Everything I Need to Know About Catholic Traditions I learned from John Bellairs

OK, maybe not, but his books were the first time I heard about the mystical traditions associated with the urim and thumim, about the Blood of Hailes, and a lot of other things that are not part of the modern school curriculum. Which tells you that Bellairs did not write down to his young readers.

I first encountered his books either through the PBS TV show Once Upon a Classic or the Saturday morning book dramatizations on one of the Big Three networks. It was The House with the Clock in its Walls, which was published in 1973. I remember it being creepy and cool, the story that is. I didn’t read the book until later, and then to my delight, the public library had a lot of Bellairs’ books with the Edward Gorey covers and interior pictures. (I met Gorey through Mystery on PBS, and then crossed paths with his Odder work here and there.) Bellairs had three main series for younger readers, all of which were Gothic mysteries with a touch of horror, and all of which I enjoyed. I suspect that’s where my “eccentric relative of main character with esoteric knowledge” sort of characters originally came from.

His three main young reader series all feature a boy and either an eccentric relative (uncle who just happens to be a wizard) or mentor (Miss Eels the librarian in the Anthony Monday books; a slightly odd professor in the Johnny Dixon stories). In each case, something has happened to the boy’s parents that either they are out of the picture (death, deployment to Korea for Dixon, financial problems so that the boy has to work for Anthony Monday). The boys rise to the occasion with some help from their mentors, and from minor characters with even more eclectic knowledge. There is spiritual danger, physical risk, mystery, all sorts of neat stuff. Evil is punished, and the merely irritating get what they deserve.

Through the books, I learned important things like, oh, how to make a Hand of Glory (please don’t try this at home), what certain relics might do, how the gems of the High Priest’s ephod related to the Ark of the Covenant (don’t try that one at home, either), the joys of dropping a drawer of a card catalogue (which I knew already, alas), and so on. Granted, some of those were probably not all that relevant to a kid growing up in the Great Plains, but one never knows.

I highly recommend the original books, those written between 1973 (House with a Clock in its Walls) and 1991. Bellairs died young, and although others have finished his existing manuscripts and expanded some of the story ideas, the reviews for those are mixed, and I have not read most of them. His adult stories are also dang creepy, well written, and fascinating.

*It turns out I was not far from Hailes Abbey. If only I had known . . . Roslyn Chapel had to suffice my itch for the Esoteric. (Go for the Katherine Kurtz stories. Skip Dan Brown. Please.)



Iron 1: Alma 0

So, on Saturday, the iron won. That 50 LB barbell was not, I repeat not, going up as far as my collar-bone, let alone over my head, no matter how good my back felt. After the third failed attempt, I returned the barbell to the rack and got the lower-weight bar, and finished the session with that one.

I was philosophic. That’s only twice now I’ve had to either dump plates (bench press) or couldn’t even start the lift. At my age, with my problems, and since i don’t have a spotter, that’s not bad at all. If I’d had a spotter, then I might have tried to do at least one shoulder press. No safety back-up, no lift. I’ve seen what happens when people get the bar up and then lose control of it. No , thank you! The next morning I was appropriately sore, but nothing new hurt, so I didn’t injure myself the previous day. That’s very good.

If you are serious about lifting, a time will come when the iron will win. It happens to all of us. You might go very well one session, and then two or three later? Nope. That mass is not going to move, or is not going to return to the rack without someone else’s help. Or in my case, without very carefully tipping the bench press bar and letting the plates slide off one side, then repeating the process on the other side. (This is why I do not use a lifting collar or weight stop on the bar.) Ideally, I’d have a spotter watching for trouble and intervening before things to too rodeo. My world isn’t ideal.

Life’s like that. There are times we fail. Sometimes we can shrug it off, change tactics, and get it done sideways (higher reps with a lighter weight to finish the day for the same total poundage lifted). At other times, it just wasn’t going to happen. We don’t have the genetics, or we’re female (lower upper body strength), or have hit the limit of what sheer determination can accomplish. I’ll never be a public historian of the stature of David McCullough. I’d love to be. I’d love his income. It’s not going to happen. I’ll never be an opera singer, or a Prix St. George-level dressage rider. But I tried, and I learned, and I enjoy what I CAN do.

I’ll go back in a few days and try the iron again. For a very long time, forty pounds was all I could press. Then it was fifty. For a long time, sixty pounds was all I could bench. Now it’s eighty five, although I might be hitting a wall because of my back. Eventually, I’ll find my natural limit. But I’ll be in a lot better shape than I would have been otherwise.

