Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Groundhog Day.

It's about time to clear up confusion about Groundhog Day, and the alleged prognosticatorial predictions of marmots.

In winter, at least in northeastern North America, (and apparently in Europe), there are, generally speaking, two kinds of days, warmer ones that are still very cold, and very cloudy, if not with light rains, and bitter cold ones, where an arctic cold high pressure system is present, and skies are very, very clear.

So, as far as the groundhog legend goes, if the groundhog sees its shadow, that means it is one of those bitter arctic days, with bright sunshine. Hence the shadow, and hence the more weeks of winter. If the groundhog sees no shadow, that means that it is one of those grey, drear, but warmer days, and the liklihood that the worst of the winter season has passed.

From this point of view, it is eminently practical, and involves nothing to do with the magical properties of marmots.

Of course, if a particular groundhog sees something is meaningless, as is the particular moment some event happens.

Groundhog Day, a vestige of Germanic culture in Pennsylvania, is an old European custom then attached to Candlemas day.

"If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight.
If Candlemas be cloud and rain,
Winter will be gone and not come again."

The world makes more sense than you expect.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Adventures Among the Episcopalians

I was grounded in Middletown and had eaten far too much for dinner,—and it was Christmas Eve, so, given all these variables and many others, (i.e., the DVD wouldn’t play), I decided to attend a Midnight Mass.

I chose to visit the Episcopalians because I have been looking for a more authentic feeling than I’ve had in the past. Perhaps the pagentry would somehow be moving, if not for the thing itself, but because of the commonality of purpose in presenting it. (I actually have been thinking of attending Greek Orthodox services, but that must be for another time, and another post.)

I won’t refer to the specific congregation I went to, just that it was the oldest in the city, and I'll just call it ‘Holy Trinity.’

There was a group singing when I came in. Singing praises to the almighty and the infinite, no doubt. Some small group, which when done, returned to seats in the pews, which was nice, in that it reinforced the idea that it was the congregation itself producing the event.

There was also a table set up for a handbell group. You get a dozen people, each gets two handbells, each with a different note, and you together play a song. For some reason, people in Connecticut have to have handbell groups perform in churches. It’s a local thing. Handbell players are invariably women of a certain age, and they’re all terrifically obsessive about their little handbell groups, and you can tell they’re vicious as hell with each other about it. “That damn Elaine, she’s always a quarter beat slow every single goddamn time...” I thought I was going to get some of this tinkling, but apparently I was too late.

But there was song and there was song. A prayer and a song. (I flubbed the prayer, ’cause I didn't have a kneeler where I was.) And organ pieces. They made the mistake of singing some modern piece with modern, dangerously atonal, chord changes, that an unskilled chorus should not attempt.

And with the teen chorus: this is Connecticut, you have to understand how things work. The lead singer is invariably some girl of whom her parents are immensely proud. “This is Angela, she’s sings in the church’s teen choir, she’s honor society at the high school and she’s going to be a freshman next year at Brown.” Of course, Angela is simultaneously dangerously nubile and astoundingly nerdy;—but no problem, Brown will make her an American-hating Socialist in no time, and she’ll learn to repudiate both her parents and the faith she so tentatively now embraces. —But that’s another post.

But that was the whole crux of the night: this bit of show, then that. First the adult chorus, then the teen chorus. This act and then that. It was like a midnight high school talent show. That’s what the Episcopalians are left with.

Feeling is gone. Depth is gone. Faith is gone. What’s left is these large performance spaces and the vanities of parents.

Not that I expect miracles from the good people of Middletown. I know the people of Middletown: they are good people. They mean well. They usually do well. They are not given to outpourings of any kind. They are hesitant and awkward in public. They are not about to assemble in a large drafty old hall in the middle of town, (with an appalling painting scheme), and transform into transcendent mystical beings. Not for my benefit, at any rate.

But is this all we’re left with? The birth of His only begotten son, and some rushed show? Hello, goodbye? “That was great minister, but we’ve got to hit the hay, the ex-wife is showing up with the kids at 9:00 tomorrow, and we have the in-laws over for Christmas dinner at 1:00. Beautiful job by the handbell chorus, that was great. Really.”

