Sunday, November 22, 2015

Old Photographs

Today I am thankful for the gift of life. Pronounced dead by the doctor before birth, I nonetheless made an appearance on one November 22nd during the Jurasic Era, very much alive. 

I suppose things were different then. Not everybody had a camera, and I don't think baby books were a big thing yet.

One night after Mom had died, I was sitting on the couch at Daddy's house, looking though tins of old photos. 

My great-grandfather, Tom Howard
with his wife (seated) and daughter

People in old photographs always look profound. They seem to have stories to tell and secrets to keep. If only we could talk to those people, if we could reach right through the photograph and ask them questions. What was your life like? What did you learn here on Earth? I saw pictures of aunts and cousins and nieces and nephews and total strangers who were probably dead relatives.

I found a sepia-tone picture of a baby and wondered who it might be. Daddy? Mama? One of my brothers? Given the disarray of these pictures, it could be anybody. (Apparently I inherited my photo management ability from my mom.)

Then I saw the baby's hands.

Piano hands with long thin fingers. I looked first at the picture and then at my hands. Then back to the picture again. It was a shock to realize that I was looking at a picture of myself as a baby. I'm not sure I had ever seen one.

My start in life was a bit shaky, and my parents probably didn't have a camera until later. But there I was, a baby girl looking up at my grown up self.

We regarded each other, the baby and I, and then each returned to her own part in the story of my life.

Me at about two years old

Three years old?
Me in kindergarten
Me, playing the piano at church.
putting those piano hands to work

Sunday, November 15, 2015

No Shoes

I thought the navy blue dress would look nice.

No dice. My two sisters-in-law didn't like that idea. Even though I was grown and living on my own, they were older and still thought of me as a child. Apparently that meant they were in charge.

But I wanted to participate. "What about shoes?" 

Photo by Josh Bluntschli

An awful, awkward pause.

"I don't think she'll need shoes," one of them said.

No shoes.

My mother had been dead for only twelve hours, and I was still adjusting to the idea.

But no shoes?  It had never occurred to me that dead people don't wear shoes inside their metal boxes. Not only was my mother dead, but she was barefoot. My mom loved shoes and purses and now she had neither. Not now. Not ever. 

Photo by THOR

I knew it was silly. I knew this whole line of thought was ridiculous, but somehow it made her seem a little more dead. 

A person you love, I was learning, doesn't die all at once--but day by day, piece by piece.

The night after the burial it rained. I imagined the raindrops falling on her casket there in the cemetery. Raindrops pounding and pounding with cruel force. Of course, that was also absurd because she was already underground. The rain was only falling on a mound of dirt and the many containers of flowers.

Photo by Juni

I couldn't cry that week. I don't know why, except I guess I'm more of a let's-get-through-this-and-cry-later kind of person. My relatives kept saying, "You need to cry." But even though they were in charge, I couldn't oblige. Maybe that night the clouds were shedding tears I couldn't seem to conjure.

In grief, I think it's really the little details that stab you in the heart. The milk jug in the frig. My mother bought that milk this week, I thought. Now it's still here, but she's gone. My father's mournful voice as he paced in the yard praying aloud. The new hairstyle the morticians gave my mom. It was nice, but it wasn't the way she wore it. It wasn't the way I wanted to remember her.

And no shoes. 

Just little things. Little things that keep pounding, pounding -- killing and rekilling the one you love.

Thinking back to that morning when they told me my mother didn't need shoes, I remember a spiritual we used to sing in grade school music class.

I got shoes. You got shoes.
All God's children got shoes.
When I get to heaven, gonna put on my shoes,
Gonna walk all over God's Heaven, Heaven--
Gonna walk all over God's Heaven.

Photo by Thomas Steiner

No shoes? 

I read an article in the Poughkeepsie Journal that said shoes tell the story of your life. Every stain or scuff mark tells about where you walked and what you were doing.  Shoes are a diary we keep unconsciously.

