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Spindlewhorl has moved to a new location.
See you there!
I've just read Tolkien's famous lecture/essay on Beowulf, "The Monsters and the Critics." In it he takes certain literary critics to task for their assertions that Beowulf's author eschewed the lofty in favor of the trivial by placing the monsters – Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon – at the center of the poem.
It is a beautiful, beautiful essay that, apart from scoring an absolute bull's eye (and applying the zinger: I have, of course read The Beowulf, as have most [but not all] of those who have criticized it), also weighs in on the power of myth and the importance of looking at art as art. It also demonstrates how we can gain perspective through a thoughtful examination of historical context.
Near and dear to my heart, and at the heart of his argument, Tolkien staunchly defends the northern mythological imagination. This is a balm to my soul! I show great restraint by not simply retyping the whole thing right here!
Though scarcely a child of the internet age, I wanted so much, as I read the essay, to send Dr. Tolkien an email, or tweet to him in sincere appreciation and in solidarity; but Tolkien, of course, was, as he himself said of Beowulf, a man, and that…is sufficient tragedy: man falls prey to death and then he is lost…! How fortunate that his words may live on, so that one may meditate upon them, as below.
A person alive and a person dead exist at the same time
Like Tolkien, I believe strongly in the significance of myth.
Myth does not unfold in an "historical" time, but rather in an imagined time. However, as Tolkien says, it is at its best when it is presented…as incarnate in the world of history and geography…
I would add that, in myth, meanings bleed to the surface of the ordinary, so that this bloodiness, this contact with the juice that (normally) flows invisibly within, becomes ordinary.
In my novel The Bear Wife, bones - skeletal remains emptied of a person's soul - are inhabited, pregnant, in a sense, with significance. (He who in those days said and who heard…[the kenning] ban-hus 'bone-house'…thought of the soul shut in the body, as the frail body itself is trammelled in armour, or as a bird in a narrow cage, or steam pent in a cauldron. There it seethed and struggled in the wylmas, the boiling surges beloved of the old poets, until its passion was released and it fled away on ellor-si∂, a journey to other places 'which none can report with truth, not lords in their halls nor mighty men beneath the sky.')
In this mythological way of thinking, a thing is both what it is, and what it is not. Or maybe what it is, and what it once was, both at the same imagined time.
In this way of thinking, a person alive and a person dead exist at the same time, in balance, as Tolkien describes the two halves of the Anglo-Saxon line of verse, halves that balance and build upon each other, "more like masonry than music."
In this way of thinking there is the sense of a building, a structure, "a tough builder's work of true stone," rather than a sense of moving forward, or of narrative. But I don't think – and I don't think Tolkien thought either – that this 'structure' represented a state of repose. Far from it; the balance, in fact, was an uneasy one.
In The Well and the Tree Paul Bauschatz discusses the lack of a future tense in Germanic languages. There are only the past and the present, two conditions, and the future is called necessity.
Some say the future is now. Perhaps, essentially, necessity is the now, the only weapon we may wield against the monster, a stonemason's tool in the delicate balance between life and death.
Quotes are from "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" and "On Translating Beowulf", both from The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, by J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1984.
I also refer to The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture by Paul C. Bauschatz. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.
What if I wrote an article about The New York Times and decided to leave out the letters n, r and t and substitute some other letters in their places? It might become the Few Yolk Limes. Or the Bew Yozk Ximes. Ix would be absuzd, righx?
I just read "Pommes de Terroir," a short article about the specialty potato industry in Sweden, in Sunday's New York Times travel magazine. And would you believe it? The writer and editors completely disregarded three letters of the Swedish alphabet!
They just weren't there at all.
It's Spelled That Way for a Reason
The travel writer, Abby Aguirre, went to Skåne, one of Sweden's southern provinces, and visited the municipality of Båstad. Båstad, because of the å in the first syllable, is pronounced almost like "BOO-stah." It's not spelled Bastad, as the Times would have it; Bastad sounds more like a snooty British rendering of bastard.
According to Båstad's website, there are different theories for how the town got its name. Like many place names, it could derive from an early resident's name. Båstad could be a shortened version Bootho's-sted (the place where Bootho lives). Or perhaps Bodo's-sted. Both are regional names going back at least to the ninth century; we know of them because they appeared in a French chronicle identifying Norman/Viking men with origins in Skåne. Another possibility is that the name is a shortened version of båtställe (båt being the word for boat), probably meaning some sort of boat passage or landing.
But in either case you can see how keeping the å rather than an a in the first syllable of Båstad is absolutely key; spelled with an a it has a completely different pronunciation, one that would not link it to either of its possible origins. Thus, one could say that changing the å to a not only sounds like a nasty insult, but also robs the town of a bit of its meaning and history.
A rose by any other name...would be something else entirely
Continuing on through the Times piece, the sjö in Rammsjö is a word that means sea or lake. Sjo is meaningless and I'm pretty sure it's unpronounceable as well.
Also, a trädgård is a garden. It is composed of the elements träd (tree) and gård (yard). Tradgard means nothing in Swedish. (In English it might be the name of some product advertised on late-night television, designed to protect your trad, whatever that is.)
Väderö is an island, indicated by the final element ö, the word for island. The first element, väder, means weather. Vader means nothing (unless we're talking about Darth).
Moreover, the name of the Cape on which the potatoes in question grow is, as it says on the sign pictured on page 107 of the magazine, Bjäre, not Bjare. Also, I believe the vodka is named after Börje Karlsson, not Borje, and the potato dealer's name is Göran not Goran. (Not only does ö sound completely different than o, but it also renders the g soft and thus is essential for intelligibility. I ask you: would Jennifer want you to call her Gonnifer?)
Finally, there's no such thing as farsk potatoes. They are färsk: fresh.
A language resonates with the history, the logic and the character of its people
I mention all of this not to be picky, and not to try to seem cooler-than-thou because I know a little Swedish. I bring it up because I think it really matters.
I mean, come on! Man up, people!
They may inconvenience your typesetter, but the three letters å, ä and ö comprise nearly 10% of the Swedish alphabet. Ignoring them demonstrates a profound lack of respect for the Swedish language and for language in general. I mean, did the folks who standardized Swedish just go on a drinking binge one day and randomly decide to place dots over some of their vowels just for the heck of it? Well...maybe.
But seriously, however it happened, the fact is that Swedish has 29 letters. They are all necessary to differentiate the sounds of the language. A is different than å or ä. O is different than ö. They look different, they sound different and they have different effects on the consonants that surround them. And the spelling of a word speaks to the word's composition, its meaning and its origin.
What is a travel magazine for, anyway?
Is it ignorance, laziness, or does the New York Times just not care about getting it right? Maybe it's just taking advantage of the good-naturedness of Swedes, of their willingness to extend themselves to understand us, even when we don't reciprocate. But in this global age, no one – certainly not a publication that considers itself to be relevant to people traveling overseas - can afford to display this sort of ignorance and disrespect.
Getting the names right is an important part of showing respect and highlighting the beauty and uniqueness of a place and a people. That, after all, is what a travel magazine should be for.
