Wednesday, February 28, 2024

If You Ever Plan to Motor West....



DUKES FANS:         

“Get your kicks, on Route 66”... Bobby Troup  

   I have always been fascinated by travel and things beyond my immediate surroundings. Growing up I read encyclopedias and focused on history, other times, and other places. Mom subscribed to Life magazine and Reader’s Digest, and they also fed my curiosity about different places. And there was, of course, National Geographic Magazine, which brought the whole world to my door. I still have vivid memories of photographs from that magazine. I have yet to get to Greece, but I really want to all because of a stunning photograph of a sheer white cliff I saw in the Geographic when I was about 12. That picture has stayed with me for over 5 decades  

   In the 1960’s there were a number of TV shows that featured travel and being on the road: The Fugitive, Run For Your Life, and Route 66. I watched them and loved Route 66 especially, because I loved that song. When I was starting to play in bands in the 1970’s almost every band had a version of Route 66. It was not a question; you did that song! 

   Last week I was doing the “post-dinner, what’s on WHYY?” thing I sometimes do, and I stumbled on a show about traveling Route 66 with TV travel reporter Samantha Brown. The wonderful thing about this show was that it focused on Route 66 from its start in Illinois. I had not thought of that: the, “It winds from St Louis to Joplin, Missouri” part and places beyond that in the song had always captured my attention. So it was good to see what the route had been for many small towns and villages in Illinois and how so many them are trying to hold on to some of the places and things that made the route special even as the rise of interstates lessened the importance of the road.  

    Samantha meets and talks with people, and that is the joy of this episode for me. We meet John White, diner owner and author of a guidebook to Route 66; the warden of Joliet prison at the time of the filming of The Blues Brothers; the owner of a museum dedicated to Pontiac automobiles; people in a town called Normal, IL, the director of the Abraham Lincoln Museum and Library, and much more. I was a joyous and celebratory show, and I was so glad I stumbled upon it. I will check out more of her shows over the next few weeks.  

   One of the things I have loved about my life is that while I have never been off the North American continent, I have had hundreds of experiences and met thousands of people in different towns, states, provinces, and cities. Samantha’s show reminded me of the joys of that process and how, if we are open to the possibility of surprise, we never stop learning and growing. I wish each of you safe and happy travels.  
Route 66 Through Illinois:   

Samantha Brown Site;   

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

February-The Short, Ritual Filled Month

 DUKES FANS:       

“The Polar Intuit of northwest Greenland, the northernmost people, call February ‘seqinniaq’, “the month when the sun appears.”  Fred Bruemmer  

    February is the shortest month of the year in our calendar, yet it is host to numerous holidays, observances, and celebrations from many different cultures and places. No week in the month goes by without several holidays and special occasions, religious and secular alike. Yes, we are all familiar with Valentine’s Day and Black History month, and we are probably all more aware of Asian observances such as the Lunar New Year. There are, for US citizens, birthday observances of two of our most popular Presidents, Lincoln and Washington. And, as all roots music fans know, t’is the season of Mardi Gras and New Orelans festivals, music and food. There are days dedicated to saints and other religious notables in this month. And February is also home to Random Acts of Kindness Week, Sisterhood-Brotherhood Week, Scottish Culture Month, National Peace Corps Week, and many more. February is a busy, busy month.  

   Much of this celebration and ritual observance is tied to what nature is doing when February rolls around. In the US we have Groundhog's Day to remind us that spring is coming back, and the awareness of that has always been a time for hope, optimism, and renewal. Ours, of course, is not the first or only culture to do that. All cultures do this, and the month before the arrival of spring has always been a ritual-rich time for humans. Many of our modern February observances are linked to the past.  

