whistlestop caboose

The view from the back.

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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

Tulips 2006 for Gran ellengwallace's Tulips 2006 for Gran photoset

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Loose ends of 2005

Travellers crossing the dusk sky in greater than usual numbers

Tonight much of the world parties, pushing out the old year and pulling in the new. The birthing process for 2006 will have millions of midwives helping the process along.

Personally, I won't be going out, or watching the world's celebrations on television. With a little luck and some cooperation from a handicapped child who doesn't like to sleep, I plan to watch a good movie with Nick.

What I like best about December 31 is that it gives me a really short deadline to finally tie up all the loose ends of the year. Here is my list:

  • write to the two people I missed when I sent out Christmas cards for the first time in several years
  • shovel the drive
  • throw away newspapers
  • call one of my best buddies from high school who has become a cowgirl in western Nebraska
  • think of some way to use the 12 lemons I bought in a moment of folly earlier this week
  • water the Christmas tree

No resolutions, no buying sprees or big cooking projects or planning. Just find a bit of mental string for these loose ends.

The only exception is to let my mind start drifting (like the snow outside) towards tomorrow's Start of a New Year blog. The Seven White Wonders of the World? Where our Strange Meals Come From (we had toad in the hole last night)? The Best of 2005 in My Town? The Worst of 2005 at my House?

My neighbors will call out "Bonne année" tomorrow, but I like the fact that today in Switzerland everyone will call out cheerily "Bonne fin d'année"!

May your year end well, too.

Friday, December 30, 2005

How good is the new Google video search?

It was fun yesterday to tell the world, and especially family around the world, about my son's Chinese martial arts demo video, now available through Google search. It made me wonder how good the new service is, and what you can find there.

The link here takes you to Google's "about" page, which gives some useful instructions. What they don't mention until you try to upload a video is that they screen the content, just as they do ads, and any illegal material presumably won't make it.

As with most new things on the web, just thinking about this gets you mulling over all the other amazing things we will soon be able to do on the web. If it doesn't stress you out to fast forward to the near future, see what CNN's Jim Boulden has to say about it this week.

I gave Google video searches 15 minutes this morning and here is what I found:

Old TV shows, still waiting

I like the idea of getting old TV shows, especially for channels like PBS that I don't get in Europe. But when I clicked on the option under Google's "Search for programs from a variety of channels including:" not one of them worked. Maybe the service isn't functioning yet. I like the idea. Get going on it, Google!

See how charities spend their (your) money

I was surprised to see aid agencies and charities listed so I tried putting in Greenpeace and Unicef, at Google's suggestion. I watched David Beckham working at Unicef's Copenhagen office and members of New York's Chinese community giving a giant check for $180,00 for tsunami victims. I loved Greenpeace USA's public service announcement about wind power.

This is a brilliant option for non-profits trying to find a way to tell the world what they do

Google video, mixed quality - hey, it's the web!

Most of the videos that people are likely to look at are homemade, but that covers a lot of sins.

Some are pretty well filmed and edited, with good music - ok, time to mention the son again, who is using his demo to find advertising work.

I checked out skiing and came up with 10 pages of search results. Not surprisingly most are in the U.S., a few in Canada. The oddest was an ostrich on skis, who did pretty well. Give him and the editor their due.

I then searched for Swiss skiing, since we live near a Swiss ski resort, and I came up with just one - the search service is new, so Google's bank of videos that people have uploaded is still small. This one showed a pleasant enough vacation but the Swiss tourism office will probably cringe at the cliches. No sign of snowboarders, fast skiers, nor ostriches - and we would have to look hard here to find the cowbells and yodeling and men with knobbly knees.

People film their dreams.

Lots of funny cats and dogs videos, not surprisingly. The most popular videos tend to be humorous and sports films. Humor doesn't always cross national and sexual boundaries well, so I was more bored than amused by a man Out West who loves his horse too much.

Hey, it's the web! You take what you want and leave the rest - but definitely some interesting new things there for the taking.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Liam's wushu video on Google's new and very cool video search

Google has just started offering video searches and our favorite is this one! Search for "Liam Bates" or "wushu" if you want to see more of the sport.

From the video page description:
Liam Bates - Chinese martial arts - wushu, tricks & flips demoreel

Liam Bates 2 min 14 sec - Dec 24, 2005

A compliation of footage from 2005. Clips of fight choreography, practice and demonstrations. Chinese martial arts (wushu), martial arts tricks, weapons (broadsword - doa shu), capoeira, gymnastics, drunken boxing (zui quan), flips, twists and kicks. And ninja extra at end!

Filmed on location in: Beijing & Beidaihe, China, Cape Town, South Africa, Geneva, Switzerland, London, UK.

Between Christmas and New Year, we drink tea

The weather is cold, the feasts have been wonderful, the letters from old friends have all been read and reread. We need a pause, a few days of simple living, before the New Year festivities begin, with first-time skiers from England arriving soon.

We drink tea every day, but now is the time for our special ones, such as a very delicate white tea at the end of the day, a good book in hand. I'm reading Mauve by Simon Garfield, a history of the color, and rereading A Passage to India by E.M. Forster. Late in the afternoon we have pungent Two Sisters' Weddings tea, bought in China, in Kunming, southwestern Yunnan province, where we smelled jar after jar of tea before settling on three we wanted to try.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Tiger, donkey and kanga in fur boa

The first Noel . . . the tiger, the donkey and the kangaroo wearing a fur boa all came to see what was happening at the inn with no room (for late-arriving guests).

This is a lesser know version of the first Christmas, and it can lead to some confusion with the tale of Noah's ark, but it's nice to think all creatures small and large, tough and tender, were invited to the party.

A world of small Christmas tales: tatted hearts

1976, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

My father once mentioned that as a small boy his mother had taught him to tat, a form of lace-making with bobbins and thread that is rarely seen now. I tried to imagine what it looked like. My mother quietly went to her basket of mending and sewing and scraps and pulled out a small strip of lace that her mother, Grandma Lonergan, had made, perhaps 75 years earlier.

It took me another year to think of what to do with it. I made a Christmas tree decoration for my mother, a silk heart trimmed with her mother's lace.

A world of small Christmas tales: Santiago owls

Santiago, Chile, 2001

These owls, of hammered tin, were one of the many charms of the Pueblito de Los Domínicos, a crafts market in the capital. I was there to visit international schools, but the most memorable stop was at a proud little school in a shantytown, run by parents who were determined to give their children and their country a brighter future. The friendships forged by international students at Redland School and their poorer neighbors held much promise for the future. Redland helped create and supports the bright white primary school that sits at the edge of dirt paths edged by lean-to homes made of tin not much stronger than that used for the Christmas tree owls.

Before visiting Chile I knew little about the country except that it had very good wines, a reputation for beauty, and that its recent history was stained by the blood of one president, Allende, dead in a coup, and by the blood of thousand of citizens spilled by another president, Pinochet. Two teachers insisted I visit the presidential home where Allende died. The sheer ordinariness of the scene, with two young female police officers guarding the door and chatting and laughing, was eerily at odds with recent history.