The End User Should Have the Final Say

It is my opinion, and an increasingly vehement opinion it is indeed, that certain products should not be designed by males without final say by females, and vice versa. This vehemence is inspired by a product that I use on a regular basis. It was “improved and redesigned!”

As with most things, this phrase served as a warning. The warning was well merited.

Said “improvements” reduced the comfort and usefulness of said product, moving it from “useful and about as comfortable as possible given the usage” to “uncomfortable, borderline impossible to use, and prone to self-destruction during removal from wrapper.” Happily, I was able to find a supply of the old version, and used up the last of “new and improved” with a feeling of delight at having rid myself of the odious item.

I have a strong suspicion that it was designed by an anatomical male, perhaps with the assistance of a female who did not think that other women might, perchance, wear underpinnings of a design that varied from her own. Delicacy and a certain respect for the feelings of my male readers forbids me to go into further detail. Suffice it to say that “one design works for all” failed in this case, as in so many.

Likewise, women should not design certain products used only by anatomically male individuals without having said item tested by a variety of men.

In fact, there are a number of things that obviously never, ever passed into the hands of an end user on the path between design and sale. Overly gee-whiz cars with computer displays that reduce safety by having more warnings and alerts than does an airliner, with less logic in the presentation. Certain types of packaging that require a dedicated tool to open, or the strength of Superman, or a very sharp knife that tends to slide on the plastic. Sofas and easy chairs that swallow anyone shorter than 5’8″ tall. Which also applies to movie theater seats. Overly-sensitive side airbags on pickups designed to be used in places where brush might brush against the door while the truck is in motion. Foomp! That led to the addition of a deactivation switch in the next year model and subsequent.

The statistically perfect person does not exist. Would that designers of all types remembered this.

And leave my preferred product alone unless you ask women of all sorts, who wear all different types of clothing, to test it and provide feed-back!

Fads and Angels

Does anyone else remember the fad for angels back in the late 1980s-early 1990s? It started, I think, when the “End Times are Nigh” strand of Christian thinking collided with the New Age “spirit guides and visitors,” with a dollop of free-market retail tossed in. Everyone was selling goodies with the two putti (cherubs) from the bottom of Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna”, despite multiple protests by the copyright holder. I recall angel tee-shirts, angel posters and mouse pads, and lots and lots of books about angelic spirits and summoning angelic spirits [!], and so on.

I read one or two of those books. First off, once they start presenting a list of names that goes beyond the four I’m used to – Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, and Uriel – I start getting a touch curious. Meaning that my “I sense bunkum” detector goes off, along with a quiet alarm. Then the guided meditations and cautions and hints and so on make me itch. Not all of them, especially in books that start with two chapters of warnings about “if whatever shows up does this, this, or that, run,” but most. Too much New Age, too much woo. The book about how to get angelic spirits to make you rich didn’t quite make me back away and reach for the jar of crushed garlic, but it was close.

Angels seem to have fallen out of fashion in pop-culture. I don’t see random angel stuff in shops anymore. Occasionally I still see the decorative wall crosses (which don’t do anything for me, but that’s just me), but not angels, unless it is in a shop that markets to Christians, especially certain Protestant denominations. Angels appear to be Out as pop-culture goes. In a way I’m glad, because treacly-sweet winged children in white nightgowns have never really seemed angelic, aside from church Christmas plays and so on. All the angels in the Bible, when they appear as angels, say, “Fear Not” as their first words for a good reason, at least based on the reaction of the people they appear to.

(Interestingly, fluffy pop-Wicca seems to also have disappeared. Wicca-related accessories and general books are no longer common in the New Age-type shops around here.)

I’m not quite sure what’s trendy now in terms of small, decorative items and poster art. It might be all over the map, given the huge range of things available on-line. And perhaps I’m just not going into the right shops. But I don’t see books on angels in the local bookstores, again aside from the religious bookstores, and even those are sparser than they were in the 1980s-90s.

I suspect the general decline in clearly defined religion plays a role. And fear of someone at a workplace declaring that he or she is offended by anything obviously Christian of Jewish. The darker side of pop-occult stuff, however, I do see more of: divination tools, urban fantasy and paranormal romance with strong negative occult themes, very dark jewelry and fashions. I don’t think that’s a good replacement. In my experience, people can accidentally open doors they don’t intend to, even if those doors are only into their subconscious. If they are fortunate, they just spook themselves.

