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posts by Richard Nilsen

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by Richard Nilsen
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When I was a wee bairn, back in the wilds of New Jersey, I remember a certain consternation when listening to — and being forced to sing — various Christmas carols. What, I wondered, does “Fa-la-la” mean? Couldn’t the song writer think of any real words? I tended to sing the Walt Kelly version: “Deck us all with Boston Charlie, Walla-Walla, Wash., and Kalamazoo.”
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But those nonsense syllables continued to bother me. And fascinate me.
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And in school, we sometimes had to sing songs with such nonsense words in them, like “Tra-la-la” and “Hey, nonny-nonny.” When I got a little older, and learned to read and write, I wondered if these had actually been just corruptions of real words, as a kind of mondegreen. Like “round John Virgin in Silent Night.
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Then, as a school kid watching Warner Brothers cartoons on television, I learned of certain popular tunes from the 1940s — which to me in the 1950s seemed as far away as the Middle Ages — like “Mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey/ A kiddley divey too, wouldn’t you?” Such songs would show up in Loony Tunes. Another was “Hut set rawlson on a rillerah, and a so-and-so and so forth.” from the 1942 cartoon  Horton Hatches an Egg. I was sure I must be mis-hearing the lyrics. Only later did I find out that no, I wasn’t, but “Mairzy doats” was, in fact a mondegreen for “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.” Which is still pretty much nonsense.
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Oh, but then. Then, I became a teenager in the ’60s. Little Richard (I then thought of myself as “Big Richard”) sang “Wop bop-a-loo-bop a-wop bam boom.” And “Tootie-Frootie, Ah Rooty.” And then in 1958 came: “Ooh-eee Ooh-ah-ah, Ting-Tang Walla-walla Bing Bang.” And the next year with “Shimmy-shimmy ko-ko-bop.” We were off to the nonsense syllable la-la-land. “Rama Lama Ding Dong.”
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“Well, be-bop-a-Lula she’s my baby
Be-bop-a-Lula I don’t mean maybe”
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Gene Vincent’s phrase “Be-Bop-a-Lula” is similar to “Be-Baba-Leba”, the title of a 1945  Helen Humes song, remade by Lionel Hampton as “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop.” This phrase, possibly being ultimately derived from the shout of “Arriba! Arriba!” used by Latin American bandleaders to encourage band members. Things work the rounds.
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I have since learned that these sounds are officially known as “non-lexical vocables.” There are learned papers written on the subject, some of which can be downloaded in PDF form (“Non-lexical Vocables in Scottish Traditional Music” by Christine Knox Chambers, 1980, 340 pages).
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Later, in college, as a music minor, I had to learn solfège, in which the syllables “do,” “re,” and “mi” stood for the notes “C” “D” and “E.” Originally, it was “ut,” “re” and “mi.” If you’ve ever wondered where this all came from, as you are singing “Doe, a deer, a female deer,” blame the Middle Ages. As a mnemonic to remember a tune, each pitch was assigned a syllable (this was before standard musical notation) from the beginning syllable of the prayer: “Ut queant laxis/ resonare fibris/ Mira gestorum/ famuli tuorum/ Solve polluti/ labil reatum, Sancte Iohannes.” (The last note combines the S and I from “Sancte Iohannes”)
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Translated: “So that your servants may,/ with loosened voices,/ Resound the wonders/ of your deeds,/ Clean the guilt/ from our stained lips,/ Saint John.”
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In the 1600s, because “Ut” was harder to sing, it was changed to “Do.” And “Si” is sometimes changed to “Ti.” Giving us “Do Re Mi Fa Sol La Ti and back to Do,” which, is Homer Simpson’s favorite word.
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Ah, but  before all this pedantry, I meant to be writing about silly lyrics. “Doo wah diddy diddy dum diddy doo.” “Poppa Oom Mow Mow.” “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da.” Or the name song: “Katie, Katie, bo-batie,/Bonana-fanna fo-fatie/ Fee fi mo-matie/ Katie!”
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There really is a long tradition. I opened up my Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes (Oxford University Press, 1951, 559 pages) and found “Fiddle-de-dee, fiddle-de-dee, The wasp has married the humble bee,” and “Diddlety, diddlety, dumpty, The cat ran up the plum tree.” “Hickory-Dickery Dock, the mouse ran up the clock.” “Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo.” “Hey Diddle-diddle, the cat and the fiddle.”
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This sort of thing is all through the tome:
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Open up Child’s Ballads, or English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Cambridge University Press, 1904, 723 pages), you find refrains such as
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Shakespeare from As You Like It:
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Elizabethan songs are often called “Hey Nonny Nonnies.”
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As in Ophelias “mad song” from Hamlet:
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Opera has its share of nonsense, and some of that is in the libretto. Hector Berlioz wrote a chorus for the demons in The Damnation of Faust that goes on quite a while with stuff like this:
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And Wagner liked to invent gibberish almost as much as he loved himself. The famous Ride of the Valkyries actually has words. And what are they? “Hojotoho! Hojotoho! Heia ha-haeia!” Over and over.
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And his Rhine Maidens, gurgling underwater, sing the praises of the Rhine gold: “Heiajaheia! Heiajaheia! Wallalalalala leiajahei!
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There’s at least a section of gibberish in each of his operas. The sailors in The Flying Dutchman all sing a Wagnerian version of “Yo-ho-ho” — “Ho-ho! Je holla ho!” And when they make merry: “Ho! He! Je! Ha! Klipp’ und Sturm’, He! Sind vorbei, he! Hussahe! Hallohe!” This kind of gibberish is of a different order from the gibberish that passes as Wagner’s philosophy.
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But is any of this different from “Fododo-de-yacka saki Want some sea food, Mama.” Or Frank Sinatra’s “Doo-be doo-be doo.”
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This stuff is all over the place, from Sly and the Family Stone: “Boom Shaka-laka, boom shaka-laka,” to the hit song from 1918 (yes, it’s that old): Jada, jada, jada-jada-jing-jing-jing.”
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Going back further, there’s Stephen Foster’s “Camptown ladies sing dis song, Doo-dah, doo-dah,” and Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay was a vaudeville and music hall song made famous in 1892 by British performer Lottie Collins. But its provenance goes back further, at least to the 1880s, when it was sung by a black singer, Mama Lou in a well-known St. Louis brothel run by “Babe” Connors.
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Then, in 1901, Yale graduate Allan Hirsh wrote the fight song, Boola-Boola.  “We do not know what it means,” Hirsh wrote, “except that it was euphonious and easy to sing and to our young ears sounded good.”
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As far as “boola,” it was rumored to be a Hawaiian word for “good,” but linguists point out, there is no “B” sound in the Hawaiian language.
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“Sometimes, with these college fight songs,” said Kalena Silva, director of the College of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawaii  at Hilo, “they just made up words.”
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After the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, which featured a popular Hawaiian pavilion — which sported floor-to-ceiling flowers, pineapple give-aways, a back-lit aquarium and the Royal Hawaiian Quartet playing music, with a steel guitar — a craze for Hawaiian-themed songs took over Tin Pan Alley.
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The year 1916 gave us Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula, which begins: “Down Hawaii way, where I chanced to stray/ On an evening I heard a Hula maiden play Yaaka hula hickey dula, Yaaka hula hickey dula.”
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It should be stated that “Yaaka hula hickey dula” is not Hawaiian — or any other language. Also from 1916 was They’re Wearing’Em Higher in Hawaii, and Oh How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo.
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Later came more exoticism: “Bingo Bango Bongo, I Don’t Wanna Leave the Congo.”
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Of course, African-American culture gave us scat singing, which features improvised nonsense syllables. There are great examples from Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller.
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But perhaps the most popular for the scat was Cab Calloway, whose Minnie the Moocher gave us “Hey-dee-hi-de-ho.” But also, “Skeedle-a-booka-diki biki skeedly beeka gookity woop!” And, “Scoodley-woo-scoodley-woo scoodley-woodley-woodley-woo Zit-dit-dit-dit-dittle but-dut-duttleoo-skit-dit-skittle-but-dit-zoy.
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Calloway made an appearance in the 1932 Fleischer Brothers animated cartoon, Minnie the Moocher, with Betty Boop, whose catch phrase, “Boop-Boop-a-Doop,” was originally a scat phrase.
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The phrase was heard by some blue-stockings as a euphemism for something rude and a backlash developed, leading to a 1932 cartoon, Don’t Take My Boop-Oop-A-Doop Away,” where Betty sang a little song:
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The following year, Jimmy Durante gave us Inka-Dinka-Doo, which sang:
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Getting into the 1940s, Disney has given us a share, from “Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah, Zip-A-Dee Ay, My, oh my, what a wonderful day” to “Sala-gadoola-menchicka-boo-la bibbidi-bobbidi-boo.”
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The tradition continues, as even Lady Gaga has Bad Romance:
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I’ve already mentioned the non-lexical vocalisms from Little Richard and Gene Vincent. Now we move on to Iron Butterfly and their notorious 17-minute 1968 extravaganza, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.
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I mentioned mondegreens earlier. Apparently, the lyrics to the song were supposed to be “In the Garden of Eden,” but when song-writer Doug Ingle played the song for his bandmate, Ron Bushy misheard the words, sung in a drunken slur by Ingle after drinking a gallon of cheap red wine, as “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” and wrote it down that way. I suppose it could have been corrected the next sober morning, but it wasn’t, and has gone down as legend.
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The Beatles had a history of using nonsense words in their songs, from Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da to the “na-na-na” chorus of Hey Jude. Sometimes they used nonsense to fill out a song, usually with a plan to add better words later.
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Ryan Miller of the alternative rock band Guster said that many songwriters use sounds a placeholders — the way movies are made with “working titles” before the real one gets put in place.
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“Ninety-eight percent of the time you replace them with words but sometimes those sounds fit the spirit of the song or even become the spirit of the song,” said Miller. “And sometimes I don’t want there to be words — there can be a Rorschach version this way where you have your own experience with the music.”
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When Paul McCartney was writing Yesterday, he had the tune, but not the words, so in the demo tape, he used placeholders and sang:
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“Scrambled eggs” and “yesterday” scan the same. But he did the right thing and switched up the words.
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Other Beatles songs, though, feel as though the placeholders were just left in. “Well you can syndicate any boat you row,” or “Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup.”
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The all-time champ must be I Am the Walrus.
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John Lennon said he was tired of listeners trying to “analyze” Beatles lyrics, and wanted to write something to confuse them — the “Rohrschach effect” that Ryan Miller mentioned.
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And so:
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by Richard Nilsen
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For the centuries between the conversion of Constantine and the advent of the Enlightenment, the world and the cosmos was held to maintain a strict hierarchical order, which Alexander Pope once called “the vast chain of being.” In Latin, it was the “scala naturae,” or “ladder of nature.”
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It was a way of organizing all of Creation into a unified Providential design and everything and everybody had a proper place in the schema.
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In his 1936 book, The Great Chain of Being, Arthur Lovejoy considered the idea to be “one of the half-dozen most potent and persistent presuppositions in Western thought … the most widely familiar conception of the general scheme of things, of the constitutive pattern of the universe.”
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Shakespearean scholar E.M.W. Tillyard wrote, “This metaphor served to express the unimaginable plenitude of God’s creation, its unfaltering order, and its ultimate unity.”
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At the top sat the Deity and all things below him hung pendant in creation. And along this chain, each link had something above it and something below it. It made for a neat organization: plants were higher than stones, but lower than animals. Human beings were above animals, but below angels.
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Sir John Fortescue, the fifteenth-century jurist, wrote, “God created as many different kinds of things as he did creatures so that there is no creature which does not differ in some respect from all other creatures and by which it is in some respect superior or inferior to all the rest. So that from the highest angel down to the lowest of his kind, there is absolutely not found an angel that has not a superior and inferior; nor from man down to the meanest worm is there any creature which is not in some respect superior to one creature and inferior to another, So that there is nothing which the bond of order does not embrace.”
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This order was believed to be continuous, with no breaks. “Natura non saltum facit” — Nature does not make a jump. And so the lowest of one order touches the highest of the next one down. As 14th century monk Ranulf Higden wrote in his Polychronicon, “as for instance oysters, which occupying as it were the lowest position in the class of animals, scarcely rise above the life of plants, because they cling to the earth without motion and possess the sense of touch alone.” When people still talk about a “missing link,” it is this contiguity they are referencing.
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The plan had its origin in Ancient Greece, with Aristotle and Plato, but it was codified and Christianized in the early Middle Ages, and for so ancient an idea, it still affects the way we think today. Culture is astonishingly conservative, and some ideas hang on for millennia. Even the way scientists name animals and plants derives from this Great Chain. Carl von Linne, when creating the rules of taxonomy in the 18th century, divided matter into three great categories: animal, vegetable and mineral. They are the categories of the Medieval thinkers and we still think of the three “kingdoms,” whether consciously or not, as ranks from low to high.
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It was a surprisingly durable schema. We still hold on to bits of it. Whenever you hear someone talk about something being higher on the evolutionary ladder, he is grasping a vestige of the great chain of being. In evolution nothing is “higher” or “lower.” That is the old vocabulary used for the new science. There are no higher life forms, only more complex forms adapted to more complex environments.
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Yet, it seems we cannot ever completely give up our sense of hierarchy, even despite our lip service to democracy in America. It was the vestige of the scala naturae that justified slavery, and that now functions behind white supremacy: the idea that some categories are higher and some lower.
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While the Great Chain of Being was assumed to be perfectly coherent and consistent, it never really was. The anomalies were largely ignored or smoothed over, but the ultimate truth of the whole was never doubted. For instance, the highest rank of human being was the king. Or was it the Pope? They never worked that one out.
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Of course, such a micromanaged structure could not possibly avoid ironies and disconnects. The biggest was between church and state. Each had its hierarchy: king, prince, duke, earl on one hand; pope, cardinal, bishop on the other. But the problem of whether a cardinal outranked a prince, or a king outranked the pontiff was never satisfactorily worked out. Wars were fought; people were killed.
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The chain could be divided and subdivided, very like a fractal, and always there was something above and below. So, among humans, a king was above a duke, who was above a yeoman. Below the yeoman was above a serf. Each category had its primate: The king in political order, the lion was “king of the beasts” (except there were some that gave the title to the elephant), the oak was at the head of trees, the rose among flowers, the eagle among birds, and incorruptible gold among minerals. The whale was the king of fishes (and yes, back then, a whale was a fish.)
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Above humans were angels, and they had their own hierarchy: nine ranks from lowest to highest as set down by (Pseudo-) Dionysius the Areopagite — angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominations, thrones, cherubim, and seraphim. It was all rather like the army, with first and second lieutenants, majors and colonels.
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This hierarchy governed much of the Medieval and Renaissance world in Europe, and gave a sense of divine order to the social happenstance.
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And oh, they loved arguing. Arguing whether moss was higher than fungus, or whether an earl or a marquis had priority — different nations shuffled the suits of cards into different patterns, so a French marquis might outrank an English baron. Or vice versa.
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And so, a silver fox outranks a red fox. Or a wine merchant with a royal contract outranks one without such a seal. Lawsuits might teeter on such issues.
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The whole of the cosmos depended, they thought, on the maintenance of this hierarchy. As Ulysses says in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, “Take but degree away, untune that string,/ And, hark, what discord follows!”
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Indeed, most of the Bard’s plays can be summed up as a single plot: the natural order of society is set out of joint (usually by the wrong personage taking the crown), and tragedy follows, until the order is reasserted. After all, God Himself has ordained this order and put the rightful king on the throne.
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This order sift down to the domestic, too. It was assumed that the primate of the home was the man, with his wife his subordinate and the children — first boys, then girls — under her watchful dominion. The oldest boy was superior to the oldest girl, even if she were older than he. As for the children, well, they could boss the dog around. (The Great Chain was immovably patriarchal in substance.)
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We may like to think we have left the Medieval world behind, but really, so much remains in our assumptions of the world, not only the common belief that humans are “higher on the evolutionary scale,” but also our inveterate habit of naming “The Ten Best Movies of 1998,” or ranking the “Sexiest Men in America” or the “100 Best Places to Retire.” Men still strive to be the “Alpha Male.” And no one wants to be “low man on the totem pole.”
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The hierarchical chain still dangles in our culture, and with it the vestiges of pre-Enlightenment thinking.
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We talk of “high culture” and “low culture” in the same way, assigning more merit to the one than the other. And maybe there is, but let’s face it, there’s a lot of high culture that is mere bombast and frippery, and there is some low culture that hits notes of universality. Perhaps we should call them “art culture” and “entertainment culture” instead, and let go the hierarchy.
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The same with highbrow and lowbrow (and that phlegm-inducing catarrh called middlebrow), and with upper class and lower class. It’s really all a wipe.
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The point is, that culture changes very slowly. We are still tribal in many ways, still Roman, still Greek, still Medieval. It’s all still in there, bubbling away and informing even our modern life of iPads and Twitter feeds. We should probably be aware of it, or we’ll get caught thinking in ways unhelpful and misleading.
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And also, we should be a bit humble about our own, current, understanding about how the universe is ordered.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 
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“You’re making me learn too much,” said the third grade boy to his teacher. “My mama says you can only fit so much in your brain or it will explode.”
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I know the feeling. I had that when taking math courses. I was an English major. Oil and water. I have avoided using arithmetic in life as much as is possible. You can imagine my embarrassment when my twin granddaughters, then in third grade, asked me about their math homework. “Don’t you have some vocabulary lessons I can help with?”
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Although our brains might not actually explode, there is a limit to how much one can absorb. And so, it tends to boil down complex ideas into simpler stories. This is true of all complex things, whether politics, religion, psychology or physics. We can remember the stories even if we don’t have a clue about the intricacies behind them.
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Take the Big Bang. Most scientists will tell you the common understanding of the Big Bang is wrong. But the real version is too immeasurably complex to be explained except by pages and pages of math and so, our understanding of black holes is not really scientific. It is a story we believe. Doesn’t mean it isn’t true, but that we civilians cannot comprehend it without making it an image or a story.
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This story functions exactly as myth. We comprehend incomprehensible thing by making stories of them. It isn’t that these stories, or myths, are untrue, only that they are turned from math to prose.
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As I look at the August calendar for the Spirit of the Senses, I wonder what holds all the lecture topics together? Is there a common thread? And, yes, there is: mythology.
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We are too often led astray by a belief that “mythology” is a story told by the ancient peoples to explain what they couldn’t understand, and that now, we modern people have a more secure grip on things, making the old mythologies irrelevant, and more to the point, lies.
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That is clearly a misunderstanding of what myth is and how it functions.
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This first hit me with the initial lecture of the month: Supermassive Black Holes. For an astrophysicist, such as Dr. Doeleman, giving the lecture, black holes are a serious subject of study, and he no doubt has a grasp on them, and the math needed to understand them, in a way we lay people in the audience can never achieve. And so, what we understand instead is the story.
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But it is a persuasive story. There is a “wow” factor that makes black holes a headline grabber whenever some new idea floats up into a newspaper story. Wow — a photograph of a black hole. Who knew? An entity so dense that its overpowering gravity will not let even light escape from it. This is a subject for awe. Science is the facts, myth is the emotional resonance they trail.
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I am not making the case that what we learn from science is untrustworthy, or that it is the one-to-one equivalent of believing in Zeus and Athena. But that unless we are deep in the weeds, where we actually study astrophysics, what we have is a story that explains the vast, unknowable universe. A two-dimensional snapshot instead of the real thing.
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Radar Lane and Danielle Segura will be talking about the night sky seen from the Grand Canyon. This is something I can speak of by experience. I spent time 60 miles from the nearest paved road, at the North Rim of the Canyon and had what can only be described as an epiphany. I wrote about it before, for the Spirit of the Senses. In part, I wrote:
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“So far from civilization, the night sky is a revelation. As the night darkens, the stars pour out like sand from a beach pail. By 7:30 the sky is hysterical. I hadn’t seen so many stars since I was a child. I sensed stars numbered in Carl Sagan’s ‘billions and billions.’
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“The Milky Way ran from north to south like the river of incandescence it is, splitting like a tributary stream from Cygnus to Sagittarius.
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“For two-and-a-half hours I sat there, looking heavenward, trying to do nothing and think nothing. Just look.
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“What at first seemed to be a solid bowl overhead, with pinpricks punched in it for the light to shine through, later took on depth. It became a lake with fish-stars swimming in it at all depths. Then, I suddenly had the sensation of being a figurehead on a ship, or a hood ornament on a car, speeding into the three-dimensional emptiness defined by those stars.
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“I really am on a stony vehicle careening through stars. It is just that in everyday life, we never think of it that way. Given the solitude and the velvet sky, the obvious becomes apparent. The vision-experience may simply be a radical change in perspective.
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“At 3:30 in the morning, awakened by coyotes and owls, I got out of my tent to look at the sky again. It was all turned around. Orion was now up and bright as searchlights. And the Milky Way went east and west, having revolved around the pole star. So, this bullet we’re riding on is rifled.”
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But for me, there is the reality of a night sky that city lights blot away, leaving us only with the snapshots. The spinning Milky Way traversing the inner dome of heaven and the spatter of stars, so far away they cannot be measured in any sense meaningful to our lives on this planet, are the very ground of reality.
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Yet, although quite real, it provides for us an image of the infinite. That is myth’s job. It aligns human life with the universal, and we see ourselves in the cosmos.
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Myth is many things, and I am only talking here about one aspect of it. Myth can also be our collective unconscious, the genetically evolved patterns we put stories into (such as the supposed “hero’s journey”); It can be the hierarchy of deities, as in Greek religion, or Christian mythology, with God at the top and ranks of angels beneath; or myth can be the ritual that serves as metaphor for the experience of living in a natural world, the way christenings, marriages, funerals mark the inevitable stages of life.
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Myth can also be the stories of past cultures written down or remembered. But here, I’m only talking about that aspect of myth that helps us make sense of a cosmos so incomprehensible that only a story can subsume it.
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Toward the end of the month, Sarah Bolmarcich will be talking about ruler-cults in the Ancient Mediterranean, in lecture titled “Rituals and Power.” No doubt listeners will come away with a sense that the myths these ancient kings used to perpetuate their power sound frighteningly contemporary.
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The next night, marine biologist Edith Widder will discuss bioluminescence in the benthic seas, below where sunlight penetrates, and we will see glowing creatures that look like the kind of interstellar aliens dreamt up by Steven Spielberg.
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The light in the darkness is a primal myth, and our fascination with these mesopelagic prove metaphors of intelligence in the darkness of unknowing, or the divine in the welter of time and space. Or nightmare monstrosities in the dark of midnight.
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When New Yorker writer Louis Menand talks about the Cold War, remember that little is as mythopoeic as the division of the world into opposites — oppositions that don’t really describe the world, which is much more diverse and complex, but function as a way to understand the world. In other words, myth as I have been defining it. It used to be the Free World against Communism; then it was Democracy against Islamic Fundamentalism; and it is Red States against Blue States.
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When architect Katherine Dudzik Smith talks about homes, remember that “home” is a place in the mind as much as a ranch house in Sunnyslope. The best architects design to accommodate the inner and outer worlds and make them synchronous. And so, architecture has its mythic elements also. At least good architecture does. Poor design makes life anxious and alienated.
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Kathryn Sorensen will talk about water. Water is life, as anyone in the Salt River Valley understands better than most Americans. Public policy on water issues may seem a very wonky issue, but underneath it is the awareness of Noah, Utnapishtim, Beowulf, the kraken, Jonah and the Great Fish, Captain Nemo and Moby Dick. “I am a river to my people.” The river of life.
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Reporter Ron Hansen will discuss Arizona politics, and this is a prime example. We like to think of politics as being driven by thought and reason, whether we are liberal or conservative. But in reality, what politicians serve up is pure myth. And we buy it, on either side. Gobble it up. Any political world view depends on each of us having a distinct umwelt, or in-built model of the world and how it functions. Or should function. Our sense of the world is an outward projection of our inner selves, in other words: myth.
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The month ends with Nigel Spivey will show “How Art Made the World.” If you have not already seen his 5-part BBC television series, I highly recommend it. “The essential premise of the show,” according to Spivey, “is that of all the defining characteristics of humanity as a species, none is more basic than the inclination to make art. … We humans are alone in developing the capacity for symbolic imagery.”
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That imagery is not only visual, but narrative, too. The stories we tell to explain the world, whether as religious text, novels, poetry, Wall Street Journal editorials, or the bedtime tales we tell our children to get them to sleep, they are all versions of myth.
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One last lecture should be mentioned: Dr. Nathan Pace, a retired anesthesiologist, will talk about the history of his profession. If you have ever undergone surgery, you will recognize the experience of being under anesthesia. Unlike sleep, being under for surgery is dreamless, timeless and blank. When you wake up, you will not know if you were out for 10 minutes or six hours. The time is lost forever, as if it never happened. You have temporarily been taken out of the world of myth, and that is the same as death: non-consciousness. Without myth, there is no human life. To be human is to live brightly in a world defined by myth.
 
