Monday, June 26, 2017

My Grandfather, the Diarist

This is my grandfather, Daniel Webster Johnson, Sr.

This photograph doesn't do him justice. He was a very handsome man. He looked a little bit like Henry Fonda, only with softer features.

Granddad had many interests. He was a pioneer in the synthetic fabric industry, creating and designing microscopic drills. He repaired watches and clocks. He loved insects, flowers, and gardening. He liked to hunt squirrels.

How do I know all of this? Well, I know all of the above except the squirrel thing from talking to my grandfather, watching him work, and seeing the fruits of his labor.

The squirrel thing I got from his diaries.

Yes! My grandfather Johnson kept a daily diary from 1936 until 1948! That's a long time! Think of it: Granddad kept a diary right through the Great Depression and the Second World War. Talk about a primary source!

It gets better. I, Anne Johnson, own all of those diaries.

I've perused these diaries many times, but only in a cursory manner. Today I sat down with them to take a closer look. I was particularly in search of information about my grandfather's older brother. I also wanted to know more about the house Granddad built on the family farmland, round about 1939.

My grandfather was a dependable diarist. He wrote down something almost every day. And that something ... that something ... was an observation of the weather.

Sometimes he notes when he visits someone, or someone visits him. But only after he has noted the weather.

"Fair and warm today, got cool at night."

Multiply that by 300 and you get the spring portion of Granddad's diaries.

Another thing my grandfather noted punctually was his church attendance. He abbreviated Sunday School "Sunday S." On Wednesday nights, he attended the Knights of Malta lodge (abbreviated KofM). This is always noted after the weather.

He did note the birth of his youngest son, who was born in 1937 (weather report was first). He did not note the high school graduation of his two older sons, in 1942 and 1944 respectively, although every day in June of those years have entries. Only once, at the 15-year mark, does he note his wedding anniversary. After the weather. Grandma's birthday? Once or twice ... after the weather.

He does hunt squirrels, though. I found about 40 entries mentioning squirrel hunting. Seems his best day was eight. Sometimes he got one, sometimes none at all. After the weather.

He mentions the construction of the house. "Worked on cabin." Then "spent first night in cabin." Then "spent the day at camp." Then "spent the weekend out at camp." Then "painted the house." Occasionally he notes what he was planting in the garden "at camp." Every entry that includes this begins with a weather report.

On December 7, 1941, Granddad noted that the weather was cloudy and cold. Then he added, "The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor." That is literally the only piece of world news I have found in his diaries from any year.

If he was alive today, I would tease him about this. I would say, "For the love of fruit flies, Granddad, why did you always write down the weather?" And he would say, "Well, Anne Janette, you see ... it's a small notebook, with only a few lines for each day. The only thing that will fit is the weather. And I was busy living my life -- I didn't have time to go into more detail."

Well, bless his sweet heart, my grandfather kept diaries. They reveal nearly nothing of his personality, his relationship with his family and siblings, his challenges at work, or his creation of an iconic, hand-made homestead in the Appalachian Mountains.

The moral of this sermon is that I must have inherited something from my mother's family. Don't you agree?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Free Advice about that Farm in the Mountains

One thing you learn, growing up in Appalachia: The land and weather aren't as sacred as they are savage. There just aren't enough bored gods and busy gods in the universe to make everything run smoothly when you call the mountains home.

Ask anyone who tries to farm this land. If you can't find that person (which wouldn't surprise me), visit the graveyards and look at the ages of the deceased. Also round up the folks like me, who, although they love the mountains with the white hot passion of 10,000 suns, can't live there because people gotta eat.

And yet you'll find a passel of starry-eyed optimists who seize upon a plot of mountain farmland, give it a pretty name, and commence to building a utopian community on it. This one will do "sustainable agriculture." This one will have bee hives and make mead. This one will grow artisan apples. Oh my, there's nothing more inspiring than a quiet evening in the country, when nobody's around and the whippoorwills are serenading one another from ridge to hollow! A modest living for a few people can surely be had, right?

This is where the utopian vision comes in. The optimist invites his friends to a gathering, often on a Pagan festival day, and the next year the friends bring their friends, because the property with the pretty name is so gorgeous. Within a decade, as the bees die and the apple blossoms take a frost and the groundhogs eat the peppers, the optimist has luckily happened upon a way to self-sustain: the paid festival. Okay, the land gets a little crowded, hectic, and trampled. But it's worth it. The money pours in, and the rest of the year things are so quiet and beautiful for the optimist and his small nucleus of companions.