Photo by SoHome Jacaranda Lilau

My mom had only two kinds of shoes--house shoes and church shoes. The black leather moccasins were for cooking, cleaning, and chasing after children and grandchildren. The church shoes were for services at the Baptist church--at least three a week--and for weddings, parties, and funerals. My mom wore out her shoes taking care of her family, visiting friends, walking to the store to get groceries or down to the school for a PTA meeting. Since she didn't drive, she did more walking than most.

I guess my mother really had no more use for the shoes in her closet. They were worn out anyway. They told the story of her life on earth, but that story was over. It was time for a new life, new shoes. And someday I too will put on sparkly celestial shoes, and hand in hand, my mom and I will walk all over God's Heaven.

Heaven, Heaven. Gonna walk all over God's Heaven.

My mom, about the time I was born

Monday, November 9, 2015

Beauty and Brains: Hedy Lamarr

Who says a girl can't have beauty and brains? Just look at yours truly. Well, actually--don't look too hard!

But an actress from the Golden Years of Hollywood really did pull it off. Her husband--Louis B. Mayer--called her "the most beautiful woman in the world." The U. S. military discovered she was also one of the most brilliant.

Hedy Lamarr (borm Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler--yes, Hedwig!) was an Austrian and American film actress. She played opposite a stellar array of leading men: Charles Boyer, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Robert Young, John Garfield, Victor Mature, and even Bob Hope. 

But Lamarr had other interests as well. At the onset of World War II, she was told that she could help the war effort by selling war bonds--and she did. But Hedy wanted to help in other ways. With her Hollywood neighbor, composer George Antheil, Hedy devised a plan to help the Navy.

Inside a player piano, showing the rolls
Author: Tim Walker, UK
One of the problems with radio-controlled torpedoes was that the frequency could be easily jammed. Drawing inspiration from a player piano, they created a system where the controlling frequency would hop around among 88 different frequencies, like the 88 keys on a piano. This frequency-hopping was impossible for the enemy to jam, since it would take too much power to jam all 88 frequencies.

USS Arizona, torpedoed at Pearl Harbor

Sadly, the Navy did not adopt the Lamarr-Antheil plan during WWII. However, their plan was reviewed and implemented by the Navy in the Bay of Pigs blockade of 1962--after their patent had expired.

Fidel Castro
photo produced by Agência Brasil

This frequency-hopping concept became the basis for spread-spectrum communication technology, used in GPS and Blue Tooth and Wi-Fi connections. 

Free WiFi Hub in Minneapolis
Author: Ed Kohler

Today, November 9th, is Hedy's birthday, and we can celebrate her epic contributions--not only in the entertainment industry but also in technology. 

Sometimes real life stories are stranger--and even more fascinating--than fiction.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Stingy Jack

Elbow-deep in gourd guts tonight--while carving a Picasso-esque pumpkin--I starting wondering about how the tradition of carving jack o'lanterns on Halloween started. So after lighting my pumpkin, I began to enlighten myself.

In an Irish legend, a man known as Stingy Jack had a drink with the Devil. Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for the drinks--so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin to pay the tab.

Jack popped the coin into his pocket, next to a silver cross--thus preventing Satan from returning to his original form.

Eventually, Jack freed the Devil--but only on the condition that he wouldn't bother him for a whole year and that--should he die--the Devil would not put him in Hell.

Photo: Topjabot

The following year, Jack--who clearly should have gone into politics--convinced the Devil to climb a tree to pick some fruit. Jack carved a cross into the tree--which prevented the Devil from coming down until he promised not to bother Jack for ten years.

Irish gravestone
Photo: Youngbohemian

Not long after, Stingy Jack died. He knocked at Heaven's Gate but God turned him away. Satan also turned Jack away. The Devil was still mad at Jack for playing tricks on him--yet he honored his commitment to not put him in hell.

The Devil as a goat, by Diablorex

Thus, rejected by both Heaven and Hell, Jack was doomed to wander the earth with only a burning coal to light his way. He became known first as "Jack of the Lantern," and then "Jack O'Lantern."