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen
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Answers can be great. Sometimes we need to ask what’s for dinner, or what’s the capital of Nepal. Answers come when you ask someone who knows, or when you turn to Wikipedia. But answers often come at a cost. For in many ways, answers are a dead end. 
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After you have an answer, the question vanishes. Your attention is no longer required. You are free to move on. And yet, it is usually the questions that are more interesting. And the best questions don’t have answers. 
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I was thinking of this the other day when I was bothered by tiny flying insects — no bigger than the period at the end of a printed sentence — and one landed near me. I looked at it and couldn’t help wonder about what is life. Does this tiny bit of sealed protoplasm have a consciousness? It there a sense of an individuality packaged within this minuscule dot? Is life merely the will to project itself into the future? 
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There seems to be a continuous line of reproduction from the earliest agglutination of nucleic acid in the primordial soup billions of years ago. Is that all there is to life? And are we humans merely a more organized and complex train stop on the long route, not much more, in the cosmic order of things than the pencil dot I was looking at, which flew off again — probably looking for a mate. 
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The cicada lives inchoate in the soil for years, only to emerge for the sole purpose of laying a new set of eggs in the soil, where the next generation sits, inert, for the next set of years. When one of ours suffers brain death and lies in a coma and on a ventilator for the same number of years, is that what the cicada’s life is like underground? 
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When I sleep, I am still aware of the hours passing. I can wake up in the middle of the night and have a decent idea of what the clock says. But under anesthesia for a minor medical procedure, the time is just snipped out and gone. You drop off and wake with no sense of intervening time. There seems to be no consciousness at all in the lost minutes: Non-existence. A very different experience from a nap. I was still alive, of course, but with no awareness. Life cannot be defined as consciousness. 
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Yet there is clearly something I share with the midge that buzzes around my ear. I look at protozoan life in pond water under a microscope and wonder, “Mon semblable, mon frere?” A thou, not an it. 
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Perhaps there is a scientific definition of life, although in all my looking, I’ve never found one that everyone can agree on. And for all our wondering, we can never really prove if the gnat has a conscious sense of itself. Or whether it matters one way or another if it does. 
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This might all well devolve into a college sophomore’s late-night bull session, perhaps under the influence of psychoactive smoke. “What if we’re all, like, just holograms being played like a video game by some alien civilization? I mean, like, wow.” Take another puff. 
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But in truth, there are many unanswerable questions, and not all of them as silly as the old “How many angels can fit on the head of a pin?” Or the student’s “Maybe all the planets swirling around the sun, are just electrons circling the nucleus of an atom for an entire wider order of existence?” 
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Some of the most engaging questions either have never been answered or never can be. Sometimes, though, even questions are beside the point. Take a step back from an answer to find a question; take a step back from the question and find an experience. 
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Experience is primal. Before anything else, before any question, before any answer, there is the experience of being alive. And it is this simple act of noticing, of paying attention, that is so often passed over as we seek answers. 
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When my late wife, Carole, was a little girl, her grandfather would take her out to the woods. “What’s that?” she would ask. “Don’t ask, just look,” he told her. What had seemed inert, just a field or a pond — easy to name — slowly came alive with a million individual points, each wriggling, dancing, staring back. 
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“One day, we stopped at a little black pool in the woods and we lay down in the pool on our stomachs. He showed me how to lower my chin and nose into the water so that the water came up just beneath our eyes and then he said, now look. The top of the water had turned into something like a wonderful skating pond and there were dozens of tiny insects, many different kinds, skating across the water, hopping, taking off, landing and I knew this must have been his favorite game when he was a child.”
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I had a college teacher (I would call him a “professor,” but he was truly a teacher) who gave me one of the most important lessons I needed to become an art critic — my career for 25 years. In class, we would look at a painting, or listen to music, and he would ask, “What do you see (hear)?” We students would answer with, “That’s Canaletto’s view of Venice,” or “That’s a crucifixion.” And he would press us. “No. What do you see?” It was not about naming, but about looking, about listening. You see groups of two and three people, and then groups of two and three clouds, or boats, or doors on a cathedral and you realize, he was a clever bastard wasn’t he? 
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It is looking that is the reason for art, not the decoding or the meaning. It is the listening, the paying of attention. 
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What Carole learned about sitting still in the woods and waiting, I learned also about standing in front of a painting and slowly absorbing what is there. Finding a name for something is quick, and we are certainly encouraged in this society, to be efficient. Naming is the quick classifying of something so we can move on to the next. Naming is the answer. The dead end. We are taught to approach art like we might a New Yorker cartoon. Boom! You get the joke and turn the page for the next. But art is a slow-release form. It takes time to experience. Attention must be paid. 
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And you must do so without prejudice. And I mean that in a legal sense — you must not make up your mind what it is or what it might mean. You must simply absorb what is there. 
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Ultimately, you may discover that it has nothing to do with meaning. It is there to give you an experience. 
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A few months ago, I was visiting my brother-in-law, Mel, and his wife. I brought along a sack of DVDs and we watched movies at night. I had picked out a series of high-art films and as we were watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Mel is an artist, and loves the same kind of films I do. But Tarkovsky was stumping him. “What does it mean?” he asked. 
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It is the question that is almost always asked when faced with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Joyce’s Ulysses, Picasso’s satyrs, Beethoven’s Appassionata, Rimbaud’s Bateau Ivre. What is Melville’s white whale? What are Jackson Pollock’s squiggles and spurts all about? What are Yayoi Kusama’s mirrored stars supposed to be telling us? 
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Ah, but you’re asking the wrong questions. And any question is wrong, or at least misguided. 
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When I suggested to Mel that he not worry about all that, but rather to experience what he was seeing, he got it immediately, and appreciated the gift Tarkovsky was giving him. A human experience.  
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 

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by Richard Nilsen
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In the past, I’ve attempted an autobiography. Not for anyone public to read — there is no thought to ever having it published. Nor is there any thought here of burdening you with any of it. But in the process of writing it, I have found out several things that might be of interest, not so much about me, as about memory and writing.
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The idea first came up about 25 years ago when I realized that me and my two brothers had gone different ways in our lives, and that, over the years as I went off to college and left home, and then as my younger brother did the same, and baby brother did, too, what we knew of each other had shrunk. Each had an interesting life of his own and I knew precious little of those lives. And so, I proposed that we each write a short overview of our lives and careers for the two other brothers to read.
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It seemed like a natural idea. But I did not take into account that I was a writer by birth and that my two brothers were not. They had other talents — considerable talents in visual arts and woodworking — but they were not really writers, while I, cursed as I am with the word-bug, couldn’t stop: The short memoir I began grew quickly to 250 pages and I had barely finished writing about getting out of college. It was clear that if I continued in the same vein, my short bit would soon pass 500 pages before I even got to my second official wife (the unofficial wife took up better than a third of what I had written). Was there that much interesting to relate? To me, maybe, but to anyone else? Even to a brother?
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My first surprise in the doing was the way memory functions. Each time I dredged up some recollection, it showed me three others, like entering a room and finding three other doors to open. And each door I opened led to another room with three more doors, and so on. The amount of a material that remained, somehow crammed into my neurons, left me dumbfounded. I did not know I knew so much.
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The whole exercise was Proustian. I have no doubt that for anyone else who tries, the results would be similar: There is so much buried in the skullbone, waiting only to be dug up and resurrected.
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The second big surprise was in the difficulty in arranging this material. We may think it would all work out chronologically — when I was two, I did this; when I was four, I did the other, etc. But the information spilled out thematically more than sequentially. And so, I found myself pulling the string on one aspect of my life more completely before going back to start over with another string.
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In the rewriting (I apologize, but for anyone who makes his living by word, writing is rewriting), I found I needed to jump years and jump subjects, weaving them back and forth, just to keep any forward momentum in the paragraphs. It turns out that there is no simple timeline. A life is a jumbled mess.
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To relate the amatory line, you must segue from one relationship to another, explaining the mishaps and outrages which led from one to the next. The career line, however does not parallel the amatory, and requires its own passages. There is another line on what you thought politically, another for whatever travels you have taken, another for the books that you read and have influenced you most deeply. None of these line up easily, and to jump from one to the other muddies the cause-and-effect in any singular narrative.
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Then, too, there is the question of what you are willing to say about certain unsavory episodes, or if you are willing to name names. If such a memoir were to be commercially published, there would be the question of potential libel. But even if only meant for private eyes, there are peoples’ feelings to consider. You want to be diplomatic, but sometimes doing so misrepresents the truth.
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Oh, there’s that word — a true bugaboo. What counts as truth? In the series of memoirs written by Australian critic Clive James, he tells us outright with his title: Unreliable Memoirs. Andre Gregory’s recent book is titled This Is Not My Memoir.
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If “names are changed to protect the innocent,” can such a book be trusted as being truthful?
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Truth in autobiography is subject to memory, and memory is subject both to failed synapses — increasing with age — and also to the tendency in human utterance to create coherence, even if none is to be found. We make stories of our memories, and when we tell the memories over too many times, the story becomes the memory rather than vice versa.
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How many times have I related some episode, only to have a brother remind me, “No, that’s not how it happened.” He has his recollection and it contradicts mine, even though in my memory, my version is as clear as a rung bell. (Occasionally a third version is proffered, and no one will agree, which makes a thoughtful person question if there is any way to pin these things down.)
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And so, any memoir is a version of a many-sided truth. You may remember an argument with your ex-wife one way, while she may remember something wholly different. Perhaps both are right. Perhaps you are even remembering different arguments. Keeping a life straight becomes more confused the more you find yourself recollecting. Pile on pile of memory: Did this happen first, or did that happen first? Did that fight cause the breakup? Or was that one a year earlier? I am 73 now. Things that happened 50 or 60 years ago lose their sequential clarity.
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In part, I also wrote what I wrote because my parents and grandparents didn’t. When I was a boy, I never thought about my family having a life previous to my arrival. When I was older, I had other preoccupations. And when I finally got old enough to ask, my grandparents were gone. I tried doing an “oral history” with my parents, but they had little to say. Perhaps it was the fact they lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War and would rather have forgotten the past, but getting anything out of them was squeezing rocks.
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And later, when I had specific questions about family history they might have been able to answer, they were gone, too.
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And so, I wanted to get down on paper what I could, in case that moment might ever arrive, after I’m gone, when my son or my twin granddaughters might wish they had been able to ask me those questions.
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To this end, I also tried to get my wife to relate her stories of life and childhood. I would sit her down, and like George Burns saying to Gracie Allen, “So, tell us about your brother, Gracie,” and she’d be off to the races. Carole was like that: She had a million stories, some of them as Southern Baroque as anything Faulkner wrote. I typed as fast as she spoke, and I got much down, but I’m afraid Carole did not live long enough to finish the project. Still, I have many bits preserved for her granddaughters, for whenever they might be ready for them.
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She grew up in rural North Carolina in the 1940s and her family kept animals — a cow, some hogs and chickens. When she was 8 or 9, it was her job to feed the chickens. She told me this story:
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“They were mine to feed and to water,” she said.
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“One evening when Papa E [her grandfather] had come home from a trip to Florida, he brought a big wet burlap sack filled with oysters. We built a hickory fire in the back yard and buried the oysters in the coals to roast. Then we opened the oysters while we were standing around the fire and ate them with Texas Pete sauce. They were so, so wonderful. And it was the first time I had seen the beautiful lining inside oyster shells.
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“After the oyster roast, I collected all the shells and kept them. For me, they were very precious China dishes.
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“We kept our chicken feed in an oil drum across the street in the warehouse with the cow. I would lean over, hanging my ribs on the oil drum and scoop up chicken scratch and carry a bucket full across the street back to the chicken lot, which happened to be directly under my bedroom window. My favorite view of the river was from my bed. I could sit in my bed, look out my window and see the flood waters almost up to the house, when we had heavy rains.
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“One day, I had an idea about feeding the chickens. I could give each chicken its own little dish — my own little oyster plates — and fill each with chicken feed. When I got the oyster shells, I arranged them in a huge pattern that spelled out the letters of my name. My plan was to fill them up with chicken feed then run as fast as I could to my bedroom window and looking out the window, see my name spelled out in chickens.
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“I lost respect for chickens on that day: They insisted on eating 15 at a time, at one shell. I lost respect for them in two ways. First for their obvious lack of intelligence and second for their lack of refinement.”
 

Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 
 
 
 

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by Richard Nilsen
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My house is filled with books, and so many that I will never live long enough to read them all. It is a personal version of a universal problem: So much has been written over the past 4500 years that no one can ingest more than a wee fraction of the total. That’s four and a half millennia of culture. So, what counts, these days, as being cultured, or well-read? 
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No work of literature or art exists in a vacuum. Even the newest book has a past. Culture is an accumulation: Each new work builds on the past, and requires a shared understanding of that past with its audience. Just as you have to learn vocabulary in order to read, so you need some handle on the past to fully understand what is written now. But, there is too much for any one person to absorb, and no way for any author to assume his readers will recognize and vibrate to what is there, subliminally, in the works. That past is there even in best-sellers by Diana Gabaldon or Dean Koontz. 
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There used to be an agreed upon canon of literature that any well-educated person was assumed to be familiar with. But, as the world shrank through communication advances and progress in transportation, the canon looked increasingly provincial. It was almost wholly white, male, and European. What of Asia and Africa? Why were there not more women included? Perhaps, too, that white European bias was the root evil of colonialism. 
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I can’t answer all these questions, but it is important to raise them as we begin to lose the common cultural inheritance that the canon used to provide. Acres of writers over the past centuries have quoted or riffed upon the words of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. It was assumed that anyone with a decent education (even a decent high-school education) would understand the references. When Abraham Lincoln wrote “Fourscore and seven years ago…” his listeners would have tacitly resonated to the biblical “three score and ten” years allotted to a human life. He could have just said, “Eighty-seven years ago,” but he didn’t. The force of the Bible gave his words a tidal power that made his rhetoric memorable. 
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We just had a three-part Ken Burns documentary on Ernest Hemingway. Papa’s novels drip with the power of allusion. The Sun Also Rises comes from Ecclesiastes 1:5. For Whom The Bell Tolls rings from John Donne. A Farewell to Arms has Vergil’s Aeneid buried in it. 
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T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland is a midden of such buried cultural memes. Some are explicated in the notes at the end of the poem (should poetry require footnotes?), but most are just there to be felt or be vaguely familiar. The poet expected his readers to share his erudition and quietly appreciate the roots that sprouted the verse. Eliot, in his notes, tells us that line 23 (“And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief”) is a gloss on Ecclesiastes 12:5 (“the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden”), which seems a bit of a stretch, but he doesn’t feel it necessary to point out that the opening line of the poem (“April is the cruelest month”) is an ironic reversal of Chaucer’s “Whan that Aprille with its shoures soute…”). He thought that too obvious to mention. What in today’s world can be considered too obvious to mention? 
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Eliot’s poetry, itself, is now the cause of allusion (“I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas…” Ask Woody Allen). 
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There are at least two problems with such allusions. The first is epitomized by Ezra Pound, who so completely built his Cantos on fragments from obscure writers and historical figures that no one without the same erudition as himself could have any clear idea what he was talking about. If the main point of your reference is the reference, the main point is also pointless. And Pound’s reading was so idiosyncratic and esoteric that no reasonable human should be expected to share it. 
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The second problem is best displayed in the work of John Milton. There is no doubt of Milton’s greatness as a poet: He is the second-most quoted author after Shakespeare. Bartlett’s is stuffed with him. But Milton was so casually familiar with the Bible and Classical writers that you often now need a gloss to know what he means when he writes of his muse that intends to ”soar Above th’ Aonian mount” which his educated readers would have known was Mount Helicon, where the Greek muses lived by the Hippocrene spring, a spring created by the hoof-stamp of Pegasus, the winged horse that symbolized poetic inspiration because he could fly to the top of Mount Olympus, home of the gods. Any self-respecting gentleman of the time, with any degree of education, could read Ovid in Latin and would be familiar with all the gods, godlets and nymphs and fauns mentioned in The Metamorphoses, a foundational work of Western literature and thus slide past them knowingly while reading Paradise Lost. Few of our contemporaries read Ovid and hence the need for footnotes. Now you can go through 12 years of public school and four years of university and never getting any closer to Ovid than a NASCAR fan to the ballet. 
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When novelist William Styron wrote about his battle with depression, he named the book Darkness Visible, referencing Milton. Milton also shows up in Philip Pullman’s science-fiction classic, His Dark Materials. There was a Playstation video game named Pandemonium. For someone so seldom read, Milton gets around. 
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We should expect that cultural reference comes and goes, it blossoms and then fades with time. Once, Milton was one everyone’s tongue, now he is for doctoral candidates. Once the Bible was lingua franca, now, it seems, those who know the book at all only know the parts they like and ignore the rest.  (“Who’s the greatest contortionist in the Bible?” “Balaam, because the Bible says he tied his ass to a tree and walked away.”) The best-known of Shakespeare is still recognizable, but I venture few would remember to context to “Put out the light, then, put out the light” or “All that glisters is not gold.” “To be or not to be” is too familiar, but even those who can quote the first six words of the soliloquy probably don’t know the rest of it contemplates suicide, or where it comes in the Hamlet story — or why. 
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It has always been the habit of the educated — the initiates in the cultural legacy — to lament the loss of that inheritance, and condemn the ignorance of the younger generations. I have been guilty of that myself, because I have spent so much time imbibing my cultural past and fear the loss of meaning that evaporates with the loss of memory of past culture. I, who know Gilgamesh and Beowulf, who reads the Iliad annually, who have ingested my Ovid and Livy, my Melville and Faulkner, weep for those bereft of such treasures. But I need to recognize the evanescence of such knowledge. One set of cultural touchstones is inevitably replaced by a new set, piece by piece, like the original wood of the Argo. 
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I doubt we can do without a cultural gravity pulling us toward a center, but it needn’t be the one that worked in the past. Just watch a Quentin Tarantino film and see how the cinematic past enriches the Pulp Fiction present, how he uses the styles of Hong Kong in Kill Bill, or the tropes of Western movies in The Hateful Eight. Inglourious Basterds is built, not on a knowledge of history so much as on the digested habits of World War II movies — and in much the same way as Paradise Lost is rooted in Ovid and Vergil. Just as Milton expected his readers to be familiar with Ovid, so Tarantino expects his audience to be familiar with Johnnie To and William Wyler. 
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I have recognized that my own cultural memory is mine and must let the younger generation have theirs. But I nevertheless worry that mine subsumes four millennia of accumulation building on itself, while what I see in the coming cultural horizon barely extends back a hundred years. My granddaughters do stunningly well at school — now at university — but neither knows any Bible stories. This is not picking on them: No one who is secular in their generation does. How much of their cultural patrimony is blank? Nor does their generation soak up Sophocles, Dante, Hawthorne or Yeats. They have their touchstones, but I cannot but worry that their inner lives are undernourished for it, l’eau sans gaz
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But is my inner life starving because I cannot read Latin? French? Russian? Chinese? I think of all the books I haven’t read. The list seems nearly infinite. My own bookshelves shame me. I own the books that populate them, but I haven’t gotten around to reading everything waiting there, inviting me in. There isn’t time. 
 
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 
 
 

 
 