I hope the history of the near future belongs to the shantytown children, and they learn to tend it as carefully as the little fenced in flower gardens they grew from seed, at their school.

Monday, December 26, 2005

On wisdom and walking

The three wise men are apparently still walking. The rest of us, especially those who ate pecan pie yesterday, should learn from their wisdom.

A world of small Christmas tales: a limp if loving star

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, 1970

I learned to crochet when I was in college, and I have no idea why, since I had plenty of studying to do! It might have been inspired by the hat Ali McGraw wore in Love Story, the movie of the season that every girl I knew cried through several times. We all admired her crocheted wool hat and her long dark hair.

And from that I moved on to making lace. Here is one of my first efforts, now limp with the years.

Year of Wonky Christmas Traditions, part 2

You might want to start by reading the first part of the short story “Year of Wonky Christmas Traditions”. This is the second part. Printable version: www.zidao.com/tradition2.doc

Traditions Found

Lindsay MacGregor suddenly realized that, through the old walls of the museum and its heavy closed doors and tightly shuttered windows, he could hear the bells of Christmas, from one church and then another, and another. A discordant if joyful chiming and ringing it was, that startled him from his glumness.

At this point, we might imagine that an angel visits and poor Lindsay suddenly finds religion. Or he might decide to retire to the Bahamas and leave someone else to deal with the tea heiress’s fortune in cards. Then again, maybe she will show up again and fall madly in love with him and they will open the world’s largest Christmas mall, in newly consumerized Moscow.

Card cataloguer

Life is often mundane, and MacGregor did what most people do when faced with the unexpected, especially their own unexpectedly strong emotions. He retreated into what he knew best, taking comfort from it. He began to catalogue.

Lindsay worked far into the night before he made himself a nice cup of tea. It was an excellent Darjeeling, no milk added, which (he chuckled to himself) would have shocked his mother. His dentist, also a Scot, named Dr. Risk, had once warned him that milk made tea stains linger on teeth. Lindsay was not a proud man but he had always thought his teeth were one of his better features. And he was fond of Dr. Risk, who had counselled strong brandy rather than pharmaceutical painkillers, after pulling two wisdom teeth.

Tea without milk

The break with traditional Scots tea reminded him of what had set off his cataloguing frenzy and he rushed back to the rear storage room. What a sight! There were still cartons and crates of cards that had tipped over and not yet been righted. Small trains of neatly banded and identified sets of cards were lined up, coming out from the walls. It looked, he thought with pleasure, like the giant train stockyards to the west of Lausanne. He had once been surprised to overhear a child say to her mother on the train that the massed trains were scary. He found the orderliness of them quite beautiful.

He took a deep breath and returned to his task. Christmas cards, he had quickly realized once his panic subsided, fell into categories. He had begun with the Christmas tree cards and the Santa Claus cards, but then subsets rapidly appeared: German and Scandinavian Father Christmas cards where the old man often wore green, were lined up before the American Santa cards, where the Coca Cola-inspired fat jolly man wore red. And here there was a subset of Santas on rooftops, Santas on chimneys and Santas with bags of presents.

Christmas cards galore

Then there were the cards with bells, the religious cards with dozens and dozens of subsets, from manger scenes to holy family nativities to the enormous sub-set of angels.

The joke cards and the ones in bad taste took less time because Lindsay was not tempted to pause and look at them, as he did with some. He had particularly liked one group in the African sub-set, with cards painted in colors that seemed strange in mid-winter. The Western cowboy ones were peculiar, but he supposed that on a ranch, people did celebrate Christmas, and they probably wore spurs and tall hats.

Light was seeping through an old window at the back of the house, one that no one had bothered to repair because the museum’s treasures did not deem this level of security necessary. Daylight, he realized, came very late on December 25. It was time to go home.

Ye olde English carole

He looked around in satisfaction and as he did, the words to an old English carol flowed smoothly into his mind. “Luly, lulay, thou little tiny child, by-by Luly lulay.”

He sat down in astonishment. More songs poured into his head, verses and verses that he had not heard or remembered for years. He closed his eyes and the smell of Christmas cake came to him. Around it wove his father’s pipe smoke, Prince Edward tobacco from a tall thin tin box with the lid he loved to pop off and smell when Father dozed. The neighbors came singing on Boxing Day evening. The little table by the door held sweets he had helped his mother make, and he would offer the tray round to the singers.

At some point Lindsay slept, stretched out on the floor with his head resting on a box of patchwork Christmas cards from Tennessee. When he woke up, three things were immediately clear: he would write down every family tradition that he remembered, and there were now many of them. He would write them on the backs of his favourite cards, plucked from the tea heiress’s treasure trove – and he would love the naughtiness of doing something that went against all his training. Then he would mail the cards to his children, telling each that the other had a matching one, and they must get together often, if not every year, and share the cards, and remember the traditions.

Taking the wonky out of Christmas

Lindsay MacGregor was about to send the first Christmas cards of his life, he realized. What a wonderful joke I’m playing on myself, chuckled the man who didn’t love Christmas hoopla.

But a better joke awaited him at the door, as he turned the heavy old key to go home, leaving the museum silent for Christmas morning.

“Bonnes fêtes!” called out the young girl who carried special delivery letters. “I didn’t think I would find anyone here today!”

He studied the envelope for a moment after she was gone, puzzled. It was sent express, special delivery, but it bore a date three weeks earlier, as if the sender has asked in advance for it to be rushed to the museum on Christmas Day.

A perfectly white card

Inside was a plain white card, but as he looked more closely it had an embossed cup of tea next to a present, on a small table with a Christmas tree. “I hope by now you will understand,” said the elegant handwriting with tall letters and many thin loops, on the inside of the card. “People were astonished to learn that I collected Christmas cards when I would say that I had never sent one in all my life. In my family, this would not have been acceptable. Just once, one time only, I wanted to be free to send a card. And one day I realized that while I had never sent one in all my life, I could send one in my death, to the one person who might enjoy it, the curator of my collection!

“And so I have gone to the grave laughing with pleasure. This is the only chance I will have to ask you to pick out a few of your favourites, without worrying that they belong to the collection. You might even want to send some of them. It’s a temptation we should not resist!”

the end

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Today's dessert is pecan pie!

We can hardly wait.

Christmas decorating, indoors and out

Dill and the evergreens

Wire and the evergreen

Today, indoor and outdoor decorations differed mainly in color (the outdoors team is more subtle in its use of color).

A world of small Christmas tales: Madame Butterfly and the Inuit baby

Beijing, China, 1985

Before I visited China for the first time in 1985 I thought all women there wore Mao suits, dark blue, and their mothers had all dressed like Madame Butterfly, bright colors and tight skirts slit up the side.

