Sunday, October 25, 2009

Happy New Year !

One of the highlights of living in China for a year is that I got to celebrate the start of the New Year TWICE in 2004. Unlike the “traditional” New Year of January 1 (which only goes back about 430 years), the Chinese New Year is celebrated on a different date each year because it follows a lunar cycle.

For the same reason, Easter changes dates each year.

The English names of the Chinese New Year are on a 12 year cycle, and rotate through a series of animals. 2009 is the year of the Ox, and it was celebrated on February 7. Due to the fact that the Chinese people have used the same calendar for over 4000 years, the year that we are currently in is actually the year 4706.

Since fireworks were invented in China, the celebration that I witnessed on the banks of the Pearl River in downtown Guangzhou was SPECTACULAR, and their visual effects were heightened by the fact that the teachers from English First that I came with brought LOTS of beer.

I’ve since come to realize that there are NUMEROUS times throughout the year that one group or another is celebrating the New Year:

Oshogatsu, the Japanese New Year, is now also commemorated on January 1, but for most of the country’s history, it was a lunar event, which meant it usually coincided with the Chinese New Year.

Although most of the world now uses the Gregorian calendar, some members of the Eastern Orthodox churches still use the Julian calendar. On THAT calendar, January 1 corresponds to January 14 on the Gregorian calendar, which means that Eastern Orthodox churches actually celebrate the New Year on January 14.

Followers of the Baha’I religion celebrate Naw-Ruz on the vernal equinox, which is normally around March 21.

Until England adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752, March 25 (the feast of the Annunciation) marked the official start of the New Year.

The celebration REALLY gets confusing for the Buddhists throughout the world because the date of the celebration of the New Year varies by country of origin.

In Theravadin countries (Thailand, Burma, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Laos), the New Year is celebrated for three days from the first full moon day in April. In Mahayana countries, the New Year starts on the first full moon day in January. However, the Buddhist New Year depends on the country of origin or ethnic background of the people. Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese celebrate late January or early February according to the lunar calendar, while the Tibetans usually celebrate about one month later.

The New Year date gets even MORE confusing for the Hindus since there is NO single date for the celebration. Various Hindu cultures use different dates, but most of them are in March or April.

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, falls on the Hebrew calendar date of 10 Tishrei. Since the Hebrew calendar is different from the Gregorian calendar, the date shifts each year. In 2009, Jewish people will celebrate THEIR New Year on September 28.

The Islamic New Year is a cultural event which Muslims observe on the first day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar. Since it is also a lunar date, it changes every year. In 2009, the actual date will be on December 18.

I recently discovered that October 31, a date I normally associate with Halloween, is also the Celtic New Year. Since my ancestors are all from Ireland, that little tidbit caught my attention.

Belfast-born Van Morrison, wrote a song about the event. The lyrics, as well as the music, are shown below:

If I don't see you through the week
See you through the window
See you next time that we're talking on the telephone
And don't see you in that Indian summer
Then I want to see you further on up the road

I said, Oh won't you come back?
I have to see you, my dear
Won't you come back in the Celtic New Year?
In the Celtic New Year?

If I don't see you when I'm going down Louisiana
If I don't see you when I'm down on Bourbon Street
If you don't see me when I'm singing, Jack of diamonds
If you don't see me when I'm on my lucky streak

Whoa, I want you, want you to come on back
I've made it very clear
I want you to come back home in the Celtic New Year
Celtic New Year

If I don't see you when the bonfires are burning, burning
If I don't see you when we're singing, The Gloriana tune
If I've got to see you when it's raining deep inside the forest
I got to see you at the waning of the moon

Said, Oh, won't you come on back?
Want you to be of good cheer
Come back home on the Celtic New Year

Celtic New Year
Celtic New Year
Celtic New Year

Come on home, come on home
Come on home, come on home
In the Celtic New Year
In the Celtic New Year

Come on home, come on home
Come on home, come on home
In the Celtic New Year

Next December 31, as you watch that 12,000 pound ball drop towards Times Square, and you listen to yet another rendition of that old Scottish tune popularized by Guy Lombardo, and written by Robert Burns in 1788, take delight in the fact that January 1 is just the first of a long chain of celebrations throughout the year.

Dick Clark, the world’s oldest teenager, is going to have a hard time keeping up!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Book ends

The woman pictured in the 2008 picture below will turn 70 years old on October 30:

Like Charlton Heston (who some of us knew as Moses roughly 40 years ago), she was born in Evanston, Illinois.

Her mother was a direct descendant of some of the original Mayflower passengers

Since I, and most of my friends, am now over 60 years old, the age of 70 no longer means being “ancient”. To paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel a little, it won't seem strange to be 70 for most of us, but it surely will be a little weird for this lady.