I want to see smiles from these guys!
What does this fan want to see from her dear but beleaguered team, the Washington Capitals? Well, of course, I'd like to see them bring the Stanley Cup home to DC. (Yes, HOME!)
But the Cup is, for all its mystical pull, one of those rewards that we work for but whose actual meaning is in the hurdles we must clear to win it: we must constantly hone our skills, practice, prepare, and endure physical and mental sacrifice and hardship. The Cup is what it is because of what it demands: dogged, persistent play on every shift, tons of courage and spirit, plus a grand dose of favor from the hockey gods. You can strive your entire life for a reward such as this, and never win it. Many never do. But they can hold their heads high because of the striving.
I want to see the Caps play hard, give up nothing easy, and, if they do, come back immediately, with a vengeance.
Last spring, swept by Tampa Bay, they looked like deer in the headlights. This season, it seems, they have been in the process of transitioning into the kind of team that won't go down easily. Who knows whether they've accomplished the full transition? No one. But the playoffs - a heightened version of hockey reality - will surely hold the answer. Maybe, just maybe, the playoffs will be the anvil on which the new Caps are finally, fully, forged.
That's what this fan wants to see.
One of my current projects is to find an agent to represent The Bear Wife, and to represent me as a writer. Out of the seemingly kajillions of literary agents out there I must find someone who represents books that are in some way similar to mine, and who, therefore, might know where to go to sell it.
To this end I've been spending hours on agents', authors' and book-selling websites reading about novels. The upside of this is that I've discovered some books that I otherwise wouldn't have (given that my recent reading has revolved around hockey and western Canadian native history).
Two of these books, The Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight by Gina Ochsner and The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni, have become special favorites of mine. As it turns out they are represented by the same agent. So she must really like them both, too. The interesting thing is how very different they are from each other.
I was wondering to myself, how can I describe how they differ? It's true that their settings and characters have nothing in common, but that doesn't really explain it. Ochsner and Bognanni could quite possibly swap out setting and character, so that each writes a story using the other's characters and setting, and still come up with completely different results. As if you asked Rembrandt and Kandinsky to draw pictures of the same horse.
If I wanted to liken their styles to visual artists, it's an easy call for Ochsner: Chagall, no doubt. The title Russian Dreambook of Color and Flight doesn't lie, folks. It is Chagall, through and through. Brilliant color. Floating clouds, bottles of liquor, worn-in work-boots and souls. Dreams and passions and all the music of life are unmoored from the bleak, painful realities of post-Soviet Russia which, quite literally, sink away. Ochsner's lens is perfect because it adds another layer of authenticity to her story.
The House of Tomorrow is more difficult to pin down. It is not particularly "painterly"; the "brushstrokes" are invisible compared to Ochsner's in the Russian Dreambook. Bognanni's characters, filtered through the consciousness of his protagonist, Sebastian, are necessarily drawn with some distortion, but subtly so,lovingly, and with great respect, even as they are dishing out lines like, "you sound like a big limp wang every time you open your mouth." Lines that (from my perspective as a nowadays mother-of-two who once did her time with a high-school rock band) sound simultaneously hilarious,obnoxious and poignant. Lines that function as comic relief even as they sing with meaning. Lines that, rather than a painting, evoke a graphic novel, where utterances vibrate into images, the expressionist hatches from the shell of adolescent cool.
I'm thrilled by how differently these two authors perceive the realities of their fictional landscapes and people-scapes, what they choose to emphasize or exaggerate or ignore, each within an aesthetic of operatic intensity. And as I think about it now, I wonder if each author's choice of lens wasn't inevitable, given the story they were trying to tell.
Twenty-four hours ago I had no idea that Bruce Boudreau, Washington Capitals head coach, had been fired. It had been an unusual morning for me; I hadn't checked email or twitter or even listened to the radio.
I arrived at Kettler Capitals Iceplex just before 11:00 for the public skate. I hadn't been on the ice for a week and was really looking forward to a good workout, in spite of a sore foot. To my dismay the parking lot at the top of the garage was very crowded. The Caps' cars were there, of course - they would start a homestand Tuesday after a couple of humiliating losses over the weekend - but their assorted sports cars and SUVs don't fill the lot. As I circulated looking for a spot I imagined that the rink would be, as it was last week, full of children on school holiday, streaking around recklessly and impulsively, adding a dash of je ne sais quoi to my morning.
Anyhow, I had to drive partway back down into the garage to get a spot, which is pretty unusual. When I walked into the building there was a definite buzz, but I averted my eyes from the Caps' rink. All I wanted was to skate; after a long holiday weekend of distractions (albeit pleasant ones), I wouldn't be deterred.
I exchanged pleasantries with the skate guard, but my regular rink buddies weren't there, so I didn't talk with anyone else. I just got onto the ice as quickly as I could. About 15 or so minutes in, a large group of very nice looking young men in suit jackets came in through the mall entrance and circled around to the locker room area. Turns out they were the St. Louis Blues, in town early for their game tomorrow against the Caps, and scheduled to practice in the public rink at 1:00. Maybe they were the cause of that extra buzz?
The rink became more crowded and my sore foot got tired. I decided to pack it in, but since I'd only been on the ice for about 35 minutes I thought I'd go across the lobby and check on my boys. Immediately I realized that something was up. The bleachers and the balcony and the standing room all around the Caps' rink were totally jammed with people. (The Post this morning said that there were "more than 100" - yup, way more than 100, I would say.) Normally there are quite a few folks at Caps practices, but never this many, except when the schools are closed - and then it's a majority-kid crowd. Today was different. The spectators were adults, intense and expectant. They sat in pairs or small groups, greeting friends as they came in, talking about how they found out, or what plans they had changed in order to attend this impromptu gathering. There was a real community feeling, almost like a town meeting, and a feeling of expectation. A camera man was making his way up the bleachers, filming interviews with some of the fans. Overhearing one of these interviews - of which the main topic was Dale Hunter - I finally realized what had happened.
The oddest thing was that, even though it should have been the middle of their practice session, there were no players on the ice, only piles of pucks. Clearly the thing to do was to join the wait, and so I did.
Finally Alex Ovechkin led his team onto the ice, and the crowd broke into cheers. Even louder, more sustained cheering and applause, though, were reserved for the entrance of Dale Hunter, a very popular player and captain of the Capitals in the late '80s and '90s, named to the be new head coach.
Practice commenced. It actually looked fun. I saw a tweet by a Baltimore news outlet saying that it was intense, that guys were trying to impress the new coach, and I'd be worried if that wasn't true. But I saw some smiles on the ice, and that gave me heart.
As a fan, you want to see your team work hard, but you want them to have some fun with it. Otherwise, how can you have fun? All of these guys worked to get where they are today, and they know they have to work now, to pull themselves out of this latest round of misery. Under these circumstances, it should feel good to get to work; they should be smiling. That is the hockey credo so oft repeated: work hard and you'll be rewarded. And if somehow a renewed joy in work - brought in by a former player who was known for his hard work - can bring some lightheartedness to what was once a thrilling team full of swagger, but has lately been a lost, dazed-looking group, there should be a snowball effect. Let's hope.
