Pyrotechny Legend and Lore

Parking lot fireworks
Fireworks over an Albuquerque parking lot, photo by Kajmeister

I see fireworks
I see the pageant and pomp and parade
I hear the bells ringing out
I hear the cannons roar
I see Americans, all Americans free
Forever more–
–John Adams, Is Anybody There? from 1776

Bamboo shoots make the best firecrackers. At least, that’s what the Chinese thought, and they ought to know, since they are credited with inventing them. Most folks probably learned the abbreviated history that I did, where Marco Polo brought gunpowder and spaghetti back from China to the Europeans. Not exactly true, since Roger Bacon referenced the gunpowder formula when Polo would have been only about 13. But legends, including those in the U.S., are an important part of the formula. So is China, as one of the most noted artists of our century is a man who paints the sky with gunpowder.

Founder of Crackers

Li Tian, Founder of Crackers
Li Tian discovering what black powder does when ignited, from historyplex.com

The invention of firecrackers has multiple Chinese stories behind it. One says that folks in the Han Dynasty, (200 BC -200 AD), developed a custom of throwing bamboo stalks into the fire to ward off evil spirits. Since bamboo has hollow air pockets, it pops when it burns, ending with a bang. Continue reading “Pyrotechny Legend and Lore”

Happy Juhannus

Celebrate Juhannus 2018
Midsummer celebration, design from finncamp.org

I spent summers as a kid at a place called the Finn Camp in the woods of suburban Detroit. The summer program was swim lessons in the morning, drama rehearsals in the afternoon, saunas on the weekends, and a lot of tag played on and underneath the docks of the lake. At the end of each school year, I lived in great anticipation for the start of all this in mid June, after the solstice party called Juhannus.

Solstice celebrations, which happen between June 19 and 21, are curiously named “Midsummer” events. In the U.S., summer is tightly linked to the school year, and most children’s seasonal school year ends near the beginning of June. So, why isn’t it the Begin Summer celebration?

The summer solstice occurs when the earth’s tilt is at maximum toward the sun in your hemisphere. In the north, we’re as close to the sun as we’re going to get during the year on that day. Daylight will be the longest–maybe you’ve felt the sky lightening earlier in the morning as you get your coffee or seen the sun peeking through the kitchen window long after dinner. After tomorrow, the daylight hours will start getting shorter again. In that sense, you could say that we’re at the “mid” point; the year is all downhill from here. Continue reading “Happy Juhannus”

Clean Winning at the Triple Crown

Justify wins Belmont
Justify winning the Belmont, photo from Foxnews

In the 143 years that the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes have been run, only 13 horses have won all three (9%). Fifty-two horses have won only two of the races; 23 failed the third race. The Belmont is the longest, so a horse that likes the front–like Justify–would have to hold the lead forever after already becoming The Target. Thus, I found myself teary-eyed watching Justify complete the Triple Crown even though we had only just been introduced.

Winning is hard enough when everyone tries equally, but even harder when everyone tries specifically to beat you.

The Lengths That They Must Go

I still remember that other chestnut thoroughbred from 1973. Everyone should watch that Belmont race (thanks, Youtube!). Secretariat was a once-in-a-lifetime horse, although I didn’t know it then. What sticks out is his surge along the back stretch, “Big Red” on his way to winning by 31 lengths. TV cameras couldn’t zoom out as they do now, so as the horse pulls away, the camera has to pan farther and farther right to see the rest of the field. Continue reading “Clean Winning at the Triple Crown”

Mare Nostrum IV: Gibraltar–Everyone Wants a Piece of the Rock

…The concept of two pillars, one in the North and another in the South, in those times, would be recognised by all sailors as a religious prohibition, a warning that only the approved might pass between them. The Pillar on the right, sailing out of the Mediterranean towards the Atlantic, Westwards, would be Gibraltar, a grey limestone monolith two miles long and 1380 feet high …The Pillar on the left, on the North African coast would be a lower mountain about 400 feet high, known as Septa… [covered in bushes which] flower yellow in January through to April, presenting the impression of the fiery pillar.
–William Serfaty, The Pillars of the Phoenicians

Macaque at Gibraltar
Straits of Gibraltar, photo by Kallmaker.

Mons Calpe. Pillar of Hercules (Ἡράκλειαι Στῆλαι). Jabar Tariq. What the Neanderthals called it is unknown. The Barbary Macaques–The Rock Apes–don’t tell us their name for it either. Nowadays, most humans call it Gibraltar.

Because of an advertising campaign, Gibraltar has long been associated with safety and security. Getting a “piece of the rock” is connected to insurance which yearns for a boring, uneventful existence. However, assumptions which link Gibraltar and peace are flawed at heart. The Rock has reflected 2.6 square miles of arguments and disputed ownership for much of its human history, especially during the last five centuries. Continue reading “Mare Nostrum IV: Gibraltar–Everyone Wants a Piece of the Rock”

Mare Nostrum II: Roma–In the Shadow of Centuries

Capitoline wolf statue
Capitoline Wolf, Museo Capitolini in Rome. Photo by kajmeister.

There are very few places left which can live up to their own hype. Rome does. Use whatever words you like–ostentatious, city of grandeur, over the top–Rome wears them like a toga. You want 2000-year-old ruins? Here’s a Temple of the Vestal Virgins. Over there’s a Colosseum, where one three-day festival weekend, they slaughtered 9000 people in it. You like statues? Here’s a six-foot head of Constantine that used to tower in a piazza or… how about a Michelangelo so close to you that you can breathe on it. Want coffee? Best cappucino in the world at this hole in the wall, mind the scooters aiming at you as you cross the alley. Museums? More than in Washington D.C. Pastries? Sfogliatelle. Religious backdrops? Oh, here’s a church (imagine me waving vaguely at St. Peter’s, the way Edith Head used to wave at all her Oscars).

We’ve seen painted ceilings, beautiful sculptures, and well-turned out meals in many places. Rome just seems to have more. Of everything. Continue reading “Mare Nostrum II: Roma–In the Shadow of Centuries”