close to our downtown) blaze).  I was very fortunate indeed.  The adult children of some dear friends of mine were evacuated because of the Waldo Canyon fire for six days and they are lucky too, because apart from smoke residue, their house was untouched.  So many people lost their homes, and still they are grateful because the system of “reverse 911” and public warnings, as well as the fire fighting itself, saved lives.  We lost irreplaceable people, of course, but there was much less loss of life than such horrific, fast-moving and hot fires would seem to predict.

Waldo Canyon Fire

Waldo Canyon Fire (Photo credit: lars hammar)

On a personal and much less important note, I spent most of June with an upper respiratory infection, feeling rather punk and without energy.  When the fire danger became extreme, everybody living in Colorado spent a nervous time, worried about thunderstorms (much needed for rain but the lightning could start another fire),  smelling smoke whether there was smoke in the air or not, and jumping every time we heard a siren.  Between coughing like Camille and sudden heart acceleration any time I thought I smelled smoke, a great many of the (probably a little too elaborate anyway) plans I had been making for my summer guests got simplified, but in retrospect that was undoubtedly a good thing.

On the day they arrived, wind from the north brought a great deal of smoke down from the Wyoming and Montana fires and one of my guests, who has allergies, was having a hard time, even up in Estes, which had clearer (but not clear) air.  Luckily, by the next day, the wind had shifted and the smoke was mostly gone.  And the rains came.  While normally one doesn’t cheer the onset of pouring rain during a summer vacation, we were all delighted for so many reasons:  primarily, of course, because the rain was a good soaking rain which lowered the fire danger considerably; but also because it cleaned the air and it made Estes Park cooler and with its typical clean, pine- and sage-scented air, which our lungs simply drank in.

It was a bit harder to love, love, love all that rain on the Saturday of their visit, when our plans included seeing Richard III at an outdoor theater on the Colorado University campus in Boulder.  We went down early, had lunch with a friend who had moved back to Boulder but that we knew from Los Angeles, wandered the Pearl Street Promenade, and then the rains came.  In Colorado, summer rains are called, with typical hyperbole, “monsoons”.  Mostly they aren’t, but on this Saturday, it seemed as if all the water droplets in the sky over all the United States coalesced and dumped themselves on Boulder.  Sharon and I found refuge in an antique store, where I found a length of silk designed to be a sari, in changeable maroon with gold threaded woven in paisley shapes throughout.  A delicious piece of cloth that I could not resist, since I had always wanted one.  Sharon found a raw silk garment she loved equally and by the time her husband had dashed through the water and returned with the car, we were pleased with our purchases and with life in general.  But then came the time to go to the play, which, remember, was to be presented outside.  For a while, the Colorado Summer Shakespeare Festival people apparently were going to go on with the show and were planning not to give refunds.  But after a month of illness (barely over with), I simply could not sit outside in a puddle on a flagstone slab and be rained on for three hours.  Richard III would have to plot and plan and get killed on Bosworth Field without me.  As it happened, the show was canceled, which was a shame, because the reviews were marvelous and we were all looking forward to the evening.  Drat!  Sigh.

Richard III, Act 5, scene 3: Richard, played b...

Richard III, Act 5, scene 3: Richard, played by David Garrick, awakens after a nightmare visit by the ghosts of his victims. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So we squelched our way back to the car, which we had parked, at Sharon’s request, in the underground portion of the parking lot, and found a place to have dinner, an English pub, which seemed somehow appropriate.  There, they were having a trivia contest, the prize for which was $200 in cash, which we won!  We were as thrilled and “up” because of that as we had been disappointed and “down” because of not seeing Richard III.  An exceedingly volatile day.

We also had a party, to which I invited pretty much everybody I knew who lived in Estes Park, quite a few of whom came and seemed to have a very good time.  It was the first time in at least ten years I’d had a party bigger than two couples for dinner, but we all three helped prepare (I had done most of the cooking in advance and kept the items in the freezer, and we also got pre-cut items).  Joe, Sharon’s husband, kindly acted as bartender, at least to get things started, and Sharon made her Greek salad, which is the best I’ve ever tasted.  (Apparently, the guests thought so so too, because that was completely gone at the end of the evening.)

And we had a contest.  Sharon and I are co-writers of a novel,World Enough and Time, about which this blog will give more information as we get closer to a (hopeful) publication date.  (We will also have a website devoted to the novel at the right time.)  At the moment, we are working with a free-lance editor to structure the book.  In any event, during a sequence in the novel, we have one of our main characters create a summer refresher she calls “Lemon Popsicle”.  So Sharon and I decided to figure out what would be in such a drink and we put together three formulations.  We asked the party guests (those who drank alcohol, of course) to take tiny sips of all three concoctions and mark on a form which they preferred.  Virtually everyone liked the drink in the green-lidded pitcher, so we have our formulation, and the drink recipe will be found on our website once it is up and running.  I enjoyed having a somewhat big party again, and it was a good way to plunge in, with houseguests being such a good support system to get the party off and running.

