Saturday, October 29, 2011

The True Meaning of Halloween

The scene out my back window right now. Yeah, that's snow.
As I'm sure some of you know, Halloween has its origin in the Celtic festival held on November 1st; the Irish called it Samhain (and the Scots call it Samhuinn, which is essentially the same thing), the Welsh call it Calan Gaeaf; the former means "End of Summer" and the latter "The First Day of Winter". And while there are lots of associations with things like faeries and ghosts and a thin veil between this world and the Otherworld, it's also deeply associated with the harvest, with getting the food in for the winter.

Because the holiday we now call Halloween was originally the eve of the first day of winter, as evident in the names I listed above. This, of course, is why the winter solstice is called Midwinter--because it fell between the beginning of winter on November 1st, and the end of winter on February 1, called Imbolc in Irish and Candlemas in English (and surviving in the US as Groundhog's Day, which has its own tradition of predicting the coming of spring).

Halloween is the beginning of winter. We're far enough from the equinox to notice that the nights are getting longer, the weather is cold, the mornings have frost. It's not hard to see how this transition, this slide into the dark time of the year brought us associations with death; the plants are dying, the harvest is reaped, the animals are slaughtered* to be cured and eaten over the winter. It's only natural that death is on the mind, and from that closeness with our dying environment, we draw closer to our own departed.  Both the Dead and Winter are integral parts of Halloween; in fact, I'd say they're inseparable.

So it's with no small amount of amusement and annoyance** that I woke up to see it snowing on October 29th. It's really unusual for us to get snow in October here in the Philly suburbs; I mean, we've occasionally gotten a few flakes, but so far we've got at least three inches, probably four, and it's not going to stop snowing until tonight. We're not ready for this kind of weather--none of us were. Our decorations are getting blasted by the wind and snow; I hope that the rubber bats and spider don't disappear on us.

So my husband and I are spending the day watching Halloween cartoons, eating the food for a cancelled party, and drinking, and occasionally going out to shovel the walk.

We're getting the real meaning of this old Celtic holiday--winter isn't coming, it's already here, kids.

Consider this Nature's Trick; the treat is... um... I guess it looks nice?

*In fact, in Welsh the month of November is called Tachwedd meaning "slaughter"; compare with the Anglo-Saxon name for November, Blōtmōnaþ, "blood month".

**Annoyance, as it has resulted in me having to postpone my Halloween party for a week. At which point it's not a Halloween party, is it? I guess we'll call it a Guy Fawkes Party, or something.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

My Husband Has Accused Me Of Being a Hobbit

A trip to the Lansdale Farmers' Market on Saturday gave me a chance to pick up some fresh mushrooms--in this case, portobello and shitake. Now, living in southeastern Pennsylvania, we are lucky to live in mushroom central, and so the mushrooms you pick up are often picked within a few days, unlike what you get at the supermarket. (This particular provider also picks local wild mushrooms, like Hen of the Woods, which I'll have to try next time--which means more soup!)

What does any of this have to do with the usual geeky content of this blog? My husband, seeing me so excited about the mushrooms, accused me of being a hobbit:
Hobbits have a passion for mushrooms, surpassing even the greediest likings of Big People. A fact which partly explains young Frodo's long expeditions to the renowned fields of the Marish, and the wrath of the injured Maggot.
Yeah, there's a lot of eating in Lord of the Rings, and much of it involves mushrooms.

And so today I decided to try and make my own mushroom soup. See, one of the things I liked at my old job was the soup in the cafeteria--it was just Au Bon Pain, but the mushroom bisque was really delicious (if probably horribly fatty). It's simple enough, actually--especially since I cheated a little and used beef bouillon for the base. (Hey, after making navy bean soup from scratch, including boiling a ham bone for a couple of hours, bouillon feels like a cheat.) Also, a little bit of cream and a lot of roue works just as well (for me) as a lot of cream. I'm sure my doctor will appreciate that.

I also racked the mead I started in January; that will hopefully head out as Christmas gifts.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Into the Dark

September in Valley Green
So autumn begins, though you wouldn't know it from the weather we're having here in Philly--it's warm and rainy, like most of August was. In fact, it's been raining so much that the foundations of the porch I share with my neighbors is about to wash away.

It was a bipolar summer, swinging between a dangerously dry July that seemed to stay somewhere in the low 100s, and an August and September that was beset by two hurricanes, floods, and on top of it all, an earthquake.

It's a rainy night, and from here on out--at least until the winter solstice--every night will be longer than the last one. Each day is darker.

Maybe it's just the mood of... well, the whole damn world. Not that long ago, London was up in flames; riots in Europe and an Arab Uprising that, despite real success in Tunisia and at least partial success in Egypt and Libya, seems to be stalling in places like Syria. No one seems to know whether the Euro is going to completely fall apart; whether the U.S. is going back into a technical recession (though, as someone who can't find a full-time job no matter how many resumes I send out and interviews I go on, I don't care if it's a technical recession or not, it feels like a depression to me). No one knows what's going on, only that it feels like the world is on the edge of a precipice.

But maybe that's just the Dark talking. This is the time of year when markets crash and seasonal depression sets in and all the promise of spring, well, it gave way to summer, but now summer is gone--no more trips to the beach, lazy afternoons by the pool or open fire hydrant, no more barbeques or picnics... Because it'll be cold and dark and wet and miserable...

Of course, autumn has wonderful things--arguably the best food (as someone who loves turkey and pumpkin pie and apple cider), and the best holidays (because yes, I'm already planning my Halloween party). And Oktoberfest--let's not forget that. But... but it's dark, and the cold sets in, and the anxiety of the holidays (and the bills that come after) are looming on the horizon.

But... But... It's temporary. All things are temporary. The darkness is temporary. The cold is temporary. The recession is temporary. That's why the year is a wheel--it all comes around again.

I keep thinking back to the Rally for Sanity last year, when Jon Stewart said "These are hard times, not end times." There is an apocalyptic undertone to American culture, and probably always has been, since religious extremists in funny hats came here to build their shining city on a hill. But that's not how things actually work--we're not moving towards an endpoint, an Armageddon followed by Utopia. Everything is temporary, whether it's the darkness that comes from an axial tilt, or the lack of money in my back account, or even your life.

At least, that's what I keep telling myself. But in the meantime, it's going to get dark and cold, and we have to survive it. Everything's temporary, but we still have to get through it.

Well, to leave on a happier note, go check out some pictures of this year's Loughcrew equinox sunrise; like Newgrange, it's a chambered mound aligned with the sunrise, in this case with the equinoxes (Newgrange, course, is aligned with the winter solstice).

