broken walls and narratives

A not so revolutionary blog about feminism, socialism, activism, travel, nature, life, etc.

Archive for the month “December, 2016”

Reflections on Being the Worst

Reflections on Being the Worst:

by H. Bradford

I had a fair number of New Year’s Resolutions.  Several of them involved taking up some old, neglected hobbies.  A few of them involved trying new hobbies.  Many of my old hobbies went to the wayside while I was in graduate school in Mankato and at St. Scholastica.   While I enjoy these hobbies, I am actually pretty terrible at them.  Thus, I have had to cope with being the worst.  Being the worst is a pretty demoralizing experience.  I suppose this is why most people avoid things they are bad at.  This is the story of me being terrible at several hobbies this year.


Soccer:

I grew up in a small town, so I didn’t play soccer until I was 15.  After my parents divorced, I moved to a larger school.  This offered me many opportunities to try out new activities that were unavailable at my rural school.  One of these activities was soccer.  I am not sure why I wanted to play soccer, but I remember joining the team for the two week tryout period in early August.  It was an extremely hot summer that year, so I vividly remember our long practices in 100 degree heat.  Despite the heat, I felt pretty cool.  My mother bought me new cleats and pads.  We were low income, so this meant a lot to me.  I tried really hard and actually made the varsity soccer team.  I think the two coaches probably felt sorry for me or something.  Surely it was a mistake, since whatever hope they placed in me was quickly dashed during my first few games.  After that, I was an all star bench warmer.


As an adult, I learned that Duluth has a recreational soccer league.  Thus, I started playing soccer again in 2009.  I played for about two fall seasons.  At that time, there were six women’s recreational teams.  I was pretty mediocre, but there were many people of varying athletic abilities, so I didn’t feel embarrassed.  I found the experience to be empowering, since it was an example of women of various ages, shapes, and sizes working together and supporting one another.  Rather than feel insecure about my body, playing soccer made me feel strong, fast, or athletic (despite the evidence to the contrary from my actual playing ability).  I think I felt this way since playing involved pushing my body to work harder than normal.  I stopped playing due to time constraints and did not resume the league until this fall.


When I rejoined the league this fall, some things had changed.  Firstly, there were only two teams.  This meant that we played the same team each week.  Secondly, the players were a lot better and a lot less mixed in ability.  The other team seemed to be pretty competitive, which made me feel less like the game was about having fun and supporting each other.  In the context of the rest of the players, I was pretty awful.  I felt embarrassed.  Players complained how out of shape they were.  After all, they hadn’t done any running since their last marathon (a few months ago)!  I also felt an enormous amount of pressure.  I felt that if I was terrible, it let them down.  This caused me some anxiety.  I am not sure if it was even fun.  After each game, I did feel somewhat accomplished.  I felt accomplished because I played the whole game (which is a lot of running…we did not have enough players for subs).  I felt accomplished because I overcame my fear of failure.  I felt accomplished because I only made a few mistakes.   My teammates never made me feel bad or that I had failed them.  They gave me helpful tips and praised me when I hustled or got the ball away from someone.  I felt proud to wear cleats and a uniform, so…I felt accomplished for trying to be an athlete.  I guess this was enough to get me through the season.  I plan on signing up again next fall.

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(Playing soccer with some friends…not sure why Adam is grabbing Carl’s leg and a dog at the same time…)

Ballet:

I started taking adult ballet lessons when I was in my early 20s.  Like soccer, I regretted that because I grew up in a small town, I didn’t have access to a variety of dance classes.  I took tap dance classes in elementary school and was terrible.  But, I decided in my early 20s that I had always wanted to try ballet.  So, I took a class with some older teens.  It was embarrassing, but I liked it well enough.  I did this for a while, but later joined an adult ballet class when I found a studio that offered them.  The adult ballet classes that I tried were always pretty simple.  We spent most of the time learning basics, focusing on conditioning, and doing barre work.  There was no expectation that anyone would be that great at the classes, since we were all adults doing ballet for fitness and fun.  I liked these classes since they helped with my posture (I have a crooked spine) and they made me feel graceful.  I stopped taking adult ballet classes in about 2011 when I moved to Mankato for graduate school.


One of my goals this year was to try ballet again.  I started in September.  The studio that I attended back in 2011 no longer offered adult classes.  They had adult/teen hybrid classes.  Oh well.  I have found that this class was different.  For one, it is pretty mortifying doing ballet with teens (there are two other adults in the class, but the rest are teens).  These teens have been doing dance for a long time, so they are not novices.  Secondly, this class is not focused on barre work and conditioning.  A very large portion of the class entails demonstrating various moves or techniques…one by one…in front of everyone!!  This is a nightmare.  Each week, I dread this part of the class.  Each session, I am last in line.  I watch carefully.  I practice while in line.  I can envision the mechanics of the move.  Then…it is my turn and…I inevitably fail miserably.  When the moment comes, I find that my body moves like a bag of sand.  The sand bag is the weight of my embarrassment.


I am going to stay positive.  For one, this class actually will perform in the spring.  In my prior classes, there was never an option for performance.  This would be a unique milestone in my life.  Secondly, because I make a fool of myself each week…I am less concerned about dancing in front of others.  For instance, at a staff x-mas party, we all did a funny dance to show off our individual Christmas sweaters.  Each of the staff were absolutely mortified to dance in front of others (even in the context of a silly contest).  I danced in front of them with zeal.  I even did my silly, clumsy ballet moves.   I just didn’t care.  The same was true when I visited Africa this summer.  We had two opportunities to participate in traditional dances.  In one episode, I was the only person to volunteered to dance.  In the other, I was one of just a handful.  Again, I didn’t feel all that foolish.  People generally fear dancing in front of other people.  So, while I fear dancing in front of others in my class, I find that I am less reserved in other contexts because I have at least some dancing experience.  The truth is, I like dancing.  I might be bad at it, but it can be fun.  Finally, because the class is harder…it will raise the “barre” on my ballet skills.

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(This is me before I left for ballet class.  I am 100% sure that I am the best revolutionary socialist ballerina in my class.)

Violin:

You might notice a trend here.  Once again, in my early 20s I took up the violin.  Once again, this is a hobby I took up because I had always wanted to play.  But, because I grew up in a small town, we didn’t have a symphonic band or opportunity for lessons.  Violin was hard.  I was pretty low income in my early 20s, so I struggled to afford the instrument, the lessons, and the strings I kept breaking.  The monstrous challenge of learning the violin seemed to be a metaphor for the misery of my futile aspirations.  If I had practiced and kept it up all those years, maybe I wouldn’t be half bad.  Instead, I have taken lessons sporadically, learning the violin at a snail’s pace with no real hope of ever being half-way competent at the instrument.   One of my New Year’s resolutions was to once again take up the challenge.  This resolution was forgotten for most of the year.


This month, I have actually put some effort into practicing.  It was painful, but each day, songs start to come together.  I make fewer mistakes.  I don’t have the time or money for lessons, but if I could just practice a few times a week…for even 15 minutes at a time, I think I could progress again.  I have experienced some progress already.  That feels good.  It frustrates me, since I meet so many people who have played violin for decades.  They played in school or in college.  They were first chair.  And me, I play in my own room…to myself…with little musical talent.  It is demoralizing.  I am a shadow of the person I wish I was.  But, I enjoy it.  I enjoy when I can make a sound that approximates something pleasant.  I have made progress over time.


Russian:

One of my biggest fears was going to the Russian table.  The Russian Table meets once a week at Sir Ben’s.  The group gathers to speak in Russian to one another.  Attending the Russian table was on my list of resolutions, but I was too afraid to go.  I knew that it would not go well. I knew I would look like an idiot.


For some background information, I took about two years of Russian while at CSS.  But, my last Russian class was a decade ago.  I was not a star student at Russian.  The A’s that I earned were hard won.  I have not studied Russian at all since then.  I did travel to Eastern Europe and to Ukraine and Belarus, which at least refreshed my memory to Russian (or Slavic languages in general) in recent years.  And, all those years Russian was on my mind like a lost love.  I really do like the language, culture, history, and literature.  But, the longing to learn again has not been greater than my fear of looking like a fool.


Well, I did it.  Last Friday I went to the Russian Table.  I had anxiety.  I had to look at some inspirational websites about overcoming fear in order to go.  But, I went.  And, it was just as bad as I imagined!  I had prepared some things to speak about, but when I brought up my first topic (New Year’s resolutions), no one showed any interest.  I was simply told that it was not a Russian tradition, and the conversation moved on.  Yep.  So I sat there.  I tried to speak.  I picked up some words and a few things here and there.  But the whole thing was a train wreck.  Or, perhaps it was more like a fast moving train that left me behind.  I was left to watch the train in the distance.  A piece of toilet paper fluttered in the wind.  It was stuck to the track by a piece of poop…so unkindly deposited by the train as it hurried away with its more capable passengers.


Okay.  The people who attended were fairly dedicated students.  One woman complained that she was rusty as she had not studied since the three hours she had devoted to her studies a few days ago.  It was like the soccer player who complained how out of shape she was (since running the marathon).  But, the people were supportive.  They offered some resources and told me to return.  They didn’t ridicule me.  They let me listen and explained some words to me.


I have to take this in baby steps.  I do not have three hours to devote to studying Russian.  I could perhaps devote 10 minutes a day or try to learn a few new words each week.  Some people fly.  Some people crawl.  I will crawl.  Perhaps it is good enough just to attend.  Maybe any attempt at all whatsoever makes me better off.  Still, it is hard being the worst.  It is hard being the stupid one.  I think just finding the courage to attend at all is the best I can do for now.

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(This is a photo from my 2006 visit to Russia.  That was the last time that I seriously studied Russian…until attending the Russian Table and trying to study again recently).

Running:

I decided that this year I would run my first 5k.  I’ve been running off and on for about two years.  I don’t run enough to become that great at it, but generally can run a few miles slowly.  I ran the Pride 5k.  I had a lot of fun.  I even wore a costume.  But, I felt sick that day (with a sore throat).  I also got lost on my way back (adding some distance).  As such, it probably comes as no surprise that I was the worst runner!  Hurray for me!


I also ran the Spooktacular 5k in Superior.  I was in the middle in this run (even though I had not run since the Pride 5k a month prior).  That felt pretty good!  Yep, and I haven’t run since.  Oops.  Well, I was too busy bicycling during the rest of the fall.


