Wednesday, August 29, 2012

I'm a Believer

          And the drought continues.
          Here in Kansas City, where we have clay soil, foundations are shifting and cracking all over the metro area. Our antique water and sewer lines are suffering as well, breaking when the soil where they are laid dries out and contracts.
           And of course trees are stressed and plants are dying and brown and crackly is the color du jour for yards. Everyone is hoping for rain.
          When K's and my youngest was ten or so, we had a hot, dry rainless summer, something like this one. We all prayed for rain and watched our gardens die as the water bills ratcheted higher.
          B had recently gotten a book of magic spells, which pleased him greatly, and which, after some perusal, brought him running to us, all excited.
          B (jumping and waving the book of spells around): There's a spell in here to make it rain! I'm gonna do it!
          K and me (figuring that he was old enough to deal with the disappointment that would inevitably ensue when the "spell" didn't work): Do you have to do anything dangerous?
          B (jumping around some more): No! All you need is some charcoal and a green plant! Like a fern! But it can be any green plant! It doesn't have to be a fern! And some…(here the ingredient list becomes unintelligible because he's talking faster than his tongue can actually move and doing some more jumping around).
          Us: Okay then.

Magic boy!
          So B assumes his best wizard mien and gathers the necessary ingredients for the magical spell to make it rain. We put the charcoal in the Weber grill (since we are inexplicably unsupplied with a brazier), and B lights the charcoal and commences the spell. There are burnings and chantings and then it's over, more quickly than I expected. We all look at each other, and then up at the sky. Which remains cloudless.
          K and me: All righty, then. Who wants hamburgers?!

          That evening, it rained. It was the only rain we had that summer.
          I think it might be time for B to get back into the rain spell business.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Dangerous Rest Stop

          I hereby give you Arriba, Colorado. Home to more or less 200 souls. There are some grain elevators and a railroad siding, and—most important to K and me, who drive I-70 from Kansas City to Denver and back again with some regularity and also two dogs—a rest area.
          It is not, as they say, a happening place.
          And yet, here is the poster that hangs in the lobby of the nicely appointed restrooms at the Arriba Rest Area:

It's a poor photo—I know. It was in a glass case and what could I do?
          It says, "Be Alert / the eight signs of terrorism."
          Normally I would refrain from poking a little gentle fun at a poster like this; I-70 is one of the major east-west interstates, and if terrorists wanted to have a Jack Kerouackian adventure before getting to whichever coast with a major population center it is they were headed for and strapping on the explosive-laden vest and going boom in a densely populated area with the promise of 70 virgins or the streets paved with gold and no dark-skinned folk around on the other side of said boom depending upon their particular flavor of fervor, a major interstate is a perfectly reasonable place for them to be driving—and possibly even using the rest areas.
          And yet…. I have now stopped at every rest area on I-70 between Kansas City and Denver—more than once—and Arriba is the only one that sports a poster teaching us what the eight signs of terrorism are. Is it possible that it has determined that its potties are so much nicer than the ones on the Kansas side that they are a sure terrorist target? And if this is the case, can someone please tell me what the other terrorists will say when they hear their colleagues blew up restrooms? Aside from the hysterical laughing and pointing out that those boys failed Terrorist Map-Reading Training more than once?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

          I hardly had a thought in my head at all last week. It reminded me of my adolescence.
          The reason my mind was empty was not a second recurrence of the horrors of ages 13-19, fortunately, but rather because there simply wasn't enough oxygen available for thought after my greedy muscles had absorbed it all.
          There wasn't much oxygen available even before my greedy muscles sucked it up, come to think of it. We were in the mountains, at about 12,000 feet, where oxygen is rarer than hen's teeth. I spent most of the week feeling like my head was a toy balloon, filled with giant, glorious nothing, bobbing along about two feet above where it normally sits on top of my neck when there is enough oxygen.
          K and I combined this lack of oxygen with a goodly amount of hiking, which resulted in some nicely stunning visions:

          Also some tired dogs:

          We were all so tired at the end of every day, in fact, that we were almost able to successfully ignore the bed made of rocks and Jell-o in the cabin where we stayed. Judging from the age of the proprietors and from the vintage of the formica in the kitchenette, I'm guessing that bed was well into its fourth decade.
          And I can testify with complete assurance that beds are not meant to last forty-some-odd years.
          Still, I'd brave the bed again just to listen to the big silence of the mountains, just to be able to hike to within shouting distance of a glacier, just to draw a breath at altitude and feel my head float away.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

So Now a Clothesline is Homesteading?