When I left the building I stopped to take off my jacket - even on a late November day it was much warmer outside than in. As I dropped my skate bag on a concrete planter and fished around for my car keys, I became aware of a man standing to my right, speaking loudly into a cellphone. Joe Beninati! Caps commentator extraordinaire! I didn't want to eavesdrop, but I couldn't help but overhear. He said something to this effect: (and I apologize for quasi-quoting without permission this verbal gem from a man who is known for them) ...When I came here this morning, part of me felt like I was going to a funeral, and part of me felt like I was going to a birthday. For Dale Hunter, it's a birthday...
I'm sure that Bruce Boudreau tried his best, and no one can deny that the Caps had a lot of success during his tenure, but it's time to bring in the new. As the fans at Kettler demonstrated yesterday, holding a sort of vigil for their team at what was effectively a "watch night" - a time of great vulnerability but also of promise and renewal - the Team is bigger than any one person. Though owned by Ted Leonsis, it is really a collective property, fed by the endless stream of words and ideas, blogs and tweets, agony and ecstasy and (we can't forget) cash of its fans. In the heart of each one of them there shines a vision of the Stanley Cup held aloft by a player in a Caps jersey. Time to get back to work!
Let's hope for not just a birthday, but a re-birth day for the Caps.
Ragnar came upon Fardan near his hut, where the priest had just concluded the mid-afternoon prayer. Ragnar clapped his shoulder joyously, and the priest nearly buckled with the force of the blow. "Fardan, you must congratulate me. My grandson is born. He is strong like his father and already his eyes are bright and clear as he looks upon the world."
"Ah, Ragnar, that is wonderful news. Accept my sincere best wishes for you and for your grandson."
"I thank you, Fardan." replied Ragnar.
"And might I add, my friend, how pleased I am to see a smile upon your face." said the priest. "I can tell you something that will cause it to broaden even more."
"What could that be, Fardan?" asked Ragnar.
"Well, Ragnar, it is with great gratitude to the Lord God and the blessed Saint Bede that I am able to report to you that, like yourself, the child's mother has received the sign of the cross and, in so doing, has taken the first step along the path that leads to salvation."
"The child's mother?"
"Yes, your grandchild's mother. She who dwelt among the beasts of the dark forest. She who some called the Bear-wife. Under my humble guidance she has accepted Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior.
"And there is further cause for rejoicing, Ragnar, because your grandson shall be baptized and his soul, although stained with sin, shall be granted salvation, and when the Day of Doom comes, he shall sit with you at the right hand of the Lord God, in Eternal Bliss.
"And so it remains only to bestow this blessing upon your son and upon the others of your family, and the task shall be complete. Your household shall assume its place in Christendom and you shall see what glory awaits."
It seemed to Ragnar that his mind was spinning, that all the world around him was spinning. How had it come to this? Must he endure now, at this moment of joy, the gloating of this wearisome priest, Sven's cast-off, who, he suddenly realized, had convinced him of nothing aside from his own fears? How easy it must have been for Fardan to accomplish this in the heart of the poor orphan girl. Yet even she had shown courage and deserved better.
"The beasts of the dark forest indeed," sputtered Ragnar. "You are the beast. Yes, you, priest! Stalking – terrorizing – here, on my own land - preying upon the fears and the uncertainty of your victims. You are a blight upon us! You are a pestilence! Be gone and let us be!" Ragnar waved him aside and strode off, out of the infield and up the path to the open pasture.
That high land was empty now of men and beasts, for Ragnar's rams had long since rejoined the rest of the herd for the breeding season. Ragnar came to the stones of the grave-field by the Mirror Tarn and he stood among them, staking his claim, as they did, to all of the windy plateau and the rolling land below.
There lies the valley. There the flat lands stretch toward the sea. There lie the meadows, there runs the river, there stand rock and oak. There lie the stones of Thorbjorn's ship and there the sturdy timbers of Svanhild's altar are planted. There, beside the Old Road, scratched along the ridge-top, dwell Gunnar and his kin. And beyond lies the lake – see it sparkle against the green velvet forest.
This is it. This, to me, is everything there is.
Ragnar sat down upon the damp earth. He leaned on one of the rough, lichen-covered boulders that rested there, one of a ring of stones. Golden grass-strands with their heads of perfect seeds, thick bunches of dark green heather clothed in purple, blueberry shrubs tinged with scarlet, all blended and bowed before his eyes. When was the last time he had looked at these small things, each gleaming like the rarest jewel? They had been here, always, through seasons of plenty and seasons of want, growing from the bones of the earth, and from the bones of his parents and grandparents, their parents and theirs. He delighted in them now, in this still, silent moment. For though he knew in his heart that the turning point of his world had already come and gone, here, in this landscape of cairns and mounds and standing stones; here, at the threshold between this world and the next, was an opening to taste the sweetness of that late-summer blossoming of life, that moment of knowing that the long days are irretrievably gone. It was as if, having climbed for a lifetime, he had at last come up over the crest of the hill and just as he was taking in the panoramic view, he found himself beginning to roll down the other side, wheel upon wheel, faster and faster – and what waits at the bottom?
Around him now Ragnar sensed many voices, many gestures: gentle, harsh, demanding, judgmental - sympathetic. They were gathering behind him now, his forebears: Aelfrid the hero, his great brass-studded shield shattered; Old Ragnar, who had built the hall in which the household still lived, and also Red Thorbjorn, Ragnar's grandfather, drinking and toasting at his return from the lands of the Franks. Although their lives, like Ragnar’s own, had doubtless hurtled from birth to death with barely a pause to reflect, to him they had always seemed as fixed and eternal as the mountain of which they were now a part. But during their lives they, too, must have faced choices. Had they wavered? Had they been afraid? Had they chosen well? Or poorly? He lived with the consequences of their choices, as his grandson would live with his. They had left him here, at their lives' end, but he must go on, with or without their understanding or their approval. It would be for later generations to look back upon him and judge.
As he sat there, resting among the stones, nearly hidden by the tall meadow grasses, two young girls came up the path, walking together towards the Mirror Tarn. They seemed to float across the meadow, golden hair blowing and long, white arms. He couldn’t see what they had in their hands but whatever it was they deposited it there, at the spring, in a manner at once solemn and conspiratorial.
Ragnar waited for them to be done with their small offering, and to turn back toward the settlement. How lightly they tread upon the earth. How simple their desires. A handsome young groom? A new set of ribbons for their hair? He smiled to himself, and felt his heart lighten. Then he rose, gathered himself up, and returned to his hall.
Above is an excerpt from The Bear-Wife, my novel set in 10th century Sweden. I'll be posting updates as the book moves toward publication. If you like you can also check out this post I wrote about the book a while back.
The Caps don't need to win. But it hurts to see them skate through the final period of a pretty-much-must-win playoff game looking like they don't care.
What draws me to hockey is this: you FIGHT! And no matter what happens, no matter what the odds, no matter if you're bruised or broken or twisted or bleeding, you struggle to make the right choices and you fight until the end.
