Say nice things about me 'cause I'm gone, southward...

January 1, 2012

After my exams, I took Mt. Grademore from Halifax to Washington for my family's annual Solstice festivities.  You may remember that the only rule of Sycorax Solstice (besides the fact that it is firmly non-denominational and features only natural decorations) is that everyone must wear their most longed-for outfit - the one thing they most want to wear but never seem to find the opportunity for.

Utterly unintentionally, my family's outfits spanned the last century.  My dad broke out his 1890s chic, complete with dashingly knotted silk cravat (tied without help of a valet, no less, and with an injured hand).  My mother channelled the 60s with an asymmetrical mini-dress and go-go boots.  I split the historical difference with this look.

*     *     *

Before the party, my grandparents (who are now too rickety to come to raucous parties) came to see the decorations, which are all inspired by nature - holly, apples, cranberries, elaborately feathered birds, and glassy drops and icicles.  

While they were here, I told my grandmother (and other collected family) about a friend whose niece-that-will-be might be named Reginabelle (the first three syllables pronounced like the Canadian city). "That's a lovely name," she said. "I just worry about the nicknames," I replied. "Why?" my grandmother asked, "What am I missing?" "Um," I replied wittily, before steering the conversation in a different direction.

To no avail. "D!" she said urgently and loudly, "You have to explain to me what I'm missing about that name." "Um," D said wittily, and there was a brief pause before the braver of the Sycorax family decided to rescue him.

"VAGINA!" my father said in his crispest, loudest tones, in case his mother-in-law's poor hearing should cause any further awkwardness or confusion. "It sounds like 'VAGINA'!"

"Oh," said my grandmother, sage and unfazed.

Just another Solstice chez Sycorax.

*     *     *

The following day grandmother asked me about how the Solstice Party went. Then, having listened for a time: "I've thrown some good parties in my day. There was the Parisian nightlife party at the house in Baghdad [which was on the banks of the Tigris, but that's a tale for another time], where your mother played a cigarette girl. And then there was the time we threw a farewell party for someone at the embassy in London, a party that started at our house and ended at someone else's. In between, we rented an open-top, double-decker bus to transport guests across London. We even called the police and arranged to pause on Westminster Bridge, where your grandfather read a poem he had composed for the occasion. But the driver panicked and began to drive off just as we were toasting the city from the bridge. We all were flung about terribly. I, on the other hand, didn't begin to panic until our DCM leaned out the top of the bus to wave his glass of champagne in raucous greeting at a group of gathered bobbies."

Me: "Um, DCM?"

Nonna: "The Deputy Chief of Mission." (She purses her lips.) "He was a very uptight man. Well, normally."

*     *     *

After Solstice, D and I headed south to North Carolina, to his family and the land of our meeting. Mostly (as in Hawaii at the beginning of the month) I was holed up with Mt. Grademore for the whole visit, but I finished my grapple with the Mount just in time to go to see my beloved alma mater's holiday game in Chapel Hill.

God, is there anything more beautiful than the game of college basketball? Earth hath not anything to show more fair than Harrison Barnes, suspended on his way to the basket in defiance of gravity. 

The skyey dome, live, filled to bursting with fervent Tar Heel faithful, who adored our team slavishly, ferociously. Until, that is, the standing Bojangles offer to give out free biscuits if UNC reaches the 100-point threshold transformed the crowd into frenzied Bacchae, shrieking "BISCUITS!!!" in a crisis of violent desire. I worried that if the bench players didn't fulfill the crazed demands of these volatile worshippers, they risked being torn limb from limb.

Of course, I did learn a series of fascinating new usages for the verb "to biscuit." For instance, delivered as a frantic banshee wail: "NOOOO!!!! Don't you DARE biscuit us out on free throws!!!!". There's a honour to biscuiting, you see, and it reaches Spanish Golden Age levels of labyrinthine intensity.

I unashamedly aestheticize this sport. For me, basketball is either poetry, or farce, or ritual worship, but it's always a formalist encounter.

*     *     *

Then, the road trip back.  A handful of fragments to give you the flavor of it: 


Bojangles refuses us our biscuits, saying that they stopped honoring the offer 45 minutes earlier. We look at them with hazy incomprehension, the giddiness leaching from our faces. 

