Saturday, January 5, 2013

Hopefully You Smell the Freedom

New Year’s Week, 2013

Miss O' with Revelers Ryan and Magda
Christmas in NYC 2012
It’s a New Year, Readers! So many resolutions to drink to, so many faces marked by imminent failure to splash with that drink! As it’s been a month off from the blog, what with an eBook to launch on Kindle and Nook (Easier to Live Here: Miss O’ in New York City, available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble, along with Miss O' in New York City on Cafe Press, featuring objects adorned with the art of Lisa DiPetto), to say nothing of Christmas followed by my mom going to the hospital (Lynne’s a tough ol’ mick, though, and all signs point to improvement, if only by force of will) and the overkill of metaphor to avoid explaining a concept (“fiscal cliff”!!!), the world is far and away too much for television, so turn off that television, won’t you? In order for your Miss O’ to take a plunge in the soup, as it were, she must first take stock and set up the Big Three items that managed to stir her pot even with all the rest of the aforementioned ingredients in order that she may [metaphor blocked for your safety].

Item the First

So on Facebook (the official site for 21st Century Philosophy), I found this update gem dashed off in the wake of so-called “fiscal cliff” hysteria; to paraphrase: “Any laws made that are not enriching my freedom are not worth considering.”

This got Miss O’ to wondering two things: 1) What is “freedom”? and 2) Isn’t it a paradox to ask for “laws” to “enrich” freedom, for how can any limit, constraint, or definition in fact free up freedom itself?

(Clearly, this is a double Scotch blog.)

Item the Second

Herewith another disturbing bit, this a visual, just prior to Christmas, the season of giving: a double picture: on the left, a photo of a pine tree, captioned, “The Season”; on the right, a crown of thorns, captioned, “The Reason.”

(I nearly vomited. Make this a triple Scotch blog.)

Who’s on Third

Finally, another visual, in propagandistic military-style all-caps of red, white, and Lady Liberty blue, this poster: “I SUPPORT MAKING ENGLISH AMERICA’S OFFICIAL LANGUAGE.”

(Fuck the glass. Leave the bottle.) And here we go, in no particular order.

First of All: It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Hearts jingle-belling, and everyone telling you, “Be of good cheer!”; chestnuts for roasting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow; scary ghost stories…

Ah! There it is. Is that a reference to the Crown of Thorns? The “reason for the season”? I thought that line referred to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with its three spirits that visit Scrooge, but maybe I was wrong, for the song continues:

Here are hammers for nailing, and stone walls for wailing, and bloodied hands spiked to a cross; there’ll be Mary who’s crying while her son is dying, all learning that God is the boss!

Did I quote that right? No, I didn’t. Because no Christmas song is about that Biblical event. (NOTE: The Messiah by Handel was in fact written for EASTER.)

Christmas makes us feel emotional…and these emotions are tied up in nostalgia for joy. Remember joy? A child is born. The birth of every child—every single child, of any race and any gender, whatever its limitations or defects or demands—is the Christmas miracle. Every child is Christ the Lord. Every child is the hope of the future, the promise of perfection, the dream that “maybe this one…” will be the light of the world. 

But even that miracle is not the “reason for the season.” No indeed. It’s really tied up in the natural world and how the cycles of nature affect us. Long ago, the ancients figured out that the winter solstice was an event, the longest night of the year—not that the 365-day construction of time had anything to do with it, and certainly not December 21. (Did you ever notice that December has its root in the number 10, and yet is the 12th month? Fun Fact, condensed version*: September, October, November, and December harken to the Latin roots for seven, eight, nine, and ten, because we do like to force 10 on everything whenever possible. However, the Romans realized this didn’t work seasonally, and so the calendar year (the Julian calendar as it came to be called) changed as they realized that it took 12 moon cycles (“months”) to go around the sun, the ol’ Caesars were given the yummiest month designations for Julius (July) and Augustus (August), thereby bumping up the other months, though keeping the names everyone was accustomed to. The previous months refer to gods—isn’t learning fun? I learned some of this in The Story of English, which is a really fascinating book, and which makes you quickly realize that English is a lot more involved than you think it is.) (Oh, and the calendar changed again under Pope Gregory XIII, to be called, ahem, the Gregorian calendar, when astronomers realized the Julian calendar was off just enough that a “leap” day was needed, because nature just doesn’t deal in round numbers—just ask pi.) (And isn’t it interesting that SOMETIMES the Church is okay with science?) *[My friend Steve is supposed to post the full, scholarly version in the Comments section, as Miss O' writes from memory, as she would in a letter to you, and hopes you realize that a LETTER is not the same as a research paper. Kisses to Steve.]