It's a beautiful metaphor for life. You may not win. Hey - let's face it - most of us don't. You're often up against forces that are larger and stronger than yourself. But you keep fighting. You don't stop skating, or thinking, a quarter of the way through the third period. You keep thinking, you keep talking with your teammates, you keep playing hard, you keep fighting.
And if you do that, then even if you loose - hey, this year 29 out of 30 NHL teams will NOT win the Stanley Cup! - you deserve to be proud.
I just want to feel proud of my team.
One of my favorite movies is Bull Durham. I just love the thick, ungainly rookie pitcher "Nuke" Laloosh. He's the Natural Man: unfiltered, unabridged, uncensored, unexamined, unzipped. Hilarious! And somehow he ended up with the million-dollar arm. (I guess in today's dollars it would be 100 million.)
One of my favorite scenes in Bull Durham is when the Durham Bulls - a minor league baseball team - turn the sprinkler system on at the field they're scheduled to play on the next day, and slip-n-slide into the wee hours in the resulting mud, causing an artificial "rain out." For some reason that scene popped into my head last spring while the Caps were in the process of blowing it in the playoffs. It's recently returned.
I came across a reader's comment on a website a couple of days ago. Something to this effect: the Caps should have stuck to their old (pre-losing streak) style of play because they don't have the personnel to be good enough on defense, and the new system is too difficult for the offensively-minded stars to master. Play to your strengths! the reader admonished.
It's easy enough to dispute the first part of this; it seems the lads can play defense; the team's GAA is down, the PK has been very effective, and even an non-expert like myself can see that they've got a new, more aggressively defensive style going. Even when they don't have the puck, they are, by and large, skating purposefully and working hard. Those things are good.
But - too true! - they haven't been scoring goals. Monday night they scored only one goal - and that was on "a depleted Rangers squad" (check out my awesome sportscaster lingo!) - and they can't even blame it on a "hot goalie," because ours was way hotter than theirs. On Saturday they scored 4 against the Maple Leafs, but that was first time they've scored more than 3 in a game since who knows when.
Obviously I'm not alone in worrying that the new system has irrevocably sucked the life out of this team - and sucked the life out of, specifically, Alex Ovechkin, Captain.
Let's talk about Ovie for a moment, shall we? (I love to talk about Ovie!)
Of course, I don't actually know him, I only admire him from afar. And it's not only for his hockey skills, either, or his good looks (thank you, Gillette), his ability to pick up the tab, or even the fact that he wears his mother's number (bless his heart). No, what finally bumped me over the edge and caused me to plunk down my $24 to purchase that Winter Classic t-shirt with the "C" and the "8" and OVECHKIN on the back was my feeling for the guy himself. It's clear that he's been having a tough time this year, and I wanted to show my support. I won't go into all the gory details, because we all know them. But I do want to point out that before, during and (probably) after his current tribulations, expectations are heaped upon him by the dozen, by friend and foe alike, while at the same time he's all too often put down, vilified, or pointedly ignored by the North American hockey powers-that-be.
At the risk of sounding too maternal, let me remind you how young he was when he first came to this country (20 years), and how young he still is even now. And while some may envy the acclaim that has come his way, the celebrity, and the salary (heck, with that kind of money I could have bought the damn jersey instead of the lousy t-shirt!), those things don't necessarily make it easier to adjust to a new country, a new language, a different style of play, and a different hockey culture. (How well would Crosby have done in Krasnojarsk? Or Novosibirsk? I can't be sure, but, it's safe to say, it would have been a challenge.)
So maybe Ovie's hit a rough spot. Development - physical, mental, emotional - is not a constant upward slope. There are plateaus, and there are setbacks. But what I think we see now is someone who is growing up. Willing to risk change. Taking on new responsibility. Playing a new role on this hockey team. The role of captain. He is, as they say, buying in - not only to the new more defense-oriented system of play, but to the system writ large. Both are adjustments.
And, generally, I think, that's what the whole team is doing, or trying to do. It has to be tough, it has to be scary to make changes in mid-stream. To change the way you think of yourself. It takes intelligence, work, confidence, and a leap of faith. It takes mental toughness to stare down the naysayers.
So what does this have to do with sprinklers? "Crash" Davis - the veteran catcher assigned to grow Nuke up - sort of a Jeeves to Nuke's Wooster - switched on the sprinklers to punctuate an interminable, losing road trip that was just oozing demoralization and misery. Why? It wasn't to avoid losing the next game; rather, he manufactured the rain-out in an attempt to take control of an out-of-control situation.
But of course, it's only in the movies that "taking control" is as easy as flicking a switch and sliding around in the mud, or breathing through your eyelids, or wearing a woman's garter belt, or pulling the head off of a live chicken. Or a goat. But the Caps are doing it in real life, they're taking control again, little by little, with every battle won, every pass completed, every shot blocked, and every goal scored, even if they are few and far between at this point.
The other part of the sprinkler scene, though, is the mud-sliding part. That's the fun part, the letting loose. That's key, and I hope Ovechkin and the Caps are still having fun - on the ice as well as off. They're young guys, playing a game, and they need to find a way to relax and - in the words of my favorite color commentator - enjoy the journey.
To hell with the playoffs, to hell with the Cup (I know, I know - blasphemy), and to hell with critics and cynics and, yes, to hell with fans who want it all right now. Don't be afraid! You're still you, the Washington Capitals! Work hard! Take control! Play your game! And don't forget to unleash the sprinklers!
So far I've been a pretty uncynical fan. Which is something, considering my demographic profile. And although this year ticket prices at the Verizon Center have become so very steep that I can no longer justify the expense (Hershey, here I come), I still love you. I still watch your practices sometimes, and I was very excited when, last week, I had the opportunity to hold the door open for rookie prospect (since sent to the AHL Hershey Bears) Jake Hauswirth. (He said, "thank you." I said, "you're welcome.")
And guys, technically I'm probably not qualified to judge on this matter because, although I aspire to reality in my everyday life, I've never actually watched a reality show. I look forward to the time when a couple of TV writers might get together and write a show about a hockey team and their off-the-ice experiences. It wouldn't claim to be real, but if it was really good, it would show a heightened reality; it would show something of the humanity of the players and of the game. My father served in the Army in Korea. We'd always ask him if M*A*S*H was a realistic portrayal. He'd say, no, M*A*S*H was actually more real than the real thing. That's because it concerned itself with showing not the things, but the essence of things.
Okay, sports fans. If that's too Platonic (with a capital 'P') and, well, weird, for you, consider George Plimpton. Did he just plant some cameras in those dressing rooms? Hell, no. He put something of himself on the line. You might say, "wow, the ego of that guy!" And you might say, "that wasn't a real look at the locker room, at the guys, because Plimpton interacted with them; he violated the prime directive!" But if you really think about it, isn't that at least as natural a scenario as setting up cameras to record people's necessarily self-censored conversations? After all, people have always interacted with one another. Cameras - not so much. We have far less experience deconstructing camera play than word play. You can read Plimpton's accounts and decide for yourself what was what. You know it is his perspective, and you know it is subjective. And from a player's point of view, there was just one guy, and he was accountable. If you didn't like him, you could fire the puck at him. Hard.
