itch (Photo credit: brontosaurus)

One of my favorite writers, Connie Willis, in her funny and insightful “Bellwether“, coined the term ‘itch’, as in “I feel itch.”  And it means just how it sounds:  when something is coming, when something is going, when something is changing, but you’re not quite sure what it is or what to do about it.  Kind of like being “restless as a willow in a windstorm”, which is from some song or other.  (And no, I’m not going to look it up.)

Bellwether (novel)

Bellwether (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s where I am these days.

There’s an aspect to itch that might be called boredom.  There’s an aspect, for me, that is particularly Estes Park.  This time of year (winter, that is) is very hard to cope with up here (gee, like it’s easy in Minnesota).  We used to call it ‘cabin fever’, which is a lot like ‘itch’, except that cabin fever can result in some pretty spectacular responses.  Just like the Santa Anas in Southern California.  There’s a quote in Raymond Chandler: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. . . . Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”  Here in Colorado we call such winds ‘Chinooks’ and they’re a proximate cause of cabin fever.  You feel like if you’re cooped up with whomever or whatever for ONE MORE MINUTE, something really awful is going to happen.  And you can’t get out.  Not until spring.  What with cable and Internet and DVDs and better cars, we don’t see so much cabin fever these days, but itch?  Oh my yes.  I think you’d call it situational itch.  You’re going nuts within your own four walls and you want to be anywhere else.  Anywhere.  Else.  Even Arizona.

But there are other aspects to situational itch, too.  Some of it, I suppose, is the new year.  January was so promising, wasn’t it?  After all that holiday excess and celebration, we were all going to lose that weight, get in shape, de-clutter our houses.  And, of course, figure out what our lives are supposed to be about and go out and DO things.  And here it is February already, and how many of those wonderful promises have we kept?  One-twelfth of our chance to become The Best Person We Can Be is gone for another year.

Everybody goes through these times and, yes, they’re good for you if not very much fun.  It isn’t that your life has turned upside down because you won the lottery or lost your best friend.  It’s just that something within you needs to change.  You feel kind of stale.  You know that anything you think of to do–isn’t it time you folded the laundry?–is displacement activity, yet you can’t just turn into a mushroom growing out of your most comfortable chair.  Even retail therapy doesn’t work because you’ve tried to ‘fix’ whatever is going on by buying something, and it turns out when you analyze it that what you were trying to do was to fix your life.  And now you have to let the well refill before you can buy something else to distract you from itch.  And by ‘you’, of course, I mean ‘me’.

When it gets down to it, itch is about something deeper.  It is about finding your purpose in life, your reason for being.  It’s about engagement, not distraction.  This is existential itch.  Whether purpose is something we create for ourselves or comes from Somewhere Else, our deepest minds and hearts always search for it.  If you’re fresh out of purpose, that’s your itch.

Have you ever listened to a lecturer who is in love with his subject?  I remember one in particular, who taught the history of Ancient Egypt.  This man is absolutely in love with ancient Egypt.  For him, this is not a job, or even a life’s work, it’s fun, it’s a lot more fun than working.  Find something you like that much and you’ll never work another day in your life (that is, if you can figure out how to get paid for it).  So that’s one way to deal with existential itch.  Find that something.  Whew, that was easy.

Except, of course, it’s not.  Because if you’ve figured out, hooray and hallelujah, that what you want is a glorious job or a glorious partner or a world cruise, that’s wonderful, I’m happy for you, but there’s one little hiccup.  You still feel itch.  If you know what you want, then itch comes from not knowing how to get from here to there.    I guess we could call that procedural itch.

Procedural itch lets you know that your tactics and strategy are off, not your target.  Let’s say you want to star on Broadway and you’re doing everything you should be except you’re doing it in Michigan.  You may have to face up to several years of waiting tables in Brooklyn.  Or maybe you want something internal like wisdom.  Then your strategy must be more indirect.  You need to treat an abstract inner itch as if you were trying to catch a butterfly.  Crush it in your hands and it is gone, all its luster lost.  But if you hold your hand out, open, perhaps it will land, so lightly that unless you look carefully you can’t even be sure it has touched down.

Butterflies seduction.

