Monday, October 29, 2012

A Halloween love story

Most of us would consider Halloween to be a fun time of the year - a time for costume parties, trick or treating, and pumpkin carving. I actually know a few people who aren’t in favor of all the festivities that normally occur on October 31, probably because it was originally a PAGAN celebration a long, long, time ago.

The same people would likely be horrified if they knew that the ancient pagan festival known as Saturnalia is the basis for Christmas. Although the exact dates of the celebration varied a little through the centuries, the "Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun" was celebrated in the later Roman Empire on December 25.

The ancient Celts date back as far as 1000 years before the birth of Christ, and possibly even further back than that. One of the most important of their celebrations was Samhain (pronounced Sow-en), which marked the end of the harvest, and the end of summer. The date was also considered to be the start of the Celtic New Year. The Celts believed that this was the day when two worlds (the living and the dead) came together. Because the Celts believed that some of those “other worldly” spirits could cause mischief, they left food for them. They also lit huge bonfires because they believed that the light from the fires would drive the evil spirits away, and they dressed in costumes made of animal hides to fool “the bad guys”. To help the GOOD spirits, they carved lanterns out of vegetables in order to light their way into the world.

After the Romans conquered the Celts, they adopted many of the ancient Celtic celebrations, including Samhain. The Romans modified the celebration to include several other pagan celebrations, and changed the name to All Hallows Day. However, in about 700 A.D., Pope Gregory III changed the date of the celebration from October 31 to November 1, and changed the name to All Saints Day.

(There is an unusual twist to All Saints Day "south of the border", where the dead are commemorated on both November 1 and November 2. In most regions of Mexico, children are commemorated on November 1 in a festival known as Dia de los Inocentes (Day of the Innocents) and adults are commemorated on Dia de los Difuntos (Day of the Dead). Ironically enough, both celebrations can be traced back to the indigenous pagan cultures of Mexico nearly 3000 years ago.)

The day remained a religious holiday for hundreds of years, but by the mid-1800’s, it had evolved into a day that resembled a communal celebration. In the mid 1800’s, the Irish potato famine brought millions of Irish people to America, along with their communal celebration activities. At this point, the celebrations included dressing in costumes, but the medieval practice of going door to door asking for food or money was still dormant.

By the early 1920’s, Halloween pranks and mischief (such as outhouse tipping) had evolved into more sinister occurrences, such as vandalism, property damage, and even physical assaults. Schools and communities developed a concept similar to “trick or treating” to counter “the bad guys”, and the Boy Scouts also got involved in similar projects.

The first recorded community celebration of Halloween occurred in Anoka, Minnesota in 1920, which has caused that city to call itself the “Halloween Capitol of the World”, but the first recorded us of the phrase “trick or treat” was in 1934, when it appeared in a Portland, Oregon newspaper.

Now that you know more about the historical background of Halloween, you’re probably wondering how celebration of the day can turn into a love story.

The best way to answer that question is to let Belfast native Van Morrisson answer it for you:

Happy New Year

Who knows? This could be a magic time for you as well.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Music from beyond the grave

Vincent Price passed away 19 years ago today, at the age of 82.

Although he had a long and storied film career, he will probably be best remembered for his 1982 collaboration with the late Michael Jackson on Jackson’s Thriller album. Although you can watch the original video by clicking here, you’ll be happy to know that you can now watch an UPDATED version by clicking on this spot, even though both Mr. Price and Mr. Jackson are no longer with us.

Since Halloween will arrive in less than a week, you’re probably wondering if I’ll be publishing a story about the origin, or customs, of the modern version of an ancient pagan festival. For now, I’m going to leave you in suspense. However, since we’re less than two weeks ago from another Presidential election , I’ll leave you with a few words of wisdom from Vincent Price himself:

“In art, religion, and politics, the respect must be mutual, no matter how violent the disagreement”.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Little house on the prairie

In January of 1913, the winter weather was particularly harsh in Washington Country, Minnesota.

On one of those nights, 30 year old Martin Stenson and his 27 year old bride, Amelia, huddled together in their little rented farm house, trying to stay warm as the blustery winds from the north howled outside. Sometime during the evening, nature took its course, and on October 23, 1913, the second child of their marriage came into the world. The named her Anna, in honor of Amelia’s mother, Anna, who had died in childbirth.

Martin had been born in Country Sligo, Ireland, on November 24, 1882, but both of his parents died of the plague when he was a small boy. He eventually wound up working in the coal mines in England to support himself, but emigrated to America to be with some of his siblings, who were working on a farm near the town of Hastings, Minnesota. A few years later, he met a young woman named Amelia Karnick, whom we married on May 3, 1911.

