Meet Mr. O’Lantern

Author: natalie  //  Category: Holidays

Curse or blessing, I have to know the origin of how things came to be. And this season as I took my not- so-little-but-still-Halloween-celebrant cherubs in search of the perfect carving canvasses I wondered what started it all.

While scraping out the innards of pumpkins— saving the seeds for toasting— is good, squishy, and I’d even wager therapeutic fun, the legend of one Jack O’Lantern is a little devilish.

We can thank the Irish for bringing the tradition to America and for the story that goes back hundreds of years in Irish history. There are a few variations, but they’re similar enough.

Stingy Jack was a miserable, old drunk who played tricks on anyone and everyone. No family member or friend escaped his meanness. It’s said he even got one over on the Devil himself.

One day, Jack tricked the Devil into climbing up an apple tree. Once the Devil was well off the ground, Jack placed crosses around the trunk of the tree. Of course the Devil didn’t want to come down and deal with the likes of that.

See, Jack knew where he was headed in the afterlife, so laughing at the Evil One’s predicament he made the Devil promise not to take his soul when he died.  The Devil promised (he’s trustworthy?) and Stingy Jack removed the crosses thus allowing a climb down.

Years later when Jack met his demise he arrived at the pearly gates and was quickly led away by Saint Peter for he had, “been too mean and too cruel, and had led a miserable and worthless life on earth.”

Confounded, Stingy Jack took a trip way south of Heaven only to learn the Devil was going to make good on his promise and wouldn‘t allow entry there, either.

Stingy Jack was scared and had nowhere to go but to wander about for eternity in the darkness. He asked the Devil how he could leave him there with no light. The Devil tossed him an ember from the fires surrounding him and Jack placed it in a hollowed out turnip.

From that day onward, Stingy Jack roamed the earth without a resting place, lighting his way with his “Jack O’Lantern”.

On All Hallows Eve, the Irish hollowed out turnips, rutabagas, gourds, potatoes and beets. They placed a light in them to ward off evil spirits and keep Stingy Jack away. (I had to wonder here if Stingy Jack wasn’t afraid of the Devil, how this would deter him, but  . . . that’s the legend.) These were the original jack-o-lanterns.

In the 1800s waves of Irish immigrants arrived in America and discovered that pumpkins were bigger and easier to carve out. And we’ve been doing just that ever since.

Seems at some point I’d heard the jack-o-lantern tradition was loosely based around warding off evil spirits, but of course over time it just morphed into something fun to do.

Maybe Stingy Jack wasn’t so stingy after all. Not that I believe the legend surrounding him is anything but an unverified story passed down from much earlier times, but he aided in giving us modern humans something we can use to blow off steam. And if it also involves going costumed from house-to-house gathering delicious, calorie-laden, cavity-causing goodies, all the better.

I’ll light a few lanterns for you, Jack.

Take a page from the tale of Mr. O’Lantern and be a blessing in disguise. Have a Happy and safe Halloween everyone.

 © 2011 Natalie Whatley

It’s all wrapped up

Author: natalie  //  Category: Holidays

This week’s installment may be a bit macabre, but fitting as a little pre-Halloween fodder. I would’ve kept it under wraps for another week, but the show is going on.

Tomorrow, October 24, Britain’s Channel 4 will be airing Mummifying Alan: Egypt’s Last Secret

Sixty-one-year-old British taxi driver and lung cancer victim Alan Billis, who dubbed himself “Tutanalan”, answered an ad asking for a volunteer to be mummified King Tut style upon death. On top of that a documentary would be made chronicling the same three-month, five-part process used in ancient civilizations thousands of years ago. Then the mummified remains would be studied . . . until.

Chemist, research fellow at York University and man in charge, Dr. Stephen Buckley, says after mummification Billis’ remains could last several millennia. Of course he won’t be around to say, “I told you so”.

Mummifying Alan promises to show it all.

I was fascinated just watching the interviews where Mr. Billis, who passed away on January 14, 2011, discussed participating in such a project. He said it gave him something other than his terminal illness and impending demise to focus on as he spent his last days.

A documentary lover, Billis jumped at the opportunity saying, “If it doesn’t work it’s not the end of the world, is it? Don’t make any difference to me, I’m not going to feel it. It’s still bloody interesting.” I agree on the bloody interesting.

In the same interview, Billis and wife, Jan, even have a laugh when he says he hopes to be in a museum some day.

 Jan believes people find her support of the project strange.

In later interviews after the process is complete, but before the wrapping is done, she remarks on how much her husband still looks like himself.  

If this programme (that’s how they spell it over on the other side of the pond) was making its debut here, why Halloween night would be perfect. We’d have watch parties, be dressed as mummies and enjoy far too much food and beverage . . . all while staring wide-eyed at an honest-to-goodness dead body.

