A Slight Delay for a Really Good Day

I try to get my posts out in the AM unless we have to visit the vet or sit at the mechanic’s shop. But as we get to the waning side of the year I reflected that my social life has really been non-existent this year and a lot of ventures have not gone as planned. So today’s post will come after I return this PM from a day of having some fall fun. I am going to the orchard for some apples and fresh cider and then I am going to catch a local trio, Delaplane. at the Starr Hill brewery. I first encountered Starr Hill at a beer festival in Maryland years before I moved to Virginia and their brews were excellent. I have driven by at least a dozen times and never stopped at the brewery, although I have bought the beer at the store. Today is the day. It is sunny and supposed to go up to 85F/29.4C so It will be a nice day for going to the orchard and then cooling down with some seasonal beers and music for an afternoon. All this writing about the pleasures of October is hard work. I think a bit of personal indulgence is deserved. After all although I promised myself I would do a post a day for the month, a challenge to increase my productivity in all things, not just writing, I also 00promised myself an Oktoberfest.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Caturday Thoughts: Darkness Falls

Red light against large tree trunkCats are nocturnal creatures. This is the common belief. Even Fred Flintstone “put the cat out for the night”.  The big cats, the wild ones are in fact mostly nocturnal. Feral domestic cats are usually nocturnal as well. Night is when the small rodents and insects that are their prey are out and about but also sleeping all day, hidden away, keeps them safe from human activity and other daylight dangers.

This is one reason cats were associated with evil. Man has always been afraid of the dark and cats occupy the darkness with impunity. Dark has negative connotations almost no matter what it is applied to. This is unfortunate and regrettable.

We could start with the “Dark Ages” . In the context of medieval Europe this refers to a period which is really the Early Middle Ages, AD 500 – 1000. Our understanding of things have adjusted the dates over time but it’s roughy this period. The centuries immediately following the fall of Rome were marked by barbarian invasions, population decline, cultural and economic deterioration, and (to modern historians) a lack of records, therefore the “dark” label.  The label can squarely be laid at the feet of Petrarch, the Italian poet, writing in the 1330s but was reinforced by the bias of later scholars against anything that wasn’t a classical golden age. Most recently the trend has been to greatly reduce it’s application to periods deemed dark only in the sense of an information blackout due to a dearth of historical records.

Darkness, however, is necessary and good.  Our modern obsession with light has actually created an environment which is detrimental to our health. Our environment is so unnatural we don’t know nature when we see it. According to the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), the sky glow of Los Angeles is visible from an airplane 200 miles away. When L. A. lost power in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, panicked residents called local emergency centers to report seeing a strange “giant, silvery cloud” in the dark sky. What they were seeing was actually the Milky Way, long obliterated by the urban sky glow.

I find in this incident an uncanny reminder of Isaac Asimov’s story Nightfall. According to Asimov’s in his autobiography, editor John Campbell asked Asimov to write the story after discussing with him a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson. “If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!”   Campbell felt Emerson was very wrong in his prediction. According to Asimov,  he said “I think men would go mad.”

There is mounting evidence our attempts t0 overwhelm the dark are making us sick. For example, melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland, is secreted at night and is known for helping to regulate the body’s circadian clock. Melatonin triggers a host of biologic activities  and melatonin levels drop precipitously in the presence of artificial or natural light.  The circadian clock affects physiologic processes in almost all organisms. These processes include brain wave patterns, hormone production, cell regulation, and other biologic activities. Disruption of the circadian clock is linked to several medical disorders in humans.

Small white sun settng behind black trees and pink blue skyI myself, love the dark and wish more than anything my numerous ignorant neighbors would turn out their prison spot light style front porch lights at some point rather than leaving them on all night. We have street lights, it’s not as though the streets are impassable. Most of my neighbors are retired or work normal daytime hours too. Why they need the bloody lights on all night is beyond me. The cats are all he sleep disruption I need. And even their sleep is disrupted by he lights sometimes.

My cats are more crepuscular than nocturnal, thankfully. Cats combining daylight activity with nighttime activity are commonly known as crepuscular. Crepuscular cats lounge around and lay low around midday to avoid the heat in summer, then become more active in the early morning and early evening hours. Artificial heating and cooling can effect this but I keep that at a minimum.

Two black and white cats in cat cup

Don’t kid yourself. We move when we want to!

Even as I write this on a cool, gray, overcast day I have watched both Dolly  and Milk engage in some wild racing around the house and it’s mid-morning. I was just reading that moonlit nights and dreary, cloudy days can lure the crepuscular cat into activity. I guess I can verify the research is good.

Feral cats appear to be predominantly nocturnal.  Since these cats survive in colonies usually around a food source such as a restaurant dumpster, a trash can or an abandoned building, they often are hidden and sleeping in the day to avoid human contact. In areas where there are not persecuted like the cat islands in Japan, they are often seen dozing in plain sight under fishing gear or on steps according to the weather.

All cats can change their activity level at will and can become less nocturnal or more diurnal in response to interaction with their environment or activities with humans.So if your cat is waking you at night, like those funny cartoons of Simon’s Cat, you can get them to adjust things a bit.  In a study of ten cats divided into two equal groups, the results showed housing conditions can have on a cat’s circadian rhythms. . Group A cats lived in small houses and could access small yards for an hour in the morning. Group B cats lived in larger houses, and could access large yards throughout the day, and were kept outside from 9 pm to 8 am. As you might expect, Group A cats developed patterns of activity and rest that more closely mirrored those of their owners while Group B cats were most active at night.

An after dinner (yours not theirs) session of early evening exercise may provide enough activity to tire out your cat and have him (or her) sleep more through the night. And actually this kind of relaxing play time will help your sleep cycle as well, helping you unwind and forget the days tension. Keep in mind your cat may get just as confused by the human time switch we all undergo at this time of year and he or she is already adjusting naturally to the shorter days. Darkness falls but you should be able to enjoy it along with your cats in perfect harmony. Make sure you do what you need to to get good sleep; a darkened room with no electronics, plenty of time to relax and unwind and don’t eat too late. Enjoy the longer evenings by taking time to read a book or work on a craft. Soon it will be dark at dinner, so dine by candlelight. Don’t fight the dark embrace it. Your cat will show you the way.

Full moon behind pine tree in panoramic landscape

Study Source:                                                                                                                         Daily rhythm of total activity pattern in domestic cats (Felis silvestris catus) maintained in two different housing conditions. G Piccione, S Marafioti, C Giannetto, M Panzera, F Fazio. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. Published online 7 January 2013.


Posted in Joys of Life, Natural World, Seasons, Weather | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Friday the 13th and in October Too!

No No No Not the movie franchise.  No slasher films here. Especially predictable, repetitive ones. Just good, old fashioned superstition and trivia because a month of October flavored posts is really a lot of work and I need a little break.

Black cat approaching on grey pavementFriday the 13th occurs when the 13th day of the month falls on a Friday, which can be least once and up to three times a year. Today is the second and last one this year. There will be two Friday the 13ths per year until 2020, and then 2021 and 2022 will have just one occurrence. The fear of the number 13 has been given a scientific name triskaidecphobia and so frear of Friday the 13th is paraskevidekatriaphobia, from the Greek words Paraskeví (Παρασκευή, meaning “Friday”), and dekatreís (δεκατρείς, meaning “thirteen”).

No one is really sure where the bad luck connected with Friday the 13th comes from. One theory dates it to the Middle Ages where someone connected the number of thirteen diners at the last supper  on the 13th of Nisan or Maundy Thursday and Christ’s death the next day, a Friday. Also, the 13th chapter of Revelation in the Bible concerns the coming of the Antichrist. Some say the publication in 1907 of financier Thomas W. Lawson’s novel Friday, the Thirteenth, may have spread the superstition. In the novel, an unscrupulous stockbroker takes advantage of the superstition to create a Wall Street panic on a Friday the 13th. It is interesting to note that while separately Friday and 13 had negative connotations, there is no record of the two items being referred to as especially unlucky together before the 19th century.

An early documented reference in English occurs in Henry Sutherland Edwards 1869 biography of Gioachino Rossini, who died on a Friday 13th: “He [Rossini] was surrounded to the last by admiring friends; and if it be true that, like so many Italians, he regarded Fridays as an unlucky day and thirteen as an unlucky number, it is remarkable that on Friday 13th of November he passed away.”