Back to the solstice: It’s dark for half the day, is the point, and how do we cheer ourselves up, we humans, on the darkest night of the year? We have a party! The Feast of the Roman Saturnalia! When did it occur? Around the winter solstice—and when you are trying to convert a bunch of Roman revelers to Christianity, you can’t do it by taking away their parties, so do you say something like, “What a coincidence! Our LORD and Savior was KILLED on the solstice! Let’s party!” or do you say, “What a coincidence, our LORD and Savior was BORN on the solstice! Let’s party!”? (Another Fun Fact**: No one knows in what the fuck month Jesus was born, nor in what month he died. The Christians picked a Friday for the latter and Easter Sunday for the Resurrection to piggyback on Passover** and the long-established festivals of the vernal equinox, a celebration of spring and fertility, symbolized in pagan tradition by those breeding rabbits and hatching eggs, a day which was chosen each year by the pagans (my people) as the first Sunday (or so) after the fourth full moon after the Saturnalia (which is roughly when spring arrives each year, as best as the ancients could tell then, since this stuff pre-dates the handy Julian or Gregorian or Hallmark calendars), and thus “Easter” is still chosen that way today. That’s why Easter moves around. Did you know that, Christians? I love learning.) **[My friend Steve is supposed to post the full, scholarly version of this, too, in the Comments section, as Miss O' writes from memory, as she would in a letter to you, and hopes you realize that a LETTER is not the same as a research paper. Kisses to Steve, again.]

Do you know what the great European symbol of the festival of the Winter Solstice was? The evergreen. You know why? Because the evergreen abounded in Europe, and because it’s evergreen and just runs with the sap of life even in the coldest and bleakest of seasons, that’s why. And it's such an awesome symbol of life, what with the green and the fresh, piney scent, people all over the world, non-Christians and Christians alike, put up trees at this time of year to this very day. And who doesn't love Santa?

Nathaniel Wangner, with mom Natalie, 
marvels at the O'Hara Christmas Tree
Christmas 2012, Woodbridge, Virginia

The call of LIFE is the reason for the season: Pine trees, chestnuts, mead, blazing hearths, presents, fruitcake (the everlasting food!), comfort, and goddamned JOY are the reason for the season. Put up the manger! Unto us a child is born! Just please understand it’s not a Christian child exclusively. And pass the mulled wine.

Next Up: It’s Official: Jesus Spoke English, and So Should You

In 1417, King Henry V of England made English the language of record in his government. According to The Story of English, this accident that is the English language—a dialect that combined the languages of a variety of island conquerors, including the Angles and Saxons (German), the Jutes (Danish), the Vikings (Norwegian), the Romans (Latin and, by extension, Greek), and the “native” Gaelic (or Gallic)—was the vernacular spoken by the common man who resided on that island. Geoffrey Chaucer even wrote a book in this Anglaise (later to be referred to by scholars as Middle English) called The Canterbury Tales ca. 1390 (for comparison: 200 short years later you have Shakespeare), though all educated noblemen and noblewomen spoke and wrote in French, and all the Christian (Catholic) clergy spoke and wrote in Latin. When Henry went to war to claim the French throne as his own, he realized the only way the officers could communicate with the troops against the French was to speak Anglaise, and with that a new language took hold! To cement its success: Empire expansion, to say nothing of the genius of William Shakespeare, globalized this crazy accident of a language in a way no one could have imagined.

