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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Today Behind A Camera ...

Over the Memorial Day weekend, my nephew and I visited the cemetery plots of our immediate relatives. Like millions of Americans, we utilizing a portion of the holiday to "spruce up" the resting places of friends and family who have died. I'm fascinated by cemeteries ... the majestic monuments and the odd quiet make my senses tingle. There is also an artistic quality to observing how people can make a gravesite truly beautiful with mulch, small planters, river rock, etc.

I happened to have my camera with me and decided to take a few respectful pics. What I focused on were the small iconic momentos left to keep watch over the grave markers. There were lambs, dolphins, train locomotives, mushrooms, pinwheels, gargoyles, frogs, suncatchers, butterflies, and more made of an assortment of materials. But what caught my attention most were the cement angels that sat like stoic sentinels to protect the dead.

Angels have been a part of our collective mythos for millennia, appearing in religions across the planet. These beings are believed to be basic extensions of God ... spectral entities that have been depicted as divine messengers, glorified menials, and protectors of humanity. The term angel is a fusion of the Old English word "engel" and the Old French word "angele," both of which are hand-me-downs from the ancient Greek "angelos" ... "messenger."

Both the Christian and Hebrew Bibles speak of angels as semi-divine beings possessing powers and perceptions above those of "mere" mortals. Scholars and theologians have studied angels for centuries through writings, art, and testimonials from individuals who claim to have interacted with these ethereal personas. Popular culture has characterized angels as winged beings whom are often surrounded by an aura of light. Most "sightings" describe asexual beings with mild, handsome male features often accompanied by flowing robes, head-adorning halos, and even pleasant sounds and smells. But this is certainly not the cased in all cultures ... Hinduism, for example, characterizes angels as "devas," the embodiment of natural elements. And devas are often destructive in their roles as "mediators of God."

In some religions, certain angels have taken on strong personalities and distinct roles. Structured hierarchies have been developed to chart these entities' abilities and duties ... kind of like a scorecard for one of today's popular role-playing games. Several main-stage angels have allegories in multiple religions and are often referred to as "archangels." From the book of Daniel we have Gabriel (God's primary messenger) and Michael (the warrior and protector). Other key characters include Raphael (the healer), Uriel (the fulfiller), Azrael (the death-bringer), and, of course, Lucifer ... the fallen angel who became the "Satan figure."

In the mainstream, people that believe in angels see them as guardians, harbingers of danger, and agents of positive change. Belief in angels has been a topic of organized cultural-anthropological study for nearly half a century. In 2007, a study showed that 68 percent of those Americans polled believe that angels and demons are active in the physical world. In 2008, a Baylor University poll found that 55 percent of respondents believe that they have been protected by "guardian angels" during their lifetime. And multiple 2009 surveys showed that more Americans believe in angels than the concept of global warming!! Similar studies have been conducted in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Personally, I even know two individuals who have vivid recollections of being visited by angels. One friend believes the "visitation" was what prevented her from being involved in a terrible accident on a commuter train. The other acquaintance was going through a tough emotional period and feels that the "bright lights" that spoke to him on three occasions is what gave him the strength to power through both a divorce and a dependence on alcohol.

POINT OF RANT: I was just thrilled that my photos turned out so damn good!!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Today After Work ...

After work today, I did what every American does on May 5 … stopped by a local tavern to drink a few cold Dos Equis (with lime) in honor of Cinco de Mayo and to consume my body weight in chips and salsa. Ah, the festive twinkle of jalapeno lights and dusted-off sombreros does my heart proud. But what does it all mean? I mean, do we Americans really need another excuse to drink?

Apparently, we here in the U.S. make a much bigger deal of the holiday than do our southern neighbors. Cinco de Mayo … literally Spanish for “fifth of May” … is observed in regions of Mexico to commemorate the Battle of Puebla in 1862. In a nutshell, Mexico was broke. After fighting both a war with the U.S. and repercussions of its own civil conflicts, the country was in financial despair. So in 1861, then president Benito Juarez announced the suspension of payment of foreign debts so the Mexican treasury would have the opportunity to rebuild. Well, France, England, and Spain didn’t care for that notion. England and Spain sent naval forces to “express their displeasure,” but Mexico negotiated a peace and the forces withdrew. But apparently France, who at the time had considerable occupation forces in Mexico, was pissed! Napolean III sent additional troops and went after Juarez with a vengence. The French army was renowned in the world for its superior training and resources and, with a force of more than 8,000 French troops on Juarez’s trail, the outcome seemed set in stone.

The French forces initially won some skirmishes but were stopped … actually crushed … in the state of Puebla by a poorly-equipped Mexican army of barely 4,000 soldiers. 2 to 1 odds, and the French were effectively stopped. It was more than a year before the rearmed French returned and established a French “emperor” in Mexico. But, according to most historians, the Battle of Puebla was significant for two reasons. First off, the thrashing of a superior force provided a sense of momentum and excitement and unity among the Mexican army. Yes, more battles came but this impetus had the effect of forcing events to proceed at an accelerated rate. Secondly, during that year that the French were regrouping, France was unable to supply and augment the Confederate army which was fighting in the U.S. Civil War. Scholars believe that this lost support was a definite factor in victory for the North.

Additionally, once the U.S. Civil War was concluded, aid was reinitiated to Mexican troops and French rule and occupation was ended only three years later. Some experts claim that if the French had stayed put, the U.S. may have never risen to the “world power” status it now enjoys. Hmmmmmmm.

So I was surfing the Internet … with a slight buzz from my Mexican beer infusion … and found a few great things to pass along. A bar owner in the Chicago area explained that he went all out for Cinco de Mayo “to celebrate the heritage and accomplishments of many of my Mexican-American patrons.” I liked that.

A Washington Post article discussed how the holiday was actually celebrated in Mexico. While many areas do not do much in the way of partying, the state of Puebla and the capital of Mexico City commemorate the date with parades, jet flyovers, and even a reenactment of the battle at a military base near Puebla complete with cavalry charges, cannon fire, and machete fights. How cool ... I loved that.

Then I glimpsed a mention of more than 150 “official” Cinco de Mayo celebrations involving special school exhibits and art projects, musical and dance performances, and, of course, festivals celebrating the foods of Mexican and all Latin cultures. This made me hungry.

Then I read four separate items that made me happy, then sad, then embarrassed, and then forced me to giggle out loud. First, in 2005, the U.S. Congress issued a concurrent request to the President asking the people of the United States to observe Cinco de Mayo with appropriate respect to Mexican culture (happy and proud). Then I read a United Press International mention where Cinco de Mayo was decried as nothing more than a marketing tool for beer companies (sad, and mostly true). Then I saw a comment where a company CEO made a speech to his day shift about how he was proud to be acknowledging “Cinco de Mayo … Mexico’s Fourth of July!!” Well, Mr. CEO, Mexico celebrates a national independence day on September 16 … I wanted to find this man (or his assistant) and smack them with a maraca (embarrassed and angry)! And then I got a message from a FB buddy … he wished me a happy “Cinco de Drunk on Mayo Ass Day,” but added that he was taking three of his Hispanic co-workers out after work and picking up the tab. My friend doesn’t have a clue to the history of today, but he was refreshingly honest and reminded me that he has a big heart!

POINT OF RANT: Happy “heritage day," Mexico!! … whatever you choose to call it.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Today Talking With A Friendly German ...

I did notice that today was the first day of the month of May. For me, it’s really just a reminder that the birthday of a niece is close at hand. Oh, and my stomach gets excited because it knows we will be enjoying some good Mexican food and too much beer on Cinco de Mayo. But earlier tonight, a friend on Facebook from Germany asked me how I celebrated “May Day.” I wasn’t sure how to answer so I gave my description of a typical Sunday in my life. When I asked him how his day had been, I got a VERY DIFFERENT answer.

In Europe, “May Day” is related to any number of ancient pagan festivals celebrated around early May. Many of these celebrations marked the end of winter weather and the start of the farming cycle and provided popular incentives for drinking, dancing, and “displays of fertility.” YIKES!! A few examples include the festival of Flora (celebrating the Roman goddess of flowers), the Celtic festival of Beltane (with loud feasts and the lighting of bonfires to banish the long nights of winter), and the Germanic festival of Walpurgisnacht (with the wrapping of maypoles and lots of dancing).