   The Romans, who were a great influence on our calendar, did not have separate months during the winter; winter was just a long period of time. January and February were the last months added to the Roman calendar by the legendary second king of Rome, Numa Pompilus, in about 713 B.C.E. February was the end of year for a long time. It was named for the full moon observance of februum, a 2 day festival of purification. There were several ritual celebrations during this month, in fact, honoring ancestors, purity, and fertility. They were also related to the changes in the natural and the animal worlds; things were happening to the fields and with the animals. Spring was on the way, and the city and its inhabitants needed to be pure if the new year was to be a good one. The new year had to be welcomed in the proper fashion.        The Roman calendar was changed several times by the end of the Empire, but February was always the month before spring. So the idea of February as a time to prepare for the new year is seen in many of this month’s observances. Candlemass, Ash Wednesday, and Lent are all in some ways about preparing for spring in Catholic and Catholic influenced cultures. We see it in the Brazilian Carnival and New Orlean’s Mardi Gras- grand parties, feasting, and music before the cleansing time of Lent. Chinese and Southeast Asian cultures recognize an official Lunar New Year, which is obviously about renewal and starting over. Dress, food, and music are all preparations for having a good year. Hindus dress in yellow for Basant Panchami, recognizing the yellow flowers of the mustard seeds in the fields and the coming of new growth. February is both the announcement of and the preparation for the next part of our year.  

    So even as the snow is still on the ground, nature is telling us that its cycle is continuing. Change is quietly going on all the time. Nature does not stand still.   

(Interested in holidays around the globe? ).

Valentine's Day: The Improtance of Story and Symbol To Humans


DUKES FANS:         

“In most cases, a good story connected to a strong symbol will last much longer and have more effect than any collection of mere facts.”   

    Mac George Bundy, advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson      

“We are humans. That means we are symbol making beings, and that means symbols can move us much more than facts.”   


(Alright-I admit it. I confess. I am too tired to come up with a fresh tidbit for this week’s newsletter. So I pulled up a favorite one from the past. This one on Valentine's Day received a number of comments from folks when it ran last year, so I am repeating it with some minor updates. I hope you enjoy it.)  

Next week we celebrate Valentine’s Day, a day dedicated to the ideas of true and romantic love. As in any culturally significant observance there are rites, behaviors, and symbols that mark the occasion. We are expected to tell people we care about that we love them, to give candy and cards called “valentines” to people we care for, and ideally to play special music, have special romantic meals, and spend “romantic times” with someone. Cartoon hearts are seen everywhere, and the day is supposed to be all about the expression of love and togetherness. People in commercials kiss, hold hands, smile at each other, and look at each other with clear undying devotion.   

Of course, there are lots of people who think of this day as overly corny and totally unnecessary. Many of us, especially those who are without partners, can tend to be saddened by it or, alternately, angry at it. But it is an undeniably important part of US culture, and we can neither deny or ignore it. Americans spend more money on Valentine’s Day than on any other single holiday except Christmas. So it is something major of which we are all aware. According to the website Business Pundit, we spent over $ 26 billion dollars on the holiday last year, much more than on Father’s or Mother’s Day last year. The cards, the dinners, the chocolate, and the flowers all add up. It clearly means a lot to a lot of people, and of course, businesses. But to have reached that economic point, Valentine’s Day had to first be accepted as an important cultural idea. It needed to be embraced by us. And like any other strong cultural occasion, that means this dayneeded two things: a strong story and a mighty symbol.   

   We have all probably heard the most accepted story about Valentine’s Day and the person for whom it is named. This story traces the day’s origins to a Roman priest by the name of Valentine. In the late third century ACE the Roman emperor Claudius was engaged in a series of unpopular and costly military campaigns, and he was having a hard time getting men to join the Roman armies. Claudius believed that Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families, so he summarily banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. The priest Valentine defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When what Valentine was doing was discovered, Claudius had him beheaded on February 14, probably in the year 278 A.C.E. He was later made a saint, became a martyr for the Catholic Church, and became associated with romantic love and marriage. Supposedly he wrote notes to people while in prison, signing them, “From your Valentine.” Thus was a story and a tradition born.   

