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My Love-Hate Relationship with NaNoWriMo
Let's Take the Survey One Step Further
A Question about a New Book -- or Two
My Favorite March Column
Scammers and Trolls Are Alive and Well Today

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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Holidays

My Favorite March Column


How Green is Your March?
 
            March has only two real holidays, both of them commonly associated with the color green.  The first day of Spring comes in March, and we have every reason to expect the world to turn green.  In Memphis, though, you can't count on that.  Statistically, it is as likely to snow on March 20 as on any day of winter.  If the neighborhood does not turn not white from snow in March, the Bradford pear trees will produce enough white blossoms to make it look like snowfall. At the same time, the wonderful old post oaks in the south grow long fuzzy catkins in the Spring, and they are capable of producing enough pollen paint your car yellow if you park under one. Green will simply have to wait.
 
            The most dependable signs of Spring are the migrations.  Our little juncos and red-winged blackbirds will be heading north, along with those other snow-birds, the folks from along the U. S./Canada border, who have been keeping warm in Florida all winter. You'll see them on the interstate, chugging along in their overloaded motor homes.  Another migration path leads south in March – northern college students on Spring Break.  You'll want to avoid them on the highways, too.  There will be a vertical migration as well.  Do you want to know how close Spring really is?  Check to see how far down in the dirt you have to dig to find an earthworm.  Their migrations may only cover a distance of six inches or so, but when they start to stick their wormy little heads up in your garden, Spring is definitely here.
 
            If  you are Irish, or want an excuse to behave like an Irishman, you'll want to deck yourself out in the brightest green outfit you can find on March 17th.  Just one word of warning.  When I was a kid, my Scotch-Irish mother boasted to me that her family came from Northern Ireland, where the people were Orangemen (supporters of the 18-century Protestant claimant to the English throne, William of Orange).  So I went off to school proudly wearing my new tangerine-colored sweater on March 17.  Not a good idea! 
 
            What about St. Patrick's Day?  If you happen to be in New England, you may notice that small towns dye their rivers green for the day.  In Memphis, you can drop by Silky Sullivan's down on Beale  Street and have a green beer.  Everyone you meet will claim to come from Ireland.  And you'll need to be up-to-date on your knowledge of all things Irish, like blarney stones, leprechauns and shamrocks.
 
             St. Patrick was real enough, although he was a pagan, came from Wales rather than Ireland, and was named Maewyn.  His first trip to Ireland occurred when he was captured by Irish marauders and carried off as a slave at the age of 16.  After 6 years, he escaped and made his way to Auxerre in Gaul, where he studied at a monastery and adopted Christianity.  He returned to Ireland as a bishop and spent some 30 years fighting with the local Druids and converting the population to Christianity. 
 
            Legend has it that he drove the snakes out of Ireland.  True enough, there are no snakes there.  But, then,  there never have been.  The island broke away from the continent well before the last Ice Age, and snakes never managed to make the swim to re-establish themselves.  My guess is that when Patrick promised to drive the snakes out of Ireland, he was actually casting an ugly slur on the Druids, who were pagan priests – "the little snakes!"
 
            Leprechauns are also problematic.  We all know what they look like – about three feet tall, old and ugly, with pointed ears and a pointed cap to match.  They smoke long-stemmed pipes, make shoes, and hide pots of gold under rainbows. They are anti-social, tricksters, thieves, and creators of mayhem in the middle of the night.  They like to get drunk on a homebrew called poteen and as a result usually have pink-tipped noses.  There are no female leprechauns, but I'm not going to touch the problem of how they make new baby leprechauns!  They are associated with St. Patrick because they are elves and therefore join the group of folks Patrick wanted to run out of the island.  Patrick's connection with shamrocks is better-grounded in fact.  He used the native three-leafed plant to explain the nature of the Trinity and adopted the shamrock as his badge. Despite the pictures you'll see, leprechauns probably do not hide under shamrocks.
 
            There is a real Blarney Stone, and Irish legend says that if you kiss it, you will be rewarded with the gift of eloquence.  The stone itself is located on the third story of Blarney Castle, just northwest of the village of Cork.  To kiss the stone, you must sit with your back to it, lean backwards (with someone holding your feet), and lower your head down a crack between two stone walls.  They tell me there are iron rails to hold onto, but I think I'd rather just remain green with envy for those who speak with honeyed tongues.

