Friday, January 20, 2017

Rainy Day in a Small Town

Last weekend I took a trip to my hometown on a misty, drizzly morning. I wanted to pay a visit to a family member and make perhaps one or two other stops, and it was impromptu, so no one knew I was on the way. I don't know about you, but I usually have an indescribable mix of feelings when I see the outskirts of my hometown come into view. It almost seems like another lifetime since I lived there, and it's been a long time since it really felt like home. I can remember, as a young teen, watching the sunset warm the brick facade of the church down the street with an alluring glow as I looked longingly toward the west and wanted to be elsewhere.

I spent a lot of time imagining elsewhere back then, and it seemed to me that life wouldn't really begin until I could get out of that little town and on to bigger things. Not too different from the way many young people think, although I gather many adults my age look back on their early years and realize they didn't know how good they had it until it was gone. I don't quite look at it that way, but I was surprised to find mild feelings of nostalgia coming up as I was driving around in the rain, looking at places I remembered, many of which remained mostly unchanged, at least to look at.

I didn't find my aunt at home and decided to continue driving around, so I went down the street my grandparents used to live on (and that street has changed--the house is no longer there). I had a clear memory of doing laundry with my mother in the small Laundromat near the end of the block while we were visiting my grandparents on vacation; I can still remember the smell of the place and the peppery taste of the locally-brewed soft drink that we drank ice cold out of the machine. I remember the African violets my grandmother had in her kitchen window, the uphill pitch of the backyard, the squeak of the glider as my grandfather rested there, chatting with whoever stopped by, and the trees we used to climb in the yard. Many of those are happy memories.

I drove past the church and the school I attended and the earliest house I remember living in. I decided to stop and see a friend, though I didn't have much confidence she'd be home, and while I turned down the wrong street initially (funny to get lost in so small a town), I realized my mistake and found the right turn eventually. I didn't find her at home, but I left a message with her mother and continued on my way, out past the high school and into the parking lot of the little shopping center next door. I was thinking about the many times fellow students skipping out must have patronized the businesses in that little mall, the only one of which I remember clearly was a Dairy Queen (now gone). I felt what I might describe as a moment of sympathetic nostalgia on behalf of the other students (I wasn't a skipper) before I turned my attention to the running track, where I did a few turns in gym class back in the day. I didn't particularly like gym or track & field, but it's funny how benign a sight it seemed that morning, a touchtone to a shared past. I spent four years of my life in that school along with my classmates, and although I was happy to move on, when I looked at the building all I felt was a pleasant sense of seeing a piece of the past.

I remembered visiting the homes of friends and classmates and tried to locate some of them, although that was more difficult with all the time that's elapsed, and I felt sure most of their families had moved on long since. I had lunch and decided a trip to the library was in order to get my uncle's address. Since my aunt died this year, I wanted to stop and say hello. I didn't find him at home, either, and that's when I decided to drop by the church, which his family also attended. I wasn't expecting to see him or anyone I knew there, but it was about time for the Saturday evening service, and it had been so many years since I'd been inside that I wanted to see the place again.

Everyone's familiar with that feeling of going back to a childhood place and finding how much smaller it seems, but I was surprised at just how much the dimensions of the place seemed to have shrunk. I assume this happened because I had so few other churches to compare it to back then, but still, I was surprised--I remember it as being bigger by at least half. I do have pleasant memories of services there, especially around Christmas, and I still found it to be as pretty a church as I remembered.

I recognized my uncle a few pews ahead of me, and after church we talked for a few minutes, a conversation in which the names of many family members came up and a sense of the passage of time was very strong. He encouraged me to stop by my aunt's house again on my way out of town, saying she was bound to be home on a Saturday, so I did that but still didn't find her at home. I was a little concerned but knew that there were other family members nearby and figured it was a case of bad timing--it was such a drizzly day that she may have gotten cabin fever and decided on a day out with a friend. Then it was back on the road west, back to Lexington . . . where all these many years later, I can say life did change once I left my hometown, and that many of the things I dreamed of did come true, although I didn't anticipate how challenging life could be at times. I don't think you ever do.

It's hard for me to imagine living in my hometown again, and yet to be honest there has always seemed to be some quality missing in Lexington, something that I can't put my finger on that has to do with the pace of life and the security of knowing many of the people around you. I may have said this before, but I think I've always wanted to combine that sense of belonging and the aesthetic appeal of small town life with some of the diversions and opportunities of a larger city. I've never figured out quite how to do this.