My goal for next year is to do three 5ks.  I don’t have a time goal, but I would like to beat my previous times.  I will have to get busy again (which means running indoors).  I will probably have to try to be a little more consistent about running if I want to improve.


Unlike the other things on the list, I don’t feel as bad if I can’t run well.  I feel pretty good if I can run a few miles…period.  But, I am sure it would feel better to… not be the last person next year when I run the Pride 5k.

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Conclusion:

It is hard to be terrible at something.  It is demoralizing.  It is embarrassing.  It makes me angry at myself.  I feel upset that I am not the person I wish I was.  In a perfect universe, there is a version of myself who excels at everything she tries.  She is confident and fearless.  Everything looks effortless.  But, that person is not me.  It will never be me.  The person who I am is reminded often of her failings.


I probably won’t be great at Russian, violin, running, ballet, or any number of hobbies that I try.  I can be better than I currently am.  I can learn to savor the small morsels of progress that I make.  I can enjoy these things even if I am not good at them.  In the big picture, I can say that I am more talented than most at doing things that I am bad at.   Certainly, there are things I am good at!  I do have some talents.  But, I do like the challenge of trying new things, even if I fail at them.  I can take pride in running a few miles or playing an entire soccer game.  I can feel proud of stringing some words together in Russian or playing through a song on the violin.  My worst is someone else’s best.  My worst is an accomplishment.  I should be thankful that I have the physical and mental wherewithal to even try these activities.  I am also thankful that I have enough spare time to pursue these activities, even with modest attention.  Many women my age are too busy raising kids, working multiple jobs, caring for others, etc. for hobbies.  Finally, fear limits the possibility of life.  One of my biggest fears is failure.  Hobbies are pretty low stakes.  If I fail at a hobby, my life will not be diminished in any way.  It isn’t like failing a class in school or failing to perform at a job.  Therefore, I don’t have anything to fear since the only consequence of my failure is the blow to my self esteem or the deepening realization that I will never be that fantasy version of myself.  But, I won’t be the fantasy version of myself by NOT trying either.  So, that is how I frame it and survive being the worst.

 

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Thanksgiving in Texas

 

Thanksgiving in Texas

by H. Bradford


This Thanksgiving, I visited my brother in San Antonio, Texas.  I love visiting my brother since I feel that we can sometimes have interesting discussions.  I also like that my brother likes to be active, so he usually is up for going for a hike.  The trip to Texas was an opportunity to spend time with my brother and my nephews Layton and Orrin.  My mother also went to Texas for Thanksgiving, so it was an opportunity to be together as a family.  I have never been a huge fan of the holidays, but I always like to travel.  This makes the holidays less constricting for me, as it offers the opportunity to explore and try out new traditions.

The Commissary:

My brother lives on a base, which makes visiting there unusual.  The base is a little like a college campus in that it is an enclosed community with housing, recreational centers, shopping, food, a service station, a museum, etc. all located in one area.  A person could probably live quite well without a vehicle, as most needs can be met within walking distance of base housing.  The housing is somewhat similar, with some variation in the style of homes used for various ranks of officers.  A base is a planned economy, so as a socialist, I can appreciate the logic, planning, and uniformity.  Of course, it is planned within the context of capitalism and in the interest of capitalism.  As such, the market shapes what appears on the base.  For instance, there is a Subway and Chic Filet (I believe).  Which fast food places appear on the base are less about the needs of the soldiers and the military than about contracts and prices.  Still, since many Americans have experience living in college dormitories or bases, these living situations make socialist living seem less far fetched.  In any event, the base is a planned community of America’s working class, poor, and people of color.


On my first day in San Antonio, my brother brought me to the commissary to buy some food for our Thanksgiving meal the following day.  The store appeared like a grocery store like any other.  In my imagination, I thought it would be like a Sam’s Club or a giant warehouse of supplies.  I enjoyed observing what foods the people were buying.  For instance, corn bread and collard greens were among the Thanksgiving foods on sale.  I noticed several carts with these items in them.  These are not typical Thanksgiving foods in Minnesota.  I also noticed that people purchased small sized marshmallows to put on their sweet potatoes.  In Minnesota, I have observed that large sized or medium sized marshmallows are more common.  Finally, I purchased a turnip.  The clerk had to look it up in his produce book, even though I told him it was a turnip.  The clerk insisted it was a rutabaga and it was actually listed as such in his produce book.  This is not correct, as turnips and rutabagas are two different vegetables.  A turnip is an ancient vegetable named Brassica Rapa.  A rutabaga is a new vegetable that is a cross between a turnip and a Brassica Oleracea (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, etc.) which is usually larger, yellowish inside, and less bitter.  In any event, it was fun to go to the grocery store to explore the differences in Texan Thanksgiving v. Minnesotan.


Government Canyon:

On Thanksgiving day itself, I visited Government Canyon.  Earlier this spring, I visited Government Canyon recreation area.  At the time, the park was flooded in areas.  This made seeing the park’s dinosaur tracks difficult.  I wanted to return to the park, since I felt that a hike on Thanksgiving Day would be a constructive start to the holiday.  Visiting the dinosaur foot prints was a Thanksgiving pilgrimage to the ancestors of the modern turkey.  After all, turkeys and chickens are believed to be more closely related to dinosaurs than other modern birds!  In fact, one of the earliest galliform fossils  (from 85 million years ago) was discovered in the Austin Chalk near Austin, Texas.   Government Canyon contains the footprints of Acrocanthosaurus and Sauroposeidon, which are believed to be from 110 million years ago.  At the time, Government Canyon was a beach along an ocean.  The tracks themselves were only discovered in 2014 when a drought uncovered them and scientists excavated them from the muddy riverbed.

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We thought that we would find the park deserted on Thanksgiving Day, but we saw several groups of hikers during our four hour hike.  The terrain can be rocky and inclined, so both times I have hiked there I found it challenging enough to feel worn out by the end of the endeavor.  I kept my eye out for birds, as another homage to the turkey was an appreciation of other birds.  However, the bird life was absent.  I did see hundreds of butterflies though!  It made me wish that I had brought a butterfly guide.  It also inspired me to try to take up the hobby of butterflying.  I don’t think I have ever seen so many butterflies as I had in Texas.

 

Thanksgiving Dinner:

After the hike, I got to work making Thanksgiving dinner.  I prepared sweet potatoes (sans marshmallows), buns, and wild rice, mushroom, and cranberry stuffing.  I also wanted to introduce some new traditions to Thanksgiving, so I made quinoa and the “mash of nine sorts.”  The mash of nine sorts is a Cornish recipe which uses nine ingredients, including turnip, potato, leek, parsnip, rutabaga, cream, salt, pepper, and carrot.  I have made it before, but this time, it did not turn out that great since it had a much stronger turnip flavor than usual.  In the past, I used a turnip from my garden, which was smaller and resulted in less dominant turnip flavor.  I like the recipe since it is associated with fall and Samhain.  My brother purchased a small turkey breast probably because of the symbolic attachment to meat at Thanksgiving.  Tiffany made mashed potatoes and green bean casserole.  As a whole, the meal was not dominated by meat, as 90% of the offerings were vegetarian.  I wanted to follow my theme of bird appreciation through a vegetarian thanksgiving, but oh well!


Before we began eating, we each put on a turkey hat (which my nephew Layton made in pre-school).  Whomever wore the hat had to say something they were thankful for.  We did two rounds of this, which made for a silly time (as a group of adults donned a paper turkey hat and gave thanks).  I also discussed a book I was reading about the history of Thanksgiving (including the social construction of the First Thanksgiving, Native American critique of the holiday, and the historical imagination regarding pilgrims).

The Journey to South Padre Island:

On Black Friday, our family set out for South Padre Island.  I was excited to see more of Texas, but I quickly learned that the route between San Antonio and South Padre Island was pretty empty.   San Antonio does not extend into endless suburbs.  It simply ends.  Once it ends, the landscape becomes expansive with farms.  There were few towns along the way.  There wasn’t much for trees or wildlife to look at.  Just cattle and farms.


Things became a little more interesting a few hours into the drive with the appearance of thicker patches of palm trees and the growing use of Spanish language.  It struck me that southern Texas reminded me a lot of southern Africa.  This is because there were various thorny acacia trees (though nowhere near the amount in southern Africa where it was the dominant type of tree).  This is also because there was a lot of impoverished people of color with speckles of nicer homes and farms owned by white people.  As we went further south, I also saw more birds.  I jotted them down in my notebook.


Cracker Barrel

My great grandparents spent their winters in Harlingen, Texas.  We aren’t sure where they lived, but we stopped there to get a late lunch.  My mom wanted to go to the Cracker Barrel, despite some protests.  I tried to be open minded about it as I don’t have much experience with the chain.  I thought it might be a fun southern experience.


I found that the menu wasn’t very vegetarian friendly, but that a person could patch together sides into a “Vegetable Combo Platter”.  Vegetable is used loosely, since most of the sides were not vegetables.  I settled on some southern sounding sides like grits, corn bread, and fried okra, with some actual vegetables to balance it off (steamed broccoli and another item that I forget).  I felt pleased with my patchwork of sides.  My mom seemed to like the place, but it was sensory overload for most of us.  The place was loud with music and a crowd of diners.  The entrance was a maze of Christmas trees, toys, and decorations.  To reach the reservation desk, a person has to thread their way through narrow passages, accosted by Christmas music and overpowering holiday scents.  Yep, that is Cracker Barrel.

Schlitterbahn:

We arrived on South Padre Island about an hour later.  By then, the air was muggy and the landscape appeared fully tropical (though it is subtropical).  South Padre had a ghost town feel.  It felt like a mall at closing time or a concert after clean up.  It was the off season after all.  There were no college students.  No flocks of families.  Just a few lonely souls shivering in the breezy 70-80 degree weather.  We stayed at Schlitterbahn, a German themed water park.  We had a massive room with three beds and two pull out couches, a kitchenette, and a view of the Gulf.  The park itself featured a water slide, some kiddie pools, a bar inside of a pool, and a tubing course.  I am not a water park person.  In fact, I have never been to a water park before.  But the room was nice!  While the rest of the family went to check out the waterpark, I went for a walk along the beach.  I ended up drenched by a sudden rain and then attacked by swarms of mosquitoes.  Throughout the weekend, I avoided the waterpark.  However, on the last day I did go down the water slide twice and spent some time on the tubing course.  That was an adequate amount of time for me.  A highlight of my stay at the waterpark was the long walks that I took along the beach at night.  On one of the nights, we found dozens of moon jellyfish and man-of-wars washed up on the beach.  That was interesting.

