Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

On Harriet

Some years ago, columnist and author Regina Brett spoke to one of my English classes at Ursuline about being a columnist and author. When asked what made her decide to become a writer, she gave an answer that took my by surprise... she said she decided when she was 10 and read Harriet the Spy. This took me by surprise because I decided to write when I was 10 and read Harriet the Spy. In the new version of Mr. Deeds, Winona Ryder's character, Babe, credits Harriet the Spy with her decision to become a reporter, and a quick Internet search tells me that the three of us are far from the only ones.
So what is it about Harriet? Harriet is an upper class girl living in 1960s New York City with no parents to speak of - flaky strangers who barely know her name, and a nanny who, though wise and deeply supportive, is about as maternal as a rock. Left alone every day after school, she wanders through the city spying on folks - through skylights, from dumbwaiters, in back alleys, and writing down her observations. She writes down her observations about friends and family too, and none of it is particularly nice. She writes things like "I bet that lady with the cross-eye looks in the mirror and just feels terrible," and "My mother is always saying Pinky Whitehead's whole problem is his mother... Does his mother hate him? If I had him, I'd hate him."
The thing is, I had nothing really in common with Harriet. We weren't rich, my parents weren't flaky absentee parents, I didn't really write, and I didn't spy. So what was it?
I guess it starts with the things Harriet writes. Harriet writes the things that everybody thinks but nobody admits they think. Well she writes the things I think and don't admit I think anyway. And she doesn't fit in - not because of anything external or because of a conscious choice but because she just isn't like others and can't seem to force herself to be. She's driven by loneliness, by a desire to be something and someone else, to break out of what's expected, not because she wants to, but because she's meant to.
Harriet dresses like a boy in a time when that isn't done. She crawls around like a spy while her classmates take dance classes and talk about boys. She wants a career when women in her time and place were supposed to want to be wives and mothers and go to parties.
I think that's why Harriet has appealed to so many folks. We all think things we're not supposed to think and hate being hemmed in by arbitrary rule and expectations, and we're all meant to do things that everybody thinks we shouldn't do.

So how about you, readers? What book inspired you to be who you are?

Glasses, hoodie, notebook, bad posture, sneakers... yeah, this could entirely be a line drawing of me.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


Pontificate: To carry on in a pompous or dogmatic fashion. Derived from pontiff, or popePontiff comes from French, for high priest, from Latin pontifex, a "supreme college of priests." Probably, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, from pons, for bridge and facere, for make. Bridge maker. 
Pons also gives us pontoon, a word for a flat-bottomed boat which shows up in French in 1676. A hundred years later, the term pontoon bridge shows up - this is a bridge, usually temporary, that floats on the surface of the water. So even though pontoon bridge is derived from pontoon boat, pontoon is derived from pons, the word for bridge. Did your head just totally explode?
Our word bridge comes from the old English brycge, meaning bridge, which seems to come from a word from one of English's ancient ancestors, bhru, meaning log, or beam
Halfway down this rabbit hole, it occurred to me to wonder if Brigid, my name, was etymologically related to bridge. It's not. But that would be cool. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Just hear those sleigh bells ring-a-ling