   Historians know that there really was a St. Valentine. But historians also know that there were at least three saints named Valentine. The Catholic Encyclopedia lists three martyrs with that name, and all are connected to a date in February. While that may seem strange to us, it is really not that surprising. Valentine, meaning, “having valor, righteousness, and strength,” was not that uncommon a name for Roman boys at the time. Just as happens now, parents then often gave children names that meant something: an ideal or hope. That is why we have so many people in our culture named after Christian apostles and saints, or after political or sports heroes. Every culture does this as a way of passing on ideals, beliefs,and legacies to the next generation.    

  Historians also know that at this time there was also a big February Roman pastoral festival dedicated to health, cleansing, renewal, and fertility. It was called the Feast of Lupercalia, and in one part of the festival the names of single Roman women were put into a box. Single men randomly picked a name out of the box, and they were then allowed to romance the woman whose name they had drawn. When Christianity became the state religion of Rome, many of the ancient Roman festivals were outlawed and/or converted into Christian fetes. In 496 ACE Pope Gelasius decided to put an end to the Feast of Lupercalia. He declared that February 14 would thereafter be celebrated as St Valentine’s Day, giving the day of his martyrdom a new meaning. People were to exchange simple gifts with loved ones such as grain, messages and flowers. The story of Saint Valentine sacrificing his life for love became a widespread and popular one, and he and the date of February 14 became associated with gift giving in the name of love.    

  Eventually the story of Valentine’s devotion to true love became joined to the one thing all great stories need: a symbol. The heart had been important as a symbol since the time of the ancient Egyptians. They saw it as the most important organ of the body. They believed this was the place in the body where wisdom, emotions, personality and more were all joined. They also believed that it was an important vehicle through which gods spoke to humans. Yes, they knew about the chambers of the heart and that blood circulated through the heart-they even did some forms of heart surgery. But that circulation of blood was not the most important job of the heart to them; it's supposed link to all things emotional, spiritual, and intellectual was why it mattered.    

    Greek and Roman cultures drew heavily from Egypt, so the heart was important to them as well, and by the 5th century BCE symbols on coins and in writings depicted the heart looking somewhat as it does on our Valentine’s Day cards: a fat rounded ”V” with two joined curves at the top. Some historians say that particular shape was chosen because it looked like the seed pod of a plant called “silphium’, a plant used as a medicine and as a contraceptive in the ancient world. Others say it came about as an attempt by early graphic designers to represent what the heart looked like in early medical texts. Regardless, by the time of the Renaissance that shape had become a symbol of love throughout Europe. And as Europeans went to other continents, they naturally took their symbols with them. That heart shape became associated with love in most parts of the world and now abounds on all those Valentine's cards, in the design of boxes of chocolate, in TV commercials, and all over just about anything connected with love. The story had found its symbol, and the two would be forever linked.   

   The use of that heart as a symbol for love shows us just how powerful and persistent a given symbol can be, even when it clearly contradicts fact and truth. In the 1640’s William Harvey put forth the notion that the heart was a muscle, and that its primary role was to keep blood circulating in our bodies. By the middle of the 18th century that had become commonly accepted medical knowledge, and by the mid-20th century it was being widely taught, even in junior high school biology classes. So we all know this fact. We also now know that emotions are generated in the brain-we even know that certain specific things can trigger a specific emotion in a particular region of the brain. But our cultural knowledge and common ways of talking regularly ignores our factual knowledge. We still associate the heart with love. We do not say, “My brain is lifted when I am happy,” or, “It is with a heavy brain that I bring you this sad news.”  And we definitely do not know “a place on Lonely Street called “Brainbreak Hotel.”  It is the “heart” we relentlessly talk about in such situations, and more knowledge or more education will not change that. We have our story, and we have our symbol, Dammit, and we’re sticking to them!  

 We humans need to make these stories and these symbols. That is the way we humans behave and make our way through much of the world. Yes, we are also quite “rational.’ Our rationality allows us to do many incredible things, ranging from cooking to simple toolmaking and up to nuclear physics and more. But in our day to day, most ordinary lives, we function with links between stories and symbols. We need this to help us navigate the world and to feel we have a place in it. For better or worse, as Valentine’s Day shows, this is part of what makes us human. And it will probbly always be just so.  


(An article on what Ancient Egyptians knew about the heart: