Offtheshelf's blog

To the wonder and astonishment of thousands

By Jack Sheedy

Whenever I’m floundering about, searching for a new theme for this now eight-year-old blog, I consult with my business manager, who also happens to be my Boston Terrier-Dachshund, Willie. Normally it’s best to catch Willie right after he’s had his breakfast. He’s most awake at that point, with a belly full of crunchy bits, which he dines on while listening to classical music, normally Delius or Vaughan Williams, perhaps “The First Cuckoo in Spring” or “The Lark Ascending. ” He likes music about birds, which he later chases around the backyard.

So, this morning he offered some sound advice. He suggested, as he dunked his doughnut and then sipped his black coffee, that I simply reprint stories I’ve been publishing on my social media page (search Jack Sheedy – Cape Cod) in an effort to promote my book CAPE ODD, written with Jim Coogan.

“Hey, that’s a good idea,” I remarked.

“Of course it’s a good idea!” he barked as he poured himself more coffee. “Now hand me the Sports section if you’re done reading it.”

The following excerpts ran during March…

***

With this year's most recent nor'easter still battering our shores, it seems appropriate to reference an excerpt from our book, CAPE ODD, Chapter 1, which takes a look at the November 4, 1841 issue of the Yarmouth Register newspaper and the aftermath of the Great Gale of October 3rd of that year:

"A terrific storm on October 3, 1841 ravaged local seafaring interest...And apparently, not all damage and loss from the storm was restricted to the ocean waves, as evidenced by this notice: 'Horse Strayed Away! Some of the fences at Great Island were blown down by the late gale, and an Old Light Red Horse strayed away. Said Horse had a white spot in his forehead, and one white foot. Any person who will notify the Subscriber where said Horse can be found shall be suitably rewarded.'"

The horse was never recovered, but it is rumored that he changed his name to October Gale and went on to win the Irish Derby.

***
Chapter 1 of CAPE ODD, entitled "A Day in the Life," looks at the November 4, 1841 issue of the Yarmouth Register newspaper in an attempt to first present a picture of "normal" Cape Cod life of that era before diving into the remainder of the book, which presents Cape Cod peculiarities.

In those days, the local newspaper presented all the news fit to print, and nothing was off limits. Even personal ads held nothing back, revealing marital problems in black ink for all to read, such as the following advert published by an abandoned husband: "Whereas my wife K. W., left my bed and board on the morning of the 19th...without sufficient cause, and has conveyed herself to parts unknown, I take this method of cautioning all persons against harboring or trusting her on my account, as I shall pay no debts of her contracting after this date."

He goes on to describe her appearance: "She is a short, thick set woman, has black eyes, black hair tinged with grey, and is dark complexioned." He also mentions she had "previously taken measures to convey away all her wearing apparel."

The husband's appeal finishes with: "Any person who will inform me of her whereabouts shall be rewarded," hinting at a softening on his part, and a possible reconciliation. We like to think they worked things out. Or that she at least picked up a new wardrobe.

***
Jumping to Chapter 3 of CAPE ODD, entitled "Fish Stories," we include a bit about sea serpents and mermaids witnessed around the Cape, as printed in the local newspapers. For instance, the Nov 19, 1850 Barnstable Patriot announced that for 25 cents admission at the Barnstable Exhibition Hall, attendees could view a "Fejee" mermaid on display, "to the wonder and astonishment of thousands of naturalists."

The Aug 2, 1909 Hyannis Patriot talks of a mermaid caught in Nantucket Sound, near Bishop and Clerks Light, on display at Bearse's Market, and "attracting lots of attention among summer visitors." What was most amazing was that the mermaid worked at the market’s deli counter.

While the Harwich Independent of Jul 10, 1873 mentions a mermaid sighting by "a Mrs. Young and several children" while visiting a Brewster beach: "The head of this object, or mermaid, resembled exactly that of a child while the rest of the body was of fish form." The creature eventually "darted off into the sea, keeping its head above the surface and resembling in every manner that of a child swimming."

Or, perhaps that of a grey seal.

***
Welcome to another installment, in which we share stories from our book, CAPE ODD, wrapping up Chapter 3, "Fish Stories," with some shark tales. For instance, in 1929, a Navy Lieutenant, while swimming at Craigville Beach on his day off, was bitten by a shark. He was able to fight off his attacker, which by the way was only three feet long - certainly not the shark from the movie "Jaws."

A local fisherman was attacked by a shark in 1878. Charlie Healy, of Woods Hole, had caught a "good sized shark" and was preparing to haul the beast on board his boat when it bit him on the arm. "Charlie felt the bite very sensibly and soon became faint," said a Barnstable Patriot article, which is 19th century verbiage for "It hurt like hell." Later, another fisherman happened upon Healy's boat and found the wounded fisherman bleeding but alive. The shark had apparently escaped. And he took Charlie’s pipe and tobacco with him.