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

The Atlantic makes the argument that R.E.M. was "America's Greatest Band":
Try naming another rock group without a traditional sex symbol on its roster that released only very-good albums for its first 16 years of existence—albums that were willfully arty and seemingly uncommercial and yet continually built the band's following. That's a lot to do, for what amounts to an incredibly long time in the fickle world of pop music.
I won't say they were the greatest band (though the article qualifies this by adding up longevity of career, longevity of quality, and depth of influence--Nirvana? Wilco? the Decemberists? should I go on?--making a good argument), but they were undoubtedly my favorite, and the first band I became really obsessed with. When I got my first guitar, I spent hours in the basement, trying to teach myself "It's the End of the World"; and the absolute joy I felt when I figured out Peter Buck was using droning string on "7 Chinese Bros." is probably never going to be paralleled, at least in terms of playing music--so simple, but there it was.

Yeah, that's about how I'm feeling right now.
There was this one Friday, in May of 1992, which changed my life. I was thirteen, and stuck in junior high. Now, my cousin gave me her tapes of Green and Out of Time, since she'd replaced them with cds. And so I played them, and loved them, but didn't really go beyond that. And then I saw R.E.M. on a rerun of Unplugged. Disregard the ultimate quality of the performance--me, I hate the sound of those amplified acoustic guitars that sound so nylon-y--because that's not what's important. I heard "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" for the first time.

And I was mesmerized by the rapid fire of words and images. The next day I took my allowance money, walked to the Ames the next town over--because this was all before Amazon and Napster, and hell, I lived in a small town in rural Pennsylvania, and the closest record store was a Sam Goodies at the Coventry Mall ten miles away--and bought a cassette tape of Document.  This was the first album I ever bought. I spent an entire weekend trying to memorize the lyrics, constantly rewinding and replaying the song. Over and over again. Mesmerized.  And because of that, I wanted to learn guitar, and I wanted to form a band. Music suddenly seemed like more than silly pop songs about love. Music had meaning, music could make you think, music was an overload. Music could promulgate ideas. From this song, I suddenly dived into the world of rock and roll, and my whole world, the old order, collapsed. Music was no longer a thing in the background , or something you have to sing in church. It was something that took you over, possessed you.

And R.E.M. sang about a world that was, in some ways, familiar; rural Pennsylvania in the late 80s-early 90s was probably a little closer to the Southern Gothic (right down to Confederate flags, which were and are unnervingly popular in the area) they sang about than anything I heard coming from the radio in 1991 (with the obvious example of Nirvana's Nevemind, which hit home in a somewhat different way--but the twenty years since that album's release is something for another post). I can practically feel the humidity just thinking about long, hot summers walking around the small town I lived in, walkman playing Fables or Reckoning. And I think I'll always associate Murmur with autumn, not only because of that famous cover of kudzu, but because of when I bought it and played the tape until it began to warp.

It's a little weird to think about how much R.E.M. formed me: I started reading Faulkner because the band said Fables of the Reconstruction was greatly influenced by him, especially The Sound and the Fury (which then became a favorite, if confusing, book). I started reading the Beats for the same reason--because R.E.M. talked about Kerouac and On the Road in interviews. I got into Big Star and the Velvet Underground and Patti Smith and Television and hell, I even learned to look past the songs about cars and surfing and girls to discover how awesome and sad and gorgeous the Beach Boys songs really were, all because of R.E.M.  I bought the Replacements' Let It Be because Peter Buck played on one track--"I Will Dare", which fourteen years later would be played at my wedding--and was subsequently sucked into that band's mythology.

And yeah, I could talk about politics, because they were undoubtedly political, but I think I would have turned out a liberal anyway; I was already on that road. Besides, I think getting your politics from artists isn't always the best idea.

So I can't help but ignore people who say "Well, they sucked now anyway." Because for me, R.E.M. aren't just the last few lackluster albums. They're the band I was listening to, thirteen and lonely and trying to figure out who I was. They're the band that introduced me to music and books and art, the band that made me who I am today.

Well, them and repeated watchings of the Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises. But that's a different story.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Signposts Near the End of the Road

At some point in the near future, I'll write a longer post about the death of Borders (and of Atlantic Books, a small chain here in the Mid-Atlantic, mostly centered on the Jersey Shore).  But in the meantime, enjoy these two signs I saw at the Montgomeryville Borders before it closed:

Indeed, my fellow bitter ex-booksellers, indeed.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Does Anyone Else Do This?

Like I said, I came back from vacation yesterday, and Philadelphia feels like autumn: nights in the low fifties, days in the mid sixties. The change in weather has prompted me to switch drinks.

Normally, during the summer, I drink gin & tonic, and during winter I drink manhattans. So I'm switching over, and it occurred to me--does anyone else do this, i.e. divide up what alcohol they drink by what the season is?

Now, some drinks are fine all year 'round--wine, beer, and oddly (given how I feel about manhattans), scotch. Though, of course, different beers are brewed for different times of year, and fruity wines are better in summer.

Just curious if I'm the only one (or the only one who reads this blog) that's so particular of what kind of drink they have at what time of year.

Woohoo--tortured syntax. Must be the alcohol.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Ooo! Look! Social Networking!

So I was on vacation this week, which means I needed to find something to occupy my mind when I wasn't working (because I have one of those jobs where you work from "home", and never get vacation time--ergo, I carted the computer to the beach).

This resulted in two things: first, I started playing with Tumblr (can you say that on Blogger? Will they silently ban me or something? Let's find out). Mostly as a way to post a couple of Instagram pictures I took, since Blogger doesn't have an actual interface with that app. (The other photos were posted only on Twitter; if you care, you can hunt them down; they include an R2D2 made out of sand) (Wait--can you post multiple semicolons in a sentence?) (Wait, how am I going to end this sentence?).

R2D2 (his head caving in) stares at the ocean. As my husband said, "The moisture farm finally kicked in"
 So I'm not sure what I'll be doing with the Tumblr site, other than playing with photography. Though I may use it to write tv reviews, an idea of been playing with. Yeah, I probably spend too much time over at the A.V. Club, but I still think it could be fun.

Anyway, I also started playing with Formspring. So, you know, feel free to ask me questions.

I want to keep this blog focused on Celtic studies, geekery, and Philly. So the Tumblr, that'll be something else. We'll see.

So yeah, I'm not dead or anything.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

My Grandfather Was an Atlantic City Rum-runner; I Drive to Delaware

Genealogy is a hobby of mine, in part born from listening to my family telling stories during holiday dinners. Recently, while gathering some information about my mother's family, she told me that she'd recently heard from her sister--my aunt--that their father--my grandfather--was a rum-runner.

My grandfather could make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs

"What?" My mother was not aware of this.