The future United States of America, as we learned in school, was one of those colonies of the English Empire. Along with the French and the Spanish, who also had navies and aspirations to gold, the English set out to take and take and take, and like the Spanish and the Portuguese and the French, killed and killed and repatriated and converted and enslaved and moved around like pawns the native peoples of the lands they stole. It’s a long and ugly story, and it’s global, and you can read about it all you want. And you should. So here we are today, in the United States of America, whose government uses one of the languages of the conquistadors, English, as its language of government record. This is not to say that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have not been translated into every written language known to mankind, because doubtless they have, and yet the language of record here in America is English.

That said, half of the hemisphere in which the United States is situated speaks and writes not in English but in the languages of two other conquistadors (and really, is there an English equivalent for that word that's as awesome?), Spanish and Portuguese. The languages of record in those nations are Spanish and Portuguese. In French-speaking nations such as Haiti, the government docs are in French; and in countries with two heritages, such as Canada, the government documents are in two languages. It’s amazing how infinitely flexible the human mind can be when it comes to learning shit, multiple languages included.


“We have everything in common with the Americans nowadays, except, of course, the language.” So spaketh Oscar Wilde upon returning to England from his American lecture tour. And was he wrong?

The English language really should be spoken of as Englishes, for there are many: American Southern is astonishingly different from the English of South Boston. East Enders in London used to be unintelligible to Oxford dons (and vice versa—wait, that's Latin...), though television may have changed that. Formal grammarians and scholars have banded together at conferences to “regularize” and “standardize” the various Englishes of the U.S., Great Britain, Australia, and other “English”-speaking places. But that is not what either poster up there is getting at, is it?

Such a poster is about hating Spanish speakers. And Mandarin speakers. And Japanese speakers. And Swahili speakers. But mostly it’s about demonizing Spanish-speaking people. And to people who promote hatred, I say, “Fuck you.”

Ha, ha!

Oh, the complexity of this hating issue: The U.S., for example, was originally inhabited by millions of people who spoke varieties of what we’ll call Native American languages. After being killed off mostly by European diseases brought to these shores by people led by an Italian-speaker, who must also have spoken Spanish (as it was for Spain he arrived), these native languages lost ground. Later, various English religious groups began colonizing the place, and we know how that turned out. The English-speakers then went to war with French-speakers and Spanish-speakers for control of the land. And then a lot of those French-speakers as well as immigrants who spoke German (known as Pennsylvania Dutch) took the “American” side and went to war against the Mother of English, and a new land was born, a land which had been primarily built by speakers of African languages who had been brought here by force; a land whose government one day imported Chinese men to build its railways; a land whose people went on to begin their own empire-style expansions around the globe, thus opening its ports for the arrival of the poor and the beaten, all of whom spoke anything but English (unless you count my people, the Irish), but who worked to learn the new Mother Tongue, goddammit—for it is swear words everyone learns first—and changed the language, too.

America, you see, incorporated these languages into its language of record: boss and tote are African, for example; deli is German; schtick is Yiddish; laissez-faire is French; like is Atrocious. In turn, English words have been sent around the world, the largest export being OK, to be followed, no doubt, by like, and right?, right?

But let me step back. Maybe English is being corrupted by Other Languages. Maybe we Americans are being forced to speak non-English without even realizing it! When I type some things in a foreign language, my Spell Check does not even do a red or green zig or zag! I type French expressions such as esprit de corps, objet d’art and joie de vivre and they are not even considered misspellings in Microsoft Word!! Let me try Spanish: Hasta la vista, three amigos, and guacamole—and holy guacamole, these, too, do not turn up as misspellings in the Merriam-Webster English Dictionary!!! What goes on?

What is happening to our SACRED ENGLISH LANGUAGE????