Last year, Garrison Keillor delivered a grumpy and borderline bigoted editorial about how Christmas belongs to the Christians and everybody else, specifically the Unitarians and the Jews, should "buzz off." Jews, in particular, should stop writing "dreck" (like White Christmas, I guess). I'm not 100% sure he wasn't being ironic, but I'm about 99.9%. And while I could rant on this all day, I have just a reflection instead.
What Keillor says struck me as odd because really, the Christians were just about the last ones to come to the holiday party, and about 99% (all right, I pulled that number out of nowhere, but I bet it's close) of the stuff we typically associate with Christmas comes from other faiths. While you could see this as an example of Christianity hijacking other faiths, I actually think it's kind of nice, the way cultures have melded around this time of year.
I heard a sermon once that whether we believe in Christmas or Hanukkah or Solstice or Festivus or just a day off work, what we all know in our hearts is that this time of year is sacred. Maybe it's intrinsically sacred, or maybe it's because we all decided it was, or maybe it's sacred because of the loved ones with whom we share it. And one thing we all seem to have in common is light. Christians celebrate Christ bringing light to the world. Folks who celebrate Solstice celebrate the fact that the days are from here on out will be longer - that the world will become bright again. Hanukkah is the festival of light. I'm certainly pro-light, whatever else.
Speaking of which, as somebody mentioned in the comments a while back, the only thing we know about the date of Christ's birth, really, is that it probably didn't happen on December 25th. The Bible doesn't make any mention. However, since the Bible says that shepherds were watching over their flocks by night, and since shepherds at the time only kept their watch at night was in the spring, it's not looking good for December. Now some Biblical scholars have said that the reason we celebrate on the 25th is that if you assume that god created light four days after the vernal equinox (and really, why would you think anything else?), then obviously, Christ was conceived on March 25th, meaning he'd have been born 9 months later on December 25th. But that seems a bit of a reach to me.
Most people figure that Christians started celebrating the birth of their lord in late December because they felt left out, what with all the other feasts and festivals at the time. Early Christians might even have been trying to compete with the cult of Mithra, who celebrated the birth of their infant god of light, in a cave or a stable, on the same day.
So I mentioned how few of the things we do at Christmas were originated by the Christians. For example, Santa Claus and all his other incarnations are probably descended from the god Odin in Germanic mythology, who flew through the sky at Christmas time delivering presents to people who have been good and punishments to people who have been bad. Odin was often depicted as an old dude with a long white beard. There's also a nice lady called The Grandmother in Italy who went around sticking presents inexplicably in people's socks. Martin Luther, in an effort to oust St. Nick, came up with Christkind. Christkind, said to represent the baby Jesus, skips the middle men and delivers presents himself. It's from Christkind that we get Kris Kringle. Incidentally, in most of Europe, Santa lives not at the North Pole but in the mountains of Korvatunturi in Lapland, Finland. North pole's better.
So Christmas trees originally belonged to the Druids, what with their tree worshiping. They also introduced us to garland and holly. Other pagans contributed the yule log, mistletoe, and many of the foods we associate with Christmas, like gingerbread men (probably descended from a Saturnalia tradition of eating people-shaped biscuits for no apparent reason). Gift-giving also happened at Saturnalia.
So there you have it - our lovely ecumenical coming together of customs to create one lovely megaholiday that doesn't belong at all to one group or another.

Most of this comes from a, but also Wikipedia and my brain.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

It won't be long before we'll all be there with snow.

Just in case you're as sick of hearing about Christmas songs as I, I thought tonight I'd write about something else I'm a little sick of just now: snow.
It is, I learned just now, a myth that Eskimos have 500 words for snow, according to Word Myths by David Wilton. For one thing, Eskimo is a blanket term that people who aren't from arctic regions have made up to describe the many different groups of people who live in the arctic. So there is no Eskimo language, first of all, there are just a bunch of languages that people whom we consider Eskimos speak. Also, there aren't 500 words for snow. Somebody back at the turn of the last century reported that Eskimos have like, 4 words for snow, and then somebody else said 7, and then inflation happened and now it's all Eskimos talk about. People in arctic regions do have a bunch of words for the different types of snow - sleet, slush, hard pack, etc. But then so do we. 
Now I've heard, and maybe Wilton will go on to prove me wrong as I continue to read, that ancient Greeks had no word for religion, because religion just was. Just so much a part of life you didn't need a word for it. You'd think, then, that arctic peoples would, in fact, have no word for snow.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Secular Songs