After Martin and Amelia got married, they rented a little farm house close to Hastings, Minnesota. The little rented farmhouse eventually fell into disrepair, and was finally burned down by the local fire department as part of one of its training courses. When Martin and his family lived there , they had no electricity or running water, and he had to chop wood for heat. The fact that the young family managed to grow and prosper is a testimony to the remarkable tenacity of the pioneers of this country, and to the peer group of my mother and her siblings, who lived through two world wars and the Great Depression, and eventually became known as “the Greatest Generation”.

Their first child, Grace Magdalene, was born on January 26, 1912. “Amazing Grace” lived to be 95 years old, and is survived by her 7 remaining children, her brother Harold (now 91 years old) and a LOT of grand children and great grand children.

The marriage of Martin and Amelia also produced 4 other children - Edward, Harold, Fern, and Bernard, but I have a special connection to the child called Anna, and for a very good reason.

She was my mother.

For most of her life, she preferred to be called by her middle name, Mae. For that reason, her tombstone at Ft. Snelling cemetery lists her name as Mae Anna Brennan.

If she were still alive today, she would be 99 years old tomorrow, and I usually think about her, at least briefly, on the 23rd of October. I’ll have to admit, though, that her “place of her origin” comes into my thought process a lot less, and that’s a shame.

Martin and Amelia bought a nearby farm from a relative in the fall of 1929, just before the start of the Great Depression, but managed to make mortgage payments even when times were tough. Their son, Harold, still lives there today.

About the time that my mother was born, 41% of the workforce in America was employed on farms, and roughly 25% of our country’s GDP was from agriculture. Today, agriculture produces less than 5% of our GDP, and less than 2% of the population works in agriculture.

We’ve changed a lot in the last 100 years, but one thing is very clear. For a great many people, we wouldn’t be who we are today if it weren’t for a remarkable institution - a little house on the prairie.

Friday, October 19, 2012

That's a bunch of malarkey

Technical Sergeant Donald G. Malarkey, a highly decorated WWII hero, was born on July 31, 1921. He served in the 101st Airborne while in the service, and was later portrayed in the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers” by Scott Grimes.

He is still living today, in comfortable retirement, in Astoria, Oregon.

Very few people have ever heard of him, but by now, most of the people on the planet have a rough idea what “malarkey” means, thanks to this recent video:

2012 Vice Presidential debate

Like many words, the origin of the word “malarkey” is a little murky, but its first known use was in 1929, 8 years after Sergeant Malarkey came into the world. I actually remember my parents using the word occasionally when I was growing up, since their “Minnesota Nice” background would have made it difficult for them to use anything stronger than that.

Surprisingly, there are NUMEROUS synonyms for the word, which you can find in the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

































Hokey pokey




Horse feathers
























There are those who feel that the Vice President should have been more respectful to the young whipper-snapper from Wisconsin, and I’ve even seen some Biblical references (Proverbs 29:9) to the debate, but here’s my opinion:

Politics has long been considered to be a nasty sport in this country, all the way back to its early days. In the 1796 campaign between Adams and Jefferson, Adams’ backers called Jefferson a “howling atheist”, and Jefferson’s people charged that Adams was going to rip up the Constitution and make himself king, and his sons princes.

In view of the mean-spirited commentary coming from people like Sean Hannitty and Rush Limbaugh, I found that Joe Biden’s gentle poke at Paul Ryan simply made for good theater, and that’s all that I got to say.


If you want more wisdom than that, it would be like looking for a needle in a Haystak.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Strider Society

When I lived in the Chicago area, I was able to attend FIVE separate Johnnie Walker tasting events. Although I had long been a fan of single malt scotches, the very first event that I attended convinced me that blended scotch whiskey was actually pretty good stuff after all, and maybe there IS a reason why Johnnie Walker is the most popular scotch whiskey in the world.

Not long after attending my first event, I joined the Johnnie Walker Striding Man Society. In “corporate speak”, the Striding Man Society is “a relationship management program for Johnnie Walker brand whiskey. The purpose of the relationship management program is to cultivate a qualified group of consumers and brand loyalists. Johnnie Walker offers members special offers and opportunities not available to the general public.”

I’m also now “friends” with Johnnie Walker on Facebook.

Incidentally, you can also be friends with “Bill W” on Facebook, but he doesn't have as many friends as Johnnie.

If you don’t know who “Bill W” is, consider yourself lucky.

Johnnie Walker has long been known as "The Man Who Walked Around The World". In 2009, the very talented Scottish actor, Robert Carlyle, starred in this Johnnie Walker television commercial:

what James Bond film did this man appear in?

Sad to say, I don’t have ANY Johnnie Walker in my liquor cabinet at the moment, but the bottle pictured below is a pretty good substitute for the time being:

However, since it’s $54 a bottle (for the LEAST EXPENSIVE version) it’s going to be a very rare treat.