          This was the teaser on the front page of our local paper's Fluff section a couple of Sundays ago:

          Hooray! for the comeback of the clothesline—although I never realized it had gone away. Hooray! for the sunshine smell of line-dried sheets and the zen loveliness of walking a basket of freshly-washed clothes out into the fresh air and sun and clipping them to the line one-by-one as you listen to the birds natter and the leaves rustling in the breeze. Hooray! for any excuse at all to go outside and enjoy the day while actually accomplishing a Necessary Task.
          I am going to have to rant about that last sentence, though.
          Because, really.
          How to use a clothesline?
          How to use a clothesline?
          It's not like there's any mystery there.
          Even if, say, the operation of the spring-clip clothespin eludes you*, you are still completely capable of slinging a wet shirt over the clothesline, just like you sling a towel over the shower rod.
          Done and done. Easy schmeasy. That's all there is to it.
          And yet the article in the paper (which I dutifully read, because I simply boggled at the idea that anyone could come up with enough column inches about using clotheslines to fill up half a page) seems to think that many (perhaps most) of us are dumber than three cubic yards of grass clippings, and therefore require instructions on the use of the mysteriously incomprehensible clothesline.
          To which end, they recommend a book, which I will not name because I'm going to brazenly mock it. Apparently it's all part of a resurgence in interest in traditional home arts and homesteading.** 
          Homesteading? Hanging laundry out to dry on a nice summer's day is homesteading?
          Nope, sorry. Homesteading is 160 acres of the poorest, windiest land Kansas has to offer. Homesteading is trying to make it to harvest on a dryland wheat farm in a drought year. Homesteading is the nearest grocery store being 44 years away. Homesteading is a starvation winter in a drafty tarpaper shack with only blizzards for entertainment.
          Sure, homesteaders hung their laundry out to dry (apparently they were smart enough not only to figure out how to use a clothesline without an instruction manual, but also how to make one), but this was not a choice on their parts; it was a necessity. They didn't have electricity-powered dryers to renounce. If they had had dryers, they would have fallen to their knees weeping tears of joy, embraced the dryer, and never hauled another heavy basket of wet laundry out to the clothesline in the middle of January ever again in their entire lives***.
          I've lived in houses with and without clotheslines. When I've had one, I've used it. This does not make me a homesteader. This doesn't even make me someone who has a hazy, golden-glowy mental picture of herself in a fetching sunbonnet and gingham dress, picturesquely hanging lace-trimmed bloomers out to dry.
          The real homesteader, the one who would have said, "Are you crazy out of your mind?" if I'd told her I was renouncing my dryer, was an overworked drudge, prematurely old, in a sweat-stained dress, whose survival depended partially on the completion of a chore list you couldn't finish with a platoon of workers and partially on the weather, which was almost always too much of one thing and not enough of the other.
          Who among us would really want to be a homesteader? It was a miserable, difficult life, totally bereft of smartphones and iPads and filled to the brim with aching joints, walking miles to get to the nearest town, a complete lack of electricity of any sort, and vanishingly few hot showers.
          So let us be clear: if I hang my clothes on the clothesline, it is not because I am "homesteading." It is because I like the smell of line-dried sheets.

*Grasp the open ends, thumb on one side, index finger on the other. Pinch together. Notice how the bottom end opens? Clip it to something and release. See? So easy even a teenage boy can master it.

**I have a small request. If you are interested in traditional home arts, contact me. Because as I have noted before, I hate to vacuum. But I would love to teach you to do it for me. And think how traditional and homey you'd then feel with your new domestic skill. And if I'm reading the tea leaves of this trendy new trend correctly, you will also feel morally superior.

