Thursday, April 30, 2009

On courage

My nephew, Justin, has always loved to shop. A number of years ago, when Justin was about nine or ten, I was visiting my sister's family, and she needed to pick something up at the local Lowe's. Justin wanted to come along, since he knew that there was a Wal-Mart right next to Lowe's, and had some money burning a hole in his pocket.

Pam told him that this was just a quick trip--she was just going to run in, get what she needed at Lowe's, and head straight home. So, there wouldn't be time for a Wal-Mart trip. Justin thought about that for a second, then announced that he was old enough to go to the Wal-Mart by himself while Pam and I went to Lowe's.

Pam weighed the possibility. Justin is developmentally disabled, so she wasn't sure that this was such a great idea. But she was willing to try it, too.

So, we all piled into the car and drove into town. Pam pulled up to the doors at Wal-Mart to drop Justin off as he peered out the car window, looking a little anxious. "Are you sure you want to do this? How do you feel about it?" she asked.

"I'm scared, but I'm going in," he replied, then leaped out of the car.

That phrase has since become an oft-used family saying. We Hathaways are not known for our boldness. But courage--the ability to weigh desire against fear and plunge ahead--is another matter. Justin's motto summed it up perfectly for us.

I'm thinking about this saying today because my sister used it last night when I called her in advance of the breast-cancer surgery she's having this afternoon. "I'm scared, but I'm going in," she said. Courage.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Cake Wrecks bump

Ours is a small-time blog. And we're fine with that. We here at Romantoes have never had any pretensions about "monetizing" our blog...frankly, we're just glad that a few folks actually bother to read and comment at all.

Last weekend Jen over at Cake Wrecks was kind enough to refer her readers here for a summary of the theories that people threw out about the origins and significance of the smoking-lamb cake that she featured on her blog before Easter. I knew Cake Wrecks had a lot of readers, and for sure, we got more (and more varied) comments on that post than we usually get, so I knew that more folks than usual were reading as a result of her shout-out.

Still, I have to say I was astounded when I got on Site Meter to check our numbers for the week. On the Friday I posted that particular blog, we had 87 hits, which are great numbers for us. On the next day--after the Cake Wrecks link went live--we had 1,672 hits. The next day, it was 1,754. The average number hits per day was over 900.

Meanwhile, a sad little note at the bottom of the Site Meter summary page reminds me that when we joined Site Meter a year ago, four months after we'd started our blog, we'd had a whopping total of "405 visitors before joining." That means we had twice as many visitors per day this week than we had for the entire first four months of blogging.

Now I get why blogging is seen as a real threat to the print-journalism industry. I honestly don't think I would've had that reality driven home quite so clearly without having been the grateful and humbled recipient of the "Cake Wrecks bump."

Still, I like our loyal readers best.

And because you all are so patient, please indulge me once again by allowing me to post a Cake Wreck of my own. I sent photos of this to Jen last fall. My wreck never made the big time, perhaps because it's a little too "local" of a wreck.

The backstory: Morgantown residents are oddly proud of the fact that, after contentious football games (win or lose), students enjoy setting couches alight in the street. Now, I've lived in several college towns, and this behavior is not, unfortunately, unique to Morgantown. However, Morgantown is the only place I've lived that actually embraces couch-burning as a revered tradition.

So revered, in fact, that the creative folks at the Kroger bakery decided to immortalize it in pastry. And thus we have the Burning-Couch Cake:

And yes, I did buy it just to take photos of it and send it to Cake Wrecks. And yes, I know that's pathetic.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

You Must Change Your Life

I was teaching Kim Stanley Robinson's wonderful novel Icehenge this week--it really is one of the great books. (Actually, I also--in another class--started teaching Samuel R Delany's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, also from 1984--both books may well be better than Gibson's Neuromancer, but no matter how you slice it, it was a remarkable year for sf.) So, anyway, there at the end of the middle section, the narrator, Hjalmar Nederland, quotes the line that I've used as the title of this post.

One step ahead of (some of) my students, I typed it into Google, and found out it was the final phrase of this poem, by Rainer Maria Rilke. Now Hjalmar Nederland, in Robinson's book, is a sorry figure of a man, an academic archeologist incapable of having a successful human encounter. And he believes that archeology is the only route of action for a real, angry revolutionary like him, even while he's carrying on an affair with the spokesman for the Committee, which is who Nederland wants to overthrow with his archeological radicalism. And he busily searches the archives to prove the case he wishes to make, falls in love with a woman he knows only from a 300-year-old autobiography, goes on a solo expedition to the Martian outback to try to find her, and nearly kills himself in the attempt. And he comes back and quotes Rilke to himself: "You must change your life."

And, as far as we ever know, he never manages to change his life. And I certainly hope I'm not a Hjalmar Nederland (medievalist vs. archeologist--no comparison!). But man, changing your life. That's a tall order, archaic torso of Apollo.

Friday, April 10, 2009

"Since when is Easter a jokey holiday?"

--thus spake commenter "Joan" in response to this post on one of my favorite blogs, Cake Wrecks. I don't often read the comments there, since there are usually scores of them, mostly from readers trying (unsuccessfully) to out-wit the Blogger, Jen.