But in fact, in Italian popular culture, Friday the 17th is considered a day of bad luck. The origin of this belief could be traced in the writing of number 17 in Roman numerals which would be XVII. By shuffling the digits of the number one can easily get the word VIXI  “I have lived”. Of course this is past tense, implying death, certainly an omen of bad luck.  It seems rather a convoluted way to arrive at the conclusion, but I guess that’s what makes it superstition. In Italy, 13 is generally considered a lucky number.  However, now due to American influence many young Italians think both dates are bad luck. Friday the 17th occurs on a month starting on Wednesday, should you want to be on the lookout for it.

In Spanish speaking countries , Tuesday the 13th (martes trece) is considered a day of bad luck. Greeks also consider Tuesday an unlucky day, especially if it falls on the 13th. Tuesday is considered dominated by the influence of Ares, the god of war. The fall of Constantinople to the Fourth Crusade  happened on Tuesday, April 13, 1204. This is at least a logical and easy to associate reason for the belief. Constantinople fell again to the Ottoman Empire on Tuesday, 29 May 1453, certainly adding to the belief Tuesday was unlucky. To top it off, in Greek the name of the day is Triti (Τρίτη) meaning the third (day of the week). Bad luck is said to “come in threes”.

I don’t know if this helps promote or debunk superstition but in Finland, a consortium of governmental and nongovernmental organizations led by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health promotes the National Accident Day to raise awareness about automotive safety, always on a Friday the 13th. I’ve never found the Finns I’ve known particularly superstitious, perhaps this is some subtle Finnish humor combined with a practical end.

When superstition creates fear or interferes with people’s normal activities that’s bad luck in itself. But sometime you can have some fun with superstitions if you don’t take it too seriously. I for one think black cats are just fine and if you have one that loves you, that’s lucky indeed. In Ireland, Scotland and England, it’s considered good luck for a black cat to cross your path. Perhaps there are just more cats lovers there.

Bat hanging invertedThere are lot’s of superstitions relating to Halloween. What else would you expect. All those poor creatures assumed to be witches familiars were all seen as bad luck to encounter . Medieval folklore described bats as witches’ familiars, and seeing a bat on Halloween was considered to be quite an ominous sign. One myth was that if a bat was spotted flying around one’s house three times, it meant that someone in that house would soon die. Another myth was that if a bat flew into your house on Halloween, it was a sign that your house was haunted because ghosts had let the bat in. Spiders get tarred with the same brush. One superstition was that if a spider falls into a candle-lit lamp and is consumed by the flame, witches are nearby.

And yet another superstition states if you spot a spider on Halloween, it means that the spirit of a deceased loved one is watching over you. I know which I prefer. I really have nothing much against spiders, they kept my house clear of flies and other annoying bugs. It’s certainly not a happy event for one to fall into a candle.

Close up of ball shaped white candle burning in the darkThere are a lot of superstitions about candles on Halloween.  The spiders probably have one about them being bad luck. For people, it’s said if a candle suddenly goes out by itself on Halloween, as though by breath or wind, it is believed that a ghost has come to call. It’s said to always burn new candles on Halloween to ensure the best of luck and it’s a good idea to burn those Halloween candles at any other time of the year, so burn them all the way down on Halloween. Otherwise burning them later may bring bad luck or strange things will happen to you, over which you will have no control. But it’s also believed that if a person lights a new orange colored candle at midnight on Halloween and lets it burn until sunrise, he or she will be the recipient of good luck. So I guess that’s the solution for how to burn candles on Halloween without bad luck. Gazing into a flame of a candle on Halloween night is said to let you look into the future. Finally, girls who carry a lamp to a spring of water on this night can see their future husband in the reflection. Of course, who lives near a spring these days.

Because Halloween originally derived from the Samhain of the pagan Celts a lot of superstitions had their origins there. They believe at this time of year the veil between the living and the dead was thin. They also believed that after death, all souls went into the crone’s cauldron, which symbolized the Earth mother’s womb. There, the souls awaited reincarnation, as the goddess’ stirring allowed for new souls to enter the cauldron and old souls to be reborn. This is the root of how cauldrons became associated with witches. So death is near and the crone is stirring her cauldron and on Halloween If you hear footsteps trailing close behind you on Halloween night, do not to turn around to see who it is, for it may be Death himself! To look Death in the eye, according to ancient folklore, is a sure way to hasten your own demise. To cast a headless shadow or no shadow at all is still believed by many folks in the United States and Europe to be an omen of death in the course of the next year.