All might be well in these cases, but it's really hard for the optimist not to become a capitalist. After all, isn't it nice to be able to make a genteel living in such a benign way? What's a festival? It's a chance for people who don't live in the mountains to come to a property, link elbows with like-minded naturists, and have a heart-warming and safe time. Word of mouth brings more and more folks each year, keeping the entrance fee quite affordable. So the optimist invests in sound equipment and heavy duty lawn mowers. He contracts port-a-potties and lines up hay bales in case it's rainy. And then he has festivals.

Here's where it goes one of two ways. In the first way, the optimist has one festival a year, upon which he stakes his whole budget. It's only held once a year, and that makes it very special, and -- again word of mouth -- numbers of attendees just keep climbing. In the other way, the optimist devises many festivals of different sorts and different sizes, flings them out across summer weekends, and waits for the customers to find the event that suits their tastes.

I personally know two such optimists who are finding out now that the land isn't sacred, it's savage. It will punish your ass no matter how lofty your intentions happen to be.

Case number one features the nicest optimist you would ever want to meet. His big once-yearly festival was hit by torrential rain. Cars skidded out of control on the parking hill, and people couldn't stand on their feet in the slippery muck. At a devastating financial loss, he had to close down a day early. There's just no way he can recoup that day of receipts at another event. This was his event. Chances are, next year, the sun will shine and the people will return. In the meantime, it's gonna be one bloody lean year.

The other case features the optimist with multiple festivals. This dreamer has invested more: bigger parcels of land, permanent bathroom facilities, even a dining hall. But as he increased the number and size of events, health problems surfaced. On two recent weekends, hundreds of festival attendees became violently ill with an aggressive and highly contagious stomach flu. And of course the Internet is blowing up over it, which has led at least one person I know to cancel her plans to attend a festival there next weekend. Nor does this person I know expect to get a refund, because you know that bottom line is going to be threatened.

The multiple-festival optimist will also recover and persist, but he's going to take a financial beating for years, and perhaps forever. Word of mouth works both ways. When people have fun, they bring their friends. When they get sick on your land, they tell all their friends who weren't there. It's a hole that's hard to climb out of, and in the meantime the optimist still has to eat and pay the notes on the parcel of land he bought for bigger festivals.

The one unifying factor between these two optimists? They both grew up in the city and lived in the city for a long time before taking up residence in the lovely rural spaces.

So here is Annie's free advice for anyone and everyone who wants to live la dolce vita on some bucolic rural farm: The land is untamed. It is untranslatable. It does not love you back. And the harder you work it, the worse it will treat you.

It's too late to ask my great-grandfathers if I am right about this, because they are all long gone. You'll just have to trust me. Would I lead you wrong? Of course not, I'm straight-up.

The economy has improved, so this free advice is really free. Heed it, though, and you'll always eat.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Stepping into Darkness

June 21 marks the greatest amount of sunlight in the Northern Hemisphere. Depending upon your mindset, the day is either the beginning of summer or the beginning of darkness.

There are so many good things about summertime: fresh produce, long twilight, fireflies, beach days, porch sitting. Gotta say, though, the only part of that I fully endorse is the long twilight. Otherwise give me a brisk morning and a forecast that includes snow.

I'm still a little bit shaken about the Anansi story below. It might have come off my fingers, but it was Anansi all the way. Scary to be divinely inspired, honestly. It's an outcome of the magickal work I've been doing ... but wow. Still unexpected.

Ah well, may the joys of Solstice be with you and yours. Here comes the heat. Let's get out of the kitchen!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Interview with a Bored God: Anansi

My goodness, as I live and breathe, one of my favorite bored gods of all time is Anansi! He's all puffed up with pride these days, because through one medium or another, Neil Gaiman has made Him a star again.

Anansi is a flirt and a trickster, the kind of critter that with a mere wink can persuade you to part with your last piece of pecan pie. He pilfers the pretzels and leaves the lettuce. He snickers when you stub your toe, principally because He's the one who pushed the ottoman just so and made you do it.

Anansi preys upon people's weaknesses and leads them to downfall. He enjoys doing it ... sort of a matter of just desserts.

And speaking of desserts, that must be why He's here. I'm going to make a strawberry pie. How did He know?

Anne: Anansi, my friend, while I'm making this pie, will You tell me a story?

Anansi: With pleasure, Anne. Better make two pies. You might get company...

Anansi and the Jackal
by Anansi

Once upon a time, there was a jackal who was dissatisfied with his life. He had plenty to eat, and he was popular and well-liked in his circle, but he craved more attention and admiration.

Jackal went to Anansi and asked the Spider to make him more famous ... all-powerful over the rest of the animals on the savanna, in fact.