The imprint of small town life remains with me; when I've traveled, I've sometimes come across places that reminded me of where I grew up, and it's a little surprising how pleasant that is. I think it has to do with the human scale of things, the ease of getting from place to place, the likelihood of seeing a familiar face. It used to be nice to be able to walk down the street for an ice cream cone or to see a movie, things I have to get in my car and drive some distance to do now. I don't want to romanticize small town life in any way, because it has its drawbacks--but it also has charms that are lost in the noise and hustle of a city. Maybe it is true that you can't go home again, but I think it's also true that you always carry some of it around with you, no matter where you go.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Do I Dare to Take a Selfie?

This morning I was trying to take a selfie to update my Facebook profile, a seemingly simple act that shouldn't really require much thought. I mean, I did get dressed, brush my hair, and put on a little makeup. After all, you want to put your best food forward even if you're just taking your own picture. Then I had to put the batteries in the camera, charge up the flash, figure out where to put myself, and actually take the picture--the hardest part. I see that other people take selfies all the time with apparent ease, so I guess it's easier if your cell phone has a camera, but I have a camera camera, if that hasn't become an anachronism, and can't see what I look like when I'm taking the picture.

At any rate, I took a whole series of photos and kept looking for one that seemed good enough, sitting first here and then there, deciding the bookcase would be a nice backdrop and then trying to get the lighting and angle right. Now, here's where it started to get unexpectedly complicated.

I've written several times about the way a person who has studied myth (or literature or art history or other things) often sees several layers of meaning simultaneously in an object or an event. Training in these areas teaches you to look beyond the merely literal; paint on canvas or words on a page are more than just the sum of their parts, just as a person is more than a collection of cells. It's possible to take this process too far. Just as you can overlook the true significance of things by not looking deeply enough, you can also imbue things with meanings they don't have. No one would argue that all interpretations are equally convincing, and if you say tomato and I say tomahto, as the song goes, who's right? Sometimes a cigar really is a cigar (even if Freud didn't really say it, it's true). But not always.

I'm taking a long way to get back to the selfie. The point is, I suddenly started noticing all the items on the bookshelf behind me that were ending up in the pictures and that had no real relevance except that they just happened to be there: a statue of Ganesha, a diploma from school, a book on symbols. I suddenly started to wonder how someone else seeing my selfie might view those items--could they take over the picture in a way I didn't intend? That may seem silly, like the kind of thing no one but an English major would think of, but I still wondered. After all, those items are on the shelf because they tell part of the story of my life, and it's natural they should be there. But I noticed recently while watching a movie I've seen multiple times how distracting it was when the design of the bedspread in one scene jumped out at me in a way I hadn't noticed before. I didn't know what the filmmaker intended, and the decision to have a striped bedspread could have meant any number of things. I assume that artists usually make choices very intentionally, but did it mean the same thing to me that it meant to the filmmaker?

Well, you can really go down a rabbit hole with this type of thing. The best I could say is that when I looked at that scene and for some reason noticed the bedspread had stripes, it suddenly made me think of a flag-draped coffin, such as a solider would be buried in, which was rather jarring in that particular context. For all I know, the filmmaker put that detail in not because he thought it looked like a flag but because he was trying to re-create the bedroom he lived in when he was a little boy, or perhaps the resemblance to a coffin was intentional, and it was a tribute to a friend who had died.

The end result of my selfie adventure was that I took some of the objects out of the background so that the photos would just be headshots of me, not a work by a Flemish master full of potential hidden meanings, and selected the best-looking one. The process began again when I started sorting through some outdoor photos for an updated cover picture. Again, I started wondering if people would ask why I had selected this one or that one, when really I was just in a hurry to finish updating my profile. I finally picked one of a blue sky that I liked and that seemed about the blandest of all of them. When I looked at the end result, though, I noticed rays of light that I hadn't seen in the photo until it was enlarged, and both photos together seemed to me to tell a story that I hadn't intended to tell--but it ended up that way by accident. After all my efforts to come up with a neutral photo set, I realized I still had something that potentially told a story, and that my attempts not to tell a story were all for naught.