Where’s the goddamn dog and pony?

There was a time once, I know it, when the idea was to offer something that was might be pleasing to God.—Imagine that, a choir so beautiful that God would take notice. Offered with such simple sincerity that God would pause. And listen. And that was praise to the Lord.

Perhaps the fault is with me. I’ll grant that. Who am I to be looking for ‘more authentic feeling’? And why should the trappings of majesty seduce me? Why should the good people transform into transcendent mystical beings? Yet, on the other hand, if all I see is the same people I see every day, behaving the same way, how is this supposed to be special?

I’ll do what I can on my own.

I have some mulled wine, and I’ll scan the skies tonight for some sign.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Dukes of Rensselaer

I grew up in Center Brunswick. The desolate wastelands, the blasted heaths of Center Brunswick.

Center Brunswick is a village, a hamlet, a neighborhood, in a larger township. A few houses, a gas station, a few old barns. The cows are gone and lamented. The township is Brunswick;—the Town of Brunswick. One of fourteen townships in Rensselaer County.

The odd thing is, no one has any idea where the town name came from. As a young historian growing up in Center Brunswick, this question was always irritating to me.

The best answer to the the question was an old history, by a Saratoga Springs lawyer and historian, N. B. Sylvester, published at the turn of the last century, (and therefore nearly a century after the fact), that possibly the name came from the fact that Germans settled the area. A brilliant solution to the problem, except, if you give it a moment's thought, makes no sense at all. First of all, there are not a lot of Germans that settled in the area; or if they did, they snuck away quietly when no one was looking, because there are no more German last names in the records of the town than there are in any other town. But more than that, in Germany, there is no Brunswick, there is a Braunschweig. If German settlers were going to name a town Braunschweig, they would have called it Braunschweig.

This explanation never sounded like anything more than someone just making things up.

(No offense to the dear and deceased Mr. Sylvester, by the way, who only passed it on as speculation.)

On the other hand, I have long suspected that the name of the Town of Brunswick is actually associated with one or more Dukes of Brunswick. The Hannoverian Kings of Britain were all Dukes of Brunswick, (Georges I, II, III, & IV), and more than one Duke of Brunswick cut a dashing figure on the battlefield.

Tonight though, while poking around and revisiting the issue, I found that the neighboring township to the east, Grafton, was created in 1807, the same time as Brunswick. They were both the rural hinterland above Troy, and when Troy was incorporated as a city, Brunswick and Grafton were created out of the remainder of the old Troy limits.

Neither of these towns were called by these names prior to 1807, Brunswick was Elizabethtown, and Grafton was Roxborough.

So, what do Brunswick and Grafton, as words, have to do with each other? —Grafton is also a British ducal title. Brunswick has to be after the Duke of Brunswick because the town's twin, Grafton, is named after the Duke of Grafton. (And for that matter, vice versa).

Not convinced? It turns out, that in 1806, the year before, the county created the Town of Philipstown in the south of the county. In 1808, Philipstown's name was changed. To Nassau. Another British ducal title. (By a stretch, anyway. British King William of lasting memory as William and Mary, was, before his acension to the throne, William, Duke of Orange-Nassau.)

So. Three town names in two years, and the only thing they share in common is they are all ducal titles in Britain.

The question, then, is answered.

The interesting thing is that, back then, somewhere, close to some position of authority, there was someone who clearly did this as a plan; someone who intended matching town names. The Three Dukes of Rensselaer. Can't say as yet that I know who this was.

And then, the other delightful and yet baffling aspect of this, is that on August 10, 2009, I managed to figure this out, and that no one else in Rensselaer County has pieced this together in 202 years.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The face of Zeus

I've been working on an online 3-D reconstruction of the Temple of Zeus in Olympia. I'm trying to be very rigorous in my accuracy.

The Temple of Zeus in Olympia was one of the three most important religious sites in the Hellenistic world.

The statue of Zeus was by the greatest Athenian sculptor, Phidias, and was considered one of the seven wonders of the world.

