New England Traditions

As our ancestors stored nuts and berries in tunnels underneath the ground to prepare for winter, so do we modern humans order many “upcycled” wool products off etsy as we feel the weather changing. I think I am almost ready for winter, although I still need to put a new lining in my pea coat, which will cost $100 and be a huge pain and I have now put it off almost too late I think. The good news is I still have the enormous knee-length all-wool hooded J.Crew coat I somehow found at Goodwill for $10 and lived in all winter in Iowa and which, while less fashionable than my pea coat, is much more warm. Yesterday I won an ebay auction for a pair of classic Sorel boots; I bought some truly zany mittens made of recycled sweaters from an old lady on etsy, and today I will get out and wash all my hats, scarves, and long underwear. In the immortal words of every character from Game of Thrones including a couple of ravens as I recall, winter is coming.

One of my students informed me that a goose had gotten on his bus that morning. In New England, this is the surest sign that winter is on its way.

Other New England traditions I am excited to take part in as the season changes:
- annual pumpkin-hurling contest
- the bi-monthly traditional pie pageant, where every unmarried woman over the age of 21 dresses as her best pie and is judged by a council of elders
- warding off the evil eye by burning a page from the Torah every fortnight
- hiring a chimney sweep
- paying the chimney sweep with a cup of hot spiced wine
- end-of-summer dance in town hall at the end of which a small goat is sacrificed to Thor
- “Who Can Make The Best Pumpkin Lasagna”
- witch hunt to insure a good harvest
- tradition where before you bake the first loaf of winter you cleanse the oven with a eucharist wafer and a bay leaf dipped in holy water while chanting “BABY JESUS DIED”
- “leading a horse into a pit”
- annual thrashing back of the thornbushes
- solstice rattlesnake hunt with rattlesnake hot dog judging contest in the town square afterward
- ceremonial scarecrow ritual where one boy-child under the age of four is volunteered by his parents to be placed in a rattan cage and dangled over smoky coals until the God of Death is appeased for one more winter
- puppy costume contest
- “Who Can Eat The Most Raw Pumpkins In One Sitting”
- Annual Autumn Carnival with Real Abbatoir: the lone survivor is declared Mayor
- Blessing ritual wherein the new Mayor is covered in vaseline and rolled in straw
- Breaking up the winter doldrums by loading a bunch of witches into a sack and throwing them into the old mill pond
- cleaning the old mill pond and disposing of witch-bones
- Weekly market where townspeople trade the fruits of their winter in-home labors, such as small beads made of animal dung, and bags full of unraveled sweaters
- smoking fish over a woodfire and then throwing the fish in the face of an unmarried female neighbor
- Annual tradition where local men of marrying age chase all the unmarried women over a cliff
- Tradition where a jar of pennies is placed on the mantel, and the first person to say “it’s too fucking cold” has to eat the pennies
- If your winter-child is born sideways you have to give it as a slave to the Mayor’s wife
- First person to find and capture a wild hog is given the hog, a bag of potatoes, and the oldest unmarried woman in town
- Solstice Carrot Hunt: find all the carrots and throw them into the sea
- Shave a Miami Dolphins logo into the right flank of your best milker; this will keep away vampires
- Each night father reads to the family from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; first child to fall asleep is whipped
- Town fair with whale judging contest
- BYOB roller skating night at the quonset hut with local DJs
- All you can eat duck quesadillas to benefit the volunteer fire department
- “Casino Night” where townspeople dress as grifters and commit violence in the streets
- If you get an abortion from a witch you have to run ten times around the old mill pond in just your underwear and then the Mayor raises you as his daughter
- trying to rob the bank; whoever succeeds is hung by the neck until he is dead
- dress a duck up as your favorite superhero, then kill it, rip out all its feathers, and eat it
- “Debate Night” in town hall where local folk debate the issues of the day, such as building a wall around the town to keep out spirits
- hot toddies

One of the things on that list is real! (besides hot toddies). Can you guess which one we are legitimately going to do?