February Is the Ultimate "F" Word

As I announced yesterday over on my Blogger site, I'm shuttering that blog for a while to concentrate on a period of research  for my next book. But I also want to revive this site in order to have a place to think out loud and explore some new ideas. For a quick jumpstart, here's an old historian's salute to the dreary month of February. 

February Is the Ultimate "F" Word
 
I think it's time we did something about February!  It's already the shortest month, thanks to Julius Caesar, who revised the calendar for us.  His astronomers failed to reconcile a 365¼ -day solar cycle with a 29-and-a-1/2-day lunar one, so they ended up with one month shorter than the others.   I'm grateful they made it February rather than wasting two of the lovely days of May.  Personally, I would have been even happier if they had made it only 20 days long.

After all, what does February have going for it?  The days are getting a bit longer, but when the sky is gray and ugly all day long, it's hard to get excited about the sun rising a minute earlier than the day before.  The glitter and fun of the holidays is over.  All we have  left are the unpaid bills and the unexplainable extra five pounds on the scales. February seems to have its own "F" word – "fat." Magazines on every news counter are telling us to "Lose Ten Pounds by Tomorrow" and "Walk Off Your Belly Fat."  Makes you want to get  up in the morning, doesn't it? 

And the weather  -- We used to say that  if it's going to snow in Memphis, it'll snow in February. If we had those flakes back in November, we'd all have been singing "Over the river and through the woods."  If they came in December, we'd be crooning about "Frosty the Snowman" and "Sleighrides." But February snow?  "I'm Dreaming of a White Groundhog" just doesn't cut it. But then neither does the unseasonably warm weather we’ve had this year. We’ve already had several 70-degree days, and each one throws our weathermen into a panic about “the threat of severe weather.” I’m tempted to junk all my calendars and assume that we will enjoy all four seasons on a daily rotation.

And speaking of groundhogs, have you thought about the weirdness of February holidays?  We start the month by waiting for a glimpse of a bleary-eyed rodent, hoping he'll tell us that winter is over.  Actually February 2 used to be celebrated in pagan Europe as a cross-quarter day, halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox.  Christians made it into Candlemas Day, 40 days after the birth of Jesus and a time for the blessing of the year's supply of candles. Punxsutawney Phil, of course, is a purely American invention: he made his first official weather predication on February 2, 1887.  Where did we get that idea?  I haven't a clue.

Then there's Valentine's Day – a time for sweethearts everywhere, right?  Well, maybe not.  The real St. Valentine may have been a Christian priest in 269 A.D., in the reign of Claudius II.  He was thrown into prison for his beliefs, and while he was there,  he made friends with his jailor's daughter.  When he was taken out to be executed, he left her a farewell note, signed, "Your Valentine."  The day just happened to be February 14, the Roman festival of Lupercalia, in which Roman girls drew names out of a box to see who their  lover would be in the coming year.  So the two ideas--lovers and friendly farewell notes—gradually grew into our current celebration of hearts and flowers.  The next time someone asks you to "Be My Valentine," however, you might want to remember what happened to the first Valentine.

Also in the middle of the month comes "President's Day." Uh-Uh! Not going to go there.

The last day of February this year is Mardi Gras, certainly an excuse for a party.  In the medieval world, Mardi Gras was the last day of Carnivale, a period of silliness that began back on January 6 and extended up to the first day of Lent.  It was a time when everyone ignored the ordinary rules of society and the prohibitions of religion for a short while.  But Mardi Gras also carried a stern warning that the season for repentance was at hand.  All meat, oil, and eggs had to be consumed before midnight, since Lent brought with it 40 days of fasting.  In French Mardi Gras means "Fat Tuesday," and there's that "F" word again.

Maybe we just ought to give in and celebrate anything that comes along in February, in the fervent hope that it will make the month go faster.

Celebrating the New Year, German-Style


In honor of my German (Hessian) great-grandparents, and in the tradition handed down to the Schweinsberg granddaughters through Grandma Karolina, I have been busy this morning making sure that my little household will be as lucky as possible in the coming year. (And Heaven knows, we may need all the help we can get!)

My southern friends won't understand this. They'll want to talk about back-eyed peas and greens, but -- trust me -- on a blustery New Year's Eve, whether in Germany or Pennsylvania-- finding a pot of pork and sauerkraut is about as lucky as it gets!

Tradition says that it always brings good luck to eat pork, although for those who don't like the meat, a marzipan pig makes a good substitute. The pork itself can take many forms -- a schnitzel,  a roast, a tender chop, or --  ideally -- slow-cooked with sauerkraut. Why sauerkraut? Because it comes with a wish that you may have as much money as there are shreds of cabbage in a vat of sauerkraut.

My own favorite version of the old recipe combines the following ingredients in a slow cooker and lets them meld on low for six hours. Yes, I suppose it might taste better in a cast iron pot simmering on the back of a wood-burning stove, but, hey! Serve with mashed potatoes. And why mashed potatoes? Because it tastes good!


  • a pork loin cut into small cubes
  • a quart of deli sauerkraut
  • half an apple, sliced into thin wedges
  • half an onion, similarly sliced
  • lots of minced garlic
  • liberal shakings of salt (depending on the nature of your sauerkraut), dill weed, and dry mustard
  • half a bottle of good German beer

Therein, of course, lies a moral challenge. The onion and apple halves can last for another use, but what does one do with a half a bottle of beer, rapidly warming and losing its foam? Well, I'm fairly sure Grandma Karolina would have said:


"Abfälle, die nicht wollen, dass nicht."  (Waste not, want not).

Making Your Holidays Mean Something

Time to vent, just a little, as we move deeper into December and the holiday hoopla.  A time to stop, take stock, and remember what’s important in this life, and what is not. 

A case in point:

I have some old friends, some folks with whom I connected many years ago when we were all  working as mere “go-furs” behind the scenes of a large philanthropic organization. It’s been the kind of friendship that goes for months or years without contact but renews easily and joyfully when events bring us back together  for a day or two. They are the kind of friends with whom you go for a drink, or a quick sandwich, exchange views of family pictures, mention future plans, and then spin off on your separate trajectories.

In the last few years, one of these friends has hit the fast track to international prominence, by now serving in a jaw-dropping executive position that has him and his wife jet-setting around the world, hob-knobbing with others whose names I have only encountered in the newspapers. I miss our quick reunions but have rejoiced in his successes.

And now . . . 

Would I be pleased to find a Christmas card from him and his wife among the others that have started to arrive? Of course I would. One of the blessings of the holiday season is that we take time to remember the people who have played an important part in our lives..

Would I understand if his multiple responsibilities made it physically impossible for them to send out personal greeting cards this year? Of course I would. It really never occurred to me to expect a greeting from them. 

But there it was in my mailbox . . . 

. . . Christmas-stamped, sealed, and hand-signed . . 

. . . and addressed only to my husband . . 

. . . who, as most of you know, died almost two years ago.

So what are you doing this holiday season? Whatever it is, I hope it will be personal, heartfelt, and meaningful.  It’s time to move beyond doing what’s expected, going through the motions, knee-jerking your way through the tasks at hand. Better to send one sincere message to someone who changed your life than to send out 500 identical — and meaningless — cards.

Have a Happy St. Swithun's Day

Today—July 15—is St. Swithin’s Day. Why is that important? because it allows you to get a weather forecast for the rest of the summer. Here’s the traditional rhyme:

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ‘twill rain nae mare

For the historically-minded, St. Swithun was an Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Winchester who lived in the ninth century. His tenure as bishop ran from 853 to approximately 862. This statue of him used to decorate the west portal of Winchester Cathedral. Today, if you want to see it, you can visit him in the crypt.


For the superstitious, I must warn you that his weather-predicting ability has been rated considerable below that of Puxatawney Phil. You must admit that the probability of England’s weather being consistently wet or dry for forty days in a row is highly unlikely. On the other hand, the prediction often works for our southern states. Today, for example, the weather forecasters here are predicting bright sunshine and clear skies with intermittent thunderstorms. I’m assuming that if we get both, a prediction that the mix will continue for the next 40 days does not seem unreasonable. I’d bet on it. Thanks, Swithun, old chap.