In fact, both of these creatures were rare, and so were butterflies. I found this one in Beijing.

Alaska, 1988

The baby was a gift from an old friend who grew up in northern Minnesota, a land of much cold and as much snow, who moved to Alaska.

I had never thought of Alaska as a place where people went to live. The Inuits were different from people in the Lower 48 states. They wore clothes all the time, never took hot baths, ate blubber and white was their favorite color, or so I thought until I was at least 10. I was then enchanted by their "new" name of Inuit, after calling them Eskimos throughout my schooldays.

Alaska changed my sense of space. The sky was higher, the mountains further, the ocean wider there. People and even animals were dots spread far apart on the Earth and to connect the dots you would need paper so vast that you would never be able to step back and see what you had drawn. Alaska, for all the bravado of its citizens, was a place where it didn't seem to matter in the end what the shape of the place was. It was enough to be immense.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas to some means time to FLIP OUT! (wushu - Chinese martial arts)

Liam Bates, actor, acrobat and wushu man - filmed on location in Switzerland, London (Southbank), Beijing, the Great Wall in China, Capetown beaches. Editing and sound, L. Bates.
Smaller file, easy to view with Windows Media Player : (11 MB) www.racreation.com/demoreelwmv.wmv
larger file, better quality: (23 MB) www.ektolint.com/liam/demompg.mpg

A world of small Christmas tales: Chinese man

Shanghai, 1985

In 1985 China was starting to step more lightly, moving out from the lumbering gait that Chairman Mao had insisted it keep. We traveled on bicycles for three months, from south to north. People were almost always smiling and friendly and helpful, despite enormous communication problems. In only one town, in western Hunan province, did we see people in the old Mao blue work clothes. Their garments were worn and faded, the people thin and unsmiling. What an apparition we pink-skinned, wellfed cyclists must have seemed.

There was little to buy in the way of souvenirs and China was exporting few consumer goods. Stores had few things on their shelves. The one exception was the Friendship stores in Shanghai and Beijing, where we found this man, one of six wooden figurines designed for Westerners' Christmas trees. Did the maker know how they would be used? Did he or she wonder at the strangeness of that?

No one seems to have advised the painter that people in Europe, at Christmas, expect to see smiles, not frowns. Maybe the painter lived in western Hunan province, where famine was not yet entirely a thing of the past.

A world of small Christmas tales: Spanish bird

Spain, 1968

It was 1968. Florence and Robert Wallace had never traveled together outside their own country. He had been in the Mariana Islands in World War II, building airstrips, but that did not count as travel because you were always somewhere that the government called American, whether on a navy vessel or a Pacific island.

Mr. Wallace sold Caterpillar tractors, literally tons of them, and watched as they lined up along the straight strip of dirt that would soon become Interstate 80, crossing America. One day he was told that as one of the best people Caterpillar had in America, he would be sent to Spain, with his wife, as a reward, for two weeks.

It was a magical if not always easy voyage, with white buildings that trapped sunlight and unsmiling widows dressed in black in Franco's country. Young girls were beautiful and wore goldleafed earrings, said Florence, who brought some home for her daughters, along with exquisite tiny scissors that could be used for paper-cutting designs. There was a suede jacket in an odd shade of green which never wore out because no one could find anything to wear with it, except from 1971-73, when chartreuse with mauve and orange did not look out of place.

And they brought back this bird, starting their daughter's tradition of collecting Christmas tree ornaments on her travels.

Tis the season when pigs lead bears

Part of the magic of Christmas at our house is knowing that anything can happen, that reality as we know it can be suspended. The stable sits under the tree, waiting for a small family to arrive, the animals keep watch, the wise men cross Switzerland and the pig, sniffing out excitement, leads the elephant and the camel across a ceramic desert without a worry on its mind.

photos: funkypancake

Meanwhile, other pigs, in their own gentle way, remind us that this is a time for simplicity, peace and happiness.

Year of Wonky Christmas Traditions

(printable version: www.zidao.com/tradition1.doc)
Traditions Lost

A boy in Scotland

Lindsay MacGregor grew up in a tall thin house with windows that started out rectangular but that didn’t stay that way, and with walls that were regularly painted white, quickly washed to an ashy color by the sea air and storms. The house was in Scotland where Lindsay was a boy, tall and reedy like his house, and equally unable to stay still.

It was in this house, where little fires burned steadily in winter, and his father’s pipe left a blue halo in the front room, that Lindsay lived through several Christmases of tradition and good cheer. His mother, short and inclined to roundness, loved the season. She baked wee mince pies and tied fir branches from her cousin’s giant trees to the front door. She played Christmas songs over and over, first on the piano and once they had machines to keep the music alive all day, she played carols that way. Every year she added small ornaments to the tree and Lindsay would wake up the week before Christmas to see yet more decorations sitting, hanging, dangling or perched in every spare space in the house.

Of men and Christmas spice

Lindsay tolerated this, as did his father, assuming it was a womanly thing. He disliked having his own reveries interrupted every December to drag down from the minuscule room at the top of the house the boxes that held all these objects. Once, he called them clutter. His mother, who had an enormous dislike for dust and clutter, stopped and stared at him. She quietly threatened not to make a Christmas pudding that year.

Lindsay, age 22

Lindsay never said another word against what he privately called the Christmas hoopla. Some years later he did the expected thing and married Leslie, who resembled his mother in her short roundness and dislike for clutter and dust but love of All Things Christmasy.

Never abuse a Christmas roll

One year he opened his mouth to complain about the number of boxes that had to be carried, always by him, but as he saw his wife studying her long-dead grandmother’s recipe for Christmas rolls, he closed his mouth. These were soft and white and always nicely risen, in the form of the yuletide wreathes that hung on their door and that got in his way at the supermarket entrance. The rolls were lightly covered in white icing, very thin like the edges of the icy pond nearby that wasn’t quite frozen over. Small bits of candied fruits would be scattered over the icing.

Time wore on, and as a museum curator, he was noticed time’s changes more than most people, although he had a tendency to catalogue them. His father’s pipe was buried with his father and his mother, after the shock of the first year, carried on much as before, for another 23 years. One morning she complained of a backache and two hours later, she died. Lindsay, always fond of his mother, was grateful that she lived to an old age with her wits about her, and that she had not suffered long. Ten years later Leslie died after a brief and not particularly painful illness. Lindsay was sorry that she died relatively young, but long lives had always been on his side of the family, not hers, so he was not in the end surprised.

Travelling traditions

It was shortly after Leslie died, and their children moved far away, one to Africa and one to Asia, that Lindsay surprised himself by applying for a job in Lausanne, Switzerland, at one of the many small museums in that city. He was 60, and certain they would not reply, but they offered him the job and in November he found himself walking on the shores of Lake Geneva, marvelling at his new life.

