Tag Archives: January

What Year?

Dave Barry’s end of year review is part of our annual ritual for changing over the calendars. For those unfamiliar with Barry’s work, he was a columnist with the Miami Herald and is the author of numerous humor books. Known for his light touch, as well as his friendship with Stephen King, Barry has a way of finding the fun in what are often trying times. It should be no news that Barry’s work was quite easy this past year. 2017 was so bizarre that few humorous garnishes were required to make it look ridiculous. Even as Barry embellished the facts just a little bit, 45 was starting off 2018 in an even more unbelievably surreal mode. Congressional Republicans, of course, noses permanently stained brown, lock step with him.

I have to wonder when world leaders became so unaware. Perhaps because of the ad hoc declaration of fake news people like Trump think they can rewrite history. History, however, takes a long view. There’s no doubt whatsoever that the Trump administration will be remembered (if there are any of us left here to do so) as one of the strangest and most foolish periods of American history. Even Rome, of course, had its Caligulas. The thing was the evangelical would’ve despised the antics of such an emperor. If Trump had an ass he’d make it a senator. And the GOP would quickly confirm it. Rumor has it that he’s already attempted this.

Those who ignore history, to paraphrase George Santayana, are condemned to live through it again. And Trump, it is clear, doesn’t know history. As the Roman emperors grew more and more decadent, the Visigoths quietly awaited the implosion. When we see the beast and the false prophet squabbling we know that the end of time is near. A cold snap hits the east coast and the pretender-in-chief says we could use some global warming. Global warming, of course, is what triggers such erratic weather. The problem is you have to read to find out such things. And you have to read what you, as emperor, have decreed to be fake news. Historian Barbara Tuchman once stated that you need about fifty years to pass before writing history about an event. Right now we have a White House trying to rewrite history of last January, as if anyone alive then is incapable of remembering what happened a paltry year ago. And what a paltry year it was. Read Dave Barry’s take and find out for yourself.

Undiscovered Countries

My friend Marvin always amuses me with what he’s got in his refrigerator. He likes to buy products that he considers appropriate to the season. On a recent visit he pulled out a bottle of Arrogant Bastard Ale. He said it was prophetic, in the sense that later this month we’d all be faced with someone fitting of such a moniker. I appreciate his sense of humor—I think we’re going to find that laughter, incredulous and otherwise, is going to help get us through to 2020. Once we reach that mythical date when there will be cities under the sea (unless my childhood cartoon watching has steered me wrong yet again) crewing aquagum all the way, we will have to begin undoing the damage that our government is planning even now. Of course, we were supposed to have a moonbase in 1999, and that show wasn’t even animated. Television produces the biggest liars of all, I guess.

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January always makes me think of Janus, the two-faced god. Looking forward and looking back. Even Janus seems to have taken on new meaning this year. That’s the thing about symbols—you can’t pin them down to one thing. One of the benefits to studying religion is that you get to feel comfortable around symbols. There may be no real symbology department at Harvard or anywhere else, but scholars of religion inhabit that territory. We skulk around the dark places that human beliefs may go, even allowing people to believe things that are factually false. Instead of getting too dark, maybe we can think of a joke. Two Corinthians walk into a bar…

The future is the famously undiscovered country. Maybe by the time we get there we will have realized just how silly the very idea of countries are. Seems now that citizens of foreign nations can legally take over the US election process, so why bother with borders at all? Put in another way, who wouldn’t welcome the spy who came in from the cold? It’s January out there and all people need shelter from the chill. I keep telling myself there’s no mess that’s so bad that it can’t be cleaned up. Or maybe I’m just thinking of Bruce Almighty again. My friend Marvin refuses to let reality get him down. When the days are short, it is especially important to be the light. Maybe he’s right.

Storm Watch

Nothing encourages sleeping in like a blizzard. Although it’s a talent I’ve largely lost over the years, hearing the bellows of the wind and seeing the white reflecting through the blinds, and being a Saturday morning form the perfect recipe for letting my brain relax enough to fall back asleep after I’ve awoken. It’s a guilty pleasure that I had, quite honestly, nearly forgotten. Unlike several winter storms predicted last year, this one has actually come to pass. Prediction of the future may be one of those “God-of-the-gap” things, but meteorologists are modern-day prophets. In a society driven by work uniformity, days off are unwelcome, so a weekend blizzard might just seem to come from God. The highly anticipated list of school closings simply doesn’t apply. Many businesses still recognize the sanctity of the weekend, and we can just roll over and go back to sleep.

In ancient times the weather was anything but natural. The sky—so large and so far away—was purely the realm of the divine. The only way to impact it from down here was to pray and sacrifice and hope that it would behave. Getting back to that view of the world is nearly impossible here in the twenty-first century. We are so accustomed to natural causation that it is just one of those “butterfly effect” things. In truth, though, we know that human activity also has to share some blame with the butterfly.

Winter storms in January are not uncommon in the northern hemisphere, of course. January hurricanes, however, are. And as political rhetoric heats up and we once again ponder what it would be like to have another clown in the White House, global warming is dismissed as just another bad joke. As a nation we’ve been enamored of those who can provide the most entertaining gaffs and still claim they know enough to lead the nation. I have a hard time believing those who voted for Reagan had any success at separating fiction from fact. I still can’t convince myself that W was legitimately elected. The second term of both of these actors freezes me as much as the chill draft making its way through my apartment. The meteorologists nailed this one with their predictions. I’ll stay inside and huddle under my blankets until the all clear. And that may not be until well after November.

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Wassailing

It was a nippy 42 degrees with a chill January breeze cutting through the brightly garbed crowd of maybe two-dozen stalwart souls. There were Molly dancers holding hands and skipping in a circle. Smoke from a bonfire caught the breeze as a woman with a painted face sang about the circle of the sun. The whole event had a Wicker Man sort of feeling to it, but participating in an ancient tradition is strangely fulfilling. A basket on the table held pencils and paper on with instructions to write your wish and burn the paper in the bonfire so that “Your message will travel into the cosmos.” The bare apple trees were seasonally pruned and discarded branches littered the ground. It all sounds suitably pagan for a Sunday afternoon in New Jersey.

Having grown up in a rather sheltered small-town environment I never even heard of wassail until planning for my December wedding nearly twenty-five years ago. A low budget affair with the reception in a church basement, my wife decided not to offend Methodist sensibilities by serving wassail, a spiced cider drink generally associated with Christmas. As I learned this midwinter, wassailing has a deep and mysterious ancestry that is a mix of pagan and Christian traditions. One aspect of wassailing is associated with Christmas carols and is based on the tradition of the wealthy sharing with the poor during the holiday season (a practice clearly extinct these days). The second type of wassailing goes back to nature religion and the blessing of the apple trees. It was observed on midwinter, which, before the Gregorian calendar, fell on January 17. At Terhune Orchards the festival fell on the 29th this year.

After watching the Molly dancers and sending our wishes up to the cosmos in the bonfire, one of the orchard proprietors gathered the crowd, now having about doubled to fifty, to sing the Somerset Wassail and then to make noise to drive out the evil spirits. This the crowd did with enthusiasm. We were then asked to recite the wassail prayer, printed on a signpost for all to see. Bread was passed out which we dunked in cider and hung on the naked apple trees. After a final blessing we headed to our car to preserve our own wassail. In England’s apple-growing regions, wassailing the trees is still practiced with a sincerity that marks the deeply mysterious. Some Christian sensibilities, I’m sure would be offended, but this ancient custom, like leaving a tree to stand in the midst of a plowed field to propitiate the spirit of nature, goes profoundly into human consciousness. I, for one, will lift a cup of cider and join the ancient rite to brighten a winter day.