Meanwhile, an unruly crewman aboard a Cape Cod schooner off Panama was not so lucky. Unwilling to perform his duties, the crewman was put in irons, but later attempted to make his escape. While trying to steal the vessel's rowboat, he managed to fall overboard ... and was swiftly attacked by a shark. He was never recovered. Well, not all of him anyway. Certainly not the tasty parts.

For more CAPE ODD stories, including that of a 19th century Cape Cod man who found prehistoric shark's teeth "measuring from six inches to a foot in width," belonging to a 50+ foot Megalodon, click on NPR Radio's "The Point" program, below:

http://www.wgbh.org/programs/The-Point-298/episodes/Cape-Odd-25072

Jack Sheedy is the author of six books about Cape Cod.

The Silliest Number

By Jack Sheedy

My continuing research at Stonycliff College on the poet Thomas J. McSheey has unearthed the following essay, penned by McSheey, which documents (or, perhaps, fabricates) a dialogue between himself and the organist at the small Catholic college chapel as they worked together arranging hymns for an upcoming Pentecost service.

At the time, McSheey was interested in the theories of German mathematician Georg Cantor.

 *****

“I don’t understand your question,” she said with a laugh as she sat before the church organ.

“I just want to know what you think,” responded McSheey.

“You’re not making any sense,” she replied.

"I just want to hear your opinion.”

“My opinion?” she said, shaking her head. “You want my opinion on a number?”

“Yes.”

“You’re not making any sense. We should be spending our time on these hymns instead of debating numbers.”

“Yes, I know. But we’ve got weeks to go before Pentecost,” argued McSheey. “And I just want to know what you think. It’s not like I’m asking you to consider transfinite numbers.”

“I see you’ve been studying Cantor again. Last week we debated whether the number two should be a prime number.”

“Yes, and I still feel it shouldn’t because it’s an even number.”

“Please, let’s not begin that again.”

“And you said it should because it is only divisible by itself and one.”

“I know. I was there. It was a thrilling debate, almost as thrilling as our earlier discussion on the intrinsic attributes of each letter of the alphabet,” she grumbled as she removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes.

“Yes, and we agreed that by cumulative ascending value the letter Zed was the most powerful letter.”

“Yeah, maybe on a Scrabble board. And what’s with calling it Zed? You’re not British, you know. You told me yourself you were born in Boston.”

“Dorchester, actually. Fine. Letter Z. There. Are you happy?”

“Can we just get this last hymn done so we can say we accomplished something today?”

“First I want to know what you think.”

The organist stared at McSheey in defiance. After a prolonged stretch of silence she jabbed her fingers at the keys to produce a monstrous note which filled the little stone chapel, resounding off the ceilings and walls and cascading across each wooden pew.

“All right, what do you want to know?” she asked, surrendering.

“I want to know – what do you think is the silliest number?”

“Ah yes,” she replied, chuckling. “I knew it had to be something important.”

McSheey remained silent, waiting for her to continue.

“The silliest number,” she said aloud, shaking her head. “Where do you come up with this stuff? I’m sure your friend Cantor would never have concerned himself with such things.”

“Cantor’s theories were revolutionary,” remarked McSheey. “His work on transfinite numbers was considered a challenge to the very existence of God. So, yes, I agree, Cantor would not have considered any number as silly.”

There was another silence.

“I’m sure you’ve already selected your own silliest number?” asked the organist, knowingly.

“Of course,” replied McSheey.

“Of course you have,” she replied. “The silliest number? …Silliest number? …Silly? Silly can mean foolish, or weak, or lowly, or lacking common sense. What would make a number silly?”

“That’s for you to decide.”

“For me to decide,” she repeated, more to herself. “Based on what criteria?”

“Based on any criteria you like.”

“Hmmm, any criteria I like. Okay, first of all, any silly number would have a value of less than 100. It would seem to me that any number of three digits or greater is too significant to be deemed silly.”

“Agreed,” responded McSheey.

“And the numbers from zero to nine cannot be considered silly, because those digits make up all other numbers. In fact, I would consider them to be the most important numbers.”

“Now you’re getting the hang of it.”

“And all even numbers should be considered not silly, and all numbers divisible by five, and in fact, all non-prime numbers should be considered non-silly numbers.”

“Right. No composite numbers. Go on.”

“So, let’s see,” said the organist, turning over a page of music and writing out the prime numbers from 11 to 97.

“Okay, what have you got?” asked McSheey.

She read off the numbers, “11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29, 31, 37, 41, 43, 47, 53, 59, 61, 67, 71, 73, 79, 83, 89, and 97.”

McSheey smiled.

“Your number is on this list, isn’t it?” she asked.

“Maybe.”

“It is. I know. I can tell,” she said, looking for his eyes to give something away.

“Go on.”

“It is. Isn’t it?”

“Maybe. Go on.”

“Okay, I suppose the next criterion is to select out numbers made up of only prime digits. So that leaves just 23, 37, 53, and 73.”

Again McSheey smiled.