He had a small apartment, a job with pleasant people and he was learning to speak modern French, as opposed to the 18th and 19th century language he had used as a curator of fine old art. Children in particular were wide-eyed at his accent and the words he used, while grandmothers wheeling strollers would clap their hands in good cheer and say “My grandmother used to speak like that, and now no one does!”

An eccentric in Switzerland

Lindsay began to catalogue himself as a slightly eccentric but pleasant man who was moving into old age. He grew a beard, but like his spare frame, it was straight and slim. Looking at the spires of the cathedral in Lausanne one day, it occurred to him that God had probably looked at one of Lindsay’s ancestors, and then moved the hand of the architect. But Lindsay did not believe in God so such moments of fancy were rare, and made him laugh at himself. This reminded him of his mother, who had exhorted him during his youth to laugh at himself at least once a day, “just to keep things right in the world.”

This year the museum’s governors had asked if anyone would be willing to work over the holidays, to offer tourists in Lausanne more to do – not everyone wanted to go skiing in Switzerland for Christmas. Lindsay had broken the silence at the meeting by saying yes. His children were far away and he had no wish to travel during the holiday madness. He would see them soon enough. He kept one more reason to himself: this year, for the first time in his life, he was going to be a free man, and ignore the Christmas hoopla.

Lausanne and the Christmas markets

December 24 arrived, and as Lindsay rode the bus through the shopping areas, the crowded streets of the quartier Saint-Francois, the brightly colored windows of the boutiques on the Rue du Bourg and the food stalls in front of them – the last marché before Christmas – he let himself enjoy the sight, as he would a landscape by Ferdinand Hodler. He had learned as a young curator to admire the Swiss painter’s later work, which focused on symmetry in nature, and one of the pleasures that Lindsay now occasionally allowed himself was train trips to Zurich and Basel to see work by the painter. His favourite had become
Burgäschisee (bei Langenthal), painted in 1902.

A world of Christmas cards

Lindsay’s own small museum had one particular collection that was the source of much recent discussion. No one knew quite what to do with it. A very wealthy donor, the wife of an international tea merchant in Geneva, had left them earlier in the year her collection of Christmas cards. She was not Christian and had apparently never sent a card for the season, but she had, in her world travels, collected cards, and she had added to these the massive number of cards that she and her family, as well as the family business, had received. Her death, said one of the daughters when explaining the donation to Lindsay, had come at a good time: her mother had been shocked at the first e-mail card she received two years earlier.

“She would never have been able to understand a world where people no longer sent cards,” said the young woman solemnly.
“Do you send cards?” he asked her, his head bowed over the list she had handed him, trying to hide his amazement. How could one person accumulate, even in an entire lifetime, 4 million cards?
“Oh yes!” she replied, “SMS is not at all the same!”
Lindsay feared to ask what that was: she was a beautiful young woman, a fact to which he was not indifferent, and at that moment he preferred to play the invisible curator rather than the aging eccentric.

The cards had arrived by armoured truck in early November. Storage was not an immediate problem but the museum had been unable to work out what to do with the cards. There were simply too many of them.

Singing his favourite carols

Lindsay arrived at the charmingly discreet building with its dark purple shutters, in the heights of Lausanne. He unlocked the door, spent a quiet day with few visitors, and tidied many loose ends in the bookkeeping and the planning for next year. The afternoon drew to a close, dusk turned the sky outside the same color as the shutters, which he began to pull closed. He could hear carols, tinned music that did not carry well, from a house or maybe a shop further down the street. He hummed the tune and began to add the words.

He pulled in another shutter, latched it, and tried the tune again. The words would not come. He frowned and checked the doors. Locked, all of them.

Lindsay had little patience with friends who complained that their memories were fading, with age. He himself had actively kept his memory limber, the way others kept their muscles in shape, and he had no intention of giving way to dottiness in his old age.

“Hark the herald, angels sing, hear him now the newborn king…”

No, that was not right. He tried again.

“Glory be the yuletide ring.”

Definitely not right, and where on earth had that come from?

“Peace on earth and merchants mild.”

This was intolerable.

Lindsay sat down hard, on an old leather chair with arms. It was uncomfortable and he wondered who had bought it. Perhaps it was a donation. He recalled his father’s soft, expansive armchair, with the scratchy surface that his father said kept him from falling asleep in the chair (but, Lindsay smiled to remember, he was often found snoring there, pipe beside him). The eccentric curator allowed himself a rare moment of nostalgia: he could picture his mother hanging her Christmas wreath over the front door. She then put one on a small table in front of the fireplace.

No, that was not quite right. The other wreath had surely been on the table. He could remember lighting the Advent candles, one a week before Christmas, and that had been at the dining room table. Or had it been on the small table near the door?

The museum’s Christmas cards

Panic, an emotion virtually unknown to Lindsay, began to take hold. In all the years of his childhood his mother had never varied the Christmas traditions. The food, the songs, the decoration, hearty wishes, the Boxing Day gifts for friends and neighbors, the cards,: all were as reliable as the sun and moon rising.

Lindsay ran through the rooms whose displays he knew better than his own children, to the room far at the back of the old house converted to museum, where boxes and boxes of Christmas cards sat silently.

“Silent night, holy night, all is well, all is bright.”

No. Surely it was “old is the well, all is bright” and he could remember a card someone sent when he was a wee lad, with a picture of a pussycat peering down a well, which had a light shining up from it. He stopped in his tracks. That could not have been a Christmas card, not with that image, surely.

art: J. Wilton
Lindsay tore at one box, then another and another until cards tumbled onto the floor in crazy patterns, ignoring all his years of training in the care and attention of fine old objects and art.

He tripped over a pile and found himself stretched out on the floor. It is Christmas Eve, he told himself. And I have lost the traditions of Christmas. Tears welled.

Through them he spotted a bright little bird, on a red paper carpet. It looked like it was singing.

Tomorrow: traditions found.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

photos, Care in Pakistan (Bill Dowell)

Bill Dowell is a longtime war and peace correspondent and an old pal from Time magazine in Paris. He recently went to work for Care International and in November took more than 300 photos of post-earthquake relief efforts in Pakistan, as winter began to tighten its hold on the country.

Violet hair for the holidays

Catchy new Christmas tune?
Catchy new color of hair for one family member, for the holidays, more purple than red, despite camera tints.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Moonbeam drawer, Trisides

How many triangles do you see?

(Printable version at: www.zidao.com/triside.doc)

“I spy, with my little eye . . .” said a boy to a girl, in the back of my car. The game went on for several minutes, easing the boredom towards the end of a long drive in snowy fog.

An argument ensued: could you spy out and tease your friend with something abstract. For the blue car ahead of us, could you spy “blue” or did it have to be “car”?

As I drove, ignoring the backseat wrangling, I tried to spy triangles, because I knew that our nighttime moonbeam drawers have a triangle drawer. I saw few triangles around me. Their rarity added to my suspicion that there are few of them in our world, far fewer than circles, ovals and rectangles. And yet, the roadside gave me two of the most common triangles in northern countries’ daily lives. To my right, yield signs, and to my left, tall evergreens whose angular outlines we learn to draw as small children.