 

South Padre Birding and Nature Center: 

My favorite part of the weekend was visiting the birding center.  Of course, this was not quite as interesting to the three year old and five year old in tow.  The rest of my family returned to the waterpark, but I stayed behind at the birding center.  I circled the wooden walkway a few times, recording all of the birds that I saw.  I wrote about this experience in my year of birding blog post, so I won’t add too much detail.  Only, it was great!  It was also neat because many of the people there were from other countries.  It seems that they were there specifically for the opportunity to see the migratory birds!

Dolphin Watch and Shrimp Haus:

In the evening, we went on a dolphin watching tour.  There were dozens of dolphins, but it does not take many dolphins to become desensitized to their existence.  I suppose it is the law of diminishing returns.  The last bites of a cake are less wonderful than the first.  The first dolphin is more exciting than the last.  The first fifteen minutes of a boat tour is more fun than two hours in…   Oh well, we did see a lot of dolphins and it seems that it relaxed my nephews, who both took naps during the boat ride.


This was followed by a culinary adventure at Shrimp Haus, a German themed shrimp restaurant.  The entire menu was seafood!  Seafood is my very least favorite food.  Looking and thinking about it disgusts me.   I ordered the salad bar.  But, my salad tasted suspiciously like shrimp.  I thought that perhaps it was just my imagination.  I had a few more bites.  I poked around.  There was no sign of sea food.  Maybe the smell in the air was tricking my taste buds?  NO.  To my horror, there was shrimp in the salad dressing.  The humanity of it.  I was disgusted by this.  I felt angry.  I entirely lost my appetite.  This sounds over dramatic, but for some reason I just really really really hate seafood.  It isn’t a vegetarian thing, as I am not ideologically committed enough to vegetarianism to have such a visceral reaction.


Zoo Lights and the San Antonio Botanical Garden:

Our drive back towards San Antonio took us on a more interesting alternative route.  I was surprised to find a border crossing 100 miles from the Mexican border.  For a moment, I thought that we had accidentally crossed into Mexico.  Nope.  I guess that the U.S. has secondary border posts to snag undocumented people who might have gotten through the first border post.  That is pretty terrible!  It creates a corral for undocumented people living between border posts.


On Monday, we went to the Botanical Garden and Zoo Lights.  The San Antonio Botanical Garden is wonderful.   It is expansive and diverse.  There is a pond with ducks that is lined with Texan trees.  There are various areas that represent different ecological zones.  Near an area filled with cacti, acacias, and aloes, there is a birding station, where we watched various birds.  There is also a vegetable garden, Japanese garden, orangerie, buildings for ferns and palms, etc.  A person could spend an entire day wandering around the botanical garden.  We spent several hours.  Orrin, the 3 year old, seemed to enjoy it well enough, even if it is a pretty sedate place with not a whole lot to offer children.

In the evening, we all went to Zoo Lights, which is an event wherein the San Antonio Zoo is decorated with x-mas lights.  Layton and Orrin love the zoo, but it was past their bedtime, so both were a little cranky.  Zoo Lights was interesting, since it sought to create the illusion of winter.  There was a snow machine which produced a thin cloud of snowflakes.  There were “warming stations” with fires and s’mores, even though the temperature was in the 70s.  Workers dressed in fake velvet with fake fur trim, wearing mittens and hats.  Granted, it probably felt cooler to people who were not used to the “real” cold of winter.  There were looming inflatable Christmas characters, a boisterous light and sound show, and all sorts of things which probably tormented the animals to some degree.  The parents looked equally tortured, as they pushed and carried their tired children through the gauntlet of lights and “holiday fun.”  Still, the zoo created a fun atmosphere, even if unlike Bentleyville, the cocoa, cookies, and s’mores weren’t free.

 

One Last Day…

My last day involved returning to Cracker Barrel with my mother (since Tiffany had to return a defective Christmas decoration that she had purchased).   My mother had an earlier flight, so she headed off after our final farewell to the Cracker Barrel Colossus.


The departure of my mother left Tiffany, Orrin, and I to spend some time together.  We went to the Japanese Tea Garden.  Then, we went on the kiddie train near the zoo.  Orrin loves the kiddie train.  I am not sure if I have ever been on one.  It was fun to see Orrin enjoy himself so much, even though he admitted that the kiddie train made him feel sleepy.


My brother finished work in the early afternoon, so we went on a final hike together.  On the ride to the airport, we briefly debated workplace democracy, which he quickly dismissed as a stupid idea.  Then, it was time to leave!  So, my time was cut short from defending the idea that workers might be able to control their own work places.  There is never enough time…


In the end, the trip had a good mixture of many things.  I enjoyed some hikes, plants, and birds.  I tried out a water slide and the Cracker Barrel.  There were debates over Donald Trump and work place democracy.  There was a landscape of dead jelly fish.  There was a lot of culinary compromise (I’m looking at you Shrimp Haus…my haus of pain).   There was a surprise border crossing, palm trees, x-mas lights, a turkey hat, and a family Thanksgiving dinner.  I am thankful that I had the opportunity to see my family and that we had so much fun during my time off for Thanksgiving.

 

 

All the Season’s Ladies

All the Season’s Ladies:

Forgotten Females of the Holiday Season

By H. Bradford

12/18/16


It often seems like men have the starring role in the holiday season.  There’s Santa Claus, who delights children by delivering toys and travelling the world by a reindeer powered flying sleigh.  There are dozens of old men who act in a similar way to Santa Claus, including Father Christmas, Grandfather Frost, and Sweden’s Christmas gnome. There’s baby Jesus, who makes babies seem less awful by not crying, spitting up, or creating messy diapers.  The three wise men add to the count.  Frosty the Snowman, Jack Frost, Rudolph the Rednose Reindeer, the Elf on the Shelf, Krampus, Nester the Donkey, and the Little Drummer Boy can be added to the list of guys.  Even an obscure Bohemian king from the early 900s has a memorable holiday song (Good King Wenceslas).  Thankfully, there are some interesting female characters during the holiday season as well.  They might not be as numerous and might not attract the same attention, but each has an interesting story and offers some lessons in feminism.

 crazy-christmas-ads1  (Tis the season for sexism?)

Mrs. Claus

Mrs. Claus is a familiar Christmas season character who is usually portrayed as a plump, elderly woman dressed in red, with white hair and round glasses.  She is often engaged in such things as baking cookies, ironing clothes, and managing the Claus household.  There are few stories about her or well known songs.  Even her name is unknown or unmentioned, though she has been called Molly, Jessica, Delores, and Maya in some adaptations of her story (Santa Takes a Wife, n.d.).  For most of history, Santa Claus did not even have a wife.  This is because the character, Santa Claus, was based upon a bishop from Myra, Turkey who may have been born around 280 CE.  According to legends, St. Nicholas gave his wealth to the poor, saved a three falsely imprisoned men, and gave dowry money to three poor sisters to save them from prostitution.  In a particularly horrific tale, Nicholas sensed that a corrupt inn keeper in Athens had pickled the corpses of three men, so he prayed to have them resurrected (St. Nicholas Origin Story, n.d.).  Ms. Claus has always lived in the shadow of her husband, baking cookies and doing laundry while he delivers toys.  It would be hard for her to compete with a character who gives toys to the world’s children, but also save women from prostitution and revives pickled corpses from time to time.

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Historical evidence of an actual person whom Saint Nicholas was based upon is thin.  His written biography was published 250 years after his death and the region already featured a similar story about a pagan philosopher named Apollonius who performed similar feats as St. Nicholas (Lendering, 2002).  Whatever the actual history, Saint Nicholas was a popular saint who was associated with gift giving and protecting sailors and children.  Even after the Protestant reformation, he remained a popular saint in the Netherlands, where he was called Sinterklaas.  Interestingly, saint days were abolished after the Republic of United Provinces became protestant, but due to unrest in the Catholic south and among students in Amsterdam, private observances of the Feast of Saint Nicholas were allowed.  Dutch immigrants are are credited with bringing Sinterklaas and the observation of the December 6th Feast of St. Nicholas to the U.S, where the character slowly lost his religious connotations and became associated with Christmas (St. Nicholas, n.d.).  There is no historical record that Saint Nicholas had a wife and his pagan counterpart, Apollonius was also celibate.  While modern bishops and priests within the Catholic church are required to be celibate, this would not have been the case in Nicholas’ era.  In 304 CE, when Nicholas would have been about 24 years old, the first written edict from the Council of Elvira stated that clerics should be celibate.  In 325, the Council of Nicea rejected a ban on the marriage of clerics.  It was not until the 12th century that clerics were definitively banned from marriage (Owen, 2001).   Thus, it is possible that St. Nicholas was married, if such a person existed.  But, in the imagination of post-12th century celebrants of the Feast of St. Nicholas, he likely would not have been thought of as a married man because of the normalization of celibate bishops.

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(St. Nicholas is more somber than jolly)

In the early 1800s, Santa Claus began to take on his more modern identity.  He went from the thin, olive skinned, saint in bishop’s garb to the jolly, magical, character dressed in red.  The 1823 poem called, “Twas the Night Before Christmas” or “A visit from Saint Nicholas” helped to create the modern American Santa Claus, as it featured him as a character carried by a reindeer drawn sleigh, plump physique, and chimney travel (St. Nicholas Origin Story, 2014).  The secularization and modernization of Santa allowed the possibility that he might have a wife.  Mrs. Claus was introduced in 1849 in “A Christmas Legend” by James Rees (Hatherall, 2012).  In 1862, she was depicted in Harper Magazine as wearing a dozen red petticoats and Hessian boots, which seems like oddly militant yet fancy attire.  She was again depicted in 1877 in the book “Lill’s Travels in Santa Claus Land (the History Chicks, 2014).”  In 1889, Mrs. Claus was further popularized in the poem, “Goody Santa Claus” by Katherine Lee Bates (Hatherall, 2012).  In “Goody Santa Claus”, Mrs. Claus asked her husband why he should have all of the glory delivering toys and requests to come along in his sleigh (Santa Takes a Wife, n.d.).  Bates, the author of the poem is famous for her song America the Beautiful.  She never married, was Oxford educated, and wrote children’s books, songs, and travel books.  Bates also had a very close relationship with Katharine Coleman, an economics and political science instructor.  Modern notions of lesbian sexual identity were not yet understood at the time, but some historians believe that the two women were a couple.  Either way, Bates was an independent woman and it is no wonder that her poem depicted Mrs. Claus as a more assertive and independent woman than other portrayals of the character.

