Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Summer Is Icumen In...

After a number of half-hearted false starts, and a lovely, long rainy spring, summer seems at last to have come to the mountains, with its golden abundance of hot, California sun. The sky is a dazzling infinity of blue. The pine trees are living, verdant flames. The clouds - if clouds there ever are - are great, billowing masses, bleached whiter than snow, and so full of light, that there is no shadow upon them, merely valleys of lesser brilliance. The smell of summer is here, the heavy incense of sun-warmed pine, and the waterful scent of newly mown lawn. The majority of the population are winter-wearied, and welcoming in the summer with wild exultation.

I am not one of them. Aside from the undeniable beauty of the season, I must admit that I do not see the appeal of summer. There is the heat, to begin with. Admittedly, here in the mountains, the heat is not so oppressive as it is in the rest of the state. Still, there is a certain burning edge to the sun that I find intolerable. It seems to sit upon me, like a malevolent presence. I wilt and droop and long for rain. The house gradually warms up, so that by the end of the day, it is far too stifling to sit indoors. However, if I decide to go out into the lovely cool of the evening, then there are the mosquitoes to reckon with. They are legion. They do not attack all at once, but take turns rushing in on me, and biting where I least expect it. Eventually, the frustration of slapping at them every few minutes drives me back inside, to the muggy atmosphere, where the fans, going full tilt, are attempting to stir some freshness into that unreasonably stagnant air.

Furthermore, summer in the mountains - especially the early part of the summer, when the first heat comes - brings that yellow plague: the pollen. The pine trees are pollinating, and the air is thick with a fine, sticky yellow dust. It goes everywhere. A newly-washed car will look like an abandoned derelict within mere hours. It sifts through screens and even the most obsessive neat-nick will be unable to keep the house looking fresh and polished. There is a long, yellow bank of the stuff floating along the shoreline of the lake. Those who are allergic to it are unbelievably miserable, and even those who are not suffer from dry eyes and a scratchy throat from breathing it in, day after day. It goes away, eventually, as do all crosses, no matter how eternal they seem, but it takes a while. A good rain helps, but good rains are rare in California during the summer. Oh, and I do long for it! For the freshness that it brings, and the smell of it, and the wet, cool touch of it. I dreamt about it on the first hot day of of the year: of a great, gusting wind and fat, wet drops, falling with a heavy, deliberate splash.

Furthermore, I find the long, glorious succession of perfect, sunny days to be dreadfully boring. I like a bit of drama in my weather. I like there to be some play between sun and cloud, and the shift of persepective it causes in the landscape. I like wind, and the stronger the better. I like lightening and thunder and snow and fog. My eyes grow tired of the bright, brilliant colours of summer, and would have the rest of a soft, grey day. I look forward to autumn, the way most people wait for spring, when I shall be delivered from the monotany of beautiful weather.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


My 6 year old sister, Jacinta, uttered a rather shocking remark today:

"I know a four letter word." she said, sounding very pleased with herself.

I know Jacinta well enough to not be unduly alarmed by this revelation. "Be careful of the company you use it in." I admonished her, unfairly taking advantage of my superior knowledge of the topic to attempt a bit of wit at her expense.

"M-hm." she agreed vaguely, and after a breathless pause announced, "Andy is a four letter word!"

Well, what can you say to that? "Andy" is indeed a four letter word. AnnaMaria, who has a whole year on Jacinta, agreed that it was a very good four letter word, and the two of them engaged in an entirely innocent four letter word contest, utterly oblivious of the laugh they were providing their older sisters.

What brought on this sudden interest in four letter words, you ask? Well, it was this song that prompted it. As you can see, they missed the point, which is just as well.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Little Bit of Trivia

I have been reading a lot of WWII history lately, or rather, to be very specific, I have been reading a good deal of history that takes place upon the peripheral of the War Proper. This means I am acquiring a basic knowledge of such odd things as how magician aided the war effort by concocting elaborates ruses: Jasper Maskelyne hiding the Suez Canal with mirrors and lights, for example. Or how much lead a fighter pilot needs to allow in order to hit another plane - at least 80 feet, in case anyone is interested. Or how gun-running operations to Norway were carried out by fishing boats, based in Orkney. Or how British and American spies smuggled various escape aids into German prison camps by hiding them in Monopoly games, and decks of cards, and fountain pens. It is the POWs especially that got me started on WWII.

POWs were a remarkably handy lot. They could make just about anything from next to nothing, whether it be skeleton keys or illegal (and very nasty-sounding) moonshine. A lot of them had a perfect mania for escaping, and a good deal of that inventiveness went into making things that would be useful in an escape. Civilian clothing would be create out of blankets, or there were professional little compasses of magnetised bits of scrap metal, housed in cases of melted-down records. Practically every camp had a hidden radio, and that radio was generally cobbled together from whatever was at hand, with a few parts scrounged off the Germans, if necessary. Most were fairly simple sets, and apparently, during the war, everybody knew how to make them, because none of the books, or websites I have read so far, contained any information about how, exactly, one improvises a radio. One is merely informed, quite casually, that the radio was made and then considerable amount of time is given to the fascinating battle of the prisoners to keep it hidden from the Germans, who would tear whole barracks apart in an effort to find it.