Colors, textures and forms. This is our visual world, blended to a smooth seamlessness until we start thinking about how the brain works. Of these, most of us are likely to first recall the colors of a scene, then probably the textures, and only after thinking, the forms, or shapes and lines that are part of all that stares back at us.

Moonbeam drawer - The triangle drawer

A secret: the triangle drawer is its name, but when you tug it open, only a small number of things sit in there, quietly, and if you want to get to the hidden compartment, the interesting bit, you have to whisper another name and brush your hand over it in a special way.

But first, the triangle drawer. Oddly, it is square, made from two hugging triangles, and very dark brown. It is hard to open, and at first all we can see are sharp, unpleasant corners inside, like too many elbows in a tight space. Every triangle has three angles. Angles are hard to see correctly from the outside, so we usually look at them from inside the triangle. Step inside and walk towards one of the angles, one where the two lines are close together. There are always at least two like this and sometimes three. You bump your nose on the corner, and your arms don’t fit in the space. If you were a child of long ago and your teacher sent you to the corner of this room you would want to cry at the tight unpleasantness of it, even before you felt assaulted by the injustice of adults.

You can’t turn around easily in a triangle corner. People build circular and octagonal rooms for fun, but triangular rooms and houses (as opposed to a-frames) are a nuisance and make us uncomfortable. Triangle bookshelves only work well with three-dimensional triangular books, and there are very few of these in the world, not enough for one shelf.

Triangles do have their fans, and I don’t mean the folding, fanning kind. The Babylonians fell in love with triangles, as did the Egyptians. Pythagorus the Greek, with his island school where students lived on a diet of beans and numbers, gave triangles a significant place in history. Everyone learns about them.

The best thing that can be said for triangles is that they long ago made themselves appealing to mathematicians, who adopted them.

Let the mathematicians keep the bony old things, I say.

The triside drawer

Before your hand tugs at the triangle drawer, in the dark, down under the bedtime covers, run your hand ever so lightly and softly over it. Your fingers feel the outline of the sides of a triangle. It begins to glow, then to hum, as you tap it gently. I spy: a soft gray glow, with glimmers of purple and deep blue, then a little flash of green as the drawer opens.

This is the triside drawer, where the magic cousin of the triangle lives. And here we have a jumble of delightful objects and ideas that you can pull out in any way you please. Best of all, when we grow tired of thinking about them and we begin to drift off to sleep, they tumble back where they came from, just as quietly, and the drawer slips back where it was. Tomorrow, the mathematicians of the world will still be counting and calculating and trying to outwit their triangles. We’ll play with the light and woolly thoughts the trisides left with us.

Races run around trisides make us laugh because everyone falls over when they have to stop suddenly and change direction to run along another side. Upright trisdies taught people about gravity long before Isaac Newton sat under an apple tree and had a concussion from an apple. They watched birds hop up one side of a roof and down the other side, but even these feather-light little creatures couldn’t manage to hop along the third side.

We began to understand what it meant to have a sense of direction back in the days when we first put sheep in pens, made from stones picked up in the fields. They had three sides because four sides didn’t always meet, nor did circles, but trisides reliably would always eventually meet. Try drawing a free-form square and see if you end up with two sets of parallel lines.

Our ancestors stood on one side of the pen and realized that the other two sides always pointed somewhere. No matter which side they stood on, the other two sides continued to point to the future, to something better than shepherding.

One of my favourite trisides was the brainchild of a Swiss chocolate maker, Herr Tobler, who stirred together honey and almonds to make an excellent nougat, then covered it in chocolate, but not in the form of a bar. For nearly 100 years people have been trying to work out which side to eat first.

The most satisfying side of our Toblerone bars remains the one that says "bite here."

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Fly me over the Alps!

When I am in a plane I always wonder what the people below are thinking. If you were on this plane just after sunset today, I was thinking I would like to join you as you flew over the Swiss Alpine border into Italy!

When birds go skiing the whole world sings

Looking down from my window, onto my steps, I saw that the early birds were the first ones with skis on today.

Swiss White Christmas

Silence may be golden elsewhere but in the Swiss Alps it is a shimmery white with hints of every other color on earth, as Christmas draws near.

Go to the Flickr badge above to see other views of a perfect mountain morning, near Crans-Montana, Switzerland.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Snuffle again

And the end of the story is that the pig got his truffle. The rest of us got the rainbow.

A footnote to history: most truffle-hunting pigs are female, but sometimes a particularly sensitive male is good at this, and our snuffling pig in Charolais country was one such shining example.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


rainbow, photographer Richard Kendall, UK

Rainbow and truffle snuffler

The Rainbow and Truffle Snuffler

printable version at www.zidao.com/rainbowsnuffler.doc

It was the year 1878. In the middle of France, the weather had been very hot and dry all summer. Winds blew and blew from the south, from Africa, from as far away as the Sahara, so that goats chewing on trees paused in wonder at the sand in their mouths.

Children rubbed the grit in their eyes and cried, and mothers stared, baffled, at the white grains that clung to their drying linens, washed with chunky bars of soap from Marseilles, in the south of France.

People and animals both turned in the direction of the warm winds and asked why. Why sand? Why so much heat? Why did it not rain?

People were restless. It was a summer of great movement, agreed the residents of a little village in the Charolais country, near the town of Macon. Travellers seemed to crisscross the country and even the world, passing through the village.

One of them, a woman from Australia named April, had decided to stay and she bought the big house at the bend in the road that had lain empty since Monsieur Dupont and his wife died childless. April fell in love with the fine golden stone of the house that looked out over a vast stretch of meadow and field, and whenever her eyes roamed over the several outlying buildings she dreamed and planned. She replaced fallen bits of wall and roof, and once again a fire roared in the giant breadmaking ovens. Outside, a sleek chestnut horse sighed and snorted and looked for shade. A slender pink pig with spots used his snout to dig holes in the ground, seeking coolness. With the heat, these soon grew warm and the little pig began to dig again. Soon, other animals noticed, the pig had become an expert at digging holes.

Neighbors were curious, but no one knew what April was plotting, unless it was her beautiful young black cat, Jean-Clawed. She had found him whimpering in a ditch her first day in the Charolais countryside, homeless and alone, it seemed. She adopted him.

Jean-Clawed grew into a fine cat who could sit perfectly still for hours or move like lightning if a mouse caught his fancy. April spoke to him as if he were her best friend. His command of English and French was excellent. He silently agreed with her remark that animals should not be treated as humans: they should be appreciated for what they are.

As a result, he spoke to other animals, convinced, as was April, that animals do not understand human words, but they like the music of them. He considered himself the exception to this rule.

The pig cocked its head on one side and stared at the cat from small round eyes whenever the sleek black creature spoke. One day Jean-Clawed, in his drawling voice, told the pig that the porcine race was known, at least in France, for its ability to sniff out truffles. The pig listened carefully, but did not say a word. The cat continued.