I am not superstitious but I do enjoy celebrations so I probably will burn candles and orange ones at that and do many other things on Halloween rooted in superstition. Black cats, bats and spiders are safe around me. Hmm, now that I think of it, if you are superstitious, though, that might mean you’ll think I’m a witch!

Small black cat on whitewashed step next to aloe plant




Posted in Celebrations, Joys of Life, Life's Conundrums, Ritual, Seasons | Leave a comment

Boris Karloff – A Halloween Icon

Boris Karloff in the Frankenstein's monster makeupIt’s not Halloween without costumes and every year you see recreations of the classic monster from the movie Frankenstein. In 1931, Universal chief Carl Laemmle Jr, offered director James Whale his choice of any property the studio owned. He chose Frankenstein because nothing else they had really interested him and he didn’t want to make a war movie. Whale convinced a then unknown actor to take the part of the monster and movie history was made. While everyone recognizes the face, unlike the case with other movie monsters, everyone also knows the identity under it. The actor was, of course, Boris Karloff, whose real name was William Henry Pratt, a man who finally found fame without showing his face. He struggled under layers of makeup that took hours to apply and a costume that would tax a body builder, never mind a a man with chronic back trouble, which plagued Karloff for years.  The bulky costume was a real weight, with the four-inch platform boots alone weighed 11 pounds (5.0 kg) each.

People seem unaware that Karloff had been a stage actor  and in small parts in films long before Frankenstein. He had had parts in the early serials as early as 1918. But there is no doubt Karloff’s role as Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 movie is what made him a star and a household name. It was such a hit, Universal Studios, in a move prescient of much later marketing campaigns, quickly moved to acquire ownership of the copyright to the now iconic makeup for the monster Jack P Pierce had designed. Thus today we see the innumerable rubber masks at the door every October 31st  demanding “trick or treat”.

Classic film poster for the 1932 film The Mummy showing wrapped mummy and featuring Boris Karloff's nameThe following year  Karloff found himself once again under an enormous burden of makeup. Wanting to capitalize on the Egyptian craze that followed the discovery of Tutankhamun’s  tomb. Laemmle commissioned a screenplay from John L Balderston who had had contributed to Dracula and Frankenstein and had covered the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb as a reporter for the New York World when he was a journalist.  Karl Freund, the cinematographer on Dracula, was hired to direct, making this his first film in the United States as a director. Though there were many sequels and reboots, the original still is in a class by itself, in large part through Karloff’s performance. Thankfully, the makeup was only required for the initial scenes when the mummy revives. Once again Jack Pierce began transforming Karloff; starting at 11:00 AM he began applying makeup to his face; clay to his hair; and wrapping him in linen bandages treated with acid and burnt in an oven. This was not finished until 7:00 PM  and Karloff still had to shoot his scenes! When he finished shooting at 2:00 AM it took another two hours to remove everything.

It’s a shame people focus on the monsters because in my opinion Boris Karloff was a darn good actor. Also that year he made two other “spooky” movies, starring in The Mask of Fu Manchu with Myrna Loy and cast with another great British actor Charles Laughton in The Old Dark House.  If he could hold his own with serious actors like these his acting should be rated higher. And in The Old Dark House he plays a mute butler, so he doesn’t even get to use dialog to develop his part.

Less familiar to many are three films he made for producer Val Lewton at RKO from 1945 to 1946. Famously, in a 1946 interview with Louis Berg of the Los Angeles Karloff discussed his decision to leave Universal Studies and move to RKO. He was disatisfied with thedownhill arc of the Frankenstein franchise. The last installment —House of Frankenstein—was what he called a “‘monster clambake.'” “Karloff thought it was ridiculous and said so.” Berg continues, “Mr. Karloff has great love and respect for Mr. Lewton as the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored, so to speak, his soul.”