After that line of thought, I was almost too self-conscious to go for a walk, but I went anyway. As for the clothes I had on, I suppose there was a story in them, but it was this: I wore the top I was wearing because it was unusually warm today, and I don't get to wear that shirt, which has a flattering neckline, that often. I wore jeans because I'd been wearing cords a lot and wanted a change. I wore my cream-colored fleece (which was almost too warm for today) because I thought I needed an extra layer but not a heavy one. I carried my smaller umbrella because I had a mishap with the larger one the other night while carrying in groceries and decided it wasn't raining hard enough to merit the trouble. I thought everything matched and that I wouldn't look silly while walking down the street. That was it.

At this point, you're probably thinking, "You needed a whole essay to describe what people do in the normal course of things? Most people aren't trying to imitate the Flemish masters when they go out everyday. They just want to look presentable and possibly attractive." I used to think so, too, but I'm constantly noticing how many people I encounter in the course of a day who seem determined to draw attention to themselves. It's an epidemic of exhibitionism, if you ask me, and though I may be describing a trend, I didn't start it.

So if you do see my picture on Facebook, this is the Official Artist's Statement of how that particular photo essay came to be: I was trying to take a neutral but flattering photo. But if you think every picture tells a story, you may still be right.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Wordplay Says "Auld Lang Syne"

When I started this blog in January 2010, I was beginning my dissertation, so Wordplay was one of two creative ventures occupying my thoughts. I saw it as a sort of journal accompanying my dissertation research and writing; sometimes I worked out my thoughts in the blog and later went back to see what I had written once I was deeper into the research. Besides that, though, it was a way to put into practice what I'd been taught--how to look at the world through a mythic lens. I was very excited about it then and still am. When I talked to people about depth psychology and mythology, it usually seemed to strike some kind of a chord, and I felt a wider audience might also be receptive . . . so that's how Wordplay came about. I was having fun with what I was doing and thought I'd have even more fun writing about it.

At some point, I wrote a description of the blog that included a lot of the "descriptors" or buzz words that I thought would help people find it, but when I read that summary now (whether or not it helps in search results) it seems too wordy. If you were to ask me now, I'd just tell you that, pure and simple, this is a blog about the mythology of everyday life. The idea that ordinary life, and not just the doings of legendary figures from the distant past, is the material of mythology was one of the most exciting ideas I ever came across, and I think other people have also found that to be true.

Reading mythic texts from various traditions with a depth psychological eye was one thing; we spent a lot of time on this in my program, and it was a transformative experience. Learning how to look at the present-day world to see the myths and archetypes underlying current events was something else, at least for me. With an English degree in my background, I'm used to analyzing literary texts and can talk about the archetypes of any given book or film with a fair degree of comfort. But it seemed to me that for a degree in myth studies to be useful, it would have to encompass more than academic and literary subjects: it would have to provide insight into the world we live in.

The concept of reading events for meaning the same way one reads a literary text takes great skill, in my opinion, and subtlety--a certain amount of fearlessness doesn't hurt either. After all, real life moves and flows and doesn't stay still; it's not fixed on a page. There is no way to "prove" that one's reading of a particular event or phenomenon is "the" correct one, and chances are there are other ways of looking at the same event that are just as useful. We learned the term mythopoesis in my program, which to me means looking at the world the same way you look at a poem. In other words, you're alive to not only what's in front of you, the actual "words on the page," but also the implications of the words, the story that unfolds in between, beneath, and around them. This requires intuition and understanding; knowing what's there is only the first step.

Reading the world mythopoetically is complicated by the fact that, based on my experience anyway, it's often hard to know what the facts are. On any given day, I can read the news and think, "Hmmm, is that what really happened, or is that just what someone said happened?" It's much easier to read events when you know what they are, which may sound like a truism, but as recent events on the U.S. political scene have shown us, basic facts are often in dispute. Much of the news is colored by assumptions and written from a certain point of view. I'm firmly in favor of people expressing their opinions, but first I want to know what the facts are so that I can form my own opinion.

That brings me to an unexpected role I sometimes find myself playing on this blog, the role of mythojournalist. This happened because I often searched in vain for news sources that seemed to dig deep enough and connect the dots between events. Sometimes the what would be there but not the why; often, even the what would be hard to discern in a sea of opinion and misinformation. If an event left me scratching my head, I tried to understand the implications behind it. I certainly never pictured myself as a crusading journalist (book reviews and a little humor are more in my line), but my forays into mythojournalism were born of frustration. I often felt something was missing in other people's reporting, and I tried to fill in the gaps. After all, politics, business, and world affairs are a part of everyday life, too.