In this case, I'm not sure what your recourse is, or mine.
Because the camera lens is a filter that is, paradoxically, much less transparent, much harder to explicate than George Plimpton's persona, or the writers of M*A*S*H and their socio-political/humanistic agendas. The lens filters not only light, but also a bunch of other less tangible things that are tough to enumerate or describe. In the hands of a master, it might be masterful. But, last I heard, Ingmar Bergman is not working on this shoot.
And this is me, the uncynical fan speaking again: Even though, I know, professional sports is a business, and yada yada yada, I like to believe, I want to believe, I have the god-given right to believe that there remains something primal and sacred in that locker room. I don't know what it is exactly, but I imagine it's partly guys blowing steam and partly reporters asking dumb questions and partly jockstraps hanging from pegs in the wall and partly bloody birthplace of creativity. What it is I'll probably never know for sure, but I'm pretty sure I prefer my own imagined version to the one on HBO.
But what's done is done and there's nothing you or I can do about it. The cameras will be on you, boys. I'm not sure whether I get HBO; if I do, I may be watching - unless actual reality intrudes. But in any case I will surely be watching the real you - no, I'll be watching the you that's more real than you - the Washington Capitals on the ice.
Your 4-ever uncynical fan
Here we are after many days of travel at the historical museum on Madeline Island, one of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior. The museum is fantastic, with gorgeous Ojibwe beadwork among many other things. We had a wet night at our campsite but now it's clearing...after a delicious fish fry lunch on Lake Superior shore we're ready for action!
Stay tuned for more as I sort through the pictures and the thoughts!
So what's up with my home team? What's up with my Capitals?
It's like this: On a sunny day you think it'll never rain again. The sky is the definition of blue from
horizon to horizon. The sun is pulsing
with warmth and light, lavishing its love on the lush green earth. But then the very next day you
wake up and the sun is gone. The sky is flat and gray, the rain is hard and drenching,
and sogginess permeates every molecule of the material world.
It's like this: On a sunny day you think it'll never rain again. The sky is the definition of blue from horizon to horizon. The sun is pulsing with warmth and light, lavishing its love on the lush green earth. But then the very next day you wake up and the sun is gone. The sky is flat and gray, the rain is hard and drenching, and sogginess permeates every molecule of the material world.
That's the way it is with those guys. Some games are ugly. But I don't want to think about them
That's the way it is with those guys. Some games are ugly. But I don't want to think about them anymore.
I'm thinking about this instead: They're moving their legs. The ice is tilting and they're skating downhill, they're
playing THEIR game, they feel the power.
I'm thinking about this instead: They're moving their legs. The ice is tilting and they're skating downhill, they're playing THEIR game, they feel the power.
Their hard work is being rewarded. The hits, the grit, the battles, the board-smashing, the net-crashing, the teeth-bashing mingle with the sublime.
Their hard work is being rewarded. The hits, the grit, the battles, the board-smashing, the net-crashing, the teeth-bashing mingle with the sublime.
This most-creative-of-teams merges into the flowing creative
force of the universe. Now they're rolling!
This most-creative-of-teams merges into the flowing creative force of the universe. Now they're rolling!
They're seeing the puck well. They're seizing every
chance. They're at the right place
at the right time. They are
They're seeing the puck well. They're seizing every chance. They're at the right place at the right time. They are CREATING SPACE.
And it doesn't matter HOW many guys the other team has on
And it doesn't matter HOW many guys the other team has on the ice!
There's a blind drop pass between the legs, or a nifty one
threaded through a pair of defenders, or a chippy one from behind the net, or
the long one traveling two-thirds the length of the ice, puck arriving, adhering
to the stick of our brave captain on a breakaway, deking, beating the goaltender, going top-shelf…
There's a blind drop pass between the legs, or a nifty one threaded through a pair of defenders, or a chippy one from behind the net, or the long one traveling two-thirds the length of the ice, puck arriving, adhering to the stick of our brave captain on a breakaway, deking, beating the goaltender, going top-shelf…
Visualize, visualize, visualize!
Visualize, visualize, visualize!
It's all a fan can do.
It's all a fan can do.
In a town long known for its southern efficiency and northern charm, we, in Washington, DC, finally have a team known for both: efficiency (these guys can win!) and charm (yeah, that's right, charming hockey players).
And, being a hockey team, they are northern. Picture-perfect, poster-child northern, in fact, featuring talent and charisma from every slice of global boreality (if it's not a word, it should be), from Siberia to Vancouver (the long way).
Check it out (you should be able to click on the little hockey player icons to get names and hometowns of the players):
Efficiency, charm, plus that northern penchant for the battle. My circumpolar passion fulfilled.
Alexander Ovechkin, pre-"C." Photo from hfboards.com
Maybe you've been watching some Olympic hockey. Maybe you've seen Ovie's stupendous hit on Jaromir Jagr in the Russia/Czech Republic game on Sunday.
In the words of Mike Emrick "talk about dictating the terms!"
In Alexander Ovechkin's words, "I know it was a strong hit, but what can I do? It's the Olympics."
In my words, "My hero!"
Okay, I'm not saying that this is the way we should operate in everyday life in the twenty-first century. But in Scandinavia back in the day, life was hard, almost like the winter Olympics. The weather was cold. Winters were long and dark. You could expect famine, disease and/or injury, and it was only a matter of time before you would be attacked by others who were equally as desperate as you. Survival was a pressing issue in a way that isn't these days for most of us who are just watching the games on TV.
Being a leader meant taking care of business. Your people had to know that, when the chips were down, you would defend them and their interests to the death. And if you wanted to remain a leader, you had to earn their trust again and again. "Turning the other cheek" meant catastrophe for you and yours. Showing mercy to your enemies could result in disaster for your friends or family.
Your neighbor's sheep are grazing on your side of the fence? Get them out of there by any means necessary! And don't miss the opportunity to teach your neighbor a lesson while you're at it. You literally can not afford to let him think that he can get away with this sort of thing. Your life, your family's lives, the lives of your entire household depend on your sheep getting enough to eat. The other guy's flock is his own problem.
Jagr at a happier moment. Possibly a viking hero as well. His comment on the big hit: "Of course I saw [Ovechkin coming]. I wanted to make a play...The hit doesn't hurt. The mistake hurts because they scored a goal on that play...It was a horrible feeling. I felt like I let the guys down. But that's the sport." Quote from interview by John Dellapina and NHL.com. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.
If Ovie had let Jagr - five-time NHL leading point scorer, seven-time NHL all-star, winner of two Stanley Cups and various other trophies - waltz uncontested into Russia's defensive zone, to a one-on-one against his goaltender, Jagr might very well have tied the game. Ovie couldn't stand idly by and let that happen. This is the Olympics, for heaven's sake! Instead, he took drastic action and his hit led directly to a fabulous pass by Semin and a goal by Malkin which brought the score to 3-1 in favor of the Russians. The Czechs never recovered.