But this post, and the comments, caught my folklorist's eye: what is up with a cake shaped like a lamb with a cigarette, or what looks like a cigarette, in its mouth?

To summarize the commenters' theories:
  • It's Joe Camel.
  • The lamb is smoking to signify the end of Lent, and the enjoyment of vices one might have given up for Lent, such as smoking.
  • The cigarette is supposed to represent a paintbrush, and is colored on the end to suggest the lamb's blood that was used to paint door frames during the original Pesach.
  • What looks like a cigarette is actually a scroll, and is in the lamb's mouth to illustrate a passage from Revelations: "Then I saw, between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. The Lamb went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne."
Perhaps the best comment, though, was from a guy who wondered why whoever took the photos hadn't thought to ask the baker about the cakes' meaning. A little fieldwork goes a long way, folks.

I'll be interested to see if Jen posts a "definitive" answer, but I suspect there isn't all good traditions, there are going to be multiple interpretations of the same object.

I am puzzled, though, by the comment that Easter isn't a jokey holiday. Granted, it does mark a very somber occasion, but it's still a holiday, which means it's inherently festive.

Yesterday I took to my folklore class a bunch of parody Passover songs that a former student collected as part of a fieldwork project on her family's Pesach traditions. I'd never come across anything like them before, and was blown away by the collection, and by her description of how they were incorporated into her family's Seder. Here are the lyrics to a couple of my favorites:

My Passover Things (to the tune of “These Are a Few Of My Favorite Things”)
Cleaning and cooking and so many dishes,
Out with the hametz, no pasta, no knishes.
Fish that’s gifellted, horseradish that stings,
These are a few of our Passover things.

Matzoh and karpos and chopped-up haroset,
Shankbones and kiddish and Yiddish neuroses.
Tante who kvetches and uncle who sings,
These are a few of our Passover things.

Motzi and maror and trouble with Pharaohs,
Famines and locusts and slaves with wheelbarrows.
Matzoh balls floating and eggshell that cling,
These are a few of our Passover things.

When the plagues strike,
When the lice bite,
When we’re feeling sad…
We simply remember our Passover things,
And then we don’t feel so bad.

There’s No Seder Like Our Seder (to the tune of “There’s No Business Like Show Business”)

There’s no Seder like our Seder,
There’s no Seder I know.
Everything about it is halachic,
Nothing that the Torah won’t allow.
Listen how we read the whole Haggadah
It’s all in Hebrew
’Cause we know how.

There’s no Seder like our Seder,
We tell a tale that is swell:
Moses took the people out into the heat,
They baked the matzoh
While on their feet.
Now isn’t that a story that just can’t be beat?
Let’s go on with the show!

Even the most somber of holidays need festive elements--in fact, somber holidays are perhaps even more inclined toward "jokiness," to lighten the mood. Christians hide eggs, summon forth the Easter Bunny, eat chocolate rabbits and marshmallow chicks--jokey!

Both Pasque (Easter) and Pesach (Passover) are probably the most "mysterious" of holidays in each tradition: Jesus was resurrected? The Red Sea parted? In a way, it seems the only response to great mystery is great mirth. And really, doesn't Easter ultimately commemorate the greatest practical joke ever pulled off? "You thought you killed me...Ha-ha!"

Several other commenters noted that the lamb cake isn't exclusive to Easter celebrations, either, but that in some places, they are also traditional at a child's First Communion: the kid gets to lop off the lamb's head, and--in some instances--the head and neck have been filled with grenadine so that red "blood" oozes out when the head is chopped off. Now that's a jokey tradition.

My friends Mike and Don annually create a Jell-O tableau fashioned after a famous scene in The Ten Commandments (see past examples here). And I'm waiting with bated breath for the Washington Post to reveal the winners of this year's Peeps Diorama Contest.

Then there's this fabulous "Facebook Haggadah," and Erica over at The Good Old Days laments not buying a set of "Ten Plagues" finger puppets she saw in a catalog years ago.

However, my all-time favorite inquiry into the sheer absurdity of holiday traditions is David Sedaris' brilliant essay, "Jesus Shaves," about trying to explain the Easter Bunny to his fellow language students when he first moved to France. Listen to it below--my summary can't do it justice. (Longish, but totally worth it for the ending. Seriously.)

UPDATE 4/11/09: The Washington Post Peeps Diorama contest winners are online!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

It must be nice to have your summers off.

Yeah, it would be, wouldn't it?

Teachers hear this line all the time, usually starting right around now...which, coincidentally, is exactly the same time I'm usually starting to freak out about how full my summer is getting, and wondering how I'm going to get everything done in the pockets that remain.

My father, who was a school administrator, used to tell his teachers to reply to this comment by saying that they weren't "off," they were "seasonally unemployed." Which is true: my contract is only for nine months, and here at WVU we only get paid over nine months (instead of the nine-over-twelve scheme at my previous institution), so it definitely feels a lot more like unemployment.

And yet, summer is often the only time teachers and scholars have to learn...and write.Not to mention prep for fall courses.

So, "summer off": yeah, it's nice not to have to wake up to the alarm, and not to have stacks of papers to grade. It's not nice, though, not to be getting a paycheck, and yet to feel like you'd better be hyper-productive or, a few years down the road when you come up for tenure, you may never get a paycheck again. my anxiety showing?