"Well," my aunt said, "remember when Uncle Joe would yell at [his kids], and dad would say, 'Hey, lay off, we did worse things when we were their age'? Well, that's the 'worse thing'--he ran alcohol between Atlantic City and Philadelphia during Prohibition."

Apparently he could get from AC to Philly in about an hour--keep in mind, this was before the AC Expressway.

Actually, that may have been in his favor.

So aside from a certain pride in having a small-time criminal in my family--and apparently my step-great-grandmother did a similar thing up in Brooklyn, because who's going to question a nice old German lady with a derringer in her pocket?--this knowledge put me in mind of something else.

Pennsylvania wants to privatize its liquor stores. And even me, the flaming liberal, is all for it, because I'm tired of driving down to Delaware in order to get a decent price and selection.

Two years ago, my husband and I took a road trip through New York and New England. While staying around Lake George, I had to run into a Rite Aid for some deodorant. There I saw a thing unimaginable in Pennsylvania:

What is this I don't even...

Beer! Cases of beer! For sale in a drugstore! That last irony not lost on me, I stared, in awe of a state where I could buy beer in the same place I could pick up a Vicodin prescription, condoms, Cheetos, and suntan lotion.

In Pennsylvania, you can only get the last four in one store. Well, you might get Cheetos at the beer distributor. But for the most part, you can't sell beer in grocery stores or drugstores, unless the grocery store has a restaurant--which essentially means "Only in Wegmans and Sheetz". And while I love Wegmans' beer selection (and, well, everything else they sell), the closest one is about ten miles away.

Yeah, you can't really just walk into a grocery store and pick up a six pack, much less a case. It's very rare. And supposedly the state wants to change that.

Or do they?

Socially conservative lawmakers who want to tamp down alcohol consumption also could oppose the bill.

Turzai has argued that Pennsylvanians pay high prices for a low selection, while the state's dual roles of selling alcohol and enforcing drunken driving and alcohol laws represent a conflict of interest.

Under his bill, the state would auction off 1,250 retail licenses - 750 to big retailers such as supermarkets, and the rest to smaller enterprises.
So what worries me--because as far as I know, there aren't any actual bills--is the idea that socially conservative lawmakers will privatize the system--but only allow a small number of stores.  If we're going to privatize, let's throw open the doors. Let me buy beer at Rite Aid if I want. Let the bars stay open till 4 am if they want. Don't make me drive to Delaware to buy wine or scotch at a more reasonable price--let me buy wine at the grocery store.

When I worked in retail, I had to card kids buying cigarettes or porn. It's no different carding them for alcohol. The people of Pennsylvania aren't children, we can take care of ourselves. We can buy beer on Sundays without becoming alcoholics, and we can buy wine at the grocery store just like people in other states. It works elsewhere around the country--why not here?

I get the revenue argument, and I get the union argument--those are separate issues, and worth considering, especially how the state would make up the lost revenues if they gave up the state stores. But what I don't like is the argument--which I've heard often in this state--that if we allow people to buy alcohol outside of a strictly regulated system run by the state government, chaos will rule and the state will be overtaken by a drunken orgy.

If only.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Happy Lughnassadh/Lammas!

Wheat Field with Reaper and Sun - Van Gogh

 August 1st on the traditional Irish calendar marks Lughnassadh--"the assembly of Lugh", wherein Lugh of the Long Arm, the Many-Skilled God of All Arts, is honored, along with his foster-mother Tailltiu, who first tilled the land in order to plant crops.

§59. Tailltiu daughter of Mag Mor king of Spain, queen of the Fir Bolg, came after the slaughter was inflicted upon the Fir Bolg in that first battle of Mag Tuired to Coill Cuan: and the wood was cut down by her, so it was a plain under clover-flower before the end of a year. ...and Cian son of Dian Cecht, whose other name was Scal Balb, gave her his son in fosterage, namely Lugh, whose mother was Eithne daughter of Balar. So Tailltiu died in Tailltiu, and her name clave thereto and her grave is from the Seat of Tailltiu north-eastward. Her games were performed every year and her song of lamentation, by Lugh. With gessa and feats of arms were they performed, a fortnight before Lugnasad and a fortnight after: under dicitur Lughnasadh, that is, the celebration (?) or the festival of Lugh.
So what's so great about Lugh? Why's he so important? We can be relatively confident he was worshiped in places like Iberia (where we have inscriptions to "the Lugoves", which means "the Lughs"), Gaul (with the city of Lugdunum "fort of Lugh", today called Lyon), Britain (where the story of Lleu is set down in the fourth branch of the Mabinogi), and Ireland (where we have lots of stories about him), and so on. So why is today, the harvest day, the day the Celts worshipped Lugh?

Simple--not only was he the MacGyver of deities, he got the secrets of harvesting food from the king of the Fomoraig, the Bad Guys of Irish mythology:

Thereafter Lugh and his comrades found Bres son of Elotha unguarded. He said:"It is better to give me quarter than to slay me."

"What then will follow from that?" said Lugh

"If I be spared," says Bress, "the cows of Erin will always be in milk."

"I will set this forth to our wise men," said Lugh.

So Lugh went to Maeltne Mor-brethach , and said to him: "Shall Bress have quarter for giving constant milk to the cows of Erin?" " He shall not have quarter," said Maeltne; "he has no power over their age or their offspring, though he can milk them so long as they are alive."

Lugh said to Bress: "That does not save thee: thou hast no power over their age and their offspring, though thou canst milk them. Is there aught else that will save thee, O Bres?" said Lugh.

"There is in truth, Tell thy lawyer that for sparing me the men of Ireland shall reap a harvest in very quarter of the year."

Said Lugh to Maeltne: "Shall Bres be spared for giving the men of Ireland a harvest of corn every quarter?"

"This has suited us," said Maeltne: "the spring for ploughing and sowing, and the beginning of summer for the end of the strength of corn, and the beginning of autumn for the end of the ripeness of corn and for reaping it. Winter for consuming it"

"That does not rescue thee," said Lugh to Bres; "but less than that rescues thee."

"What?" said Bres.

"How shall the men of Ireland Plough? How shall they sow? How shall they reap? After making known these three things thou wilt be spared."

"Tell them, said Bres, that their ploughing be on a Tuesday, their casting seed into the field be on a Tuesday, their reaping on a Tuesday." So through that stratagem Bres was let go free.