(C)opyright Can Stock Photo / Sandralise

The British had a tradition of making lanterns from potatoes, turnips, and beets. In America, these Irish and British traditions were combined into making jack o'lanterns out of pumpkins. The original jack o'lanterns were carved with faces, but over time, artists have gone hog wild carving intricate designs and patterns.

Wow. Makes my pumpkin look kind of . . . well, kind of sad and lonely, like poor old Stingy Jack, forever wandering, never finding a home.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

McKinley, Denali -- Potato, Potahto

Denali -- formerly Mt. McKinley -- has been in the news lately. Mostly because of its name change. Some people like the new name, and others are upset about it. I prefer to stay out of this disagreement.

Denali, by Derek Ramsey

But I do think that Denali is a fitting name for this magnificent mountain in Alaska, the highest peak in North America. And the reason -- as you might guess -- has something to do with a story. Seeing as how this is a blog about stories. (Mythopath = someone who is receptive to stories.)

Crow near Whittier, Alaska
 photo by lanare Sevi
According to legend, Raven was a shape-shifter and a trickster. Taking the form of a young man, he crossed the sea in his canoe to win the heart of a maiden. When she refused him, he set out on the voyage home. 

The young girl went down to the water’s edge to get some water, and she sank in to her knees. When she cried out in distress, the young man shouted, “It is your own fault.” 

She sank next to her waist and then to her neck. Each time, the young man -- Raven -- taunted her. At last she slipped into the water and drowned. 

 Alaska Brown Bear, by Marshmallow

The girl’s mother, who was furious, had two tame brown bears. She took them to the water’s edge and told them to churn up the water so that the young man would also drown. But he took a white stone and threw it across the water. The water became smooth on the path before him, but all around there raged a roiling storm.

Storm at Sea, Tom Roberts

Exhausted from paddling in the storm, the young man took his harpoon and threw it at a tall wave, just as he fainted in his canoe. When he lifted his head, he found himself in a beautiful spruce forest. The wave he hit had become a great mountain. And the harpoon, passing through the first wave, hit a second wave and formed another mountain. This is the one called Denali, according to the story.

Denali, by Sbork
This is a sad but charming legend from native storytellers in Alaska. Raven's ego and deceit always seem to make trouble for himself and for those around him. And he never seems to learn!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Equinox Rocks!

For artsies like me, autumn is a state of mind—a point in time when I suddenly have the urge to take a drive in the country and stop at a roadside stand for apple cider.

Autumn leaves, photo by Takeshi Kuboki

For geeks like my husband, autumn begins precisely when the sun crosses the celestial equator—which this year occurs at 4:21 am on September 23rd. There are pie charts and graphs and equations to warm the heart of any geek. But I prefer to celebrate autumn with pumpkin pie, and plenty of whipped cream, thank you.

In terms of mythology, we are leaving the season of the sun and entering the season of the moon—since in the winter season, the nights are longer and the moon spends more time in the sky.

Ancient Britons built Stonehenge to mark the occurrence of equinoxes and solstices.

Attrib: Wigulf~commonswiki

Ancient Mayans built a pyramid at Chichén Itzá to mark these astronomical events. At the autumn equinox, seven triangles became visible on the pyramid's staircase.

Photo: Manuel de Corselas

Examples of early American "equinox markers" include Mystery Hill in Vermont and Serpent Mound in Ohio.

Serpent Mound

The ancient Greeks said that Persephone was returning to the underworld to be with her husband Hades during the winter months. Curse that stupid pomegranate!

Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyan

The Chinese celebrate with a Mid-Autumn Festival. They eat Moon Cakes,  filled with lotus, sesame seeds, a duck egg or dried fruit. Looks delicious, doesn't it!

Photo by Lybil Ber

In Japan, the equinoxes are a time to visit the graves of your ancestors, and clean and decorate the graves.

Photo: Akitoshi Iio
It's amazing that people all over the earth have attached such great significance to celestial events, including the equinoxes. And it's amazing that after all these gazillions of circles around the sun, the heavens still run like clockwork, sending each season in its turn.