Butterflies seduction. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And then there’s a simple fact.  Itch keeps on itching when we think we know what we want because we often fool ourselves about what we need.  Aesop was a wise old Greek when even Greece was young.  He told the story of the fox who wanted the grapes growing at the top of the arbor.  But no matter how the fox leaped and snapped and tried to climb, the grapes stayed out of his reach.  Finally, disgusted, the fox said that the grapes were undoubtedly sour and he didn’t want them anyway.  We all have a tendency to give up, to say the grapes are sour, not worth having.  And that’s probably not what the itch was trying to tell us.  You see, sometimes the grapes that are out of our reach aren’t sour, particularly, it’s just that if we reach them, actually get them, we find out in the process that what we really wanted was an orange, not grapes at all.

English: My own Work کار شخصی

Itch can be about holding on, even to a fixation that all around believe to be foolish or even crazy (we look at Steve Jobs‘ success, and we don’t remember how long everybody called him that crazy geek with the weird ideas), and yet itch can be about letting go of the grapes we didn’t want after all, and finding the orange we did.  But what itch is never about is giving up.  The real world may slap you down, may force you to face that this one particular thing, a starring role in a particular play on Broadway, a best-selling novel, the one person whom you just know would fulfill all your deepest needs (which doesn’t happen, no one person can do that and it is unfair to ask it), a teaching job at a university, is not going to happen.  Just not.  What do you do then?

That’s where itch is your friend, your subconscious working to bring you home and give you what you really want, way down deep, which is what you really need.  Itch will keep you discontented until you find your own distinctive path, and itch will push you, pull you, down that path.

If you are fixated on the one person you can’t have, then itch will let you know what you can do about it–if anything.  Victor Hugo once said, “Loving another person is to touch the face of God.”  Sometimes that has to be enough.  Eventually you may realize that your love embodies what you need in a partner, and by accepting your love of the unattainable (the grapes) you may open yourself to the attainable love that is waiting out there for you (your orange).

Sicilian oranges

Sicilian oranges (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And itch will keep on itching until you find your life’s work, or until it finds you.  Then your job is to notice that your itch has gone away and you are content.  Or something odd that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with what you think you want will happen and only by looking back will you realize that your itch helped you find what you’re really supposed to do and now you’re doing it.  Blessings.  And a tiny bit of advice.  Even as much as love, you need work to do, your real life’s work, so don’t ever give up on finding it, no matter how far away it may seem.

Or you may just have to get used to itch.  I am coming to the disconcerting conclusion that while discontent is uncomfortable, it is a much more normal state of mind for me than content.  I keep looking for a life that will make me content and since I have some (small) financial resources and good friends and a few smarts, I have been able to create that life time and again, and each and every time I do, I become discontented by that life or I screw it up.  Recognizing that I am basically discontented and that I need to be so was a big revelation to me. A good deal has happened in my soul this past year, and I feel that I have woken up in several ways.  Portions of my life that I thought I had successfully and rightly shut down are awake and itching again. But I hold onto the hope that this time I’ll find the wisdom not to engage in displacement, or distraction, or excessive retail therapy.  (Let’s be realistic here, after all.)  This time, I hope I won’t exclude the oranges in a fruitless (pun intended) quest for grapes.

There’s a tarot card called The Moon and it’s a tough card to get in a reading, because it usually means inner work, a pathway to understanding that is going to be a hard climb.  I’m on that pathway, itching all the way.  And nothing I can do will get me off that pathway until I reach the top and find what it means for me.  If itch is filling your thoughts and feelings, my only suggestion is that while doing laundry is a good thing in itself, if you’re folding the clothes only so you won’t think about what is bothering you, maybe you should stop and sit down and really ponder your itch.  See if it will let you know what it is and what it wants for you, and let it give you what you need.  And may you find your orange.

Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck, al...

Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck, also known as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thoughts Upon a Solstice, Redux


Henge_1 (Photo credit: tracko_aus)

I published this blog originally for Winter Solstice (northern hemisphere version) in 2012, and I think it may be worth another look from any or all of you who follow my blog this year too.  So I’m republishing it . . . .

In any event, I wish anybody reading this (well, in reality I wish this for people who don’t read or follow my blog too) a truly happy holiday season and the best of new years.  And, remember, if you live in the southern hemisphere, just put this aside for six months and read it in June.  Be well.

