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Lessons We Learn Too Late
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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Monthly Musings

A Halloween Rant

Happy Halloween, everyone.  I had intended to use this space to tell you more about my upcoming book, but in honor of the holiday, I'm postponing that blog in favor of a small rant.  If you're dying to know what will appear in chapters 9 through 11, tune in tomorrow.  In the meantime.. . . .

I woke up this morning already disappointed with the day -- not a good way to start a Monday, I admit.  I used to love Halloween, and not just when I was a kid.  Even as a serious-minded college professor, I loved the students who dared to come to class in costume.  I enjoyed watching the neighborhood urchins prance around all day in their outfits.  I hung ghosts from the trees in the front yard, and carved pumpkins long after my son was old enough to do it himself (or not!).  I planned special menus for Halloween dinner -- things like witch's brooms carved from celery and curled in ice water, or devil's food cake topped with gummy worms.

Even my classroom lectures sometimes took on a Halloween theme.  How convenient is it that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the cathedral door on October 31?  I got to portray that as perhaps the most profound Halloween prank ever played. If all else failed, I could entertain a medieval history class with tales of corn festivals, or the periodic practice of letting the powerless (read: children) take over the ruling (read: adult) world for a day.

But gradually someone took the fun out of Halloween. Harmless pranks have been called vandalism. Now, I definitely was never in favor of tipping over outhouses, but I saw no real harm in creeping up to a neighbor's window and using a noisemaker to spook the people inside.  My father even taught me how to make the noisemaker with an empty thread spool, a pencil, and a piece of string. (For the record, you take a wooden spool, notch the edges of top and bottom, suspend it on a pencil, and wrap a piece of string around the spool.  Then you hold it against the window glass, and make it spin by pulling the string.) We got away with soaping windows, too, which had the effect of making sure that everyone in the neighborhood had sparkling clean windows going into winter.

We planned costumes for weeks, rather than plucking one off the rack at Costco, and pretty costumes were as much in demand as witches and ghosts.  Now costumes are mainly for adults, and they  feature such delights as ghouls or zombies, or sexy French maids and political figures. Isn't the real world scary enough?

And that brings up to whole subject of Trick or Treat.  We have not had a single child come to our door for candy in the past seven years.  Of course, we live in a neighborhood heavily populated by senior citizens, and in the next-door housing complex, our neighbors are Baptist seminary students. ( If they have small children, they take them to a harvest celebration in the church basement.)

 But I hear the same stories from all over town.  Most little kids don't "trick or treat" anymore. The ones that do come around are costume-less teenagers with pillowcases, surly and threatening. Where are the cute little tykes in bumblebee outfits?  If they go out at all, they probably go somewhere "safe" like the local indoor mall, not out in the old, dark streets.  I miss them.  I even miss the student who knocked on our door one Halloween with her cat all decked out in a pumpkin costume.

And speaking of cats, I have just been reminded that October 31 is the birthday of our big orange cat.  He really should have been named Pumpkin, I suppose, but his name -- Dundee -- suits him better. Actually, I named him after a brand of Scottish marmelade, but he has always thought he was named after Crocodile Dundee and behaved accordingly. He makes a good Halloween spook to have around.

Ah, well.  We have lost the art of celebrating Halloween, I suppose, lost it under a load of rumors about devil worshippers and fear of drug pushers.  Now we have dentists who urge kids to turn in their candy --drugstores that  offer to test all handouts for drugs -- hospitals that will x-ray homemade treats for needles or razor blades.

 I mourn the loss of a fun holiday--one marked by letting kids be kids, if only for a few hours. I intend to stage my own tiny protest against the loss by serving mummy dogs for dinner and eating more chocolate than I should.  Hope you find a way to celebrate.

June Is Bustin' Out All Over

   Have you notices that there are not many holidays in June?  There's Father's Day, of course, and maybe Flag Day, and traditionally graduation days and wedding days. But there's not a single chance to take a day off work.  That's really a shame, too, because June brings us some beautiful weather, along with the first day of summer. Never, fear.  If you know where to look, there are exciting things going on every day of the month.  Here are some June events you may have not noticed.

June 1, 1533:    Anne Boleyn married Henry VIII of England.  Talk about bad decisions!
June 2, 1928:    Kraft Foods created Velveeta Cheese.  Kitchens haven't been the same since.
June 3, 1946:    The first bikini bathing suit was displayed in Paris. Actually, people weren't looking at the bikini.
June 4, 1984:    Bruce Springsteen releases "Born in the USA."
June 5, 1968:    Sirhan Sirhan shoots Bobby Kennedy.
June 6, 1944:    D-Day: 150,000 Allied Expeditionary Force lands in Normandy, France, and all big league                 baseball games are cancelled to mark the  event.
June 7, 1776:    Richard Lee (VA) moves to adopt Declaration of Independence in Continental Congress, and              colonies change name to United States.
June 8, 1861:    People of Tennessee vote to succeed from Union.
June 9, 1588:    Spanish Armada sails from Lisbon to England. A one-way trip for most of them!
June 10, 1752:    Ben Franklin's kite is struck by lightning. What a shock!
June 11, 1964:    Queen Elizabeth orders Beatles to her birthday party; they attend.
June 12, 1922:    St. Louis Brown Hub Pruett strikes out Babe Ruth 3 straight times.  Everybody has a bad                 day now and then.
June 13, 1991:    A spectator is killed by lightning at U.S. Open Golf tournament.  Did anyone yell "fore!"
June 14, 1777:    Continental Congress adopts Stars and Stripes replacing Grand Union flag.  Now some                   states celebrate Flag Day.
June 15, 1215:    King John signs Magna Carta at Runnymede, England.
June 16, 1961:    Dave Garroway is fired as "Today Show" host. He did NOT jump to another network for a                 higher salary.
June 17, 1775:    Battle of Bunker Hill.  (Actually it was Breed's Hill, but this is history, not geography.)
June 18, 1178:    Five Canterbury monks report seeing an explosion on the moon (only known observation of               origin of lunar crater Giordano Bruno).
June 19, 1964:    Civil Rights Act of 1964 passes 73-27.  Some folks miss hearing about it.
June 20, 1756:    146 British soldiers imprisoned in India's Black Hole of Calcutta. Most die.
June 21, 1633:    Galileo Galilei is forced by Inquisition to "abjure, curse, and detest" his heliocentric                    views.  Some still believe the sun moves around the earth.
June 22, 1969:    Cleveland's Cuyahoga River catches fire.
June 23, 1980:    "David Letterman Show," debuts on NBC-TV daytime.
June 24, 1964:    FTC rules health warning  must appear on all cigarette packages. Some folks still haven't                 read it.
June 25, 1630:    Fork introduced to American dining by Gov. Winthrop of Massachusetts. A set-back for                  finger food.
June 26, 1284:    Pied Piper lures 130 children of Hamelin away. (He really did!)
June 27, 1915:    Fort Yukon, Alaska, set  a state record with a temperature of  100 degrees.  Anyone want                to talk global warming?
June 28, 1917:    Raggedy Ann doll invented.
June 29, 1916:    A Boeing aircraft flies for first time.
June 30, 1859:    Charles Blondin is first to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Some people will do anything               to make a list like this.


Magical May

            For a good part of my childhood, I believed that May was my own private month, centered on my birthday and designed solely to shower me with delights.  It didn't occur to me to consider how many people there were in the world, or to divide that number by the available 365 birthdays a year.  I knew no one else born on May 5th or any other day of the month, and since there were no other major holidays to distract me, I saw no reason NOT to believe that May was mine.  I was evidently part of a "Me" generation long before the term became fashionable.
            My month started on May Day, which seemed just a warm-up exercise for the main event.  We had three May Day rules in our house, and I tried my best to observe them all.  First, my mother assured me that if I wanted to be beautiful, I needed to get up before sunrise on that day and wash my face in the dew on our front lawn.  Willing to do anything it took for such a transformation, I faithfully set my alarm and tiptoed out in the cold, scrubbed hard at my little turned-up nose, and dashed inside for the closest mirror.   Nothing ever changed, but the hope was always there. 

            Next, if I wanted to bring on good luck, I had to make a paper May Basket, stuff it with some freshly-picked flowers, and hang it on someone's doorknob without getting caught.  There were a number of elderly women on our street, and they always moved slowly enough to allow me time to ring the doorbell and scurry away. Sometimes, admittedly, the flowers were nothing more than a couple of scraggly dandelions, but the thought was there. 

            Finally, May 1 was the first day I was allowed to go barefoot in the spring.  More often than not, May 1 was cold, or wet, or both, but the anticipation was wonderful.
            Then came "my day" itself.  Birthdays seldom live up to their hype, and mine were not exceptions.  I never found a pony in the back yard, and parties usually turned out to be  huge flops.  I remember one when I decided to forget ordinary cake and serve strawberry pie with a layer of cream cheese on the bottom, just like my mother served to her bridge club.  My little friends took one look at the offering and went "Eeeewwww!"  Not even my father's offer to take everyone out for ice cream cones could salvage that one. Still, it was my party and my day.

            Eventually I learned that in other parts of the world, May celebrations occurred for reasons I had never heard of.  May 5 is actually a nationally holiday in Mexico.  It celebrates a classic "David and Goliath" story of a small Mexican militia that held off an invasion by the French Foreign Legion at the Battle of Puebla in 1862.

            May Day was, and still is, a major civic holiday in much of the rest of the world.  It was originally planned to mark the  date of the Haymarket Riot of 1886, which resulted in the adoption of the eight-hour work day for American laborers. As May 1 became known as International Workers Day, many  socialist and anarchist groups used it as an excuse for demonstrations, and Communist governments retaliated with public parades of their military preparedness.  In Oxford, England, university students still hold ceremonies at dawn, and until fairly recently, some foolhearty students defied university officials by diving into the River Cherwell from Magdalan Bridge.  Dangerous practice, that!  The river is only about three feet deep.  For a complete description of the goings on there, go to Linda Proud's blog at wordpress.com/.

            But such international goings-on made little impact on me.  My childhood month of May ended as delightfully as it had begun.  Even Decoration Day, as we called it back then, had its connection to my birthday, for it was on May 5, 1868, that General Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued an order declaring that Union and Confederate war dead would be honored on May 30 with flowers laid on their graves in Arlington National Cemetery.  My mother's family had its own Civil War soldier to honor, and Decoration Day was the traditional day for the family to gather in North Sewickley Cemetery, right outside Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, for  a day of clean-up and family reminiscing.  Five sisters, carting picnic baskets, flower pots, rakes, hoes, grumbling husbands, and assorted children spent the day moving from gravestone to gravestone, not mourning but celebrating the good times they remembered.

            There was the marker of the family matriarch, who brought her seven children from Ireland to the hills of Pennsylvania in 1795, traveling first in steerage, and then on foot. The stone bore only the single word, "Nancy," but it still stood firmly rooted on that hillside.  There was Electra, who died in the flu epidemic of 1918, and little James, a victim of diphtheria at the age of two.  By noon, the decorating crew had usually made its way to a circle of pine trees, where lunch was spread on tablecloths while someone told the story of Sgt. James McCaskey, who died in defense of his country in 1862.  When I was old enough to read the headstone, I discovered that it said he had died in South Carolina.  When pressed, the sisters admitted that he was not really buried there, but that the fake grave served his memory just as well. That made perfect sense to me at the time.  It was part of the magic that made up "My May."