For most of her life, she made a living as a musician, and she lasted far longer than many of her contemporaries. Like many people who came of age in the 60’s, she led a lifestyle that was very much removed from the lives led by her Puritan ancestors. She was married twice, and has also admitted to having a few affairs along the way, even when she was still married.

She was arrested three times by California police for “talking while drunk”, and she usually managed to do something controversial whenever she wound up on T.V.

She eventually retired from music to pursue another interest that is not well known to the public, but which she is surprisingly good at: art.

Her name is Grace Slick, and attached below are some samples of some of her paintings:

Although the image at the top of the page looks to be of someone who’s REALLY old, the picture below is what she looked like when she performed at Woodstock in 1969:

If you want to hear “White Rabbit” just one more time, click on the link below:

Grace Slick at Woodstock.

So, Grace, wherever you are, Happy Birthday, but don’t forget to take your pills.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

My mother, the bird

During the 1965/1966 TV season, NBC aired a show called “My mother the car”, starring Jerry Van Dyke (brother of Dick Van Dyke)

The show lasted just one season, and in 2002, TV Guide proclaimed it to be the second worst show of all time, just above The Jerry Springer Show:

talk about a dud

Although the critics hated the show, it was a very popular show for children.Lost in the criticism of the show is the fact that it “brought to life” a very ANCIENT topic: reincarnation.

Belief in reincarnation dates back roughly 4000 years, to the early Hindus, and people as prominent as Henry Ford and George Patton firmly believed that they had made life’s journey on this planet at least once before.

Their comments are listed below:

haven’t I seen you someplace before?.

Henry Ford

Henry Ford was convinced he had lived before, most recently as a soldier killed at the battle of Gettysburg. A quote from the San Francisco Examiner from August 26, 1928 described Ford's beliefs:

"I adopted the theory of Reincarnation when I was twenty-six. Religion offered nothing to the point. Even work could not give me complete satisfaction. Work is futile if we cannot utilize the experience we collect in one life in the next. When I discovered Reincarnation it was as if I had found a universal plan I realized that there was a chance to work out my ideas. Time was no longer limited. I was no longer a slave to the hands of the clock. Genius is experience. Some seem to think that it is a gift or talent, but it is the fruit of long experience in many lives.

Some are older souls than others, and so they know more. The discovery of Reincarnation put my mind at ease. If you preserve a record of this conversation, write it so that it puts men’s minds at ease. I would like to communicate to others the calmness that the long view of life gives to us."

George S. Patton

General George S. Patton was a staunch believer in reincarnation and, along with many other members of his family, often claimed to have seen vivid, lifelike visions of his ancestors. In particular, Patton believed he was a reincarnation of Carthaginian General Hannibal.

Despite the title of this story, I am in no way suggesting that my mother has come back to life as a bird of the air. However, what I found interesting is that there are some remarkable similarities between the Irish farmer’s daughter who brought me to life, and Mission San Juan Capistrano, which was established by the Spanish Francisco fathers on November 1, 1776.

It is the oldest building in what is now California that is still in use:

don’t look up when the birds are flying by

Like many old buildings, the Mission has its resident ghosts, named Magdalena and Teofilo, and, like many old buildings, it has an interesting historical twist.

For centuries, the cliff swallows have traveled from southern Argentina to San Juan Capistrano. They ALWAYS arrive on the feast of St. Joseph, March 19, which is the day that Mae Brennan returned to Heaven. In the fall, the swallows leave for Argentine on St. John’s Day, October 23, the day my mother was born in 1913.

when the swallows come back to Capistrano

According to Mapquest , the mission is located about an hour’s drive north of San Diego, and is very close to both San Clemente (remember Richard Nixon?) and the Marine base at Camp Pendleton.

During WWII, mom worked for Consolidated Industries in San Diego, at a plant that made airplanes for the U.S. Air Force. Although she didn’t rivet any planes together (to my knowledge) she probably worked with women who did:

Rosie the Riveter

When the war ended, mom boarded a train in San Diego, and traveled to its final destination point, the main terminal in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, her neighbor from Hastings, Minnesota (Larry Brennan) boarded a train in Dover, Delaware.

Its final destination point was St. Paul, Minnesota.

Through a twist of fate, Larry and Mae arrived at the train station in St. Paul at almost exactly the same time.

Roughly a year later, they were married at Guardian Angels church in Hastings, and moved to St. Paul to start their lives together.

At this point, October 23 really isn’t too far into the future.

On the morning of October 23 (less than a week from now), the swallows will once again start heading south to Argentina, and at least some of you will wake up thinking “I’ve just been waiting for this moment to arrive”

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Don't shoot the messenger!!

There are currently 10 National Holidays, which you can view by clicking on the link below:

what are the national holidays?.