Today is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere on our planet.  Among many things, today neo-Druids celebrate the returning of the sun at henges throughout the British Isles, but most particularly at Stonehenge; while others who may have listened too much to strange folk misinterpreting the Mayan long-count calendar are in their various ways and for their various reasons relieved or disappointed that the world still seems to be somehow wobbling along.  Perhaps some of them, neo-Druidic or neo-Mayan or whatnot, arose from frantic prayer this morning with the feeling that they saved the world from oblivion.  [Remember, I wrote this in a year when some folk were convinced that the Mayan long-count calendar was coming to an end.  It wasn’t.  It didn’t.]

12-12-12 * Calendario Circular

12-12-12 * Calendario Circular (Photo credit: jacilluch)

Which is what the Winter Solstice has always been about.  When we were first getting started as a species, perhaps it didn’t matter.  Perhaps the immediate, the now, of life was all that could matter.  Can we run down that gazelle?  Are these roots edible, not poisonous, let alone palatable?  Is that fruit ripe yet and have the birds and the chimpanzees left us enough?  Is that highly smelly (and they are) lion we know is napping on the other side of the hillside going to wake up hungry or can we stay here for another sleep?   But after many thousands of years, we began to grow things on our own instead of merely finding them.  We began to raise the sweeter-natured (and dumber) babies of various kinds of useful animals to have a portable pantry instead of always having to go out and find something to eat.  And we began to notice that during the autumn of the year, the sun spent less time every day shining down on us.  More, the farther north we wandered, the shorter the day, the longer the night during the fall.  (Not to ignore the Southern Hemisphere–anyone reading this in Australia just would change the time of year by about six months and the direction from north to south to be in the same situation.  I am, unfortunately having never visited Australia or, for that matter, anywhere below the Equator, a bit Northern Hemisphere-centric.)

And, worst of all, at some time during a period of time that came to be known as a month (meaning then and now the circuit of the moon around the earth), the name of which month came to be known as December (much, much, much, much later), the sun seemed as if it was going to disappear completely, that it was going to keep on spending less time above the horizon and more below until it never came back.  Never. Came. Back.  Imagine that, if you can or will.  The people (not the Celts or the Druids by the way) who raised the henges, the priests whose job it was to bless crops and domestic animals, the populations wandering ever northward as the ice sheets receded, were pretty good jack-leg, practical astronomers, but they had no way of knowing that the sun appeared and disappeared simply because the earth rotated on an axis and revolved around that sun.  The didn’t know that the sun wasn’t doing the dancing, the disappearing and reappearing act, their own solid earth was.  In growing panic, they would watch the sun shine less and less each day.  All the Gods help us, it might at some point, perhaps because of the sinfulness of human beings (that has never changed), not come back at all.  And they were definitely smart enough to realize that without the sun nothing on earth could survive.

We mustn’t think that because the sun always came back no matter what that these tribes of human beings were silly or stupid.  After all, in this 21st century there were quite a few people who believed the world would come to an end when the particular long-count calendar the so-called experts were interpreting ended (ah, that would be this morning about 4:00 a.m.) [again, I wrote this in 2012] and we’re, after all, 21st century humans living in a highly technological civilization.  And we must remember, too, that life was usually short and a generation was considered (and still is for that matter) to be about 25 years.  Even with bards and priests and all those trained to remember the history of the tribe and the knowledge that had been gleaned over many generations, the memory faded of the days when there were no priests praying throughout the longest night so the sun would peep over the horizon again.  The priests had always prayed, always danced, always sung, begging the sun to come back, and it would always be necessary.  (This was a fairly handy situation for the priests, in my cynical (realistic?) eyes, since it certainly meant for job security.)

Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on th...

Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on the Winter Solstice in the mid 1980s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We don’t actually know what the huge stone circles were for.  The tribes who made them are long gone and their function and structure changed over time as new tribes came in and took them over.  But there are many human-made monuments, monoliths, and cut-outs in certain hills (called, I think, granges in Celtic Ireland) all over the world (except in many cases, for reasons that shall be left as an exercise for the class, immediately around the equator where the monuments seem to our eyes to be designed more for the measuring of star movement) whose function makes no sense to us until we watch the moment of sunrise on the day after the Solstice and see a beam of light hitting one particular spot in the monument.  The moment the sun comes back.  The moment of relief, of success, of validation of nights of prayer, of dance, of songs of praise.  It is really a several-day vigil, for the Solstice itself is the longest night and shortest day.  And the monuments are, if not designed so, definitely able to show the incremental increase in daylight after the Solstice each day.  After perhaps a week, the priests would be able to announce, in perfect truth, that the sun was coming back and that in a few cycles of the moon it would be time to plant once more.  They would also, of course, announce that their prayers and the sacrifices of the tribe were the reason for this bounty.  The great god behind the sun was pleased.


Newgrange (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of these days, one of these millenia, we hope many millenia from now, the sun may change from a beneficent god who makes life possible on our whirling ball of water and earth into something different.  It may explode.  It may become red and colder, making the earth unfit for habitation unless (and this too is possible) we have changed to fit the new circumstances (we have done so before).  It may wink out one day.  Stars do that, and our sun is merely a star among the billions of stars in our galaxy, amidst the billions of galaxies in our universe.  But until that day, the Winter Solstice will happen in the Northern Hemisphere every year, just as it does six months later in the Southern Hemisphere every year, and the sun will come back to make spring possible, to make food possible, to make life possible.  And the winter will be gone, one more time.

So this day is a marker of hope, still and forever while we live only here on this planet and are as we are, utterly dependent on the sun for everything.  Everything.  And we should, I think, even in our sophistication, give a prayer of thanks that this be so.  Religions throughout the history of the world have done so.  Almost all of them have called the celebration of the Winter Solstice a feast of light in one way or the other.  In Jewish tradition, there is Hanukkah, a celebration of a time when the perpetual lamp in the Inner Temple could have gone out but did not because of a miracle.  In Christianity, there are many references to light and the returning of light.  The Christmas tree began as a way of celebrating Christ’s eternal power and meaning.  The evergreen does not lose its leaves in the winter and the lights we put on it symbolize “the light of the world.” Christ, who was born, or so say the priests, on a day less than a week after the Solstice when it could be and was proved that the sun was coming back for another year has always been associated with light.  (That Jesus was probably born in the spring because the shepherds were out with their flocks, thus, at lambing time, is merely a more likely supposition and has very little to do with the symbolism of the timing of his birth.  Many religious scholars and historians say that the Christian Church moved the feast of Christ’s birth to Solstice in order to pre-empt the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which was yet another religious feast day celebrating the Solstice.)  Other religions have similar feasts.  And our old friend the Mayan long-count calendar begins and ends on the Winter Solstice.

candlelit Christmas tree

candlelit Christmas tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(Just to be clear, the Mayans, who were apparently brilliant astronomers, had many calendars that counted different cycles, some as short as a few months, some as long as millions of years.  The long-count calendar that got some people in such an uproar  measured a kind of medium-long cycle.  Some of these different measurings of time began and ended on the Winter Solstice.  I don’t know if all do, and at least one source I’ve read said the ending of each calendar was for symmetry’s sake and the beginning of each calendar’s measuring period would be a Solstice primarily for convenience because this is a date easy to pin down. I know very little about the reasons for these differently-counted calendars of theirs, and anthropologists, while learning more all the time, are still more or less at the beginning of figuring this out.  I recommend anyone interested to click on the link “Mayan long-count calendar” in this essay for more information.)

For the time being (and I recommend without stint W.H. Auden’s long poem “For the Time Being” about what happens to each of us during and because of Christmas, which is my own tradition of celebrating the return of light to the world), the Solstice is happening once more.  The sun will come back after this shortest night of the year.  The world will rumble on and most of us will try to make the best of it and some of us, sadly, will still try to make the worst of it.   In honor of the Solstice, in honor of all the people throughout the history of our species who have prayed and danced and sung the sun back above the horizon, this year I will try to see past the Christmas tree and the presents and the special foods and the candles and twinkly sparkly lights all over the place to a calmer center point where the grand dance of our home bringing back the sun to warm us and nurture us continues.  And I will give praise and thanks.

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

Consciousness–Part One

Cosmic Consciousness

Cosmic Consciousness (Photo credit: Rainbow Gryphon)

A dear friend and I have been talking about this concept.  She read in a “Scientific American” column that current brain research states that there can be no consciousness and therefore no self without a body to put it in.  I can’t find my copy of this particular issue, so this is all I have to go on right now, but I do know that scientists have so far been unable to prove otherwise and for them (and for my friend) there can be no knowledge, no truth, without proof.  Indeed, some scientists seem to develop a level of smugness regarding this issue, rather as if they were the only fonts of wisdom and the rest of us poor souls are living in a fools’ paradise thinking that there is anything other than electric synapses and what we can see, feel and touch.  My friend needs such proof herself and is quite depressed at the loss of a link to some kind of purpose in life, some larger something that we are here to do.

My last post touched on this:  whether beings have a purpose, have lives determined for them by outside forces, or are completely autonomous and subject only to random chance.  But my friend brought me a much larger issue, that of whether there is anything apart from the self-determinism of chemical and electrical brain function; in other words, a soul.  In fact, she also brought to me the issue of whether only proof, primarily by the scientific method, can arrive at truth.  And she reiterated the issue of outside forces acting upon living beings.  That is, apart from what humans loosely call the forces of nature.

English: Flowchart of the steps in the Scienti...

English: Flowchart of the steps in the Scientific Method (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Her points were these:

Firstly, that if consciousness can only reside within a physical matrix, believing in a soul, which by definition is not connected to a physical body, must mean that the person believing such a thing believes in elves and fairies and ghosts.  All or nothing.  She stated that one cannot believe in one incorporeal, metaphysical thing and not believe in all of them.

Secondly, she returned to an older discussion of ours.  What is the purpose of living, of having a self?  We had talked before about reincarnation, about living serial lives in this world or in others.  Her question then became why can she not remember any of those other lives?  What purpose could they possibly serve if there is no memory of past lives, from which to learn and improve.

Thirdly, and this was more implicit than explicit in our conversation, if this is all there is, if we are an accidental combination of electricity and chemicals, how did consciousness arise?  The latest studies indicate that consciousness does not survive the death of the physical structure in which it is housed.  If so, that’s final and all our striving is worthless.

My answers and comments during our conversation were by no means singularized by intellect or wisdom.  She caught me rather flat-footed, because I have no idea how to have a discussion regarding the proof of something that I do not think can be known using the scientific method.  Which, of course, led us to a brisk exchange regarding the circular reasoning of concepts of faith and belief.  We both agree that the idea that belief will bring you to knowledge and truth begs its own questions.  So that’s not helpful.  And belief–faith–is one of the reasons the scientific method was promulgated to start with.  Stating that the sun goes around the earth because it’s written in the Bible and that’s what received wisdom says doesn’t help us arrive at truth.  It forces an already provided truth upon us.  The statement doesn’t answer the why of the whole thing and it doesn’t allow for any curiosity.  It is that it is.

Remember that sentence, because we will return to it.  Probably in another post, the way this is going.

In the meantime, let’s go through my responses to my friend’s concerns.

Firstly, I sort of flapped around like a chicken trying to get off the ground, but when I managed to think of something, anything, I did come up with the idea that a soul is, by its nature, not measurable in any kind of physical way.  (See above paragraphs about belief being a circular system and you’ll see how well this went.  My friend may be upset about the idea, but she’s anything but stupid.)

Secondly, I suggested that if consciousness ends upon death, we won’t know.  It won’t be just me who ends when I die, but the entire universe, since I will no longer be “conscious” to perceive it.  Thus turning (without meaning to) the whole discussion into solipsism.  Sigh.  She also pointed this out.  I was about to go into my very imperfect understanding of phenomenology (see Husserl and Heidegger), but she’d gotten to me with the solipsism problem.

Thirdly, I tried to discuss it from the point of view of the “Ich”, which is a term she and I came up with in a prior conversation.  It’s German for “I”.  We used it to designate a soul, a consciousness, that always exists, whether the container dies or not.  I have always believed, with of course no possible evidence, that if the universe does not die with me, then I (or rather, my “Ich”) does not die, but continues throughout the universe and beyond, because there has always been and always will be my unique “Ich”.  This isn’t just solipsism, by the way, but a pervasive ego that I try not to show too often to the world.   But of course my argument here is that we all have one, every being that ever lived.

This belief of mine has a corollary, which makes even less logical sense.  The corollary states that it may not be so that the “Ich” persists and is singular.  It may simply be that there is always an “Ich”, even if there is no connection between the bodies containing that “Ich” from lifetime to lifetime.  English, unfortunately, is NOT good at these kinds of constructs.  But then, neither am I.  The basic theory, that there is always an “Ich”, could, in this idea, be simply that when one “Ich” dies as the body does, another is born, into another body.  I am finding it impossible to put this into words.  But then, the thought processes I’m pursuing are a little inchoate in and of themselves.  Very well, what I mean by “Ich” simply means self-awareness.  The fact, and this is indeed a fact, is that I am self-aware, because I have a unique consciousness that resides only inside this container, and so I look out at the universe from within this container and move within the world as a self-directed living being who can and does contemplate these fuzzy philosophical concepts.  My friend’s response to this was basically “what good is that if there’s no connection?”  How can there be any purpose, and reason, for there to be an “Ich” if there’s no connection, no memory, no way to LEARN?

Hindus believe the self or soul (atman) repeat...

Hindus believe the self or soul (atman) repeatedly takes on a physical body. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At that point, while my mind was bubbling over with wildly illogical and half-formed thoughts, we had to end the conversation because of an appointment she had, and there is where the whole thing was left.

So now, in an attempt to think through the whole thing, I am writing it down, as best I can remember, from our conversation.  Unfortunately, I have read only the basics of philosophy, so I am thinking about concepts I don’t fully understand.  And tying the whole meshugas to religion isn’t really helpful because, again, belief and faith are circular systems, containing within them their own reasons and their own logical fallacies.

The basic situation is this:  The scientific method can discover and pursue and experiment with anything that leaves a physical trace.  So of course it can detect consciousness in the electrical and chemical activity of the brain.  And so of course it cannot detect and therefore prove any phenomenon which does NOT leave a physical trace.  Oddly enough, in the outer reaches of quantum physics, apparently there are particles which behave in a way that seems, shall we say, quizzical, in light of my above sentences.  And there is always “Schrödinger’s Cat”, which is shorthand for a thought experiment in which a cat is put in a steel box with a bit of nuclear material which decays in one of two ways.  In one way, nothing else happens.  In the other, the nuclear material decaying breaks a bottle of hydrocyanic acid, which kills the cat.  Schrödinger’s point was that until the box is opened, it is impossible to determine whether or not the cat is dead.  Apart from being very hard on the (theoretical) cat, the whole concept makes my head ache, as it did and still does make the heads of physicists ache.  Physicists, and this is my point, have, by taking one step after another using the scientific method rigorously, found themselves floating in a space made up of objects that are not objects, processes that cannot be pinned down, waves turning into particles, particles buzzing around like bees and interacting with waves that, meanwhile, are not acting like waves, and with everything in the universe being modified by time and thus turning into strings.   And we can’t know what they’re all doing until we open the box.

The universe, it seems, may be as fuzzy as the concepts of consciousness, soul, life everlasting and purpose that I am reaching for.  From this rather strange perspective, it seems that proof itself, with its concomitant ability to know anything at all, may have to become as fuzzy as Schrödinger’s cat.  This does not help my friend with her dilemma, or me with mine.  But it opens a vast array of possibilities.

Including, of course, how all this got started.  The Godhead?  Or itself?  An outside force?  Or an internal chaos that resolves into form?  And that becomes one of the big questions for humans pondering the point of it all.  Because with one end of this spectrum, we get purpose.  With the other, we don’t.

My preference in this duality is definitely for purpose.  I believe that the universe has a reason for existence, and us within it.  Because my consciousness, my soul, is currently imprisoned in this physical container, I cannot think about what this reason is with facility, because it is too alien for electrical synapses and chemical reactions to parse.  But I know there is a reason for our existence, even if I have no idea what that reason is.  Even if the reason it so far away from the abilities of any electrical synapse to ever know.  I do think that consciousness, defined by both scientists and me to be a result of electrical synapses and chemical reactions, does indeed die with the body.  But I also believe that I have a soul that is not material and not a function of electricity, chemicals or particles whizzing around the universe.  I believe that my soul will survive my physical death, and that it has a purpose for its survival which will be either revealed to me or that I will figure out.  And possibly even modify.  Because otherwise this huge clockwork, this whizzing of particles and foaming of waves and formation of strings, makes no sense.  No, I don’t think it’s just for me, all this purpose and meaning.  But I think I am a part of it all, a persistent and perpetual part.  And if that means I also need to believe in fairies and ghosts and elves and even unicorns, well, I already do.

Speaking of parts, this is Part I of this discussion.  My friend and I will not cease talking about this.  And next time, I will write, perhaps, about my take on some of the theories about what happens next.  We’ll all see if they make any kind of sense.

Scientific American

Scientific American (Photo credit: FeeBeeDee)