  • White Christmas was written by Irving Berlin, who was Jewish. He also wrote Easter Parade.
  • Mel Torme and Robert Wells wrote The Christmas Song on a sizzling hot day in July as they attempted to keep themselves cool by thinking winter thoughts. Mel Torme was also born Jewish.
  • I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas was penned by Satan himself, and he forces radio station managers to play this abomination every year or risk eternal damnation.
  • Every year, PNC Bank issues a Christmas Price Index in which they calculate the value of all of the items listed in The 12 Days of Christmas. This year, it's $23,439, up 9.2% from last year. The TARP Price Index tells us that PNC bank recieved 7.6 billion smackers as a gift from the American taxpayer in 2008.
  • Christmas songs that don't mention Christmas: Jingle Bells, Winter Wonderland, Baby it's Cold Outside, Frosty the Snowman and Jingle Bell Rock. Apparently this is part of the war on Christmas and not, you know, evidence that people like other things about winter other than Christmas.
  • The Feast of Stephen referred to in Good King Wenceslas is actually December 26th. Another attack in the war on Christmas?
  • The Christmas Shoes is, in fact, the most cloying manipulative song ever written, Christmas or otherwise. Seriously? 
  • O, Christmas Tree is okay I guess, but it can't hold a candle to Mr. Rogers' moving tribute to trees, Tree Tree Tree. The lyrics are as follows:
    Tree tree tree
    Tree tree tree
    Tree tree tree
    Tree tree tree
    Not my hero's finest hour.
  • Other Christmas songs composed by Jews: We Need a Little Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, Silver Bells (famously recorded by Kenny G, also Jewish), 
Sources include this, Wikipedia, PNC Bank's Web site, the great filing cabinet that is my mind.
Seriously, the empty apartment upstairs' smoke alarm has been going off since 9 last night. It woke me up at five. I'm considering stabbing myself in the ears.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Silent Night

One Christmas Eve in Oberndorf, Austria, the pastor of a small church discovered that the church organ was broken, the bellows eaten by mice. With no time to fix it, the plucky pastor composed a song to be played on the guitar, and that night performed Silent Night for the first time. The song was promptly forgotten and would have been lost to history had not an organ repairman found the manuscript lying around and brought it to the masses.
Or that's the story I always heard. Sadly, according to this guy and every other source I consulted, the story of the first Silent Night is somewhat more mundane. One Christmas Eve, Fr. Joseph Mohr, associate pastor at the aforementioned small church in Oberndorf, Austria, brought a poem he'd written to the home of Franz Gruber, the church's choir director. He asked Gruber to add a melody to the song that could be played on the guitar. The composers continued to perform the song, so it was not forgotten at all, but it's true that an organ repairman found the manuscript and disseminated it far and wide. I spelled disseminated right on the first try.
Still, it's pretty impressive they slapped the thing together on New Year's Eve.
Now, if you've ever set foot inside a church in the month of December, you know the story of Christmas in the trenches, but I love it, so you get to hear it again.
It's Christmas Eve, 1914, and the English, French and Germans are all huddled in their trenches, frozen, terrified, and miserable. Suddenly out of the silence came the voice of one of the German soldiers singing:
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

The French joined in, singing:
Nuit bénit, nuit de silence!
Tout est calme en brilliance
Autour de la vièrge et son fil,
Nouveau-né, tendre est il.
Dors en paix de cieux;
Dors en paix de cieux.

And the English chimed in:
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

It was a silent night - the noise of artillery and shelling stopped, and the men came out of the trenches to celebrate the holiday together.
And then after Christmas they all went back to killing each other.
Here's my favorite recording of the hymn.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

Last week in choir rehearsal, we noticed that the lyrics to the hymn It Came Upon a Midnight Clear aren't quite so Jesus-y as most Christmas songs; and in fact they're kind of weird and depressing. See below.
Now Unitarians do have an annoying habit of changing the lyrics of songs to be more Unitarian, but that didn't seem to be the case here. In fact, I learned upon looking into it, It Came Upon The Midnight Clear is an honest-to-god Unitarian hymn written by a real live Unitarian, Edmund Hamilton. I mean, he's not alive anymore, because he wrote it in 1849, but he was a real live Unitarian minister when he wrote it.
This hymn is interesting among hymns in general and Christmas hymns in specific because it's not particularly warm or fuzzy when you actually pay attention. They're a call to action and a reflection of a grim and frightening reality, rather than describing some idyllic peaceful time in the future or in the past.
I wonder if the song serves to reflect the quandary in which many Unitarians found themselves in the America of the 1850s. Unitarians were vocally opposed to war, but they were also very opposed to slavery. As tensions between the North and South rose and anti-slavery activists were taking more and more direct action, it must have been hard for anybody who loved peace and hated slavery to know what actions and words to choose. 
I like the message of this song. I like that it reminds us not just of Christs' birth, but his message.
I'll be profiling a few more Christmas hymns over the next couple of weeks. Or that's the plan anyway. Any requests?