Oh, wait. It’s LIVING. English is a living language. Most languages, outside of Latin, are. (Look back at the history up there: English is not even English, for crying out loud.) As we are perpetually relearning our own languages (dis as a verb comes quickly to mind), is it really too much to ask that we humans learn more than one language for our global world to move forward? I think not. I love French. My brother Mikey loves ancient Latin and Greek. We in the Western Hemisphere really ought to learn Spanish as well as English, and surely we all could do with some education in Chinese and Hindi, what with the over 2 billion speakers of it we keep outsourcing our American jobs to, and all. To scream about an “official” language is to miss the point of language entirely, it seems to Miss O': We speak and write to communicate as needed (I write to figure out what I think about stuff and why it is bothering me, as well as to say hello, thus producing this blog thing); we learn the language of the majority when we want to succeed in the majority culture on its terms; and when people want to feel at home they learn the language of the people around them. Some people live their entire lives speaking only one language, and it may or may not be the language of government record in the country where they reside. (I can promise you, almost no one under the age of 25 today in New York City is speaking an English I would call my own.) And yet, we survive. It’s, like, amazing.

To take another example: The Bible was first written in Hebrew. And then it was made Latin. And then Popes who spoke and read Latin had people who spoke and read English burned at the stake for translating the Bible from Latin into English (because this is what happens when we start going all “official” when it comes to languages, and what the fuck is a LANGUAGE, you stake-torching dumbasses, but a way to TALK to each other, for the love of Christ), until the clergy finally stopped burning the English-promoters for blaspheming God and His Word with that awful, awful English language, and started a new English (and Mandarin and Swahili and Pick a Language) Bible business. And yet even today I hear American Christians—these same people who believe in being missionaries—lamenting church services in America being held in Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, or Hindi, just to name a few. Huh? That services are held in ENGLISH is astonishing, given the history, which I really think everyone should read up on. I've barely scratched the papery surface here. (Karen Armstrong’s The History of God will blow your mind.)

Oh, and Jesus spoke Hebrew.

Last, Though Not Least in Love: Free, Falling

Seasonal Store Window, NYC,
photo by Frances Storey, 2012

Free will: As we all know, from the moment we are each of us sloshed out of a mother’s womb, we are free. From the very second when mom bites off that umbilical cord and tosses the placenta into the brush, left as we are lying wherever the hell we landed, thus begins the long, arduous struggle of fending for ourselves. We have no memory of this (our minds are free!), and no muscle control with which to move (the movements are FREE!) and nor have we the ability to bring ourselves to a food source (we starve freely!), and so, within hours or inside of three days, we all die. C’est le guerre, c'est la liberté!

Our mothers are free, you see: Once the burden of the bairn is born, the carrier, who was free never to be impregnated to begin with (according to a few American Congressional experts), is free to walk away. Fortunately, for We the Free, we none of us are encumbered with physical, emotional, or spiritual shackles to bind us to the earth or to anyone or anything in it. We are FREE. FREE. FREE.

Sing your freedom! Tell it from the mountaintops! Tell a hurricane-force wind that you are free. Tell an erupting volcano that you are free. Tell a herd of stampeding buffalo that you are free. Tell 140-degree heat under full desert sun that you are free. Tell the hooded and robed fellow carrying the sickle who greets you at the Death hour that you are free, free, free to live for-fucking-ever!

Tell caged zoo animals that they are free. Tell the Democrats held hostage by the 112th Republican Congress that they are free.

Listen, now, as the man or woman you love more than life itself tells you that you are free now and go love someone else. Feel how FREE you are!

Feel the circulation in your hands disappear freely as the police cuff your wrists for masturbating in a public park to pictures of naked children! You are FREE!

Sweat—freely!—as the jam-packed subway on which you are riding comes to a screeching, indefinite halt in the middle of the mile-long tunnel under the East River, and cover yourself in salty rivulets of FREE. Not merely must you sweat, but also you should weep.

For you’ll be weeping, all right. And it won’t be from Freedom.

So what is this goddamned fucker called Freedom? Because if there is one word aside from like that your Miss O’ has fucking HAD it with, it’s Freedom, with a capital fucking F.