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Generally speaking, Mrs. Claus is a supportive character to Santa Claus, who stays at home while he delivers toys.  She is often depicted as a kindly, large, older woman.  While she often plays second fiddle to her more famous husband, she does have a few more prominent roles in stories.  For instance, in the 1974 Rankin Bass claymation film, “A Year Without a Santa” Mrs. Claus considers donning the Santa suit and delivering toys herself.  She ultimately delegated gift delivery to the reindeer and elves, but does try to convince two weather spirits (Heat Miser and and Snow Miser) to make it snow.  A 1990 book called “Mrs. Santa Claus” deals with a similar premise, wherein Santa is sick and Ms. Claus must deliver the toys using a flying bicycle operated with vacuum cleaners and guided by a goose and chicken.  This eccentric method of delivery is feminine and domestic, but at least offers Mrs. Claus agency and a central role in the story (Santa Takes a Wife, n.d.).

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(I couldn’t find an image of Mrs. Claus driving the sleigh, but here is one which conveys her as a lady prepared to wait for her man to return…)


Mrs. Claus quaint, invisible, and domestic characteristics illustrates how society tends to view older women.  Older women are not viewed as sexy or beautiful in society.  Women are shamed for aging poorly.  They are held to a different physical standard than aging men.  Young women are told what products to buy or precautions to take to avoid aging.  As such, aging is viewed negatively for women.  According to a study based upon data from OKCupid, the peak age of female attractiveness is 20 years old according to male respondents!  Thus, most women have only a small window in their life wherein they are considered very attractive.  As an older woman, Mrs. Claus lacks the power assigned to youthful beauty in society.  Like many women, she is defined by her husband, having no name but his name and no role but a supporting role to his endeavors.  Did she want to live in the North Pole?  Does she want to make cookies and stay home? What was her name before she was married?  What were her own dreams in life?  Why can’t she drive the sleigh?  Her isolation in the North Pole in a world of little men and reindeer only adds to the invisibility of being an aged woman.  At the same time, older women have lived experience and have seen history unfold.  They can be mentors, role models, and leaders to younger women.  As for Mrs. Claus, I’d like to see a story about her life before Santa Claus and see her engage in social change that extends beyond giving toys to kids.  She could be an icon against ageism and for the rights of women.

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St. Lucia


Saint Lucia or Saint Lucy is Catholic and Orthodox saint whose feast is on December 13th.  St. Lucy day is particularly popular in Scandinavia, where a girl is chosen to portray saint by wearing a white robe, with a red sash, and a lingonberry crown with candles on her head.  She is followed by a procession of white clad girls and boys in cone hats, who sing songs for Saint Lucia and Christmas.  Traditionally, the girl playing the role of Lucia would visit local farms to distribute saffron buns and coffee on the early morning of St. Lucia day(Swedish Customs and Traditions, n.d.).  Despite her popularity in Scandinavia, she actually originated in Italy.  Lucia is the patron saint of the blind and is said to have lived in Sicily from 283 to 303 CE.  As such, she would have been a contemporary of Saint Nicholas if both can be imagined as real people.  According to legends, Lucia’s father died when she was young and her mother was not a Christian.  However, Lucia became a Christian and refused to marry a pagan man that her mother had arranged for her to marry.  Instead, she gave her dowry to the poor.  She managed to convert her mother to Christianity by bringing her to a shrine to St. Agnes for healing, but the man she was promised to became angry that she would not marry him.  He denounced her as a Christian to the Roman authorities, who sentenced her to forced prostitution.  Thus, just like Saint Nicholas, her story involves prostitution.  Her body became too heavy to be carried away for punishment so she was instead tortured.  In some stories, her eyes were gouged out but healed, which is why she is often depicted with eyes on a plate and the patron saint of the blind (St. Lucy, n.d.).  Like Saint Nicholas, the evidence of her actual life is scant.  Also like Saint Nicholas, she was a popular saint during the middle ages.  Finally, like Saint Nicholas, observation of her feast day was popular among Protestants.

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St. Lucia Day is popular in Scandinavia and has some elements of pagan traditions.  In pre-Christian times, December 13th was celebrated as Yule (Traditions in Different Cultures, 2016).  Solstice and the Feast of St. Lucia both fell on December 13th according to the Julian calendar.  Thus, St. Lucia’s Feast was on the shortest day of the year, which easily allowed for the survival of pagan solstice traditions such as bonfires, burning incense, and singing songs (Swedish Customs and Traditions, n.d.).  Even the name of the feast is very similar to the Scandinavian pagan observation of Lussi Night.  Lussi night was a night wherein an evil spirit named Lussi was active, along with spirits and elves.  Lussi would punish misbehaved children by taking them away to her dark world (Traditions in Different Cultures, 2016).  Children would write the name Lussi on fences and walls to announce that the darkness of winter was ending and that light would be returning.  After converting to Christianity, the Vikings introduced the Italian Saint to Scandinavia, as she fit well with pre-existing celebrations of the solstice and her very name means light.  Celebration of the saint survived both a calendar change and the Protestant Reformation.  When the Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582, the winter solstice moved to December 21st.   St. Lucia’s Feast remained on December 13th.  Despite the shift, St. Lucia Day remained connected to the idea of the return of light.  Her feast became increasingly popular after the 18th century in Sweden and today, the Nobel Prize winner in Literature has the honor of selecting the “Lucy Bride” of Stockholm (Swedish Customs and Traditions, n.d.).

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From a feminist perspective, St. Lucia has some pros and cons.  On one hand, it is great that she stood up to her mother, spent her dowry on the poor, and refused to marry a man she did not want to marry.  She was also defiant in the face of Roman authority, as in some stories, she predicted the downfall of the Roman empire and asserted that they would not be able to take her virginity.  She is also a strong character in that she represents the return of light and end of winter.  With the Polar Vortex looming over most of the U.S. right now, and sunset at about 4:20 pm, ending winter is something I can definitely get behind.  On the other hand, the character idealizes youth, beauty, and virginity.  In Sweden, local newspapers often depict various candidates for the year’s Saint Lucia, allowing readers to vote.  Many Miss Sweden winners began as local Saint Lucias (Swedish Customs and Traditions, n.d.).  The girls who depict Saint Lucia are usually blond and fair skinned.  This year, the Swedish department store, Ahlens, received over 200 negative comments on facebook because they depicted St. Lucia as gender ambiguous child with a darker complexion.  The department store had to pull the advertisement.  Like the mythical trolls of Scandinavia, the internet trolls threatened to hurt the child model by their racist and cisgendered objections that Lucia was not a white girl (Swedish Lucia advert sparks love and hate online, 2016).  From a feminist perspective, anyone of any age, gender, race, or any appearance should be able to portray Saint Lucia.  The character is almost entirely fictional and as such, open to interpretation and change.  After all, had there been an actual St. Lucia, she most likely would not have been blond and fair skinned, considering she hailed from Southern Italy.  But, just as Santa has been white washed from a skinny, swarthy, Turkish saint to a fat man with a ruddy complexion, Lucia has also been made more Northern European in her appearance.

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Beiwe:


St. Lucia is just one woman associated with the winter solstice.  Another woman is Beiwe, the Sami goddess of spring, mental wellness, fertility, and the sun.  She is credited with chasing away the winter and restoring the sanity of those who have become mentally ill over the winter.  White animals are traditionally sacrificed in her honor and butter is smeared over the doorposts of homes (Auset, 2009).  On the winter solstice, a white deer was sacrificed in her honor.  The meat was made into a ring and hung from a tree with colorful ribbons.  Butter was smeared in the doorposts so that she would have something to eat.  The Sami believed that the sun was the mother of all life and that reindeer were her children and a gift to humans (Monaghen, 2011).  She flies through the sky on a chariot made of reindeer antlers with her daughter.  The fact that she restores mental health after the winter suggests that Sami people recognized what might be called Seasonal affect disorder (Loar, 2011).  Interestingly, the existence of seasonal affect disorder is currently being called into question.  A 2006 CDC study did not find an increase of depression in the winter months at high latitudes.  Similarly, a 2012 Norwegian study did not find increased mental distress during the winter, but did find a greater incidents of sleep problems in the winter months.  It is possible that the CDC questions did not measure seasonal depression or that the respondents did not recall specific times of year that they were particularly depressed (Turner, 2016).

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Beiwe highlights a perennial issue of the knowledge of women and indigenous people is often devalued by scientific institutions.  It is certainly interesting the Sami people had a goddess which specifically connected winter with feeling mentally unstable.  Truly, for this connection to have been made, the Sami people must have noted that winter had an impact on their mental wellbeing.  At the same time, it is also interesting that SAD is being called into question.  For many people, winter is a difficult time.  I myself feel cooped up by cold weather, saddened by the short days, and less energetic.  Winter driving is a chore at best, and life threatening at worst.  Of course, I enjoy the beauty of winter and have been able to remain happy by adopting winter activities that I look forward to.  Anecdotally, many people around me also dread the winter and become more reserved and reclusive.  Does this constitute a change in mental wellness?  For those who do experience full blown winter depression, do their experiences matter?  Science is an ongoing pursuit to understand the laws, patterns, and trends in the material world around us.  It is a wonderful thing that we can organize knowledge in this manner, but at the same time, because scientific institutions yield power and are themselves beholden to power, this knowledge sometimes shapes our reality and shades our experiences.  This is why marginalized people often find their knowledge dismissed by science.


La Befana:

La Befana is worth mentioning since she like Mrs. Claus, she is another elderly, female character in the Christmas season canon.  In Italy, La Befana delivers toys to children on January 5th, or the Eve of the Epiphany.  According to Southern Italian folklore, she was visited by the three magi as they were on their way to see baby Jesus.  They asked her directions and asked if she would like to accompany them.  She declined, offering the excuse that she had too much housework.  After they left, she decided to follow after them and see Jesus for herself.  However, she lost her way.  Thus, for the past 2000 years she has been searching for baby Jesus, while distributing gifts to children.  In another less pleasant story, she is a mother who lost a child, went insane with grief, mistook baby Jesus as her own child, and was blessed by Jesus to be the mother of all Italian children.  Unlike Saint Lucia and Saint Nicholas, she is not a saint and is not an officially recognized religious figure.  She is entirely fictional.  She is sometimes called the Christmas Witch, and has a witch like appearance, as she has a long nose, warty face, wears a kerchief and shawl, and flies from place to place on a broom.  Like Santa Claus, children leave her treats.  But, instead of cookies, she enjoys wine, sausage, and broccoli.  Similar to St. Lucia and St. Nicholas, she may have some pre-Christian roots, as Romans celebrated the New Year by honoring a goddess called Strenia (Matthews and Newkirk, 2010).  Strenia gave the same gifts that La Befana traditionally delivered, including honey, figs, and dates.

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La Befana is a pretty cool Christmas character.  She is basically the Baba Yaga of Christmas.  She is an independent woman, as she has been a solo female traveller for 2000 over years.  She is generous and active, but not as domestic as Mrs. Claus, due to her extensive travels (mainly around Italy).  While Mrs. Claus has a neat and tidy appearance, La Befana embraces a more haggard, warty appearance.  She definitely seems unconcerned about aging or pleasing or attracting men.  Perhaps her main flaw is that she fits into the stereotype that women aren’t very good with directions or spatial reasoning.  But, perhaps her wandering has become a way of life and she isn’t even all that interested in finding baby Jesus.  Since her way of life offers her unfettered access to all the broccoli, wine, and sausage that a woman could want, finding baby Jesus would probably be a let down at this point in her life.

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  Snergurochka:

Unlike the other characters on the list, Snegurochka does not have any religious connection (granted, Mrs. Claus is only tangentially connected to St. Nicholas through Santa Claus).  The character first appeared in 1869 collection of Russian poems and folktales.  In that story, a childless couple named Ivan and Marya create a child made out of snow.  The snow child comes to life and grows into a beautiful young woman.  However, she melts when she joins a group of girls in jumping over a bonfire.  In another version of the story, she is the daughter of Ded Moroz (Old Man Frost) who melted when she fell in love with a shepherd named Lel.  Her story is the subject of a play by Alexander Ostrovsky, music by Tchaikovsky, an opera by Rimsky-Korsakov, a ballet by Ludwig Minkus and Marius Petipa, and two Soviet films (Kubilius, 2016).

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While Snegurochka was popular in tsarist Russia, she became particularly popular in the Soviet Union.  In 1929, the Laws on Religious Associations curtailed religious activity in the Soviet Union.  Religion was relegated to groups of 20 or more, consisting of individuals over the age of 18, who registered with the state.  Public worship was banned beyond private worship services conducted by registered groups.  Because public religious expression was banned and the state was officially atheist, Christmas disappeared from the public sphere.  In 1935, public celebration of New Year was allowed.  Ded Moroz and Snegurochka became associated with New Years and would bring gifts to children.  Thus, Ded Moroz acted like Santa Claus and Snegurochka was his helper.  Snegurochka appeared on many Soviet greeting cards and looks a little like Elsa from Frozen, with light skin, pale hair in a braid, and a blue or white dress.  The main difference is that she wears fur and a kokoshnik, or traditional Russian headdress.  Because she is another pretty, young blond, she perpetuates the same beauty standards as St. Lucia.

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Snegurochka offers a few lessons that might be useful for feminists.  The fact that she dies after falling in love is a lesson for feminists to be skeptical about narratives of love.  While many fairy tales end with “happily ever after” “finding true love” and marriage, her story ends with tragic death.  While women should not fear love, they should dissect media messages about love, as many of this messages are unrealistic and unhealthy.  The alternate version of her story is a cautionary tale about peer pressure.  She wanted the acceptance of the other girls, but in following them over the fire, she melted.  Again, a woman should be able to trust others, but she should also be able to stand on her own and say no to dangerous activities.  The fact that her story is not religious is useful to atheist feminists, since it does not reinforce religious ideas about virginity and purity.  Unfortunately, because the character dies young and lives a sheltered life, she does not have much agency or power.  When she was reimagined as a Soviet New Year’s character, she remained a helper to Ded Moroz rather than an independent woman.  This is one of the main drawbacks of the character….aside from her status as an icon for state sponsored religious oppression.  The fact that she was imagined as a helping character wearing the costume of imperialist Russians is indicative of the reactionary nature of Stalinism.  The gains women enjoyed in the early years of the revolution were reversed under Stalin, who reaffirmed conservative values about family and gender by making homosexuality and abortion illegal and divorce hard to obtain.


Conclusion:

 

This is far from a comprehensive list of female holiday figures, but hopefully it offers some ideas of how the holidays might be celebrated differently or characters re-imagined.  Perhaps instead of taking children to see Santa, we should take them to see Mrs. Claus.  Maybe instead of milk and cookies, you should leave out some wine and sausage and see if you are visited by an Italian witch.  Perhaps some gifts could be opened after the New Year, as a special delivery from Snergurochka and Ded Moroz.  The next time a local church or community center celebrates St. Lucia, you might recommend a boy for the role.  Holidays are always evolving.  I imagine that if the feminist movement grows in size and exerts more influence on culture, we will have our own characters, holidays, and interpretations of pre-existing characters.  Until then, we can imagine, dream, and reinvent holidays with our friends and in our own small communities.

 

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Sources:

 

Auset, B. (2009). The goddess guide: Exploring the attributes and correspondences of the divine feminine. Woodbury, MN: Llewellyn Publications,U.S.

 

Hatherall, E. (2012). The History of Mrs. Claus. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from http://www.girlmuseum.org/the-history-of-mrs-claus/

 

Katharine Lee Bates. (2016). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from LGBT History Month, http://lgbthistorymonth.com/katharine-lee-bates?tab=biography

 

Kubilius, K. (2016, April 6). Ded Moroz, the Russian Santa Ded Moroz, or “grandfather frost” is Russia’s Santa Claus. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Travel, http://goeasteurope.about.com/od/russianculture/a/dedmorozrussiansanta.htm

 

Lendering, J. (2002). St. Nicholas Center:: Early sources. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from St. Nicholas Center, http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/early-sources/

 

Loar, J. (2011). Goddesses for every day: Exploring the wisdom and power of the divine feminine around the world. United States: New World Library.

 

Lucia in Sweden. (2013, May 28). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Culture & traditions, https://sweden.se/culture-traditions/lucia/

 

Matthews, D., & Newkirk, G. (2016, December 10). Meet the Christmas witch: La Befana is Santa’s wine-guzzling, cheer-spreading, female counterpart. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Religious Phenomena, http://weekinweird.com/2016/12/10/meet-christmas-witch-la-befana-santas-wine-guzzling-cheer-spreading-female-counterpart/

 

Monaghan, P. (Ed.). (2010). Goddesses in world culture: Volume1, Asia and Africa. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger.

 

Minicast: Mrs. Claus. (2014, December 23). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Podcasts, http://thehistorychicks.com/minicast-mrs-claus/#more-4237

 

Owen, H. L. (2001). When did the Catholic church decide priests should be Celibate? Retrieved December 16, 2016, from History News Network, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/696

 

Santa takes a wife. (2004). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Hymns and Carols of Christmas, http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/santa/mrs__claus.htm

 

St. Lucy. (2009, July 31). Religions – Christianity: Saint lucy. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from BBC, http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity/saints/lucy.shtml

 

St. Nicholas. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Biography.com, http://www.biography.com/people/st-nicholas-204635#synopsis

 

St. Nicholas Origin Story. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Biography.com, http://www.biography.com/news/st-nicholas-santa-claus-origin-story

 

Swedish Customs and Traditions. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from http://sccc.ca/site/panel5/SwedishCustomsandTraditions.html

 

Swedish Lucia advert sparks love and hate online. (2016, December 4). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from The Local, http://www.thelocal.se/20161204/swedish-lucia-advert-sparks-love-and-hate-online

 

Traditions in different cultures. (2016). Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Historia Vivens, http://www.historiavivens.eu/2/traditions_in_different_cultures_1111971.html

 

Turner, V. S. (2016). Study finds “seasonal Affective disorder” Doesn’t exist. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/study-finds-seasonal-affective-disorder-doesn-t-exist/

 

Woodruff, B. (2015, December 18). Why everyone should celebrate a wine drinking witch at Christmastime. Retrieved December 16, 2016, from Slate, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/holidays/2014/12/celebrate_la_befana_at_christmas_the_holidays_need_a_wine_drinking_witch.html

 

Making Socialist Resolutions: An Activist’s New Year

Making Socialist Resolutions:

An Activist’s New Year

by H. Bradford

12/13/16


New Year’s Eve is just around the corner, so I have spent the month doing an audit of my goals and hopes for 2016.  While some socialists are known to make revolutions, I am prone to making resolutions.  This year I tracked my goals in a small journal, which has provided me with a lot of data on how this year went.  I had over 50 New Year’s Resolutions last year and completed around half of them.  The goals I didn’t complete are probably more interesting and revealing than the ones that I did.  One of the goals on the list was to attend 40 political events.  I wrote that goal without any idea of how many events that I actually attend during the year.  As of today, I am at over 75 events!  Of course, life should be about quality over quantity.  However, the number attests to how active I was during this year!  With that said, here are some highlights of a year in activism.


  1. Socialism and a Slice:  This is a once a month current event discussion group which meets at Pizza Luce to discuss news from an anti-capitalist perspective.  There is a fun group of core people who have been attending.  The group tends to focus on local events and the discussions have helped us coordinate and plan things as activists.
  1. Anti-Rape Protest: Take back the Park: This event was organized in response to a pro-rape meetup that was supposed to happen in Duluth.  It is bizarre to think that there are men who actually believe that rape should be legalized and that rape is a legitimate activity within the privacy of their homes.  It is scary!  It is scary that they wanted to meet up!  Dozens of people held a vigil on February 6th, 2016 at Leif Erickson Park to stand against rape and rape culture.  It was awesome!  To my knowledge, no pro-rape activists showed up.
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    1. AFSCME Meetings/Steward Training:  Since June I have been attending monthly AFSCME meetings.  I am proud to be one of the 11% of workers who belong to a union.  It is also great to connect with other people who are labor activists working in the nonprofit sector.  Another highlight was that in November I attended a training to become a steward.