The story of Lugh wrestling the secrets of agriculture--in other words, making sure people can eat--from Bres is paralleled in Christian texts wherein St. Patrick does battle with Crom Dubh. The theme of St. Patrick winning food has many versions, the oldest of which is found in the vita found in the Book of Armagh, and other variants, as described by Máire Mac Neill:

In general, the folk-legend has the following plot: the saint comes to the distrct and begins t build a church; in a time of food-shortage he asks the pagan magnate for food for his workmen; the pagan has a fierce bull which kills all who approach it, and he offers the bull to the saint in the ope that it will kill him; the bull, however, submits quietly to being taken and slaughtered; the bull's flesh is eaten by the saint's company but the saint enjoins that the hid and bones be carefully kept; the pagan, enranged at the loss of his bull and the failure of his plan, asks the saint to give back the bull; the saint has the bones and hid put together, and the bull rises to life.

The Festival of Lughnasa, pg 393
Mac Neill's book is the go-to source on the holiday, and if you can get a copy of it, grab it--it's often very hard to find.

And it wasn't just the Irish: the medieval English knew the day as hlafmæssen-dæg, literally "loaf-mass day"1, the feast of first fruits, when the harvest first ripens. The cereal crops come in, and are turned into such wonderful things as bread, beer, cakes, whiskey, Cheerios... Well, I think Cheerios. Pretty sure.

Anyway, the word eventually became Lammas, and was the time of year for the Lammas fairs, especially the Ould Lammas Fair, held in Co. Antrim, Ireland, for the last four hundred years.  Mac Neill maintains that Lammas--particularly given its timing on August 1st ultimately comes from Lughnassadh, and I really don't see any reason to contradict her.

In Wales, the day is called "Calan Awst", which is rather straightforward, meaning "First Day of August". And as far as I know, there's no connection made between Lleu and August 1st. Indeed, very little of the day seems to survive in Wales; Mac Neill mentions that in the nineteenth century, people would gather on the Breckon Beacons, heading for Llyn y Fan Fach, as described by Sir John Rhys, where the Lady of the Lake would make an appearance.

But Lugh shows up in Wales as well, as Lleu, the put-upon son of Aranrhod, cursed by his mother, raised in isolation by Gwydion, murdered by his wife's lover, but ultimately triumphs over all of it to become king of Gwynedd. It's unfortunate that we only have scraps left to us in the Mabinogi and the poems of Taliesin to piece together Lleu's story.

So today, Loaf-Mass-Day, the Festival of Lugh, and oddly enough the birthday of Clau-Clau-Claudius in the city of Lugdunum, I baked a loaf of beer bread, and will enjoy eating it, preferably with a bottle of beer homebrewed by a friend of mine.

On that note, I leave you with "John Barleycorn"; I wish I could find the Fairport Convention version, but Traffic will have to do.


1. Just as Christ-mass is now Christmas, Loaf-Mass became Lammas.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Fresh from the garden

Summer is brutal.

So I live in the Megalopolis, which you may know is now under the so-called "heat dome". And it does suck. Temperatures in the 100s, but it's not a dry heat--it's moist as a gym sock, and smells as bad. I spent yesterday sweating my way through the Village, and yeah, I pretty much soaked my clothes in my own broth. Disgusting.

But on the plus side, I spent this afternoon working in my stepbrother's vegetable garden--which brings me to tonight's post. As awful as this summer has been--and it has been a long, hot, disgusting mess, hotter than last year, and incredibly expensive to run the air conditioning (which is necessary, since I work from home)--there is a huge benefit that we really shouldn't lose sight of: fresh vegetables, as opposed to the stuff you find in Tomatoland.

Except for the red onions, all of this came from his garden, except for the red pepper, which came from a pot in my backyard. Yellow squash, broccoli, tomatoes, red pepper, and red onions, sauteed in olive oil and lemon juice. I had it with rice pilaf and some fried tilapia (so yeah, I guess I cancelled out the healthy angle of the vegetables).

So I'm grateful for the summer. It's when things grow. No summer means no vegetables. Summer will become autumn, and autumn will bring the harvest--this is a preview. And I'm glad for it.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A New Map for Ireland

The Archaeological Institute of America has a new "Archaeolgical Heritage Map of Ireland" produced using Google Earth. The KML file shows dozens of sites (Tara, Newgrange, Dun Aonghasa, etc.), with the usual goodies that Google Earth can provide.

Go and play with it.

A screenshot of the whole island from the AIA website

About the lack of posting

A few deaths in the family, and my weird, piecemeal job have thrown a spanner into my ability to blog with any regularity. I hope this will change soon.

In the meantime, one of those deaths has inadvertantly given me two things to post about:

  • Here is a video I took at Arlington after the funeral; my husband and I sort of stumbled on the Changing of the Guard ceremony, and I was able to take some video:

  • The relative who died had a scrapbook belonging to her in-laws; it's all postcards that date to about a hundred years ago, including this one:

    Cats With Guns--Yes, They WILL Haz Cheezeburger
      It's rather wonderfully strange, really, for a pun on "Catskill". There are postcards of Dreamland covered in glitter, of the town of Washington, PA (?), and lots of old New York.

  • So as to the second item, I'm thinking of making a new blog about these old postcards--images of them, how you could send one and expect it to get to its destination the same day (as my husband said, "Oh, so it was basically email"), things like that.

    Which doesn't mean I'm abandoning this blog--if anything, I think having a structured blog will help me get my head back into working on this one.

    Monday, May 2, 2011

    Bring Back May Day!

    May Day at Pottsgrove Manor, 2008. Photo by me on a lousy flip phone

    Oddly enough for those who know me, I'm not referring to reviving International Worker's Day in the United States; that's already become sort of a thing, between union activists and immigrant rights groups. No, I'm talking about the older May Day.

    So I was on a trip through Europe in 2005, and while riding through Austria, saw maypoles throughout all these small villages. I was surprised to see them, but more surprised that they were apparently permanent fixtures (though the ribbons had come down, as far as I could tell from my seat on a bus, whizzing by at 75 miles an hour). My mom told me that apparently her mother's town in upstate Pennsylvania used to have a maypole; but this goes back to the 1910s and 1920s, and I doubt they still do. But still, the apparently celebrated May Day up into the twentieth century in rural PA.

    OK, so what?

    I want to bring it back.

    I like holidays; I think we need more of them.Now, I know what you're saying--what the hell is May Day? And do I have to dance around a giant pole? As to the second, you don't have to, but it's fun to do so.

    As to the first question, here's the deal: May Day used to be the start of summer. The Irish called it Beltane, and had a number of stories about supernatural events happening on the night before: it was one of the nights the sídhe (fairies) were out and about. Lots of stories about Fionn mac Cumhaill take place at Beltane; and it's the counterpart of Samhain, which we know as Halloween. Samhain is the start of winter; Beltane is the start of summer. Samhain settles up accounts, makes sure the harvest is in; Beltane is about planting, about making sure the crops are fertile. Samhain is about the dead; Beltane is about life.