But it's Ovechkin's comment that says it all. "What can I do? It's the Olympics!"
It not only expresses the sense of obligation that he felt but also a necessity, indeed, an inevitability. Yes, the hit was hard, but it had to be. There was nothing else he could do. It's almost as if the fact of it exists outside of Ovechkin himself, as an entity unto itself. Almost as if the man is just an agent for some requirement of fate.
In hockey as in viking-era Scandinavia, it helps if a leader is in synch with the supernatural, with fate. In the words of Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, "there are certain individuals, that...good fortune follows them...but they [also] make their own good fortune..." He was speaking of young Washington prospect John Carlson after he scored a goal in sudden-death overtime to win the World Juniors championship earlier this year - but he could have been speaking of Ovechkin.
This link with fate in no way takes away from Ovechkin's own courage and initiative - on the contrary, these were the very qualities that allowed him to act. People who don't like The Man - and there are plenty of those - will say that it's just his bravado, or his arrogance or something like that. But of course - it takes a dose of arrogance, or we could call it self-confidence - to step outside of what is commonly done and to take fate into your own hands. To be the one who takes on the responsibility to lead is to call attention, both good and bad, to yourself. Ovechkin does it so often! The remarkable thing is that his "taking care of business" so often seems to be laced with absolute joy and lightheartedness. Maybe that's part of what allows him to "synch up" with fate so regularly.
So what else do hockey players and vikings have in common?
Ovie's mom, Olympic basketball gold medalist Tatyana Ovechkina, knows a few things about bravery and strength. She has been quoted as saying something to this effect: "To be a hockey player, you have to be both brave and strong. Alex is brave and strong."
That's pretty Viking-like, too.
During one long, lonely February, I sat by my big picture window, day after day, hour after excruciating hour, watching rain pour down from the sky and feeding my insatiable infant son. I survived the ordeal, but only thanks to The Greenlanders. The Greenlanders is Jane Smiley's 584-page novel about the mysterious demise of the Norse Greenland colony. In the light shed by Ms. Smiley's considerable insight, though, that demise becomes considerably less mysterious and considerably more inevitable. More rooted in human ignorance and blindness and cruelty than the historians could ever surmise, much less portray. Was it somehow perverse of me to become so absorbed in this tragic reconstruction of a failed human endeavor at the very time that I should have been celebrating the miraculous beginnings of my own little human endeavor? Maybe so. But I chalked it up to my northern temperament: had Ingmar Bergman ever been required to nurse a baby, he probably would have found himself reading The Greenlanders, too.
Several years later I came across a new translation of some of the Icelandic sagas with a forward by Jane Smiley, and, feeling a connection both to her and to my Scandinavian roots, I picked it up. Right away, I was captivated. The characters were flesh-and-blood, eating, sleeping, thinking, planning, sentient beings, just like we are, but almost in the manner of humanoids from one of Star Trek's alien worlds, their motives occasionally wouldn't quite add up, or their actions would sometimes seem a bit "off." You see, the sagas were written in Iceland about 800 years ago and set 200 years earlier than that. Light-years away from our world. And the sagas are sparse in style; many things are unstated, left between the lines. A contemporary reader would have understood, but the modern reader is left to rely upon her own interpretive abilities and her own detective work. And, indeed, after some investigating, many of the characters did become understandable to me, and even admirable – even those whom we modern folk might characterize as petty, vindictive, cruel or just plain disgusting!
That volume of stories reinvigorated a connection with the people that I only half jokingly call "my Viking ancestors." This connection is, to me, a very tangible thing, and I treasure it. When I'm at home in Sweden I can stand by the graves of my people going back to Viking times and then some. I've always wanted to know them, but is that even remotely possible?
I continued my detective work, reading Old Norse classics like Snorri's Heimskringla and the Poetic Edda, along with books on Norse religion, law and society. By far the most inspirational work of modern scholarship that I came across was Neil S. Price's The Viking Way: Religion and War in Iron Age Scandinavia. Price challenges us to allow those ancient people their peculiarities, to allow them their profound differences from us, to allow them their own stories. Captain Kirk would be proud! Of course, it's easy to honor the prime directive when you know that Scotty can beam you up at any time. But how did things work on the ground? Human and animal sacrifice, piracy, evil sorcery, killings for vengeance or just plain provocation: few stories end – or begin - without blood spillage. At the same time, though, those people were dependent upon each other and they lived at close quarters: warriors and traders, farmers and kings, Christians and heathens, slaves and priestesses. The Viking Age was a productive age of travel and trade, of human craft and expression of all sorts, and its society had a moral equilibrium, one that nurtured it and fueled it and, indeed, drove it, at high-speed, for several centuries. What was it all about?
Characters started coming to me, and that's when The Bear-Wife began. It is set in a transitional time, at the meeting between the old beliefs and Christianity, the old political order and the new medieval kingdoms. It is set in a transitional place, where the rocky Swedish west coast, the open farmland of the south and the forestland of the interior come together. And it is set amidst the most significant transitional condition of all: life itself, which the Norse saw as a state of constant becoming.
Where then, is home - the state of physical and spiritual rest? That is what The Bear-Wife seeks to explore.
The main characters are Geerta, the orphaned daughter of a trader, raised in a heathen household by a Christian servant woman; Helgi, a young Viking warrior groping to understand the spiritual aspect of his vocation; Ragnar, his father, anxious about the plight of his prosperous estate and his chiefdom as he confronts his son's indifference and his own mortality; Fardan, an English missionary priest who struggles to advance his faith in a sometimes hostile setting; and Svanhild, a sorceress and former war-maiden who struggles with the absence of her husband and the uncomfortable nature of her role in society, which is to serve as an intermediary between the human and spirit worlds. And then, of course, there's the bear.
Geerta and Helgi, cast out from their respective worlds, meet at the threshold of the bear's den, a place where death and birth are merged, and where the very human concerns of finding one's place and of fulfilling one's role can begin to be sorted out. Together they restore the bear to his rightful place and in doing so are ultimately able to assume their own "rightful places."
Of course, my characters also operate amidst external events - some historical, some fictional, and some that were hatched in my mind to address the mysterious archaeology of the fictional Ragnar's district. I hope that my characters are not only true to the world-view(s) of the time and place in which they lived, but are also in some way illustrative of a universal human desire to go home in both a physical and spiritual sense, to be at peace with one's duties and one's fate.
Our friends deliver “reindeer food” (oats mixed with glitter) to us every year so that the kids can sprinkle it on the lawn on Christmas Eve. The people down the street have decorations out front that say “Santa, Land Here,” with red and green pseudo-landing-strip lights along their front walk. But where does the idea of flying reindeer really come from?
A while back I read Piers Vitebsky’s The Reindeer People (see my review). Vitebsky writes from an anthropological, historical and personal perspective about the Eveny and Evenki people of Siberia.
Probably the most important aspect of their traditional culture is their relationship with reindeer. They rely on this partially domesticated animal for food, of course, but also for transportation. Thousands of years ago the ancestors of the Eveny and Evenki trained reindeer to carry them and pull their sleighs. During the winters, when the land was frozen “from Mongolia to the Arctic Ocean, from the Pacific almost to the Urals,” reindeer could travel great distances. Vitebsky testifies that their speed, especially when traveling over frozen bodies of water, is amazing, almost like flying.