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
"Peace on the earth, goodwill to men,
From heaven's all-gracious King."
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.
Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O'er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o'er its Babel sounds
The blessèd angels sing.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
And ye, beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

What I've Learned

Esquire has this feature where they take famous people and interview them to ask them what they've learned. They present the thing in a bulleted list and title it What I've Learned. Here's an example.
No I'm neither famous nor particularly wise, and this has nothing to do with the central premise of my blog, but I'm also vain and don't care. I'm going to tell you what I've learned, Esquire style.

  • It doesn't matter whether the glass is half-empty or half-full. It matters that I have the good fortune of having enough to drink.
  • Saying you have no regrets is an insult to everyone you've ever hurt. I've hurt a lot of people and I hope I never stop regretting that.
  • When you say that democrats or Unitarians or liberals or feminists are communists, fascists, stupid, man-haters or assholes, you're calling me and the people I love communist, fascist, stupid, man-hating assholes. Whether you intend to or not. If I said the same about Republicans or conservatives or fundamentalists, I'd be deeply insulting many people whom I deeply love. I hate name-calling. It's a sign you can't think of anything valid to say.
  • Cats are therapy, comedy, space-heaters, heating pads, and unconditional love all rolled into one. I don't care if that makes me a crazy cat lady.
  • Thirty years ago last week, Sr. Dorothy Kazel and three other women, Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, and Jean Donovan were raped and murdered by members of El Salvador's military. Their crime was having the audacity to give aid and comfort to oppressed people and to tell them that they had rights. Sr. Dorothy taught at my high school before going to El Salvador, and I saw her picture at the top of the stairs every morning. I think of Sr. Dorothy Kazel every day of my life and hope to hell I will live up to her legacy. 
  • The other day I thought of my friend Ebony who died several years ago and looked at the clock. It was 3 p.m. This was the longest I have gone without thinking of Ebony since she died, and I still feel a little bad about it. I worry I'm a better friend to her in death than I was in life.
  • The lack of a filter between my brain and my mouth has made my life infinitely more interesting. 
  • I'm a cynic who has way too much compassion for her own good. I'm the kind of person who resents the dude who tells you some absurd lie about how his mom died and his car broke and his child just exploded, but then gives him money anyway, just in case. I mean, it would be a total dick move if his baby did just explode and I didn't bother to help him.
  • When I ask you how you're doing, I actually do care how you're doing. 
  • My mom is the prettiest lady I know.  

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Gretch Who Saved the War on Christmas
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

It seems like everything that can be said about the "War on Christmas" is being said by folks a lot more clever and witty than I, so I'll go about this in a not so witty way. 
Part way through the clip, Stewart points out that you just have to look around to see that Christmas is the dominant cultural event - it's everywhere. It's not in any danger.
But that made me think; maybe that, the ever more iridescent and over-the-top displays of Christmas spirit are the problem. I mean, what could be less Christ-like than a crowd at Wal-Mart stampeding someone to death to get the best price on toner and Tickle Me Elmo? 
Anyone who has ever worked in retail or food service knows that Christmas shopping turns even normally nice customers into cruel, vicious assholes who treat others worse than I'd like to treat the freaking mouse that's making merry under my fridge as we speak. What could be less Christ-like than that?
I mean, if I were Christ, I'd be a lot less worried about who is and is not kissing my ass on my birthday than I would be about the kids who will starve to death on my birthday. I'd be more worried about the women who will be raped on my birthday, the acts of torture that will occur, the alarming up-tick of incidents of domestic violence around my birthday. 
I'd probably be more worried about the hundreds of thousands dying in wars all over my beloved planet than an imagined war in which not a single person has been hurt or died. And I'd be worried, more than anything, about how many people could get my message of love, peace, and tolerance so horrifically screwed up. On my birthday no less.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Have a PC holiday

Stay tuned for my own thoughts on the war on Christmas. 