Strangely, there are few representations of the statue. It may have appreared on a few coins, etc. The statue was eventually in the 700's brought to Constantinople, where it was ruined in a fire. No one is clear on what it looked like, (although there are also some written descriptions).
At about the same time, new Christian inconography was developing for the late Roman Empire. It was being developed in Constantinople. One of the most potent images, and still universally used in Greek churches, is that of Christ Pantokrator. Christ the ruler of all, or Christ Almighty. Christ always appears seated on a throne, staring directly and serenely at the viewer, bearded, the hair on his head tied back. His hands usually hold the Gospels and make a sign of blessing.
The few images of Zeus, he was seated on a throne, staring directly at the viewer, bearded, the hair on his head tied back. His hands held a victory and a staff.

So, I made the realization this morning, the Christ Pantokrator is the old image of Zeus.

I did a little research, and it seems a Frenchman named Latourette came to the same conclusion in 1975.

Which is nice.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

St. Clement's, or the Taylor Estate, was an extensive manorial pile in Portland, Connecticut. No one has probably ever exerted themselves so much to build anything important in Portland.

The location is on a high bluff above the Connecticut River. The River flows mostly due south out of New Hampshire, and at Middletown, turns east for about three miles, and then passes its last 20 miles flowing fairly straight to the Sound, in a south by southwest direction. The bluff of St Clement's is above that second turn, and, when the trees do not obscure, the house commands a view down the river.

The Taylors had a son, as I recall, who died in WWI. Leaving them without heir to pass their fortune to, they invested their money in this grand architectural gesture. (Although perhaps there was a collateral line.) I happen to have a Greek lexicon that was owned by the son when he was in college, (although how I came by it I do not know).

So the house was built in the 1920's, mostly modelled on a small monastery in France the family had seen on a tour of that country.

The family retained the property until the 1970's, when having run out of Taylors, the estate was given to Wesleyan. (Who, as it turns out, had little use for it.)

I remember one of the first floor bedrooms has been remodelled with cheap materials from the 1960's, so the family had been keeping it up somewhat until that time. I assume it was Mrs. Taylor who was so long lived.

But one curious feature of the gift to Wesleyan was that it came with two men; the Taylor family butler and chauffeur. There were servants quarters on the north or west side of the house, and these two old gentlemen had lived their lives there. Presumably, Wesleyan got the property on the condition that the men be allowed to live out their days there. When I met them they were in their early eighties, and so were born with that century. How many decades of service to the Taylors they had given, I have no idea.

One or both of them were Scots. And Wesleyan no longer expected them to carry out their duties, and with the Taylors gone, there was very little butlering and chauffering to do anyway. So the two spent their time playing high stakes poker games. They weren't worried about their money, and they had lots of time.

I met them when one of them had called in about a broken window latch, and we were dispatched by Wesleyan to go look at it. And then we spent an hour or so catching up on the latest poker arguments, (apparently they both cheated like mad and then argued about it all the time).

Eventually, the two passed, and Wesleyan sold the property to a company that built a hall the size of an airplane hanger on one side, and paved the croquet grounds, and now stages wedding banquets there.

But I like to remember the Taylors and the house they built to assuage and commemorate the loss of their son.

And the butler and the chauffeur. How the world must have seemed to them. They started out at that house in the 20's or 30's, with Dusenbergs and phaetons and towncars serenely navigating the long gravel driveway, and there would have been gowns and satin lapels, and the Taylors living the highlife through the 40's and 50's, but then time passed, and even the great Taylors were gone, but the two servants were still there, virtual possessors of the slowly deteriorating estate. Puttering, chain smoking, with the tv on, and half-empty glasses of stale whiskey on the table. Sic transit, & c.

They had their way in the end, and that pleased them.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Pavane pour une infante défunte

So, there's been a shooting at Wesleyan.

Alas, poor us.

There will be posts, blogs, articles, eulogies, and lamentations. And they will all, at some point say that the victim was special. That she was unique. That she was not like other people.

And from one perspective, those comments will not sound right. She was a Wesleyan student; that is to say, a mere mortal. No more special than you, or I, or the idiot down the street. We are all just mortals. We are all special. In a way. And in a way, we are all very much un-special. Just another animated bag of meat and organs.

None of us are special. One of us has moved from the lists of those who move in the present, to the list of those who do not.

And yet...

She was special. There is a difference. She was not just another one of us.