I’m sort of glad that I no longer have to run a gauntlet of overly-cute angel things as I shop for cards. On the other hand, they were generally harmless as long as I didn’t brush against one and knock it over. The same can’t be said for some other things.

Soundtrack Review: The Rocketeer

Horner, James The Rocketeer 2020 remaster and 1991 original.

Way back when, Disney released a film that was pure 1930s pulp, with a fun soundtrack that included period pieces and period-sounding pieces. That movie was The Rocketeer. It was based on a comic-book series that was an homage to the pulps and adventure films of the 1920s-30s. The film is a romp, and the comics are very impressive (a full hardbound set is coming out this fall.) I’d sort of forgotten about the soundtrack until Sib-in-Law pinged me about it. It was released in 1991, re-released in 2016, and expanded and re-released last year.

James Horner (of Titanic fame, among other things), did the soundtrack. Like the film, it is great fun, and you will probably recognize the main theme, because it has been used here and there since the movie was released. The re-master includes the classic “Begin the Beguine,” well done by Melora Hardin (for the original instrumental version, see below).

The music is NOT, in general, 1930s sounding (as compared to soundtracks from actual movies of the era). It is very symphonic Hollywood, lots of soaring melodic lines and fast chase scenes, which fits the film. There are Big Band numbers as well, as befits the time and setting of a stunt pilot/barnstormer trying to romance a Hollywood starlet. (Howard Hughes appears as a character in the film, as does one of his actual aircraft designs. Those in the know laughed at that scene, or at least the pilots I know found it very entertaining.) The remastered soundtrack sounds good as either a CD or MP3.

The 2021 release includes both the later remastered version with additional songs and the two vocal numbers, and the original 1991 “theatrical soundtrack” which is shorter. The price for the MP3 file is reasonable. The prices for the CDs on Amazon started at $100.

I’d recommend this soundtrack recording for fans of the film, fans of pulp movies in general, adventure music buffs, and people looking for a fast, solid melodic recording for writing or work-outs.

FTC Notice: I purchased this soundtrack for my own use and received no remuneration from the composer or the studio.

I’m Not the Target Market

Every so often I glance through the glossy fashion magazines like Vogue or Elle. It gives me the same sense as when I read anthropology books: I’m looking into a very different culture and lifestyle. Recently, I read an article by a Korean-American woman grumbling about the twice-a-year beauty treatments she “has” to get, and about all the creams, lotions, cleansers, and other things that she “must” use.

My response was not sympathy, or agreeing that standards of beauty are terrible things and that the power of social norms must be broken. My response was “So stop doing that, stop using that stuff, and just go with the basics.” OK, she lives in NYC, so air quality and winter weather are more of a problem for her. On the other paw, she doesn’t have the “zero to natural mummy” dryness that everyone fights out here. And her job may require using all the cosmetics and having the beauty treatments, since she is a professional fashion and beauty writer. If that’s the case, then why fuss? It is part of her job. Like courtesans having to look beautiful and having to stay current on all sorts of political and economic matters, so they can entertain and discuss at the level that they are hired to do.

The clothing gives me the same reaction, although budget also comes into play. “Eight hundred dollars for a white cotton shirt?!? No lace, no beading, no fancy hand-worked trim? Ye doggies.” OK, paying a lot for a high quality leather skirt I can sort of see, because I know that high quality leather costs real money. But then I’m not the kind who can wear a leather skirt well. Form fitting and Alma do not play nicely together, and I don’t want to have to do all the upkeep required to keep a high-end leather skirt in good condition. Other women do, and good for them.

That’s a different world, where a person’s job depends on wearing the current styles, knowing the current trends, and conforming to certain standards of culture. I keep track of some of it, just to be up on culture. Sort of like I am aware of TV shows and what is popular in the gaming world, even though I don’t game and I avoid most TV. (I’m more cognisant of pop-culture than some teens and pre-teens I know. That’s . . . well, I don’t quite know what to make of it. They are in very snug niches, and seem to like it there. *shrugs tail*)

I’m not sure I’m in anyone’s market niche, unless “Victorian lady explorer academic” is a marketing category. And it doesn’t bother me. I can piece together what I like to wear, what I need to wear, the music I like (or need), and the books I want (or need). G-d bless the internet and technology for making it possible to find medieval and renaissance music, faux-Victorian clothing, good walking shoes, and more books than will fit in my house!

