Ah, Halloween. All-Hallow's Eve. Feralia. Samhain. Call it what you will, but whatever you call it, you have to admit it's the beginning of a most magical time of year.
To the Pagan Druids of Ireland and Scotland, this was the beginning of the New Year; the end of Summer and of the harvest season, when the world prepared to sleep until the spring. As such, it was a time when the laws of nature and physics (such as they were known at the time) faltered, allowing the veil between the physical and spirit worlds to part. A time when hearth fires were extinguished to make homes unwelcome to the lingering spirits of the dead, then later rekindled in preparation for the long winter nigthts ahead.
What today in our calendar is October 31st/November 1st lies midway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice, the one day of the year when the ancients believed the border between the lands of the living and of the dead could be transversed. As the beginning of the Celtic New Year, this was also the time when people focused on their plans and aspirations for the coming year; it was a time for telling fortunes, for predicting the future, and for cleansing away of the mistakes of the past.
The Catholics of course completely altered the concept of Samhain (pronounced sow-en) in their efforts to sublimate Pagan traditions to those of the Church, with the result that the Druidic rituals were transmuted into the more familiar "All Hallow's Eve" and "All Saints Day" (the 31st & 1st respectively), wherein the honoring of spirits of the departed ancestral dead was replaced by veneration of the no-less-dead Saints, both known and unknown.
Regardless of the origin, history or actual purpose of these rituals, this particular holiday holds an extra-special place in my oh-so-NOT-religious little heart because tomorrow, November 1st also happens to be my birthday. Ironic isn't it, being born on the one day out of the year devoted to Death. But, perhaps that in itself grants me a special license by virtue of being able to honor both life and death simultaneously, in celebration of the eternal cycle by way of which each is simply one side of the same coin.
As a culture, we tend to fear death; we are obsessed with the idea, not only of not dying, but of retaining some semblence of our youth and outward beauty for as long as possible. But, when you look at some 50 year-old botox/collagen/silicone enhanced banshee who looks like she's had enough skin removed from under her eyes or chin or wherever to cover an entire other human being, just to maintain her state of denial for a few more years -- doesn't it make you wonder? And let's not forget those guys out there with their plugs and inplants and liposuction, and penile enhancements -- do they REALLY think that's what beauty is? It's really not even about trying to preserve ones physical appearance, it's really all about a futile attempt to stave off the symptoms of ageing, which are a constant reminder of our own mortality.
So, this time of the year always strikes me in kind of a funny way. While I get to add another digit to my age and contemplate what that means in the bigger scheme of things, everyone around me is running around in silly costumes, pretending for one evening out of the year that death is a cool thing, so that they can blithely ignore it for the remaining 364. Or is that really how it works? Maybe they don't even give it that much thought, considering how Halloween, like every other holiday of consequence in the good ole' US of A has been co-opted and marginalized into just another glorified shopping spree. Halloween is now one of the biggest days of the year in terms of retail sales, what with all the Fun-Pak candy bars, costumes, masks, party supplies, alcohol and you-name-it that people will be snatching up today. I went into a local costume supply store yesterday afternoon to pick up a couple of make up supplies, and there were roughly 150 people standing in line waiting to make purchases. Hands down, it'll be the busiest day of the year for this establishment, and presumably there are a lot of other similar stories out there as well. Good for them, but that's not really what this or any other holiday for that matter is supposed to be about -- is it?
Okay, enough with the ranting. Maybe I'm just jealous that Madison Avenue has finally gotten its insidious clutches into Halloween, and I'm just whining because it steals some of the thunder from what I've (unreasonably) considered MY day (well, except for the one person I know whose birthday actually IS today -- Happy B-D Ms. Kipp!).
See you at Ghosty tonight. You can buy me a drink after Midnight -- oh, wait. I'll be the bartender!
During the past several weeks, while The Big Red Rocket has been undergoing cosmetic surgury, I've been relegated to a daily regimen of combined walking and busing to get to my day job. Normally, this time of year the skies would have been bursting forth with torrents of rain (as indeed they are today -- with a vengeance), making even brief attempts at sojurning into the great outdoors a process that would rival the ministrations of a NASA clean room crew outfitting an Apollo astronaut. In addition to the standard work uniform undergarment, this usually involves a layer of persperation-wicking material covered by a water-repellent laywer of gortex or similar space-age fabric, hat, some sort of waterproof boots or overshoes, and when things get really cold and nasty, gloves and scarves. The end result of all this layering is that one is drastically encumbered and somewhat restricted in movement, not to mention the fact that the least amount of physical exersion produces moderate to copious amounts of sweat, which despite the wicking layer, tends to get trapped by the outer water resistent layer, and is recirculated throughout the inner layers, leaving everying damp and musty. Plus, once you actually get to work, you normally don't have enough places to hang everything in the vain hope that it will all somehow dry out by 5:00 p.m., when you have to put everything back on again in a repeat of the earlier process.
The alternative of course is to simply forget walking altogether and opt for the easier, albeit less healthful bus ride, in which case the opportunity for exercise is tossed completely by the wayside in favor of comfort.
But, now of course the entire "walk or bus" paradigm is complicated by the fact that The BRR is once again road-worthy, meaning that the real issue becomes one of time; do I spend 30 minutes waiting for and riding the bus to get to work, or do I cut that down to 7 minutes by driving? For the moment, either choice involves the additional complication of having to get onto another bus regardless, since we still have picket lines established in front of our office, and so we can't simply drive into the parking lot like normal employees (and after being forced to do exactly this once last week when by an unfortunate coincidence about 100 very angry, very abusive union protesters converged on me and The BRR, I can say it's something I would rather not repeat).