Four of them commemorate the extraordinary achievements of individuals:

Martin Luther King Day
President’s Day (Washington and Lincoln birthdays)
Columbus Day
Christmas (which, technically, would be considered a religious holiday).

Five of the remaining six commemorate the achievements of GROUPS of people. Only January 1 is related to a date.

Many of the holidays listed above have been, at times, controversial.

Not every state embraced Martin Luther King Day, and it wasn’t until 1999 that New Hampshire (the last state to recognize the holiday) gave its official blessing, 16 years after the date was first proclaimed a holiday:

live free or die.

Labor Day today is celebrated on May 1 around the world in commemoration of the event that took place in Chicago in May of 1886 (the Haymarket Riots). Although the very first Labor Day in America was celebrated in New York on September 5, 1882, it wasn’t until 1894 (the year of the Pullman strike) that the first Monday in September became a national holiday.

Congress designated May 1 (the International Labor Day) as Loyalty Day in 1958 due to the day's perceived appropriation by the Soviet Union.

Christmas, because it’s a Christian holiday, sometimes ruffles feathers amongst those who don’t consider themselves Christians. Calling it Xmas, or putting a Menorah alongside the manger scene in places like Daley Plaza, doesn’t really solve the issue.

The latest controversy involves Columbus Day.

Columbus Day was first celebrated in 1792, in New York City. In 1906, Colorado became the first state to celebrate the holiday, and in 1934 (as a result of lobbying by the Catholic group, the Knights of Columbus) it was made a national holiday. The date for the celebration was fixed at the second Monday in October in 1971.

The truth about Christopher Columbus is that he was actually just a good salesman. After several attempts, he managed to convince King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to lend him LOTS of money so that he could take a shorter route to India and the spice trade.

He wasn’t the first European to reach North America, since Leif Ericson, the Norse, had built a temporary settlement 500 years earlier, but he WAS the first person to initiate contact between Europeans and indigenous Americans.

I recently became aware of a website called,which calls Columbus to task for a couple of things, some of which are detailed below:

who are you calling Kemo Sabe, paleface?.

I’ll be the first to admit that Native Americans have long been mistreated in their native land (for example, they weren’t allowed to vote in national elections until 1923), but the criticism of Columbus seems (to me, at least) a little unfair.

He’s been accused of “opening the floodgates of America to slavery”, even though the first Africans weren’t brought in as slaves in large numbers until the 1700’s, roughly 200 years after Columbus first got here:

who’s been pickin’ your cotton?.

He’s also been criticized for mistreating the natives, even though historical records seem to indicate that he went out of his way to ensure that the natives were treated with respect. The natives HAVE been abused and mistreated, and the site below provides more detail:

who ARE those guys?.

Although public employees in Chicago don’t have to work on Casimir Pulaski Day, and cities around the country have celebrations of various ethnic groups (including my favorite group, the Irish) I’m not in favor of a national holiday for any particular ethnic group, including Native Americans, since it seems to violate the concept of E pluribus unum, a phrase that has been on all American coins since 1873.

As a country, I think that we need to do a better job of acknowledging the heritage, and contributions, of the folks who have lived here for the last 10,000 years or so. When my children were younger, they were enrolled in the YMCA Indian Guides program, which provided at least some insight into the spiritual and economic values of the group of people known today as Native Americans.

Even though the Native American group is a small percentage of the 300,000,000 people that live in the United States, it may surprise you to learn that there are still eight Native American languagest are still spoken here, the most prominent of which is Navajo. At one time, there were roughly 1000 languages that were spoken in North America, so don’t feel embarrassed if you are puzzled by Ebonics.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs formed in 1824 in order to serve the 562 Native American tribes that existed at that time, but similar agencies have existed in the U.S Government since 1775.

As the United States continued its western expansion after the Civil War, there was increasing resentment on the part of the Native Americans who longed for “the way that things used to be”, which led to a period of time called the Indian Wars, which reached their peak at the Battle of Wounded Knee.

Not everyone was in favor of wiping out the folks who were here first, and there was probably more than one soldier at a place called Little Big Horn who wished that he was someplace else:

Please Mr. Custer

Toward the end of the tumultuous decade known as the 60’s, the American Indian Movement was established in Minneapolis in 1968 in order to further the interests of the Native American population.The group attracted widespread attention when they took over Alcatraz Island in 1969, and they got additional publicity when Marlon Brando had Sacheen Littlefeather decline his award for Best Actor (for the 1972 film, The Godfather) at the 1973 Oscar event.

When I taught English in China, I often reminded my students to take pride in their country’s history, since it goes back at least 6000 years. Sadly, our country still needs to do more to “illuminate the masses” about our own cultural history, which actually goes back about 10,000 years.

As always, education is the best answer.