St. George and ANZACs

Before he was dismissed from the official list of saints, George was the patron of Greece and of soldiers. He was very popular in England. Officially his feast day is April 23, but it is observed this year on April 25, which is also ANZAC Day in Australia. It is a fitting pairing.

The “official” story about George is that he was the son of a Roman officer, and so became a soldier himself (as the law required. Martin of Tours [and of Pannonia] had to join the military even though he didn’t want to, because that was dad’s employment.) He became a Christian, refused to return to paganism, and was executed during the persecutions by Diocletian. The unofficial story involves slaying a dragon [devil] that preyed on the young woman of Silene in Libya. George did in the dragon, converted the town’s grateful residents to Christianity, and then the story either ends, or gets really off beat. I’ve only heard/seen the off-beat version once. Let’s just say that even the medieval Catholic Church expressed some qualms about George really being killed three times and coming back twice.

George is the patron saint of England and Catalonia. He is recognized and still venerated in the Orthodox Church, and is the patron of Ethiopia, Georgia, and the city of Moscow.

St. George by Raphael. https://www.raphaelpaintings.org/st-george.jsp

Then there’s a somewhat later and certainly more florid St. George.

Peter Paul Rubens. St. George. Public Domain, at the Museo del Prado, Spain.

ANZAC Day is the day set aside in Australia and New Zealand, and wherever Australian and New Zealander military forces are currently serving, to remember the dead of all the wars. The ANZACs tended to hit well above their weight class, and the mildest, most soft-spoken Kiwi can turn into a ferocious warrior when need arises.

Gurkhas honoring another group of warriors. The two often fought side-by-side. The image is from Gurhka Association website. https://www.gurkhabde.com/anzac-day-celebrations-in-australia/

April 25, 1915, marked the beginning of the Gallipoli Campaign for soldiers from Australia and New Zealand. They would also fight in South Africa, New Guinea, France, Burma, Korea, Vietnam, and wherever needed. The Australian Military History museum in Canberra was eye-opening, to put it mildly, for a Yank who had very little clue about the huge contributions Australians (and New Zealanders) made in the wars. Or the enormous price those countries paid for that effort.

When Money gets Expensive

Note: I am not an economic historian, and I am eliding a lot of monetary policy detail.

Right now, everyone is wincing at the inflation in progress in the US. Money is cheap compared to “stuff,” so the dollars per unit of stuff is going up. Most of us, I suspect, are far more familiar with inflation than deflation. Historically, inflation gets all the attention from historians. Roman emperors did it by diluting silver currency with lead or copper. Byzantine emperors did it by diluting silver currency. Spain under Charles V and Phillip II did it by accident when the treasures of the American poured into Seville and Madrid, thence into the economy of Europe to pay for the various Spanish wars. It hit again in the early 1600s when local nobles diluted silver with lead and copper.

What about deflation? If inflation’s bad for most people (like, oh, most of Europe in the 1500s-1600s), then deflation is good, yes? Prices go down, your coin buys more stuff per unit of coin, and everyone’s happy. Yes, if you are a consumer, or if you are collecting on a debt. If you are a producer of goods, or are paying off a debt, each dollar/schilling/mark you pay on that car loan is worth more and more flour/lattes/music CDs. And it takes more grain/chickens/butter/fabric to pay for each dollar in taxes. Instead of fifty bushels of wheat, now you have to pay one hundred bushels of wheat to get the same amount of coin/money.

That was the United States after the US Civil War. The country had become an industrial nation, although agriculture was still very, very important, and farmers had some political clout, if they could all get together and use it. However, it seemed to many rural people that the industrial east (steel, oil, railroads, consumer goods, the binder twine monopoly) ran both the economy and the country, to the detriment of the people actually growing and mining the stuff. Part of this lay in the US government’s insistence on a firm gold standard, with little or no coinage in silver. Money was very, very expensive. So expensive that it attracted British investors, who could make a fortune loaning money to American businesses at 10-15% interest, as compared to the 3-5% interest back in England.*

People, namely consumers and businessmen, in the urban areas did well and the standard of living was growing nicely. People who had to pay taxes in gold coin or gold-backed notes, and who produced food and fiber, felt trapped and squeezed. They paid taxes. City people didn’t. (The income tax didn’t exist. Taxes were land taxes, and import/export.) Farmers and ranchers and miners had to scrape up gold coin for taxes and other bills, even as prices they got for their grain, cattle, and fiber dropped compared to the value of that coin. With the discovery of the big silver loads in Nevada, Colorado, and California, westerners and farmers began pushing for “free silver.” They wanted a bimetallic standard, gold and silver, and cheaper (inflated) money so that they could pay their bills and prosper.