But how does this connect with Christmas and Santa’s flying reindeer?
Vitebsky describes a traditional Midsummer ritual among the Eveny, in which people rode reindeer through a symbolic “gateway to the sky” between two larch trees. He continues:
As the sun rose high above the horizon in the early dawn, this gateway was filled with the purifying smoke of the aromatic mountain rhododendron, which drifted over the area from two separate bonfires. Each person passed around the first fire anti-clockwise, against the direction of the sun, to symbolize the death of the old year and to burn away its illnesses. They then moved around the second fire in a clockwise direction, following the sun’s own motion, to symbolize the birth of the new year.
Prayers were offered to the sun. Then, in a ritual that would bring renewal, each person rode a reindeer through the gateway up to a land near the sun. The reindeer were thus not only valued for transport and sustenance here on earth, but also as a way of reaching the source of life itself, and a way of attaining the blessings of life. Vitebsky explains that at the highest point in their flight, “the reindeer turned for a while into a crane, a bird of extreme sacredness.”
That these ideas are very, very old is proven by the existence of ‘reindeer stones.” These standing stones date from the Bronze Age (about 3,000 years ago) and can be found from western Mongolia to Manchuria. Other animals are represented, but reindeer predominate and they are clearly portrayed as flying: “…neck outstretched and [its] legs flung out fore and aft…the antlers have grown fantastically till they reach right back to the tail, and sometimes hold the disc of the sun or a human figure with the sun as its head.”
Interestingly, even after the area’s climate dried out, making it unsuitable for reindeer, its inhabitants still looked upon the animal as a mythical link with the supernatural: reindeer figured in legends and their imagery showed up in grave goods and in the tattoos of the Pazyryk people, where “the branching of the reindeers’ antlers sometimes looks like the feathering of birds’ wings, and on some of them each tine of the antler ends in a tiny bird’s head.” Reindeer have also been associated with shamanic voyages.
Somehow along the way, though, it seems they got mixed up with Germanic pagan traditions of Odin, himself linked with shamanism, who was said to ride an eight-legged, flying horse and lead hunting parties through the northern sky in the winter, evidenced by the aurora borealis. Later came Christian traditions of St. Nicholas, whose feast day, December 6, is near to the winter solstice and who, like Odin, had a along beard and rode a flying horse. British legends of Father Christmas (a later incarnation of the gift-giving St. Nicholas) has him living in Lapland, a land of reindeer with a strong cultural connection to Siberia. How this all came to be is mysterious; it is a demonstration of the amazing way that traditions and legends are woven over time.
It also leaves us free to choose the strands that are most meaningful to us.
Winter solstice celebrations in northern countries have everything to do with renewal and rebirth, with the petitioning of the sun to return and once again bestow its blessings on the earth and its people. Last night, the longest night of the year, we attended a solstice party where a bonfire, good food and the conversation of friends served as symbols of the return of light and life to the earth.
I hope that your version of flying reindeer will bring you to a state of renewal during this dark season which, as of yesterday’s solstice, grows lighter and brighter every day.
American society is heterogeneous and, these days, more often than not, divided. Although this is a young nation, roots go more than deep enough to impact present relationships. This book is one woman’s attempt to untangle some of these relationships in her own Mississippi-river hometown of Trempeauleau, Wisconsin.
This summer we camped about 75 miles south of Trempeauleau, at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. The Upper Mississippi is a beautiful, lush area, featuring bluff-top views of the river and its swampy backwaters, laced with quiet bayous that are great for canoeing. It is also rich with the histories of Native American cultures (most visibly the Ho-Chunk, formerly known as Winnebago), (largely) French fur traders, and (mostly) northern European farmers. The fur traders are gone (though it’s interesting to think about what of their culture may have survived) but the two other groups remain.
Buried Indians is both a memoir and an exploration of the issues surrounding past and present relationships among whites and Indians in Trempeauleau. The author is a member of the former group by birth, her forbears going back a couple of hundred years in that town. She is set apart, however, because she has moved away and chosen to become an anthropologist, specializing in the culture of Tibet. The theme of the academic as separate from the surrounding culture permeates her account as she attempts to negotiate not only her dueling identities, but also her sympathies, which extend not only to the undoubtedly wronged Native cultures and people whom she encounters, but also to her archaeologist colleagues and to her own white, working class/farmer father, family and compatriots.
The impetus for the book is a local controversy involving an approximately 1,000 year-old platform mound on Trempeauleau mountain, a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, within the town limits. The controversy ensues when an archaeologist from the Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center indicates his intention/desire to preserve the mound as a tourist site, for possible inclusion in a regional heritage trail.
Although the state of Wisconsin and this particular area of the Upper Mississippi has been and is the site of thousands of other mounds - conical, linear, and effigy mounds - the existence of this particular mound, although surveyed and photographed during an early period of white settlement, had been largely overlooked by whites in the area. While the conical, linear and effigy mounds (many preserved at Effigy Mound National Monument) are believed to have been created for burial and other purposes by ancestors of the Ho-Chunk Indians who live in the area today, the platform mound was probably created as a ceremonial mound for sun-worship and other ceremonies by members of what is now called the Middle Mississippian culture. (As presented in this book, present-day Native groups seem to agree with the archaeologists’ assessment.) This culture was based further south, in Cahokia, Illinois, and Trempeauleau may have been an outpost of that civilization.
Buried Indians, though, becomes much more than a book about an archaeological controversy. As she pursues the topic through interviews, casual conversations, personal reflections and archival research, McMillin bumps up against many other issues.
Among them is the controversy over the town’s high school mascot. (This is, of course, an issue that surfaces intermittently on the national stage as well.) McMillin explores the paradox that, although historically whites were intent on removing Native people, they have deliberately retained the memory of Indians through mascot names (Redmen, Braves, Redskins, and so forth) and place names (there must be tens of thousands of them, including the names of states from Massachusetts to Alaska). McMillin concludes that what whites really want to obliterate at this point (now that we have killed and/or removed so many Indian people and destroyed so much of Indian culture) is not the memory of the Indians themselves, but rather the memory of the role we played in their decimation. She uncovers a paper trail of reimagined history that, for example, portrays Native people “disappearing into the mist” rather than being rounded up and shipped away on cattle cars as was actually the case in this area. Meanwhile, whites appropriated selected aspects of Indian culture, often in stereotype – i.e. the brave or savage Indian warrior - casting themselves as legitimate heirs to Native ways and, through Indian place names, to the land and its bounty.
Their feelings of remorse and guilt show up clearly in McMillin’s account, sometimes, though not always, spilling over into defensiveness. It’s clear that the whites of the town – small farmers who are proud of their hard work and survival through hard times – also feel somewhat victimized or belittled by people they view as elites from the outside, personified in this book by archaeologists, who don’t understand them and don’t know the land as they do. (Says one town father: “If there was [a mound] up there we would’ve known about it.”)
And so it goes in a heterogeneous, mobile society. These stories of conflict and removal – though on a much smaller and considerably less gruesome scale than the Indian removals - are apparent all over these days, from the immigration conflicts in Prince William County, Virginia, to gentrification/integration in places like Harlem. As people grouped according to various identities, we all too often place ourselves in opposition to other groups, to the ultimate detriment of all. In this regard McMillin’s sincere attempt to hear all sides of the story stands out as exemplary.
By the end of the book, the platform mound itself remains officially unpreserved, although today (in 2008) I found it listed as a federally protected mound by the group Protect Sacred Sites Indigenous People, One Nation. The author, through her investigations and her family’s involvement with them, manages to foster a slow recognition of some of these issues among her family members– including some of the older “town fathers” and a sister, a schoolteacher who ultimately incorporates some Indian history into her curriculum.
McMillin, Laurie Hovell. Buried Indians: Digging Up the Past in a Midwestern Town is part of The University of Wisconsin Press' "Wisconsin Land and Life" series. It was published in 2006.
Here's an interesting twist on this issue, a group of Sioux in North Dakota who would like to see the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux retain its nickname. The original article is from the New York Times, December 9, 2009: In Twist, Tribe Fights for College Nickname.
And another update: Fighting Sioux Nickname Issue Remains Unsettled, this one from January 16, 2010.
So I woke up a week ago Friday, opened my eyes, and closed them again. Then I tried again. Yup, everything in the room – the pictures on the wall, the curtains, the piles of books and other assorted clutter – was spinning around and around.
After a quick mental inventory, I concluded that there was nothing wrong with me - I knew where I was, remembered my name, my responsibilities.
It was just that something had released me, set me free from the bonds that normally keep me in a close and easy interface with the world around me.
Because of my son’s sensory integration issues I’ve learned a few things about how such things work. My difficulty in getting up to walk to the bathroom pinpointed a faulty vestibular function as the culprit.
I then postulated that, overnight, a golfball-sized tumor had grown in my brain, pressing on the inner ear/vestibular nerve area, and that I would be dead within the month. The only other option might be some exotic disease picked up…well, sitting at my desk? or perhaps at the grocery store or on Metro?
In any case, I figured, I was clearly going to die, so I’d better get myself downstairs and let my husband know before he left for work.
Somehow I managed to do just that. But within a few hours I couldn’t sit up without retching horribly. In fact, I really couldn’t even open my eyes without feeling the most intense nausea. For the first few days watching someone speak was pure torture; there was simply too much unmediated sensory information entering my brain and no way for the brain to exert any organizing or integrating control.
As it turns out, I don’t have a tumor or an exotic disease. I have vestibular neuronitis, in which some virus, medievally speaking, shoots its little iron arrows at my vestibular nerve, causing an inflammation. The treatment involves a tapering dose of steroids and an awesome shaman-drum-style depiction of the "virus vs steroid" battle drawn by my seven-year-old nephew. Hopefully within a few weeks this illness will be nothing more than a nauseating memory.
But it begs the question, especially for the author of the spindlewhorl blog: Why the spinning? What causes us, when our fragile hardware becomes damaged, to perceive our world as spinning? Why don’t we perceive it as bouncing up and down, or going wavey like things do when cartoon characters reminisce?
You know me, I’d like to believe that there’s some cosmic reason. It would be cool if, when I was released from my neurological moorings I was, in addition to barfing, entering some purer state, in tune with the spinning of the cosmos. But that’s probably not the case, and even if it is, I’m here to tell you that it’s hardly worth it.
The day before this happened to me I went to hear a talk by religious historian Elaine Pagels. Her latest book, with Karen L. King, is Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity. In it she suggests that Jesus chose Judas to “betray” him so that, through his crucifixion, he could demonstrate for humanity that the suffering of the flesh is transitory and insignificant. Well, sure it’s insignificant if you happen to be Jesus!
But seriously, folks, any illness which allows you to be back on your feet, however unsteadily, and on the mend within a week, is not that bad.
But if you know, or care to theorize, why the spinning, please do share! I’m still way too dizzy to google it.
It’s really winter now! A couple of days ago we had our first December snow, and my children were unbelievably excited. Rosy cheeks, bright eyes, the whole bit. My son even wrecked my daughter’s snowman with a snowball! Right on target!
If you have some snow to work with, try making one of these snölyktor (snow lanterns). Simply build a dome out of snowballs, leaving an opening through which you can install a votive candle or tea light. Then wait until dusk and behold!
There’s a lovely depiction of a snow lantern in Astrid Lindgren’s Jul i Bullerbyn, illustrated by Ilon Wikland. (The American version is called Christmas in Noisy Village.)
Astrid Lindgren, of course, was one of Sweden’s most beloved children’s authors. She also wrote the Pippi Longstocking books, among many others. She died in 2002 at age 94.
There are a number of books featuring The Children of Noisy Village. In them Lindgren portrays the traditional rural life of Småland, her home-province, and captures brilliantly the simple joys and whimsy of childhood. Last year I read Springtime in Noisy Village to my son’s second-grade class. I was worried that kids accustomed to Star Wars and Sponge Bob Squarepants might find Noisy Village too childlike, but they loved it.
True, it is a cliché, but this is the time of year for everyone to play at being a child again. Now get out there and—oh no! duck! Incoming snowball!
A long, dark, cold Scandinavian winter, 1000 years or more ago: the sun barely, if at all, makes an appearance. In the northern, inland areas, all signs of life are completely covered in snow for months at a time. Only the reindeer manage to scrape below the snow to find sustenance. As a human being, you are just about totally dependent on this animal for food and clothing. In the southern and coastal areas of Scandinavia, you may not be buried in snow, but icy cold rain, driven by an unrelenting wind, pelts you mercilessly. In the dark sky you see the dramatic, frightening Aurora Borealis. Who are those spirits in the sky? Will summer ever return? Will warmth come? Will new animals be born? Will crops grow? How can I be sure?
And what of your own life? How can you be assured that you will enjoy health, good fortune, and life rather than their opposites? Why do some enjoy the former while others are doomed to the latter? Indeed, we all must die eventually: Why?
In the The Viking Way Neil S. Price allies archaeology with anthropology, folklore, literature, sociology, and psychology, to begin to illuminate the unrecorded beliefs of our Viking ancestors. Some of the conclusions that he reaches are familiar to me. Others are very new, and having just finished his book a couple of days ago, I'm still reaching for them, trying to integrate them into my view of how things must have been on the Swedish west coast 1000 years ago.
At stake is this pressing question: How did those people address the twin mysteries of life and death? Clearly in those northern climates (not only Scandinavia proper but also Iceland, Greenland, Orkney, the Faeroes, Shetland) there is not an overabundance of sustenance for all; survival was touch-and-go at best in certain places, perhaps slightly more assured in others. Famine, sickness and injury were probably never far removed from any of them. But it's very interesting to me that these people addressed life and death as a holistic totality, not as two irreconcilable things (i.e. life/good vs. death/evil) as in "we're going to eradicate evil." They knew better.