They are dead to us. They're lucky we didn't go into a Bacchic frenzy. Ask Pentheus how that worked out for him.

So we moved out, sad in the vast offing, having our precious lives, but not our biscuits.


Driving along, we see two very sinister vultures sitting gloomily atop a McDonald's sign.

Mom: (In her best vulturish tones) "The end is nigh!"

Me: (lugubriously) "Come in, have a Big Mac." (Unctuous grin.) "We'll meet you on the way out."


I: "Here's what I don't understand about the central conceit of 'The Gambler.' If death is 'when the dealin's done,' and you're not supposed to count your money while you're sittin' at the table,' does that mean that you shouldn't reflect on the ethics of your actions until the final Day of Judgement?"

My mother: "Um. I hadn't really been thinking about it on the level of allegory."

4 Responses so far.

  1. "I hadn't really been thinking about it on the level of allegory"

    [Laura joins the conversation] "What other level is there on which to think about it? Oh, wait, you mean normal people don't see allegories and metaphors all over the place? [Laura slinks away, back to her ivory tower]

    I thought the song was implying that until you die, you can't reach a proper assessment of how well (or badly) you did over the whole course of the time spent playing the game of life. So you hope you'll end the evening in credit (i.e. your good deeds outweigh your bad ones) and the best way to ensure that outcome is to keep playing the hands you're dealt in the best way you can. And of course,

    Every gambler knows
    That the secret to survivin'
    Is knowin' what to throw away
    And knowin' what to keep

    Edith Piaf was evidently a gambler who knew what to throw away:

    Non, rien de rien,
    Non, je ne regrette rien.
    C'est payé, balayé, oublié
    Je me fous du passé

    Avec mes souvenirs, j'ai allumé le feu.
    Mes chagrins, mes plaisirs, je n'ai plus besoin d'eux.
    Balayées les amours, avec leurs trémolos
    Balayées pour toujours, je repars à zéro.

    Whether she paid her gambling debts seems to be another matter. I get the impression she'd burn her IOUs or sweep them under the carpet.

  2. I think that is indeed what it's saying - that life is a matter of survival, that living in the moment of play is all, that the key skill is assessing the current conditions. But that's what makes it a kind of anti-morality play. Everyman would come up to the Gambler and say, "No no! You HAVE to count your money while you're sitting at the table. When the dealin's done its too damn late! Make your reckoning. MAKE IT NOW!".

    I obviously need to post more often so that we can have more of our delightfully allusive comments conversations, Laura.

  3. "Everyman would come up to the Gambler and say, "No no! You HAVE to count your money while you're sitting at the table. When the dealin's done its too damn late! Make your reckoning. MAKE IT NOW!"

    Yes, but that's the kind of morality which would encourage people to enter a monastery/nunnery towards the ends of their lives. The gambler and the singer are perhaps a little bit less sure about the afterlife seeing as they're "On a train bound for nowhere" and all around them is "darkness." Also, they're clearly not aiming for the kind of death outlined in the Ars moriendi, since in the gambler's opinion "the best that you can hope for / Is to die in your sleep."

    As for the Piaf song, it seems to be about someone who's decided she can dispense with contrition, confession and penance and just head straight for absolution, at which point "je repars à zéro."

    You know, maybe this could be the start of the new scholasticism with allegorical/theological interpretations of song lyrics taking the place of typology and discussions about angels and pinheads ;-)

  4. I love it, and I'm pretty sure the historical layering of our new scholasticism is totally in keeping with a typological worldview.

    The thing about The Gambler is that it seems to view death as the great "breaking even," while many medieval morality plays argued for the urgency of moral self-scrutiny in the face of Death's unpredictable accounting. In other words, don't wait 'til the end of your life to join a nunnery/count your money (er, good deeds), for "Everyman, thou art made! Thou hast thy wits five, And here on earth will not amend thy life, for suddenly I do come... Nor no man will I respite, but to the heart suddenly I shall smite, without any advisement.". So although the song takes the form of a memento mori, the moral purpose of the reminder of mortality is entirely different...

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