***Yes, they used their clotheslines summer and winter. Yes, the clothes froze. It was much less fun than one is led to believe in the "homesteading" books.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


          Banging on about real time appearances (or the lack thereof) of the Virgin Mary got me thinking about my favorite saints. These are saints I have made the acquaintance of, haphazardly, over the years, usually while doing other things. You should please not assume that I spend all my idle hours reading Butler's Lives of the Saints.

Saints Crispin and Crispian (AKA Crispinian)
          These saints are referenced in the very moving Saint Crispin's Day speech Henry V gives before the Battle of Agincourt in Shakespeare's Henry V.
          They are the patron saints of cobblers and shoemakers, and of course I have already mentioned my star-crossed love affair with shoes. Their feast day is October 25.

Saint Joan of Arc
         How can you not love a peasant girl who put on armor and against all odds led the French to victory over the English? How can you not feel the betrayal she suffered from Charles VII, the man she put on the French throne, when she was captured while trying to raise the siege of Compiègne, and handed over to the English without any royal efforts to save her? She was burned at the stake as a heretic for wearing men's clothing, which makes her obviously, in my book, the patron saint of cross-dressers*, as well as soldiers, and one of the patron saints of France. Her feast day is May 30.

Saint Martin of Tours.
He is not trying to stab the beggar; he is cutting his cloak in half
to share with the beggar.

           Another patron saint of France, also of the city of Tours, where K and I used to live. He has a very handsome basilica there, which houses his sarcophagus in its crypt. St. Martin was a well-respected bishop of Tours, which was then (as it is still) a well-travelled pilgrimage crossroads. His death, at the monastery he founded at Candes-St-Martin, has an element of farcical cloak-and-dagger whose charms I am helpless to resist: Because he died at the monastery there, the tiny town of Candes-St-Martin claimed his body, realizing how important economically it would be to them to become the pilgrimage destination for Martin, who was important and widely-known even before his sainthood. The city of Tours, whose bishop he was, and where his basilica was, also claimed Martin's body, but Candes-St-Martin refused to give it up. So, under the cover of darkness, a group of citizens of Tours made their way to Candes-St-Martin, 39 miles downriver, where Martin was lying in state in the monastery church. They snuck in to the church, grabbed his body and shoved it out through a window, and then sailed with it back upriver to Tours, where you can bet they posted a watch to prevent a the citizens of Candes-St-Martin from stealing it back until the viewing and funeral were over and they had Martin safely sealed in his sarcophagus.
          Saint-stealing. Even though it's not supposed to be funny it is, and I always imagine it as a Monty Python sketch.
          St. Martin is also the patron saint of beggars, innkeepers, and soldiers. His feast day is November 11—nicely appropriate, as November 11 is Veterans' Day.

Saint Caedmon
          Caedmon was a cowherd who wrote the oldest recorded Old English poem and became the father of English sacred poetry. Only a few lines of his poetry survive, and here they are:

Now let me praise the keeper of Heaven's kingdom,
The might of the Creator, and his thought,
The work of the Father of glory, how each of wonders
The Eternal Lord established in the beginning.
He first created for the sons of men
Heaven as a roof, the holy Creator,
Then Middle-earth the keeper of mankind,
The Eternal Lord, afterwards made,
The earth for men, the Almighty Lord.**

          Fans of J.R.R. Tolkein will notice the reference to Middle Earth in Caedmon's Hymn. Tolkein was a great medievalist who obviously knew his Caedmon.
          I can't find any patronage for St. Caedmon, but it stands to reason that he would be the patron saint of Hobbits. His feast day is February 11.