The Body Snatcher, filmed in 1945 was based on the short story of the same name by Robert Louis Stevenson and directed by Robert Wise, more famous for The Day The Earth Stood Still. The story is one of the disreputable trade in bodies for anatomists and doctors that took place in the early 19th century and refers repeatedly to Burke and Hare and Dr. Knox, the real life body snatchers. Mr. Karloff does a great job as the main villain,Grey, who like his real life counterparts, resorts to murder to grow his business. The twist ending of Stevenson’s story was retained by Lewton, who adapted the story along with British mystery author and screenwriter Philip MacDonald.

Isle of the Dead Arnold Böcklin

The second film from 1945 was Isle of the Dead. I remember this coming on during one of the late show marathons I watched as a kid and finding it very dark and disturbing. The film was inspired by an atmospheric set of paintings by artist Arnold Böcklin. The painting appears behind the title credits. Even the score for the movie by Leigh Harline was inspired by a work inspired by the paintings, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s tone poem Isle of the Dead.  Harline dark score borrows themes and copies their orchestration, all without violating copyright. It was the fourth of five films Mark Robson directed for Hal Lewton.  Just two weeks after filming began in 1944 Boris Karloff required surgery for his chronic back problems. Before the cast could finally be reassembled it was late in the year and in the meantime Lewton and Karloff made The Body Snatcher.

The film begins during the Balkan War of 1912. While his troops are burying their dead, General Pherides, Karloff’s character, and American reporter Oliver Davis visit the Isle of the Dead to pay their respects to the General’s long-dead wife. There they encounter an assortment of characters including a superstitious housekeeper who believes the is a vorvolaka ( a vampire) among them. The next day a doctor announces one of them has died from septicemic plague and they are quarantined on the island, literally surrounded by death, whether natural or unnatural. It is truly a fitting story for the season of All Hallows and very scary when you are in a dark room at night with your popcorn and the wind and rain outside,. You don’t have to take my word for it.  Martin Scorsese knows a thing or two about movies and he put it on his list of 11 scariest horror films of all time.

Hogarh's In the Madhouse Plate 8 of A Rake's Progress

In the Madhouse William Hogarth

Bedlam in 1946  was the last in the series of horror B films Val Lewton produced for RKO.   The film was inspired by the eighth and last engraving in William Hogarth’s series A Rake’s Progress, and Hogarth was even given a writing credit. Again Karloff gives a great performance as the villain of the piece, apothecary general Master George Sims loosely based on an infamous head physician at Bethlem, John Monro, the man in charge of the St. Mary’s of Bethlehem Asylum, a fictionalized version of London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital. nicknamed  “Bedlam.” In spite of all it has a happy ending, but it is certainly sinister and threatening until he last,

Together these last three films are a nice triple feature for a dark October night. Of course you will return to Frankenstein and The Mummy but if you have never watched these give them a try. One reason I gave so much detail about the people involved in the productions was to illustrate the incredible talent that went into even B horror films back then. Robert Wise not only did The Day The Earth Stood Still but The Sound of Mu Music. Mark Robson started out editing Orson welles films Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons and directed films like The Bridges at Toko-Ri and The Prize, The writing, the sets and the costumes were all so well done. Val Lewton was held to a budget of $150,00 and got his crews to create great lighting and effects. Treat yourself to that icon of horror Boris Karloff working with some of the best ever. I promise you it’s not a trick.

Posted in Celebrations, Films, Joys of Life, Seasons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Autumn Harvest – Treats or Tricks?

Orange block letters Trick or Treat on black backgroundBy the first of the month the stores have aisle after aisle filled with mass produced sugar concoctions. This is supposed to be about treats but let’s face it, it’s a trick. A holiday that promotes massive overindulgence in sugar and candy can’t be good for a country where childhood obesity is an epidemic now. If you drive by my house on Halloween it will be blacked out as though it were a house in London during the blitz. The first year I moved here my neighbor Jimmy warned me. “Oh God, you don’t know!” he said that first October afternoon. “Halloween here is like an invasion. You should be warned.” I didn’t take Jimmy seriously enough. I spent a fortune on candy, trying to be a good sport, and was wiped out even before half the night was over. I know the neighbors around here, I made it a point even then, and these people were from heaven knows where but not from the neighborhood. From then on I emulated Jimmy and his mother and did the blackout thing. Even though most of the kids were well behaved, there were enough of them that could be termed monsters no matter what they were costumed as, that it just added weight in making the decision.