And speaking of trying to read events, I feel that our nation, and perhaps the world, is actually in a bit of a precarious position at the moment. I had hoped that when the election was over, things would seem calmer, but that hasn't happened. There's a lot of name-calling and saber-rattling and plenty of people ready to point the finger at anyone but themselves, and if you want me to say what I think the problem is, I'll give you my opinion: I think our nation has a deep unwillingness to look at its own shadow. This translates into: "We are pure; it's other people who have problems."

We seem to be sliding by degrees closer and closer back to a Cold War, which I don't suppose anyone views as desirable. I'm an American, and I support the Constitution, but still I find myself wondering: what's behind all the hostility between Russia and the United States? Is it barely possible that Russia has some legitimate concerns, too, as I have heard one or two American officials suggest? Does it really have to be "us or them"? I don't know who hacked the DNC, and I sincerely hope we find out, but even the facts of the who, what, when, where, and why seem to be in dispute. There are plenty of opinions being expressed, though, and since most of us have been taught to fear Russia, there seems to be a lack of balance to some of the coverage. I'm not saying that allegations of hacking and interference shouldn't be taken seriously; I'd merely like a little more light and less heat.

I will tell you that long ago, when I worked for a newspaper, I was assigned to write a Newspaper in Education supplement on Russia. This was right after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the supplement was meant to give students some background on Russian history. I didn't know much about Russia before I started, and as the country has over a thousand years of history, I feel that what I did merely scratched the surface--but I did come away from the project with a sense of respect for the Russian people, who have survived many difficult periods and apparently have great resiliency. It's a huge country, with many borders to defend, just like the United States. I am neither defending nor condemning Russia, but I am wondering what their point of view is in all the recent fracas. And I'm still not entirely sure I understand what happened in Ukraine.

Once you start looking at the world mythopoetically, your capacity to see things from more than one point of view increases, which I hope is a good thing and not a bad thing. Being understanding of someone else's viewpoint should tend to increase the chances of solving conflicts, not make things worse, according to my understanding of conflict resolution. I'm sincerely hoping there's a willingness on all sides to be honest and open about the real issues, as it seems to me that the world is much too small for this kind of conflict to be a good thing.

Well, six years of Wordplay, and there's much more to come, I hope. Perhaps someday soon I'll be able to get back to more lighthearted subjects, though I reserve the right to speak up on any subject if I feel the need. One thing I can tell you for sure is that Joseph Campbell was right: mythology is a call to adventure, though as is the usual way of things, the adventure may be different from what you imagined it to be. I was a writer without a topic before I started my study of mythology, and that blew my imagination wide open. It also helped me discover some personal qualities I didn't quite know I had. If you're feeling an interest in it yourself, my only caution is to be prepared: once you open your mind, things never quite look the same way again.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Twelve Days of Christmas

In most of my adult experience, the week between Christmas and New Year's has been a little bit like limbo: it's not quite here, there, or anywhere. If you celebrate Christmas, the big event is over with on December 25, and the rest of it (even New Year's Eve) is kind of anticlimactic. If you're in school, you're on break. If you have a job, you may, if you're lucky, be off the entire week--but more than likely you have to work for at least a few days, though half the cubicles around you may be empty. It's an in-between kind of feeling.

After I started college, I joined the contingent that was glad to get back into the normal routine as soon as possible after Christmas Day, an attitude that holiday overload before Christmas tends to inspire. However, as I've mentioned, I've rethought that attitude in recent years, and traditional ways of celebrating the season support me in that. The Twelve Days of Christmas, for instance, as you know, are the days in between Christmas Day and January 6, the celebration of the Visit of the Magi. I like the idea of spreading the celebration out instead of having everything happen on one day, and some of the customs I've read about from people who still celebrate Christmas the old way sound like more fun than the one-day-only approach.

I don't know whether it was "The Twelve Days of Christmas" song or the Hanukkah custom of the Jewish family that lived near us when I was a kid that inspired me, but I have started opening gifts in the days after Christmas. I wrap up little things that I would have bought for myself anyway, like a calendar or a small package of chocolate, put them under the tree, and open them one by one. I'm not in a hurry to open those packages since they look so pretty sitting under the tree, and this year, with all those hand-made bows on them, I'm in less of a hurry than ever.