But apparently Halloween is not such a big deal over in Britain. I learned that fact while trying to figure out why I was the only marketing genius that would have held onto this potential television gem for a Halloween-night showing.

Mummies and Halloween have gone hand-in-hand since an obscure book simply titled The Mummy was published in 1821. Before that, no one ever really imagined a reanimated mummy or the curses on their tombs being a problem. But Hollywood picked up on the notion and made it a staple in modern horror writing and movies.

My satellite provider’s listings don’t include the program or British channels, but I’m giving the heads up for any of you more technologically sophisticated who may have paid extra for international programming.

If you watch, let me know if it lives up to all the hoopla because I tend to occasionally enjoy some horror that makes me run screaming, I want my mummy!

© 2011 Natalie Whatley

Living in high cotton

Author: natalie  //  Category: Life with children

It was the last Bingo number called for the night. “B-1” made yours truly the proud new owner of the prize no one else claimed in the two hours preceding:  a countertop cotton-candy maker. Am I lucky, or what?

I’m sure luck had nothing to do with it. It takes special skill and laser-like focus to win at Bingo.

The winning streak was running long for the Whatley Clan at the BERA (Bayer Employees Recreation Association) Annual Bingo Bash beautifully put on twice each year by Andy and Clarissa Legg, who by the way are new parents to one of the cutest babies I think I’ve ever seen. I swear by Hasbro toy makers he is the real, live Cabbage Patch Doll.

Fortune —or misfortune depending on where one is situated in the parent/child equation—had already smiled upon us earlier in the evening. Jeremy won an electric keyboard and Erin a karaoke machine.

These items complement the electric and acoustic guitars as well as a viola already enjoyed in my home. Told you I was lucky.

All that’s needed to topple my mental state into insanity and make permanent the nervous tick I have acquired is a set of drums.  No, I will not accept donations from any of you who’ve already lived through this special brand of crazy-making.

But getting back to cotton candy:  My not-so-little cherubs couldn’t wait to try it out. And I bet you already know they weren’t nearly as enthusiastic about cleaning the thing afterwards. However, as the webbed confection blew through the kitchen air, they did run in circles catching the “mess” with their tongues. Good times. (The cotton is supposed to stay in the collection bowl atop the maker IF/WHEN the operator is skilled enough to catch it all on the provided cone. I need to practice.)

Nostalgia Electric’s Hard and Sugar-Free Candy Cotton Candy Maker transforms hard candies straight into honest-to-goodness carnival deliciousness.

I banned cotton candy from my personal diet a long time ago as I was concerned over ingesting tons of pure sugar, but I was amazed to learn how much sugary cotton was produced with a mere two pieces of hard candy.

Two peppermints, which I’d never blink an eye over consuming, are two peppermints regardless of their form. And two of the red and white candies provided a perfect, pink serving. I love it when I learn something new like this. Life is sometimes so sweet.

We played with our new toy until queasiness set in, and I must admit to my surprise the machine was incredibly easy to clean.

Afterwards, you know I had to find out how and who in the world discovered a pillow-like material that literally melts in one’s mouth.

Its roots go way back to the banquet tables of European aristocracy and a time when sugar was so rare it was kept under lock and key. Spun sugar was the precursor to the cotton we know and love today. And it’s all about caramelization and what happens to sugar when it melts. It gets a little scientific.

That’s not entirely interesting, but what did make me take note in confectionary history was that the first patent on a cotton candy machine was obtained in 1899 by candy maker, John Wharton, and dentist, William Morrison. You think those two were in cahoots? Pure-sugar genius there.

Anyway, back then what was produced became known as “fairy floss” and cotton candy as we know it didn’t really become popular until the 1920s. It has remained a fun staple ever since.

All of that aside, I had an unexpected great time with two of my most favorite human beings on top of a fun night of Bingo with family and friends.

It’s a beautiful thing to be living in such high cotton. And when it gets too noisy, I’ll stuff some in my ears.

© 2011 Natalie Whatley

Exploring the options

Author: natalie  //  Category: Holidays, National

My interest has a penchant for thorny subjects, which leads my reading endeavors down a long, winding road that I sometimes have trouble finding my way back from.

Of course we all learned in elementary school that “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” and in many circles was credited with “discovering” the Americas. 

With tomorrow being Columbus Day, I decided my brain and eyeballs would take a little voyage of their own—see what still garnered government closure amidst what has been growing opposition to the holiday for the past thirty years.

Thought it would be a quick in-and-out. Wrong. The answer wasn’t easily forthcoming.

Searching for one thing, I discovered something entirely different. Happens to the best of us. Columbus and I are now bonded that way. Bet I’ll be called an idiot, too.