 


  1. Homeless Bill of Rights: I have attended some meetings and events as time permits.  I was proud that I was able to contribute to the group by getting my union local 3558 to endorse the Homeless Bill of Rights.  It is only one of two union locals who endorsed it.  Though, the entire Central Labor body endorsed it.  I also feel glad that I collected a few pages of signatures for the petition in support of the Homeless Bill of Rights.   The City Council may vote on it in February, but the struggle will continue as we try to provide accessible bathrooms for the homeless community.

 

    1. Feminist Frolics:  This is a new activity which is sponsored by the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition.  Once a month we host an outdoor activity combined with an educational presentation.  A highlight was researching a feminist history of Halloween, then going on a spooky night time hike to an abandoned cemetery.  The point of these events is to build community and raise feminist consciousness.

 

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    1. Chalk for Choice:  This was another new event that the TPWRC sponsored/participated in.  This involved creating beautiful art and messages to support the women who work and use services at the Building for Women.  We did a few Chalk for Choice events and look forward to doing more in the future.

 

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    1. 40 Days of Choice:  Each Friday during the 40 days of Life, the TPWRC organized two counter protests of the anti-choice vigil outside the building.  One of the highlights of the 40 Days for Choice was wearing our Candy Land themed Halloween costumes on the final event.  I made protest signs to match our costumes.  Keep Abortion Safe, Legal, and Minty!

 

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    1. Pride: There are some years that I don’t attend the local pride festival at all.  This year I didn’t work so I had the opportunity to run in the Hummingbird 5k, table at the festival with Safe Haven, and walk in the pride parade with Grandmother’s for Peace.  This made for a fun, vibrant, memorable Pride weekend!

 

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  1. Radical Cheerleaders:  Back in 2010, I organized a radical cheerleading group called the Rah Rah Revolutionaries.  The group evaporated when I moved to Mankato for graduate school.   This year, I revived the group on a modest scale.   Hopefully, it can be a spring/summer project.  The Rah Rah Revolutionaries are a modest ad hoc group, but we did contribute to Take Back the Night by welcoming people to the event with our cheers.  We also did some cheers and chants at an anti-war picket on the anniversary of the war in Afghanistan.  Finally, we appeared at one of the 40 Days of Choice events.  It is fun to put on a cheerleading costume and do chants for reproductive rights or against war.

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10.Pandemonium:  Pandemonium was started up in October and meets once a month for “Bi with Pie.”   I have wanted to be a part of a bi+ group for some time, since I think that bisexuality is not a very visible and legitimate sexuality in our society.  One of the catalysts for creating the group was attending a vigil for the victims of the Orlando night club massacre last June.  I was asked to be interviewed but felt shy because I didn’t feel like I was queer enough.  I think that a bi group is important for bisexuals so that they can develop identity and community and better connect with the larger LGBTQ community.


11.Islamophobia Protest:  What better way can a person spend Valentine’s Day than with a picket that shows love and support for the Muslim community.  The event was organized by Break the Bonds (an Israel divestment group) and Kym Young after Superior Mayor, Bruce Hagen made disparaging remarks about Muslims.


  1. Hiroshima/Nagasaki Vigil: This event is organized each August by Veterans for Peace and Grandmothers for Peace.  It was a beautiful event hosted at the Japanese garden at Enger Tower.   This was my first year attending.  Oddly enough, they were short on speakers so I was asked to speak (from a script).  That was neat.  Hiroshima/Nagasaki has always interested/concerned me.  When I was in high school, I went to state for a speech on the topic of the atomic bombings.  As a student in Korea, I went on a weekend adventure with some fellow students to Hiroshima.  It is startling and horrific what our nation did to two civilian populations.  Zombie movies have nothing on the grotesque reality of our militant foreign policy.

 

    1. Letters for Prisoners: I have only attended two meetings of this group, but wrote my first letters to prisoners.  I wrote to Oscar Lopez Rivera and Leonard Peltier, but members of the group can write to any prisoner (famous or not).  I wrote Rivera about a trip to Puerto Rico this spring and my impressions of it as a pseudo-colony.  I wasn’t sure what to write because I am not very knowledgeable about the Puerto Rican independence movement.  I wrote Leonard Peltier about a local picket that Socialist Action hosts on his birthday each year and some local Standing Rock actions that have happened (I have only attended a few Standing Rock events, so I just mentioned my impressions of those events).

 


  1. Social Events: Socialist Action hosts a few social events each year.  This year we did a “commie con” themed Marxmas Party, which was attended by about 25 people.  We also did a Fall of Capitalism Party in October, which included trivia, fall foods, and a visit from Karen Schraufnagel (Socialist Action’s Vice President Candidate).  Our final social event was a Bolshevik Bonfire on Wisconsin Point.

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  1. Speaking to a Class: I was invited to speak informally to a class at UMD about domestic violence and working at a shelter.  It was a wonderful opportunity and made me feel like my experiences matter and that I have knowledge worth sharing.

This is just a sample from my list of 75 events.  Since some of these groups or events happened more than once, it quickly added up to that total.  Based upon the list, I would say that I am weak on my participation in racial justice and environmental issues.  I have started to attend a few SURJ meetings, so perhaps that can help me become a better ally in the area of racial justice.  As for the environment, I attended a documentary last night, but it was focused on marketizing carbon and buying electric cars to solve climate change (which isn’t the anti-capitalist solution I am looking for).  As a whole, I am proud of my engagement.  This stems from being a socialist.  Once a person becomes anti-capitalist, it is hard to see issues in isolation.  A person cannot fight sexism without also fighting racism, ableism, and classism.  A person cannot promote the interests of workers at the expense of the environment or promote environmentalism without looking at how classism, racism, gender, and ability intersect with environmental issues.  War is also an issue of feminism, class, race, and environment. Thus, I am not attending events for the sake of reaching a magical number, but trying to be engaged on many fronts in the war against capitalism.  The numbers encourage me and make me feel proud for trying hard to be a “good” activist.  Since activism is pretty thankless and misunderstood, I think it is okay to give myself a pat on the back for doing my best this year!

Vangarden Notes: Five Soviet Tomatoes

Vangarden Notes: Five Soviet Tomatoes

by H. Bradford

12/12/16


As you may or may not know, one of my hobbies for the past few years has been urban gardening.  I can’t say that I have a green thumb, but I do have a “red thumb” as I try to connect this hobby to my larger interest in socialism.  This is why the garden is called “the vangarden” as it is a play of words on “vanguard.”  I try to do different theme gardens and one of the themes is an Eastern European or Russian inspired garden.  This involves growing vegetables that hail from Eastern Europe.  In particular, I have been trying out some varieties of tomatoes that have ties to the former Soviet Union.  Now, as a Trotskyist I am not someone with a blind adoration of all things Soviet, but it did represent possibility and a distortion of potential.  It is also interesting to learn about the history of plants and try out varieties of vegetables that are not available in grocery stores.  There are dozens of tomatoes that can be connected to the Soviet Union.  These are just a few!  (note that the images are not from my garden)


Cosmonaut Volkov:


I found this tomato plant at the farmer’s market in Duluth this year.  It is an heirloom variety of tomato which was developed in the Ukraine.  The tomato seemed to grow without problems from disease, cracking, or pests and produced medium to large sized red tomatoes, with a slightly tapered bottom.  I purchased only one plant, but it produced well and actually climbed up the clothes line and a barrier that I had created for a raspberry plant.  It was the best growing full sized tomato that I grew last year.

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Cosmonaut Volkov is one of hundreds of tomato varieties grown by Igor Malsov (a retired engineer).  Maslov named the tomato after his friend Vladislav Volkov.  Volkov was one of several cosmonauts killed on the Soyuz 11 accident.  The accident occurred on the 30th of June 1971, when the re-entry capsule containing three cosmonauts depressurized as it prepared to reenter Earth’s atmosphere.  The cosmonauts on board were the only humans who have died in space.

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I am not aware of any other tomato that is named after an astronaut.  However, a newly discovered bush tomato is Australia was named after the fictional astronaut from the movie/book “The Martian.”  Solanum watneyi or Watney was the name assigned to the bush-tomato.  Bush-tomatoes are wild plants that can be toxic to humans, though aborigines ate some varieties by burning, drying, and roasting them.


Paul Robeson:

I have not yet grown Paul Robeson tomatoes, as I only learned about their existence this past fall!  It is a smooth, dark colored tomato introduced to the U.S. in the 1990s by a seed saver named from Moscow named Marina Danilenko.  Paul Robeson was an African American singer, scholar, lawyer, athlete, actor, Civil Rights activist, anti-imperialist, socialist.  He was popular in the Soviet Union, hence the naming of a tomato after him.  I am not aware of any other tomato that is named after an African American

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Memory to Vavilov:

I have not tried out this variety of tomato, but I thought it would be a good addition to the list.  Memory to Vavilov produces small red fruits.  Like Paul Robeson, it was made available in the United States by Marina Danilenko during the 1990s.  Unfortunately, I can not find out any additional information regarding who Marina Danilenko is.  Vavilov was a famous geneticist/botanist from the Soviet Union who contributed to plant science by hypothesizing that there were biodiversity hotspots where many domesticated plants originated and by creating an extensive seed bank in St. Petersburg.  He recognized the need to save seeds to preserve biodiversity, which he viewed as essential to food security.  This mission was taken so seriously that the scientists at the seed bank did not eat their seeds, even when faced with starvation during the 28 month siege of Leningrad.  Vavilov was awarded the Lenin Award, but was later thrown into prison once Stalin consolidated his power, where he continued to give lectures but later died.  He was thrown into prison for his opposition to Lysenkoism, or Stalin’s state sponsored scientific position against genetic inheritance, natural selection, and the existence of genes.  Vavilov was a hero to science, so I am glad that there is a tomato named after him.

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Black Krim:


Black Krim is a widely available tomato that I began growing a few years ago.  I was fascinated by the fact that it was a burgundy colored tomato.  The tomato itself originates in the Isle of Krim in the Black Sea near the Crimean peninsula.  It is a large, beefsteak tomato.  I have not been able to located an “isle of krim” even though almost every source on the history of Black Krim lists this as its place of origin.  The Russian translation of “Crimea” itself is “Krim.”  I wonder if these sources are confused or if there is really an “isle of Krim” that also happens to be a part of Crimea.  In any event, it is a tomato that is associated with Crimea.


According to various sources (listed at the end) it is possible that the tomato was popularized by soldiers returning from the Crimean War who gathered the seeds and shared them.  Although many sources list this history, it is more likely that soldiers popularized black tomatoes in general rather than Black Krim specifically.  I believe this because another source lists that Black Krim was discovered by lars Rosenstrom of Sweden in 1990.  Black tomatoes are native to Southern Ukraine and were popular across the Soviet Union.


Black tomatoes perform better in warmer climates and do not become as dark in the north.  Black tomatoes also have the strongest taste.  There were over 50 varieties of black tomatoes grown in the Soviet union, with some black tomatoes that have since been developed in the United States and Germany.


Black Krim tomatoes are dark colored because they have a gene in which the chlorophyll does not break down at it ripens.  Thus, the tomato is both red and green, making a purplish brown color.  Other black tomatoes, have been either selectively bred or genetically modified to have more anthocyanins, or the pigment which causes eggplant, blueberries, grapes, and plums to be dark colored.  The purpose of this is to make it have more anti-oxidants, a longer shelf life, and deeper, darker coloration.  Indigo rose was selectively bred over the course of decades (using wild tomatoes) to obtain a darker purple color.  There is also a GMO tomato that uses snapdragon genes to create a darker color, though I am not sure if it is commercially available.  The media has called the GMO tomato “cancer curing” which is a pretty big feat for a tomato.  I think Vavilov would probably approve of simply breeding new varieties and saving the varieties that are already in existence.

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Black Prince or Choyrnii Prins:

This is another dark colored tomato.  I found a seedling at the farmer’s market in Duluth. The appeal was that it has been grown in Siberia, which I thought would make it particularly cold hardy.  It is medium sized with a round shape.  I tried it out, but it did not seem to grow as well as Black Krim or other varieties.  Since I am already growing Black Krim, I probably would not grow this one again.  I am not sure how cold hardy it actually is, as we had a pretty late hard frost this year (Nov. 15th!).  But, since tomatoes were first cultivated in Central and South America, I can’t imagine that any tomato is really cold hardy…even one from Siberia!


Conclusion:

The above was just a small sample of tomatoes with Soviet connections.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a wealth of information on the internet about the history of tomatoes, so it is a patchwork of what I can find.  Perhaps next year I can grow the Paul Robeson tomato and “Amur Tiger” an orange cherry tomato.   There is also a pink tomato called Kremlin Chiming Clock, named after the 15th century clock which chimes twice a day in Red Square.  The variety of tomatoes attests to the popularity of tomatoes in the former Soviet Union.  I can imagine them grown in dachas, eaten fresh, added to borsch or solyanka, or chopped up with cucumbers into a salad.   While beets, cucumbers, and cabbage rank higher among the vegetables many people associated with Russia and its neighbors, tomatoes must have a special place to have yielded such variety.

 

 

 

 

Sources:

http://tatianastomatobase.com/wiki/Main_Page

http://www.veggiegardener.com/black-krim-january-2010-tomato-of-the-month/

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/7/8/1107277/-5-Heirloom-Tomatoes-Five-Stories-Part-1

http://www.almanac.com/blog/gardening-blog/why-do-people-dislike-black-tomatoes

http://www.seedaholic.com/tomato-black-krim.html

http://extension.oregonstate.edu/gardening/purple-tomato-debuts-indigo-rose

https://www.atlanticavenuegarden.com/fall-tomatoes-vegetable-gardening/

http://www.livescience.com/53853-tomato-plant-named-for-martian-botanist.html

https://njaes.rutgers.edu/tomato-varieties/

http://www.amishlandseeds.com/russian_tomatoes.htm

Packing for an Overland Trip

Packing for an Overland Trip

H. Bradford

12/7/16


This post is probably somewhat boring to anyone who is not planning on travelling in the near future.  However, if you ARE considering doing an overland trip, I compiled a list of items that I thought were useful for the trip, including some things that I didn’t pack but should have. dscf3584


Useful Items:

Headlamp:  If you are traveling to southern Africa in the winter, a headlamp is essential.  Our days began between 5am and 6pm and ended around 6pm.  This resulted in packing and unpacking tents and supplies in darkness.  Because the days were just as short at a Minnesota winter, there was a lot of time spent in darkness.  The days are very short.  Thus, the headlamp is essential for walking around at night, using the bathroom, showering, packing, setting up the tent, etc.  Also, be sure to bring batteries!

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Gloves:  I did not pack gloves, but would have really liked work gloves or garden gloves.  Pulling mattresses and supplies off of the truck dries out the hands and gets them dirty.  Wrestling with a stubborn tent mangled the skin of my hands.  By the end of the trip, my hand were dry, cracked, and permanently caked with dirt.  They looked like the hands of an old sailor or mechanic.  A pair of work or garden gloves will keep your hands clean and protect them from scratches and the enormous amount of dirt on everything.  I would definitely pack gloves if I did it again!


Lotion:  I never really care that much about dry skin.  It is something I hardly notice.  I never wear lotion on my hands or body.  During the trip, my skin became disgustingly dry.  Skin peeled off like snowflakes, but far less gentle and pretty.  My skin took on the texture of a crocodile.  I eventually bought some lotion, but it was a losing battle against the arid climate.  Namibia, Northern South Africa, and parts of Botswana are pretty much deserts or desert-like Karoo climate.  I have never lived in a desert or spent time in one, so I was not at all prepared for the extreme dryness of my skin. fscn1343

This is me sans lotion.

 


Warm Clothes and a warm sleeping bag: I was also unprepared for how cold it was.  While planning the trip, I had checked out the temperatures of each place.  These temps seemed warm enough.  However, I learned a few important lessons.  1. A high in the 70s doesn’t matter if it is only at that high for an hour or two and the rest of the day is closer to the daily “low” temperature.  2. It feels colder at night when you are sleeping (and not moving around). 3. Wind and dry air make everything feel colder.  4. Deserts are cold at night.  5. Don’t underestimate African winter.  6. Everything feels colder when you can’t retreat indoors for warmth (in other words, a cool day here might be punctuated with time inside.  There, because the truck is not heated or air-conditioned, a person is always exposed to the ambient temperature conditions).  I eked by, using the clothes I had to layer. However, there were a few very cold nights.

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This didn’t feel very tropical.

A Cheap Rain Poncho:  I packed a cheap rain poncho.  It only rained once (on the first night…though it was a significant and terrible rain).  I used the poncho again at Victoria Falls (then threw it away to save space in my bag…yes, this was wasteful, but I needed to shed some items..).   The poncho saved me from packing an umbrella or actual raincoat.  Since most of the trip was through dry areas, the cheap poncho was all I needed.

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Wetter than it looks.

A Clothesline and Clothespins:  I packed a Bungee cord, but an actual clothes line would have been much more useful for hanging hand washed clothes.


Bar Shampoo:  To save space in my bag and avoid travelling with bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and detergent, I purchased an all-in-one camping bar soap which boasted that it could be used for shampoo, soap, and detergent.  It was called “All Natural Trail Soap” by Trascentuals.  The soap dried out my hair, making it feel like straw.  This added to my overall feeling of dryness.  However, I liked the scent, that I didn’t have to worry about packing numerous soap items, and that it came with its own plastic container. shopping   Fast Drying Microfiber Towel:  Since we never stayed in one place very long, a regular towel would have became moist and smelly. The microfiber towel that I brought dried very quickly, stayed fresh, folded compactly, and was unusually warm for how thin it was.  The towel was about $15, so not too spendy and worth it! shopping


Powerbank:  The truck is available for charging phones, mp3 players, cameras, etc.  However, it is only available when it has stopped for the night.  This means that everyone scrambles to charge their devices.  Sometimes the outlets might be full.  Further, once the truck is shut off for the night, there is no ability to charge things.  Thus, I found it useful to bring a power bank.  This allowed me to charge my items more frequently.


Packing Cubes: Overlanding involves a lot of packing and unpacking, often in the darkness.  Packing cubes makes it easier to find certain items.  For instance, I put all of my leggings and bottoms in one cube.  In another cube, I kept shirts.  In a smaller cube, I kept socks and underwear.  This made packing and unpacking far easier.  Though, even with the cubes, I seemed to always be losing things.  I bought really cheap packing cubes, so a few of them broke (zipper busted).  Don’t buy the brand “HiDay.”

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Padlock:  This is useful for the lockers on the truck.  Every passenger was assigned a locker for their items.


Handkerchief: Handkerchiefs are often worn by cowboys, farmers, gangsters, anarchists, and bank robbers.  I am not really badass enough to pull off the handkerchief look, but I wear them anyway.   I found mine incredibly useful for a variety of reasons.  1. While in Namibia, the truck filled with choking dust.  I was wearing a handkerchief, which I pulled up over my nose and mouth to protect myself from the dust.  2. Bad Smells: it is always useful to have something to protect against a bad smell.  3. Cold Wind: a handkerchief can offer some protection against cold wind (which occurred in open vehicles while looking for wildlife). 4. Bad hair: You can cover up bad hair with a handkerchief. 5. It is an easy to pack accessory that pulls an outfit together! dscf3967 Diva Cup:  Periods are never really fun when travelling…or really, ever.  They are especially not very fun when you are in a vehicle for many hours and are unsure what the bathroom conditions will be at each stop.  I found that a diva cup is useful, since it can be used for longer without leaking and does not require special disposal, such as pads and tampons.  The downside is that it is harder to sanitize it while travelling.


