Things My Mother Said

Eleanor May Hastings, my Mom, grew up in south-central Missouri, a hilly backwoods area of the country known as “the Ozarks.”  Although it’s entirely unclear why “Ozarks” is plural (no one having discovered more than the one “Ozark”,) the denizens-of-the-Ozarks’ unique culture and singular ways of speechifying lend themselves to endearing and often preposterous expressions.

Growing up in my mother’s house, my two younger brothers and I were often treated to spontaneous colloquialisms whenever she felt moved to communicate emotions like exasperation or frustration, or just the urge to colorfully articulate an opinion.  Believe me; we three gave her ample occasion to express herself.  Here is my collection, the result of much recollection and soul-searching on the part of my brothers, Scott and Steve, and a nephew or two:

“Damnable damnations!!”  (Keep in mind, Mom is a “devout” Catholic, and thereby prevented from uttering any really profound blasphemies or curses…hence, the double exclamation points…)

“What a revolting development!” put a fine point on her disappointment with us.

“Heavens to Murgatroyd!”  Although I might be conflating this saying with a famous catch phrase of Snagglepuss, a 60s’ cartoon character, Mom surely heard this when it was uttered by Bert Lahr in the 1944 film, “Meet the People.”  It certainly sounds like something she’d say…

An especially chilly day in the middle of winter was usually described as “colder than a well-digger’s heinie.”  I suggest you look it up, if you’re curious.

If it was an especially dark night, or cave (Missouri is riddled with them), or movie theater, it was “darker than the inside of a well-digger’s heinie.”  Pretty dark, huh?  (Editor’s Note:  also not politically correct, but WWI was a long time ago, so you Krauts should just get over it…)

“You are slower than molasses in January” was usually combined with “will you please hurry up and get your socks and shoes on?”

“That smells to High Heaven!”  Supposedly this refers to the Third Heaven where God resides, so that is one lofty odor…

“Where in the world (did you find that; get so filthy; do you think you are going; etc.)”  Matt Lauer and Waldo should be aware of possible copyright infringement…

Where did Mother get her innate talent and deep reservoir of sayings, you may wonder?  Consider this cute expression her father was fond of saying when ticked-off at a neighbor:  “Go fry yer ass…”

…and my favorite regional sentiment regarding the pervasiveness of something in the general area (such as Starbucks coffee shops, or bass fishermen:)  “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a (fill in the blank.)”  Now back to the hilarity…

“Like trying to herd cats” was usually employed when attempting to gather we wee ones for a car trip.  If you’ve tried it, you know.

The definitive retort to a childish “I don’t like you:”  “I’m not trying to win a popularity contest!”

“People in Hell want ice water!”  One her many references to The Place Where Bad Catholics Go, this gem usually followed a complaint by me, and preceded the outburst which generated the slam-dunk “I’m not trying to win a popularity contest!”  Got that?  (See above.)

My Mom’s Dad was a good, bad driver who would careen around rural Missouri’s gravel roads at 60-plus miles per well into his “senior years.”  A car ride with Grandpa was aptly described as “hanging on for dear life!”

Mom would colorfully depict over-lengthy Sunday sermons, boring movies, and visits by long-winded acquaintances equally as “longer than a month of Sundays.”

The moonless, night sky was often termed “darker than the Black Hole of Calcutta.”  Presumably, the Black Hole was a dungeon with no windows; how Mom knows of it is anybody’s guess.  (Cross-reference: Well digger’s heinie, see above.)

Speediness has a rather randy equivalent expression:  “faster than a March hare in heat.”  Something to think about.

“He is blacker than the ace of spades.”  Not politically correct, perhaps, but descriptive.   (Recall that Missouri was a Confederate State…Go Rebs…)

“I swear you would try the patience of Job.”  Of course, this is Job of Bible fame: Job lost his sons, his livestock, and his complexion and still kept his patience with God.  Do you get some idea, now, how much we got on my mother’s nerves?

“When Hell freezes over.”  As in: “I’ll let you buy a motorcycle when…”  Similar to “It’ll be a cold day in Hell…” but, presumably, the latter is more likely given the recent shift in global weather. However, the chance of Hell actually freezing solid is fairly remote; I think we all will agree…

“Good riddance to bad rubbish” was frequently uttered within ear shot of me and my friends upon leaving the house – fondly, of course.

When faced with, for example, a questionable color choice in a friend’s clothing, Mom would opine, “There’s no accounting for taste, like the old woman who kissed the cow.”  The moral:  Taste, like selecting which farm animal to buss, is purely subjective.

“Why on God’s Green Earth…” questioned various motivations in our young lives.