What's this empire coming to? Now they want us to stop greeting people with, `Io, Saturnalia.' `We have all these different cultures in Rome,' they tell us. `We shouldn't offend anyone,' they tell us. `We should be inclusive. We've got the barbarians from the north with their tree decorations and their fire rituals, and the weirdos from Gaul cutting mistletoe with a golden sickle, and the Mithraists, the Zoroastrians, the Isis cults and, of course, those characters that hang out in the catacombs.' `Hail, winter,' we're supposed to say. I ask you, what next? We lose the feast? We stop the solstice parties? No more honoring Ops, goddess of abundance?

I was buying some candles and greenery down by the Forum the other day and there's old Macrobius with some Visigoth chick, and she goes, `Good yule.' So I go, `Hey, in this country, we say, "Io, Saturnalia." Maybe you should go back from where you came from.' Then Macrobius goes, `She can't; she's a slave.' Whatever. At this time of year, the Visigoths sacrifice a pig and burn a special log which they then dance around instead of acting like normal people and going to the temple of Saturn.

I swear, I was at this party over at Septima Commodia's house the other day--she always has a Saturnalia party--anyway, she decorated the place with prickly green leaves. `It's holly,' she said, `the latest fashion from Britannia. They all do it over in Londinium.'

It gets worse. She had this statue of some goddess from Ultima Thule or somewhere--name of Frigga--sitting right there on the dining room mensa. I mean, this is darn near blasphemous. I'd be scared of what the lorries(ph) and penatties(ph) would do if I put that thing in my house. But Septima Commidia just said, `Oh, get over it. We're cosmopolitan around here.'

Cosmopolitan; that's what they call it. Well, by Jupiter, I live in Latium, I'm a Roman and this empire was founded on the principle that the gods, our gods, must be honored at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way. None of this foreign heretical nonsense or these strange customs from Germania or Hibernia or Palestine. I say, `Io, Saturnalia,' and if you don't like it, you can leave.

Diane Roberts, first aired on NPR

Saturday, December 4, 2010

From back in the day

I wrote this a long time ago, back when I wrote things that were raw and meant things. I was looking for something else, but I thought this was an interesting of a snapshot of a life that used to be mine. I wrote this after the head shop before the group home. The group home they weren't animals and I wasn't safely behind anything. It wasn't a joke anymore, and it's not a joke now. But this is where I was then.
Be warned, here there be f-bombs.

Working at that headshop, it was lot like being at the zoo. They come in, and they do their crazy junkie act, and we watched casually from the other side of the glass. Awww, look what the crackhead is doing now. It was a joke, when they'd come in and ask "do you got any Pry-rex?" It's not a joke. It's a fucking tragedy.
I started working there because it was a life I knew nothing about. I mean, I've known a thousand and one potheads, and a handfull of coke heads, and some dealers, and nothing about that life was attractive to me. Heads, junkies, addicts, they used to make me so sad. And then they were just funny.
Not that we didn't understand the gravity of the situation. Not that we didn't care. But how do you react when there's a methhead bouncing all over your store, just certain if she uses the right codeword, we'll open up the world of unbreakable glass pipes that she knows we have, hiding somewhere. And meanwhile she gets more and more jumpy and you're more and more terrified, and you just want her to be a joke. Look what the meth head will try to get high.
We had a lady one day, she'd just done a ten year sentence for crack. The first thing she does is come to the head shop. She starts out calm, but we keep telling her no, we don't carry that. And she gets more and more terrified with the realization that she won't score (or, more likely, she will, but she'll burn her lips off trying to smoke a rock out of a car antenna). Look at the crackhead. Maybe she'll do some tricks.
It's a fucking tragedy.
And in the name of experiencing life, I watched them like monkies in cages. Look at the cokehead dance.
Please do not cross the yellow safety line.
Do not stare directly into the eyes of the animals.
I thought it would be kids buying bongs. I thought it would be old hippies buying papers. And it was, most of the time. But I stayed for the crackheads. It was all material.
I thought I was experiencing life. I was watching death from safely behind the glass.