I was actually still listening to Christmas CDs the day before yesterday before putting them away, but I don't know that I won't pull one or two of them back out over the next week. I don't have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" on any of them, but I've been thinking about the song and wondering if I might do something thematic each day in keeping with the gifts listed in it. I ran into problems, though, with the very first one: a partridge in a pear tree? I couldn't quite figure out how to pull that off, at least on short notice, though it did make me think of the ornamental pear trees near the street I use to live on and the fragrance they had in the spring. Some of the other gifts promised to be difficult to actualize, too, although it seems like a worthy idea. Maybe with a little foresight I can figure out a way to do this some other time.

The idea of leaving the tree up in January came about a few years ago when I realized how pleasant it was to have a corner of the living room brightened up with a prettily decorated tree and started wondering what the rush was to get it down. Most people I know dislike January heartily and complain about how long it is, but if you've still got decorations up, the festive atmosphere lingers, and that's the point of it all anyway. I don't feel like fighting winter if I'm celebrating it.

Despite thinking that a little bit of winter sometimes goes a long way, I've developed an appreciation for some of its gifts. I think the pace of modern life, and the need to rush here and there in all kinds of weather, makes it hard to enjoy winter, and even Christmas, as much as it can be enjoyed. When you don't have to go out and scrape the ice off the windshield first thing in the morning and drive through slick streets, it's a lot easier to appreciate the beauty of sunrise on a frosty morning or a pristine blanket of snow. Winter pared down to its simplest elements and sprinkled with a little sweetness and light can actually be quite enjoyable, as I've found--somewhat to my surprise.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Mythologically Sensitive Solstice

I hope I'm not too late to wish you Winter Solstice greetings, since the day was actually yesterday, and today is officially the Day After Solstice. I guess we're all on the upswing now--before you know it, the days will be noticeably longer, though of course we still have winter ahead of us. We're just getting started on all that, but the prospect doesn't seem all that bad from where I'm sitting. I heard about how warm it is at the North Pole, and I just wish we could send some polar vortex up that way.

If you've ever felt a twinge of confusion about what you should be doing with yourself on Winter Solstice--it almost seems an anachronism in the postmodern age, doesn't it, one of those primitive nature celebrations that's been eclipsed by Christmas and Black Friday and all the rest?--you're probably not alone. If you were thinking: Should I wear twigs in my hair? Is a bear pelt the right thing? Ought I build a bonfire? Do I need a conch shell to greet the dawn?--I'd say the answer is "no."

It's only my opinion, but I don't think honoring the seasonal roots of the holidays requires literal re-enactments. Some people like 'em, but I'm not much of one for dress-up in any case, and nature worship doesn't seem quite the right attitude to take after centuries of science. What I think is sometimes missing in the present-day attitude that's supplied in abundance by mythology is an imaginative engagement with nature, a sense that the world around us is alive and that we're only a small part of something vast. It's probably just as big a mistake to think that we understand it all as it is to think that it's all beyond us, a mistake in the opposite direction. An I-Thou attitude isn't inconsistent with wanting to know how it works.

If you're thinking, well, smarty, why don't you just tell us how you resolved the Science vs. Participation Mystique dilemma, I'll tell you--but it wasn't anything special. I did the same thing I've been doing since I started my holidays, which means I went for a walk in the sun, turned on the Christmas lights when I got home, played Christmas music, baked cookies, and drank hot tea. Plus, yesterday I tried a craft activity I saw on a YouTube video: I made a paper rose to put on a package. It turned out OK for a first-time thing, and I'll tell you how I did it if you send a self-addressed, stamped envelope and a check for $49.99. Oh, and I took out a holiday pin with a broken clasp that I've never worn and discovered that it also works as a necklace. It's nice and sparkly, too.

Today, it was more of the same. By chance, the sun came out from behind the clouds just as I was starting out on my walk, and it was a beautiful afternoon. I passed both holly and ivy, and I saw a lot of birds--it may have been my imagination, but it looked like they were enjoying the sunshine, too. I admired other people's Christmas decor and door decorations, and I drank some eggnog when I got back. I'm thinking about making another of those flower bows, but the first one was kind of small, so next time I'm going to use a saucepan to trace an outline instead of a mug.

That's about all I can suggest on mythologically sensitive ways to celebrate the season. Stay warm (with sweaters as opposed to a high thermostat setting), get outside as appropriate, maintain good hydration, be festive, and eat cookies. I've already mentioned that I like to mix holiday tunes with other music to keep everything fresh. I know people who can start with Christmas music full blast on December 1st and keep it going all through the month, but I like to sprinkle it around a bit as opposed to pouring it on.

If you're curious, I will tell you that I'm a traditionalist when it comes to Christmas songs. I like a lot of the crooners of my parents' generation, and I love those records that have a variety of artists on them. I have a few CDs that are sort of New Age- or World Music-inspired, and I have one with traditional songs done by (in some cases) non-traditional artists whose interpretations have a little bit of what I would call "edge"; those are interesting, and they get some rotation. But my favorites are in many instances "throwbacks" or people whose style hearkens back to what I might call a less cynical age.

I wouldn't be surprised if someone's reading this and thinking, "Oh, I like that kind of music, too, but if I showed up at someone's holiday party with a CD like that, they'd make fun of me! Everybody's so deconstructionist these days." Here's what you do: Just say, "Dang, I'm sorry, I left my Tom Waits hipster downer Christmas CD at home, but what I do have here is Michael Bublé." And be sure you turn it up . . . he and Thalia really rock Feliz Navidad, and everybody will be better for it. Sabe?

Friday, December 16, 2016

Deck the Halls Right

Well, my decorations are up, and there were no casualties except for some stray Styrofoam bits that had to be corralled. Unlike most of the other holidays, Christmas is one for which I do have a certain amount of decor, including lights, gingerbread houses, and snow globes. I even put my Christmas bulb nightlight up in the bathroom, and because I came across my snowflake throw pillow while looking for something else, even the bedroom got dressed up a little.

Before I put the tree up, I started thinking about decorations I thought I remembered owning but hadn't seen in a long time. For instance, did I or did I not at one time have a Neapolitan papier-mache angel that I bought from the Smithsonian catalog? I knew I remembered a white-robed angel tree topper that always sat a little awkwardly on the tree, but I thought perhaps I had thrown it away. Getting down the decorations is always a bit of a job, since they're packed away on closet shelves amidst shoe boxes and whatnot, but I decided to search as best I could to see if I could find any stray angels, though I had a feeling both were long gone, that the Neapolitan might have gotten broken, and the white angel might have fallen victim to a lack of space.

I didn't come across either of them, which seemed a shame, because I was in the mood to do something a little different with the top of the tree, but it didn't matter in the end. Once all the branches were laden, I had to admit that the silver butterfly sets off the other decorations nicely and is elegant without being overwhelming. I set up my Nativity scene, put a pine-scented candle out, and spent some time figuring out where to place the bric-a-brac around the room. It was fun afterward to sit down and admire everything with a cup of hot tea while some low-key Christmas music played on the stereo. (I purposely mix holiday CDs with non-seasonal music to keep from getting Christmas Carol Overload.)

I wasn't in a hurry to decorate because--as I think I've mentioned before--I've started leaving the tree up longer, usually throughout the month of January. After all, what else is it for but to add sparkle and cheer to winter nights, and why limit the fun to a few weeks around Christmas? Growing up, I always liked live trees, but as an adult I discovered the hassles involved in setting one up, keeping it fresh, and getting the decorations to stay on, so I'm living pretty happily with an artificial tree that's just the right size for the living room. And I'm glad I thought of the candle, because the scent of pine is the real smell of Christmas to me.

Now that the halls are decked, it's started to feel like the holidays have officially begun. I was in the store today and was pretty focused on remembering what I needed to get (well, I didn't actually need Ghirardelli chocolate, but after all, it's Christmas). I was surprised to see that the store had so few turkeys in the case, but I improvised and bought another brand. It never hurts to try something new. I read an article the other day that bemoaned how unhealthy eggnog is, but it was always a part of Christmas while I was growing up, and I figured a small carton couldn't hurt; you just want a taste of it anyway--you're not going to take a bath in it.

You would have seen me frowning over turkeys, circling the display of Lindt and Ghirardelli with a laser-like focus, and muttering, "There's no egg in this eggnog" while standing in front of the dairy case. I was startled out of preoccupation when someone passed me in a beautiful red coat that was somehow the exact color of Christmas and must have stirred some pleasant association that I can't quite place, because for a few seconds I felt like a kid again, watching from the crowd while my brother sang Christmas songs with his class at the mall and the air was alight with fun and Christmas magic. If I could have that feeling while shopping at the local grocery, there really must be such a thing as Christmas miracles.

Wonders never cease. And I've got eggnog, too (the kind with eggs).

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Wordplay Answers Your Questions

"No question is too small."