    The Germanic, Nordic, and Slavic/Baltic countries have Walpurgisnacht; they burn bonfires, and like the Celts, held that this began the summer. This, of course, is why the summer solstice is "Midsummer"--it falls in the middle between the old reckoning of summer's beginning at May 1st, and fall's beginning at August 1st. Also like the Celts, it was a night of magic and danger, when "witches" were burned on bonfires in order to celebrate the return of the summer.

    The Romans had their own holiday, Flora, celebrating the goddess of flowers; no doubt this gave way to the Catholic idea of the May Procession, wherein the flower goddess is replaced by a statue of the Virgin Mary covered with a flower garland; we celebrated this when I was a kid in Catholic school.

    OK, so it's a day for bonfires and dancing around a maypole, the first is cool, the second is for SCA geeks, right? Well, yeah, but there's also the May Queen, a kind of Miss America for the holiday. And Jack-in-the-green, a guy who dresses up like a tree. And plays about Robin Hood and King Arthur. And staying up all night before with your friends and collecting the new greenery to give away as "may baskets". And dancing, and singing and...

    Did I mention the sex?

    Oh yeah, see, May Day is also about sex.

    I mean, you're dancing around a phallus because everything's gone green again. And there's a beauty queen. And you stay up all night, hanging out at the bonfire, or in the woods. With your significant other.

    Come on, people, it's kind of a no-brainer.

    Another Celtic Grave Story

    The BBC has a brief news item on the grave goods of a Celtic princess in what's now Germany; I assume it's the same as this one. Nothing really new, as far as I can tell, but hopefully we'll see more of the goods as time goes on.

    April *WAS* the Cruelest Month

    Briefly, I had a death in the family; it was a shock but not unexpected.

    Also, I went on a couple of interviews for a job, only to be sent a letter that they went with someone else. Why, I'll never know, since they never say.  But this means I'm still without a full-time job, which is making things tight, and with everything going on, I haven't been focused on blogging or my website.


    Friday, April 1, 2011

    April is the cruelest month

    Why? Because it snowed this morning here in Philly.

    The Mercer Museum, not far from my house. Photo from the Inquirer

    At least, I assume it did. I slept late, and the snow was gone, replaced by rain by the time I got up.

    The advantages of working from home.

    Mother Nature seems determined to make me miserable this season.

    Sadly, this is not an April Fool's joke.

    Wednesday, March 23, 2011

    Supermoon Over Glastonbury

    One of a couple of pictures of the "Supermoon" from last Saturday.

    I love the optical illusion of the "giant moon" created by a telescopic lens. If only the moon could actually appear that large. Still, it creates a neat image, even if it's (I assume) a composite image.

    Can a thirty-two-year-old have tonsillitis?

    All signs point to yes...

    Saturday, March 12, 2011

    Was Hamlet Irish?

    The Guardian has an article about the recently-published theories of Dr Lisa Collinson, a professor of medieval Scandinavian at Aberdeen, wherein Hamlet's name is traced to a medieval Irish story; she sums up her ideas at the Oxford University Press blog:
    [I]n an article published online last week in the OUP journal Review of English Studies, I have set out my own  – no doubt even less perfect – theory, which I hope will be of as much interest to artists of various kinds as to scholarly specialists.

    In this new article, I conclude that Hamlet probably came ultimately from Gaelic Admlithi: a name attached to a player (or ‘mocker’) in a strange and violent medieval Irish tale known in English as ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’. If I’m right, this means that some version of the Hamlet-name was associated with players hundreds of years before Shakespeare lived or wrote.
     And she gives an interesting argument which you really should read in full.

    But I'd like to see if anyone has ever traced the story of Hamlet to the Old Irish story The Destruction of Dind Ríg.

    In that tale, Loegaire Lorc is king of Ireland, and his brother Cobthach is a petty king of Bregia. Out of envy, Cobthach kills Loegaire, and then proceeds to kill his nephew Ailill. He only leaves Ailill's son, Moen Ollam, who is driven mute by the events, until he was an adult. Then, upon being struck, he regains the ability to speak, and is renamed Labraid. His uncle welcomes him to a banquet at Tara, but then has him driven out because the people say that Labraid is more generous than Cobthach. Labraid/Moen goes off into exile, and then takes on a wife and allies. They plot to return to Cobthach's lands, and proceed, using both force and a magic harp that puts people to sleep, to sack the stronghold Dind Ríg.

    Cobthach and his great-nephew make peace, and Labraid/Moen rules over Leinster. But he isn't satisified, sicne he still hasn't had revenge over his great-uncle for the murder of his father and grandfather. Labraid/Moen constructs a house of iron, and invites Cobthach and his people into it for a feast--but Cobthach would only enter if Labraid/Moen's own mother was also in the house. And so they enter to feast, while outside, Labraid's men start building a fire. They point out that his mother is still in the house, but she tells him to go through with it. And so Cobthach is killed, as is Labraid's mother. But unlike Hamlet, Labraid survives.

    It's not hard to see some parallels with Hamlet: the murderous brother; the muteness perhaps akin to Hamlet's madness; the exile and return in order to get revenge; the uncle inadvertently killing the mother. If Hamlet's name comes from Irish is it possible that his story--deriving from an unrelated source, though both stories deal with the destruction of a royal house--does as well? That it somehow filtered into medieval Norse literature?

    Sure? Why not? But then again, how would it have happened? I don't know, but I'd be curious to find out.

    Saturday, February 19, 2011

    About Those Skull-Sipping Britons

    So going beyond my annoyance with Reuters' reporting on how the very early Britons (i.e., living some 12,000 years before there were any Celts) drank from human skulls, let's talk about how this practice went on even up through modern times: Yes, I speak of the Penglog Teilo--the Skull of St. Teilo.

    Writing in The Source, Buckley quotes an Asaph Dar, who describes how, at least in the 19th century, there was an association made between the nearby St. Teilo's Well, and the chalice made of his skull:

      The faith of some of those who used to visit the well was so great in its efficacy that they were wont to leave it wonderfully improved. An old inhabitant of the district, Stephen Evans (Hifyn Ifan) used to relate a story to the effect that a carriage drawn by four horses came over to Llandeilo. It was full of invalids from the cockle village of Penclawdd, in the Gower Peninsula, who had determined to try the waters in the well. They returned, however, no better than they came; for though they had drunk of the well they had neglected to do so out of the skull. This was afterwards pointed out to them by somebody and they resolved to make the long journey to the well again. This time, we are told, they did the right thing and departed in excellent health. Such is the great persistence of primitive beliefs that while the walls of the church have long fallen into decay [9] the faith in the well continues in a measure intact.
     Whether this belief, that the efficacy of the well's water would only hold if one drank with the skull of St. Teilo (who, curiously enough, has a cult which lays claim to at least three bodies at three different churches), is an ancient one, is unknown.