But what my German friend was talking about was a more politically-motivated “May Day” … one I guess I knew a bit about but not much. It seems in many countries … and in the U.S., to a point … “May Day” is synonymous with International Workers’ Day. So in countries across the globe, May 1 is marked with political demonstrations organized by various groups to focus attention on employee rights and other workforce issues, as well as an international celebration of the social and economic achievements of the labor movement.

One source explained that the roots for International Workers' Day can be found in a public Australian holiday known as “Eight-Hour Day.” Apparently in 1856, a group of stonemason’s negotiated an improvement in working conditions and a “workers’ holiday” was established. The notion of this April 22 holiday began to spread to neighboring countries and eventually the holiday was moved to May 1 to commemorate the Haymarket Square demonstrations of 1886. Known as one of the world’s most grievous labor-related tragedies, this event began when a three-day labor strike of employees of the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co., of Chicago, got out of hand and four employee were killed by police attempted to break the strike. The next day, a rally was held in Haymarket Square to protest the workers’ deaths. Again, police arrived to disperse the crowds and during the process opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators. A dozen more people were killed , including one law enforcement officer. Eventually, eight people were put on trial … all individuals known for having strong worker party political beliefs but almost no connection to the actual demonstration. Four of these men were publically executed and the affair is still cited by political activists as a total travesty of the American justice system and an example of people put on trial purely for their political convictions.

So while the United States may have provided some inspiration for International Workers' Day, it is a true international day with rallies and demonstrations allowing citizens of the world to protest unfair labor laws and practices. In 1958, the U.S. Congress designated May 1 as “Loyalty Day.” It is also sometimes referred to as “Law Day.”

Several countries such as Bangladesh, Italy, China, Syria, Hong Kong, Poland, Taiwan, Portugal, Argentina, Finland, Ireland, Bulgaria, Greece, and Brazil have a long and “tense” histories of celebrating May 1. Whether it is “May Day” or International Workers' Day or “Labor Day,” these nations support this public holiday as an opportunity for workers to unite and speak with one voice.

Which, again, leads me back to my friend ... for him, “May Day” was drinking and dancing in the streets and watching families picnicking together. It was also numerous political demonstrations, some nasty name calling, and even bricks and stones thrown through several storefront windows. He also told me about regions in Germany where the traditions of Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis Night) are very much alive … where people still wrap maypoles and where young men in love secretly deliver trees decorated with streamers to the women they love. Women, though, sneak to the homes of the males they pine for and place heart-shaped offerings crafted from rose petals or rice grains. And often times, if the culprit is apprehended while delivering the “May Day” tribute, a kiss is required from the “offending” party. Romantic stuff, indeed!!

In many European countries and parts of the U.S., “May Day” antics still exist as a diluted form of the “green root” (pagan) and “red root” (labor) traditions of the past. In the UK, for example, some communities still celebrate with traditional dancing around the maypole, madrigal choirs, and the crowning of the Queen of May. Because of the Roman Catholic observance of May as a celebration to the Blessed Virgin Mary, May flowers are often placed on the heads of statues and figurines of Mary.

In some parts of the United States, “May Day” parades are still held. In more rural areas, the tradition of anonymously giving May Baskets … small collections of flowers and treats … to neighbors is still going strong. I love the idea of brightening someone’s day by leaving a basket of goodies on their doorstep, ringing the bell, and then running away. My Mom used to do that for some of the people in our neighborhood at Christmas who were alone or facing particular hard times. Guess she had the “May Day” spirit in December!

In Sweden, the country celebrates “May Day” as Vappu with crazy carnival-style street festivals. In France, there us a centuries-old tradition of men giving a sprig of lily of the valley to women in return for a kiss. In Hawaii, May 1 is “Lei Day” … not what you think!! … and since the ‘20s islanders have used this day to celebrate native Hawaiian culture.

And in other spots, contemporary “May Day” revelers have created 10K runs, vegan feasts, motorcycle and bicycle tours, streaking events, and organized skinnydipping to commemorate the day.

POINT OF RANT: Where the hell were my kisses on May 1? … I am waiting!!