“I’m close,” she said. “So let’s see. I’m guessing the last criterion is to select only those numbers in which the digits, when added together, make up a prime number … as in 23, where the 2 plus the 3 equals 5. All prime. The other digits – 3 plus 7, and 5 and 3, and 7 plus 3 all add up to non-prime composite numbers. So, therefore, ipso facto, 23 is the silliest number.”

“Wow, I am impressed.”

“Good. Now, since we’re both in agreement, can we get back to our hymns?”

“Agreed.”

{Footnote: It turns out that mathematician Georg Cantor did have a silliest number after all. And it wasn’t 23. In fact, it wasn’t a prime. Cantor’s silliest number was a number so large that it existed in the realm of the infinites. And it was a number so silly that it eventually transformed itself from a numeral composed of digits, evolving into a being of pure light, achieving incorporeal existence, and traveling at 186,000 miles per second away from earth to the very center of the universe where it eventually retired to while away the hours smoking a pipe on the front porch and waving to the neighbors as they arrived home from work in the evening.} 

Jack Sheedy is the author of six books, including Cape Odd.

 

Building Blocks of the Almighty

By Jack Sheedy

Anytime now we’re going to discover evidence of life on Mars.

Over the past nearly forty years, NASA landers and rovers have sifted the Martian soil, turning over red-hued rocks to see what might be lurking underneath, and with each news report of late we seem to be getting closer and closer to a major discovery. Closer and closer to that day when we will know for certain that we are not orphans in this vast universe. That we have cosmic cousins. Even if microbial.

So, what happens next? What happens when life is discovered? And on the very next planet to boot. Just 50 million miles away. Does such a discovery suggest that life is teeming and tumbling and tripping over itself throughout the universe?

And if so, what does it mean for humanity? For the species Homo sapiens? What does it mean for those on the good Planet Earth who grew up being taught that we were created in God’s image?

Which leads us to the next question: What exactly is God’s image?

Upon the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s God is depicted as a white haired, bearded, older gentleman in a poorly-fitting bathrobe, pointing here and there with an extended index finger as He creates heaven and earth, daylight and the darkness, and Adam and Eve. This is the traditional view, and if we could invent a powerful telescope that might look back 13 billion years to the very instant of the Big Bang, His image is probably exactly what we would see up there in the far reaches of space and time, at the moment of Creation – a white haired, bearded, older gentleman in a poorly-fitting bathrobe, pointing here and there.

But what would God be comprised of? In an atomic sense, that is. After all, God may be the Almighty Creator, but He has to be made up of something. He has to have some form, some substance, some type of elemental makeup.

In an atomic query: What are the building blocks of the Almighty?

One might imagine that God is made up of very nearly the same stuff that makes up the rest of the universe. The universe, in terms of atom count, is comprised of something like 90% hydrogen – the simplest element, Atomic Number 1, with just one proton and one electron. Next is helium, Atomic Number 2, making up most of the remaining 10% of the universe, followed by oxygen, neon, nitrogen, and carbon.

So, the universe looks something like this (with each symbol accounting for 1% of the total):

H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H
H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H
H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H
H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H
H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-He-He-He-He-He-O-Ne-N-C-etc

Oh sure, theoretical physicists will speak of dark matter and dark energy, but we’ll leave this undetectable stuff out of the God equation for now. After all, how can you seriously believe in the existence of something you can’t see or prove? We’re only interested in baryonic matter, the stuff made up of protons, electrons, and neutrons that can be readily detected. The God stuff.

Meanwhile, human beings, Homo sapiens, are made up of nearly the very same elements, nearly two-thirds hydrogen, one-quarter oxygen, and one-eighth carbon, followed by numerous trace elements accounting for the last 1% or so. Again in terms of atom count, a human being looks like this:

H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H
H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H
H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H-H
H-H-H-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O-O
O-O-O-O-O-O-O-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-C-etc

Everybody we’ve ever known – that we’ve ever loved, disliked, admired from afar, envied, wanted to be like, couldn’t stand – or have read about down through the march of history, everyone has had the same atomic makeup, accounting for the full human spectrum, from Jesus Christ to Adolph Hitler.

So, if we are made in God’s image, and if God is of this universe, then it’s a fair guess that He is comprised largely of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, along with various trace elements, perhaps including helium since there is such a large amount of it in the cosmos. After all, the atomic symbol for helium is He, and as Genesis reads:

“So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them…Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all the work which He had made. And so He flopped into His recliner, cracked open a beer, and switched on the ball game.”

Happy Easter.

Jack Sheedy is the author of six books, including Cape Odd and Cape Cod Harvest.
 

Confusion of Cheeses

By Jack Sheedy

As I work toward finishing a biography on the oft-misunderstood poet Thomas John McSheey, I recently came across an interesting story that I thought I might share during this Lenten season as it illustrates just how oft-misunderstood he was on a rather regular basis, particularly in foreign countries.