Q. Am I imagining it, or are people in a more anxious mood these days? I notice that people around me seem antsier than usual. Could this reflect some type of archetypal shift, and if so, what does it portend? Signed, Just Wondering.

A. Wondering, I, too, have noticed an uptick in anxiety, although I'm not experiencing it myself. I think it's best to avoid being beset by other people's panic unless there is actual, demonstrable need (i.e., the house is on fire). As for archetypal shifts, I don't know about that. If you want to know what's bothering people, you'll have to ask them.

Q. As an aid to active imagination and to further my goal of self-actualization, I have acquired a spirit animal. I don't want to tell you what it is because I'm afraid that would cause a power diminishment and a breach of the psychic protection it affords me; however, it is a mammal. You may think it's silly, but channeling my spirit animal makes me feel stronger and more assertive, but for some reason, it doesn't work well under certain circumstances, such as when people around me are using cell phones or laptops. Can electronic devices interfere with spirit animals? Signed, Short But Stout.

A. Short But Stout, I doubt that electronics can interfere with spirit animals. I think your problem is one of scale: next time, channel a T Rex.

Q. I understand one of your sidelines is baking. My question has two parts: 1. Do you think about the mythic dimensions of what you're doing as you're baking? 2. My biscuits are tough. Do you have any advice for how I can improve them? Signed, Aspiring Boulanger.

A. Aspiring, when I bake, I usually think about what I'm doing, because if my mind wanders, I make mistakes. As for your biscuits, try spooning your flour into the measuring cup. And make sure your butter is cold when you blend it in.

Q. I have a problem with people who invade my space. For instance, I was studying in the library recently when someone sitting next to me kept bumping into my things and hanging on my shoulder while talking into her cell phone. You'd have thought we were good friends from the way she was acting, but I didn't know her. What should I do? Signed, Nymph in Distress.

A. Nymph, did you try kicking her?

Q. What?

A. Kick her. When someone assumes an attitude of intimacy that I do not share, I always try to let them know, for their benefit as well as mine. You don't have to kick her hard.

Q. I can't believe you said that.

A. Life is not a cotillion, Nymph.

Q. I have been invited to the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I am so excited by the honor and have been told that I might be asked to say a few words about what has inspired me in my life's work. You are actually one of my main inspirations, and I wonder if you can point me to a text that might supply some helpful mythic context for the occasion? Signed, Humble Yet Proud.

A. Dear Humble, I cannot help you, because if someone came to me talking about a Presidential Medal of Freedom or such claptrap as that, I would probably chase them off with a stick.

Q. You're not supposed to say things like that!

A. Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you wanted an honest answer.

Q. I have trouble meeting people and have been told that social skills are merely a question of practice. You seem so, I don't know, poised, and I know this is off the topic of mythology, but could you tell me what opening lines you use when you first meet people. It would help me so much. Signed, Wallflower.

A. Wallflower, the opening line I use most often is "Who the F are you?"

Q. I don't think you really mean that.

A. I do, though. And it doesn't have to be said out loud, although it can be.

Q. Well, you're just mean, aren't you?

A. Yes, I am.

Q. I got a splinter in my hand that I can't get out with tweezers. Can you suggest a remedy? Signed, Sore Finger.

A. Sore, good, I'm glad somebody asked that. I recently had the same problem and in researching the issue, discovered that some people swear by a paste made of baking soda and water covered with a bandage. However, I never got to try it since my splinter came out while I was doing the dishes. I don't know if it works or not.

Q. I was recently invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen. I know they have rules of protocol, but beyond that, are there any particular colors that you think would be appropriate for an Athena-inspired female trying to combine Demeter qualities with a Zeus inflection? Signed, Wardrobe Challenged.

A. Wardrobe, you're trying to cause trouble, aren't you?

Q. Sometimes I feel like people are talking about me, even people I don't know, like celebrities on TV. I sometimes feel that someone has literally been looking over my shoulder and spying on me. I never used to feel this way. You won't believe this, but I know I'm in full possession of my faculties, so I suspect something strange is going on. Do you think this could be some type of government program? One hears so much about government overreach these days.

A. How long have you been feeling this way?

Q. I don't want a diagnosis, I only want to know what god or goddess might be present in all of this.

A. Is it just TV, or is it on the radio, too?

Q. You're not helping me at all. I just want to know what archetype--

A. Are you hearing voices, too?

Q. Stop it! I'm going to ask Oprah instead.

A. Wait, I have a bachelor's in psychology! I can help you!