The Creation of the Sun and Moon, Michelangelo

We plough the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land;
But it is fed and watered by God's almighty hand:
He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.

All good gifts around us
Are sent from heaven above,
Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord
For all His love.

The Harvesters, Brueghel

Monday, September 14, 2015

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight -- Continued

King Arthur -- book jacket
Click here to read Part One of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

In the first part of the story, King Arthur was holding a New Year's feast, when into the mighty hall galloped a great green steed with a green rider. The Green Knight challenged Arthur to strike him with an axe — on one condition Should he somehow survive, Arthur must come to the Green Chapel in a year and a day and let the Green Guy take his turn with the axe. But a brave young knight — Sir Gawain — stepped up and took Arthur's place.

Gawain swung the axe and kerplunk! The Green Knight's head rolled. But then, to everyone's surprise, the challenger picked up his head, and the head continued to speak: "Don't forget. You must come to me in a year and a day, to finish this contest."

At the time appointed, Gawain mounted his horse and rode to a great castle near the Green Chapel. There he was greeted by the lord and lady, Bertilak de Hautdesert and his wife, Mrs. de Hautdesert. There was another resident at the castle as well  an ill-mannered old hag, who was not introduced. Remember her, for she will come into the tale later, as old hags are wont to do.

Sir Gawain, fresh from the Pearl Poet's typewriter
On three consecutive days, Sir Hautdesert went hunting. Before leaving on the first day, Sir H. made a bargain with Sir G. At the end of each day, Sir. Hautdesert would give Gawain whatever he bagged on his hunt, if Gawain would also give to him whatever he acquired during the day.

A hunt, in medieval times
And this, Dear Reader, is where things get weird — just in case a big green man who comes back to life after a beheading isn’t weird enough already.

Each day, while Sir H. was out hunting, Mrs. Sir H. tried to seduce Gawain, but each day Big G. resisted her wiles. At the end of the first day, Mr. H gave Gawain his catch, and Gawain gave Hautdesert a kiss — for Mrs. H. was only able to give the knight a kiss — which he returned to her husband. (I told you it was weird.) 

On the second day, Sir H. gave Gawain his catch, and Gawain gave him two kisses, compliments of Mrs. H. 

Hautdesert's wife tempts Gawain
On the third day, Mrs. H. continued her attempt to compromise Gawain's virtue, but she also offered him a gold ring — which he refused. Then she begged him to take her girdle. She promised that it was enchanted and it would protect him in combat. This was far more tempting to Gawain, since he would soon face the the Jolly Green Giant in battle. He took the girdle, and that night he presented to Sir. H. three kisses—but he kept the girdle a secret.

Finally, Gawain must leave the safety and hospitality of the castle and ride to the nearby Green Chapel, with the girdle wrapped twice around his waist. There he found his nemesis, the Green Knight, sharpening his axe.  Bravely, Gawain offered his neck to his opponent. Perhaps he remembered the sound of the knight's head rolling across the floor and wondered if his head would make the same sound.

The Green Knight swung his blade once, twice, three times — but he was only able to nick Gawain’s neck, not sever his head. 

Then pooooooof! The Green Knight revealed himself to be Sir Hautdesert, who had used magic to change his appearance. And the old hag at his castle turned out to be Arthur’s jerk-face sister, Morgan le Fey, who had decided to test King Arthur’s knights. Should have known! If anything bad happens in Camelot, she usually has something to do with it.

Morgan le Fey, in her high school year book

Sir Gawain rode home to Camelot, still wearing the green girdle as a symbol of his shame that he had failed in his resolve to accept nothing offered by Lady H. His fellow knights, however, congratulated him on his success, and they all vowed that thereafter they would wear green girdles to celebrate their comrade's bravery. 

Gawain had faced his worst fears and come out alive.

The Pearl Poet, author of this tale,
poses for his book jacket

For all of you lovers of chivalric tales, the Stark Raving Mythopath recommends:

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Arthurian Legends, Barnes & Noble books 


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; Pearl;  Sir Orfeo--translated by J. R. R. Tolkien.