Toss in the international economic splat (Panic) in 1873, the first modern global recession, then a downturn in 1886 and the Panic of 1893, and you have three decades of lack-of-progress for some, along with growing labor unrest. On top of that, new immigrants were arriving from Central and Southern Europe. They spoke little or no English, dressed funny or seemed otherwise “Off” (Italians), tended to be Catholic or even Jewish, and worked for cheap compared to native-born Americans. Oh, and a few people in Europe were assassinating elected and hereditary rulers in the idea that if you eliminate the monarch, the government will go away and Paradise!** And Marx’s ideas were in the air, but they weren’t all that popular in the US just yet.

Out of this you get the Progressive Movement (efficiency, internationalism, experts know what is best for the rest of the people, central government over state governments) and the Populist Party, which was an outgrowth of the earlier Farmers Alliance and Farmers’ Union.*** The Populists wanted cheap money (Free Silver!), limited immigration (no Brits buying huge chunks of land that Americans needed), and more attention paid to the West and Midwest, especially to farmers’ demands. The Populists were in some cases, like the earlier Alliance, multi-racial, or tried to be. One of the reasons for Jim Crow in the South had been to keep poor whites and poor blacks from working together to oust the old elites from political power.

So inflation’s not good, deflation’s not good, and thus far, I’m not certain anyone has come up with a way to achieve “just right” for more than a few years at a time. You want a stable form of exchange that doesn’t get “watered down” with lead or copper, or that governments can’t produce through handwavium. You also need to keep that medium of exchange from becoming too expensive for people to use. Somewhere there’s a Goldilocks point of not too inflated, not too deflated, and prices for currency are just right compared to prices for stuff. Somewhere . . . Somewhere . . .

*Ever wonder why so many huge ranches were owned by English and Scottish companies? They had the cash to invest. The Swan, XIT, Rocking Chair Ranche, JA, ROW, and others all came from British money.

**The Anarchists tended to be hazy on the steps in-between, and often disagreed with each other.

***The Farmers’ Union is still around, and still somewhat active in Kansas and Nebraska and South Dakota.

Book Review: Breverton’s Phantasmagoria

Breverton, Terry. Breverton’s Phantasmagoria: A Compendium of Monsters, Myths, and Legends. (London: Quercus Publishing Plc. 2011)

Some days, or times of day, you just want something you can pick up, nibble for a page or two, then set aside. This is that sort of book. If you want to read about the Gordian Knot, the Ship of Fools, The Flying Dutchman, learn if snakes really do flee from naked men, or puzzled over the story of Prince Madoc, you can find all that and more in this book. It is great for trivia buffs, writers in search of plot seeds or McGuffins, or people who occasionally read while in the, ahem, Reading Room.

I get the feeling that Mr. Breverton collected odd bits and things, snippets and archaeology reports and mythologies and folk lore and archaeological reports a bit like a bower bird. It is a book you can read through by topic, or just open at a random page and nibble at random moments. The writing style is light and somewhat breezy. A few things I sort of shook my head at, because there’s a bit of “gee-whiz!” at times. Spaceflight in the Mahabarata? Um, I’d like to see other translations of the text. The book starts with people, then monsters and ghosts, then magical places (real and otherwise), flying monsters and odd things in the sky. Mysteries of the deep comes next, then strange artefacts and maps and stuff, treasure tales (Oak Island again), and wraps up with “is this legend true? Well, here’s what inspired it.)

All in all it is a fun book, and the two things that I back-tracked he was correct as far as sources went (did a boloid explosion do-in Soddom and Gamorrah? Quite possible, which led to my reading about something similar, at about the same time, in the Alps.)

The book is available on Kindle, but that takes some of the fun of “open to a random page” out of it. Breverton seems to be a trivia buff, because he has several more themed titles.

Two paws up.

FTC Note: I purchased this book with my own funds, and received no remuneration for this review.

Open Floor

What topics would you like to see me blog about? I was working on City, Priest, and Empire and Day Job things this weekend, and alas, my blogging brain took a day off.

I hope to push through during Spring Break and get the Merchant book done. It will be close to 100K words, making it the longest book I’ve written to date.