“They are very valuable. People like to impress other people by using them in cooking. Brownish-black truffles. They grow under walnut trees.”

The next day the pig was seen digging several holes around a little walnut tree. Jean-Clawed frowned. Perhaps the pig had understood, after all.

A strange man arrived one day.

“Madame, I am a sculptor from Paris. Your friend Monsieur Barry said I would be welcome at your home.”
He was. He was too welcome, thought Jean Clawed. The sculptor stayed for three months, on his way to Italy. He complained that no one understood his work except the Italians, who loved bodies. He ignored the cat, as well as the pig, Snuffle, and even the horse, Monsieur Cheval. He whined and demanded attention and fine meals. He wondered about truffles in the area, but April said she had no idea if there were any.

The next day the little pig was digging with great determination under the young walnut trees that had begun to bear fruit only recently.

The sculptor suddenly became silent and retired for hours to the room on the top floor where the dry winds were less hot, and the sun came in at soft angles. He shut the door behind him.

It was a Saturday, market day, and April had gone to town with Le Cheval, as Jean-Clawed liked to call him. No “Mister” or other fancy title was necessary for a horse, although when he pointed this out to Le Cheval the other gave him a long, strange look and some minutes later he attempted to step on the black cat. Mouse-chasing kept you in shape, Jean-Clawed thought later, when his heart had calmed down from the close call. April said he had nine lives, and this was only his first, but there was no reason to rush on to number two.

“There you are, little kitty,” purred the sculptor who appeared out of nowhere. Before Jean-Clawed had time to make it clear he detested cuteness, the artist had swooped him into his arms and they were leaping up the stairs, with the sculptor laughing.

“Today, I will show you what I can do! And you will sit still for me! You are so very good at that.”

Jean-Clawed was startled to see heads, legs, arms, bottoms and other parts of humans, in wood, or made of some white stuff, and sometimes in metal, sitting or lying around the room.

“Ha! But you think I sculpt only humans! No, no M. Rodin will soon be famous for that, but he – and he is me – knows how to show the world that a silent, still cat holds, like a beautifully coiled spring, the promise of all of the magnificent, wild energy of the animal kingdom. Ha!”

That was the day the two struck up a working relationship, if not a friendship. The cat sat, the sculptor sculpted, while April mended buildings and snipped rosemary and tarragon from the sunny corner of the garden to add to the roasting chicken. The pig watched her, thoughtfully, and then made a tour of the walnut trees further away from the house.

M. Rodin’s visit came abruptly to an end. One morning he refused his coffee and insisted that April see something he had placed in front of her new window, where the light now streamed in. It was a magnificent black cat, perfectly still but you knew it could move any moment, and then very quickly. Jean-Clawed knowingly marched over and sat down in front of it, taking up the same pose.

“For you, mon amour…” the sculptor cooed to April. And then he was gone, never to be seen again. April was silent for some days, and ate only salads. Snuffle, the pig, lay down in the shade and refused to move.

“I’ve had word from Paris,” she said to Jean-Clawed one morning. “Our friend Rodin is creating an uproar in the city, with one of his naked metal people. He calls it The Age of Bronze.” She laughed, and that evening there was a roast chicken. The pig followed her around happily while she tidied the garden and pinched coriander tips.

A few days later a traveller arrived.
“I am M. Mouchout, friend of M. Barry in Paris, who insisted I must see you on my return from Algeria. I have been there showing the French Academy of Science that we can track the sun and use its warmth to replace coal, an extraordinary advance for humanity.”

He smiled at her and continued talking, about his friendship with the Emperor Napolean III, who had been the first to understand the importance of his solar motor. He told April about the machine he had made that tracked the sun, in his courtyard in Tours, before the Academy invited him to do more work in Algeria.

There,” he said and Jean-Clawed felt the word stand up proudly on its own, “I connected it to a steam engine and produced one-half horsepower.”

April laughed and said, pointing at Monsieur Cheval, “I still prefer the whole horse, I think.”

While he recovered from the heat of Algeria, even hotter than Charolais that summer, a process that took some weeks, April built up the house to its former glory, encouraged the garden to produce marvelous vegetables and fruits, and she cooked meals that Mouchout said would keep him there forever. Jean-Clawed, bored by the man’s lectures on the power of the sun, learned to yawn and yawn, until April told him not to be rude. Foolish woman, thought the cat, tiring at last of the endlessly warm weather and blue skies. It doesn’t take that much to see the power of the sun.

“I heard them say, down the road, that the best truffles are found under older trees,” he said to Snuffle one day. The pig looked at him long and hard. Jean-Clawed had been known to say things just to tease. But that afternoon the pig was seen in the distance, walking around and around the old walnut tree, then a chestnut tree.

Mouchout, too, left abruptly one day, saying the world was waiting for him in Paris. April said little, but some time later she picked up the cat and showed him a letter from a friend, who said M. Mouchout had won a prize in Paris. M. Mouchout himself sent a card soon after, but it talked only about the magnificent solar structure with 72 mirrors that he was building. April did not bother to reread it.

It was only the next day that an Englishman, Mr. Muggeridge, came by, saying that he had met a curious sculptor in Paris, where they had argued about whether animals were more beautiful when they were still or moving. This Mr. Rode-In, he said, insisted that Muggeridge call on his delightful friend April, who had a horse and a cat and a pig. Mr. Muggeridge was looking for animals to photograph.

Jean-Clawed wondered what that meant, but they all found out the next day when Muggeridge insisted that the animals run, leap, and in general spend the day moving so that he could set up a contraption in front of them that would give him pictures of them. The horse galloped twice, then sat down and refused to listen to anyone. The pig ran round and round the walnut trees in a state of great excitement, and then collapsed in an overheated heap.

The cat was horrified to discover that every time Muggeridge threw a mouse his way, he ran after it – he couldn’t stop himself, even though he did not like the man or his machine and he particularly did not like the way the Englishman eyed April. The Frenchmen who visited had acted as if they loved her and her food and her house, if not necessarily her animals. This man ate her food without a thought, preferred her animals on a piece of paper, and as for her . . . Jean-Clawed knew more about lovemaking than this Muggeridge fellow, that was clear.

A week after his arrival he was complaining that the horse could not hold a candle to the racetrack horses that were making his photos famous in America. Why would a horse hold a candle, wondered the cat? A tired traveller called at the door, and handed a card to April. He was not a friend of M. Barry, in Paris, but of his brother’s wife’s cousin. He had just been summoned to Paris to set up the country’s first weather forecast station, to be called a meteorology department. The government was giving him $12,000, a princely sum but it would all be needed for the equipment and space, so he was travelling as cheaply as possible.

“And that is very good,” he said with enthusiasm, over sautéed pigeon that evening, with his hostess and her English guest. “It has forced me to see the impact of this terrible heat on our country, on the crops and the animals. I have been measuring water, or the lack of it everywhere, and wondering why we have no rain.”