Not only did she have her own beauty and grace, as an individual; — she was a Wesleyan student. And that does make a difference. Why?

It is hard to say. There is the potential that has been cut down. Someone who is twenty and coming out of a college like Wesleyan is at the verge of opportunity and adventure unlike many other people. Perhaps more so than most.

But what is really at the bottom of it, is that she did have parents who invested much, regardless how much they had. She did have the support of people from her home, friends, teachers, family... For some reason, she got that love and attention in the fifth grade that allowed her to prosper and succeed that the kid sitting next to her did not. She skirted past perils and traps that her peers did not. She defied the odds of sickness and death and want that derailed the other kids. All her life, she had increasingly become the focus of hope and aspiration of others. They invested in her, and made her a reservoir of their own dearest dreams.

She was different. She had the chance to succeed, to defy the odds of life and not be beaten down by fate. Not too soon, anyway. Not until today.

She wasn't just another twenty year old, she was one of the few who were supposed to make it.

That's what we lost today.

So when those posts, blogs, articles, eulogies, and lamentations all say that she was special, that she was unique, that she was not like other people; listen to them, because it is true.

Monday, March 16, 2009

You randy scamp, you...

How come the only time I get referred to as a ‘Gentleman’ I’m doing something possibly, vaguely, naughty. In a few decades, the character of the word end up as something equivalent to ‘randy’.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Thank you, Paul Simon

Does anyone know what ‘The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls’ means? I mean, does that sentence mean anything?

—I thought not.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Driving in the Berkshires

Massachusetts Pike, near West Beckett, Massachusetts; southern spur of Lenox Mountain in far distance, (approx. 14 mi.). (Photo taken at a somewhat advanced speed.)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

On archæology

The nice thing about archæology is that at least the dead don't bother you with all sorts of petty issues.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Mount Greylock

Mount Greylock over frozen Pontoosuc Lake, Lanesborough, Massachusetts

Monday, January 19, 2009

Shag Carpeting

Shag carpeting is an amazing idea.

Apparently in the late 50's and early 60's, those clever guys at DuPont found that their new polyester fibers could be made into carpeting; and more than that, since their new fibers were so different and miraculous, you could make extremely high pile, shaggy cut carpeting, and it wouldn't become matted into a disgusting mess of plastic fiber, dust, shed hair, dead skin and spilled drinks.

So that's how they sold it to a thankful public.

And, naturally, shag carpeting proved to almost instantly become matted into a disgusting mess of plastic fiber, dust, shed hair, dead skin and spilled drinks.

Simply amazing.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

On Christian charity

Last Monday, an F/A-18D Hornet crashed into a neighborhood near MCAS Miramar in San Diego. The pilot ejected shortly before impact as he was trying to land his disabled plane. Tragically, the crash claimed the lives of four members of the Yoon family: Young Mi Yoon, her 15-month-old daughter and her two-month-old daughter Rachel, and Mrs. Yoon's mother. The father, Dong Yun Yoon, has displayed remarkable courage and faith. Of the Marine aviator, Yoon stated, "I pray for him not to suffer for this action. I know he's one of our treasures for our country. ... I don't have any hard feelings. I know he did everything he could."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Mapquest or Garmin or Onstar or somebody is running an advert about a call from very young children trying to find out where Santa is on Christmas Eve using their miserable digital services. And, yes, it's cute. Damnably so.

And so, Children and Santa. Why does it capture the imagination so? Or, to put the matter squarely, why is it that telling whoppers to little people is so charming? I mean, I suspect they know what's going on, and they're in on it. They get the warm gooey waves of charm sweeping back and forth through them about it, too. The little people are as caught up in the cuteness of it as we are.

But what is it about a fantastic whopper that is cute? "You better get upstairs or purple meanies will snatch you away to a far away land called Massachusetts and eat all your toes." And the the little bastards just gush with glee.

Naturally, there's a phase in everyone's life where people are telling you gigantic whoppers. One tall tale after another. Fibs and fantasies. Must be a weird time.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Highways and hillsides

I like driving Route 9 from Old Saybrook to Middletown. It's one place where a man can drive like a man, —and the road has curves like a woman.