Even if I turned such research into a full-time gig for the remainder of my earthly years, I’m not sure I could ever get to the unadulterated truth. 1492 was a long time ago. And like everything else I seem to sink my teeth into: folks don’t agree. Fact and fiction are easily blended. I don’t have the time or patience to determine which is which.

Where are H.G. Wells and his time machine when a girl needs them? With so much dissension, I’d rather pop back to pay Chris and crew a visit—see it all with my own peepers. 

Accepting what is probably our skewed historical record, I see strong arguments on both sides of the celebrate-or-not Columbus coin.

Initially I was swayed and ideologically pitched my tent in the camp that argued one couldn’t discover land that was already there and occupied by people.

Plus, some argued the whole thing was an accident as Chris was headed to China for gold and got lost. He stayed for a while and it’s said wreaked general havoc on a people and their homeland from that point forward.   

Those arguments held water with me, and as I searched I found the same sentiments echoed over and over. 

So why, then, on this not-flat Earth do we still recognize and even celebrate what is apparently blighted and far removed from us today?

I wasn’t the first the pose the question.

The comments of some anonymous soul brought it all full-circle, reminded me of the bigger picture, caused me to reconsider the above arguments, and pack up my tent.

“Well, there are really two salient reasons: One, a lot of different groups and people discovered the Americas before Columbus reached their outer islands, true; all of these led to exactly nothing except footnotes in forgotten musty archives. The voyages of Columbus were massively consequential (for good and ill) which cannot be said of any of the others who went before.”

“Two, despite failing to reach China, the entire enterprise is a glowing illustration of a man with a dream, using the best technical knowledge of his day to overcome resistance and superstition to achieve something, even if what he achieved was not what he originally set out to do, and so it strikes a special chord in the American spirit and speaks to us in a way the ultimate long-term failure to matter of all the predecessor enterprises does not.”

That’s it. That’s why it’s still important. It’s who we are as a nation, and no, it’s not always pretty.

I fully understand the reasons against celebrating the day. It was a new beginning for some, and a horrible end for others.

To follow in the footsteps of a few states and change “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous People Day” or “Native American Day” does nothing to right any real or perceived wrongs.

Failure and success go hand-in-hand. No one succeeds without daring to try.

Without ignoring atrocities and a sometimes troubled past, we should still pay homage to the dreamers who dared take a chance. Where would we be without them?

© 2011 Natalie Whatley

Raising Cain

Author: natalie  //  Category: Life with children

It has been said that we all must “pay for our raising”.

 I believe that’s true and my mother, the stunning Linda Rowe, will no doubt rejoice (or at least giggle) over the fact that I’m making payments.

Before I get started on describing the nature of the currency with which I’m repaying childhood debt, I must confess that I was the most difficult child and teen to get out of bed.

 The fact that I showed up for school and later work on time was a testament to the grit and determination of my maternal figure.

Also know that this whole bit is more than slightly tongue-in-cheek.  I do realize that if what I intend to complain about is the worst I have to deal with: I’ve got it made. But it’s still annoying and teenaged son and I are having the devil of a time finding an amicable resolution.

Not one person residing at the Whatley residence could be labeled a “morning person”.  However, we do manage to tell each other to “have a good day” after grunting and growling and before heading our separate ways. “I love you” also manages to sneak its way past snarls.

It gets so ugly because three out of five of us don’t hear alarm clocks. That includes me. Shameful, I know. And I’d appreciate if we could just keep that here between us.

Making things worse, every member of the family keeps different hours—not by choice but by school and/or work mandate. The going and coming is nothing short of chaos.  Mornings are the worst.

I knew the new school year with one cherub transitioning from a junior-high school start time of 8:40 to high school’s 7:15 was going to be a challenge. Minor miracles take place each day he catches his 6:27 a.m. big, yellow, chauffeured-limousine ride.

I’m certain he arrives at the bus stop with a scowl that matches the one I wear for the remainder of my morning after we’ve tussled over his not getting up on time and the ensuing rush accompanied by my harping.

And when he misses his chauffeured-limo ride, it’s a most unpleasant trip by private car to the Ross S. Sterling campus. Two-year-olds have nothing on me when it comes to the tantrums bus missing induces in me. It’s pathetic, really. But I do put on my big-girl britches before getting behind the wheel.

It’s all very odd because this particular young man, who I’ll refrain from embarrassing by name, is at any other time polite, agreeable and just generally an easy-going pleasure. Love him dearly.

But, between the hours of five and six-thirty a.m. he is the spawn of Satan. And, yes, as his mother I fully understand what that makes me. I’m living up to the part beautifully.

So Jeremy . . . oops, I wasn’t going to mention his name . . . and I are going to keep at this morning thing and together we’re going to conquer his losing that hour and a half.

In the meantime: If you hear my hollering all across town in the wee hours just before day break I’m not just making a fuss, I’m raising Cain out of bed!

© 2011 Natalie Whatley