April Follies

April bring us more than showers. Easter often falls in April, although the calculation of the first Sunday after the first ecclesiastical full moon (which may not really be full at all) after the vernal equinox (which is set at March 21, whether it is or not) is a question best left to astronomers.  And I hope you're not expecting an explanation of what colored eggs and Easter bunnies have to do with the religious holiday.  Suffice it to say that rabbits, tulips, and eggs are all signs of the new beginnings of Spring and pre-date the celebration of Easter.            

Since Easter does not have to occur in April at all, the one thing we can count on is that some of us will start April by making fools of ourselves.  Did  you ever wonder where April Fool's Day originated?  Fools are always with us, of course, but why is there a special day to call attention to them? 

One explanation is tied to that confusing date of Easter.  In the calendar devised by Julius Caesar's astronomers, there were a few too many days.  They had posited a year of 365 days and even added a leap year every four years. But the solar  year is a actually 365.242199 days long, which means that the calendar got ahead of itself by one day every 128 years.  By 1582, there were serious concerns that Easter was not being celebrated on the right day because the calendar was out of whack.             

Pope Gregory XIII declared that something had to be done to restore God's timetable.  His official astronomers went to work and created the Gregorian calendar, which most Christian countries still follow. To make up for the ten days that had been added over the centuries, they cancelled the days between October 5 and October 14.  They also declared that any full century year would not be a leap year unless it was divisible by 40 (so 2000, but not 1900). And while they were at it, they moved the beginning of the year from April 1 to January 1.  Then all they had to do was convince the rest of Europe to adopt the new calendar.            

That was not as easy as it sounded, especially since a large part of Europe was occupied by Frenchmen, who did not like being told what to do by an Italian pope. On April 1, there were New Year's celebrations all over France, while the rest of the continent made fun of those "poor French fish" who didn't know what day it was.  The first April Fools Day prank seems to have been pinning a picture of a fish on a Frenchman's back to show his foolishness.            

Since then, the jokes have gotten more elaborate, if not more sophisticated.  Historians of such things are pretty much agreed upon the best joke of all time.  In 1957, BBC news ran a picture of a tree festooned with long strands of spaghetti.  The accompanying report announced that ideal pasta-growing conditions in Switzerland were producing a bumper crop.  Thousands of views wrote or called to ask where they could by their own spaghetti trees.  Inquirers were instructed to plant a strand of pasta in a can of tomato sauce and hope for the best.             

My personal favorites include the pranks played by fast food companies. Taco Bell announced in 1996 that it had purchased the Liberty Bell, which would from then on be known as the Taco Liberty Bell.  Patriotic citizens were outraged and besieged Washington D.C. with their demands to cancel the sale. Two years later, Burger King proudly heralded the creation of a left-handed Whopper.  It would contain exactly the same ingredients, but everything would be rotated 180 degrees for the convenience of their left-hand customers.  Customers dutifully ordered one or the other.

Our local paper, the Commercial Appeal, points out this morning that the most successful April Fool's Day prank in Memphis history was the one committed against The Peabody Hotel  by drunken duck hunters in 1933 when they dumped live ducks in the lobby's fountain. Seven years later, the hotel's first duckmaster began his 51-year tenure. Ducks have been swimming in that lobby fountain ever since.  No foolin'!

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.             
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 and green, like blarney stones, leprechauns and shamrocks.

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!          

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!"             

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.

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 home brew called poteen and as a result usually have pink-tipped noses.  There are no female leprechauns, and I'm not going to touch the problem of how they make new baby leprechauns!

Leprechauns are associated with St. Patrick because they are elves and therefore join the group of folks Patrick wanted to run out of the island.  Despite the pictures you'll see, leprechauns probably do not hide under shamrocks. St. Patrick's connection with shamrocks is , however, grounded in fact.  He used the native three-leafed plant to explain the nature of the Trinity and adopted the shamrock as his badge.