    The act of drinking from a skull is hardly limited to 19th century Welshmen; indeed, their Celtic forbearers were quite happy to drink from skulls, if Livy is to be believed:
    The Boii stripped the body of its spoils and cut off the head, and bore them in triumph to the most sacred of their temples. According to their custom they cleaned out the skull and covered the scalp with beaten gold; it was then used as a vessel for libations and also as a drinking cup for the priest and ministers of the temple.

    But it's not just Roman propaganda which recounts this; in Bruigean Atha I, a tale from the Fionn Cycle, Fothad Canaindi, a leader of a rival fianna, says that "It is a prohibition for me to drink ale unless it be drunk with white faces", by which he means he only drinks ale from a skull.

    Drinking from a skull was hardly the province of the Irish or Welsh, of course; there are medieval Continental accounts of drinking from skull cups in religious settings.

    The new story of 15,000 year old skulls used for drinking is held up as a gory detail of the ancient past, one replete with cannibals and all manner of barbarism out of a horror movie (or, well, something staring Arnold Schwarzenegger). But change the setting slightly, and the skulls become holy relics, and drinking from them a type of Christian piety.

    Perhaps the modern disgust (and fascination) with the idea is bound up in our detachment from the material world: our meat comes pre-ground, pre-sliced, wrapped in plastic. Dealing with animal bones, unless you are truly into cooking, is a rarity outside of, say, eating some Kentucky Fried Chicken or buffalo wings.  Just today, I was making a pot of navy bean soup, using the remains of a ham I'd saved from Christmas. As the soup cooked, the meat came off the bones, and the marrow flavored the waters, so that the bones became clean and hollowed, and I could pull apart the joint. I saw the ball-and-socket of the pig's hip, and thought about how this had once been an animal walking about. And there was nothing strange about it, though it did impart its own type of awe--that in some ways, I am no different from this animal. I am flesh and sinew and bone, and I could be as easily boiled and separated. I felt for the pig, but it didn't stop me from cooking it.

    Real skulls have been used as props in Hamlet; real cadavers used by medical students; real bodies, skinned and cased in a silicone rubber in Bodies.

    And so maybe there wasn't anything that strange about drinking from a human skull, depending on context and circumstances. But I can't lie--I am a product of late 20th/early 21st century America. The concept still hold a sort of gruesome fascination.

    I'll leave on this oddity:

    While [Perceval and the Fisher King] were talking of one thing and another, a boy came from a chamber clutching a whilte lance by the middle of the shaft, and he passed between the fire and the two who were sitting on the bed. Everyone in the hall saw the white lance with its white head; and a driop of blood issued from the tip of the lance's head, and right down to the boy's hand this red drop rain. ...A girl who came in with the boys, fair and comely and beautifully adorned, was holding a grail between her hands. ...The boy saw them pass, but did not dare to ask who was served from the grail[.]

    --Chrétien de Troyes. Perceval: The Story of the Grail.
    But then compare with the Welsh version of this story, where the wide-mouthed dish (which is what a "grail" originally meant) is gone, and replaced by a severed head:
    Then Peredur and his uncle discoursed together, and he beheld two youths enter the hall, and proceed up to the chamber, bearing a spear of mighty size, with three streams of blood flowing from the point to the ground. And when all the company saw this, they began wailing and lamenting. But for all that, the man did not break off his discourse with Peredur. And as he did not tell Peredur the meaning of what he saw, he forebore to ask him concerning it. And when the clamour had a little subsided, behold two maidens entered, and a large salver between them, in which was a man's head, surrounded by a profusion of blood. And thereupon the company of the court made so great an outcry, that it was irksome to be in the same hall with them.

    And of course, there is the famous story from the Mabinogi, where the severed head of Bran (the original Fisher King) holds an Otherworldly feast. Confusing heads and cups? Maybe, but maybe not.

    Wednesday, February 16, 2011

    Reuters: Not One for Understatement

    Ancient Brits ate dead and made skulls into cups:

    Ancient Britons devoured their dead and created gruesome goblets from the skulls of their remains, according to new research published on Wednesday
    Feeling peckish?

     I'm surprised it isn't followed by a series of exclamation points.

    Now, I don't know enough about the report to really comment, except to point out that this wasn't the Celts, so please no more stories about the evil, bloodthirsty savage Celts. These bones are from 15,000 years ago--before the last Ice Age, and at least 12,000 years before there was such a thing as a Celt. Also, the article later bothers to point out
    They said the circumstances behind the deaths of the Cro-Magnons (European early modern humans), whose bones they discovered, can only be guessed at.
     They may have been killed, butchered and eaten -- with the skull-cups just the end of this event -- or may have been part of the group who died and were eaten in a crisis situation, with the skull-cups created as a tribute to the dead.

    "We simply do not know," they said in a joint emailed response to questions.

    But hey, if we can't be sensational about archaeology, why report it at all?

    Cannibalism can be a touchy issue in anthropology; and the article isn't very helpful, suddenly switching to Greeks reporting on Scythian headhunters, Vikings (take that, Swedes!), and those evil Tantric Buddhists, all of whom were cannibals.

    Well, so were those football players in the Andes, but hey, why let circumstances like starvation get in the way of a good story?

    Also, aren't vampires basically into liquid cannibalism? Think on that next time some tween squeals about Twilight. Those girls are on the long, dark road to cannibalism.

    Picture from the Guardian, not Reuters.

    Wednesday, February 2, 2011

    A (Very Late) Happy Imbolc!

    For those who don't know, Imbolc--falling roughly halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox (or, Christmas and Easter)--is the old Irish start of spring; it's a feast of purification1, and comes a day after the feast of Brigit, the goddess and the saint. In the Catholic calendar, it's also Candlemas/the Feast of the Purification of Mary. But you probably know it best as Groundhog Day.

    Using this day for prognosticating the future weather goes way back, certainly long before some Pennsylvanian marmot chewed his way out of the ground. Plus, before him, it used to be a snake. To read a good summary of how Brigit relates to spring and predicting the weather in February, check out Alexander Carmichael's classic Carmina Gadelica:

    The serpent is supposed to emerge from its hollow among the hills on St Bride's Day, and a propitiatory hymn was sung to it. Only one verse of this hymn has been obtained, apparently the first. It differs in different localities:--

    'Moch maduinn Bhride,
    Thig an nimhir as an toll,
    Cha bhoin mise ris an nimhir,
    Cha bhoin an nimhir rium.'

    Early on Bride's morn
    The serpent shall come from the hole,
    I will not molest the serpent,
    Nor will the serpent molest me.