In July and August in the Midwest, Mom would unfailingly state the obvious:  “It’s hotter than the Hinges of Hades.”  Hell hath no fury like an overheated woman.

“It takes all kinds to make a world!” is seemingly a paean to multiculti values, but more likely an expression of frustration at the shortcomings of another…without judgment…of course…

WARNING:  Content may be unsuitable for children and sensitive individuals.  The following naked threat came without warning, whenever I reached across the dinner table in front of her plate to pick up the ketchup (for example:)  “Do you want to draw back a bloody stump?”

“I don’t give a tinker’s damn!”  (Insert meaning here.)

Then there’s the self-explanatory, “There’s enough dirt in your ears to grow corn!”…

…and the entirely incomprehensible, “Heavenly days and catnip tea!”

And, finally:  “Life’s too short” to sweat the small stuff.

We love you, Mom.

Christmas Memories

Take this little Christmas quiz:

Santa Claus first appeared as the Elf-master icon of Christmas we all recognize today in what year?

A.  1931

B.  1492

C.  1776

If you guessed A. 1931, you’re right:  Santa Claus as we know him was first drawn by illustrator Haddon Sundblom as an advertising image for The Coca-Cola Company in that year, believe or not.  Far earlier than that, Santa has his true origins in German paganism in the form of the god Odin, among other things the leader of the Wild Hunt, a supernatural procession of ghosts in the sky occurring each year during the winter celebration of Yule.  According to the Dictionary of Northern Mythology, “With the Christianization of Germanic Europe, numerous traditions were absorbed from Yuletide celebrations into modern Christmas.”

Which begs the question:  What other traditions of men do we observe in the guise of celebrating Jesus’ birthday on December 25th each year?  We should probably keep in mind as we go through these the instruction in Revelation 22 verse 18 (easy to find:  it’s the last page of the Bible):  “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book…”  Caveat emptor.

Was Jesus even born on December 25th?  As the British would say, not bloody likely.  An easy estimate can be made of his approximate birth date by reading the account of the timing of his birth:  “And she (Mary) brought forth her firstborn son…And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.”[1]  No shepherd in his right mind would be tending his flock in the open in the middle of December in the Middle East, which is the same latitude as the United States.  Simply put, Jesus probably was born no later than September or October.

So, whose birthday is historically associated with 25th of December?  Not the Son of God, it turns out, but the Sun God.  The Romans celebrated Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun” on December 25.

This holiday followed the  Saturnalia, an ancient Roman festival in honor of the god, Saturn.  The Saturnalia anticipated the winter solstice when daylight began to lengthen, and was celebrated with abundant candles, gift-giving, continual partying and a carnival atmosphere.  An early Roman poet called it “the best of times.”

Sound familiar?

“Learn not the way of the heathen…  For the customs of the people are vain:  for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with an axe.  They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and hammers, that it move not.”[2]

We can once again thank the Germans for bringing us the symbol of the Christmas tree, which until the 19th century was strictly a symbol of German culture.  Its origins, again, are much earlier:

According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime.”[3]

Don’t get me wrong:  I’m all for feeding and sheltering birds in the winter.

The use of mistletoe also has its origins in the misty mystical myths and superstitions of the ancient pagan past.  In cultures across pre-Christian Europe, mistletoe was seen as a representation of divine male essence (and thus romance, fertility and vitality).  Hm.  It is thought that this association with virility may have led to the practice of kissing under a sprig of mistletoe when the Roman state religion adopted the ancient symbolism after the third century AD.

Besides, its great fun at the office Christmas party.

(I have pledged to myself and my friend, Boosie Vox (her radio-personality pseudonym), I will attempt to reduce the number of words contained in my sometimes necessarily wordy blog posts.  Hence, I will wrap it up, believing I have made the point…)

…that virtually no part of the Christmas holiday tradition has any remote association with the Bible, Jesus’ teachings or example, or any thing other than an assembly of practices which long predate the advent of Christianity, and therefore can’t have any real significance in following the Way, as Jesus referred to himself.

Except giving, perhaps, with no thought of return.

Merry Dies Natalis.