I am one of those rather pathetic individuals for whom technology, even at its most rudimentary, is a great mystery. I cannot honestly see myself being able to create a radio of any sort, even a very basic one, without the help of someone who has done it before. Still, whether it was practical for me or not, I did a bit of poking around for instructions, and found a few sites that explained the matter - very interesting, and much too complicated for me. I nodded, and thought, "quite" and didn't bother about it any more. Then, when I was looking for something else entirely, I found this website, with instructions for various improvised radios. It is still sounds a little too complicated, but I was delighted by the WWII tie-in and the POW tie-in. And the rest of the site is very cool too, with instructions for everything from invisible inks, to making telescopes, all with things that you likely have on hand.

So there, now you know!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

St Anthony, Patron Saint of Nearly Everything

Today is the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua. Ever since I was very young, St. Anthony has been a particular patron of mine, likely because I am that unfortunate breed of person who can lose, in the bare space of a minute, just about anything, from my keys to myself. There is seldom a day goes by that I do not find myself praying desperately to the good saint of lost objects, for help in finding something else that I set down for just a minute... and which promptly disappeared off the face of the earth. He seldom fails me. Every now and again, he feels obliged to teach me detachment, and makes me look for a long time before he produces the missing item for me. Once or twice, he has even flatly refused to get it back, regardless of any prayers or bribes I might offer him. Generally, though, if I need his help, St. Anthony is very prompt to lend his aid, and even to the point of performing very minor miracles to get something back to me.

Of course, everyone knows that St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost objects. I was rather surprised, recently, when I was looking for a nice holy card of himself, that he has a very wide and diverse patronage. He seem to be an ideal saint for almost any situation. He is the patron against against shipwrecks, starvation, of American Indians, boatmen, elderly people, expectant mothers, fishermen, harvests, horses, mail, mariners, sailors, swineherds, travel hostesses, travelers, watermen, and amputees. (For those who are interested, St. Anthony is one of the primary saints on the Battle Saint bracelets, because of his patronage of sailors and amputees.) In Italy, Portugal, France and Spain, St. Anthony is particularly revered as the patron saint of fishermen. It is a tradition amongst some fishing communities, to have a small statue or a picture of St. Anthony attached to the mast of their fishing boats. Since he is the patron saint of lost objects, he is also invoked for those who are missing, for those who are in a state of mortal sin, and for reconciliation with a loved one.

Furthermore, he is traditionally prayed to for help in finding a husband or a wife. There is a funny story in the book, My Heart Lies South, in which a young lady has been praying to St. Anthony for a husband. She prays, and prays, to no avail, it seems, so she loses her temper, and throws her statue out the window. There just happened to be a young man walking by at that precise moment. The statue hit him on the head, rendering him unconscious. The girl's family took him into the house, and a short time later the two were married. St. Anthony obviously has a rather peculiar sense of humour.

So, how did a saint, renowned for his preaching and his miracles, become the patron saint of lost items? Well, St. Anthony had a book of psalms that was very important to him, because he had annotated it heavily with notes and comments, which he used when teaching novices. One of the novices decided that he did not have a vocation after all, and he ran off, taking St. Anthony's Psalter along with him. Why, precisely, he should steal a book of any sort when he was escaping is never really explained. Perhaps he had an understandable weakness for books. Perhaps the Psalter was a rather fine one, and the novice thought he could sell it - though that seems highly unlikely. The long and short if it is that steal it he did, and St. Anthony was most upset by its loss. He therefore prayed that it be returned to him. The thief had a change of heart, and not only brought the book back, but returned to the Order.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

National Donut Day

... Was on Friday. I had never heard of it before I stumbled across a tiny little article about it on Friday - the first Friday of June, to be exact, on which day it is celebrated each year, and on which day, if you are lucky enough to live near a Dunkin Donuts, or a Krispy Kreme, you can go in and get a free donut. Normally, the fact that there even was such a thing as National Donut Day would merely cause me to cock my head a bit, and say, "Well, did you ever?" and promptly forget about it. However, contrary to what the name might suggest, it is not a day of free advertising for the donut business. There is actually a bit of history associated with it, and history always peaks my interest.

Oddly enough, National Donut Day has its origins during WWI. Young women from the Salvation Army, who were wanting to do something for the soldiers in France, came up withe brilliant idea of serving freshly made donuts and coffee to the men at the front. They did other thing too: making hot meals, doing mending, providing entertainment, etc, but it was primarily for the donuts that they are remembered. (There is a nice little site with pictures here that is worth a glance at.) Odder still, giving out donuts became something of a war tradition. During WWII, the Red Cross and the USO got involved too, and subsequent wars through Vietnam had their 'donut dollies'.

The idea of girls handing out donuts to war-weary soldiers is just unlikely enough to capture my fancy. Of course, the work they were doing was highly commendable. They were performing acts of charity (giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, comforting the sorrowful) and in extreme conditions too. Still, it would be rather hard to say with a straight face, that you helped out with the war effort by cooking donuts. It sounds rather like you spent all your time helping out bake sales.