Muggeridge barely listened but April smiled at the guest and said, “You must ask the pigs, for they always seem to know what the weather’s impact will be on the truffles.” The man laughed, but he turned around and went out to look for the pig. They were seen in the shady corner of the garden, five minutes later, sitting side by side, quietly, watching the world.

When the visitor came in for tea he asked about the photos of the horses and stopping action and he studied Muggeridge’s pictures carefully. He looked at the man without a word.

Two things happened the next morning, a morning that always stood out in Jean-Clawed’s memory. The first was that Snuffle went out early, led by the visitor, and they walked around several trees together, then without a word from either, Snuffle began to dig. The second was that the guest returned to the house and told Muggeridge to leave, immediately. The photographer, enjoying plum jam on a slab of freshly baked bread, still warm from the oven, protested.

“I know you were tried for murder,” said the visitor softly. “I know you were let free, but I also know you call yourself Muybridge and that we can’t trust you. We want two things in France this summer, rain, and love. You can’t offer us either.”

A few tense words later and the photographer was gone. The guest and April went out towards the walnut trees, where the pig’s little hooves were flying. They paused to pick up the black cat and the guest rubbed his forehead. How did he know a cat would like that, wondered Jean-Clawed?

The horse joined them and they all sat in the shade of the old tree and saw the French miracle of 1878 unfold. For there, before their eyes, the pig was digging out a streamer of silky colors, ripples and waves and shimmery bits of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, always in that order. It grew longer and longer, floating and dipping in the air.

April was the first to speak, very softly.
“But it’s a rainbow!”

“Mmm, Snuffle knew it was there. I told Snuffle that the terrible storm we had last spring was so strong it apparently buried the rain, and with the rain, the rainbow that moves around from one part of our sky to another. Snuffle was not very interested until I pointed out that without the rain, it would continue to be hot. And with that heat and dryness, you might never have the truffles you want for your wonderful meals.”

But by this time the rainbow had risen high above them, and clouds that had been building on the horizon had come closer and grown very dark with rain. Drops splashed and hit them wet and hard. Soon they were all running faster than even Mr. Muybridge, the famous stop-action photographer, could have wished, laughing and singing the rain’s praises.

And to this day, all the rainbows in France have one end in a little meadow not far from Charolles, although no one has been able to find it since 1878. And since that year, French meteorologists have been trying to prove, with little success, to other weather people around the world that rainbows begin and end in France. April’s house now has a woman named June in it, who might be one of her descendents, and down the road is a black cat called Jean-Clawed, who claims to be well into his nine lives.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Moonbeam drawer

Tara is 13. She doesn't read, she doesn't speak and, according to the specialists on autism, she lacks imagination. I know people who lack organization, and those around them try to provide it. I know others who lack tact, and the rest of us try to perfect diplomacy to offset this.

For Tara, we share our imaginations, and sometimes, that makes her smile. Listen in . . .

In the drawer, moonbeams

The moonbeams were found by Liam. Your brother was three going on four when he began to peek into drawers at night, at bedtime. We had a tradition, not a long one by adult standards, but one as long as a lifetime for Liam, that we always, always had a bedtime story. Sometimes these came from books with bright pictures, little trains that could climb hills, small blue trains that had to watch out for cows on the tracks and bigger meaner trains.

There were other stories, without books or pictures, that began “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…” and there were tales told by Daddy, of a little boy on a magic carpet, who flew over a small village in Switzerland where he could see a familiar red slide at one end of town and a green one at the other end of town. He would fly over a beautiful, deep lake with cities at each end. They glistened in the light of dawn as he sailed home at the end of each adventure. Mummy sang along with the MacGarrigles from Canada, “Light, light, shining on the water, it wasn’t Paris or Rome…” These song-pictures were other children’s visions, their dreams of the world, but they seemed to match Liam’s.

And tigers, oh my!

“I’m going to get the story,” he said one night, pushing down inside the warm nest of covers. “Here it is! It’s in the tiger drawer.”
“Tiger drawer?”
“I have to be very careful”, and his voice sank to a whisper, “very careful when I open it, because they can leap out.”
“Leap out! The tigers?”
“No, the stories. There are lots of them.”
I was puzzled. This was the first I had heard of a tiger drawer. He whispered into the darkness, “Once upon a time there was a beautiful tiger who lived in a village.”
“I don’t think tigers usually live in villages.”
“This one did. In a village on Lake Geneva.”
“Are there tigers around Lake Geneva?”
I pondered this.
“Now it’s your turn,” he said, satisfied with himself.
And so we found, in a night drawer, a story of a tiger who lived on Lake Geneva in a friendly village, with fishermen who went out very early in the morning in a small green boat. They returned with nets filled with fish, and the tiger thanked them. Such politeness was normal in Switzerland, where children always remove their shoes before entering a house or apartment.

Train stories and beds don't always mix

Another night Liam opened the train drawer, which was so full it was hard to open and the engines had a “tendency” to roar out into the room.
“Does that mean they like to do it, or they just do it often?” I asked.
He was too busy getting them under control to reply.
The next night he chose the turtle drawer because it was easier. Quieter.
“There aren’t too many turtle stories in here,” came Liam’s muffled voice.
“But the good thing about this drawer,” and in the dark his voice came up out of the covers and landed gently on the pillow, along with a stuffed turtle whose soft shell was red and yellow and green, “the good thing, you know, is that when you pull one out, two more jump in!”
“So if we want to take another one out tomorrow or the next night, there will always be at least two more in there?”
“No, more!” In the dark I could not see Liam’s grin, but I could hear it.
“Ten! A hundred!”
Liam had learned to count, and to use fancy words. Ten was big, but one hundred was huge.

There were suddenly drawers with tigers and turtles and trains, and each one had a story. When you pulled it out you left room for two more. These night drawers were truly magical because, Tara, as you know, when you empty your cupboard, or pull everything out of your drawers, they stay empty until someone tidies up after you. Sometimes, of course, we work on it together.

Cimmaron, silver, bronze and rainbows

And then the chest of drawers got bigger. We had animal and toy drawers but we suddenly we also had colors and numbers and shapes. One night Liam would tell me he was looking in the red drawer, where we might find a scarlet story or a cinnamon story because Grandma had given us some tiny cinnamon candies to put on Christmas cookies and they were very red. The next night he would ask for a story and let me pick the drawer.
“What’s that?”
“I’m not sure, but they have it in Arizona, where there are Indians, and where Grandma and Grandpa live. I think it’s the color of the dust, or the crazy buttes, those funny hills.”
“Okay, not cimmaron. Silver.”
“No, that drawer is stuck tonight.”
“Well, bronze would be nice.”
“Oh. That one is busy. There is something going on in there.”
“I have an idea. If you look hard I think you’ll find a rainbow drawer, one with lots of colors.”
A snuggling down kind of noise. And then a very small under-the-covers voice.
“Here it is. Yes, I can open it.”
So we had a rainbow story.

