Friday, January 17, 2014

The Kingdom of Witches

In the Dark Ages of England, when the many tribes and polities of Britons (native Celts Romanized over several centuries to a greater or lesser degree) fought a heroic but steadily losing battle against Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon invaders, there existed a shadowy land known as Hwicce, or the Kingdom of Witches.  You'll recognize this Old English word in its current form, "wicca," and it survives within its old territory in the place names Wychwood, Whichford, Wichenford and Wychbury Hill.  It originally meant a trunk or chest, but was used to refer specifically to a sacred vessel, such as the cauldron of the local Celtic goddess Cuda.  Thus the associaton of the root for "witch" and the image of a cauldron (of potions) being stirred by a powerful supernatural female figure.

 The kingdom comprised an area in southwestern England near Wales encompassed today by the counties of Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and half of Warwickshire.  Its capital was the still-existing city of Worcester, selected as the seat of a bishop in 679 A.D. due to its importance at the time; ironically, the title of this Christian notable was "Episcopus Hwicciorum," or Bishop of the Witches.  They probably dropped that honorific after they thought about it a while.

England circa 600 A.D.

The Romans, whether pagan or later, Christian, and the subsequent overlords, Angles, Saxons, and Normans all despised the Celts' nature-based pagan religion, seeing it also as a dangerous patriotic rallying point for the usually quarreling British tribes.  Goddess Cuda was called Mater Dobunna by the Romans; the tribe inhabiting the area while under their rule was called the Dobrunni.  The Hwicce were probably their descendants, and they may have remained British for a century after the Roman departure (400 - 410 A.D.) before being pressed relentlessly by the West Saxons and Angles.  The Hwicce kingdom flourished only from 577 to 628, when it had to ally with  neighboring Mercia after the battle of Cirencester was won by its king Penda.  When the last ruler of Hwicce died in 780 even its partial independence was lost.  Their ancient religion disappeared under the tide of Christianity as their language was suppressed as well by the Anglo-Saxons.  Celtic men were forbidden to marry or procreate (proven by the absence of male Briton DNA in the population today).  Wicca was re-established as a religion in the 20th century, and no one has to kneel before the Romans, Anglo-Saxons or Normans today.  Maybe the witches came out the winners after all.


Sunday, January 12, 2014

In This Season

After the holiday season, and before tax season and Spring, there's a rather blank period of time, which is usually bad enough with the aggressive weather and going back to work full-time (for many), but we're being tortured quite unnecessarily right now with the Season of the Awards.  Award events and swag for movies, actors, and a zombie army of music industry miscreants, that is.

Whether a very good movie or an outstanding performance (we're looking at you, Sandra and Gravity) wins one big or several small awards is of no importance, but gives television and the fanzines something to get all lathered up about.  That's the point, I guess, that and future media sales.  It's said that obsession with bejewled and botoxed celebrities is a pretty clear sympton of low self-esteem.  I think more about the emperor's new clothes meme than the concept that it's (very) good to be king.

There's a qualitative difference between the movie/TV actors' prize-catching on one hand and those for music:  the former hardly ever favors complete junk; indeed, there are just too many good candidates.  Not so with the warblers and pickers -- better described as costumed clowns and textbook mental cases, perhaps.  Let's look at some who never walked the red carpet or lived to meet Fame, but are remembered for the quality of their work and talent:

Linda Perhacs

Informed writers often mention with great admiration a 1970 record that didn't sell and wasn't promoted by the label (Kapp):  Linda Perhacs' Parallelograms.  She never made another album (hold on -- she's about to release The Soul of All Natural Things right about now, after all these years of obscurity) and this Mill Valley resident returned to her dental assistant job.  Like two others I'm going to bring up, her work has been saved, nurtured and shared through subsequent technology like YouTube, Internet discussion, and reissues on CD done by small independents.  Linda's music was used on TV shows and movies over the years, but you never know if the artist benefits financially much or at all.

Judee Sill

Judee Sill, who died in 1979 of a drug overdose at 35, was better known, toured the U.K. twice, opened for major acts like CSN, and released two albums on the groundbreaking Asylum label with recordings already made for a third (it was finally released in 2005).  But the other big acts on that label sucked up all the oxygen, and as a result of little promotion and a tiff with David Geffen, her second LP did little.  She was on a Rolling Stone cover and sold a song to the Turtles ("Lady-O"), but with all that, her life that fell off track after the early deaths of her father, mother and brother and collided with serious drug addiction.  Like Linda, her peers and later critics have given her the awards that matter:  fellow songwriter J.D. Souther said of Judy, "She's school for all of us."  Judy herself said "my music isn't just recreational; it's not just entertainment."