While in his mid-20’s he toured Italy by train, writing and sketching as he went, journeying from his ancestral home of Naples (McSheey’s mother was Italian) to Rome and then continuing onward to Florence, and eventually arriving at Bologna in the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy, known for, amongst other things, its fine cheeses, Parmesan being perhaps the most popular.

As McSheey stepped off the train and onto the station platform at Bologna, he consulted his pocket Italian-English dictionary and then approached the first person he happened upon, a portly middle-aged man with a robust mustache.

"I sto cercando di formaggi,” he butchered in his Boston-accented Italian, to which the mustachioed man stroked his whiskers and smiled.

“Sorry lad, don’t speak the language,” he replied in an English accent.

“Oh good, good,” exclaimed McSheey. “You speak English.”

“That’s because I’m from England…Surrey.”

“No need to apologize – I just assumed you were Italian.”

“No, I said Surrey, not sorry. I’m from Surrey, in England, just south of London.”

“Ah, yes, now I understand. Pardon the mix up. I’m from Boston…Massachusetts...in the United States.”

“Yes, I know where Boston is located,” responded the middle-aged Englishman. “Now, lad, what were you attempting to ask me in Italian – some bit about some woman named Margie?”

"Margie? I don’t know anyone called Margie. Hmmm,” he said, consulting his dictionary. “Oh, no, no, I said ‘formaggi.’ I’ve come to Bologna in search of cheeses.”

“In search of Jesus? You don’t say?” said the older man as he reached into his sweater pocket for a pipe. “Just like the Magi. Now I understand. You’ve come like the Magi on a pilgrimage in search of Jesus.”

"I really don’t know anything about this Margie you speak of,” replied McSheey. “But yes, I have come in search of cheeses. I understand there are places I can visit, to witness firsthand. I have an affinity for cheeses. Can you help me?”

“Why yes, my boy, yes, I can help you. In fact, you should join our little tour group for the day. We’re visiting some of the city’s landmarks. I don’t think anyone in our party will mind – having a young American pilgrim joining us. After all, we share your affinity for Jesus.”

“Oh, that would be wonderful. I could learn a lot being in the company of other enthusiasts of cheeses.”

“I am sure you will learn plenty. We have a number of theologians in our group.”

“I don’t see the connection,” remarked the young poet. “But yes, I would very much like to tag along.”

So, McSheey spent the day with the English tour group visiting various churches and basilicas throughout Bologna, somewhat confused all the while. When the day was nearly done and as the Italian sun cast its last long rays between the ancient buildings, the mustachioed Englishman asked, “So, young man, how did you enjoy the tour? Pretty impressive, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes, quite impressive. The basilicas were astonishing. And the artwork. Amazing. But I came here in search of cheeses…”

“I know how you feel, lad,” replied the Englishman, taking a puff from his pipe. “Some folks can spend their whole lives searching and searching and still never truly find Jesus.”

“You said a mouthful,” uttered the poet.

“Speaking of a mouthful,” said the portly man as he sprang to his feet, tapping the spent ashes from his pipe. “Why not join us for dinner. We’re dining tonight at a wonderful restaurant that serves the best risotto, of course grated with the region’s choicest Parmigiano-Reggiano.”

To which McSheey exclaimed, “Parmesan! Finally!!”

Jack Sheedy is the author/co-author of six books, including Cape Odd and Cape Cod Harvest.
 

Secrets to a Long Life

By Jack Sheedy

Centuries turn, casting humanity headlong toward an uncertain future upon a planet tilted some 23 ½ degrees off its axis, basking one astronomical unit from the warming rays of mighty Sol.

Time parades by upon the crust of Terra, crusades are fought, children are born, and elderly folk die. How does God count the march of mankind’s toiling? In years? Decades? Generations? Or does His calendar operate on a larger scale? Centuries? Millennia? Geologic ages? Epochs? Periods? Eons?

The average lifespan of a member of the species Homo sapiens is but a wink of the eye upon the face of the great celestial clock, a momentary flutter of the lashes, practically unnoticed amongst the infinite ripples of the universe. A lifespan – currently between seven and eight decades on average for a male of the species – is over with the orbit of a single comet. Heck, at that age biblical figures of the Old Testament were just getting started.

The pages of the five books of Moses, from Genesis through Deuteronomy, reveal that some of the legendary figures of those early days lived well over one hundred years of age In fact, the ten generations from Adam through Noah regularly lived nearly ten times one hundred years as depicted in the following from Genesis 5:3-8:

“And Adam lived an hundred and thirty years, and begat a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth. And the days of Adam after he had begotten Seth were eight hundred years: and he begat sons and daughters. And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years: and he died. And Seth lived an hundred and five years, and begat Enos. And Seth lived after he begat Enos eight hundred and seven years, and begat sons and daughters. And all the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years, and he died.”