    Other versions say:--

    La Feill na Bride,
    Thig nighean Imhir as a chnoc,
    Cha bhean mise do nighean
    ’S cha dean i mo lochd.' [Imhir,
    'La Fheill Bride brisgeanach
    Thig an ceann de in chaiteanach,
    Thig nighean Iomhair as an tom
    Le fonn feadalaich.'
    'Thig an nathair as an toll
       La donn Bride,
    Ged robh tri traighean dh’ an
       Air leachd an lair.' [t-sneachd

    The Feast Day of the Bride,
    The daughter of Ivor shall come from the knoll,
    I will not touch the daughter of Ivor,
    Nor shall she harm me.
    On the Feast Day of Bride,
    The head will come off the 'caiteanach,'
    The daughter of Ivor will come from the knoll
    With tuneful whistling.
    The serpent will come from the hole
       On the brown Day of Bride,
    Though there should be three feet of snow
       On the flat surface of the ground.

    The 'daughter of Ivor' is the serpent; and it is said that the serpent will not sting a descendant of Ivor, he having made 'tabhar agus tuis,' offering and incense, to it, thereby securing immunity from its sting for himself and his seed for ever.

    In America, the day has become associated with the 1993 movie Groundhog Day. In one of those wonderful cosmic convergences, the theme of the movie actually fits the original theme of the holiday: Phil Connors, the miserable, venal weatherman played by Bill Murray, spends lifetimes living the same day over and over again, indulging in every vice you can find in a small Pennsylvania town, before slowly learning to become a better person. What's funny, of course, is that the origin of Imbolc--like the Roman Lupercalia, or the Catholic Lent--is in a time of purification. Like Phil, we're all living the same day over and over again; sometimes we waste our time, which is easy, especially in winter when we're miserable. But hey, unlike Phil, we don't have an eternity to get it right.  We invent times like Imbolc to get ourselves back on track, to remind ourselves that winter doesn't last forever, that spring is coming, and we need to get our heads together. To purify ourselves, to make ourselves better people.

    Hey--the groundhog called for an early spring. Better get crackin'.

    1. Eric Hamp, 'Imbolc, Oimelc', Studia Celtica, 14/15 (1979/1980)

    Google Finds a New Way to be Awesome

    A new project from Google is the totally cool "Art Project", which uses the tech behind Google Streetview to take you on a tour of famous museums around the world, like the Tate and the NY Met. On the list is the always wonderful Cloisters Museum of medieval art in New York. Check it out to see the famous Unicorn Tapestries, the Nine Worthies tapestries (which includes a famous image of King Arthur), and a whole host of medieval art.

    Tuesday, January 25, 2011

    I Am Not Looking Forward To The Eagle

    I have yet to be satisfied with a film treatment of Roman Britain (*cough* The Last Legion *cough*), and I have the feeling The Eagle might annoy me much like 2004's ridiculous King Arthur.

    "But you haven't seen it yet."

    No. I haven't. And yet I'm already annoyed. Why?

    Well, The Eagle, much like the forgettable film Centurion, is about the legendary Ninth Legion, which supposedly disappeared during a disastrous run-in with the local Britons up north of Hadrian's Wall around the year 120. Of course, whether this actually happened--not so much a local uprising, which is pretty much par-for-the-course, but the disappearance of the legion--is a matter of debate.Still, it's not the historical ambiguity that bothers me.

    It has 2nd century Picts speaking Scottish Gaelic.

    Let me say that again.

    It has 2nd century Picts speaking Scottish Gaelic.

    There is so much wrong with this.

    According to the London Times

    Macdonald has a fairly free rein in recreating his ancient tribe; but he is determined to be as authentic as possible, with the tribesmen in the movie all speaking Gaelic. In order to achieve a little contemporary symbolism, the Romans will be played by American actors.


    They were a more indigenous folk than the Celts, who were from further south,” he argues. “They were probably small and dark, like the Inouit [sic], living off seals and dressed in sealskins. We are going to create a culture about which no one knows much, but which we will make as convincing as possible. We are basing it on clues gained from places like Skara Brae and the Tomb of the Eagles in Orkney, so that we will have them worshipping pagan symbols, like the seal and the eagle.

    OK. Where to begin. First, if you want to be authentic, then you wouldn't have Picts living in the second century speaking Gaelic, which wasn't spoken by any sizable portion of people living in Britain at that time. For one thing, "Gaelic"--in this case, the Scottish dialect of Goidelic--didn't exist; there were dialects of Old Irish, mostly spoken in Ireland (I don't think there were any Irish settlements in Britain at the time, but I could be wrong). Having Picts speak Scottish Gaelic is like having King Alfred the Great speaking Elizabethan English and declaring it authentic.

    Secondly, the Picts, insofar as they spoke a Celtic language, were Celts. "Celtic" isn't a race, it's a group of related languages/cultural output. That Pictish was probably a strand of Celtic--specifically P-Celtic, and thus distantly related to Gaulish and ultimatley Welsh--is largely accepted by academics, though there are always some who disagree; Wikipedia has a pretty decent introduction to the disagreements, and where the current thinking stands.Even as early as the 1500s, scholars saw the similarities between Gaulish and Pictish (yeah, I was surprised too by the early date; George Buchanan figured this out a full hundred years before Edward Lhuyd pioneered the use of "Celtic" to describe the related languages of Welsh, Cornish, Irish, Manx, etc.).

    I'm not sure how Macdonald can say "They were Celts, expect that they weren't; they spoke Gaelic, except they didn't; this is authentic, even though we don't know anything about the Picts, except that we do, since they were short and not Celtic" and not expect my head to explode.

    I get that the Picts helped form the Scottish nation; but they weren't Scotti, the name of the people who conquered them; they probably adopted Gaelic as it became advantagous to speak the langauge of the political elite, but that was centuries after the events of the movie. The best evidence we have tells us that they were related to the other Britons just south of them, who went on to become the Welsh, Cumbrian, and Cornish peoples. If he wanted to be "authentic", he could have had them speak Welsh, which is closer to what we know of Pictish than Scottish Gaelic is.

    Moreover, the non-Scottish history of Northern Britain is often glossed over in popular culture, which is very frustrating. (To see Y Gododdin called "The Oldest Scottish Poem" is completely anachronistic. Sorry, Kenneth H Jackson, but come on!)

    I hope the music for the movie is by these guys:

    Because their knowledge of Druids is as well informed as The Eagle's knowledge of the Picts.

    Sunday, January 16, 2011

    But Does It Taste Like Guinness?