You can hear it tomorrow, if you listen carefully. And you never know when the moonbeams will appear.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

On a wing and a pig

True pig facts

Delightful piglets, compliments of funkypancake

Pig litters are unable to sweat, and they wallow in mud to cool off. So no, you don't sweat like a pig.

They are considered by animal trainers to be smarter and more trainable than cats or dogs.

Pigs are unique, from a scientific point of view because they are one of the only large mammals that exist in every part of the world.

The Chinese domesticated the pig over 7,000 years ago, making it the first domesticated animal.
They communicate using calls, snorts, sniffs, and whistles.
Source: PBS, U.S.

The U.S. and Canada toughed it out over their border for many years, but it was a potato-loving pig on St. Juan Island that provoked the Pig War of 1856.

When a female pig smells a male pig, she stands absolutely still.
Source: Columbia University.
In a game called Pass the Pig, where you toss pigs instead of dice, you are more likely to throw pink sides than trotters. Source: Fabrice Derepas

False pig facts

These are impossible to verify.

Link link

Self-description: Porkopolis is a repository of pig knowledge and appreciation. My favorite quote from their pages:
"I learned long ago never to wrestle with a pig.You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it." George Bernard Shaw, Irish-born British writer

And then again, from Porkopolis, this is nice: "Nature has played some weird tricks on the pig. It has taken a creature with a brain thought to be inferior only to primates, endowed it with copious amounts of lard, and made it walk on the animal equivalent of high heels." Steven Hall, U.S. writer

Lost professions: swineherder

Modern farming, free range pigs.

Compassionate farming, from Ireland, with good basic information about how market pigs are raised, and what the options are to improve conditions.

Babirusa: Now this is truly some pig! See the hairless wonder in St. Louis and read about how pigs live in families.

Tomorrow, human flu permitting: flying pigs

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Pig toast

The pig and the human: could this be love?

Dogs, yes, and cats, yes, as well as horses, rabbits and other furry creatures: we keep them as pets and love them.
photo: open source

The pig is another matter. How many people do we know who keep pet pigs? Poor pig has had some bad press over the ages. And yet, show you a cute pig photo and your heart races.

This then, is a homage to pigs around the world, reputed to bring us good luck and good cheer.

The pig and I

Most of us get off to a happy start with pigs. Think of the pigs from our childhood stories. There is Piglet, he of the curly tail and little courage, brought to fame by Christopher Robin, an English boy.
photo: funkypancake

My personal favorite is Wilbur, the imperfect but delightful American pig so loved by a spider named Charlotte that she learned to write "Some pig!" in her web in order to save him from the butcher's knife.

Every child in us has a touch of the weak but well-intentioned Wilbur.

My son learned through Chinese children's books to love Pig, the close friend of Monkey, a bright creature who has populated children's dreams in China for centuries. In Journey to the West Monkey flies and leaps behind waterfalls to land in magical places, while Pig myopically plods along fretting over his missing friend. They are now television and film heroes, but while Monkey has learned kung fu and leaps before looking, Pig,who is now a general, still peers at the world with a worried air as he puts one little trotter in front of the other.

Song of Pig

For the past few evenings our house has been haunted by a love song, wildy popular in China at the moment, called (you guessed it!) "Pig." My son spent time in Beijing and now uses Karaoke (enormously popular in China) to improve his Chinese. The lyrics, in translation or in Chinese, are a little odd, something about how I love you for the two big black holes in your nose. The message is the same, though: Pig might be a bumbling, stumbling creature, but he has a sweetness about him that charms us.

A pig in the family

My friend Mary, a successful New York designer, fell in love with and adopted a pig at a sanctuary. She visits her pig, rather than living with it, an arrangement that would probably suit most of us. It is an exotic pig, different from the lovely and very clean pink pig I saw during the summer at the Musée d'Alpage de Colombire, a small museum alongside a hiking trail, that shows life as it was lived in the Swiss Alps in the 1930s. The museum's real claim to fame is an excellent cheese fondue that is served during the summer. The mountain scenery is breathtaking, and hikers, nibbling on cheese, can only envy the nearby pig, nibbling on leftovers, in his idyllic pen overlooking forest and stream and peaks.

Given that most pigs come to untimely and unnatural ends, the human bent for considering pigs to be good luck symbols is a little odd. Alice Ross, an American food writer, speculated about this in the online Journal of Antiques and Collectibles, "American images of pigs are not usually adorable, but rather bring up thoughts of pig sties, eating like a pig, piggy eyes, the dietary prohibitions of Judaism and Islam, none of which are connected to luck."

Mein Schwein!

We persist. In Germany, people who've had a stroke of good luck often say Ich habe Schwein gehabt, literally "I have had pig."

Mon beau petit porc !

In Paris, the normally beautiful pastry shop windows outdo themselves for New Year's Eve, a feast of some gluttony in France. Center stage: pig. Exceedingly cute pink piglets made of marzipan dance around and over gooey yule logs, others are dressed up as miniature chimney sweeps and hang from minuscule ladders waving champagne glasses at us. Some have tiny coins tumbling out of their pockets.

For centuries we've connected pigs with having enough food for the year, and with wealth. Pigs were the favorite animals of Demeter, the Greek goddess of fertility on the farm. In Celtic mythology they figure heavily - literally, since many of them are Cousin Boars. They make regular appearances on early Celtic metalwork. The Welsh even have "pig" sprinkled throughout their place names to commemorate the famously unlucky one who had a starring role in the first pig roast in Wales.

= Pig

artwork/photo: Jun Shan

photo: Amerindea

The Chinese early on added the pig to their zodiac. He was the last of the 12 animals, because he was a rather slow creature. That said, the normally plodding pig can be very quick when skittish, and he is reported to move like lightning when greased, although I have yet to meet anyone who tried to grease a pig.

We are so certain they bring good fortune that we want to carry them as tattoos and take them in our pockets as talismans to the casino.

Flying pigs

photo: Glamorous Pig Ranch Productions

But surely the strangest quirk in the human-pig love affair is our insistence over the centuries on thinking about them flying. In 1553 John Withal in, The Shorte Dictionarie for Younge Byginners, wrote "Pigs flie in the ayre with their tails forward". Of course.

CK Chesterton, British poet, noted that wise men discuss whether pigs can fly but "we have no particular proof that pigs ever discuss it." Lewis Carroll had the Duchess and the Walrus arguing about it in Through the Looking Glass. The issue was finally resolved November 4, 1909 when Lord Brabazon, the first licensed British pilot also became the first person to take cargo aloft. Tied to the wing of his plane was a little pig in a basket with a sign "I am the first pig to fly."

Was his tail forward when in the air? The record is incomplete on this point.

Tomorrow: my favorite flying pig, pig facts and pig links. Stayed tuned for more ham intelligence.