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Archive for January, 2016

Fat Tuesday

Marti Gras masks

Marti Gras frightened Sammy Gene beyond all reason. Masks are de rigeur for the carnival. Photo Credit: Emily Naser-Hall @ http://www.axs.com

Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, (February 9 this year) used to scare the begeebers out of me. This disconcerting emotion has been more than a small embarrassment to me ever since I was a street urchin in Mobile, the American birthplace of the annual pre-Lenten bacchanalia. New Orleans claims center stage for debauchery in the public imagination but the even more venerable festival of banality that surged into the streets of Mobile with its ancient mystic pedigree always wagged its own seductive finger in my direction with an inveigling invitation to small sins and temporarily half-wicked pleasures, and this frightened me unreasonably.

As a child these excesses ran only to clandestine candy before dinner. The masked revelers on Government Street in their Bourbon-inspired generosity strew the crowds along the curbs with salt-water taffy, butterscotch and moon pies, unsteadily sowing seeds of venality. There was, I was sure, some reason that the passengers on the floats that glided down the Mobile streets were masked. Why they were disguised I was not certain, but I was suspicious in any case.   Nevertheless it was only candy they were dispensing, but, on the other hand, it was sufficient to rob a child of his modest appetite for his vegetables and for his common life.   Who wants green beans when such sweet delights are an option? Who will be satisfied with everyday when offered long nights of green and purple and gold-spangled parties and balls? Who can resist the temptations to excess when the oh-so-tasty comes unbidden with no apparent cost? Halloween and Mardi Gras share both the same subtly diabolical mystery and the enticing lure of candy.   This Lolla-of-the-floats, who always got what she wanted, wanted me, and so made me feel uneasy, even somehow threatened.

The Symbols of Life

Life is full of symbols. Many of them are exceedingly powerful. Mardi Gras was a basket full of symbolism. The masks hid the public identity of the otherwise respectable citizens of Mobile society to avoid the consequences of societal opprobrium for shattered decorum and uninhibited insobriety. I wondered if the mask, paradoxically, revealed the true face of the men and women in the spangled costumes. Something about the secret societies, the “Crewes” that paraded and produced lavish balls where guests were admitted by invitation only and only when properly attired; then as now, gowns must reach the floor, and tuxedos are de rigeur. And masks, one must wear a mask, for identities are hidden this week.

There seems something slightly irrational to me about the idea that before one enters into a month and ten days of asceticism leading up to Easter, a period designed to cleanse the soul, one must pollute it well with all that one will forego during the fast. I was troubled, even though it all seemed like harmless silliness that Joe Cain, reputed to be the origin of the term, “Raising Cain,” began in 1866; then he appropriated the alter ego of Chief Slacabamorinico and led the revival of the parades of the mystic societies that the Cowbellion de Ranken Society had begun but left off when the South was subjugated in “the War.” The allure of the mystics never abated from their origin in 1703 until the present, even if the parades were intermittent that ran down Church Street and back up Government, lit by the torches they called Les Flambeaux, flares that were carried by dark bearers hired for the occasion. Mother and Dad tried to assure that our experience was wholesome, but they ever feared that we would be lost in the crowds or injured in the crush at the curb. Mother’s apprehensions were confirmed one night when Dale, my brother, was separated from the family for a few anxious minutes.

The flaring light, the loud bands that both delighted with brassy music and shook your stomach with the pounding of the bass drum, and the mad crush of children and adults screaming “Throw me something!” worked a voodoo that was at once intoxicating and revolting. And unspoken, too, there danced the specter of alcoholism that had plagued the men of Mother’s family for generations. Drunkenness was an unpleasant sight that was blatantly and unrepentantly on display to our innocent eyes even if the maskers were unidentified.

Serious Folly

Of the scores of parading societies that trooped down the street in Mardi Gras, the Knights of Revelry most impressed me. Annually the floats would change with a new theme to inspire their creation, but just as each Crewe displayed one immutable society float, KoR presented their Jester-and-Death tableau. The symbol of their society was a broken column reminiscent of the hundreds that stood before defunct and abandoned plantation houses that were strewn across reconstruction Alabama.   Around the ruined graciousness of the neo-colonial column danced two figures. A pied jester, known to all as “Folly,” armed only with a golden inflated pig’s bladder sparred with a skeleton carrying a formidable scythe; they identified him as “Death.” In all of the scenes that passed by me, Folly always seemed to have the upper hand. How this symbol spoke to me of Mobile and Mardi Gras! Her citizens have faced and continue to endure destruction and disappointment time and again from wars and hurricane, from societal upheaval and cultural conflict, and from economic or personal reversals, but something in the Mobilian character has made us laugh at our loss and continue to celebrate life, even taunting Death. Twain, while not a Southerner himself, might have approved since he is reputed to have said, “Ah, well, I am a great and sublime fool. But then I am God’s fool, and all His works must be contemplated with respect.”

Marti Gras flambeaux

Flambeaux illuminated the night time parades when Sammy was a child in Mobile as they still do today in New Orleans. Photo credit: anerdsguidetoneworleans.wordpress.com

Beyond the Flambeaux

I did regard the comic life-size emblem with respect. Nevertheless, the image haunted me. For a time, I dreamed of the harlequin who danced with its pig’s bladder. In my dream I lay safe beneath the house and peered out into a frightening world obscured in darkness, save for the jester illuminated in the flaring light of the Flambeaux. When he danced far away I looked on only with curiosity, but when he drew near, my heart raced with anxiousness and desperation. Freud said that sometimes a dream is only a dream, but I sense I understand what my psyche was telling me. Folly may be alluring but there is, indeed, reason to be on my guard. Neither Death nor Life is as playful as he or she is portrayed in a Mardi Gras parade. This disturbs me still. Whenever I look again upon the revelry, I worry what else lurks in the dark beyond the light of the Flambeaux. Ash Wednesday follows hard on every Fat Tuesday.

Marti Gras Folly

Folly leads the Knights of Revelry Photo credit: blog.al.com

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Happy Solar Circuit!

M101 cropped

A spiral galaxy similar to our own Milky Way: M101 Photo credit: ESA & NASA PIs Kuntz, Bresolin,, Trauger, Mould and Chu et al.

The ball has dropped on a new year. January 1 marked the day we completed our latest orbit about the sun as we wished each other “Happy New Year.” Of course, there was a time when the calendar did not begin there. It was Julius Caesar, who in 46 BC moved New Year’s Day backward three months from the vernal (spring time) equinox in March to its current place in the calendar. Two years later Julius was assassinated (probably not for his calendric activities, however). Some still begin the year on the vernal “equinox” (meaning “equal night” [and day]), one of the two times each year that the sun appears to rise precisely in the east and the night and day light are equally 12 hours long. This year the vernal equinox is March 19.

In fact, other cultures use other calendars. One other innovation of Julius Caesar was to add—in fourth year—a leap day to the formerly final month of the year, February, to correct for the approximately six hours the year exceeds 365. Unfortunately the Julian system overcorrected by about 3/400 of a day each year. In 1582 Pope Gregory (actually a conference of calendar geeks, like this author) devised a method to account for this over correction. At their suggestion he revised the Julian calendar so that every century that should be (under the system of Caesar) a leap year is, instead, a regular year, unless the year is divisible by 400, thus eliminating the extra three days in four hundred years. Problem solved! He also reset the year by removing ten days from the calendar.

Happy Old New Year

But, one consequence of this innovation is a gradually increasing disparity between the two calendars. Thus, January 1 (on the old calendar), the so called “Old New Year” that is still used by the Orthodox Christian Church, that rejects the authority of the Roman Catholic Pope, falls on the modern (Gregorian) calendar, today January 14, 2016. So, I say “Happy Old New Year!”

In an attempt to overcome my Eurocentric bias I have looked into the calendars of other cultures that start their year on other days, rather than January 1, and have found that they are often associated with celestial events. For example, the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) is associated with the autumnal (fall) equinox and the new moon. This year the Jewish New Year occurs on the evening of October 2, 2016. The Islamic New Year also uses the moon for its cadence, beginning the next day, October 3, 2016.

But as I contemplated my sixty-ninth circuit about the sun, I was tempted to say, “Here we go again!” Then I realized that our solar system is also orbiting the galactic center where lurks a massive black hole. This “Galactic Year” (the time to make one galactic circuit) is estimated to be a little less than a quarter of a billion years. Therefore, in the 4.54 billion years since the formation of the earth, the solar system has made approximately twenty circuits. So, the earth is nearing three galactic weeks of age!

Never the Same River

On the other hand, the solar system is orbiting at a velocity of about 143 miles per second! We, riders on the earth, are corkscrewing through space at an astonishing speed. That fact implies that since last January 1, 2015 we have moved about four and half billion miles. In a very real way the old adages applies to us, the one that advises, “You never step into the same river twice.” As we pass through the year, orbiting our local star, the seasons changing with the angle of the sun in the sky, I now realize that we are not in the same place we were twelve months ago. We are very far removed, in fact. Each minute that passes we hurtle a distance equal to the diameter of the earth.

What is more, I am not the same person I was then, either, nor are you. Our experiences and memories have changed us even though (contrary to popular mythology) my brain cells are the same ones I had last year. My brain has merely been slightly rewired by my thoughts and memories. On the other hand, my same heart has beaten approximately 32 million times but my blood cells have indeed been replaced several times. At the atomic level, moreover, only 2% of the atoms of my body remain from the body I inhabited a year ago. Thus, I am indeed, not the man I was, although I look much the same. I have been renovated at my core.

From these reflections I take away two profound truths. Firstly, as a different person than I was a year ago–but yet a doppelganger of myself–I am not the prisoner of my past. I can chose a different direction as I move forward even if I begin at the spot where I find myself. Two dear friends shared a photo of an artist’s installation they encountered on their hike up the Aggenstein in Bavaria, Germany. It has become an icon of this principle to me. The object is an open door on the path. The future is, indeed, an open door. We can choose to pass through it or turn away. In the photograph we see the paths that record the choices of many feet. I will be looking for those open doors that I encounter in the year ahead. I was reminded of Jesus words, “See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.” (Rev 3:8) What a wonderful possibility! Open doors abound.

The second take away truth I see is the old and possibly clichéd realization that one will only pass this way once. Every moment is unique. We are speeding through space at a breakneck speed. Humanity has never been here before. Thus, I must savor every moment like a meal that I will enjoy only once, although the memory will linger forever. Every thought, every breath, every interaction changes me and I change everything I touch, as well.

So as we go round again for the first time, may we enjoy the view from the track and leave our own traces on high mountain paths we have never trod before.

So I wish you a Very Happy Solar Circuit. How good to cross paths this time around.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Open Door Aggenstein Bavaria, Germany, the icon of possibility that lies before us. Photo credit Chris Littler

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