English: Archipreneuer (Adam Crain's) Photo of...

English: Archipreneuer (Adam Crain’s) Photo of the Denver Art Museum by Daniel Libeskind. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We also went to Denver to see the Yves St. Laurent exhibit (and the American Indian rooms) at the Denver Art Museum, after which we enjoyed (and did we!) afternoon tea in the Atrium at the Brown Palace Hotel.  If you ever visit Denver, I can without reservation recommend both the Denver Art Museum (affectionately and locally referred to as “DAM”) and the Brown Palace for tea, dinner, lunch, staying overnight or just wandering around one of the more beautiful and beautifully restored Denver buildings.

English: my own shot; release under gfdl

The Brown Palace Hotel (Wikipedia)

Another day in Denver was spent having lunch at Casa Bonita (an experience not to be missed, but which need not be repeated) and the afternoon at Elitch Gardens Amusement and Water Park (an experience not to be missed, but which should definitely be repeated), with the most spectacular sunset in front of us as we drove back toward Boulder on our way home.  I will post (with his permission) Joe’s pictures of that sunset when he sends me a copy as he has promised.  It was Colorado putting on its best show for all of us and, not surprisingly, many people got off the Denver-Boulder highway onto a turnout to take pictures or just to experience such an amazing sunset.

And, my guests were here while our rodeo was in town.  The Rooftop Rodeo (a rodeo with altitude, as the marketing phrase would have it) has won best small rodeo in the country for several years running and they lived up to that the night went.  Really good competitors, excellently trained stock, and just lots and lots of fun.  The stands were filled with happy, screaming people, and everybody got very much into the spirit of the evening.  Sometimes it’s really good to live in (or visit) the West!

Add to that some walks, some trips into and around Rocky Mountain National Park and still a few days of simply lazing around and vacationing with plenty of good talk and (for Joe) reading through and editing the first draft of his novel, Blood in the Night, which is about vampires in Nazi Germany (not so surprisingly, I suppose, in such a milieu, the vampires are pretty much the good guys, while the Nazis are emphatically as good (meaning not at all) as they were in reality).

And now, having spent some of yesterday and today putting my house back to its normal state and missing the fun and interest of other people living in the house while thinking about dinners with friends, parties, good talk about books (both those we’re writing and those we’re reading), enjoying the ever-changing beauty of the mountains, driving to some very fine experiences and places, I find myself reflecting that the first half of July has been as much a vacation, a rest and a good time for me as for (I hope) my out-of-town guests.  And for all of us who live with this ever-present danger of fire (and sometimes flood).  Because when the rains come and soak in, it’s as if we get our beautiful state back, the one that always smells good, that may get hot during the day but is cool and delicious at night, and which has the most beautiful mountains and forests.  Not that I’m at all biased, of course.

Well, this has been a bit of a travelogue, hasn’t it, but I so enjoyed, after feeling sick and scared and worried, having good friends stay with me and going interesting places I hadn’t been in years (if ever).  Make sure, if you can, that your summer includes some guesting, whether in Colorado or wherever the place you would most like to visit actually is (which may, as in my case, be the place where you live).

Colds and Other Summer Complaints

Poster encouraging citizens to "Consult y...

Poster encouraging citizens to “Consult your Physician” for treatment of the common cold (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have a cold.  A plain, ordinary, garden-variety cold, one week coming, one week here, one week (please, please) going.  Nothing special.  Except, of course, that you would think, to listen to me and watch me as I wander the house trailing wads of Kleenex and coughing like Camille, that nobody had ever had such a serious illness before.  I do not do sick with any grace.  I am an impatient patient.  All doctors and nurses beware of me because I exasperate them into losing their bedside manners.  I’ve done it before and probably will again.

English: A small box of Kleenex.

English: A small box of Kleenex. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, this cold is perfectly ordinary, which means that I have run the gamut of sore throat, gunky cough, filled-up nose, wobbly limbs, fuzzy thinking, inability to lie down without coughing spasms, and, now, as a coup de grace, laryngitis.  Which is one reason I’m typing rather than boring my friends (well, some of them might still consider themselves friends once I’m through this siege) with my raspy voiced opinions.  And I even managed to communicate some of this to my right eye somehow, which has been, in consequence, red and weepy for two days.  It’s better today.  Wish I could say the same for the rest of my gestalt.

Those of you out there who manage, with smiling grace, grit and purpose, to live with illnesses that are debilitating or chronic or possibly life-threatening, I can only salute you and hope that you do not get a cold on top of whatever you have.  Because that will take the starch right out of your smiling grace, that’s for sure.  To mention nothing of your grit and purpose.