I could do a little song and dance routine called The Usual Liberal Causes by that Progressive Girl on the Go and her Band, Miss O’ and Her Tapping Keyboard, but what, really, would be the point? This question of Freedom goes beyond allowing polluting power plants or banks to be free of government regulations, or setting wage earners free from paying taxes, or making our bodies free from government-supported healthcare, or closing our free ears to (illegally spoken) Spanish.

(Note: In America, we think so small. Does it seem that way to you? So, so, so tiny. It’s embarrassing how tiny the American mind (and what it can compass) has become.)

Allow me to put this another way. To the Parents: Do you let your children free each morning to go where they want, eat what they want, do what they want? No?

Because here are the hard questions about Freedom: Should a child molester be free to molest children? Should a rapist be free to rape? Should a serial killer be free to kill serially? Should oppressors be free to oppress? Should a gunman be free to gun down anyone he feels like gunning down? Should a corporation like Monsanto be allowed to genetically modify and own the patents to all the seeds of all the world's foods, freely (because they are)?  And should all our justice, so-called, be vigilante-style?

If the answer to any of these questions is, in your mind, YES, then I would like to be free to destroy you, too, in whatever manner I freely feel like using. Today, I choose words, and the words are these: You are an idiot.

I'm so tired. Aren't you? For by 2013, for the love of fuck, you’d think we’d realize that staring down Nature herself is quite enough of a challenge for ANY human being, wouldn’t you? But no. Let’s melt some more Arctic ice. And bully some gays. And murder some kids. Call it Freedom, if it pleases you, but really it's Disease.

And so on the Eighth Day, there was a government, of the people, by the people, and for the people, so that some random asshole can’t freely destroy the freedoms of others without paying a collectively agreed-upon price for it. And it’s messy, and tormented, and uneven, and unfair, and money-grubbing, and complicated, this government (which we created in our own image, I might add), but it’s ours, and it’s there for a goddamned reason.

Now, celebrate the capacity to make it. There's your goddamned freedom.

Created 2012 by Lisa O'Hara and Lisa DiPetto, and my friend Steve

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Tomorrow, January 6, is the Feast of the Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas. That old English carol celebrates, as one might imagine, the act of feasting, as each of the items mentioned is a term for some kind of fowl. (I just learned that this very year.) The carol celebrates abundance as well as the fun of singing about it in a round of repeated phrases, frontwards and backwards and in my lady’s chamber. It's fun.

You know what’s more fun than “fun”? Work. Doing work you love alongside and for people you love. When we have an epiphany, it more or less comes down to that realization: Doing work we love for those we love and with those we love is as good as life gets here on Earth. Dogs and cats and horses and chickens should be involved. And music. A dinner. And color and light and a hearth. A pot of tea. Some mead.

Lift your cup. Look about you. Look inside you. Really look. It’s the reason for the season, in any language.

Miss O' in her NYC apartment, where a party begins.
Photo by George Lightcap, 2012

Love and Happy New Year from Miss O’


  1. Love this. And like Eat, Pray, Love, the first part was my favorite. (I know you're surprised I liked eating in Italy and debunking Christian myths the best).

    You'll love to know that my mother told me she was so happy that the priest told her she didn't have to take her Christmas decorations down until the 13th because that was when Jesus was baptized. January 13th. Who knew? So the stockings for Santa and the poinsettias and the tree and the snowmen, and all the other symbols of the reason for the season get a reprieve thanks to the January 13th baptism of her Lawd and Save-ya. Nifty.

    Don't forget to send me a Merry Baptism card!

    1. God love you. God love Nancy. January 13 is FREEDOM to me. XO

  2. From Steve Smith:
    *A slight correction or two on the calendar, with more fun facts. The Romans did start with a 10-month calendar--the only thing a farming people needs to know about winter is when it ends; why bother counting the days? Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Iunius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, December: Mars, god of war and agriculture; possibly "aperire", to open; Maia, a minor goddess; possibly Juno, goddess of marriage; 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. (Practical people, the Romans.) Early on--supposedly during the reign of King Numa Pompilius--Ianuarius and Februarius were the end of the year. (It's clear they should have been at the beginning, what with a month named for the god of doorways.) The Romans were terribly, terribly, TERRIBLY conservative; the year started in March, and that's that. It was centuries before the year started on Jan. 1. (I'm pretty certain it was well before Caesar, however.)