The begetting continues with: Enos 905 years old; Cainan 910 years; Mahalaleel 895; Jared 962; Enoch only 365; Methuselah 969; Lamech 777 … which leads to Noah. A common trait amongst these early patriarchs was their ability to beget sons and daughters at a ripe old age, sometimes well over a hundred years old, as depicted in Genesis 5:28-32 with Lamech fathering children at nearly age 200, and Noah at age 500:

“And Lamech lived an hundred eighty and two years, and begat a son. And he called his name Noah, saying, This same shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands, because of the ground which the Lord has cursed. And Lamech lived after he begat Noah five hundred ninety and five years, and begat sons and daughters. And all the days of Lamech were seven hundred seventy and seven years: and he died. And Noah was five hundred years old: and Noah begat Shem, Ham, and Japheth.”

The story of Noah and the Great Flood is well known. What is not so well known is that Noah was 600 years old at the time. It seems if you walked the earth in those early days and avoided being drowned in a biblical flood or smote by God you stood a good chance of living a long and productive existence, with a healthy sex life spanning hundreds of years to beget future generations enough to fill the pages of the Old Testament. Not a bad life. And with plenty of wine and wild parties to boot, as documented in Genesis 9:17-24, with helps:

“And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth…And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. And Ham saw the nakedness of his father, and told his brethren without, ‘Dad’s up to his old begetting again!’ And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father, and Ham arrived with a fresh pot of coffee and a mug imprinted with words ‘World’s Greatest Dad.’ And Noah awoke from his wine, and groaning, exclaimed, ‘Man, what a night!”

Noah died at the ripe old age of 950. His only regret was that in all those years he never took up golf.

Over time, and generations, average lifespan waned. Abraham lived to “an hundred threescore and fifteen years” (Gen.25:7), while his wife, Sarah died at “an hundred and seven and twenty years old” (Gen 23.1). Abraham’s son, Isaac, lived to “an hundred and fourscore years” (Gen 35:28). While Joseph, the grandson of Isaac, and son of Jacob, “died, being an hundred and ten years old: and they embalmed him just for kicks,” thus ending the Book of Genesis.

The next four books of Moses – Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – follow the life and times of Moses, and spell out in great detail the rules by which all peoples should live. The death of Moses arrives at the end of the last book, Deuteronomy 34:5, at age 120, as follows:

“So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And (the Lord) buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulcher unto this day, as the Lord misplaced the plot paperwork and the Moab Cemetery Department has such a poor filing system. And Moses was an hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated, although he did lose his driver’s license a few years earlier when he mistook the gas pedal for the brake and plowed into a bagel shoppe.”

“And the children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days, for as the Scriptures read: Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November.”

So, what are the secrets to a long life?

Take a walk every morning (preferably walking with the Lord), eat plenty of protein (and manna from heaven), take Vitamin C every day (especially during cold and flu season), keep holy the Sabbath (and don’t skip out right after holy communion), enjoy a healthy centenarian sex life (and be sure to send flowers the next day), take up a hobby (like building an ark), and keep a garden and partake of its fruit (but stay away from the apple tree).

Jack Sheedy is an author/co-author of six books, including Cape Odd and Cape Cod Harvest.

A-Wassailing

What a glorious time, these days and nights of celebration
which form the blessed Twelve Days of Christmas.

For me, it is a time of restful reflection, a time of flipping through the pages of the past year, of recounting the good moments and the not-so-good moments and putting them all into some form of meaningful perspective.

It is a time of counting one’s fortunes and misfortunes. Over the course of a year there are bound to be at least a few of each – the debits and credits which add up to one voyage around the sun.

In a man’s life, he sees the world in terms of generations – his generation, and the generations before and after him. Family history unfurls with names upon a pedigree tree, each person neatly packaged within the bounds of a birth date and a death date. One day the man awakens to the realization that the sleet of winter falls against stone, hard and cold and unmoving “in the bleak midwinter.”

Yet, he also awakens to the promise of the younger generation, who with education and nurturing is now ready to play a positive role in this spiraling world of ours. Their youthfulness and optimism make the middle age man feel younger and more optimistic, and inspire him with a renewed commitment to contribute in a more meaning way.

But most of all these Twelve Days are a time to eat figs and nuts, a time to fill the bowl with tobacco and the cup with wassail, and to sit back and enjoy the simple winter pleasures of warmth and comfort while all outdoors is cold and snowy.  With the conclusion of the Twelfth Night we can take on the challenges of the new year ahead. But for now, I am content to relax, nibble, puff, and sip, and rejoice in the merriment.

The Twelve Days are a wonderful time to listen to traditional Christmas carols, and to glean the meaning within. In days of yore, Christmastide was a period of merriment, of revelry, of wassailing, and that is the theme for which I search as I place long playing records upon the turntable and warm to the crackling with attuned ears. Snifter raised, I search for the true spirit of Yuletide – wassail.

In olden days, carolers would stroll from house to house, singing to their occupants, and in turn, would be invited inside for food and drink, wassail being the traditional beverage – a mulled cider with a spirituous kick, strong enough to shake the chill from the revelers and fill them with an inner warmth. In fact, mention of strong drink can be found in a number of Yuletide carols, including the following…

From Good King Wenceslas*:

Bring me flesh, and bring me wine,

Bring me pine logs hither,

Thou and I shall see him dine,

When we bear them thither.

(Good King Wenceslas of Bohemia was killed in 935 A.D. by his own brother – Boleslaus the Cruel. I suppose if your moniker is “The Cruel” you have little choice in the matter.)

From We Wish You a Merry Christmas:

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding,

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding,

Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer.

(The revelers of this particular carol are quite demanding, saying “We won’t go until we get some!” Nothing worse than company who overstay their welcome.)

The Wassail Song is perhaps the traditional carol which best provides the spirit of wassailing:

Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green,

Here we come a-wandering so fair to be seen,

Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail, too,

And God bless you, and send you a Happy New Year,

And God send you a Happy New Year.

And if all this reveling, and merrymaking, and wassailing from house to house has made you a little bit tipsy, perhaps you should, as they sing in the song Sleigh Ride*, stroll on over to “the home of Farmer Gray…when they pass around the coffee and the pumpkin pie.” I’ll take my coffee black, with an extra spoonful of whipped cream on the pie.

Or better yet, avoid the bubbly altogether, for as it says in the Gospel of St. Luke: “For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Spirit … which we all know is non-alcoholic.” (Luke 1:15)

On behalf of Good King Wenceslas, Boleslaus the Cruel, Farmer Gray, St. Luke, and all the revelers, I wish my devoted readers (all three of you) a happy and healthy New Year!

Jack Sheedy

Co-author of Cape Odd and Cape Cod Harvest – at a library near you.

*Good King Wenceslas lyrics by John Mason Neale. Sleigh Ride by Leroy Anderson & Mitchell Parish. All others are traditional.

The Fullness of Time

As we enter the gloriousness of the Advent season, trimmed in holly and laced in traditional carols, let us look back some 21 centuries ago to that distant time of wonder, when cousins Elisabeth and Mary were both with child. After all, the complete Christmas story begins with another birth, before that of Jesus, that being the birth of John the Baptist about six months beforehand. During what was deemed “the fullness of time.”

The scene begins at the house of Zacharias, and then moves to the temple, in a city of Juda, according to the Gospel of St. Luke … well, sort of.   

John the Baptist (right) with child Jesus, painting by Bartolomé Esteban Perez Murillo.We’ll begin with Luke 1:5, with Helps:

There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless, or at least, that’s what was carved upon the quarterboard above their garage.

And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years (Zacharias was 31 and Elisabeth was 29 - which was considered to be “old age” in those days, in fact, Zacharias was an AARP member). And it came to pass that Zacharias went to temple to burn incense, because it seemed the thing to do at the time, and there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him, and he blurted out, "Hey, how the heck did you get in here?!”

But the angel said unto him, Fear not Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.

"John? Really? It’s kind of a common name ‘round these parts. I thought I’d call him Ryan or Justin or Clint to make him stand out in the crowd."
                  - Zacharias

To which Zacharias replied, John? Really? It’s kind of a common name ‘round these parts. I thought I’d call him Ryan or Justin or Clint to make him stand out in the crowd.

You shalt call his name John, said the angel unto him again, to which Zacharias conceded, Okay, okay, John it is…I can always nickname him Jack.

Fair enough, said the angel, and thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink – except during the holidays – and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb.

And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in year, after all, she turns 30 next month.

And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. And, behold, thou shalt be dumb…

I beg your pardon, replied Zacharias, I object to you calling me dumb. I have a degree from BSU – Bethlehem State University.

I mean, continued the angel, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.

To which Zacharias replied, Believest not your words? Is “believest” even a word? I mean, really, who speaks like that… And then the angel waved his hand and Zacharias fell silent, unable to speak. And so he left the temple, and departed to his own house, all the while wondering if he locked the temple door as he suffered terribly from OCD.

And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months … and wouldn’t even take phone calls.

Meanwhile, in Nazareth…

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.

To which Mary replied, Really? I was thinking more like Ryan or Justin or Clint or…

"Really? I was thinking more like Ryan or Justin or Clint or…"    - Mary.The angel interrupted, saying, You shalt call his name JESUS, and he shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

Then Mary said unto the angel, Yes, this is all well and good, but he’ll finish college first.

Yes, yes, of course, responded the angel.

Later…

And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda; and entered the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth. And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb.

And Elisabeth spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.

That’s really sweet of you to say; somebody should write that down. And the two expectant mothers chatted on from Luke 1:42 thru 1:55.To which Mary said, That’s really sweet of you to say; somebody should write that down. And the two expectant mothers chatted on from Luke 1:42 thru 1:55, saying such things as “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” and “He hath filled the hungry with good things,” and “My spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.” And Mary abode with Elisabeth about three months. All the while, Zacharias said not one word, either because the angel had made him dumb, or else because he couldn’t get a word in edgewise.