"I will do this,"Anansi said, "If you first give up one of your possessions. Think about it and get back to me."

Jackal thought about it. He was pretty good-looking, in a paunchy, overripe way. He didn't want to give that up. It was already getting harder to attract lady jackals! He was really good at manipulating other animals (particularly those who weren't as smart as they ought to be). Jackal couldn't imagine being powerful without being able to manipulate, so he didn't want to give that up, either. That left him with two possessions: the ability to lie, and a perfect memory. It seemed pretty clear that a good memory wasn't really important if you had lots of power, so Jackal returned to Anansi.

"You can have my memory," he said.

"Done!" Anansi said.

And Jackal was happy, because he felt just the same.

And the animals heaped him with praise and set him in the best seat and gave him the ability to make decisions that would affect the whole savanna.

In his most manipulative and lying way, Jackal promised all the animals that he would make everything great for them. He promised every kind of animal exactly what they wanted. The lions would get more meat. The wildebeests would get more forage and eat it in perfect safety. The zebras would get to cross the rivers safely. And since nobody liked the hyenas, they would be rounded up and sent away.

Needless to say, the hyenas weren't happy. They went to Anansi and complained.

"Wait it out," Anansi said. So they did.

Not long after Jackal assumed power, the lions got hungry. The wildebeests were fat from eating so much forage, so the lions hunted and killed a few.

The other wildebeests went to find Jackal. "The lions hunted us! You said we would be safe!"

"Did I say that?" Jackal replied. "I don't remember."

"You said it," Elephant answered. "I remember everything."

Next thing you know, the zebras went to cross the river. The lions were waiting.

It wasn't pretty.

The other zebras went to Jackal and complained. Jackal said he couldn't recall the exact details of his deal with the zebras.

But once again, Elephant chimed in: "You promised the zebras they would be safe crossing the river."

Jackal was furious. "I'm tired of these elephants!" he shouted. "As of this minute, all elephants are fired!" He sent the elephants away, one and all.

As time passed, Jackal continued to rule, but all of the animals were sullen, if not outright contemptuous. This didn't sit well with Jackal, since he'd gone into the scheme for approval. So after a few months, he went back to Anansi.

"You didn't tell me the job of ruling the savanna would be so hard!" he told Anansi.

"You didn't ask me," the wily Spider replied.

"I didn't know I couldn't make both the lions and the wildebeest happy," Jackal whined.

"Jackal," Anansi said, "you have lived on the savanna all your life. Have you ever seen a time when lions and wildebeest got along, or when zebras could always cross the river safely?"

"I can't remember," Jackal said, feeling exceedingly sorry for himself.

"It's too bad your memory is so poor," Anansi said, clicking His legs together. "The elephants could have helped you with that, but you sent them away."

"All I wanted was universal admiration!" Jackal wailed. Then he got an idea. "Say, Anansi, could you just put things back the way they were ... as I recall, if I'm right ... so I at least have a little band of followers? The rest of them, lions, zebras, one and all, can go rot."

"I can do that for you," Anansi said. "But you'll have to give me another possession."

Jackal couldn't remember his possessions at all. So he said, "Go ahead and just take one. Whichever one you want."

Next thing he knew, Jackal found himself on the savanna with the other jackals he used to hang out with. They all burst into gales of laughter. "Look at you!" they howled. "You are one old, butt-ugly Jackal!"

Jackal ran to the watering hole and looked into the water. At that moment, Anansi gave him his memory back.

It wasn't pretty.

In the end, the elephants and the hyenas returned to the savanna, and everything fell into its old, natural routine. Except for poor old, ugly, Jackal, who could not buy a best friend no matter how much he lied, manipulated, or remembered the past.

Anne: Wow, Anansi, you are amazing! Here, have both pies! And that dusty corner of my attic? It's all yours, whenever you want a bunk.

Anansi: Thanks, Anne, but I'm due back on set in a week. I'm a big star now.

Anne: Justly deserved, Anansi. Justly deserved.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Bucket List Cross-Out

I just love the Chesapeake Bay! It's beautiful and nearby.


The only part of the Chesapeake Bay I haven't visited at length is the very bottom of it (geographically), where it spreads out and flows into the briny Atlantic. There are two islands, Smith and Tangier, that I always wanted to see. Lately I've changed my mind about that. I've crossed these two intriguing communities off my bucket list, thank you very much.


Turns out that Tangier Island has two problems. First, it's disappearing at the rate of 15 feet a year. Second, it's voters went for Donald Trump by 87 percent. Apparently none of the residents of Tangier Island believe in climate change. What's happening to their island is simply erosion, and they're looking to our current commander-in-chief to build them a Wall (yes, that again) around their whole island.