1. Luke 2:7, 8
2. Jeremiah 10:2-4
3. “Christmas Tree” 2012

Thanksgiving Memories

I’m reading a book about the “First Thanksgiving.”  Turns out, there was no turkey. No cranberry sauce.  No sweet potatoes.  No pecan pie.  No pumpkin pie.  No whipped cream. There were Indians present, Wampanoags, outnumbering the English settlers roughly two-to-one. They killed five deer and donated the meat to the feast, probably to round out the main dish, sobaheg.  The Native American stew consisted of

“…boiled maize or Indian corn, mixed with kidney beans, or sometimes without.  Also, they frequently boil in this pottage fish and flesh of all sorts, either taken fresh or newly dried….These they cut in pieces, bones and all, and boil them….Also they boil in this furmenty all sorts of flesh that they take in hunting, as venison, beaver, bear’s flesh, moose, otters, raccoons…several sorts of roots, as Jerusalem artichokes, and ground nuts….and squashes.”[1]

Rather than a celebration of plenty, the Native Americans and the settlers were engaged in a diplomatic dance, testing the waters of mutual trust and support in the face of great hardship.  The Indians were threatened by warring neighboring tribes and disease epidemics; the settlers were in dire straights due to the privations of sickness, hunger, exposure and all that goes with trying to carve an existence out of a strange and hostile environment.  “The feast was one of a whole series of meetings at which the English (settlers) and the Wampanoags tried to establish good relations.”

In short, they came together because they needed each other to survive.

The myth of the “First Thanksgiving” is an example of what historians have come to call “the invention of tradition.”  What we call “Thanksgiving Day” today bears little in common with the meeting in 1621 it supposedly commemorates.  In fact, the English (and Native Americans) had a long history of formally giving thanks for the year’s crop and other events looked on as favor from God.  Equally important to them was the regular practice of humbling themselves through fasting and prayer when things were going south.  Not coincidentally, a solemn day of thanksgiving often followed the self-imposed act of humiliating themselves before God, preferably by fasting rather than feasting.  The reason for thanksgiving?  It started to rain after a drought.  An overdue supply ship suddenly arrived.  The epidemic ended.  In other words, their prayers were answered.

So, the national holiday we celebrate every November on the fourth Thursday of the month (a change by President Roosevelt in 1939 to accommodate retailers’ desire to begin raking in Christmas holiday dollars as early as possible) brings families together to share a sumptuous meal and watch football on television, enjoying parades and time off from work.  Apart from the obligatory saying of “grace” before the meal in most Catholic homes, our modern Day of Thanksgiving entirely misses the point of the historical practice of acknowledging God as the source of our good fortune and bounty as individuals and as a nation.  As politically incorrect as it is to say today, good fortune and bounty are just words implying blessings from God.

Today, the only public acknowledgement of gratefulness for God’s blessings occurs regularly, by rote, about 11:30 a.m. every Sunday – in church (or Friday or Saturday at the mosque or synagogue, respectively.)  This is the definition of lip service.

Giving thanks to God once was a central feature of our cultural mien.  Not only preachers, but everyone from statesmen to street sweepers spoke confidently and comfortably about the graciousness of God in their public and private lives.  We know cultures ancient and more modern incorporated giving thanks to the deity as a way of life, uninhibited and unembarrassed by the show of genuine emotion of gratefulness.

Two years after the “First Thanksgiving,” the English settlers at Plymouth experienced a drastic crop failure caused by an extended drought.  A supply ship from England was long overdue and presumed lost at sea.  Edward Winslow, one of their leaders, recorded they were moved to “humble ourselves before the Lord by fasting and prayer.”  It began to rain the next day, and continued for another two weeks.  Within days, Myles Standish arrived with fresh provisions from the coast of Maine, bringing word the supply ship due from England had not been lost at sea, and would be arriving soon.  Winslow wrote, “So that having these many signs of God’s favor and acceptation we thought it would be great ingratitude, if secretly we should smother up the same, or content ourselves with private thanksgiving for that which by private prayer could not be obtained.  And therefore another solemn day was set apart and appointed for that end, wherein we returned glory, honor and praise, with all thankfulness, to our God, which dealt so graciously with us.”

Likewise, the colonies of Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut kept both days of fasting and humiliation, and days of thanksgiving (small T.)  According to records of Reverend William Love, thanksgivings were held for the arrival of ships in 1631, twice in 1632, and again twice in 1633.

The Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1782, as the nation began its heady march into the  future, proclaimed another meaningful thanksgiving:

“It being the indispensable duty of all Nations, not only to offer up their supplications to ALMIGHTY GOD, the giver of all good, for his gracious assistance in a time of distress, but also in a solemn and public manner to give him praise for his goodness in general, and especially for great and signal interpositions of his providence in their behalf…”

In 1789, George Washington issued the first official National Thanksgiving Proclamation, exhorting Americans to express their gratitude to God “in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us” further stating that “it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.”   No mention of the Macy’s parade.