    The biggest problem with basing the year on the sun AND the moon, as we all know, is that 28 and a bit does not go into 365 and a different bit AT ALL. Most lunar calendars have whole months added at regular intervals to keep everything more or less in step. (The Moslem calendar is, as I recall, simply lunar, which is why Ramadan drifts all over the plrhe ace.) The Romans varied the month lengths in the 28-30 range, but they also manipulated them shamelessly. The religious officials had the authority to add intercalary days as needed; how many intercalary days often depended on how much those oifficials liked the magistrates, who served one year terms.

  3. More from Steve:
    Long story short(ish): an easily and frequently manipulated calendar is nobody's friend, and by the first century BCE the civil calendar was off by, of, 3 months or so. One of JC's best reforms was, as you mention, the calendar. The year would start on Jan. 1; months would be fixed at either 30 or 31 days, with the exception of Feb. at 28. The best astronomical research of his day put the year at 365.25 days, so every four years there was one additional day: for some reason, they simply repeated what we would call Feb. 23. To get the civil and solar calendars back on speaking terms, there was a transitional year of 445 days (sometimes referred to as the Year of Confusion). Any specific dates before then, we can't be sure about.

    Months 5 and 6 were soon named after JC and Augustus, but none of the later name changes ever stuck. So, yes, the ninth month was called Seventh Month, and so on. I did say they were conservative... (They were masters of "if it ain't broke...": the same prayers, the same rituals, performed year afte year in the same way, even when the Romans no longer knew what the words meant. This was part of their agreement with their gods, who offered peace, victory, and prosperity if the Romans kept up their end of the bargain. It worked and worked and worked until the third century CE, when the empire was beset by civil strife, rampant inflation, and epidemics. What could the problem be? Perhaps...that group of people who refuse to offer even a pinch of incense, mutter a half-hearted prayer, not try to interrupt the ancient rituals which had to be started again if the celebrant was distracted? Perhaps they have offended the gods and are endangering the safety and prosperity of everyone else? Perhaps we should just kill them... The most virulent persecutions are associated with what we call the Crisis of the Third Century. Ahem.)

    A far better system (back to the calendar), but with one hitch: the year ain't 365.25 days, but actually a tad shorter. Gregory's astronomers in teh 1580s recalculated the length, and found that an additional day every 4 years was 3 too many over 400 years; hence our rule of every 4 years, except ofr century years not divisible by 400. Now we're good for 10,000 years, I think. (Not everyone adopted at the same time: Catholic countries followed suit immediately; Protestant countries dragged their feet, with England waiting until the 1750s; Orthodox countries...let's just say that the October Revolution of 1917 took place in November.)

    **A lot of the Easter trappings are from spring festivals, but the whole thing was tied from the beginning to Passover as well, which was already in the spring. Christmas, on the other hand...Luke's narrative points to springtime (the shepherds being in the fields at night, I think), not long after the lambs were born. December was a conscious choice to Christianize all the various festivals around the solstice--the early Church was very canny about this: if you can't get the people to give up their festivals, appropriate them, and replace the dininities with oddly similar saints if necessary. (The Parthenon survived for centuries because it went from being the temple of Athena the Maiden to a church dedicated to Mary, and later it was a mosque. It wasn't until the 1690s that the interior was blown out and the roof off: the Turks were storing gunpowder there, and a stray Venetian shell hit it. Boom. We have an eyewitness engraving. Cool sidebar of Athena being replaced by Mary: there is a painting somewhere of German tanks advancing on a Greek village, and an apparition of Mary driving them off the road; the imagery is clearly that of Athena Promachos, She Who Fights in the Front Ranks.)