Other real things I will do as autumn turns to deathly winter:
re-read House of Leaves
on Halloween night we will eat Doritos and watch Mario Bava films
That’s Pretty Much It

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Hitchcock, Dostoevsky, and such-and-such

I keep wanting to write blog entries even though I barely do more than 1-2 things each day and those things are too boring to blog about, but they take up so much mental room in my brain that I feel I am not even having interesting thoughts to muse upon either. Like all I think about is my job, global warming, and police brutality. All we talk about is police brutality. We teach all day then we get in the car and the old man is like “they shot another kid in St. Louis” and then we are off. It is surreal to be privileged white professors talking passionately about racist police murders. Luckily it does come up in class, as one of my students said something about Ferguson and another one didn’t know what that was, so I got one of my prized chances to subtly indoctrinate. And by “subtle” I mean saying “the police system is a racist racket that protects private property, not citizens”

We watched “Rope” last night, which is not in chronological order. I hadn’t seen it since college. The funny thing about Rope is that everyone makes this big deal out of how it’s done in one shot! When first of all, there are quite famously these several moments throughout where the camera zooms all the way in to the back of someone’s black jacket, clearly to provide a place for an edit–a technique that has been much parodied and that is really obvious and funny each time it occurs in the film. But furthermore, there are just straight-up cuts! Like regular cuts, shot-reverse-shot stuff. I don’t get it. “Was that a cut?” the old man kept yelling. There are at least three cuts. It’s truly amazing how film lore gets passed down. Like the one about how Birth of a Nation is the first narrative film. It’s just simply not true! There are tons of storytelling films from before 1917. And like, even DW GRIFFITH HIMSELF had ALREADY MADE NARRATIVE FILMS before he made Birth of a Nation. Long ones, too! Or people also say Birth of a Nation was the first film to have its own specially-constructed score that traveled with it. Also untrue. But still you see these “facts” repeated everywhere, even in legitimate film criticism, and EVEN in legitimate film SCHOLARSHIP. It’s incredible. So Rope being filmed in one shot is just a thing everyone knows about Rope, even though a simple viewing the film proves almost immediately that it’s just not the case. I also don’t understand why he did the zoom-ins on black jackets to provide places to cut when he also just had regular cuts. Did he just hope no one would notice? Well, he was right, so I guess it all worked out.

Anyway, Rope. The performances are wonderful, as is all the contemporary fancypantsing (“it belongs in a museum except that it’s such nice crystal and I hate to break up the set”) and talking about drinking (like they are all surprised when he serves champagne even though literally every other conceivable type of booze is also being offered and swilled in enormous amounts). Jimmy Stewart is weird and creepy in it, a very different character from the one he usually plays (aside from his role as Ultimate Creepster Of All Time in Vertigo of course), and they talk about pop culture! “I went to the movies once. I saw Mary Pickford.” “Oh, I ADORE her!” Plus a heated debate about the foxiness of Errol Flynn.

I really wish the movie WERE shot in one shot though because it would mean the actor who plays the guy they murder in the opening scene–who has no lines–would have had to stay folded up in that trunk for the duration of the shot.

It’s a really great movie until Jimmy Stewart’s dumb enraged speech at the end. “How could you have taken what I said and twisted it so that it could justify murder?” “You mean all that stuff you said about how murder is justified?”

When it was over we discussed it.

“It’s a Crime and Punishment story. It’s a dumb story.”
“I thought you just said it was a good movie except for Jimmy Stewart’s speech at the end.”
“It is a good movie, but the Crime and Punishment story is a dumb story, I just realized.”
“Well it’s an allegory.”
“Everyone says that, but what’s it an allegory FOR?”
“It’s dumb”


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Genocide Day

Well, it’s Columbus Day weekend, which means we have Monday off school for some reason. Furthermore, in a twist I have never heard of before, my new school does this thing where when there’s a Monday holiday, we make it up on Tuesday–so on Tuesday the entire campus pretends it’s Monday. Then that Tuesday just disappears and is never made up. No one understands it or can explain it, and it causes massive confusion several times each semester, year after year. Me, I’m not complaining, because I have Mondays OFF, which means I now have these weird Tuesdays ALSO OFF, which means Columbus Day weekend for me turned into a goddamn five day weekend, which might as well be spring break it’s so damn long.

This has given me an opportunity to do the many shit-tons of hours of grading I somehow brought upon myself this week. It has also given me an opportunity to revise my book proposal, mildly revise some of my book itself, and talk on the phone with Katy and my mom. I am getting back into the phone. Today or tomorrow I will call other people on my phone to-do list: Joey, Jerry, Adam. Just lie down on the couch and talk on the phone, it’s no big deal!