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by Richard Nilsen
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I’ve been everywhere, man. I’ve been everywhere.
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Well, maybe not everywhere, but a whole hell of a lot of places. I’ve been to every state except Hawaii, and every Canadian province except Prince Edward Island and Labrador. I’ve seen the Atlantic and Pacific, but also the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, the North Sea, the Sea of Cortez and Hudson Bay — my personal seven seas. I have crossed the Atlantic on an ocean liner and the continent twice by train. I’ve set foot in 14 countries as far north as the Yukon and south as the Cape of Good Hope.
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Not as impressive as it might sound at first. Lots of us have camped through Europe or vacationed in Cancun. Compared with real world travelers, I’m only a middling cosmopolitan. Compared with Michael Palin, I’m a shut-in. But I’ve seen more of the world than most of my fellow Americans.
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And perhaps I have not swum the Hellespont like Leander or Lord Byron, nor circled the globe in 72 days, like Nelly Bly, but I’ve seen the Rhine at night in Dusseldorf; driven the length of the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico; spent a snowy Christmas eating hot homemade cookies at the home of a Hopi friend in Walpi on First Mesa in Arizona; twice circumambulated Walden Pond in Concord, Mass.; I have seen the menhirs of Brittany.
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“I’ve been everywhere, man, I’ve been everywhere.” The song sung by Hank Snow lists dozens of towns — “Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota, Wichita, Tulsa, Ottawa Oklahoma Tampa …” It goes on for four verses. “Boston Charleston, Dayton, Louisiana, Washington, Houston …” “Louisville, Nashville, Knoxville …” “ Pittsburgh, Parkersburg, Gravelbourg …”
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Wait — Gravelbourg? Maybe I haven’t been everywhere. Or maybe I have: I’ve driven through southern Saskatchewan, and so maybe I passed through Gravelbourg without knowing it. It’s a sneeze on the prairie, not much more.
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The song names 91 locations and I’ve been to most of them.
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(The song was originally about Australia, written by Aussie country singer Geoff Mack in 1959 and named “Mooloolaba, Murwillumbah, Ulladulla, Wallumbilla and Kumbarilla, among other peculiarly Australian place names. The song was then adapted by Rolf Harris with British toponyms, before being rewritten for North America and Hank Snow. Later localized versions have appeared for Finland, Germany, Czechoslovakia and Catalonia. A version also made it to The Simpsons, listing “Springfield, Shelbyville, Ogdenville, Cap City, Ogdenburg, Shelbytown, Spring City Cap Field, West Springfield, Paris, Rome and Shelbyville Adjacent.” As a trope, the song is infinitely adaptable.)
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So, maybe not Gravelbourg.
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When I hear Hank Snow singing “I been everywhere, man,” I count the place names as they tick off and check them on my own list. “Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota…” Yes, yes, yes, check, check, check.
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And Bobby Troup singing “Don’t forget Winona,” well, yes, been there many times.
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I cannot mention everything. The list is already grown tedious and begins to sound like bragging. I don’t mean that: I believe a similar list can be put together for almost everyone, although it will likely be very different from mine. Not everyone has eaten grilled mopane worms or drunk spit-fermented Zulu beer. Or needs to.
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But I meant to say, before being distracted by Hank Snow and Mooloolaba, that travel has meant as much to me as my college degree, as much as the books I have amassed and read. Travel gave me a sense of the world. An awareness of other lands, other peoples, other cultures and foods. But also a physical, palpable sense. The air feels different in South Africa, where the humidity soaks the air thick drifting in from the Indian Ocean. The light strikes the land differently in Norway, when the sun hangs low in the sky. The sun hits the skin like a hammer in an Arizona summer.
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And escaping the confines of birthplace can give a sense of this being a round-ball planet we inhabit. And it is round. I remember driving across the empty plains of western Nebraska and feeling as if I was coasting across the top of a great dome. Below the crest I rode I could see the tips of grain elevators downhill before me and behind in the rear-view mirror. The closer I got, the more of the elevator I could see until I shared the top of the dome with it, and then watched it recede down the backside of the dome until it was drowned by the horizon.
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This wasn’t an optical illusion, but the factual case that I was on the top of a dome — the globe of the earth. A gnat on a basketball. Most of the time, you live a life on a flat earth, the center of a circular horizon. But when the horizon opens out, as it does on the prairie, you can see far enough to intuit the way the land drops away from you in all directions. As I drive, I am king of the hill.
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Two other times I became intensely aware of the curvature of the earth. The most dramatic was in South Carolina, at dawn standing on the beach. The sun broke the horizon over the Atlantic and when it is that low, you can actually see it moving as it rises. But then, suddenly, it stopped moving in the sky, the way it did for Joshua, and instead, the whole earth cranked up, like a giant ferris wheel and lurched toward the steady sun. I nearly lost my balance as the planet beneath my feet dropped to the east. I knew in a Galilean flash that “Eppur si muove,” “Still, it moves.”
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Another time, I was standing on top of Roden Crater, the extinct volcano in Northern Arizona that was shaped into an art installation by James Turrell. It was evening and the sun was going down. Turrell turned me to the east and said, “Night is said to fall, but it doesn’t. It rises.” And he pointed out the shadow of the round earth against the sky, cast by the lowered sun against the air and the sharp line between light and dark there, that rose slowly upwards from the horizon, until it was gobbled up in the general darkness of night. I was awestruck. I have sought this effect many times since, and occasionally found it, but it is hard to see it where the lights of the town and city glare out the dusk.
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In 1982, my wife and I were both schoolteachers and had the summers to travel. We got in her Chevy Citation and put 10,000 miles on the odometer in two months and a bit, making a great circumnavigation of the Lower Forty-Eight. That many miles give you a seat-of-the-pants appreciation of a distance more than a third of the way around the planet. I have a body-feel sense of just how large (really, how small) the Earth is. In subsequent summers, we drove enough over the several years to finish the distance around the equator.
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Many years later, I had to drive from Phoenix to North Carolina over a weekend. Believe me, that was hauling miles. In one day, I put more than 900 miles under my wheels, which means that in a month of such days, I would have counted another trip around the world, pace Nelly Bly.
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I’ve been everywhere, man. I’ve been everywhere.
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Been to Chartres four times; and descended the kivas at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. Climbed the bell tower (illegally) at the National Cathedral in Washington; been to the Normandy beaches of D-Day; to the shell craters still visible at Verdun;  stood on the piazza that Herman Melville built at Arrowhead, his home in Pittsfield, Mass. with its view of Mount Greylock (“Charlemagne among his peers”); to all the major Civil War battle sites; and across the Old North Bridge in Concord, Mass.
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I have hiked a fair portion of the Appalachian Trail; camped in the Canadian Rockies; and 65 miles from the nearest paved road on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. I’ve have ridden a horse into Canyon de Chelly in Arizona and paddled a canoe down the white water of the Mayo River in North Carolina (admittedly, not a scary rapids).
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Given a long enough life, we have all filled those years with meaning. Travel is one of my greatest fountains of meaning. I add it to the list.
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But we can all say, after a long life, full of boons and banes, joys and privations, evils we have done, and those we have suffered, the loves we have failed at and those that stuck and nourished our lives, “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.”
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen

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Right from the beginning, let me present my bona fides by stipulating that I am an idiot. Oh, I know a lot of stuff, but the ratio of what I know to what I don’t know approaches the infinite. It can hardly be otherwise.
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Just for starters, higher mathematics is, for me, impenetrable. I made it through high school algebra, but the calculus might as well be the Greek. Or rather the language of bonobos: I actually studied Greek in college (not that I recall much of it — still more than I can parse out derivatives or integrals). I’m much stronger in the humanities than in STEM subjects. Which is not to say they don’t interest me. They do. But my grasp of quantum physics ends with Otto Theimer’s book, A Gentleman’s Guide to Modern Physics, and that came out in 1973. I have a lot of catching up to do.
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But then, I doubt most physicists could tell the difference between Bruckner and Mahler in under three bars. Or explain the use of the caesura in Middle English verse. These are different universes. There is just too much to know. If you understand spooky action at a distance, you don’t necessarily know how to replace the struts on a 1997 Honda. Or the succession of dynasties in ancient Egypt. Or how to speak Cambodian or read the odd script in which it’s written. Or even how to make a good omelet.
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A million brilliant minds in a million years could not completely absorb the knowledge, just of things that are known, without even considering all that is still unknown and even unknowable. But there is one unknowable thing that everyone knows. The self.
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I know my self. I have lived with me my whole life, and while I know my self intimately, I also know I can never know anyone else’s self. I can understand; I can empathize; but I cannot know.
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And what is this self? I fall back on the wisdom of Potter Stewart. I cannot define or explain my self, but I am at every moment of my life aware of it, functioning like a motor, or sitting like the operating system in my laptop.
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That self is the axis mundi. It is the center of the universe and all else extends from it. I don’t mean that in an egotistical way; I am well aware of my own insignificance. But that perceptually, I am at the center of anything I know and the world spreads outward from my self. If you recall the images of Einstein’s gravity, with a kind of trampoline graph paper and a ball dropped into it, weighing down the center — that is the self in the world.
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I can know that I am only one such center among 7 billion such centers, but neither can I escape my own punctus there in the fabric of time and space.
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This March, The Spirit of the Senses has four salons about this very subject. Each of the speakers is smarter and more educated than me, and I wish I could be there for these lectures. They will understand the philosophical and neuro-biological complexities of the issue. But there is something I know that they don’t: What it is to be me.
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Too often, we speak of selfhood in terms of roles: I am a father, a brother, a writer, a geezer, a widower. But these are masks or personae. I have never thought of them as having anything to do with me self. No matter what role I play at any given moment, it is mere surface; underneath is the permanent bubbling self: my perpetual awareness.
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When I hear someone is suffering an “identity crisis,” I confess, I am confused. I have never experienced something like this. I am me. Who else could I be? There is something rock solid and permanent about that inner thing that remains constant from my first awareness until now. Me.
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Philosophers from Aristotle to Aaron Sloman have set their cogitative faculties in a cogibundity of cogitation over the issue of what, exactly, is the self, and for 2,500 years, no single answer has been satisfactory.
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Descartes famously postulated Cogito ergo sum. And broke the mind apart from the body. We’ve been trying to reassemble them ever since. In the 19th century, the Romantic writers gave a different formulation: Ego sentio ergo sum — “I feel, therefore I am.” Aristotle, Descartes and Sloman are all very much smarter than I am, so I have no good answer. But I still experience a self.
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I have known people with shattered selves, so I don’t mean to sound smug about this. A shattered self can leave one in a state of depersonalization, where the victim can look into their closet and not know whose clothes those are, or even look in a mirror and not recognize who they see. There is a discontinuity in the awareness. But for most humans, the self is left unquestioned, and probably unquestionable.
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At the Temple of Delphi there is a famous inscription: “Know thyself.” But I believe you can never know your self, you rather, experience your self.
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It is the gears under the hood, the tape that records, the eye that sees without judgement. On top of that self, we layer our world views, our belief systems, our judgements and opinions. But the self sits almost like the dragon in its cave. It just is. “I am that I am.” Ego sum ergo sum.
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I see this clearly looking at the series of pictures of myself from when I was an infant to now, when I am an old man. In between come the student, the husband, the ex-, the career, the exhaustion, the grayed hairs, the grandfather. Which is me? Instead, what I see are frames from a continuous movie and the only reality that counts is the movement, the constant flux from one being into another, no boundaries, no scene changes, no new chapter headings, but one continuous wipe, from beginning to an end now approaching close enough almost to touch.
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That flow, that constant metamorphosis, is me. Not the infant, not the student, not the husband or the old man with a short future, but the wipe, the smear, the river.
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It is perpetual churn. There is no end to labor; we keep working, moving, changing until we are no longer aware of the changes that will take over when we die.
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Even when asleep and dreaming, it is this same self that experiences the dreams. If I take hashish, it is this self that enjoys the heightened color and depressed time. When I am awake and sober, it is the same self that acts and reflects. It is the foundation on which all else is constructed.
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Many have tried to name it or its parts: Ego, Id, etc. And it is all there, I suppose. But they remain names, like “carburetor” or “spark plug.” An easy way to discuss in words what is not verbal. But my interest is in the unity, not the bits. If it is all integrated, it becomes a single self. As Popeye had it, “I am what I am and that’s all what I am.”
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I suppose I have been lucky never to doubt my self. I don’t mean that I never doubt myself, i.e., my actions or thoughts. I do that all the time. I have held many doubtful opinions. Every professional critic has; it comes with the territory. But that underlying river of selfness has never wavered. It has given me a confidence in life. Even the confidence to be wrong without taking it personally. The dragon lours in his cave with a sleepy eye watching it all pass in front of him.
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Or maybe not. I am an idiot. I know nothing. Nothing but that I am.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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by Richard Nilsen