I always feel a bit guilty about driving to work. Under normal conditions it usually takes me less than 40 minutes to walk the two plus miles from boat to office, but that means getting up 30 minutes earlier, and even after more than five years at an 8-to-5 job, I still have not developed a circadian rhythm that comes anywhere close to being the equivalent of that of a "morning person". I like to sleep in; I do my best work between 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., and the temptation to lounge in bed for even a few additional minutes is something I have just never managed to build up the discipline to resist. Besides, who really enjoys walking in the wet and wind when it's dark as Hades outside? Or sitting on a crowded, smelly, exhale-fogging-up-the-windows rattletrap Metro bus for the equivalent of what would be two round trips in nice, warm (!) snuggly BRR, with NPR on the FM and a double-short, skinny from the drivethrough in the cup holder? Is that too much to ask?
Besides, I NEED to drive, so I can start getting used to these dang-nabbed new bifocals...
Yesterday evening at 6:00 p.m. Pacific Time, The People's Republic of China launched their first manned space mission, sending a Chinese "Taikonaut" on a 21 hour orbital flight
Launched from the Jiuquan Space Center on one of China's 2F "Long March" boosters, the Shenzhou 5 capsule is now about to re-enter the earth's atmosphere, and will parachute to a touchdown about 500 miles west of Beijing.
Obviously, the space shuttle program has launched dozens of astronauts from scores of foreign nations, but China now becomes only the third nation with independent manned space launch capability.
38 year-old Air Force Colonel Yang Liwei was selected from a dozen finalists to take the historic flight, joining Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn as the first representatives from their respective nations to orbit the earth in one-person vehicles.
The Shenzhou ("heavenly vessel") is an upgraded version of Russia's workhorse Soyuz capsule design with some interesting modifications:
The most intriguing of which is that the instrument package (the forward end of the stack) has its own set of solar panels providing the module with a separate power supply, which allows it to operate as an independent satellight once it is jettisoned from the crew/re-entry module. Basically, this gives the Chinese the ability to simultaneously launch manned missions with small payload packages that can remain in orbit after the mission is completed, something not even the Russians can do at this point.
Many experts have criticized this program, due to its obvious military implications, as well as for using essentially "old school" hardware. However, as anyone who knows even the smallest inkling about the Chinese mentality recognizes that if ever there was a nation that adhered to the adage that, "slow and steady wins the race", they're the ones to do it. And if their announced long-range goals for lunar landings and a possible manned lunar mission by 2010 are any indication, it's entirely possible today's launch could herald the beginning of a new "space race", whether either the U.S. or Russia chooses to participate or not.
Considering the 40 mph gusts threatening to tear my rain tarp to shreds, and getting bounced around like a Mexican jumping bean on a trampoline, it was a very productive day.
-- Two loads laundry
-- Grocery Shopping
-- Trip to storage locker to swap work clothes & check mail
-- Cooked enough food for the next five days (Lamb Tika Masala, Vegetable Pilli Pilli, Rice Biryani, and Chicken Marsala)
-- Vacuumed and dusted
-- Repaired rain tarp - in the middle of Windstorm 2003!
-- Called BOTH parents
-- Watched two sporting events -- this is so NOT me!
Thing Not accomplished:
-- Didn't win lottery
-- Neglected to take a shower
-- Failed to bail out dinghy or kayak
Such a rarity we're enjoying right now -- an actual autumn, rather than our usual Northwestern "today it's 75 and sunny, tomorrow 55 and drizzly, and it will remain like that for the next six months" pattern of weather.
After our surprisingly temperate summer, I suppose it's to be expected; after all, it seems that for us lucky folks in the upper left-hand corner at least, "global warming" may have some (temporary no doubt) benefits.
The shift has been gradual, but not imperceptible. The air is cooling at night, leaves are turning brown. The sidewalks in some neighborhoods are littered with the spent husks of fallen chestnuts. It's damp and dark and the sky is full of fluffy gray clouds that hug the terrain like a big feather blanket. It's still a little disconcerting getting up before daylight, and once we shift back to Standard Time, we'll have to confront the inevitability of darkness for all but a fleeting few hours during the day. But for now, it's just pleasant to feel the changes: savoring the fading warmth of the sun as it peeks through the overcast, like a window shopper momentarily distracted by the latest fashion display; watching exhallations congeal around your face like smoke; feeling the tropical chill of rosy cheeks burned by the wind as you walk to work; taking in deep draughts of air that smells like the world has been run through the "delicates" cycle.
It's an in-between time, not yet the miserable, seemingly ceaselessly chilling torrents of November and December, but just enough of a taste of what's in store to make you want to prepare. Pull the sweaters out of storage, make sure the gloves still match, spritz an extra shot of "Camp Dry" on the hats, and reproof the oilskin duster.
Time to get out the crockpot and make soups and stews. Time for hot toddies, herbal teas and cocoa with marshmallows. Time for walks through quiet, wet places where even the birds are hunkered down in sheltered spaces. Time to think about weighty things. Time to slumber, to hibernate, to enfold yourself in the warm wraps of a quilted cocoon until spring returns and it's time to emerge from the chrysalis, refreshed and full of hope and color.