Candy is expensive. By volume, by weight, however you measure it. You pay a lot for a few minutes of pleasure both financially and physically. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy candy. But I seem to be one of those people with genes that limit my desire for sweets. I  eat ice cream less than a half dozen time a year. I drink unsweetened tea and coffee. I don’t add sugar to anything I cook. I go weeks and months without anything sweet including baked goods. This even though I once worked as a dessert baker! Then again, maybe that’s why I can forego most modern candy products. My standards are high.

Bucket of trick or trat candy with more piled in frontFor one thing, I have good taste buds. I can tell what’s in many recipes just by taste. But I am not the only one noticing changes in candy they fondly remember. I like to check my facts before I do a blog post and try to do some research. In searching on this topic I was lucky to find a really impressive blog,  http://www.candyblog.net, that has an encyclopedic volume of information on candy, especially chocolate. Aside from the blogger, many readers commented on taste changes in their favorite chocolate bars and told of writing letters of complaint or no longer buying old favorites. It’s a trick when you turn a chocolate bar into some erzatz  lookalike. This blog devotes an entire post to how Hershey, the top selling US brand is eliminating chocolate from many products.

The rise in prices is certainly not Hershey or any other candy producers fault. There is a growing market for candy in Asia that is driving up cocoa and sugar prices. When Hershey raised prices last year they cited increasing milk and nut prices as well. No producer likes to increase prices when it might mean a drop in sales. This explains the mysterious shrinking candy bar phenomen that people report. Even as some items are offered at greatly expanded sizes many standard offerings are in fact shrinking while being sold at the same price. Another trick! In 2013 Mars decided it was a good idea to get all it’s candy bars under 250 calories and some had to be resized. I am sure cost was a factor but by using the calorie card they could market it as trying to be a good guy in fighting health issues. So in this case you could consider it a treat, I suppose. People may not have read the sizes on the label but they still got what they were looking for, if less of it.

Four setions of a bar of chocolateYes, most people don’t bother to read labels on a snack they know offers virtually no healthy nutrition. However, maybe you should start. In 2006 Hershey’s started using PGPR, an emulsifier and extender, in some of their milk chocolate products. It showed up in the ingredients list in the classic milk chocolate bar in 2008. Since then they have said they will remove artificial ingredients like PGPR and vanillin but the timeline is vague. I have to confess I was never that much of a fan of Hershey’s chocolate. My aunt spoiled me by bringing chocolate back from her European ski holidays and all brands of American chocolate seemed to sugary.  Last Easter I indulged in one Cadbury egg, reminding myself I had not had one since I moved too far away from the English import shop I used to get my Flake and other British treats at. It was awful. Instead of a buttery creamy filling it was all taste of sugar, so intense my teeth actually ached. Blecch! Then I found out that from the shop I had in fact been getting eggs made in Europe but at Target they were the made by Hershey who bought the license to make them here.

So the heck with candy! Those old favorites are all owned and produced by huge multi-nationals who are focused on profits and will slip you high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils without batting an eye. This Halloween my conscience will be clear; from my darkened house no child will depart with empty calories, artificial ingredients and chemical poisons, or diabetes inducing sugar.  As for myself I will not give up my high standards. If there are craft breweries that meet my high standards, somewhere out there is a chocolatier who can too. No more tricks, just delicious treats.

Arrow street sign pointing right labeled "chocolate"


Posted in Celebrations, Food, Joys of Life, Life's Conundrums | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Month For Ghost Stories – An Ancient Ghost

Engraving of John Dee invoking a ghostAs the days shrink like drying apples and darkness falls sooner each evening, as a chill creeps into the airs and falling leaves rustle dryly in in the breeze I relish the season for ghost stories. I do ghost stories for Halloween, for gloomy gray November days, for Christmas and for dark, cold winter nights. Nothing sets the mood like a scenario at left; the occultist John Dee and his partner Edward Kelly invoking a departed spirit to question for arcane knowledge. I realized that years of collecting ghost stories has given me a list of authors, styles and settings to suit many tastes and I want to share some favorites.