Thanksgiving Day as we celebrate it today came by way of presidential proclamation resulting from the unswerving dedication by Sarah Josepha Hale to create a national festival to rival the Fourth of July.  Hale saw the new holiday as a unifying influence on the nation growing more divisive by the day leading up to the Civil War.  She lobbied continuously for its establishment until, finally, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday in 1864.  For her part, Hale called upon “the people of the States and Territories [to] sit down together to ‘feast of fat things’ and drink in the sweet draught of joy and gratitude to the Divine giver of all our blessings…”  Lincoln referred to “the gracious gifts of the Most High God…They should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged.”  The last Thursday of November was proclaimed as a day of thanksgiving and praise “to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”

The “First Thanksgiving” probably included a prayer of thanks prior to the meal,  as both the English settlers and the Indians were aware of their place in the cosmos:  mere human beings subject to and dependent on a greater, higher power.  Their concepts of this higher power were clearly different, but each recognized their indebtedness to it for whatever grace they enjoyed in life.

Our modern celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday bears little resemblance to this gathering in 1621.  What also bears little resemblance in this day and age is the way we profess our gratitude to God.  In the not too distant past, and for time immemorial, cultures openly and unabashedly expressed sincere thanks to God for blessings as a matter of course.  However, there has been a palpable shift in our willingness to acknowledge God in the way our ancestors did.  This is the tradition of our forefathers that needs to be recaptured.

Let’s once again begin to give credit where credit is due, and see if there comes some acknowledgement of our effort in return.

1.  All quotes are from A Great and Godly Adventure by Godfrey Hodgson, Public Affairs, 2006.

Enough About Me

Most people would consider themselves unique and wholly different from the other 7,108,523,000 plus individuals on the planet (as of 0715 PDT on September 1, 2013.  It’s hard to be more precise as the world population is increasing by two every second…)  And you would have good reason to feel that way.  We are, in fact, islands in the stream of humanity, each with our own singular personalities and different fingerprints.  We have our personal histories, past, present and future.  No two people, even identical twins, share the same genes, or style of jeans, for that matter.  As my dear old Mother would say:  “It takes all kinds to make a world.”

This got me thinking about the extraordinary aspects of my own life.  I play guitar; a lot of people play guitar, and a lot better than I do.  I can play the first few bars of “Over the Rainbow” on a Theremin, again, not well, but…can you?  Very few people, a literal handful, can make music on a Theremin because of the challenge of using fine muscle movements to find musical pitches in the air separated by fractions of an inch.  So that’s something that begins to define who I am relative to you and the other 7,108,525,800 (0733 PDT) meat bags on Earth.

What else can I claim as special, without sounding a braggadocio or bloated with ego?  There might be a few things to mention…

When I was about five, my Dad took me to a men’s clothing store, then known as a haberdashery (great word.)  This was in Kansas City, Missouri, in about 1956.  Although I was too young to know at the time, this store was undoubtedly Eddie Jacobson’s Westport Menswear owned by President Harry S. Truman’s old friend and former business partner, Eddie Jacobson.  (He and Harry owned a haberdashery in the nineteen teens.)

How can I make that leap?  I met Mr. Truman that day in the store.  I don’t know if it was coincidence, or my dad (who was very connected in the Westport area of Kansas City) knew he would be there that day.  Too young to be impressed at the time, I have since thought long about this episode:  I shook hands with the man who was directly responsible for the death of an estimated 105,000 souls, and the injury of 94,000 others by atomic bombing.

Much later in my life, I moved with my young family to Oregon, where, armed with a college degree in Biology and Chemistry, I went to work in the woods as a tree planter.  Wait, what?  Yes, I planted trees for three “seasons” (read “winters”) to make a living.  The experience made a man out of me:  my chest size increased two inches with accompanying upper body development from the continuous strenuous exercise of walking and swinging a hoedad.  I ate like two horses, and collapsed into bed every night, asleep and dreamless before my head hit the pillow.  The best part of the job was exiting the crummy every morning of the work week and smelling the pure fragrance of the Douglas fir forest.  Then the fun began.

The “fun” involved bagging upwards of 1,000 fir seedlings in vinyl bags carried on the hips.  This was repeated several times throughout the work day.  My fellow misfits and me (one had a wooden prosthetic leg, believe it or not) would then set out on the hillside walking and planting side-hill 8 feet apart in a precisely spaced grid.  Interestingly, for my Biology senior term paper back in deciduous forested Missouri, I wrote a diatribe condemning the horrors of monotonous monoculture forests, just like I ended up creating a few short months later in Oregon.

I was a poor planter in the beginning, but as my strength and endurance grew, I became one of the better “reforestation engineers” as we liked to call ourselves.  Another interesting side note:  Loggers hated tree planters.  We were not manly enough, or brave enough, or smelly enough or something.  We didn’t run the risk of accidentally cutting off our leg with a chain saw, and having to carry it out of the woods with us to the hospital.  And yet I planted trees in a wind storm when 150 foot tall trees were falling in the stand next to us; I lost my footing and tumbled ass over tea kettle 100 feet into a ravine; and, to this day I can still feel the pain of an errant twig branch sliding into my left ear canal and piercing my eardrum.  Not brave enough my tea kettle.

What I remember as the touchstone of my tree planting career is planting whole hillsides alone for days on end, known as “floating.”  I work best alone.  I am a confirmed lone wolf and do not play well with others.  Floating suited me perfectly.  I have suffered derision by stating that I like to be alone with my thoughts, rather than listen to headbanger music on a construction site.  Oh well.  Mother again:  “To each his own, like the old woman who kissed the cow.”  I don’t get it either, but it seems apt…

So what do I take from this experience that sets me apart just a bit?  Over those brief planting excursions, I planted an estimated 250,000 Douglas fir trees.  For dramatic effect, that’s a quarter of a million.  A lot.  More than your typical Arbor Day outing.  And, probably, more than you.

But I’m not bragging…

Unlike Chuck Norris, however, I have never counted to infinity, twice.  Once took far too long, and I have other things to do.

Like train your average citizen in Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation, a.k.a. CPR.  In the early seventies, like 1970, I and another orderly working at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City were the only two people in the house who knew CPR.  CPR was in its infancy, having been born in the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.  The basic technique had been worked out:  blow air into the lungs to oxygenate the blood, then push on the chest over the heart to “pump” the blood to the brain, heart and kidneys to keep them alive until definitive life support could be brought to bear.  It worked.  My friend, Ron Lewis, and I would respond from our stations on the wards to the Emergency Room when we heard “Code Blue” announced over the PA.  Snatching the “crash cart” with all the supplies from the ER, we’d make our way as quickly as possible up the elevators and to the room where the cardiac arrest patient was lying in bed.  Alone.  He and I would routinely be the first to arrive, followed shortly by the doctors on call and the floor nurses.  Ron and I would tag team each other doing CPR; this was before the two-person technique was developed.

Eventually, I was asked to instruct the nursing staff in the techniques Ron and I had learned by doing.  We were not “certified” to perform CPR, much less teach it.  But that didn’t stop us from doing our duty.  The worst part of the whole experience?  We didn’t have a practice manikin.  Ron and I were best friends as well as work mates, thank God, because I would have to routinely lock lips with him demonstrating rescue breathing.  I remember that like I remember the ear piercing…

In subsequent years I became an American Heart Association Instructor, training many, many people in the life-saving skill.  An educated guess might be 3,000.  As an EMT for 12 years I performed CPR on real people, locking lips before the AIDS epidemic changed everything, perhaps 300 times.  As I never followed up on “my” patients as a stress management tool, I have no idea who survived or who succumbed.

On a related note:  I rescued Stevie, my youngest brother, from the bottom of our swimming pool when he was just a tyke.  My parents were having a patio pool party; Stevie slipped in unnoticed.  I happened to look into the pool and saw him looking up at me wide-eyed three feet down.  There was no drama, fanfare or emergency services.  Besides me and Stevie, I don’t remember anybody noticing.

On a college field trip to the Missouri outback, Mr. Driscoll, my ex-cop Physiology professor began experiencing chest pain.  Over the next several hours, he entrusted me with the whereabouts of his weapon, a loaded pistol, and had me drive him to the nearest medical center 80 miles away at high-speed in his vehicle in the middle of the night.  I felt pretty good about that level of trust; he was a cop, and I was a long-haired college student.  Do the math.

I’ve done some pretty stupid stuff, too, in my attempt to get as far from the madding crowd as possible:  I’ve scuba dived with sharks sleeping in a cave, went looking for a reported family of sharks, alone, and induced my wife to pet a sleeping nurse shark on the tail.  We lived to dive another day, unlike the nurse shark that reacted to being touched by a 14-year-old boy in Florida by latching onto his torso with a death grip which could only be treated by killing the innocent shark.

I also thought it was sui generis to dive in Hawaii during a tsunami alert.  Naked.

By now you’re probably humming an old Patsy Cline/Willie Nelson tune in your head…  “Crazy…”

There are undoubtedly more examples of my inimitable endeavor to be…myself, but I might be bordering on the boring, so I’ll close for now with this final anecdote:

What is the one truly unique aspect that completely separates me from the herd, the standout and unequaled fortuity for which I can take credit as the exclusive, exceptional and singular achievement on the planet?

My son, Jake, world citizen 3,869,000,001, give or take.