Needles-Pins

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Most Americans, when they say an exact phrase or word at the same time as someone else, know the folklore formula they need to follow:

1. They must point at the person and shout “JINX!”
2. The person who is jinxed cannot speak until they perform some pre-specified action, which is usually “Buy me a coke.”

There are places and times, though, where instead of conjuring a pretend evil-spell that profits only one person, you linked pinky fingers and chanted, “Needles-Pins!”, which calls the universe to send good luck each of your ways.

I’m not sure where that comes from. Probably from Little Red Riding Hood, which in the French version had the werewolf waylaying a young girl on her to her grandmother’s house, asking her which path she was taking–the needle path or the pin path. She proclaims her choice of needles, and the werewolf tries to give her a false sense of security, claiming he would then take the pin path.

(Taken from http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0333.html)

There is some debate about what this means, but I suspect that it is a cautionary tale of morality (always present in folk tales) of a young girl who is making choices that will define her life.

Yesterday I was at my favorite restaurant (Schlafly)and my sister Carrie, glancing at her Twitter feed, gasped out the news that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died.

Like everyone else, I’ve always liked him.

Sixteen years ago, I first saw Philip Seymour Hoffman in Happiness. I was a movie nerd then (were movies better back then, or was I just cooler?), and well, it was too scandalous a movie to play in Omaha, where I lived at the time. I was planning a vacation to LA with some friends and while we were there I snuck off to see it. From that experience I decided on three opinions which I still hold: one, LA movie crowds are amazing (at least they were in the 1990s), two, LA movie-house popcorn is better than Missouri or Nebraska movie-house popcorn (at least it was in the 1990s), and three, Philip Seymour Hoffman had guts of steel. Honestly, that was one of the saddest characters and creepiest performances I have ever watched.

Two years later, in 2000, I was in New York on vacation and my sister Julia and I bought tickets for True West on Broadway. I was excited to see Philip Seymour Hoffman again.

OK. I’ll be honest. I don’t remember much about the play except that it was about two brothers. (Note my Twitter post to the right!)

But I do remember that Julia told me that Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly often switched roles. Julia said that when they played their roles, no matter who played whom, it seemed impossible to imagine them as any other character.

And it was true: Philip Seymour Hoffman, especially, lit up the room with the force of his acting. I remember that he played the older brother, and as I left the theater, I was thinking, “There’s no way he could be as effective as the younger brother. He’s not subtle enough.”

But apparently he was. If I had waited a day or two I could have seen for myself.

Needles-pins, Mr. Hoffman. Everyone was speaking about the same thing at the same time yesterday, did you know that? We were talking about talent and we were talking about robberies.

And today its needles-pins, which is so much more glamorous than cursing someone into silence and asking for a Coca-Cola product. It’s two forces calling on the universe for something pure. Something good. Something lucky. Or maybe, sadly, nothing more than something manageable.

Sigh.

Needles-pins, Mr. Hoffman. I wish the universe, or your heart, or your demons, or whatever it is that you were chasing away, had been kinder to you. Needles-pins on wherever you go next.

Blessed Isle Redux

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Three years ago I wrote about the fault lines of St. Brendan’s Blessed Canonization. I would like to quote from it. Note the bolded portion in particular:

Dear sirs,

I am not one that ordinarily takes the time to write letters. However, I would like to take this opportunity to express my serious reservations on your recent decision to canonize Brendan the Navigator and Monk. Brendan, as you know, searched long and hard for a blessed isle, a legendary place where saints could live in communion, grace, and spiritual edification.

This has nothing to do with Brendan’s adventures on said journeys. I am not claiming, for example, that Brendan was anything less than honorable in his purported dealings with that one island with those demons dancing in the trees. Nor am I saying that he showed any human tendency to, say, jealousy when he reached that other island only to find other monks had beaten him to it. I am sure he acted with grace befitting him in every circumstance he found himself in. Finally, I do not doubt that communion, grace, and spiritual edification are human ambitions worthy beyond even the faithful.

My reservations are couched solely in your absurd endorsement of these ambitious journeys with the granting of your highest honor–the elevation to sainthood.

I am of human blood too, sir, and in fact, I teach the minds of the youth in my century. I know this for certain: when there is no struggle, there is no victory. Many a man can be good at something when things are easy. It is only through pain and hard work, however, that one truly earns the mantle of greatness.

This, in the end, is a man who sought to retreat to that which was perfect–that which was easy. No, he did more than that–he sought to escape to that which was perfect, which would have meant (for him, anyway, had his quest been realized) days uninterrupted by the faults of the world. It does not escape my attention, sirs, that this sort of contemplative prayer, unoccasioned as it seems to have been destined for by something so useful as a journal or even the occasional newsy letter, deprives the world of the example of men who live by standards they will not compromise.

While I do not necessarily agree with it, I anticipate your objection that prayers are the greatest contribution simple souls can give the earth. Beyond the limitations that this notion places on any person’s growth as a human, I submit to you that explorers in particular are not simple souls. By definition they seek out the unknown, which defines them as courageous and necessarily crafty–dangerous characteristics, yes, but surely ones that we have needed in abundance throughout the history of the world.

I close by saying that as a reader, a historian, and a thinking woman, I will be disheartened to hear of any more canonizations that celebrate a lack of humanity, whether through willful escape or, quite beyond this episode with St. Brendan the navigator, through selective removal of fault lines that might define candidates as human as well as noble. It is my high hope that you consider this.

Why am I quoting myself? Well, here is the thing, good people of Estotiland: I don’t live in the blessed isle. I rarely have, and–God help me–many days I have had the timidity to wish I did. I can’t seem to escape being human, and despite that, I tend to look longingly to the west, to places and days uninterrupted by the faults of the world, including that dragon of bad writing. I should be laughing that such places actually exist. I should be acting with courage and craftiness.

So I’m rebooting this blog, and taking out the backbone that gives me wretched respectability–the reviewing of books. It appears that it isn’t just the books that the king doesn’t understand. It’s time to humiliate him a little. Time for him to write bad stories and be all-knowing on topics he doesn’t know shit about, and in general, let him be in abundance the flaws that he has escaped so poorly–let him revel in bad acting and singing and whatever else the fool is known for. Let him celebrate the notion that his foolishness is not going anywhere, no matter how many previous incarnations of himself would wish for that to be the case.

See you…maybe later today? This should be fun.

And no more advertising except to my subscribers. Find me if you will.

Recycled Poll of the Week

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And Each Futile Journey Spawned Fresh Tales…

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Two years ago, when I was the king (well, queen, rather) of Estotiland, making sense and even a little fun of the books that I’ve always seemed to be reading and not finishing, my heart was divided. I was years into a journey that would not end for some time. I was deeply committed to helping care for my father, who was very sick and who was suffering from memory loss.

Perhaps that is what caused the blog to drift away: a reluctant post, followed by months of silence, followed by another reluctant post…and most of my efforts I didn’t even publish. I could not bear to see the loss of my strong and wonderful father on a daily basis, see him consumed by the doubt and madness of dementia, and then cheerfully toss my personality and opinions into my collection of memories and stories of folklore. They were, you see, joyfully handed on to me by my father, in his better days.

Plus I didn’t really have the time. I was going over to my parents often, especially on Saturdays. What time I did have I seemed determined to waste by watching marathon sessions of Cheers or Arrested Development or playing Plants Vs. Zombies or following the Cardinals or whatever else was the opposite of real life.

Last November I lost my father. For years my healthy and expansive imagination had been dreading those moments. And they sure were bad. At least before he died, I still had him. I even had the diminishing possibility that today was going to be one of the good days–that today he would hold court like he used to, and make jokes, and even make me feel again like he was proud of me. But once he died–

Once he died I didn’t know what to do. As you know, I inherited dad’s notes on folklore, so when I read it for the blog, I used to think, “I’ll bring this up with dad! I think it might cheer him up today!” But now I have to read it for its own sake–just to embrace the mystery, the quirkiness, the shared wisdom–without any thought of the double value that it might bring. And I was too tired for that.

Over the winter I didn’t give much thought to the blog, except to hold onto it with an illogical tenacity simply because I like the name. It’s got possibilities.

I decided a few weeks ago to start writing a story I’ve been thinking of for a while now. Perhaps, like holding on to what I could of dad’s sanity, something I had only occasional success in, it will be a futile journey that merely spawns other stories. But I have to try because THAT is what explorers do. As Thoreau said in Walden:

Men come tamely home at night only from the next field or street, where their household echoes haunt, and their life pines because it breathes its own breath over again; their shadows, morning and evening, reach farther than their daily steps. We should come home from far, from adventures, and perils, and discoveries every day, with new experience and character.

With this aim in mind, and my mind set to be a little unreasonable for a while, I set a lofty summer goal of 1850 words per day.

I began!

And then I floundered!

I immediately recognized that I am out of shape with regards to clarity, confidence, and courage. Lofty summer goals be damned, because I have been throwing away crap writing for the last two weeks. I have been spinning my wheels checking Facebook and other similar time-wasters in the mistaken goal of clearing my brain.

Today I started thinking. See, I am simultaneously training for a 10K on July 4th (and a half-marathon after that). So I figure, maybe what I need is a training program, something to sharpen my skills. It won’t mean anything, really, except to practice the mechanics and flow and beauty of the written word.

So I am dusting off the throne of Estotiland, that seat of lofty readership, and you’ll see a couple months of entries that add my thoughts and humor to the already crowded blogging landscape around you. I’ll bring my map!

So, without further ado….tomorrow’s entry: Walden. I’m at the part where he’s going on about nature.

The Hope-Seekers

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Kuuuummmmusssh!  Kuuuummmmussssh! Kuuuuuummmmussssh!  That was all there was.  That was the only sound to be heard.  The wind blew south, driving through a beautiful empty land, mocking the old man.  “You have no ancient friends,” it seemed to wail.  “You have no dear companions.  No one to join you in the heights.  No one to fall with you into the depths.  You are empty inside.”

Listen:

As someone else said (in another universe, in a different time), all of this was true, more or less.  Kumush was alone, except for a young daughter.  There was no laughter.  There were no timeless stories, told late at night, around a feast.  There were no unspoken promises of loyalty.  There were no beloved annoyances.  There was nothing to make life precious and worth living.

There came a day that Kumush–he who was so desperate for a friend–could not take it anymore.  In desperation he descended into the depths of the underground kingdom, where every night the dead reincarnated themselves into spirits filled with joy and life.  His daughter accompanied him on this strange journey.

As the pair walked through the strange land, the sounds of a party filled the night air.   There was unabashedly exuberant singing.  There was hearty laughter.  There were grins and back slaps, as the spirits found their nightly delight in becoming men once more.  To Kumush and his daughter, the magic was dizzying:  a thick air of favorite jokes and stories and places and foods and libations.  Kumush shouted to be heard.  He waved his arms.  Finally, the spirits saw Kumush and his daughter and they held out their arms in a gracious and beautiful welcome.

At this exact moment–everytime, for the pair tried many nights to join the fun–the sun rose and the world fell back to stillness.  The ancient souls ossified into forgotton bones.  Kumush’s heart broke at the hopelessness of it all.

Until he an idea.

What if he were to take the bones above ground?  There they need never fall asleep at the break of dawn, because who could sleep in the light of such a beautiful place?  Kumush walked through the empty kingdom of the dead, picking just the right bones, the exact mixture of friends to bring him an eternity of laughter and love and learning.  He and his daughter set off on their way.

But as he climbed the arduous hill that led to home, he stumbled from the weight of the bag of bones, and the spirits escaped back to their daily rest.  Kumush was frustrated.  He made a vow to himself that he would never return home along.  He tried to carry the bag of bones again and again.  Alas!  He always stumbled.  The spirits always escaped.    But Kumush’s resolve was strengthening.

One day when he stumbled, and the bones escaped, rather than curse, his voice rang out, clear and firm:  “Do you not realize,” he said. “What a wonderful life you would have above ground?  There the wind rustles the leaves and the sound of birds fill the morning, and the ocean beckons you to play!  Here you are slaves.  There the world is waiting for you to dominate it, for it is empty and you are strong!”

The spirits listened thoughtfully.  In their land, as happy as it was, as filled with magic as it was, death held power.  There was never an occasion for the spirits to decide for themselves when to rest and when to celebrate.  As they reflected, they began to mourn for their freedom, and they agreed to join Kumush on the gritty and unmagical adventure of living above ground.

And so it came to be that the beautiful land was populated by tribes formed from the bones of ancient people.  Kumush, his daughter, and his chosen people–those true friends–became the ancestors of the Modoc people of northern California.

***

So, let’s give a hearty Map of Myths welcome to Kumush!  He’s the latest addition to the all-star lineup of rabblerousers, and the one I’ve chosen to accompany Kurt Vonnegut’s pain that drove him to create the classic Slaughterhouse Five.

I’ve been reflecting on Slaughterhouse Five for a little while now.  As many of you know, I’m not a great literary deconstructer (I get it wrong all the time) but this I know:  this passionate little story was well worth my time.

By the way, in the hands of a lesser writer, this book has several potential deal-breakers for me:

1. Other than Star Trek movies, I don’t generally like stories that feature space travel, because getting the perfect mix of technobabble and handwaving is a complicated art.

2. Your mileage may vary, but I find most aliens (or vampires or other supernatural creatures) to be in the service of glorifying what is usually a very tiresome Mary Sue protagonist.

3. 106 times for a maxim is just crazy-making action.

But here’s the thing.  As I get more well read, I am starting to realize that any subject can be well done, if it is in the hands of a strong writer.  If you have passion, pain, and training, it’ll go off.

One of the lines I liked in this book was between Billy and his frustrated daughter Barbara, after Billy has started writing letters to newspapers explaining his journeys through space and time:

 Barbara:  “Why is it you never mentioned any of this before the airplane crash?”

Billy:  “I didn’t think the time was ripe.”

This line has to be self-paradizing.  Billy isn’t the only one who suffered through being a prisoner of war, witnessing the fire bombing of Dresden, enduring beatings, and suffering through other assorted dignities.  Vonnegut, World War II prisoner, lived through it first.  Then he went on to write–well, a bunch of other stories, keeping this personal hell bottled up for a little while longer.

It wasn’t ripe yet.  His voice, as talented as it was, was not yet at the perfect mix of frustration and strength.

Like Kumush, though, Vonnegut’s resolve was building, and when he was ready, he delivered a knock-out punch.  Vonnegut didn’t just tell a story, and Kumush didn’t just make a plea.  They both argue for hope.

Kumush: I know you’re going to toil night and day with limited success because there is no magic, but wouldn’t you honestly rather be free?

Vonnegut: I know wars are almost impossible to stop, but wouldn’t you honestly rather we make fun of, rather than glamorize, that which alienates us and brings us excruciating pain?

Neither Kumush nor Vonnegut is denying the truth.  Life is hard. War is part of our nature.  But both are arguing that the goal of a good life is strengthening ourselves to go for something both better and more difficult than the world we have now.

***

Next book will be Undaunted Courage.  Mmmmm, history.

Poll of the Week

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Poll of the week

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