    Via io9, scientists have figured out how the Celts brewed their beer:
    The first step to drinking like the Celts is to dig an oblong ditch. Pour in water and barley, and leave them there until the barley sprouts. Once they have, they need to be dried. Light a fire at each end of the ditch and keep it going until the barley is dried. This will darken the beer and give it a smokey flavor. It will also dry the grains slowly enough that they'll secrete something called lactic acid. Like other acids, it tastes sour. Sourness and smoke; delicious. Some of the grains will char. Leave those in the ditch for future archeobotanists to uncover. Mash up the grains to maximize the amount of sugar that the yeast, which gets added later, has to feed on.
    Hops weren't used in beer until sometime in the High Middle Ages; at least, that's the earliest it's mentioned. Instead, beer was flavored with gruit, a combination of herbs, some of which were mild narcotics: nutmeg, mugwort, yarrow, and henbane were among those used. Henbane, of course, is potentially very toxic, though here it's obviously diluted. Moreover, henbane is interesting, as it's associated with the oracles of Apollo, and with the Celtic god Belenus, for its hallucinogenic elements.

    Why you shouldn't drink beer with henbane.

    The Greco-Roman world wasn't too keen on beer; the emperor Julian wrote
    Who and from where are you Dionysus?
    Since by the true Bacchus,
    I do not recognize you; I know only the son of Zeus.
    While he smells like nectar, you smell like a goat.
    Can it be then that the Celts because of lack of grapes
    Made you from cereals? Therefore one should call you
    Demetrius, not Dionysus, rather wheat born and Bromus,
    Not Bromius.

    Of course, the poem is a little more complex than it looks; there's a lot of punning in there:

    However, even a beer lover like myself knows that stale beer does pretty much smell like piss.

    As we all know, primitive man invented beer; but the Celts invented Guinness. And for that, we are grateful.

    Monday, January 10, 2011

    When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed.

    Except when they aren't.

    I have nothing intelligent to say about the shooting this weekend. It seems like every week, there's a new shooting; I'm pretty sure someone killed a school vice-principal last week. And to be honest, I came of age when school shootings became common, in the 1990s; don't forget, there were a lot before Columbine. But being numb doesn't mean I think it's OK, or unimportant. I just know that I'm not the smartest kid in the room.

    So. Before we tear ourselves apart; before anyone invokes Sarah Palin or Karl Marx or schizophrenia or Bleeding Kansas; I just want to listen to some music.

    Make me laugh, funnyman:

    Not funny, but he's right.

    We live in hard times, not end times.

    Friday, January 7, 2011

    New Celtic tomb found

    At the Heuneburg hill fort in southwest Germany, already the sight of a good deal of archaeological work, the undisturbed tomb of what they believe was a Celtic noblewoman has been found. The tomb is around 2600 years old, which places it at the time of the Bronze Age western "Hallstatt D" culture, which was transitioning into the Iron Age Celtic La Tène culture.

    So why is this interesting? Well, Heuneburg was an important Celtic settlement; it's possible that it's the city of Pyrene mentioned by Herodotus:
    For the Ister [Danube] flows from the land of the Celts and the city of Pyrene through the very middle of Europe — History 2.33.3

    There are dozens of graves that have already been found, but most were either destroyed by the elements, or robbed in antiquity; it's rare that modern archaeologists are able to find an undisturbed inhumation.

    To get an idea of what an aristocrat's tomb can look like, check out this reconstruction of the Hochdorf tomb, which dates to 530 BC, not that long (archaeologically speak) after the recently-found tomb, and only about twenty miles away:

    Click on picture to see original on Wikipedia

    (What you can't see, off to the top right, is a giant cauldron, originally filled with 100 gallons of mead. Also found were golden shoes, a gold-leafed dagger, and other precious items.)

    Hopefully, the public will soon see what's been found; Heuneburg is already the site of a reconstructed Celtic village.

    The location of Heuneburg:

    View Larger Map

    Wednesday, January 5, 2011

    You'll Pry My Butterscotch Krimpets From My Cold Dead Hands

    Food of the gods

    When I started this blog, I called it "The Philadelphia Preservation Society", mostly as a joke, playing off the Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society, one of my favorite records. Well, maybe we need a Preservation Society now.

    A&P, who owns the local chains of Superfresh and Pathmark, declared bankruptcy in December, leaving the fate of 5,500 jobs up in the air. They've already closed several stores around my town (Lansdale). Safeway has closed some Genuardi's, as well, and now apparently Acme--yes, "the Ac-a-mee", my dear North Philadelphians--is closing some stores.

    All of this is bad enough--especially for those who live in the city and only have access to public transportation, making getting fresh food that much more difficult. But there are some surprising repercussions, apparently:


    Now, you have to understand--Tastykakes are as much a part of Philly as the Liberty Bell, pretzels, cheesesteaks, Yuengling, and questionable behavior at sporting events. Everyone knows how to scrape all the butterscotch icing from the package of krimpets; and who does love the creamy inside of those little Kandy Kake hocky pucks? And the mini-pies: baked, not fried, and filled with blueberries, or cherries, or apples...

    Man, I'm getting hungry.

    If we lose Tastykakes, we lose another part of Philly. "It's just snacks," you might say. Well, sure--but since when isn't food part of culture? What's Italy without salami? Ireland without potatoes? India without curry? Food is one of the most elementary things we deal with every day. "But it's just mass produced cakes." Sure, you could say that--but I bet you haven't eaten one.

    It's a question of jobs, of course--if Tastykakes gets sold, we could lose even more jobs, or worse--lose the jobs altogether, like when Hershey sent all their jobs to Mexico. That's right, Hershey, PA doesn't make chocolate. If they get sold, the recipe could change, and not taste as good as it does now.

    Sure, it's silly to get sentimental about snacks. But it's about identity, and about the loss of regionalism. Tastykakes and Yards tastes better than Twinkies and Bud Light (well, maybe don't eat beer and cakes together). The local almost always tastes better than the national. Smaller scale allows a greater attention to detail than a larger scale.

    And hey, I want to win a case of tastykakes next time I see the Flyers.

    Sunday, January 2, 2011

    2011: Back to the Future

    When I started this blog in 2007, it was part of the World Without Oil alternative reality game. At the time, gas prices had started slowly rising, but in the game, they were shooting up, beginning at $4.12 and eventually ending at $5.59.

    Well, as we know, in 2008, oil did shoot up to nearly $150/barrel, which I think was around an average of $4.11/gallon--as in the game. And then, of course, everything came crashing down, millions were thrown out of work, and oil fell down to $33/barrel.

    Jump ahead now to 2011, and oil's at $91/barrel and gas over $3.10 (at least here outside Philly). Higher gas prices may be ahead, up to $4.11 again. And now we have over 9% unemployment, and U6 (under-employment) (hi, that would include me) at 17%.

    Rising gas prices in an economy that's not getting better for us in the bottom 90%? Well, if you can see how this is sustainable, enlighten me.