Denigrating the actions of a guy who died over 400 years ago is the worst possible way to achieve greater respect for the Native American people.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A voice from the grave

I was named after my great uncle Tom, who was killed by a falling tree during the time of the Alaskan Gold Rush, and my maternal grandfather, Martin Stenson.

Although there will eventually be a tale about the Irish ancestor who went “north to Alaska”, this one is about an Irish farmer who I had the privilege of knowing for the first 17 years of my life.

I’ll call this one the Martin Stenson story, but rather than tell it in my words, I’ll let him tell you his story himself:


Good evening.

I once had a farm in Africa – but only in my dreams.

Out of Africa

My name is Martin Stenson. I was born in County Sligo, Ireland on the 24th of November, 1882. I was the 2nd youngest of six children born to Edward Stenson and Catherine Gavagan. My parents were married on St. Patrick’s Day in 1868. Sadly, four of my brothers and sisters died from tuberculosis in the 1880’s, and only I and an older sister survived.

When I was a lad, I used to help my dad on his farm, and enjoyed it so much that I vowed to one day have my own farm.

We were poor, and the cursed English kept all of us that way, so I knew that I would have to eventually leave Ireland in order to prosper. Since the winters were almost always cold and damp in Ireland, I yearned to live in a warmer climate, but the siren song of Africa would never materialize because I didn’t know a soul in that foreign land.

America, though, had sent out a clarion call to me, because it was the land of opportunity. My cousin James immigrated to there in the late 1890’s, so I knew that I would have a ready audience if I ever decided to uproot.

At the age of 16, I moved to England to work in the coal mines, and to save money for the trip across the Atlantic.Finally, in 1901, I set sail for Ellis Island, and my new home.

After completing my processing at Ellis, I boarded a train for the state of Minnesota, where my cousin James had settled.

Several years after settling into my new home in Minnesota, I met a gorgeous young woman named Amelia Karnick. Like many women at that time, Amelia’s mother (Anna Hansen) had died in childbirth, so Amelia was the only child of the marriage of Frank Karnick and Anna Hansen.

After a long courtship (an Irish tradition) we married in the fall of 1911, and shortly thereafter bought a small farm just outside the river city of Hastings, Minnesota.

Our first child, Grace Magdalene, was born in 1912.

The winter of 1913 was particularly harsh. On one especially cold January evening, the wind outside the old farmhouse howled furiously, and the windows rattled in their frames. We huddled closely to stay warm, and sometime during the course of the evening, nature took its course, and we conceived another child.

When she was born, on October 23, we named her Anna, in honor of Amelia’s mother. We also liked the name Mae, so that became here middle name. As our little girl grew older, she grew fond of her middle name, and adopted that as her given name.

During World War II, our daughter Mae moved to California to work for Consolidated Industries. When the war ended, she boarded a train, and headed back to the main train station in St.Paul, Minnesota, about 20 miles from Hastings.

On the same day, Larry Brennan, her neighbor and childhood friend, boarded a train in Dover, Delaware, and got off the train in St. Paul at almost exactly the same time that Mae got off HER train.

Again, nature took its course, and they were married on September 2, 1946. Their marriage produced two children: Thomas Martin (who some of you know) and Mary Catherine

I breathed my last breath on earth on July 10, 1964, in my daughter Mae’s house in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Shortly after my beloved Amelia and I celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary, I turned control of my farm over to my son Harold, who was running the local feed store in town at the time.

On the day before we made the final transition, I picked up my old shillelagh, and went for a walk through our apple orchid just north of the house. I never made it to Africa, and I never made it back to Ireland, but as I walked through that little apple orchard, I thought to myself:

“Here I am, where I ought to be

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Rob Roy

Rob Roy, the beverage, made its appearance in New York in the 1890’s, about 10 years after the introduction of the Manhattan. Its introduction coincided with the time that Dewars Scotch Whiskey was introduced to New York, and a play titled Rob Roy opened on Broadway.

The drink was named after a real life Scottish hero named Robert Roy MacGregor, an early 18th century folk hero, who is sometimes called the Scottish Robin Hood. His story was brought to life in the 1995 film titled “Rob Roy”, which starred Liam Neeson.

Although there are several variations of the recipe, the one listed below is the most common:

Rob Roy, the recipe.

Although I’ve long been a scotch “aficionado”, I’ve never had a “perfect Rob Roy” – until last night. I’m here to tell you, it’s a very SMOOTH drink.

On very rare occasions, I'll have a Rusty Nail, a drink containing scotch and Drambuie, a scotch-based liqueur. I introduced my dad to the drink way back in 1970, and it’s safe to say that I’ve never seen a happier man after he took his first sip.

Although many scotch drinkers prefer their drinks “neat” (without ice), there IS an alternative that I still like on occasion:

Cheers !!