Nick Drake

Englishman Nick Drake's three completely self-authored albums made no impression in the early 1970s.  All were exquisite, and the last was just solo and short (28 minutes).  He seemed to have run out of energy after being so completely ignored and committed suicide while still in his twenties, exactly five years after his first release which was eerily entitled Five Leaves Left.  The title song, "Pink Moon," of the last, spare, album was picked up for a 1999 Volkswagen commercial featuring a convertible ride in the moonlight, and gave him the listeners and reputation he never expected during his life.

To be a hit a song often requires a killer hook, a cheap catchphrase, an irresistible chorus, vocal gymastics or some new/gimmicky electronic sound; obvious tricks musicians like these three avoided.  No garish painted clowns here, no big black cowboy hats, no wigs, no glitter.  Just the real thing.


Friday, January 3, 2014

Long Ago and Far Away

PeeWee Herman as a high school senior.

Despite the picture of sloth around our house depicted in the last episode, we are getting some things done.  Since we're stuck indoors for the winter and have the time, it seems we should get going on cleaning areas out that have needed it for quite a while.  How we accumulated so much stuff in 22 years here, I don't know, but the only way to deal with the almost-hoarding problem is to bite off one piece at a time.  So, with my closet and bedroom storage cabinet done (a little of the stuff donated, but most out by the curb on Sunday night), we turn, with fear and trepidation, to the storage space under the stairs to the basement. 

It has been just too easy to cram the space full and forget about it.  Since wife and son have to agree to the disposition of all these things, they're currently spread out in the basement; just hope they don't stay that way until Spring.  Having cleared out all of my parents' house this summer pretty much solo, I could have it done in a day, but...  We're going to be pretty proud of ourselves when it is done.  Then on to the next target.

Only one surprising thing showed up in all this:  a rather pristine copy of my 1965 high school yearbook, a deadly serious black-and-white volume titled The Historian.  It has nothing written in it, strangely enough.  Of course I had to go through this ancient history, trying to match up names remembered with faces not remembered, with only a few exceptions.  I not only found out a lot I certainly didn't remember; there was a lot more I never knew about, like the breakfast at the Commonwealth Club after senior prom (and who the King and Queen were).  A little late to get on the list or buy a ticket by now, I suppose.

Douglas Freeman High School was only eleven years old when we graduated, but it seemed (and smelled) like it had been there for decades.  The Historian, despite its name, is not much of a record of events: the world outside is almost totally ignored.  The assassination of President Kennedy and the arrival of the Beatles, two events none of us will ever forget, are glaringly absent.  Pictures and statistics of the sad basketball team, however, rate a whole page.   Also shamefully ignored are those classmates who had already died:  one unlucky fellow was killed in Vietnam and one (I only remember his first name, Woodson) had committed suicide.  Why in the world weren't they mentioned?

Speaking of the missing, it appears that those who did not get a picture made (and there were a good many, including me) did not get listed at all.  Some friends I remember probably went to the Catholic schools and a few might have been transferred to the new J.R. Tucker High School, but if not included in the back of some group photo, many just disappeared like someone who had disagreed with some dictatorship.

I'm not in the literary magazine (despite winning a Scholastic Prize for my short but lovely contribution) or the Spanish National Honor Society group pictures.  I probably never heard about the photo appointments because I couldn't attend the meetings -- was required to go straight home after school to babysit the three younger brothers.  The evening meetings I missed because I didn't dare ask for a ride; my parents were upset and angry about all the driving around they had to do to take second and third brothers to all their activities and I couldn't bring myself to ask to be fit in somewhere.