It is summer in Estes Park (well, it’s summer all over the northern hemisphere, but didn’t I say just above that this cold is making my thinking fuzzy?).  It is dry out here and there are wild fires and it’s quite frightening, but right now in Estes, the sky is a clear deep turquoise, the trees are just fully leafed out, the streams sparkle in the sun, and we’re filled with tourists enjoying themselves, the elk and other wildlife, and the beautiful mountains.  The city fathers and mothers have planted flowers in every possible location, and the wildflowers themselves are beginning to bloom.  And here I am in a darkened bedroom, trying to remember where I stored the last box of Kleenex and feeling sorry for myself.  Colds in the summer are redundant, unexpected, definitely unwanted, and miserable.  Phooey.

Because summer is such a wonderful thing.  All seasons are, I think, when they get started.  The first snow of winter, the first frosty nip turning the leaves in autumn, the joy of the first robin in spring, the first series of clear, bright, warm days in summer.  We get used to them, later, and wish for the next turning of the earth, but when they’re new, wow!  And I would like to be out in it, taking a walk, wandering the shops downtown, driving around my big backyard, the national park, taking part in the sun and the air and the gorgeous.

Lumpy Ridge overlooking Estes Park

Lumpy Ridge overlooking Estes Park (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Oh, it’s not that summer here in paradise doesn’t have its snakes.  The title of this essay is, after all, “Colds and Other Summer Complaints“.  For one thing, summer brings the tourists, and they bring the money that allows us all to live up here, but it’s a small town with one main street, and several side streets and in high summer, it’s impossible (while driving in a car) to turn left at any street without a dedicated left-turn signal (which is all but three of them).  Our town has perhaps a half-mile, maybe a bit more, of shops on the main street, with two intersections.  In summer, it can take as long to drive the whole length as it does to get cross-town in rush hour in Manhattan (I’ve measured).  And forget about the elkjams.  Whenever a driver in a car (tourist car, of course) spies an elk, a deer, a bear or even a rock, bush or tree that looks like an elk, deer or bear, he or she will stop wherever that happens to happen.  If you’re lucky, the car will pull to the side of the road, but that is not a given.  The pile-ups can be truly massive, again irresistibly reminding one of Manhattan at most hours of the day.  After a while, the elk, deer or bear will wander off, or the people in the cars will realize they were all looking a rock, bush or tree, and the whole thing will unsnarl, only to reform a few hundred yards down the road (Look, Ma, isn’t that a mountain goat?)  (Uh, we don’t have mountain goats in this part of the Rockies, we have bighorn sheep, which are quite shy and don’t often come downtown, so No, that’s not a mountain goat, that’s a husky.)

The people, once out of their cars (and do not get me started on trying to find a place to park) do the same things.  They will stop short on the sidewalk without giving any indication, so that others pile up behind them.  They’re also really good at walking abreast, the whole party of five, filling the sidewalk.  So, if you’re walking in the other direction, you have to step into the street.  Which is filled with cars.  And horse-drawn carriages.  Which have the right of way.  Sigh.

But all the shops are open, and the brave new shops (there are always brave new shops, some of which will disappear after a couple of years) have their brave new signs and merchandise, and if you’re trying not to regain all the weight you lost, walking down Elkhorn is hard, because there are such wonderful places to get candy and caramel corn, and taffy apples, and (best of all) saltwater taffy (best in the world) and lovely greasy hamburgers and fries, and deep-fried ice cream (you have to try it) and cherry cider (ditto).  It’s also hard to walk down Elkhorn because some of the shops have wonderful merchandise, like turquoise jewelry, and hand-thrown pots and hand-blown glass.  There’s also lots of t-shirt shops, but then again, why not?

Another summer complaint felt by all locals is just how much fun it is to go to Safeway when the tourists are stocking up for their campsite or vacation condo.  It is a kind of rule, I think, that all individual grocery stores, even in a single chain, must organize their store differently from all the others.  So you have bewildered families with crying kids standing at the end of the aisles asking all and sundry where the hot dogs are.  Surprise, they’re not exactly where you would expect them to be.  In the meat department?  How utterly boring.  No, they’re in refrigerated cases at the end of the aisles where charcoal and buns and paper napkins and whatnot are stocked.  So those of us who have run out of cat food, dish detergent or lettuce are somewhat, shall we say, impeded.  And, of course, since the store is a compromise between the size (and stock) it needs to be (and have) in the winter when it serves about 5,000 people total and in the summer, when it serves maybe 15,000 every day (at any given moment in summer Estes Park, there are at least 85,000 tourists in town, or so it seems), it’s almost impossible to get the carts through the aisles.  It’s a great opportunity to watch people caught in the act of being themselves.  Or so I tell myself.

Meanwhile, here I am, quarantined by this ordinary pestilence to my house, wishing I could be out there enjoying and complaining about summer in Estes Park.  If my eye is better, can my cough, my voice, my miseries be far behind?  Have a wonderful summer, with no colds and as few summer complaints as you can manage!

English: , USA