One of my favorite ghost stories is one of the oldest. It comes from a letter of Pliny the Younger to his friend Sura. Pliny is asking Sura for his opinion on the existence of ghosts, saying that he, Pliny, has heard stories which, in addition to some personal experiences has  inclined him toward belief. In the first part of the letter, he tells a tale of an attendant to a Roman governor in Africa. One night, the man was out walking, and a beautiful, ghostly woman appeared to him and told him  his future which eventually comes to pass as predicted.

Pliny writes “What particularly inclines me to believe in their existence is a story which I heard of Curtius Rufus. When he was in low circumstances and unknown in the world, he attended the governor of Africa into that province. One evening, as he was walking in the public portico, there appeared to him the figure of a woman, of unusual size and of beauty more than human. And as he stood there, terrified and astonished, she told him she was the tutelary power that presided over Africa, and was come to inform him of the future events of his life: that he should go back to Rome, to enjoy high honours there, and return to that province invested with the proconsular dignity, and there should die. Every circumstance of this prediction actually came to pass.”

Athenodorus Confronts the Spectre by Henry Justice Ford

But the really classic (in every sense) ghost story I love  is the one following Curtius Rufus’ story. “TO this story, let me add another as remarkable as the former, but attended with circumstances of greater horror; which I will give you exactly as it was related to me. There was at Athens a large and spacious, but ill reputed and pestilential house. In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of fetters; at first it seemed at a distance, but approached nearer by degrees; immediately afterward a phantom appeared in the form of an old man, extremely meagre and squalid, with a long beard and bristling hair; rattling the gyves on his feet and hands. The poor inhabitants consequently passed sleepless nights under the most dismal terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, threw them into distempers, which, as their horrors of mind increased, proved in the end fatal to their lives. For even in the day time, though the spectre did not appear, yet the remembrance of it made such a strong impression on their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and their terror remained when the cause of it was gone. By this means the house was at last deserted, as being judged by everybody to be absolutely uninhabitable; so that it was now entirely abandoned to the ghost. However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this great calamity which attended it, a bill was put up, giving notice that it was either to be let or sold.

It happened that Athenodorus the philosopher came to Athens at this time, and reading the bill ascertained the price. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion; nevertheless, when he heard tbe whole story, he was so far from being discouraged, that he was more strongly inclined to hire it, and, in short, actually did so. When it grew towards evening, he ordered a couch to be prepared for him in the forepart of the house, and after calling for a light, together with his pen and tablets, he directed all his people to retire within. But that his mind might not, for want of employment, be open to the vain terrors of imaginary noises and apparitions, he applied himself to writing with all his faculties. The first part of the night passed with usual silence, then began the clanking of iron fetters; however, he neither lifted up his eyes, nor laid down his pen, but closed his ears by concentrating his attention. The noise increased and advanced nearer, till it seemed at the door, and at last in the chamber. He looked round and saw the apparition exactly as it had been described to him: it stood before him, beckoning with the finger. Athenodorus made a sign with his hand that it should wait a little, and bent again to his writing, but the ghost rattling its chains over his head as he wrote, he looked round and saw it beckoning as before. Upon this he immediately took up his lamp and followed it. The ghost slowly stalked along, as if encumbered with its chains; and having turned into the courtyard of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus being thus deserted, marked the spot with a handful of grass and leaves. The next day he went to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. There they found bones commingled and intertwined with chains; for the body had mouldered away by long Iying in the ground, leaving them bare, and corroded by the fetters. Thc bones were collected, and buried at the public expense; and after the ghost was thus duly laid the house was haunted no more.”

I give the story in Pliny’s words as it adds to that sense of something happening in another time. However, if you noticed, the clements of dozens of ghost stories over the centuries are in his story; the house which cannot be inhabited and is finally left empty, a final attempt to get someone into it, the intrepid hero who braves the challenge, and finally the wronged and restless spirit who only wants someone to stay put long enough to be shown what he needs to find peace. I loved how cool Athenodorus remained, how he made sure the ghost was trying to communicate something and not just create distress in those it approach. I also loved that Pliny was genuinely interested  in trying to investigate the phenomena, asking his friends opinion and analyzing why he was inclined to believe. This is truly the ancestor of all the best ghost stories.