Last night we drank wine and sat across the table from one another, reading separate cook books. The old man has decided to make the slow cooker his particular culinary contribution to our family, while I am deeply involved in my fancy bread book. I am almost ready to try again. My starter is popping off; I got a dutch oven for $25; all I need now is a dough scraper and a kitchen scale, which are currently being shipped to me. Up next: restaurant-quality sourdough bread made by my own hot little hands! Alas, would that it were so easy.

Great news, too, which is that my zombie nightmares are back in FULL effect, more detailed and long-winded than ever before. They used to just involve me running and screaming, but now they have become vividly colored by my darkest emotional anxieties, such that they are now including my old man and my snoopy in various terrible ways. House fills with zombies and I have to flee but snoopy is locked in a closet and I can hear him screaming but I can never go back to get him out so he will starve in there. Old man falling off back of truck being driven away by scrappy band of survivalists we have fallen in with; me just barely too late to grab his flailing hand. In last night’s we were trying to hide quietly but I had forgotten to turn off this glaring strobe light and as he clambered up trying frantically to fix it the window burst inward and all was lost. I wake up VERY slowly from these, spending many many minutes in a sort of sweaty, paralyzed half-sleep before I slowly realize it was just a dream. OR WAS IT

I conquered these dreams once before, in my early 20s, and I believe I can do it again, by willing myself to psychoanalyze my own dream while it is occurring, thus breaking its power over me. I read about this in a New Yorker article about chronic nightmares. The last time, I broke the cycle by just yelling “stop, stop, I can’t handle it, it’s too scary” in the middle of one of the dreams and then all the zombies stood around laughing companionably with me and then I woke up and never had another one. Until now.

In other great news, we are watching 19 Hitchcock movies in chronological order, because of a class the old man is teaching. You’ve probably never seen the old British Hitchcocks from the early 30s, but here’s a tip: they are pretty delightful, and surprisingly zany.

So I am in my spare time (lol) reading one of those Ben McIntyre books about British spying in WWII. I have never read such bizarre nonsense in all my days; I can not believe that this kind of shit was once a major factor in global warfare. Just Germany and Britain sending hundreds of LITERALLY JUST RANDOM CIVILIANS (many with fairly serious mental illness and/or things like gambling addictions) secretly across the border to act as basically untrained spies; half of them broke their legs while parachuting in and were immediately arrested/shot. The other half just seem to have sort of bumbled around until some of them accidentally assured the Allied victory at D-Day or whatever. Literally just being a secret British spy rambling around Berlin and accidentally meeting some Nazi official at a bar and chatting him up and then he’s like “hey do you want to spy for us?” and the spy is like “jiminy christmas, my big chance!” There’s a Spanish guy named Pujol who wrote the British hundreds of letters begging to become a spy, and they never wrote him back, so then he just became one on his own. He got like a CB radio and just started communicating with the Nazis until he had them wrapped around his little finger–they were sending him thousands of dollars and glowing letters commending his work, and all he was sending them was weird unhelpful made-up nonsense. He developed a cast of hundreds of fictional spies and counter-spies, whose character traits and styles of speaking and financial needs he kept track of in meticulous files. Finally the British caught wind of this and were like, who the hell is sending the Germans all this weird info? And they found him, and made it official, and his work saved millions of lives, for example at one point when the Germans are telegraphing him about how they’re going to do a horrible gas attack on London, Pujol writes back as one of his alter egos telling them that the British have amassed the most amazing anti-gas-attack technology ever seen on the planet, and also that they are ready to retaliate with even worse gas if they are ever gas-attacked, none of which was true in the slightest, but the Germans believed it and thus were many Londoners saved from being gassed by the Jerries.

Ben McIntyre must be the luckiest man alive. These documents have only recently been declassified, and he has really made his mark by sifting through them and writing lively narratives for mass-market consumption. It is mind-blowing. Because these docs have been kept so secret, nobody has ever known how huge of a role spies played in WWII. For example, this current book is about how the Allied network of spies is somehow somewhat singlehandedly credited with victory at Normandy. They pulled this elaborate double-triple cross thing where they knew that Hitler knew that they knew that some other place was the best place to mount the amphibious attack, and that he knew that they knew that he knew they knew that, but they got him to think that because they knew that he knew that they knew that, they WOULD actually land there, in spite of it being the most obvious place. So Hitler sent all his troops there, but then actually they landed at Normandy, and won the war. What the fuck!?

I truly don’t get it. And every spy that Germany sent to Britain ended up getting caught, and then either executed or turned into a double agent. This book claims that LITERALLY EVERY GERMAN SPY working in Britain was actually working for Britain. How can that be. The book does not get into what the hell is going on over in Germany with all BRITAIN’S spies.