And then…

Now Elisabeth’s full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son. And it came to pass, that on the eighth day the neighbors came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John.

Zacharias, being able to finally speak, ran down to the local pub and ordered a pint of Guinness.And the neighbors made signs to his father, how he would have him called, and he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John … but we’ll spell it “Jon” to be fashionable. And they all rejoiced. And Zacharias’ mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God, and then, being able to finally speak, ran down to the local pub and ordered a pint of Guinness.

And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel, which displeased his parents greatly as they wanted him to go to vocational school and learn a trade.

A-men.

John "Jack" Sheedy

Co-author of Cape Odd and Cape Cod Harvest, both to be found at a library near you.

Ode to Buoy 44008

Musical accompaniment: Satie’s Gnossiennes, No. 1 - 5

Ode to Buoy 44008

As I sit here, before the fire, sipping brandy and smoking my pipe, listening to the winds of the hurricane blow against my house, and against my windows, and against my door, and down my chimney, causing the flames within the chamber to flicker, I am reminded that out there, within the teeth of the tempest, southeast of Nantucket, many miles offshore, upon the wild and raging seas, amongst the swells, rides Buoy 44008, alone, but resilient, stoic, relaying important data, such as wind speed, and direction, and air temperature, and water temperature, and barometric pressure, science against nature, unfazed by the storm, unraveled by the onslaught, unmoved by the beast, silently performing its duty, amongst the swells, upon the wild and raging seas, many miles offshore, southeast of Nantucket, within the teeth of the tempest, as I sit here, before the fire, sipping brandy, and smoking my pipe, listening to the winds of the hurricane blow against my house, and against my windows, and against my door, and down my chimney, causing the flames within the chamber to flicker, once again I am reminded that out there…

Sorry, folks, but that’s all I’ve got for this month, except to say Happy Halloween, and to reprint below excerpts from my very first article, published when I was 23 years old, entitled “All Hallow’s Eve” and which appeared in the Barnstable Patriot newspaper on October 31, 1985. (It’s a little rough around the edges, so be kind.)

Over the years the meaning of Halloween – the power of Halloween – has become lost inside of bags of candy and behind plastic masks. The real Halloween lies dormant, hidden beneath the fallen leaves, waiting to surface.

In the past this night received more respect. To our predecessors this eve held more significance. On this night the Druids believed that Saman, the lord of the dead, called his servants to rise from their graves and haunt the earth. In an effort to protect themselves from these spirits, the Druids lit large bonfires. Today, those bonfires have been replaced by meek candlelight. The flame exists, but the meaning is lost, clouded behind candy bars and lollypops.

Halloween has not truly accomplished its task until each of us is in some way frightened. It attempts to do this by capitalizing on our primeval fears. In recent years, though, we have set aside our primitive beliefs for we now consider ourselves to be educated beings.

But no matter how far we evolve, there will always be something in the far reaches of our educated minds which will bring us back to a time when we feared the moon itself. We cannot escape it, for deep down we are still animals. We will always be haunted. We will always know fear. That is why Halloween "spooks" us.

This particular night frightened our ancestors, and it will continue to frighten their descendants. As soon as the sun sets and All Hallow's Eve is upon us, witches, ghosts, and goblins awaken from their long sleep.

On this night there is no escaping it. We are afraid.

Jack Sheedy

PS: Be sure to check out my book, Cape Odd, written with Jim Coogan, at a library near you. It’s full of strange tales you might enjoy while sitting before a fire upon a chilly November night.

Standing Pat

Announcement to my devoted readership: My promised “Biblical foot-washing practices” blog will have to wait until next month, as instead I discuss politics. But don’t worry, folks, this is as political as I get…

 

The conventions are over and the presidential candidates and their supporters have had their say. The election season is now in full swing toward a November vote and an uncertain future. God help us!

Personally, it doesn’t matter to me who wins – I have no strong feelings for either candidate. Furthermore, I have no strong allegiance for either party. I am, as political satirist Pat Paulsen once said, “neither right wing nor left wing – I’m middle of the bird.

Which brings me to what this presidential election is missing -- humor.

During that wonderful era of political turmoil which was the 1960’s and 70’s, comedian Pat Paulsen, who died in 1997 at the age of 69, was truly a candidate for the people. With slogans like “If elected, I will win!” and “We can’t stand Pat!” his comedic campaigns for president, beginning in 1968 and running through the 1990’s, displayed the inherent craziness of the political campaign process. His deadpan humor was “right on” for the times … and is something sorely needed today.

Let’s face it, the political process has become rather predictable. It’s all catchy sound bites and finely tuned speeches to tweak poll numbers in the candidate’s favor. Nothing of any real substance is ever said. The message delivered has to be just vague enough so not to alienate too many swing voters. It’s all become rather formulaic, and rather transparent to the casual viewer, leaving the voter feeling as if representing nothing more than a small, insignificant cog in the presidential election process.

All one can do is laugh - Hahaha. Ha. (Boy, that felt good.)