She-Wee: I packed a female urinal, but never used it.  I never used it because the places with the worst bathroom conditions were also the places without running water.  I didn’t want to haul a urine soaked female urinal around all day, waiting to rinse it off.  Still, it is kind of fun to have…if nothing else, it entertains the imaginations of fellow travelers.  Maybe some hardcore camper out there would find it useful.  Someday I will whip mine out….and use it proudly….peeing as freely as any man.  Until then…

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The Wildlife of Southern Africa by Vincent Carruthers:  This book offers a good overview of the most common birds, mammals, reptiles, plants, and fish of Southern Africa.  It helped me construct my list of species I had spotted and gain quick knowledge of the natural environment.


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A Stargazing Guide:  I deeply regretted that I did not pack a southern hemisphere stargazing guide.  In fact, the very first thing I did when I arrived in Windhoek was download a starmap and some astronomy books to my tablet.  Namibia is a great place to stargaze, since there is endless sky that is uninterrupted by light pollution, buildings, or trees.  Furthermore, people in the northern hemisphere do not get to enjoy many of the unique constellations of the southern hemisphere.  Once I downloaded a guide, I did my best to familiarize myself with the southern hemisphere’s sky.  Don’t miss out on the Southern cross, constellations named after scientific instruments, the center of the Milky Way galaxy, and Magellan cloud!


Ginger candies:

Unfamiliar foods, bumpy boat rides, long days on the truck, long periods between meals, etc. can upset a person’s stomach.  So, when I travel, I always bring ginger chews with me.  I find that they settle an upset stomach and ease motion sickness.  I didn’t get sick on this trip, but I did chew on ginger candies when I had mild stomach upset.


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A Year of Birding

A Year of Birding

H. Bradford

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One of my many New Year’s resolutions last year was to try a few new hobbies.  One of the hobbies that I tested out this year was birding.  Birding, or the act of observing or listening for birds, is pretty interesting.  The average age of a birder is 53 years old.  According to a report from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (2013), 30% of birders are over the age of 55.  23% are between ages 45 and 54.  Thus, this is a hobby where I am actually on the young side!  About 50% of birders make over $50,000 a year, so it seems to be a hobby for people with more money than the average American, myself included.  About 56% of birders are women, though perhaps this is because there are more older women than men.  88% of birders are backyard observers of birds, whereas 38% are birders who travel at least a mile to view birds (there is overlap between these groups).  As a whole, the average birder is probably an older, white female, with above average income and education, who lives in the urban south.  This is a hobby that is not known for its appeal to people of color, youth, working class people, the LGBTQ community, etc.  Despite the lack of diversity, there are several reasons why I was attracted to birding.  1.) It is an easy going, outdoor hobby.  2.) I like to make lists.  3.) It is an example of citizen science, since birders can play a role in collecting scientific data about birds. 4.) Birds are basically feathered dinosaurs…so, birding is modern day dinosaur tracking.  Finally, despite the fact that it is a hobby for those with more income, I was able to do birding just my eyes and a guidebook.  I did most of my birding on trips that I was already taking (so I did not take the trips with the purpose of birding, but chose to look out for birds while travelling), with some birding done locally.  Next year, I would like to take advantage of more local birding opportunities.


My year of birding began with a birding hike at Jay Cooke State Park.  The hike did not yield many birds, though we did see many chickadees, crows, nuthatches, and woodpeckers.  The next boon for birding was when an ivory billed gull appeared in Duluth.  The bird was usually found in the Arctic, but found itself outside of its range.  When I heard that it had been spotted in Canal Park, I awoke early one morning to see if I could catch it.  Sure enough, I spotted it on the Lakewalk near Grandma’s Restaurant.  I visited it several more times over the next few days.  Getting up early to see the wayward gull made me feel like a “real” birder, since I was joined by people with binoculars and fancy cameras.  After seeking out the gull, my birding mostly consisted of trying to record the birds that I saw in my backyard.  I think that this is one of the most appealing things about birding.  For most of my life, I have been pretty indifferent to birds.  But, once I started paying attention, I noticed that the world was abundant with bird life.  There is a secret world of birds all around us.

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Bird watching enhanced my trip to Africa.  I kept my eyes peeled for birds, which I recorded in a journal throughout the trip.  I would sketch them out or photograph them so that I could compare them to the birds in my guide.  There were so many wonderful birds!  I remember seeing my first flocks of flamingos as well as the large flocks at Walvis Bay, Namibia.  It is strange to see wild birds that you would normally only get to see in zoos.  Other highlights included spotting African spoonbills and Marabou Storks.  Maribou Storks are bald headed storks which scavenge dead flesh.  There were colorful Malachite kingfishers and bright Lilac breasted roller birds.  I saw several species of hornbills, which was very iconically African.   There were herons, ibises, egrets, and a variety of other waterbirds.  In all, I spotted 63 species of birds in Africa.

While Africa was probably the best birding experience I will ever have, I had another fun experience while visiting my brother in Texas.  I went to the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center.  My family spent about two hours here, but it was not enough time for me, so I stayed for several hours longer while they enjoyed lunch and a waterpark.  During my trek along the boardwalk, I spotted Great Blue herons, Roseate spoonbills,  Brown Pelicans, osprey, Tricolor herons, Snowy egrets, etc.  It was amazing how similar the birdlife was to the birds that I spotted in Africa.  While the species were different, many of the birds in Texas either filled similar ecological niches or were local species of the same birds.  For instance, South Padre Island had Roseate spoonbills rather than African spoonbills.  I spotted Anhinga in Texas and African Darters in Namibia and Botswana.  Both are similar looking darters with long, snake like necks and jagged dark feathers that they dry in the sun.  Although unrelated, the caracara that I saw alongside the road reminded me of a Secretary bird in its coloration and eating habits.  Of course, I saw a variety of egrets in Texas as well.  The cattle egrets that I saw in Africa are the very same species that I saw in Texas.  The bird spread with the spread of humans and domesticated animals.  Though, the cattle egret is a relative newcomer to Texas, having only arrived in the 1960s.  The Great egret spotted at the park is almost identical to the Great egret spotted in Africa, though they are different subspecies.  The Caspian tern is also found in both Africa and Texas.

I am still at the very beginning stages of learning about birds.  However, perhaps by the time I am 53, the average age of a birder, I will be well-versed in the world of birds.  One appeal of birding is that it is basically an endless scavenger hunt.  Some birders compete to see how many birds they can identify in the world or in a country in a single year (this is called a Big Year).  I think that this year may be my own “Big Year” as I doubt I will see as many species in a year as I saw this year!  This year also helped to give me a start on my Life List, or the list of birds that a birder has seen in their lifetime.  In all, I probably saw over 130 species of birds this year.  To me this seems like a lot, but it is small compared to the 10,000 species of birds in the world!

With that said, here is the list of birds that I have seen this year.   I will eventually go back and organize the list using scientific names.  Otherwise, the count may go up, as I plan on participating in the Christmas bird count:

 

Texan Birds:

  1. Willet
  2. White Winged dove
  3. Mockingbird
  4. Forester’s tern
  5. Redhead duck
  6. Crested caracra
  7. Great tailed grackle
  8. Common grackle
  9. House sparrow
  10. Harris’ Hawk
  11. Sanderling
  12. Black-bellied Plover
  13. Brown Pelican
  14. American coot
  15. Great Blue heron
  16. Roseate spoonbill
  17. Little blue heron
  18. Northern pintail
  19. White ibis
  20. Great egret
  21. Laughing gull
  22. Common gallinule
  23. Blue wing teal
  24. Osprey
  25. Least tern
  26. Long billed curlew
  27. Black necked stilt
  28. Snowy egret
  29. Tricolor heron
  30. American wigeon
  31. Mottled duck
  32. Spotted sandpiper
  33. Clapper rail
  34. Turkey vulture
  35. Belted kingfisher
  36. Anhinga
  37. American white pelican
  38. Carolina Wren

African birds

  1. Blue waxbill
  2. Southern ground hornbill
  3. Black collared barbet
  4. Hammerkop
  5. Gray lorie (Goaway bird)
  6. Egyptian goose
  7. Secretary bird
  8. Red billed hornbill
  9. Black Winged lapwing
  10. Crimson breasted shrike
  11. Cardinal woodpecker
  12. Pied kingfisher
  13. Bank cormorant
  14. Spur winged goose
  15. Little bee eater
  16. Fish eagle
  17. African jacana
  18. Malachite kingfisher
  19. Red Collared widowbird
  20. Ostrich
  21. Greater flamingo
  22. Cape gannet
  23. Reed cormorant
  24. African darter
  25. Sacred ibis
  26. Helmeted guineafowl
  27. Cape sparrow
  28. Sociable weaver
  29. Cape white eye
  30. Karoo korhaan
  31. Great white pelican
  32. Great white egret
  33. Yellow billed hornbill
  34. African pied wagtail
  35. Red eyed bulbul
  36. Dark canting goshawk
  37. Cape glossy starling
  38. Pied crow
  39. Kori Bustard
  40. Green wood hoopoe
  41. Dark capped bulbul
  42. African Spoonbill
  43. Lilac Breasted roller
  44. Marabou stork
  45. Red billed oxpecker
  46. Squacco heron
  47. Gray heron
  48. Cattle egret
  49. Purple heron
  50. White faced duck
  51. Gray headed gull
  52. African Skimmer
  53. Yellow billed stork
  54. Caspian tern
  55. Laughing dove
  56. Magpie shrike
  57. African crowned eagle
  58. Trumpeter hornbill
  59. Black kite
  60. Hooded vulture
  61. Fork tailed drongo
  62. Black crake
  63. Red winged starling

Local Birds:

1.Black capped chickadee

2.White breasted Nuthatch

  1. American Crow
  2. Northern Flicker
  3. Blue Jay
  4. Dark eyed junco
  5. Downy Woodpecker
  6. Hairy Woodpecker
  7. Ivory Gull
  8. Common loon
  9. Canadian goose
  10. Snow goose
  11. Mallard Duck
  12. Killdeer
  13. Cedar Waxwing
  14. Pileated woodpecker
  15. Ruffed grouse
  16. Ruby throated hummingbird
  17. Red winged blackbird
  18. Ring billed gull
  19. Barred owl

22.American goldfinch

  1. Double crested cormorant

24.Mourning dove

  1. American robin
  2. Northern Cardinal

27.Scarlet Tanager

  1. Common redpoll

29.Tundra swan

  1. Wild turkey
  2. Common merganser

 

 

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