It’s epic. Every spy has a “handler” who “runs” them, and feeds them information, and helps them figure out what to do. So this means that every double-agent has two handlers–their German one, who they are betraying, and their British one, who hopefully they aren’t although one never knows. This means that both the German handler and the British handler KNOW ABOUT ONE ANOTHER, they know each other’s name and interests and style of communicating, and who their wife is and what they like to eat, and what their feelings are about the war, because the double agent is telling each of them about the other. And so each handler is just crossing their fingers that THEY are the “real” handler and not the patsy being double (or, in the case of the British, triple) crossed. They come to appreciate and understand one another, these enemy handlers across the sea from each other. It’s bizarre.

It’s a style of warfare that I just can’t believe is still in existence. First of all, I feel like surveillance technology is so next-level now that you could no longer get away with writing a note to an enemy commander just basically making up a bunch of stuff about troop movements. But even more importantly, WAR IS NO LONGER CONDUCTED THIS WAY. The war described in this book is a MATCHED BATTLE, where two nation states agree that they are at war, and act accordingly. There are hierarchies and officials and governments involved in a very clear way that everyone understands. Now, war is just this blobby thing where there’s no frontline and no boss and not even any real objectives–like, Hitler and Napoleon and whoever else, they had clear objectives. They were gonna take over Poland, then Russia, then everywhere else. They were gonna invade here and here and here. And then whoever they were invading acted accordingly. Now, we just blow shit up with robots from thousands of miles away, on the one hand, or we strap explosives on ourselves and blow ourselves up somewhat randomly, seemingly just to sow chaos and confusion. There’s no objectives; there’s no battlefields; there’s no accepted hierarchy of who is in charge of whom and why. Can there possibly still be spies, in this context? What would they even do? I highly doubt some British dude parachuting into Baghdad is going to be successful at convincing Al Qaeda (who is that? where are they?) of something. And what would he even by trying to convince them of, anyway? Oh, Barack Obama is gonna blow up this random village tomorrow. Big deal. It seems like there is no more ARTISTRY, I guess I’m saying. There’s not really strategy in this grand old sense. Maybe I’m wrong. It just seems like the only strategy now is to blow as much shit up as you can. There’s no, like, trying to imagine what Hitler is thinking and what he thinks you’re thinking, all this chess-y, cat-and-mouse psychological stuff.

I know there are still spies (Valerie Plame, e.g.) but I just don’t get what they are doing anymore.

It is weird to feel nostalgic for WWII

There’s a part where the Germans capture a Norwegian and “turn” him–force him to spy for them–and then they parachute him into England, where he is immediately arrested, but then he manages to overpower the soldier guarding him in the safe house by trying to strangle him, failing, apologizing, and then tying him to a chair instead. He then steals a tin of sardines, a pineapple, a “large canvas canoe,” and a motorcycle. He rides toward the coast very very slowly on the motorcycle, with the canoe balanced on his head. At one point he falls over and a farmer helps him throw the canoe over a hedge. Growing suspicious of this foreigner with a canoe on his head in the dead of night, the farmer calls the police, and they arrest him again. He immediately agrees to spy for them, thus becoming a double agent. He ended up being one of their more successful spies. Poor dude!

There’s also this really weird side-plot involving pigeons. Apparently Germany and Britain used homing pigeons to communicate across enemy lines, and the British became obsessed with the idea that every pigeon you saw might be a German spy-pigeon. After a storm, an exhausted pigeon dropped out of the sky and was found to have secret messages in invisible ink wrapped around a leg, e.g., stuff like that. So everyone gets pigeon paranoia, like, ANY pigeon could be a German spy, what do we do? This one British pigeon enthusiast developed all these kooky anti-pigeon schemes, with the blessing and funding of the government. Like, he trained falcons to kill pigeons, and he would take them to beaches all up and down the British coast where German pigeons would have to cross into British airspace. But then all the pigeons that falcons killed turned out to have been British pigeons! So then he got a bunch of pigeon owners to set up coops all up and down the coast, and release huge flocks of pigeons at timed intervals all day long, because a tired pigeon who has just crossed the sea is likely to just fall in with a flock if he sees one, and then he’ll fly with them back to their coop and then you can see what message he’s carrying. But they never caught a single enemy pigeon this way.

I don’t understand how any of us are still living.

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