Saint Denis, as I first made his acquaintance.
          Yet another patron saint of France here, but that's not why I like him so much. 
          See his head? Notice how it isn't where it's supposed to be? This apparently happened a lot to martyrs of the early Catholic church, this having their heads lopped off. When St. Denis lost his, on top of Montmartre, he picked it up, tucked it under his arm, and walked down the hill to his burial place. 
          But wait—there's more! Apparently this practice was so common (the picking up of the head and walking off, not the lopping, although that would have had to have been pretty widespread as well) that these martyrs get their very own name—"cephalophore."
          Which I always have difficulty remembering, usually coming up with "cephalopod" instead.
          Which would explain why I believe that St. Denis is the patron saint of fried calamari.
          He is also invoked against headaches (go figure). His feast day is October 9.
*This is definitely not the official stance of the Catholic Church. I don't care. Cross-dressers need a patron saint as much as anyone else.

**There are other translations in existence. I like this one for its clarity, although at the expense of the alliterative verse form.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Tree-Trunk Mary

          A person of my deeply Pilgimistic heritage should shudder to admit this, but I love Catholic iconography. When you grow up in a religion that embraces simplicity to the point of worshipping the boring, you can end up with a craving for the arcanely glorious, rowdy, colorful, crowded visual Byzantousity that Catholicism often manifests.
          Plus, I have a little thing for saints. I like the idea that there exist dead people who act as intercessors on our behalf with the divine. It's a compelling and comforting idea—that the saints, having once been human but having become divine, bridge the gulf between the human and the divine.
          My interest in these creatures of two worlds means that I pay a lot more attention to iconography than you would assume from my resolutely non-religious stance. So when I heard that the Virgin Mary had miraculously appeared on a tree trunk in New Jersey a few weeks back, I was truly excited.
          I suppose I never really expected to see a detailed rendering of Mary in tree bark—although, why not? The divine should be entirely capable of something like that.

Beyond the abilities of the divine? I think not.
            But to see what actually inspired all the ruckus and devotion just made me sad that people—True Believers—think that the divine is capable of nothing more miraculous than a scar from a broken branch:

And yet we are expected to fill in the blank by convincing ourselves
that we kind of sort of maybe see something there.
This photo comes from this website.
          A divine that can't gin up an appropriate face and hands and some fashion-forward robing for these Marian manifestations is a low-rent divine indeed, hardly worth paying attention to, no matter how badly we need to believe.
          I would have enjoyed the Mystery-with-a-capital-M of seeing Mary on a tree trunk in New Jersey, reminding us that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. I'm very sorry there was no mystery there at all.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Good Sir Knight, What's With The Extra Hands?

          Since my previous post could easily have been titled "Odd Things I've Seen in Paris," I will continue the theme and mention a sarcophagus sculpture that quite startled me one day in the Louvre as I was hurrying by, intent on something else entirely.

Just a knight, taking an eternal nap. Notice anything…extra?
©Nancy E. Banks

          Did you spot it (them)? Here's a detail:

Exactly—an extra pair of hands. What is the story there?
©Nancy E. Banks
          There's nobody hiding behind him, poking their hands out in a creepy jokey way:

©Nancy E. Banks
          I was so intrigued-slash-disturbed that I took these photos and marched them straight to the Information desk, where I handed my camera to the helpful person there and said: "Look at this! Why does he have extra hands?"
          I think at the Information desk they mostly get asked which way is the Mona Lisa or the bathrooms, because the woman I spoke to got quite excited, and looked Good Sir Knight Way Too Many Hands up in the official database to see if there was any commentary. There was none (apparently an extra pair of hands on a knight here and there does not excite the interest of the curators, jaded creatures that they are). She scrutinized the official photo, then had another look at my photos, then called a colleague over for a consult.
          In the end, we determined that the extra set of hands is really a pair of gloves (if you look closely, you can see engravings on the fingers that mimic the look of articulated metal scales).
          I was pleased to have an answer to my question, but I have to say that the gloves still look disturbingly alive to me. In fact, they bear more than a passing resemblance to Thing, of The Addams Family fame. I suspect they are his ancestors.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Ghost Story Redux

          I mentioned in a previous post that my sister had a friendly encounter with what I am claiming, for purposes of this blog*, was a ghost at Père Lachaise Cemetery this spring.
          It was a deeply UNsatisfying ghost story, I have to admit. The touch of a spectral hand on her back—and that was it? Where's the story? Where's the dramatic arc? The tension? The shivers? There has to be more, I kept telling myself. We are people Things Happen To; any ghost who patted my sister on the back has to have a history with her, because the oddly inexplicable doesn't happen to either of us without there being some really good backstory. It's just the rule.
          Yesterday, I remembered the backstory. Because this spring was not our first trip to Père Lachaise.
          When K and I were living in Paris, my sister visited us, and one of the sights (or sites, as you like) she asked to see was Père Lachaise. She was researching funerary statuary at the time, and Père Lachaise is jam-packed with monuments and statues and bas-reliefs that she wanted to photograph.