In that sense, I feel fortunate to have been raised on the humor of Pat Paulsen, as well as on that of other comedians of that era, like Shelley Berman, Vaughn Meader (The First Family), and pianist/satirist Tom Lehrer, whose albums I discovered in my parents’ collection and which I played over and over in my younger years.

Paulsen rose to fame on the Smothers Brothers TV program, and later had a brilliant comedy show of his own around 1970 or 71, which I watched regularly. Never mind that I didn’t get every joke, after all, I was only eight years old at the time. But I got the gist of it.

In 2006, I offered a tip of the hat to Paulsen when, on this website, I blogged my campaign for Massachusetts governor as a write-in candidate of the Whig party – officially I received less than 1% of the vote – with such keen ideas as annexing Maine to reap the benefits of its tax base and a plan to make the state prison system profitable to the point of actually attracting criminals to relocate to the Bay State. (See below for links to some of those now six-year-old blog entries.)

So this November, if neither candidate interests you, consider writing in Pat Paulsen as a protest vote against the meager choice on the ballot.

After all, with two lukewarm candidates possessing no concrete plan for economic recovery between them, “We can’t stand Pat!

Jack Sheedy

 

Read more about Pat Paulsen by visiting this website:

http://www.paulsen.com/pat/

 

And follow my 2006 campaign for governor as a candidate of the Whig party by clicking on these links, representing a smattering of blog entries from the kick-off of my campaign to my appeal for a recount.

Let’s Take Back Maine (10/11/2006):

http://www.capecodtoday.com/blogs/index.php/2006/10/11/let_s_take_back_maine?blog=25

On the Campaign Trail (10/14/2006):

http://www.capecodtoday.com/blogs/index.php/2006/10/14/on_the_campaign_trail?blog=25

On the Campaign Trail Part 2 (10/18/2006):

http://www.capecodtoday.com/blogs/index.php/2006/10/18/on_the_campaign_trail_part_2?blog=25

On the Campaign Trail Part 4 (10/24/2006):

http://www.capecodtoday.com/blogs/index.php/2006/10/24/on_the_campaign_trail_part_4?blog=25

Vote Whig Party! (11/07/2006):

http://www.capecodtoday.com/blogs/index.php/2006/11/07/vote_whig_party?blog=25

Recount! (11/08/2006):

http://www.capecodtoday.com/blogs/index.php/2006/11/08/recount?blog=25

 

Accessorizing with John the Baptist

The New Testament is chock-full of interesting characters – from Jesus and his disciples, to Mary Magdalene, to St. Paul, to Judas, Herod, Pontius Pilate, to the four horsemen of the apocalypse. But one character in particular who remains much revered in the realms of Christianity is John the Baptist, making his appearance near the beginning of all four gospels.

For instance, Matthew 3:1-3 reads: “In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea. And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

Or, according to Mark 1:4-5: “John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were baptized of him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

And more from Luke 3:5-6: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

And John 1:28-29: “These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing. The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”

So, Jesus came from Galilee to Judaea to be baptized by John in the River Jordan. John protested, saying “I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?” (Matthew 3:14) How awkward. But eventually everything got sorted out, John baptized Jesus, “and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him : And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” So, not a bad day overall.

And yet, although John the Baptist’s mention in the gospels is somewhat fleeting, focusing mainly on the baptism of Jesus and the beginning of his ministry, there are a number of revealing comments regarding clothing and accessories, beginning with Matthew 3:4: “And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins.” Mark 1:6 also comments on the Baptist’s attire with the following: “And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins.” Enough already about his loins – Oy vey!

By the way, camel hair was quite popular in those early A.D. days, especially on camels.

Additionally, Matthew 3:11 discusses footwear with the following comment : “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier that I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear.” Mark 1:7 goes one step further, saying: “There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.” And Luke 3:16 also makes mention of “the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose,” as does John 1:27 with “whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloosen.” What’s with this fixation on the latchet? It’s clear that Mark, Luke, and John are describing sandals, which were, of course, the preferred footwear of those preaching in the Judaea region in 30 A.D. (Although it did necessitate the constant bathing of feet that is so prevalent throughout the New Testament.)

As an aside, there was this one particular Judaean preacher who wore high-tops, but he was swiftly stoned by a band of religious zealots and his sneakers were stolen.

Luke 3:10-11 refers to John the Baptist discussing outerwear with this brief exchange: “And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none.” John did not make any such stipulation concerning hats or gloves, nor of scarves, boots, hand muffs, nor of any other accessories.

Finally, Matthew 3:12 makes mention of “Whose fan is in his hand.” Hand-held fans were all the rage in those days, after all, the Holy Land was a hot place in such biblical times before air conditioning.

Next time, we’ll discuss the practice of foot bathing, so bring along a bar of soap and some fragrant oils.

Jack Sheedy

Co-author of Cape Odd and Cape Cod Harvest, available at a library near you.

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