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It hit me in third grade, which is pretty much the average age that it hits most young boys: the dinosaur obsession. I read every book my grade-school library had on the subject, learned the names of all the dinosaurs, and constantly drew them with crayon or pencil. I owned All About Dinosaurs by Roy Chapman Andrews and could recite chapter and verse. 
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That year, my grandmother gave me for my birthday a giant maroon volume called The World We Live In, by the editors of Life magazine. It had lots of pictures of dinosaurs and set me up for years. I still have it; in fact I can turn my head at my desk and see it now. It was for me what her bible was for her. It was sacred. 
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And I would make an expedition, whenever my parents would take me, or my school would schedule a class trip, to the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, where I knew that Roy Chapman Andrews worked. Their dinosaur displays were my Bettelheim enchantment. 
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In turn, each year, I developed some new interest. Often some new chapter in The World We Live In. I learned all about whales one year, about astronomy another. Like many of my ilk, I would specialize and squeeze everything out of the subject and then move on. I wanted to devour the world. 
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But third grade was dinosaurs. But these were very different beasts from those that fascinate third graders today. Mine were giant cold-blooded, scaly-skinned reptiles that dragged their vast tails along the ground and no one had an answer to the mystery of why they died out. 
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Today, of course, those third graders know that warm-blooded pre-birds wore plumes of feathers like some prehistoric Quetzalcoatl. They held their tails up proudly like so many cats. And it was a giant meteorite that killed them off. Times change, and prehistoric beasts change with them. It has forced even the august American Museum of Natural History to tear up its iconic dino-exhibits and recreate them to account for the updated paleontology. Such re-writes have not been unusual for history — or science. 
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That branch of science we call paleontology hit its first stride in England beginning in the early 1800s, when the first dinosaur fossils were recognized and begun to be classified. In 1822, in Cuckfield, West Sussex, a doctor from Lewes named Gideon Mantell — or his wife, Mary Ann (stories vary) — discovered a fossil tooth of a prehistoric beast they named “Iguanodon,” based on supposed similarities between the fossil tooth and the teeth of iguanas. It set off a fad for bone-hunting, and soon more fossils were excavated, and in 1834, a pile of bones were dug from a quarry in Maidstone, about 30 miles east of London. Mantell acquired the pile and attempted to reconstruct his iguanodon from the bits. His initial drawing looked something rather like a giant squirrel. 
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In the bones was a horn, which Mantell assumed was like a rhinoceros horn or that of his iguana. And so he drew it on the nose. 
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 In 1842, the anatomist Richard Owen coined the word “dinosaur” for the recent finds. He attempted a more accurate reconstruction of the iguanodon and came up with a reptilian rhino, horn still on nose. 
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This was the version of iguanodon that served as model for the giant reproduction in concrete made for the Crystal Palace in London (still there to be seen today). And while the statues were being made, in 1853, Owen and a group of scientists, businessmen and journalists ate a well-publicized New Year’s Eve dinner inside the unfinished 30-foot-long iguanodon. They ate mutton cutlets with tomato, partridge stew, curried rabbit, and filets of sole. Owen sat at the head of the table, in the hood of the hollow iguanodon’s skull. 
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The dinner kicked off a veritable Victorian dino-craze. and various scientists and amateurs went around the geology with pick and hammer trying to unearth new fossils. 
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Actually, it had already been going on for a few eager bone hunters. In 1824, bits of a Megalosaurus was found; in 1833, a Hylacosaurus; in 1836, the first dinosaur footprints. But after that, it was an explosion: in 1856, the Trachodon; in ensuing years, the Hadrosaur, Compsognathus, Archaeopteryx, Bronto- and Stegosauruses; and, by the end of the century, Triceratops and Diplodocus. These were all names I could reel off in the third grade. Jackpot came in 1902 with the Tyrannosaurus Rex. 
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The year after the dinner in the belly of the beast, Samuel Beckles found giant three-toed footprint fossils in the Isle of Wight. He later discovered the hind limb of an iguanodon and the foot matched the prints, and so it was decided that the iguanodon was not a four-legged rhino-reptile, but stood like a kangaroo, on its hind legs. This completely revamped thinking about the beast, and for the next hundred years, iguanodon rather mimicked Godzilla. 
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Then, in 1878, a whole herd of iguanodon fossils were discovered in a coal mine in Bernissart, Belgium. These confirmed that Iggy’s back legs were longer than his front, and so confirmed (so they thought) the upright posture. More importantly, the horn no longer fit the nose, but turned out to be the thumbs of the dinosaur, held firmly in the perpetual position of the hitchhiker. In 1895, the British Museum of Natural History acquired an iguanodon skeleton and assembled the pieces into its kangaroo pose that held up for a century. 
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This was, of course, the version I grew up with. Upright, tail-dragging like a Piper Cub, and with his spikes giving us the “Thumbs-up” gesture. But in the 1990s, closer study of the fossil skeletons, reexamined with newer methods and anatomical knowledge, changed things once again. The iguanodon was set back on four legs once more, although allowing him to rotate upwards on his back legs occasionally to reach food. And it turns out the the vertebrae and their attending tendons were stiff, and the iguanodon tail did not drag, but, more like the cat wagging its tail to announce its mood, held out stiffly backwards and in the air. 
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You have to wonder what the future holds out for the iguanodon. The future constantly reinvents the past. It is the heart of science to do so. The sun used to revolve around the earth; then it didn’t. Atoms were the smallest particles of matter until protons, neutrons and electrons were found and then until quarks were posited, and now we wonder about string theory. Maybe no particles at all, just vibrations. 
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When I was a boy in my astronomy phase, there was a viable argument between Fred Hoyle’s “Steady State” theory of the expanding cosmos, and the newer “Big Bang” theory. The expanding universe found by Edwin Hubble shouldered out any idea we could have had of the static cosmos that had held sway for millennia. New discoveries and reformulated conceptions have pushed science ahead, sometimes by inches, sometimes by light years. 
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The continents were rock solid until they started floating around the world like barges. Plagues were caused by “bad air,” until bacteria and viruses were discovered. Phlogiston was the substance of fires before the role of oxygen was understood. 
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Sometimes the changes circle back on themselves, like the once-again four-legged iguanodon. In the ancient and Medieval worlds, moods were controlled by the four humors. Psychology gave up on such things and went Freudian, and now, neuroscientists have rediscovered brain chemistry — really the humors updated and modernized. 
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The people who created these theories and ideas were not stupid. We should not hold ourselves superior to them. They were working with the data available and were often quite ingenious. The math behind the Ptolemaic system is absolutely brilliant, and as complex as anything on a blackboard at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. 
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“Despite the fact that later evidence proved these theories wrong, I don’t think we should say the scientists involved made mistakes,” wrote Peter Vickers, professor of the philosophy of science at England’s Durham University. “They followed the evidence and that is precisely what a good scientist should do.”
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It’s a constant plod, one foot in front of the other. Mantell knew this when he first tried to understand the iguanodon in the 1820s. 
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He wrote: “Imperfect as are the materials at present, they will be found to possess sufficient interest to incite further and more successful investigation that may supply the deficiencies which exist in our knowledge.”
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This is one of the glories of science — the willingness to be wrong when a more complete idea is proved. The entire world progresses because of this humility. We must leave it to the flat-earth people and anti-vaxers to be so damn certain they are right. Every step in the history of science is provisional. That is why we can best cast our lot with those who practice it. 
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic.   A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina.   We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal.   We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

 
 
 

 

 

 

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by Richard Niilsen

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It’s January, the start of a new year and a chance for a new beginning. And good lord, we need a new beginning.

The starting gun has fired once more, the curtain has risen, the first pitch has been thrown, a new jury has been impaneled. The old year, the stooped old man with
white beard, gives way to the squalling babe with ambassador’s ribbon blazoned with the new year. It is 2021, and many misdated checks will have to be voided and rewritten.
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Each time we start a new cycle, it gives us a little push, a sense of having come up for air, like a pearl diver, so we can plunge back down into another year. This current turning of the calendar holds a greater sense of hope, of relief, than most, after a year that most of us would rather never have happened at all. Will the new one be better? Perhaps 2021 won’t truly begin until Jan. 20.
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New Year’s Day is a celebration we mark with many traditions: eating black-eyed peas or oyster stew or sauerkraut. Or banging pots and pans outdoors at midnight. Or making resolutions. In the Ozarks, you always make sure the saltshaker is full, so you will prosper. In North Carolina, you cook collard greens if you want to keep yourself in greenbacks all year. Among Pennsylvania Dutch, it is important to eat pork with your sauerkraut on New Year’s Day; pork symbolizes looking forward on the logic that “chickens scratch backward but pigs root forward.”
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While we’re celebrating with football or recuperating from the night before the day after, we should recognize that New Year’s Day is only one of many new beginnings we have each year, and that it is the beginning that is important, not merely the date. The date, in fact, is purely traditional. The earth circles the sun and a circle has no beginning. The new year, like any fiscal calendar year, could start at any time we choose. We could just as well begin the new year on April Fools Day, perhaps more fitting than January. The Chaldean New Year, called Kha b’Nissan, did occur on April 1.
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In fact, around the world, the new year kicks off all through the year.
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The ancient Babylonians began the year with the first new moon after the spring equinox. The equinox marks the start for the Iranian calendar. After all, spring kind of
makes sense: The world is coming back to life after the winter. The Punjabi new year is celebrated on April 14 and in Nepal, on the 1st of Baisakh (April 12-15). The Kutchi people from the Indian state of Gujarat begin the year on June 22. The Coptic new year usually occurs on Sept. 11 or 12. In France, after the Revolution and the institution of the new calendar (beginning with the Year One in 1793) they celebrated New Year’s Day with the vernal equinox in late September. The Inuit, Aleut and Yupik peoples celebrate Quviasukvik as their New Year’s day each year on our Christmas Eve. There are dozens, maybe scores of New Year’s Days around the world in different cultures and at different eras.
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Our calendar is essentially the Roman calendar, adopted by the Roman Catholic Church and later by European secular authorities.
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The Roman calendar originally had only 10 months in it and ran from March through December. The intervening time was no-man’s land. That calendar was said to have been created by the legendary Romulus, one of the founders of Rome. The rest of the year wasn’t given much thought.
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“A year should be the same time it takes a child to gestate,” Romulus is said to have reasoned. Romulus was no obstetrician. Which is why the poet Ovid, in his book Fasti, about the Roman year, says that the soldier Romulus “was better with swords that he was with stars.”
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If you have ever wondered why October is the 10th month and November the 11th, although their names proclaim them to be the eighth and ninth, it is because Romulus — or his equivalent — began the year in March. The months of January and February were later inserted into the unmeasured time, and Rome finally had 12 months. But the year still began with March. A few unsuccessful reforms in Republican Rome attempted to make January the first month of the year — it would make sense since January was named for the god Janus with two faces, one looking at the old year and one looking into the new. January was also the month that came directly after the official “end” of the year in December.
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But it wasn’t until Julius Caesar reformed the calendar in 46 B.C. that the Jan. 1 day stuck. The calendar had gotten out of whack and no longer matched up with the changing seasons as it should have. Caesar tried to fix that. The problem is that the solar year is roughly 365.24 days, and even a calendar that runs 365 days will eventually slide off point.
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Caesar instituted leap years to account for the difference and otherwise rectified the unruly calendar. Unfortunately, his reforms got off to a bumpy start when his plan was immediately misinterpreted and they started counting leap years every three years. The disparity wasn’t rectified until the institution of the Gregorian calendar in the late Middle Ages. And not everyone signed on at the same time. The Holy Roman Empire was first, in 1544, and with it, adopted Jan. 1 as the beginning of the year.
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Scotland signed on in 1600, fully a century and a half before England agreed.  Japan accepted Jan. 1 in 1873; China in 1912, Turkey in 1926 and Thailand didn’t join the rest of the world on New Year’s Day until 1941.
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It is a rare day that serves only one holiday function. Double duty is the rule. Jan. 1 is New Year’s Day, for instance, but is also notable for 16 other functions, from Kissing Day to Polar Bear Swim Day, to say nothing of being the Feast of St. Basil.
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We here at the Department of Questionable Holidays always look forward to January, and the start of another year of calendric oddments. You can look for the truly important days elsewhere; here we remind you that January is Oatmeal Month.
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We think of the slide-chute run from Halloween to New Year’s as the “holiday season,” and now that we’ve gotten through it, we might be a bit sad at the long stretch ahead with nothing.
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When it comes to holidays, December is nirvana. If you played your cards right — and are suitably ecumenical — you could have stay home from work starting Dec. 17-23 for Saturnalia, and continued with Dec. 24 for Christmas Eve, Dec. 25 for Christmas, and then coasted home to New Year’s on both Hanukkah (Dec. 11-17) or Kwanzaa (Dec. 26-Jan. 1). And don’t forget the holiday for the rest of us, Festivus (Dec. 23). So much for the canard about taking religion out of the holidays. There are lots of religions, and they all have holidays. Which is perhaps why December is Spiritual Literacy Month and Dec. 1-7 is Tolerance Week.
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But, of course, December is also National Tie Month. How could it not be? And it’s the life’s odder edges that provide some of the best holidays. Like National Dice Day (Dec. 4), National Pawnbrokers Day (Dec. 6), Gingerbread House Day (Dec. 12), Underdog Day (Dec. 16 — also Beethoven’s birthday), Humbug Day (Dec. 21) and National Whiner’s Day (Dec. 26, when you complain about the tie you got the day before).
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But then comes January, and if you look deep enough, you can find a whole new set of celebrations. The holiday season doesn’t need to end. January is also National Hot Tea Month and Coffee Gourmet International Month. And don’t forget National Cheesy Sock Month. Yes, that’s real.
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There are weeks to celebrate, too. Jan. 2-9 is “Someday We’ll Laugh About This” week; Jan. 11-18 is Dancing Cuckoos Week, honoring Laurel and Hardy, whose theme was The Dancing Cuckoos; Jan. 24-30 is National Idiom Week; and also Snowcare for Troops Awareness Week.
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And special days: Jan. 1 is International Child-Centered Divorce Day. Jan. 2 is Greta Thunberg’s birthday. Jan. 4 is Dimpled Chad Day and Trivia Day, which may be redundant. Jan. 6 is Armenian Christmas Day. It is also the birthdays of both Joan of Arc and Tom Mix. Now, there’s a pair. Jan. 11 is National Clean Off Your Desk Day. Jan. 12 is National Hot Tea Day. Jan. 14 is Benedict Arnold’s birthday and also National Logic Day, followed on Jan. 15 by International Fetish Day, although I’m not sure if that celebrates international fetishes, or fetishes internationally. The same day is also National Bagel Day. The biggest bagel in the world was completed on Jan. 16, 1943, when the Pentagon opened up. Jan. 16 is coincidentally National Nothing Day and National Quinoa Day, so — same thing. Jan. 18 is Pooh Day, celebrating Winnie the.
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National Popcorn Day follows on Jan. 19. Jan. 20 is Azerbaijan Martyrs Day — you don’t want to forget that. Jan. 23 is National Pie Day. The 24th is Belly Laugh Day and also National Compliment Day. The month begins to wind down with Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day on Jan. 25, which is also St. Dwynwen’s Day, which I’m sure you already knew. St. Dwynwen is the Welsh patron saint of friendship and love.
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Jan. 29 is set aside for me, personally, as Curmudgeons Day. And then the month rounds out on the 30th with Inane Answering Message Day and National Croissant Day.
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All this comes from Chase’s Calendar of Events, a book that journalists rely on for all those “On This Date” featurettes in the Living section of your favorite newspaper. Or what would have been, if there were still newspapers. If you need to know when “Talk Like a Pirate Day” falls in 2021, you head to Chase’s. (Only $98 at Amazon). (Incidentally, it falls on Sept. 21 this year.)
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Every month has its important anniversaries and notable birth dates. I like to keep track of them. Among the anniversaries celebrated this Jan. 1: The Euro was introduced in 1999; the first baby boomer was born 75 years ago — Kathleen Casey Wilkens in Philadelphia. On Jan. 2 we celebrate President Benjamin Harrison’s amnesty for polygamists in 1893. On Jan. 11 1964, the U.S. Surgeon General declared cigarettes hazardous. Jan. 12 is the 55th anniversary of the premiere of TV’s Batman. On Jan. 24, 1935, the first canned beer was sold; and on Jan. 25, 1945, fluoridation began in the U.S., in Grand Rapids, Mich.
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We could go on for months. February, for instance, is National Bird-Feeding Month; National Cherry Month; National Condom Month; National Goat Yoga Month; National Mend a Broken Heart Month; Return Shopping Carts to the Supermarket Month; and, of course, Spunky Old Broads Month.
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But I’ve abused your patience way too long. Every month, like every dog, has its days. So, bake a cake or take a day off and tell your friends, neighbors and relations to sit back and rest for National Z-Day on Jan. 1, a day set aside for first-of-the-year recognition for anybody or anything usually left to the end because of a name beginning with the alphabet’s final letter.
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Richard Nilsen inspired many ideas and memories at the salons he presented through the years when he was an arts critic and movie, travel, and features writer at The Arizona Republic. A few years ago, Richard moved to North Carolina. We want to continue our connection with Richard and have asked him to be a regular contributor to the Spirit of the Senses Journal. We asked Richard to write short essays that were inspired by the salons.

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