Around the time that I turned 65, I became a member of the LOCAL strider society, thanks to my favorite sister, who sent me a pedometer for my birthday. On most afternoons, I’ll walk between 3 and 5 miles, but I got a little more ambitious one day last week, when I walked 13,328 steps, or roughly 7.5 miles. In view of the fact that some of my “peer group” has already had knee surgery, and would have trouble walking around the block, that’s a pretty significant accomplishment. Walking has long been considered to be the most perfect form of exercise. Believe it or not, there are actually people who MAKE A LIVING by walking.

For a number of years, the slogan for Camel cigarettes was “ I’d walk a mile for a Camel”. I never did that, but on more than one occasion, I rode my bicycle 40 miles (one way) for a Reuben sandwich.

I plan to just “keep on walking” for the foreseeable future. If the lottery gods smile on me, I’ll add the following bottle to my collection:

Until that happens, I’m gonna keep on strollin’.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Oh, what a gem she is !

Most of us are familiar with a few of the more common wedding anniversary symbols, principally the ones for the 25th (silver), the 50th (gold) and the 75th (diamond), but would be hard pressed to come up with the symbols for most of the other anniversaries.

A few of the “modern” symbols may cause you to wonder a bit, since the symbols for the 4th (electrical appliances) and the 7th (desk set) don’t seem particularly romantic. Most of the women that I know wouldn’t be very excited about getting a new toaster for their 4th wedding anniversary, or a new pen set for their 7th.

Once you get beyond the 25th anniversary, wedding symbols (on both modern and traditional lists) are all some type of gem, and the symbol for the 40th anniversary (on both lists) is the ruby, which is pictured below:

For thousands of years, ruby has been considered one of the most valuable gemstones on earth, and even diamond was considered common in comparison to the supreme beauty and value of the glowing red gem. To the ancients, the ruby was a representation of the sun, and represented integrity, devotion, happiness, healing, courage, romance, generosity, inspiration, and prosperity.

Not by coincidence, those qualities also apply to a lady that I first met in the basement of a church Quonset hut in St. Paul, Minnesota roughly 45 years ago. We both had joined a church group called A.C.C., and we showed up to take square dance lessons in a small (and hot) location with a handful of other young Catholics.

We apparently made some type of connection, since we got married 5 years later, on October 6, 1972, a date that is now 40 years in the past. Ever since that time, our lives together have been an adventure, and things started out with a bang a week after our wedding, when we got hit by a deer on our honeymoon.

On Friday the 13th.

If I had to sum up, in one short sentence, how I would describe my wife, I’d have to say that she definitely is a gem. We’ve cried together, we’ve laughed together, we’ve fought, we’ve made up, we’ve enjoyed some good times, and we’ve endured some tough times, but we’re still married 40 years later.

Both of us were fortunate to come from very good families, which likely had a lot to due with our marital longevity, but there’s also another element that most of us don’t think about too often.

The nuns.

Apparently those nuns in grade school taught us well, since the majority of the people in our “peer group” are still married to their first spouse.

Depending on which source that you use, the general consensus is that the divorce rate in America is right around 50%. Given those dismal odds, what are the chances that a marriage would last 40 years?

Since Sharon and I will be celebrating our 40th anniversary on October 6, I became curious about what percentage of American marriages last for 40 years, and the link below provides some interesting information.

you may now kiss the bride

If you take marriages of all age groups in America, 83% make it to five years. 55% make it to 15 years, 35% make it to 25 years, and 6% make it to the 50th anniversary.

For the baby boomer generation, though, there’s an interesting twist. 60% of the baby boomer men, and just around 50% of the baby boomer women, have celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, or will do so in the very near future. Given that the baby boomers came of age at the peak of the sexual revolution, why does my “peer group” seem to have better success at marital longevity than other age groups?

One of the best lines in the recent movie, “Hope Springs”, was one that was quoted by Dr. Bernie Feld (played by Steve Carrell) - “even good marriages have bad years”. That’s been true of our marriage, and it’s certainly been true of the marriages of many of the other people that we know.

I’ve read (a couple of times) “Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps”, and there’s a similar book on the market titled “Men Are Like Waffles, and Women Are Like Spaghetti”. After reading either book, you’ll marvel at the fact that people of the opposite gender can live together at all.

Sharon and I have learned to be more tolerant of each other’s quirks, and to be more forgiving of each other’s faults. In our case, one of the most important elements in our longevity has been the fact that we try as hard as we can to laugh as often as possible. Since those attitudes probably apply to many other “boomer” marriages as well, there must be more to the story.

I grew up during the “Ozzie and Harriet” years, when role models were stricter, and society as a whole was less tolerant of views that were different than the norm. As a group, we’re more open minded than our parents were, even though they provided us with a pretty good moral compass as a starting point.

As a group, we’re also more optimistic than the generation that struggled through the Great Depression and WWII, and we seem to be more willing to discuss our differences than our parents did, who believed in staying together, through “thick and thin”.

Since relationships are complicated (to say the least), there are probably OTHER reasons why our marriages have been successful. If we had to be honest, though, all those nuns with pointers in their hands deserve a little credit as well.