After being on CNN and saying that he loved Donald Trump like family, the mayor of Tangier Island got a call from the president. Does this surprise you? El presidente loves him some filial devotion!

You might think I am making this up, but honestly DT called the mayor of Tangier Island (who was out crabbing) and said to him, "Don't worry about your island. It's been around for hundreds of years, and it will be around for hundreds of years to come."

Of course that's as much truth as our fearless leader usually offers, so what's new?

My friends, delightful Tangier Island is in the damn bull's eye. With erosion (yes, it happens) and sea level rise, this is a place where you soon won't need a boat to catch crabs, they'll be skittering across your front porch. One Cat 5 hurricane will destroy it completely. A wall might slow the whole thing down, but forget about it. Done deal.

Might have been a nice place to go for a long weekend before the deluge, but I'll pass. Anyone who can live on a small island and not pay attention to science is just too blithe for me.

PS - Our president is a moron.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Shoulda Been Done Long Ago

Today it was 95 degrees (35 C) outside. Which meant it was 95 degrees (35 C) in my classroom. The fans just move the air around, like a convection oven.

One of my best and sweetest little girls found a bed bug crawling along the edge of the cabinet, right where she was sitting. This occasioned a lot of angst on the part of my students and myself.

My co-teacher positively identified the vermin by Googling a photograph of one. Neither of us had ever seen one before.

As a class we are about to begin A Raisin in the Sun. Half of my students said they already read it in middle school (!) and had seen the movie. They pronounced it stupid and boring and darkly hinted that they wouldn't do it.

At the last faculty meeting, the principal said we would have a "dress and grooming code" in the fall for all teachers. We will be expected to attire ourselves in "industry standard" clothing.

The refrigerator in the faculty dining room broke. My salad dressing got thrown out.

The water fountain across from my classroom is broken. It has been broken all year. School rules prohibit bottled water in classrooms.

Some classrooms are air conditioned. Some aren't. This means that we never get early dismissal on hot days, because all of the students have at least one class in air conditioning. The exercise room and the locker rooms are air conditioned. All administrative offices are air conditioned.

All this is my way of saying that school should be out for the summer. Last Friday should have been our last day. But we soldier on, right to Solstice. This is public school, and this is what we do.

If you have any idea what "industry standard" attire is for a public school teacher, please post your findings.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Don't Say the Word -- It's That Simple

I don't know about you, but most Friday nights by 10:00 I am drifting off to dreamland in my chair. It just happened that the past two Friday nights I was lucid enough to watch Bill Maher on HBO.

I don't like the guy, even though his politics are similar to my own. I find him pompous, never more so than when he has a Republican guest for an interview. If I treated bored deities the way he treats Republican guests, I'd be smote into oblivion.

So it was that, during an interview with a Republican senator, Maher dropped the "n" word. Hours later, he was issuing apologies and mea culpas. And this Friday, he had three guests of color on the show, probably to prove that he's a cool white dude who loves African Americans and feels their pain.

His Black guests basically took him to the woodshed.

It was typical Maher hubris to invite Ice Cube on the show in the first place. Here's a rapper who has made a lavish living mining his people's pain and injustice, and he wasn't going to give Maher a pass. You go, Mr. Cube. His best remark was, "That's our word. It belongs to us." And it does.

The "n" word should never escape the lips of a white person. Never. Pagan readers, don't you hate it when the word "witch" is used in a pejorative, or even joking, way? Now multiply that by 1,000.

As a teacher in a school that is 99 percent minority, I hear that word all day long. Students call each other "n," in an affectionate way. It's their word. If I'm teaching a passage of literature that has the word in it, I don't utter the word out loud.

Bill Maher had a million excuses for letting the "n" word slip. He blamed the Republican interviewee, for one thing (bad form). He blamed the nature of live comedy (flimsy). He said he shouldn't be judged by one offhand tasteless remark (slightly less flimsy but still flimsy). You know what he didn't do? He didn't say, "I won't use that word again. Ever."

It's tough work being a comedian, especially in live situations. Improv comedy requires a mental acuity that's daunting to say the least. But it's not that hard to expunge your vocabulary of an offensive word and -- this is overlooked -- the racist way it was dropped in reference to a type of slavery. I've never heard Bill Maher call anyone a "cunt." If he can bypass that word, he can remove the "n" word from his oral vocabulary.

I'm sure he will from this day forward, so would it have hurt to promise? Humble people work to change their ways.

Sitting at the top of a mountain of righteousness today I am,

Your most humble and obedient servant,

Anne Johnson