I'd like to meet many of these people today and catch up.  Did they remain the same or hit their stride much later?  Many were from the elite and barring any psychological or other bumps in life, probably followed the course set by their class and family.  I did hear one son of a state senator became a lawyer and legislator himself.  Probably took up golf early in life, too.  Deedee, or Ruth Ellen, who was a hoot back then, is a retired judge in Florida.  I'll bet she had the respect of criminals and lawyers alike! What of the beauties, Connie, Sherry and Mary Lou?  John Old and John Godfrey, really good guys, probably would be great companions today also.  Bill Ragland and Bob Antonelli were the funniest guys around; Bob is not only still that but a great human being too (everyone in Richmond would agree).  Of Bob's bandmate in Morning Disaster, Joe Sheets, (also a sophomore like Bob), I almost hate to know that he's been gone for years now.  But never forgotten; his life is proof that the good often die young.

The yearbook is no portrait at all of this lively, smart and usually irrepressible crowd.   Well, some were egotists, suckups and conformists but it was a much more conservative era (where such personality traits are required for acceptance and success) than people think.  And no one should be judged too much for what they were like at eighteen.  But the people and events in the yearbook are flat and two-dimensional.  There's really  nothing personal, like Mike Boyes' dedicated love of science fiction or Tom's surprising collection of militaria and his dad's WWII letters and artifacts.  Maria R. was deaf and we had one black girl in the class.  Their stories would have been of enduring interest but both were missing.

I had gone through my dad's 1937 yearbook for the first time this summer, and in comparing the two, the old one is superior in every way.  The picture quality, writing, humor, human interest angles and use of then-current slang (everything was "swell") would earn the '37 product an A, and the '65 a D.  There are statements in the Freeman book like, "No Rebel (that is, DSF student) is ever alone."  What the devil does that mean?  The entry about my dad referred to his dealing defeat on the tennis court to all comers, his funny nicknames, and the fact the he was usually in pursuit of "a certain young lady."  Nailed his personality in a few words!

Memory Lane has a few landmines, doesn't it?


Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The New Abnormal

I can't wipe the grin off my (unshaven) face this first day of the new year.   I just called out to N. in the kitchen, who is prepping the New Year's Day feast:  "You realize it's 11:50 in the morning on a weekday and we're still both in our jammies!"  Things changed dramatically in 2013 as the wheel of fate turned ridiculously fast and furiously; three lives ended in our family, N. retired rather suddenly  and the normal routines went out the window.  Those of us left on this plane of existence are sort of stunned.

The normal middle-class life is bound up by school schedules and then work routines.  Saturday is overloaded by all the things you must run around to do that couldn't be done when you're boxed in at work, and with those and other requirements, demands and deadlines.  I, personally, thrive on self-imposed tasks, projects and even deadlines but just want to get those dumped on one by others done and out of the way.  I could scrounge up things to put in the "awards and accomplishments" section of an application or evaluation, but exterior rewards were not important and quickly forgotten.  If you live for these, upon retirement you may feel useless and undirected; I feel more inspired and (completely self-)directed than ever.  Now N. is feeling her way toward a new, and I think, much more exciting, normality rich with opportunity rather than obligation.

One of the things you can rely on is the adage that luck is preparation meeting opportunity.  We have worked pretty diligently on our own thing, apart from obligations and work, to get ready for changes; the timing seems to have worked out.  We are not going to degenerate, despite the appearances of this indolent morning and tapping the extensive wine supply a little more enthusiastically in the evenings.  Rather than the usual boredom experienced on this most empty of supposed holidays, we're feeling the energy in the air that was usually suppressed and hidden by what I call the daily noise.  We weren't home before to see the scarlet cardinal perched on the deck railing each morning devouring his seeds.  Laundry and other chores don't have to be done on busy weekends or tired evenings, and I don't hate going to the grocery store anymore since we usually pick an off time.  The traffic around here goes nuts at 3 p.m. due to the many school and government employees fleeing their parking lots, so we head home by 2:55.  We laughed ourselves silly the first time we had dinner at 4:30.

No, we're not going to turn inward, hate the future and watch Fox News.  Despite what we see in the mirror, we're going to be young again, without the school or work or complicated income taxes (standard deduction with little record keeping, a postage stamp and we're done now) or totally insufficient income of youth.   We toy with ideas like moving to a warm place with citrus and palm trees, or getting a new Tesla, since we actually already have an unused 240V electric line to charge it (OK, that's just me), but realize we still need to keep our bearings.  Dreaming's free, as the song said.

Doors close, doors open; change swirls around and through us.  The old Zen master summed up all the teaching about how to deal with life in one command:  "Pay attention!" 

But no one said you can't have the last laugh while you're doing that.