Monument to the dead. The door to the ossuary is at the left, behind the truck.
©Jeannie Thomas
          In addition to monuments to individuals, Père Lachaise also contains a moving Monument to the Dead that we didn't know was there until we happened upon it. J snapped a bunch of photos while I translated the inscription for her, and then stood by, idly watching three cemetery workers offloading small wooden boxes from a truck parked nearby. One of the workers, who must have been a tour guide in another life, said hello and asked if we knew anything about the Monument.
          We admitted entire ignorance. Well, he said, did you know it's actually an ossuary? And that open door you see over there, where we're taking the boxes in, that is the entrance. Would you like to see inside?
          Would we like to see inside an ossuary?! Is Halloween the best holiday in the calendar? Of course we wanted to see the ossuary.

In the ossuary with our helpful tour guide. The wooden boxes behind me
are the remains of residents of Père Lachaise.
©Jeannie Thomas

          We learned that the occupants of graves that don't have a perpetual maintenance contract are exhumed when their contracts are up, then cremated.** The remains are packed into individual wooden boxes which are then transferred to the ossuary and placed communal crypts. When a crypt is full, it is sealed with large stone slabs, and the names of the individuals in that crypt are engraved on the slabs. We even learned how many francs a letter the stonecarver charged for the engraving.
          Best. Ossuary. Tour. Ever.

Sealed crypt with the names of the residents
engraved on it.
©Jeannie Thomas

Detail of engraving. Because I love type.
©Jeannie Thomas

          As we were leaving, we noticed a black plastic bag splayed open near the door, a femur and part of a skull visible.
          And those, I believe, were the mortal remains of the spectre that tagged my sister this spring. Mon Dieu, it must have said to itself when it saw her. I remember you, Madame. You visited me in the ossuary. How nice to see you again.

*Also for any other purposes.
**The graves are reused. Very ecological.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Kyoto by Way of Brazil

          It was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit last night when K proposed going downtown to listen to a local duo—Mistura Fina—play Brazilian jazz and samba in the park. Just in case you've never been to Kansas City, let me assure you that summer is exactly the wrong time for any kind of outdoor activity at all. But K is passionate about guitar, so we filled a water bottle and I hunted up the bamboo gimme fans we got in Kyoto as a radio station promotion, and off went we to enjoy Brazilian guitar while sweltering. The fans took some of the swelter out, for which we were grateful.

Mo' Cool in Kyoto.
©Nancy E. Banks

          They had been similarly useful in Kyoto, which also boasts hot, humid summer weather. Strangely, although almost all I can think about in Kansas City is the weather, what I remember most about Kyoto is not weather-related.
          I remember the Nishiki Market, which featured a gorgeous monochromatic composition of vegetables being pickled (in miso, maybe—can't remember):

©Nancy E. Banks
          The tea store owner who obligingly showed us the Tea Ceremony:

          The splendidly large and hungry koi in the pond at tea shop where we stopped for an afternoon snack:

Possibly the koi got so by big eating Green Tea Sweets.
©Nancy E. Banks
          And the green tea sweet (I never knew its actual name) that I ordered at the tea shop.  It was delicious—green, of course, and viscous—less firm than jelly, but not runny. It was served on a plate, with a short, sharpened bamboo stick to chase it around with. It wasn't firm enough to slice and spear, and I don't remember how I actually managed to eat it, only that it was very slow going.
          I'm still not sure whether the stick was the truly traditional eating utensil for Green Tea Sweet, or whether the staff had a bit of a sense of humor about these things.