Posted in Books, Celebrations, Joys of Life | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment


Two glasses of beer with wurst and condiments on hot dog stly bunThere are other celebrations in October. It’s not all about the waning light and things of the dark. Growing up in a community with a lot of German influence, I always look forward to Oktoberfest. In Germany, the famous Munich Oktoberfest actually took place from September 16 to  October 3rd, really more of a Septemberfest. Oktoberfest has become popular all over the world. Amazingly, an Oktoberfest celebration is held in the town of Taybeh, Judea in the West Bank , sponsored by an  Arab brewery, the Taybeh Brewery.  The first Taybeh Oktoberfest was held in 2005.

Not actually labeled an Oktoberfest or held in October, nonetheless the Qingdao International Beer Festival is a yearly major festival held in Qingdao, Shandong province that celebrates beer. In 2015, a 66.6-hectare site was constructed containing beer tents and stalls selling sauerkraut, bratwurst and beer in plastic carrier bags (a festival tradition) as well as Bavarian band music, mass drinking competitions, Peking opera performances and karaoke. Except for the Chinese opera it sounds like Oktoberfest to me.

Qingtao is the home of Tsingtao beer so it’s no wonder they have such a festival. The Tsingtao Brewery was founded by The Anglo-German Brewery Co. Ltd., an English-German joint stock company based in Hong Kong who owned it until 1916. The brewery was founded on August 15, 1903 as the Germania-Brauerei (Germania Brewery). In spite of an interesting history that parallels the 20th century political history of China it has continued to produce very good beer for both domestic and exports consumption.

Plate covered in sauerkrautIn the united States they often have the Oktoberfests actually in October.This year rather than try to attend one of the many Oktoberfests available I am simply going to treat myself to a dinner at the Bavarian Chef, an excellent family owned German restaurant just a tiny detour off my usual route up to the city. And I’ll probably cook some German food at home, too. I actually really like sauerkraut. In high school I had a friend whose German dad stocked his basement with bock beer and made his own sauerkraut. Jean always asked me to stay for dinner on German food night. She really disliked the German food and I loved it, so she escaped being nagged to eat while I made her parents smile asking for seconds. She tried to discourage me by showing me the contents of the sauerkraut crock while it was still fermenting, but I was not put off.

Grill covered in sausages and wurstsI am not a big meat eater. I usually reserve meat eating for special celebrations and Oktoberfest is one. It’s the one time of year I indulge in sausages of any kind. There are well over two dozen different kinds of German sausages, many of which I’ve never encountered. I have had bratwurst but there is a whole range of local styles in Germany I’ve never  gotten to try. Bratwurst has become popularized in the United States after Bill Sperling introduced bratwurst to Milwaukee County Stadium, home of the Milwaukee Braves major league team in 1954. The bratwurst were such a hit, Sperling said, that Duke Snyder of the then Brooklyn Dodgers took a whole case back to New York. I’ve had knackwurst, usually spelled knockwurst in the US. One I used to be able to get at a German deli up in the city was Landjäger. That was great for snacking. It was a dry sausage like a hard salami and didn’t need cooking. Even though they now have an online store I could order from, I could not find Landjäger.

While eating German food is an integral park of the festivities, even in China, the focus is beer.  Fortunately, while my area lacks many civilized amenities, for some reason it has begun to spring up microbreweries like toadstools after a hard rain. So I plan to visit several over the course of the month. Devil’s Backbone has won several awards and their brewpub is up in the hills just off Shenandoah National Park. It should be a great place to enjoy the fall foliage while sampling some of their beers.  Then there is Star Hill, whose brews I frist sampled at a beer fest in Maryland. As usual when you are a local, I’ve never actually gotten to the brewery. Less than 20 miles away, too. It’s about time. Now we even have two in humble Waynesboro, bringing these slowpokes into the 21st century. The Seven Arrows Brewing Company and Basic City Beer both have brew pubs right in town. I should support them. There are many more in the area but even for Oktoberfest one must draw a limit.

(We are a little late today. Last night internet went out. As usual tech support was more emotional than technical. Strangely, without the tech arriving it came on again. On calling to cancel the ticket I found nothing had been done at the other end either. Tonight seems like a good time to start that beer sampling. Arrgh!)

Two mugs of beer with foam on top


Posted in Celebrations, Food, Joys of Life, Seasons | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment